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Julio-Claudians: Perusine War (41-40 BC)  


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Veteran Settlement (43-1 BC)

As set out in the main page on Octavian, Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus met at Bononia (Bologna) in October 43 BC and agreed the formation of their triumvirate, an allegedly temporary arrangement that they justified as a necessary precursor to the expected war agains the last of Caesar’s assassins (principally Cassius and Brutus).  As an inducement to their soldiers to continue the civil war, they then jointly designated 18 Italian towns and cities for their settlement after the expected victory. 

Cassius and Brutus, who had regrouped in the east, assembled an army at Philippi, on the coast of Macedonia for an assault on Italy.  Mark Antony and Octavian embarked with a joint force from Brundisium across the Adriatic to  meet it.  In October 42 BC, victory went to Mark Antony (with Octavian largely incapacitated by illness), and first Cassius and then Brutus committed suicide.   Cassius Dio reported that, after Philippi, Lepidus was effectively marginalised as Mark Antony and Octavian divided most of the empire between themselves, albeit that they:

  1. “... left Italy [itself]... as common property [i.e. at least formally, jointly governed territory]. 

  2. -[Mark] Antony undertook to reduce those who had fought against them [in the east] and to collect the money [there] necessary to pay what had been promised to the soldiers; while

  3. -[Octavian] undertook: to curtail the power of Lepidus, if he should make any hostile move; to conduct the war against Sextus [Pompeius, who held Sicily]; and to assign to those of their troops who had passed the age-limit the land which they had promised them.

  4. ... After making these agreements..., putting them in writing and sealing them, they exchanged copies, ... so that, if any transgression were committed, it might be proved by these records.  Thereupon [Mark] Antony set out [from Philippi] for Asia and [Octavian] for Italy” (‘Roman History’, 48: 2).

Octavian began the process of land confiscation early in 41 BC, soon after he returned to Italy.  As Laurence Keppie (at p. 61) observed:

  1. “The method of acquiring land was simple and callous: wholesale confiscation from owners [who were] mostly innocent of any disaffection or disloyalty [to the newly-elected triumvirs].   With good reason could the dispossessed complain of the injustice of their plight.”

As Enrico Zuddas and Maria Carla Spadoni (referenced below, p. 58, note 13) pointed out:

  1. “Within a year, the operation was almost complete, when the Perusine War broke out” (my translation).

Hispellum

Laurence Keppie (referenced below, at p. 63) deduced the probable identities of the 18 towns that had been earmarked for confiscation at Bononia in 43 BC.  Crucially for our purposes, his list included Hispellum (Spello), for which he cited the last line of this passage by the poet Propertius. 

  1. “Ancient Umbria ... bore you [Propertius] ...  Where misty Mevania (Bevagna) wets its hollow field and Lake Umber warms the summer waters, the ramparts of towering Asisium (Assisi) - made more famous by your genius -  surge from [the hilltop].  You gathered bones that should not have been gathered so young - your father’s bones -  and were yourself forced into modest quarters: for when countless bulls were [still] ploughing your fields, the dull measuring-rod [of the Roman land surveyors] took away [your] wealth” (Elegy 4:1, adapted from the translation by Vincent Katz, referenced below, at pp. 343-5).  

It seems that land in the Valle Umbra that had belonged to the Propertius’ family had been confiscated for veteran settlement when Propertius himself was still a boy.  According to Keppie (at pp. 178-9):

  1. “... the misfortunes of the Propertii seem best associated with the foundation of the [colony of Hispellum], an event that may be confidently placed in 41 BC.”

Thus it seems that Propertius’ father had died during the confiscation of at least part of his land.  Since the young Propertius had gathered his father’s bones, we might reasonably assume that he had died violently, perhaps when he had tried to obstruct the process of confiscation.

Keppie (at p. 178) also referred to what was probably a single male relative of Propertius (perhaps his maternal uncle) who was the subject of two other of his poems (Elegy 1: 21 and 22).  This man seems to have escaped the siege of Perusia (below) but to have been killed by brigands before he could reach safety.  As Keppie observed:

  1. “The Propertii of Assisium, recently deprived of a substantial part of their property (or under threat of deprivation) are easily envisaged as supporters of ... [the rebels at] nearby Perusia.” 

As we shall see below, the war at Perusia was not primarily a local revolt: rather Perusia and its surrounding territory (which included the lands of the Propertii) found itself (probably unexpectedly) at the centre of a civil war between Romans in late 41 BC.  However, when Octavian’s Roman enemies took refuge in Perusia (as discussed below), the local support that they found in the Valle Umbra has to be viewed in the context of the confiscations of that year.  Furthermore, the roots of this ‘anti-Roman’ sentiment went back beyond the latest outrage: Ronald Syme (referenced below, at p. 208) wrote memorably of the Perusine War that it had:

  1. “... blended with an older feud and took on the colours of an ancient wrong.  Political contests at Rome and the civil wars into which they degenerated had been fought at the expense of Italy [for decades].  Denied justice and liberty, Italy rose against Rome [as personified by Octavian] for the last time.”

Outbreak of War

Although (as noted above) Mark Antony remained in the east after Philippi, his interests at Rome were represented by;

  1. his brother, Lucius Antonius, who held the consulship in 41 BC; and

  2. his wife, the redoubtable and much-maligned Fulvia. 

It seems that many of the Italians who faced dispossession at the hands of Octavian looked to them for support and that they were inclined to give it (perhaps in the interests of justice or, more probably, because they saw political advantage in so-doing).  Mark Antony seems to have contrived to make his own position as ambiguous as possible.   Thus, Lucius Antonius and Fulvia were drawn into an open war with Octavian without being able to rely for more that hesitant support on those of Mark Antony’s legions that were still in the west. 

The opening phase of the war took place in Rome and then in southern Italy (and need not concern us).  The first recorded signs of revolt in central Italy occurred at Nursia (Norcia) and at Sentinum, on the Adriatic coast. Thus, Cassius Dio:

  1. “[Octavian] made an expedition against Nursia, among the Sabines, and routed the garrison encamped before it, but was repulsed from the city [itself] by Tisienus Gallus [an ally of Lucius Antonius].  Accordingly he went over into Umbria and laid siege to Sentinum, but failed to capture it.  For Lucius meanwhile ... had suddenly marched against [Sentinum] himself, [and taken possession of it].  So, on ascertaining this, [Octavian] left Quintus Salvidienus Rufus to look after [sic !] the people of Sentinum, while he set out for Rome” (‘Roman History’, 48: 13: 2-4). 

While Octavian had been distracted by the revolt at Nursia, Lucius had consolidated his position in Rome.  Cassius Dio continued:

  1. “Now, when Lucius learned of [Octavian’s imminent return to Rome], he withdrew [from the city]..., having had a vote passed authorising him to leave ... in order to begin a war; ...  Thus [Octavian] was received into the capital without striking a blow and, when he pursued Lucius and failed to capture him, he returned [to Rome] and kept a more careful watch over [it].  Meanwhile, [things went well for Octavian at Sentinum and at Nursia]:

  2. -[As] soon as [Octavian] had left Sentinum and Gaius Furnius, [whom Lucius had left as] the defender of the walls, had issued forth and pursued him a long distance, [Salvidienus] unexpectedly attacked the citizens inside and, capturing the town [for Octavian], plundered and burned it. 

  3. -The inhabitants of Nursia [then] came to terms without having suffered any ill treatment; however, after burying those who had fallen in the battle ... with [Octavian], the Nursians inscribed on their tombs that they had died contending for their liberty.  They were punished by an enormous fine, so that they abandoned their city and  ... all their territory” (‘Roman History’, 48: 13: 5-6).

These were but two of a number of skirmishes that must have taken place in this febrile period.  They give a clear indication of the level of unrest that the confiscations (or perhaps the fear of further confiscations) had engendered, and the role that Lucius played in fanning the flames.

Siege of Perusia

Cassius Dio now returned to the movements of Lucius:

  1. “[As Octavian approached Rome], Lucius withdrew from [the city], as I have stated, and set out for Gaul [where he presumably hoped to join his brother’s legions, led by Publius Ventidius Bassus and Gaius Asinius Pollio]; but, finding his way blocked [by Octavian’s army], he turned aside to Perusia, an Etruscan city.  There, he was intercepted first by the lieutenants of [Octavian] and later by [Octavian] himself, and was besieged” (‘Roman History’, 48: 14: 1).

Cassius Dio then briefly summarised the war itself:

  1. “The investment [of Perusia] proved a long operation; for the place is naturally a strong one and had been amply stocked with provisions; and horsemen sent by Lucius before he was entirely hemmed-in, greatly harassed the besieger, while many others besides came speedily to his defence from various quarters.  Many attacks were made upon these reinforcements separately and many engagements were fought close to the walls, until the followers of Lucius, even though they were generally successful, nevertheless were forced by hunger to capitulate.”  (‘Roman History’, 48: 14: 2-3). 

Appian gave a more detailed account, which included events that touched on other Umbrian cities, including Spoletium (Spoleto) and Fulginia (Foligno): 

  1. “Octavian ... drew a line of palisade and ditch around Perusia 56 stades in circuit, on account of the hill on which it was situated; he extended long arms to the Tiber, so that nothing might be introduced into the place.  Lucius, for his part, built a similar line of contravallation, thus fortifying the foot of the hill.  Fulvia urged Ventidius, Asinius, Ateius and Calenus to hasten from Gaul to the assistance of Lucius, and collected reinforcements [from Southern Italy], which she sent to Lucius under the lead of [Lucius Munatius Plancus].  Plancus destroyed one of Octavian's legions, which was on the march to Rome” (‘Civil Wars’, 5:33). 

  2. “While Asinius and Ventidius were proceeding ...  to the relief of Lucius ... Octavian and Agrippa, leaving a guard at Perusia, threw themselves in the way.  [Asinius and Ventidius] retreated: Asinius to Ravenna; and Ventidius to Ariminum [Rimini].  Plancus took refuge in Spoletium.  Octavian stationed a force in front of each, to prevent them from forming a junction, and returned to Perusia, where he speedily strengthened [the siege]” (‘Civil Wars’, 5:33).

  3. “When the work of Octavian was finished, famine fastened upon Lucius [in Perusia], and the evil grew more pressing ...  Knowing this fact, Octavian kept the most vigilant watch.  On the day preceding the Calends of January, Lucius thought to avail himself of the holiday, in the belief that the enemy would be off their guard, and to make a sally by night against their gates, hoping to break through them and bring in his other forces ... But the legion was lying in wait nearby, and  ... Lucius ... was driven back ...” (‘Civil Wars’, 5:34).

  4. “Ventidius and his officers, ashamed to look on while Lucius was starving, [finally] moved to his support, intending to overpower [the besieging army].  Agrippa and Salvidienus went to meet them with still larger forces.  Fearing lest they should be surrounded, they diverted to the stronghold of Fulginium, 160 stades from Perusia.  There Agrippa besieged them, [although they were able to light] many fires as signals to Lucius” (‘Civil Wars’, 5:35). 

  5. “[The men under siege at] Perusia rejoiced when they saw the fires, but, ... when the fires ceased, they thought that [Ventidius’ army] had been destroyed.  Lucius, oppressed by hunger, again fought a night battle ... ; but he failed and was driven back into Perusia.  There he took an account of the remaining provisions, forbade the giving of any to the slaves, and prohibited them from escaping, lest the enemy should gain better knowledge of his desperate situation ...” (‘Civil Wars’, 5:35).

  6. “As no end of the famine or of the deaths could be discerned, the [besieged] soldiers became restive ... and implored Lucius to make another attempt [to break out of Perusia] ... Lucius marched out at dawn ...” (‘Civil Wars’, 5:36).

  7. [After heavy fighting, during which Octavian was able to call up fresh reserves], Lucius  ... sounded a retreat.  Then the troops of Octavian joyfully clashed their arms as for a victory, whereupon [Lucius’ men defiantly returned to the fight].  Lucius ran among them and besought them to sacrifice their lives no longer, and led them back groaning and reluctant.  This was the end of this hotly contested siege ...” (‘Civil Wars’, 5:37-8).

For whatever reason, Octavian allowed Lucius and his army to withdraw from Perusia (although, as set out below) the civilians in the besieged city were less fortunate.


These events effectively brought the war to an end.  Thus, according to Cassius Dio:

  1. “After the capture of Perusia in the consulship of Gnaeus Calvinus (who was serving for the second time) and Asinius Pollio [i.e. in 4o BC], the other places in Italy also went over to [Octavian], partly as the result of force and partly of their own accord” (‘Roman History’, 48:15).

Reprisals

It seems that Octavian dealt harshly with the leaders of the rebellious Perusians.  Thus, according to Appian:

  1. “He then commanded the Perusians, who stretched out their hands to him from the walls, to come forward, all except their town council, and, as they presented themselves, he pardoned them; but the councillors were thrown into prison and soon afterwards put to death, except Lucius Aemilius, who had sat as a judge at Rome in the trial of the murderers of [Julius] Caesar, had voted openly for their condemnation, and had advised all the other [judges] to do the same in order to expiate the guilt” (‘Civil Wars’, 5:48).

Although the ordinary citizens of Perusia apparently did not pay with their lives, their suffering was not yet at an end:

  1. “Octavian intended to turn Perusia itself over to the soldiers for plunder, but Cestius, one of the citizens, who was somewhat out of his mind ... set fire to his house and plunged into the flames, and a strong wind fanned the conflagration and drove it over the whole of Perusia, which was entirely consumed, except the temple of Vulcan.  Such was the end of Perusia, a city renowned for its antiquity and importance.  It is said that it was one of the first 12 cities built by the Etruscans in Italy in olden time.  For this reason, the worship of Juno had prevailed there, as among the Etruscans generally.  But, thereafter, those [survivors] who shared among themselves the remains of the city took Vulcan for their tutelary deity instead of Juno” (‘Civil Wars’, 5:49). 

Cassius Dio reported a higher death toll among the Perusians than Appian’s account suggests, and he implied that the fire in the city was the work of Octavian’s army:

  1. “Of the people of Perusia and the others who were captured there, the majority lost their lives, and the city itself, except the temple of Vulcan and the statue of Juno, was entirely destroyed by fire.  This statue, which was preserved by some chance, was brought to Rome, in accordance with a vision that [Octavian] saw in a dream, and it secured for [Perusia] the privilege of being peopled again by any who desired to settle there, though they did not acquire anything of its territory beyond the first mile” (‘Roman History’, 48:14).

The suggestion here seems to be that the cult statue of Juno, the old protector of Perusia, had been ritually ‘called’ to Rome in an ancient ceremony known as ‘evocatio deorum’.  This vindictive act was presumably intended to replicate the evocation of the Etruscan god Voltumna to Rome after the fall of the Volsinii (Orvieto) in 264 BC.  Cassius is our only source for the information that (at Juno’s behest) the Perusians were allowed to return to their ruined city (now protected by Vulcan), but that all their territory beyond a mile from its walls was confiscated.

The final direct casualties of the war were a number of eminent civilians from Rome who had apparently accompanied Lucius to Perusia.  According to Appian:

  1. “... Octavian made peace with all of them, but [his] soldiers did not desist from tumults against some of them until [they] were killed.  These were the chief personal enemies of Octavian, namely, Cannutius, Gaius Flavius, Clodius Bithynicus, and others.  Such was the conclusion of the siege of Lucius in Perusia, and thus came to an end a war that had promised to be long-continued and most grievous to Italy” (‘Civil Wars’ 5:49).

Two other authors gave more lurid accounts of these events, which they claimed had involved human sacrifice on an altar dedicated to divus Julius:

  1. Cassius Dio:

  2. “...most of the senators and knights [taken prisoner in Perusia] were put to death.  And the story goes that they did not merely suffer death in an ordinary form, but were led to the altar consecrated to [divus Julius] and 300 knights and many senators were sacrificed there.  They included Tiberius Cannutius, [despite the fact that] previously, during his tribuneship, he had assembled the [Roman] populace for [Octavian]” (‘Roman History’, 48:14). 

  3. Suetonius:

  4. “After the capture of Perusia, [Octavian] took vengeance on many, meeting all attempts to beg for pardon or to make excuses with the one reply: ‘You must die’.  Some write that 300 men of both orders were selected from the prisoners of war and sacrificed on the Ides of March, like so many victims, at the altar raised to the deified Julius” (Life of Augustus’ 15:1).

These two accounts differ in some details, which led Dominique Briquel (referenced below, at p. 42) to conclude that their respective authors:

  1. “... had a common source, which they summarised differently” (my translation).

It is noteworthy that neither author had full confidence in this putative source, as evidenced by the phrases: ‘and the story goes that’ (Cassius Dio); and ‘some write that’ (Suetonius).

How likely is it then that these accounts of human sacrifice were true?  Many scholars have agreed with Ronald Syme (referenced below, at p. 211), who believed that, while there had been executions at Perusia:

  1. “These judicial murders were [subsequently] magnified by defamation and credulity into a hecatomb [mass sacrifice] of 300 Roman senators and knights in solemn and religious ceremony on the Ides of March before an altar dedicated to divus Julius.”

However, Octavian certainly portrayed this war as one of vengeance for the assassination of Caesar, and it is clear that his army also saw it in that way: 

  1. Famously, two of the 48 sling shots recovered from the site (CIL XI 6721, numbers 45 and 46 in this entry in the EAGLE database) that were fired by Legio XI were inscribed: “div(om) Iul(ium)”.  

  2. As noted above, Appian reported that the councillors of Perusia were all executed:

  3. “... except Lucius Aemilius, who had sat as a judge at Rome in the trial [in absentia] of the murderers of [Julius] Caesar, had voted openly for their condemnation, and had advised all the other [judges] to do the same in order to expiate the guilt [presumably with the blood of the convicted assassins, should they be captured]” (‘Civil Wars’, 5:48).

  4. Also as noted above, Cassius Dio recorded that the men who were allegedly sacrificed on the altar of divus Julius included:

  5. “... Tiberius Cannutius, [despite the fact that] previously, during his tribuneship, he had assembled the [Roman] populace for [Octavian against Mark Antony]” (‘Roman History’, 48:14). 

  6. However, Cannutius’ actions at this assembly (which had taken place in November 44 BC) had been motivated not by his esteem for Octavian but by his detestation of Mark Antony.  One wonders whether Cannutius had been among the tribunes who had prevented Octavian from exhibiting Caesar’s golden chair and his crown at the theatre earlier in the year (as discussed in my page on divus Julius)?  This is at least possible and, if so, Cannutius might have paid for this denial of one of Caesar’s divine honours with his life.

In the light of this atmosphere of vengeance, some scholars have perceived at least an element of truth in the accounts of human sacrifice at the altar of divus Julius.  Thus:

  1. James Smith Reid (referenced below, search on ‘dragged’):

  2. “If mock sacrifice [of at least some of the Roman prisoners at Perusia] really took place, it was [probably] the work [of Octavian’s soldiers, as Appian (above) had claimed].  They may have dragged victims before the altar of Caesar.  Their ardent desire to avenge him is attested by some of the sling bullets discovered on the site, ... [which] were ... inscribed ‘divom Iulium’.”

  3. Stefan Weinstock (referenced below, at pp. 398-9):

  4. “After the surrender [at Perusia, Octavian] slaughtered many senators and knights, but certainly not as many as 300, at the altar of divus Julius on 15th March 40 BC.  [Weinstock then  set out series of historical precedents that demonstrated, to his satisfaction,  that] the incident at Perusia was not isolated.”

  5. Jonathan Warner (referenced below, at pp. 8-9):

  6. “In a final assessment, the agreement of Suetonius and Dio, along with the confusion and bias of ... Appian, suggests that some form of human sacrifice took place at the fall of Perusia.  ... Given the likelihood that this extraordinary event happened, it has some important implications for our understanding of Roman culture and history.  The elements of human sacrifice found in Roman myths and rituals suggest, for example, that the practice was not completely alien.  Moreover, the ordeal and stress of civil war makes human sacrifice plausible as an act of vengeance and pietas [i.e. in recognition of the vengeance owed to Julius Caesar].  Octavian’s human sacrifice was not simply a barbaric act of impiety.  Rather, it speaks to the complexity of Roman religion, a system that, at times, could rationalise extremely violent acts.”

  7. Zsuzsanna Várhelyi, referenced below, p. 137) observed that:

  8. “Syme [as quoted above] thought that these were primarily judicial murders, which the anti-[Octavian] propaganda enlarged into a sacrificial scene.  While that judicial aspect was likely present as a possible interpretation of events, to my mind the parallel between these post-siege murders and the divine references on the sling bullets [see above] suggests that a religious interpretation of the conflict should also be considered as a context in which to read this horrible event.”

Whatever the truth, the allegation that Octavian had engaged in human sacrifice was certainly widely believed and long-remembered.  Thus, when Seneca the Younger wrote for the young Emperor Nero in ca. 50 AD, he observed that the characteristic clemency of  Octavian/ Augustus had developed:

  1. “ ... only after the sea at Actium had been stained with Roman blood [in 31 BC], only after both his own and his enemy’s fleets had been shattered off Sicily [in 36 BC], only after the arae Perusinae [altars of Perugia in 41 BC] and the proscriptions [of 43 BC]” (‘de Clementia’, 1:11; slightly adapted from the translation by Zsuzsanna Várhelyi, referenced below, p. 137).

Thus, even after a century or more, the horror of these allegations could be invoked in only two words: ‘arae Perusinae’.

[I refer to this allegation in my page on the Revived Etruscan Federation, in which I discuss the possible rededication of an altar at Volsinii to divus Julius in ca. 36 BC in very different circumstances.]


Read more:

D. Briquel, “Il Sacrificio dopo la Guerra di Perugia”, in

  1. G. Bonamenti (Ed.), “Augusta Perusia: Studi Storici e Archeologici sull' Epoca del Bellum Perusinum”, (2012) Perugia, pp. 39-64

J. Warner, “Human Sacrifice at Perusia”, (2012), Sunoikisis Research Symposium

Zs. Várhelyi, “Political Murder and Sacrifice: from Republic to Empire,” in:

  1. J.W. Knust and Zs. Várhelyi (Eds.), “Sacrifice in the Ancient Mediterranean: Images, Acts, Meanings”, (2011) Oxford, 125-41

E. Zuddas and M. Spadoni, “La Lemonia nella Valle Umbra”, in

  1. M. Silvestrini (Ed.), “Le Tribù Romane: Atti della XVIe Rencontre sur l’ Épigraphie (Bari 8-10 ottobre 2009”, (2010) Bari

V. Katz, “The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius” (2004) Princeton

L. Keppie, “Colonisation and Veteran Settlement in Italy, 47–14 BC”, (1983) Rome

S. Weinstock, “Divus Julius”, (1971) Oxford

R. Syme, “The Roman Revolution” (1939, latest edition 2002) Oxford

J. S. Reid, “Human Sacrifices at Rome and Other Notes on Roman Religion”, Journal of Roman Studies, 2 (1912) 34‑52


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