The Rise to Power of Octavian Neil Johnson Introductory note

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The Rise to Power of Octavian
Neil Johnson

Introductory note

The following account of the rise to power of the man who was to become Augustus Caesar was written to support a series of three lectures given in 2013 to the Year 13 students of Columba College in Dunedin, New Zealand. It, and the lectures upon which it is based, therefore attempt to serve a very specific purpose, namely to provide a succinct survey of the period of some 15 years between 44 BC and 29 BC during which a complex series of events took place in Rome, in the Roman provinces, and in those other adjacent countries which were either client states of Rome or where attempts were under way to bring them under Roman control. This was a time of conflicts and treaties, of alliances made and broken, of acts of almost unimaginable brutality and others of surprising leniency, and of strategically arranged marriages and divorces; things were done that were motivated by the desire to maintain the highest principles of democratic rule, whilst others sprang obviously and shamefully from naked personal ambition.

To reach some understanding these things, as far as that is possible such a long time after they occurred, it is necessary to have a chronological structure of events that can be fairly easily grasped and remembered, and this I have tried to provide. Inevitably, such an endeavour is fraught with risks, primary amongst which is the impression which can be given by compressing the account of so many years into the space of only three 50-minute lectures, that events separated by weeks, months, or even years, occurred in a much more rapid sequence than was actually the case: this can sometimes make one event appear to have a strong causal relationship to a subsequent one when the casual link was in fact slight or even absent.

There is nothing in what follows that cannot be found in other published sources. I present no new evidence and I claim no novel historical perspective. All I have tried to do is to distil from other writings what seem to me to be the essential features of this turbulent period of Roman history, and in that process of distillation, and in trying to concentrate only upon events which are directly germane to the main theme of Octavian’s rise to power, I have had necessarily to omit much that others might think important, and certainly a great many side-plots which make good reading because of their dramatic nature. I therefore encourage readers to augment their knowledge by referring to other accounts.

I am also well aware that in trying to present historical material in such a way as to make an interesting story, one runs the risk of making up a narrative that fails to reflect the reality of what actually happened. Accounts of the same series of historical events frequently vary in which events are given prominence and which are not, and also in the precise order in which those events occurred: I have had to make my choice between these accounts in formulating my own narrative, and I shall therefore please some whilst incurring the disapproval of others.

Although the primary focus of the following narrative is upon the period between 44 BC and 29 BC, the story really begins somewhat earlier, in the year 63 BC. This was the year in which Marcus Tullius Cicero was elected Consul. Cicero was a distinguished senator, lawyer, philosopher and orator, and his writings have been credited with transforming the Latin language (indeed, it has been said that after Cicero, all Latin literature was either an attempt to copy Cicero’s elegant style or a reaction against it). His election to the consulate was the culmination of Cicero’s political career, and an event that was destined to ennoble his family for generations to come. What Cicero did not know was that on 23rd September of that same year there would be born in the small town of Velitrae, a few miles to the south-east of Rome, a child by the name of Gaius Octavius, referred to as ‘Octavianus’ by Ronald Syme (see Note 1 at the end of this account) in The Roman Revolution (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1939) and as ‘Octavian’ by most other historians; had he also known that 20 years later that same Octavian would be directly responsible for ordering his illegal, unjustified, and brutal murder, Cicero’s blood would have run cold.

Octavian’s mother Atia (Atia Balba Caesonia) was the daughter of Julia (Julia Caesaris Minor), the younger sister of Julius Caesar. His father, also called Gaius Octavius, was a well-to-do banker from a respected, though not distinguished family; a member of the Senate; he was made praetor in 61 BC and later governor of Macedonia; his military successes in Macedonia qualified for a triumph in Rome and also made him eligible to stand for election as Consul, though he died before either could happen (Octavian was only four years old at the time). Octavian’s mother remarried, her new husband, and thus Octavian’s step-father, being Lucius Marcus Philippus, who was Consul in 56 BC.

Relationship of Octavian to Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar took great interest in the welfare of his great-nephew Octavian, allowing him the honour of giving the funeral oration to Caesar’s sister Julia when Octavian was no more than eleven years old. In 46 BC Octavian rode in Caesar’s triumph and the following year he joined Caesar in one of the Spanish campaigns. Subsequently, he was not only accorded various honours by Caesar, but also enrolled as a patrician. In 44 BC Caesar sent Octavian to Apollonia where Caesar intended to plan and organise his Parthian campaign; Octavian was to study oratory (rhetoric) and get to know the troops (who seem to have taken to the young man).

However, before Caesar could join Octavian and take command of his legions, he was assassinated in Rome, at the foot of Pompey’s statue, on 15 March (the Ides of March) 44 BC. When Octavian received the news of Caesar’s death he decided to return to Rome. Though urged by some of his friends to take Caesar’s Macedonian legions and march on Rome, he adopted instead a more cautious approach, returning with only a few troops and landing near to Brundisium (Brindisi) towards the end of March.

Map 1. Major towns mentioned in the period up to the siege of Perusia

In Rome, events had been moving rapidly. The conspirators who had murdered Julius Caesar had not made any plans for what would happen next, assuming naïvely that the Republic would return automatically to the manner in which it had operated before Caesar’s rule as Dictator. They were wrong. The leadership of the state was now in the hands of Antony (Marcus Antonius) who had been Caesar’s fellow Consul, and who now resolved to fill the power vacuum left by Caesar’s death.

Publius Cornelius Dolabella (who was Cicero’s son-in-law) had seized the consulship left vacant by Julius Caesar's death, and although Dolabella was young and ambitious Antony confirmed him in his consulship, judging correctly that he would not be an immediate rival in the scramble for power. He then turned his attention to Lepidus (Aemilius Lepidus). After Caesar had been elected dictator for life he had raised Lepidus, his strongest supporter, to the position of Master of the Horse – which effectively made him Caesar’s deputy and thus Antony’s chief rival for power. Antony secured the support of Lepidus by (illegally) appointing him to the position of Pontifex Maximus. Whether this was strictly necessary is debatable: Lepidus, although ambitious, was not a particular courageous man and might well have baulked at the prospect of taking on an opponent as formidable as Antony. In any case, on the day that Caesar was assassinated Lepidus was preparing to leave for the province of Gallia Cisalpina to the governorship of which Caesar had just appointed him.

On 16 March, Antony persuaded the Senate to confirm the legality of all the decrees made by Caesar. One effect of this (which must surely have been foreseen by Antony) was to make legal the appointment of the two prime conspirators against Caesar, Brutus (Marcus Junius Brutus) and Cassius (Gaius Cassius Longinus) to the governorships of Macedonia and Syria, respectively. In fact, Antony was happy for the conspirators to be pardoned, because this conveniently absolved him of the need to pursue them and bring them to justice, which would inevitably involve another civil war. He was also aware, however, that whilst they were still in Rome they, and the republican ideals which they embodied, posed a serious threat to his plans. It is often said that Antony’s inflammatory speech, delivered on the occasion of Caesar’s funeral on 20 March 44 BC, produced the necessary effect, stirring the mob to attack the conspirators’ houses, and causing the conspirators themselves to flee from Rome in alarm. This is, however, an oversimplification. Whilst Antony may have made such a speech, and its effect could well have been to induce Brutus and Cassius to make an immediate and judicious departure from Rome, it is clear that they subsequently returned, because on 5 June 44 BC Antony persuaded the Senate to offer them the provinces of Crete and Cyrene. Though both Brutus and Cassius left Rome with every appearance of going to take up their governorships of these provinces, Brutus moved to occupy Macedonia whilst Cassius took Syria. Antony was uneasy about this illegal seizing of two territories, but to ensure that the two principal conspirators stayed out of Rome he initially raised no objections; and indeed in due course the Senate gave legal recognition to Brutus and Cassius’s governorships. Decimus Brutus, the half-brother of Marcus Brutus and also one of the conspirators, had already left for his province of Gallia Cisalpina.

By his conciliatory policy, Antony had managed to rid Rome of the conspirators whilst keeping within the bounds of legality, and the Senate showed its appreciation by decreeing to him the province of Macedonia and the legions based there; Dolabella, Antony’s companion consul, was awarded the governorship of Syria. These two appointments were in spite of Macedonia and Syria being in the hands of Brutus and Cassius, respectively, and in conflict with the legalization of Caesar’s acts which had given the governorships of the provinces to the two conspirators: such anomalies do not seem to have concerned either Antony or the Senate, perhaps reflecting the degree of confusion existing in the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination.

Antony also arranged for a law to be passed which provided for the abolition of the office of Dictator: not to have done so would have revealed his own aspirations too clearly.

Antony’s greatest need was for money: without it, he could not pay troops to support his cause. As Consul, he persuaded Calpurnia, Caesar’s widow, to place into his custody not only Caesar’s Will but the greater part of his personal fortune. In addition, he seized the public treasury and raised additional money by selling various privileges and immunities (as it was in his power as Consul to do). He did not pay the citizens of Rome the bequest of 300 sesterces each that had been left to them by Caesar. Antony insisted that all his actions were consistent with Caesar’s Will, though suspicions have been raised that he may have forged parts of it and altered others.

So far, everything appeared to be going to plan for Anthony, but that plan was soon to be thrown into disarray by the arrival in Rome of Octavian.

Octavian had decided to land a short distance from Brundisium rather than in the port itself, because he was unsure of the reception he would be given by the legions stationed there prior to their being sent to join the troops already in Macedonia. As it happened, when he eventually arrived in Brundisium he was received enthusiastically by the legionaries.

Whilst in Brundisium, Octavian learned of the provision in Caesar’s Will making him Caesar’s adopted son (see Note 2) and thereby changing his name to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (though Octavian thereafter dropped ‘Octavianus’ and referred to himself as ‘Caesar’). Octavian also received letters from his mother Atia and his father-in-law Philippus, advising him that it would be dangerous, and therefore inadvisable, to accept Caesar’s legacy, but he decided not to heed the advice, replying that he would not only accept the legacy, but would punish Caesar’s murderers and succeed to power. He was still only 19 years of age.

To accomplish these last two objectives Octavian knew he would need money. Although at this point he may have known that he had been left a substantial portion of Caesar’s wealth, he did not yet have access to it. According to Werner Eck, in The Age of Augustus (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), he appropriated the funds that Caesar had sent for the Parthian campaign, and the annual tribute that had been paid by the province of Asia; others, such as H. G. Weddel in A History of Rome (London: Johnson Murray, 1867) say that it was Antony who had appropriated these funds, and that Octavian was obliged to raise money by selling such property as he had been left by Julius Caesar and by also borrowing large amounts (in the confident belief that he would succeed in his quest to replace Caesar and would therefore be in a position to repay such loans). In his autobiographical note Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Acts of the Divine Augustus) Octavian claimed to have used only his own money and, given Caesar’s bequest, even if, as Eck suggests, Octavian had seized the Parthian campaign money (which was, after all, Caesar’s) the assertion might actually be justified.

Accompanied by a small force, Octavian set out for Rome, though he first called upon the orator and senator Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero) who was staying at Cumae near to Puteoli. Cicero had met the conspirators after they had murdered Caesar, in order to assess their intentions, and he had favoured the subsequent amnesty (not surprisingly, as he was the leader of the republican faction in the Senate). He had also formed a highly favourable impression of Octavian’s father, and was flattered by the young Octavian’s visit (‘He is devoted to me,’ he later wrote). Octavian was aware of the influence wielded by Cicero, and was wise to cultivate his acquaintance and support.

On his way through Campania, where he visited Philippus, his father-in-law, Octavian also used some of his appropriated funds to win over a substantial force of some 1,000 veterans to his cause.

Octavian arrived in Rome on 6 May 44 BC where he presented himself to the people in the Forum and announced his acceptance of Caesar’s legacy and his intention to fulfil his filial duty – firstly by avenging Caesar’s death and secondly by honouring the stipulation in Caesar’s Will that each member of the urban plebs (the non-patrician, free members of Rome’s population) should receive the 300 sesterces bequeathed to them by Caesar. His announcements were all well received.

Octavian also paid for the games in honour of Caesar’s victories (Eck notes that a comet appeared at the time of these games, and that Octavian encouraged the belief that this portended the elevation of Julius Caesar to the status of a god, though others put the manifestation of the comet to a much later date).

When Octavian approached Antony and asked to be given that portion (three-quarters) of Caesar’s wealth that had been bequeathed to him, Antony refused. Octavian was not able to resolve this matter militarily because the troops accompanying him refused to fight those supporting Antony, because they had been comrades in various campaigns. Nevertheless, some historians, including Eck, claim that Antony must have felt sufficiently nervous about the developing situation for him to decide that it would be prudent to take certain precautions.

In early June Antony acquired provincial command (proconsular imperium) of Gallia Cisalpina and Gallia Comata (the transalpine provinces in Gaul with the exception of Gallia Narbonensis) for a period of five years. The legality of this has been questioned, with some historians asserting that Antony used his consular status to award the command to himself: this seems unlikely, as there is clear evidence that the decision was made by a plebiscite – a ‘resolution of the people’ – on 1 June. It was an important move, for these provinces – and Gallia Cisalpina in particular – were strategically placed to provide him with easy access to Italy. In exchange, he agreed (some sources say he was required) to relinquish the province of Macedonia which had been decreed to him earlier, though he retained command of the Macedonian legions.

Antony’s assumption of Gallia Cisalpina faced an important difficulty: the term of the incumbent governor, Decimus Brutus had not yet come to an end. Antony knew that he would have to fight for the province, and that to expel Decimus he would need troops. He turned to the Macedonian legions based in Brundisium.

When Octavian became aware of this, he consulted his advisers – Agrippa (Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa), who had been Octavian’s friend from their schooldays and was an able general and administrator; and the Etruscan Maecenas (Gaius Cilnius Maecenas), a diplomat, artist and voluptuary, whose talent for negotiation made him a particularly important figure in Octavian’s rise to power. Presumably as a result of their counsel, Octavian raised a further force of veterans from Campania and sent agents ahead of Antony to Brundisium where they distributed propaganda leaflets extolling the virtues of Octavian and the negative aspects of Antony, and also told the troops that Octavian would pay 2,000 sesterces to each soldier who joined him.

Upon his arrival in Brundisium, Antony offered the soldiers a mere 400 sesterces each, and this, combined with the effects of Octavian’s propaganda offensive, led the legions to riot. Antony had the leaders of the riot arrested and executed – an act which (predictably) led to a further worsening of his appeal to the troops. However, three legions eventually agreed to accompany him to Gallia Cisalpina, first marching north towards Ariminum (Rimini). Antony left the main body of his troops at Tibur, to the north-east of Rome, and then, surrounded by a body of soldiers, entered Rome.

Once in Rome, Antony set about the process of turning the people and – more importantly – the Senate, against Octavian. It is a particular feature of Antony’s strategy that he did not baulk at the use of obscenity, if it served his purpose to do so. On this occasion he claimed that Octavian had secured his inheritance from Julius Caesar by selling his body sexually to the Dictator, a claim which Antony clearly felt might be believed.

Antony also claimed that he had been the victim of an assassination plot, with the strong implication that it had been initiated by Octavian, and Antony had several members of his own bodyguard arrested and executed.

Although it seems that neither accusation was widely believed, Antony proposed to the Senate that Octavian should be declared a public enemy, and a date was set upon which this proposition would be discussed. Antony, however, failed to turn up for the debate on not one, but two, occasions. On the first of these, Antony received word that one of his legions, which he had left at Tibur, had deserted him and had declared allegiance to Octavian. He left Rome and rushed back to Tibur to assure himself of the loyalty of the remaining troops. The second occasion followed a similar pattern. On being informed that another legion had deserted him and had gone to the town of Alba Fucens not far from Tibur, Antony hurried to Alba only to be met (if reports can be believed) by a shower of arrows from the city’s ramparts. The reasons for the defection of the legions from Antony to Octavian are not clear, though the magic of Caesar’s name must surely have been one factor and the offer of more money by Octavian than by Anthony another.

On his return to Rome, Antony (perhaps wisely) decided that the best thing he could do would be to get any troops remaining loyal to him into battle as soon as possible. He therefore put into immediate effect his plan to go to Gallia Cisalpina and eject Decimus Brutus from the governorship. Whilst this decision could have reflected his unease about Octavian’s popularity with the legions (the name of Caesar, which Octavian now bore, had a dramatic effect on Octavian’s standing with the troops), another interpretation is that he underestimated the threat posed by Octavian to his own aspirations in Rome, and was not at all nervous about leaving Octavian in Rome unopposed.

When he reached Gallia Cisalpina, Antony found that Decimus, after taking stock of Antony’s forces, was refusing to engage in battle. Instead, he and his troops had taken refuge in the walled city of Mutina (Modena) and were prepared to withstand a siege.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, Cicero had realized that if Antony were to succeed in establishing a power-base in Gallia Cisalpina and Transalpina he would emerge as a natural successor to Julius Caesar and would continue Caesar’s undermining of the ideals of the Republic. Cicero concluded that the best chance of restoring the Republic lay in giving the strongest possible support to Octavian. Accordingly, he delivered a long series of speeches in which he extolled at length the virtues of Octavian, whilst launching fierce invective against Antony; these speeches were referred to in later years as the Philippics (a name derived from the series of fiery, damning speeches given by Demosthenes against Philip II of Macedon in the 4th Century BC). The first Philippic, which was delivered in the Senate in Antony’s absence on 1 September, 44 BC, was a relatively measured attack on Antony and his policies; it avoided the slanderous personal references which were contained in later Philippics, and drew only a written response from Antony. As soon as Antony had left with his forces for Gallia Cisalpina, Cicero privately circulated the text of the second Philippic (which was never actually presented as a public speech, though Antony soon came to hear of it); in it, Cicero dealt at length with what he claimed was Antony’s dissolute and corrupt nature. At this point, it appears that Cicero privately held the view that the young Octavian could be used to offset the challenge posed by Antony to the restoration of the republic, and then could be manipulated into not assuming an authoritarian role himself. The Philippics were Cicero’s way of ensuring that Octavian was viewed by the Senate in a more favourable light than Antony. The remaining 12 of the 14 Philippics were delivered between December 44 BC and April 43 BC.

The republican faction in the Senate hated Antony, whom they saw as attempting to re-establish the Caesarian authority over the Senate; the Caesarian faction (who were in a majority), whilst not averse to the establishment of authoritarian control over the Senate, were nevertheless in fear of Antony’s naked ambition which might put them, collectively or individually, in danger. This led to a general feeling in the Senate that Antony’s drive for power had to be checked. The problem was, of course, that Antony’s proconsular imperium appeared to give legal status to his decision to take over control of Gallia Cisalpina. In his speeches attacking Antony, Cicero had studiously avoided any mention of the plebiscite giving Antony control of the Gallic provinces, concentrating instead upon the argument that Decimus Brutus had been awarded control of Gallia Cisalpina by Julius Caesar and was therefore the legitimate governor of the province. Despite the weakness of Cicero’s case, his sophistry succeeded in persuading Senate to affirm Decimus Brutus’s title to the governorship of Gallia Cisalpina, thereby making illegal Antony’s attempt to take the province by force. The difficulty with this, as far as the Senate was concerned, was that Antony had troops – and they did not.

This is where Octavian made a quite brilliant move (and not the first of its kind in his career) by placing his troops at the disposal of the Senate. This act – which according to Eck (who is almost certainly correct) was brokered by Cicero – led to Octavian’s being admitted to the Senate with the rank of praetor (strictly illegal for a person only 20 years of age, when the minimum age for admission to the Senate was 30) and awarded an imperium (the official authority to raise and command an army). In addition, the Senate approved the payment of the promised bonus to Octavian’s troops from public funds (a promise that was not kept). On 7 January 43 BC Octavian took the fasces, the symbol of command.

Even at this stage, Senate was still uneasy about starting another civil war, and sent three envoys to try to persuade Antony to abandon his attempt to take command of Gallia Cisalpina. One of the envoys died in the course of the mission, the remaining two returning with Antony’s reply that he would desist from assuming control of Gallia Cisalpina if he were allowed to take command of Gallia Comata. Senate rejected the proposal.

At the behest of Cicero, the Senate was persuaded to annul all legislation enacted by Antony, and although when Antony heard of this he offered to suspend his march on Gallia Cisalpina if his legislation were allowed to stand, the Senate annulled it anyway. Decrees were issued by the Senate against Antony and also against Lepidus in Gallia Narbonensis, who was now allied with Antony.

Octavian and the Consul Hirtius (Aulus Hirtius) led their legions towards Gallia Cisalpina in pursuit of Antony, followed by the other Consul Pansa (Caius Vibius Pansa) with his army.

On 14 April 43 BC, less than a year since the assassination of Caesar, the battle of Forum Gallorum (a village near to Mutina) took place between the legions of Antony and those of Pansa and Hirtius. Antony thought that he could deal with the two Consuls piecemeal, one after the other, and leaving his younger brother Lucius Antonius in charge of the siege of the town of Mutina, moved some of his forces south to Forum Gallorum, attacking Pansa first. Pansa’s legions were defeated and Pansa himself was seriously injured. Antony’s troops, retiring exultant but weary and disorganized from the battle with Pansa, were then taken by surprise by those of Hirtius and Octavian and forced to retreat.

One week later, on 21 April 43 BC, the armies of Octavian and Hirtius again engaged that of Antony, this time in the battle of Mutina. Antony suffered a crushing defeat, but Hirtius was killed in the battle, and shortly afterwards, Pansa, who had been injured in the earlier engagement at Forum Gallorum, also died. The siege of Mutina was lifted, and Antony and the remnants of his army fled deeper into Gaul. When the news reached Rome, Senate (somewhat belatedly, one might think) declared Antony to be a Public Enemy.

The deaths of Pansa and Hirtius had important consequences for Octavian. As the sole survivor to whom imperium had been awarded, he was now in command of all three armies – a sizeable force. This, of course, has given rise to speculation that Octavian might have had both Pansa and Hirtius killed, and in the light of later developments casting light upon Octavian’s character, the suggestion ought not to be dismissed lightly.

It might be presumed that his command of so many legions would have strengthened Octavian’s position in the eyes of the Senate. Indeed it had. But the Senate was wary of according too much credit, and hence power, to one so young and clearly ambitious, and although it had readily declared Antony to be a public enemy it refused, according to some accounts, Cicero’s call for Octavian to be given a public ovation (a ceremony less magnificent than a triumph but a reward nonetheless). Syme, however, records that the ovation was approved, but that Decimus was accorded the greater acclaim of a triumph. Moreover, the Senate ordered the transfer of Octavian’s legions, including those of Pansa and Hirtius, to the control of Decimus, now released from his siege in Mutina.

In a move that was to have far-reaching consequences, Senate placed Sextus Pompeius (Sextus Pompeius Magnus Pius) in command of the Roman fleet; the son of Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar’s arch rival in the quest for power, Sextus was the natural enemy of Octavian, as was to emerge clearly a few years later. The placing of the fleet under Sextus’s command was in response to Sextus’s having promised the Senate his assistance in their actions against Antony.

Brutus and Cassius, who had illegally placed themselves in charge of the provinces of Macedonia and Syria, respectively, were now confirmed in these positions by the Senate. All these decisions of the Senate were intended as, and indeed were perceived as, snubs to Octavian, and a signal that he should not unreasonably raise his aspirations.

The complexities of the aftermath of the battle of Mutina have been interpreted in different ways. The following diagram illustrates one set of possibilities, according to which: (1) Antony retreated from Mutina to join Lepidus, the governor of Narbonensis (southern France); (2) Octavian refused a request from Decimus that they should join forces and go in pursuit of Antony (Octavian could not, and would not, aid one of Caesar’s murderers); (3) Decimus tried to follow Antony, but his army was relatively small and weak and he failed; (4) Lepidus in Narbonensis asked Plancus (Marcus Munatius Plancus) who was based in Gallia Transalpina to join him in attacking Antony and Plancus agreed; (5) then, for reasons that are not clear, Lepidus sent word to Plancus that he (Lepidus) alone would attack Antony and told Plancus to hold back (Plancus, who was in any case never quick to enter into conflict, did so); (6) Plancus returned to his base; (7) Antony was joined by Ventidius (Publius Ventidius Bassus) who brought with him three more legions; (8) Lepidus moved to attack Antony; (9) the armies of Lepidus and Antony, however, fraternised and refused to fight; (10) Lepidus and Antony therefore agreed to join forces; (11) Decimus ceased pursuit of Antony and returned to Gallia Transalpina where he joined forces with Plancus; (12) Octavian agreed to a request to join forces with Plancus and Decimus, but in fact did nothing (he still could not be allied to one of Caesar’s killers); (13) and finally Octavian returned to Rome.

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