Some Thoughts on Appian’s The Civil Wars


I have read a significant portion of Appian’s The Civil Wars and have some comments before he leads me into the altercations between Octavian and Marcus Antonius.

Appian begins with the incidents and conflicts stirred up under the banner of agrarian reform. He explains the division of lands in the “public domain” favoring large, rich landowners and their army of servants and slaves at the expense of the everyday Italian and dispossessed Roman soldier. For his concern and for his honest offerings, Gracchus found his way to the Tiber River and a watery trip to Elysium, or further still to Tartarus, depending upon one’s point of view. An ignominious fate awaited others of the same name and inclinations as well. The Roman Republic became embroiled in the need to pacify the displeasure of the masses while subduing the ambitions of the affluent and powerful.

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Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus

The success of this unwinnable balancing act was spotty at best, to the point that respect for the institutions of the Republic sunk lower each time a Tribune was attacked or a Comitia became part of the political mechanization of a power seeking partisan or military strong man. As Appian explains, one outrage after another leads to a greater level of outrage until those in certain previously inviolable positions now must be wary and afraid.

He describes also how the manipulation of the Tribunes of the people and the Comitia Populi Tributa in diminishing the authority of the Senate creates a vacuum of power that swings back and forth until authority is concentrated into the hands of a few, most notably in the Senate.

The Curia Julia, The Seat of the Imperial Senate.

Eventually, we come to the conflict of Marius and Sulla. Sulla succeeds with great cruelty and then retires to country life. After Sulla treads a while on the sacred institutions of Rome, before he retires, he adds Senators and has such impact as to leave the Roman Republic bereft of many of its old ways and ripe for another general to declare himself dictator for life.

Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage, Oil on Wood Panel, John Vanderlyn (American), 1832. 

After this time, Julius Caesar becomes busy with Vercingetorix and Alesia and the subjugation of Gaul. Appian makes little mention of this. For this history one must consult his The Foreign Wars.

Then, of course, we remember: “The die is cast…” as Caesar crosses the Rubicon, takes Rome, loots its treasury and goes forward to Capua to meet Pompey. Pompey, however, scurries to Brundisium, the famous ancient port city, and then on to Greece to reconnoitre, seek men, allies and supplies.

The Rubicon on the Italian Peninsula. 

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The Location of Brundisium. Ostia is at the Mouth of the Tiber Not Far From Rome. 

At last we come to Dyrrachium. Here Pompey decisively defeats Caesar with superior forces, resulting from Caesar’s impetuous haste. Caesar had used speed, haste and surprise before in Gaul where he had success. Yet here he also forgot the setbacks he received when haste was just a superficial cover for carelessness.

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Pompey the Great.

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Julius Caesar.

Then the great happenings at Pharsalus. This is where, in one great battle, the history of the western world turned and the Republic lay prostrate and exhausted. Many a general down through history has cogitated on what Appian mentions here. Pompey, after defeating Caesar at Dyrrachium, instead of pressing home his advantage, decided to wait, thinking that Caesar’s men would come over to him due to humiliation of defeat and the scarcity of supplies. Pompey lost a chance to end the war right then and there.

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Ancient Greece Showing Dyrrachium, Pharsalus and Actium.

Appian, unable to fathom how Pompey transformed from the bold and brilliant commander of the past then lost his way, suggests a divine origin for the strength of Caesar and the fortitude of his men and the sluggishness and hesitation of Pompey. Advised to cross back over to Italy, occupy the seat of the Republic, then fight the party of Caesar in Spain and Gaul, Pompey listened to the numerous kings, Senators and others with his army to meet and destroy Caesar at Pharsalus. Of course, his army was defeated and Pompey escaped to Egypt.

Three themes become apparent in Appian’s work. He refers to the ascendancy of supreme power and the loss of the old and established foundations of the Republic, the death of the Republic from the breakdown of respect for traditional positions such as the Tribunes and the disregard of the rule of law or the administration of justice, and the gradual concentration of power in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

Although without the flare and irony of, say, Tacitus and Suetonius, Appian attempts to not only inform us of the sequence of events, but to elucidate the reasons why these things happened. Still yet to come: Octavian, Antonius, Cleopatra and Actium…


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Caesar, Oil on Canvas, Adolphe Yvon, 1875.



Self-Portrait in the Manner of Frans Hals.

Self-Portrait in the Manner of Frans Hals.



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