Following the agreement of Lepidus, Antony and Octavian, to form the triumvirate, the three men had marched to Rome. They brought their armies with them. Before they arrived, they sent soldiers ahead of them to kill either twelve or seventeen men (the records differed). The soldiers roamed the streets at night, searching for the men and causing panic in the city (Appian, Civil War 4.6).
This was the prelude to the listing of senators and equestrians to be killed. Appian (Civil Wars 4.5) claims that 300 senators and 2,000 equestrians were listed. A little later (4.7), he says that the senatorial proscribed were listed in three stages, of 17, 150, and 130 men. Dio, 47.13 says that the number killed or who fled cannot be reconstructed in part because the list kept changing.
Could these numbers were true? There is little that might correlate the numbers for equestrians. Roman historians tended to round numbers. Two thousand might be a way of signifying ‘a lot’. The 300 senators are a more plausible number, in part because of the detail we have on how the list was composed.
The three hundred might have been a third of all senators. Not all would have been killed and many probably were able to flee. Nevertheless, this was an attack on a significant proportion of the small Roman political elite.
Why so many?
There were likely two groups of people on whom the proscriptions focused. The first group would have been the assassins and their immediate allies. That group was probably quite small. Caesar had received 23 stab wounds, but there were probably just over 40 in the conspiracy.
This forty were quickly joined by men who wished to associate themselves with the assassination.
It was after the assassination that the political grouping associated with the assassins grew. The senators were not easily rushed to war. They had been persuaded and cajoled by Cicero that peace with Antony was impossible. The ‘hard-liners’ were probably few in number: the majority likely reluctant to commit Rome once more to the horrors of civil conflict.
After the passing of the lex Titia, some may have had a suspicion that the triumvirs would exact revenge for the way they had been treated and that the first list of those destined for death might be extended. Antony, especially, was likely furious with those who had worked to declare him a public enemy. The cautious may have seen the period between Octavian’s coup and the foundation of the triumvirate as opportune for leaving Rome and Italy. There could be little doubt that the new alliance was a prelude to a war against the assassins. Could they expect the triumvirs to remain neutral about their enemies in Rome as they tackled their enemies in the East?
So why did not everyone who could flee Rome?
One can only think that the people of Rome, who had experienced Caesar’s clementia, the absence of widespread violence in the immediate aftermath of Caesar’s assassination, and for whom the violent purges launched by Sulla and the Marians were now somewhat distant as memories, were not expecting the triumvirs to launch such an attack. Many of the hard-liners had already left. Simply by staying in Rome, those who remained demonstrated their acquiescence in the new regime: that might seem to be enough to show they were not a threat?
There are three possible explanations for the severity of the purge:
- Antony and Octavian were furious at the way that they had been treated and wanted revenge. They did not trust a significant proportion of the senators and feared that as soon as they were able, and possibly when Antony and Octavian were committed to the war against the assassins, the senators would make an attempt to seize Rome.
- They triumvirs were committed to an enormous programme of expenditure to reward the soldiers for the forthcoming war in the East. The only available sources of money were the estates of the wealthy.
- Having seen the conservative faction of the senate assert itself repeatedly and violently, even after it had seemed defeated, and especially after Caesar’s triumph, they felt that they needed to assert their authority in the most obvious and extreme fashion.
Whatever the intent, the proscriptions were terrifying. Power showed itself through terror. The proscriptions brought wealth to the triumvirate which allowed it to meet some of its bills. The senators were rendered compliant.
The procedure was very simple. Names were written on white boards which were then put up in the Forum. Rewards for given on presentation of the head of one of the proscribed. A slave was to be made freed and given 40,000 seterces. A free man was to be given a 100,000 sesterces. The property of a proscribed person became state property. The dowries of their wives were to be returned. Male children were to receive 10% of the property, female children 5%. Such sums were, however, likely not paid and it would have been a brave person who complained.
The proscriptions were traumatic. Not only was there the issue of the murder of many leading men, but there was the corruption of households. Wives, slaves, sons, and lovers were encouraged to betray those close to them. For every story of conspicuous loyalty, there was another of betrayal. Some families were ruined, though others were made rich.
The disturbance to Roman social order was enhanced by a certain randomness to the proscriptions. This was a tight-knit elite group. One man’s enemy was another’s friend. There was supposedly horse-trading, offering to put one individual on the list so as to get another off. It was not just enemies of the triumvirs who found themselves listed, but enemies of friends of the triumvirs, or enemies of persons prepared to pay to get their enemies listed. If such deals were being done, who could be safe?
Certainly, some escaped. The gates of Rome were guarded so that all those leaving the city could be checked. Death squads roamed the countryside looking for individuals (though how this was done in an age before photographs is not clear). Some people made their way to the ports and took ship to Sicily to join Sextus Pompeius or to the East to join Brutus and Cassius.
But many must have lost their lives. The extended accounts in our sources testify to the trauma suffered by Roman society and the bitter memories of death, betrayal, and terror with which the survivors and the relatives of the murdered must have lived with.
Some people won. The killers came away much richer. What did they feel afterwards? The regime made them rich and important. And it also protected them from any vengeance.
Might it be that those who killed together stayed together? The terrible logic of civil war is not just that in killing one’s fellow citizens, one divides society. In the act of killing together, those who kill have an interest in staying together, justifying their murder, and hanging onto the profits of civic violence.