Antoninus Pius, boss of Appian.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Appian—The Civil Wars

The picture above shows Antoninus Pius, the Roman emperor under whom Appian served. Appian, who should not be confused with the Appius of the Appian way, was a Greek historian of the 2nd century AD. Like Livy he wrote a history of Rome from its foundation. Like Livy large chunks of his work are lost. The Civil Wars is one of the largest chunks that survives.

Note the title. It’s plural. Civil Wars, not Civil War. Unlike the US Rome has several wars in which opposing parties sought to gain power through military means. Appian covers the period from 133 to 35 BC. From the time of the Gracchi to just before the battle of Actium (31 BC). According to the introduction he followed the party line in holding that the war with Antony was really a war with Cleopatra, so that was treated in the following section, The Egyptian Wars. Unfortunately that portion is lost.

Since the portions of Livy that deal with this period are lost, as well as those of other historians, Appian is our source for knowledge of this period of Roman history. He also has some importance as a source for Shakespeare. Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar, “Friends, Romans, and countrymen,” derives from Appian.

Book 1 covers a period of about 65 years, from the Gracchi to the defeat of Spartacus. Appian sees the cause of the civil wars in the poverty of the people as contrasted with the wealth of the upper classes. He paints a picture of the Gracchi as essentially agrarian reformers, a term much loved in later generations by those who wished to paint communist thugs as noble, gentle souls. The Gracchi were closer to the real thing. They tried to break up the large plantations, and redistribute the land to the poor.

If I understand this correctly the land that was to be broken up was not private property, it was public land, ager publica, that was rented by landowners. A limit of 500 jugera, about 300 acres, was to be owned out of the public land, and the large farms were to be broken up.

This reform movement comes at a time of tension between the poor and the upper classes, or as Appian refers to them, the rich, so it only serves to exacerbate tensions. It also serves to attract the populace to Tiberius Gracchus. Whatever idealistic aspirations he may have had, it could only serve as a means of accruing political power to him.

Tiberius and his brother Gaius are ultimately destroyed in their quest for power. Appian says that the death of Tiberius Gracchus was the first instance of the murder of a political opponent in Rome.

Following the Gracchi we get a period of contention between Marius and Sulla. Readers of Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series will be familiar with the characters of Marius, Sulla, Sertorius, and others mentioned by Appian.

Towards the end of Book I, we get Spartacus. Spartacus became a favorite with the Communists of the early 20th century such as Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht. Howard Fast wrote a popular novel, later made into a film, called Spartacus. Spartacus has endured the same fate as the Amerinds and the meso-Americans, and been recast as a politically correct specimen of rectitude.

The real Spartacus, as portrayed by Appian, was little more than a common thug who lead other thugs on a campaign of looting and pillage. Appian begins his account at I, 116. After Spartacus has dispatched the troops sent out under Varinius Glaber, he has a second encounter with troops under the consul. His friend Crixus was killed at Mount Garganus, and lost two thirds of his force. Spartacus, however, is able to defeat the consular armies one at a time. In the aftermath of the battle he takes 300 Roman prisoners, and sacrifices them to the dead Crixus. Before he marches he also makes sure to burn “useless” equipment, slaughter his prisoners, and the draught animals. Now I’ll grant you that Crassus was a bloodthirsty guy too. Appian records that he ordered a decimation to be carried out, one which killed 4,000 soldiers, but Crassus has never been thought to be anything other than a nasty, greedy, SOB. When Spartacus is beseiged by Crassus, he crucifies a Roman prisoner to remind his men what fate awaits them if they are defeated.

As we all know, the slaves are defeated, and they are crucified along the road to Rome. A distance, I’m told, of 115 miles, which means 1 crucifix every 100 feet or so.

I trust that I’ll be excused if I cheer for Olivier’s Crassus rather than Douglas’s Spartacus the next time I watch the movie.

Book II is concerned primarily with the conflict between Caesar and Pompey. So it covers the events up to the battle of Pharsalus, the events in Egypt, and the death of Julius Caesar.

At II, 60 we get the incident with Scaeva, which figures so notably in Lucan’s Pharsalia. When I first read the Pharsalia, back in 1964 in Dr. Latimer’s class at GW on Greek and Latin Classics, a fellow student asked if that was where “sieve” came from. As I recall Dr. Latimer dismissed that, properly, as folk etymology.

II, 90 brings us to Caesar in Egypt. Pothinus and Achillas, who put in memorable appearances in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, are mentioned as being executed, and Theodotus is crucified by Cassius.

In 91, when Caesar confronts Pharnaces we find that Pharnaces had enslaved the city of Amisus and castrated the boys. While more merciful than the older procedure of killing the male children, it still achieved the same goal, that of preventing attacks by the conquered population’s descendants.

99 brings the death of Cato at Utica. Appian’s description is a bit more graphic than others. Cato attempts suicide by cutting his stomach. Appian says “his internal organs tumbled out” and then describes them being stuffed inside, and Cato being sewn up. He afterwards tears the stitches out and tore the internal organs out until he died.

In my post on Plutarch’s life of Caesar, I said that the Republic was rotten. Appian echoes that sentiment in 120, and cites the mixture of foreign and native blood, the freed slave was regarded as equal to his former master, slaves look no different from their masters, and the corn ration, which attracted the “idle, destitute, and hotheaded elements” to Rome.

After Caesar is killed, there is a good deal of maneuvering. Shakespeare, as I recall, gives the impression that the funeral speeches happened right after the assassination. In Appian there seems to be a more significant space of time. Appian’s description of Antony’s speech serves as an obvious model for the speech in Shakespeare, and produces a reaction by the crowd, as does the speech in Shakespeare.

The senate attacks Antony in III, 2 for that speech because it served to inflame the mob. Antony regains the good graces of the senate by executing, without trial, Amatius, who had been claiming, falsely, to be the grandson of Marius.

A good deal of Book III is confusing, Appian covers different aspects of the same time span, and does some chronological backtracking. He is also not always accurate. The endnotes cover his mistakes, but I’m not necessarily going to enter the corrections here because I’m focused on what Appian says, not on the corrections.

At 35 Antony addresses his troops and mentions the funeral oration and the display of Caesar’s bloody garments.

Antony, or Antonius as he is in the Penguin translation, is a nice compassionate guy. Just the type a girl, or a queen of Egypt, would take home to mother. “He [Decimus] sent a message to Antonius. Antonius, not unmoved by the reversal of fortune, could not bear to set eyes on Decimus. He ordered Camilus to kill him and send him the head, and when he seen it told his companions to give it burial” (III, 98).

Octavian, Lepidus, and Antony divided up the Roman world following Phillipi, but before they settled down to governing they has the job of writing out proscriptions. Book IV, from chapters 5 through 51 has been called “Tales of the Proscriptions” by the translator of the Penguin volume that I’m reading. Some people lost their lives by mistake. One poor guy lost his head, but “It was obvious that the body was not one of the proscribed, because the head was still attached” (IV, 15). In order to get credit for the kill you had to take the head with you. During the war with Hannibal slaves were enrolled in the army, and were freed if they killed an enemy. In order to prove the kill, they had to take the head. It proved a bit cumbersome to fight while holding on to a head, so eventually the order was modified. Later generations would use fingers (Villa in Mexico) or ears as proof of either a kill or a kidnapping.

A tribune, Salvius, who should have been sacrosanct, was proscribed. Salvius was at dinner with some friends when legionaries burst in. A centurion, “beheaded Salvius there and then, pulling his head over the table by his hair as far as was necessary, and repeated his instruction to those present to stay quiet, just as they were, because if they made a disturbance they would suffer the same fate. Stupefied and speechless even after the centurion had departed, the guests remained until far into the night reclining beside what was left of Salvius’ body” (IV, 17).

Kingsley Amis apparently disliked Cicero, and in Take a Girl Like You one of the characters says that Antony had his number. Here is how Cicero died: “Laenas, who had actually once won a court case with Cicero’s support, pulled his headout of the litter, and proceeded to cut it off. It took three blows and some sawing through, because of his inexperience, and he also cut of the hand with which Cicero had composed his speeches against Antonius” (IV, 20). The head and hand were nailed to the rostra. When Laenas returned to see Antony, who was in the forum, he waved the head and hand at him.

Then we have poor Rufus. He owned a tenement that Fulvia, Antony’s wife at the time, wanted. She got it, but he still lost his head. When the head was sent to Antony, he said he had nothing to do with it, and sent it to Fulvia. She displayed it on the tenement. (IV, 29).

Tarsus, home of St. Paul, didn’t come out too well in the wars. One group of citizens wants to give a golden wreath to Cassius, another group wants to give it to Dolabella. Each, Dolabella and Cassius, treats Tarsus badly because it changes sides so easily. Cassius defeats Dolalbella, and demands 1,500 talents from the city. Tarsus sells off its public property, its sacred objects, then their citizens are sold into slavery, then girls, then boys, then women, then old men, who fetch a low price, and then the young men. Appian says, “The majority of them committed suicide,” and it’s not clear, to me, whether he’s referring to the young men, or the citizens as a whole. Eventually Cassius returns and excuses them from any further contribution (IV, 64).

At IV, 134 Brutus sees an apparition who warns him that he will see him at Phillipi. This appears in Plutarch, and in Shakespeare.

At V, 21 Lucius, Antony’s brother, says that he is afraid of Octavian because he has an office that gives him a bodyguard while he has no protection. Now having a bodyguard seems innocent enough to us today. The president, vice president, presidential candidates, and sundry others have some kind of protection detail. So when I was taking the history of rhetoric classes at Catholic University, and Jean Moss would give as an example of deliberative rhetoric, whether some ancient pol should have a bodyguard, it was a puzzlement to me why it should be controversial. Apparently ancient pols would use bodyguards as thugs to coerce voters, or otherwise intimidate the citizens. (I’ve got a link to a book by Jean Moss and William A. Wallace to the right. The book that I actually have. Rhetoric and Praxis, is out of print. Fr. Wallace was on my dissertation committee.)

At V, 75 we get a brief mention of Antony’s campaign in Parthia, but because of Appian’s scheme in doing the Histories, the description is elsewhere.

Octavian was not exactly a member of the RCLU (Roman Civil Liberties Union). Octavian is busy handing out awards and honors when a tribune named Ofilius calls out that soldiers should be rewarded with land and money. The soldiers agree and Octavian leaves the stage. The next morning Ofilius didn’t show up, and people have been looking for him ever since.

Appian concludes with the death of Sextus Pompeius in 35 BC. The war with Cleopatra took place in his sections on Egypt, which are now lost.

Up next, I’ll be taking a break and going with John Ringo, The Honor of the Clan.

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