Augustus’ own reason for attacking Anthony, and an 18th century forgery

In the old Loeb edition of Martial’s epigrams[1], translated by Walter C. A. Ker, there is a curious epigram in book XI, 20, which gives Augustus’ own stated motive for the war with Anthony.


CAESARIS Augusti lascivos, livide, versus sex lege, qui tristis verba Latina legis: “Quod futuit Glaphyran Antonius, hanc mihi poenani Fulvia constituit, se quoque uti futuam. Fulviam ego ut futuam? quod si me Manius oret pedicem, faciam? non puto, si sapiam. ‘Aut futue, aut pugnemus,’ ait. quid quod mihi vita carior est ipsa mentula? signa canant!” absolvis lepidos nimirum, Auguste, libellos, qui scis Romana simplicitate loqui.

READ six wanton verses of Caesar Augustus, you spiteful fellow, who with a sour face read words of Latin:

“Because Antony handles Glaphyra,(2) Fulvia has appointed this penalty for me, that I, too, should handle her. I to handle Fulvia? What if Manius were to implore me to treat him as a Ganymede? Am I to do it? I trow not, if I be wise. ‘Either handle me or let us fight,’ she says. And what that my person is dearer to me than my very life? Let the trumpets sound.”(3)

You justify for certain my sprightly little books, Augustus, who know how to speak with Roman bluntness.(4)

The footnotes are likewise interesting:

(2) A beautiful hetaera, whose charms procured her son Archelaus at the hands of Antony the kingdom of Cappadocia. (3) These lines are historically interesting as giving the explanation attributed to Octavius of the origin of the civil war between him and Antony, namely, pique on the part of Fulvia, Antony’s wife, at the rejection by Octavius of her advances. Montaigne (iii. 12) refers to them as showing for how small causes great emperors will go to war.

The scene between Fulvia and Octavius was depicted on a cameo by Arellius, probably the painter mentioned by Pliny, N.H. xxxv. 37, as having outraged his art by depicting prostitutes. Fulvia is represented as sitting nude upon a bed, and holding Octavius by the arm. He is in full armour, and is beckoning to two soldiers in the rear. The cameo has been reproduced in a rare book published at the Vatican Press in 1786, and entitled “Monumens de la vie privée des douze Césars: d’après une suite de pierre et médailles gravées sous leur règne.” (4) As to Augustus’s plain speech, cf. Suet. Aug. lxix.

I was rather excited when I read this!  So I went in search of this cameo.  But the reference to the cameo is missing from the latest edition, translated by D.R.S.Shackleton-Bailey, and for good reason.  For the note contains a considerable number of errors.[2]

The volume referred to was edited by Pierre d’Harcanville, and may be found online, in the 1782 edition, here, where it is the 14th item, starting on p.61.  The French translation of the epigram above prefers “kiss” for “handle”, and probably rightly.

Unfortunately it requires very little effort – in our blessed days of internet access – to discover that this material is more than dubious.  Nor was the volume produced at the “Vatican Press”.  It was, in fact, a specimen of 18th century pornography.

From Alastair J. L. Blanshard, Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity, Wiley (2010), p.66:

His [D’Harcanville’s] excursion into the production of pornography seems to have been occasioned by money difficulties around 1770. In Monuments de la vie privee des douze Cesars, d’Hancarville pretends to offer a catalog of etchings supposedly taken from antique engraved gemstones, medallions, and cameos that reflect well-known anecdotes about the lives of the various Roman emperors. In fact, the illustrations are pornographic fictions. The origins of these images do not lie in any real object, but the sexual anecdotes found in our biographical and historical sources. The biographer Suetonius is the main supplier of material, but the images also make allusions to stories found in the historians Tacitus (c. AD 56-C.118) and Cassius Dio (c. AD 164-post 249). The images begin with Julius Caesar and end with the emperor Domitian. Originally, there seem to have been 25 images, and this was later expanded to 50. …

Apparently the volume was very successful, because of the quality of the images.

The volume proclaims that it was printed at “Caprée” (Capri?), but 19th century book catalogues indicate “Nancy: Leclerc” as the real place of origin.  The French Wikipedia (caution!) contains some interesting statements about sources for his life, and references of various sorts, all of which suggests that D’Harcanville was what used to be termed a “Bohemian” individual.  As with so many such, it seems unlikely that his irregular life made him anything but poor and miserable.

  1. [1]1920 edition, volume 2, p.252-3.
  2. [2]Shackleton-Bailey adds that the epigram refers, not to Octavian and Mark Anthony, but to the Perusine war of 41-40 B.C. with Anthony’s brother Lucius, backed by Fulvia; and that the epigram probably comes from a collection of epigrams of Augustus, not necessarily published by himself.

3 thoughts on “Augustus’ own reason for attacking Anthony, and an 18th century forgery

  1. Number 14 is reproduced at page 60, not 61. It’s safe-ish to link as it is not particularly erotic (or good).

    Number 15 on the other hand – oh my. And it’s interesting how he got that past the censors in pre-Revolutionary France. This is what decadence looks like . . .

  2. I certainly don’t think the epigram is as early as the Perusine War. It reads to me as though it was written during the propaganda war between Octavian and Antony immediately before the final break and the Actium campaign. To me, this is part of Antony’s propaganda, not Octavian’s, as its theme, however obliquely expressed, is Antony’s virility and Octavian’s pusillanimity and effeminacy. It is vaguely reminiscent of the famous letter of Antony to Octavian (quoted, I think, by Suetonius), in which he deflects Octavian’s criticism of his affair with Cleopatra by pointing out that Octavian was doubtless working his way through half the upper-class prostitutes of Rome, or if he wasn’t, he should have been. Ribald propaganda of this kind is far more appropriate to Antony, who gloried in his louche reputation, than it is to Octavian, that earnest defender of Victorian values.

    I can’t help thinking that Antony’s lost pamphlet, De sua ebrietate (On His Own Drunkenness), ostensibly a defence against charges laid by his enemies, was in reality a tongue-in-cheek essay crammed with amusing anecdotes, and designed to show what a jovial fellow Antony was.

  3. Interesting – thank you! That would certainly make sense of it.

    I suppose De sua ebrietate had little chance of transmission through the Rome of Augustus.

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