Your RDA of Irony

The Month of Quintilis

To the early Romans the month of March seemed the approximate beginning of the year.  With the advent of spring, what better time to plant a field or start a war!  So this would have been the fifth month of their calendar, and the Romans labelled it according: Quintilis–the fifth.  Even after the Romans moved the start of the new year to Januarius, Quintilis retained its name if not its numerical accuracy.   

In 44 B.C., however, the Roman Senate renamed the month Julius in honor of the very recent corpse.  It was not a tribute to Julius Caesar so much as a desperate gesture to avert a civil war.  Of course, Caesar’s death was a surprise to him, but it was nearly as much a shock to most of the senators.  There were 300 members of the Senate, but only 40 were part of the conspiracy.  Although they had not done polling or had a focus group, the plotters presumed that the majority of the Senators would either sympathize or acquiesce to the murder.  

In fact, they were stunned.  Most of the Senators had survived the past civil wars by being innocuous.  So long as they maintained their privileges, they were resigned to letting a Caesar have the burdens of power.  His death would not restore the Republic because they no longer had the interest or capacity to administer it.  Worse, they feared more civil wars.  They were already intimidated by the plebian outrage over the death of Caesar; the common people loved him.  You couldn’t ignore the masses, especially when they included legions of veterans.  Furthermore, Caesar had his partisans in the Senate.  What was Marc Antony going to do?

We may think of Antony as a dissolute, befuddled wastrel and the last years of his life would justify that image.  However, why would Julius Caesar have chosen such a dissipated playboy as his lieutenant?  No, Antony had considerable ability, and his political shrewdness would determine his survival, Caesar’s revenge, Roman history and the name of this month. 

In the aftermath of Caesar’s death, Antony correctly judged the predominant mood of the Senate.  It didn’t want civil war.  Neither did he, because he hadn’t yet amassed the legions to fight it.   The conspirators–the self-proclaimed liberators–were demanding that they be pardoned for killing a tyrant.  Antony was not prepared to condemn them or even defend Caesar’s reputation.  He did, however, raise a legal obstacle to declaring Caesar a tyrant.  If the Senate voted that denunciation, then all of Caesar’s acts would be nullified.  First, that risked massive unemployment among the patricians.  All the officials–governors, proconsuls, etc.– appointed by Caesar would be stripped of their lucrative posts.  Worse, canceling the pensions and land grants to Caesar’s veterans would likely incite a rebellion by the best soldiers in the Republic.  That was exactly what the Senate hoped to avoid.

Marc Antony offered a compromise.  Caesar would not be declared a tyrant but his killers would receive an amnesty.  And in view of the plebian cries for vengeance, the “liberators” should receive government posts as far from Rome as possible.  Cassius was named governor of Syria, at the time a very enviable form of banishment.  Brutus received Greece.  In the meantime, the Senate hoped to placate the indignant public by renaming Quintilius in honor of Julius Caesar.

So Caesar got a month, but Antony got all the time he needed–along with the legions of Italia and Gaul.  He would make use of them.

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