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M. Vipsanius Agrippa (1)

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (64/63-12 BCE): Roman politician, friend of the emperor Augustus.

Bust of Agrippa
Bust of Agrippa
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa belonged to a provincial family. This does not mean that he was poor: the family was later raised to equestrian rank, the second tier of the Roman elite (after the senators), which means that they were pretty rich. Another indication is that Agrippa was educated in Rome, something beyond the means of most families. It was here, in Rome, that the young man met Gaius Octavius, a distant relative of Julius Caesar, the famous general who was, in those days, conquering Gaul.

Everybody knew that Caesar's ego would never allow him to play second fiddle to another senator, and it was equally well-known that another famous military leader, Pompey the Great, had similar ambitions. In January 49, more or less at moment when Agrippa and Octavius accepted the toga virilis and were recognized as grown-up men, civil war broke out, which culminated in the battle of Pharsalus (9 August 48) and the defeat of Pompey. From now on, Caesar was to rule the Roman world. Agrippa and Octavius must have witnessed his four-day triumph (more...), and Agrippa knew the dictator well enough to be able to convince him that he ought to pardon Agrippa's elder brother Lucius Vipsanius, who had fought against Caesar.

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar
In the autumn of 45, the two young men, who were eighteen or nineteen years old, went to the east, to join the legions in Macedonia that were being prepared for Caesar's campaign against the Parthian Empire. Suetonius tells that in Apollonia, Agrippa and Octavian visited an astrologer named Theogenes, who predicted them brilliant futures. Almost immediately, this prophecy seemed wrong, because they learned that Julius Caesar had been assassinated by senators who resented his extraordinary, unconstitutional power (more...). The young men had lost their protector.

The Parthian expedition was canceled and the two friends returned to Italy. (In their company was another friend, Gaius Maecenas, who was to become a famous patron of letters.) They had already learned that in his will, Caesar had left his fortune and name to Octavius, which gave him considerable political influence: he could from now on call himself Gaius Julius Caesar. Historians usually call him Octavianus or Octavian, but this is just a convention: the man himself of course used the magical name of the great general. The legionaries who had fought in Gaul and the civil war, immediately started to offer their services to Octavian.

Marc Antony
Marc Antony
The political situation was confused. Caesar's right-hand man Marc Antony was now in charge of the state. As consul, he had restored some normalcy to Roman political life. Several plans of the dictator had been annulled, the murderers had been pardoned and kicked upstairs to unimportant provinces, but all key appointments had gone to people devoted to Julius Caesar. And Caesar's fortune had been spent.

In April 44, Octavian arrived in Rome and demanded his share of the inheritance - but the money was no longer there. The young Caesar immediately asked support from conservative senators, who believed that they could use the inexperienced adolescent to remove Marc Antony and gain more powers for the Senate. At the same time, Octavian demanded that the assassins of Caesar would be punished. The young man's popularity forced Marc Antony to remove one of the assassins, Decimus Junius Brutus, from his governorship in Gallia Cisalpina.

When the latter refused, Antony marched to the north, and started to besiege him in Mutina (modern Modena). The Senate now decided to send an army to support those who were besieged, commanded by the consuls Aulus Hirtius and Gaius Vibius Pansa, and Octavian. The latter received the rank of propraetor, which ensured the loyalty of many soldiers. Fighting was incredibly bloody, the two consuls were killed, and in the end, Marc Antony was forced to flee to Gaul. We know that Gaius Maecenas took part in these fights and it is likely that Agrippa was there too.

Portrait of Augustus as pontifex maximus
Portrait of Augustus as pontifex maximus
When Decimus Brutus wanted to thank Octavian, he received as reply that he had wanted to defeat Antony, not help the murderers of Caesar. Now, Decimus understood that he had to flee as well, and Octavian marched on Rome with the legions he rightfully commanded, demanding the consulship for the year that had just started, 43. The Senate, which had once believed it could use the man, had no means to prevent this coup d'état. In the same year, Agrippa started a less spectacular political career: he obtained the tribuneship.