19 October 2006

from The Roman Revolution, chapter VII, The Consul Antonius (Ronald Syme)

Born in 82 B.C., Antonius was now in the prime of life, richly endowed with strength of body and grace of manner, courageous, alert and resourceful, but concealing behind an attractive and imposing façade certain defects of character and judgement that time and the licence of power were to show up in deadly abundance. The frank and chivalrous soldier was no match in statecraft for the astute politicians who undermined his predominance, stole his partisans, and contrived against him the last coup d’état of all, the national front and the uniting of Italy.

The memory of Antonius has suffered damage multiple and irreparable. The policy which he adopted in the East and his association with the Queen of Egypt were vulnerable to the moral and patriotic propaganda of his rival. Most of that will be coolly discounted. From the influence of Cicero it is less easy to escape. The Philippics, the series of speeches in which he assailed an absent enemy, are an eternal monument of eloquence, of rancour, of misrepresentation. Many of the charges levelled against the character of Antonius – such as unnatural vice or flagrant cowardice – are trivial, ridiculous or conventional. That the private life of the Caesarian soldier was careless, disorderly, and even disgraceful, is evident and admitted. He belonged to a class of Roman nobles by no means uncommon under Republic or Empire, whose unofficial follies did not prevent them from rising, when duty called, to services of conspicuous ability or the most disinterested patriotism. For such men, the most austere of historians cannot altogether suppress a timid and perhaps perverse admiration. A blameless life is not the whole of virtue, and inflexible rectitude may prove a menace to the Commonwealth.

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