After defeating their opposition in two gigantic and chaotic military brawls at Philippi in October, c. 42 BCE, Octavian and Mark Antony dispersed to their respective spheres of influence in the Roman Empire. Octavian headed to Italy, where he began to seize large tracts of land, which he intended to bequeath to his loyal soldiers. This move, however, angered the landholders in Rome, and the region of Perusia (modern Perugia) erupted into open revolt against Octavian. Awkwardly enough, this Perusine War was instigated by Mark Antony’s family, including his wife, Fulvia, and his brother, Lucius.
Octavian quickly besieged the rebels of Perusia in late 41 or early 40 BCE. The Roman biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-130+ CE), recorded an odd tale about the siege. According to the story, Octavian was not confident about storming Perusia. To assay his reservations, he ordered that sacrifices be made and omens be observed for a sign of the gods’ will. After the sacrifices had been made and the diviners had interpreted the gods’ will, the omens were found to not be at all favorable to Octavian’s side. As a result, Octavian called for more sacrifices to be held, and decided not to launch an assault until the omens showed clear signs of support.
According to Octavian’s wishes, the besieging army gathered more sacrificial animals and prepared for another ceremony. Before the sacrifices could be completed, however, the rebels of Perusia launched a sortie against Octavian’s forces. The skirmish that ensued was not very damaging, but the rebels managed to steal all of Octavian’s sacrificial equipment and animals, including the remains of some previously sacrificed creatures. In the aftermath of the skirmish, Octavian was reportedly worried that his luck would be even worse than before. Yet, he was quickly cheered up by his diviners, who were curiously happy—the priests and practitioners of divination in Octavian’s camp victoriously explained that by stealing the sacrifices, the rebels had unknowingly assumed the burden of the bad omens on themselves. Whether or not this story of Suetonius has any truth to it, Octavian did indeed capture Perusia before the end of 40 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image of Roman Sacrifice from page 1063 of “A dictionary of Greek and Roman antiquities” (1849), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.
- The Roman History by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.