Per Ardua Ad Astra
Much to everyone’s surprise, Octavian had recovered from his illness late in 42 BC. Back in Italy, he threw himself into the grand colonisation programme needed to satisfy the veteran soldiers due for discharge. At the very least there were tens of thousands of these men, even if most legions in these years were greatly under strength. Land was confiscated from an initial list of eighteen towns, but this was not enough, and almost forty communities suffered to a greater or lesser extent. Most senators had enough influence to protect their own property in these regions and so perhaps did the wealthiest local inhabitants. The burden fell more on those of middling income, without powerful friends. By a strange coincidence, three of the greatest poets of the age, Virgil, Horace and Propertius, all saw their family’s land confiscated and given to retired soldiers. It was clearly a traumatic episode for many Italians. The behaviour of the veterans and the commissioners assigning them land rarely helped, and there were accusations that they were taking more than they had been allocated and generally intimidating their new neighbours. On the other hand, the veterans resented the slow pace of the process and were ready to resist any attempt to give them less than they had been promised.1
Antony’s surviving brother Lucius was consul in 41 BC, with Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus, the man who had been Caesar’s colleague in 48 BC, holding the post for a second time. There was resentment amongst the many dispossessed and wider discontent because the power of Sextus Pompey had grown. He overran Sicily and dominated the sea lanes, preventing much of the supply of grain from reaching Italy. Rome relied on imported food – Sicily was a major supplier – and the triumvirate was blamed for the shortages. Octavian was in charge of the colonisation and he was also there in Italy. The resentment focused on him, for Antony was away in the east and Lepidus was already acknowledged as the least of the three.
Lucius Antonius sensed an opportunity to gain from this festering discontent. He was a Roman senator, determined to rise to the very top, winning glory, reputation, power and wealth. It is a mistake to see him simply as Antony’s agent. His brother may have indicated general support, but did not order his actions in this year – indeed, the slow pace of communications would have made this impractical. Fulvia was initially reluctant, but eventually encouraged her brother-in-law, sending her children to Lucius for him to show to Antony’s veterans and raise support. Yet it was difficult for the soldiers to sympathise with those dispossessed by the colonisation process. Clearly, Fulvia felt that she was acting for Antony’s good by turning against Octavian. The latter’s verse suggests that she was jealous of Glaphyra and others claim that she hoped also to win her husband back from Cleopatra. As so often in these years, strong personal emotion mingled with political ambition.
The result was a confusing period of unrest and civil war, in which allegiances were often unclear. Lucius seized Rome, but could not hold it. He raised an army and ended up being blockaded by Octavian in the town of Perusia (modern-day Perugia). Lead sling bullets survive from the siege, some simply proclaiming allegiance to one of the leaders, but others with slogans jibing at Lucius’ baldness or targeting Fulvia’s sexual organs. Asinius Pollio, Plancus and Ventidius Bassus were all in Italy with their legions and were seen as Antony’s men, commanding legions loyal to him. However, the three generals could not agree on what to do and bickered with each other. They postured and demonstrated, but stopped short of practical aid. Clearly, they had no instructions and this, combined with their own sense of what was good for their personal ambitions, stopped them from intervening. Without help, Lucius surrendered early in 40 BC.2
The consul was spared, and so were his soldiers, but there may have been some executions and Perusia was plundered and burned. Lucius was soon despatched to govern Spain. Fulvia fled from Italy, in search of her husband. Antony’s mother Julia also decided to leave Rome, but chose a circuitous route to reach her son. She went first to Sextus Pompey, who welcomed her and then sent her with an escort to Antony, with an offer of alliance against Octavian. It seemed that Perusia was only the first campaign of a new civil war, pitting one triumvir against another.
Octavian was also trying to conciliate Sextus. He had divorced Fulvia’s daughter, claiming that the marriage had never been consummated. If true, then it suggests that he had been cautious about the alliance from the start, although it may simply have been that she was exceptionally young, even by the standards of Roman brides. Instead, he married Scribonia, sister of Sextus’ father-in-law and one of his leading supporters. Pompey’s son does not seem to have viewed the young Caesar any more warmly as a result.3