In the previous entry I had the opportunity to analyze the institutional decay of the Roman Republic in the last century BC, and the emergence of a new order, the Principate. It was a convoluted period that saw the demise of one of the finest generations of Roman statesmen and public servants, and the end of the Free State.
Under the transition towards the new regime (31 BC-14 AD), Rome regained political stability, economic prosperity and expanded towards new territories. Peace brought security of life and property, and with that a generational shift took place. The new generations did not have any recollection of life under a Republican system; in exchange for political submission they gained a prosperous and reasonably quiet life. Nonetheless, there was a man whose allegiances and sentiments always stood with the Republic; a public servant who witnessed almost completely the transition from one system to the other. Although he could recognize the social and economic benefits of the new regime, he never forgave his own generation for renouncing freedom in favor of political blindness and autocratic rule. In the midst of a political context marked by the flattery and submission of a defeated nobility to the rule of Augustus, this man stood high among them. His accomplishments were not political or military; instead, his elevation to greatness resided in his unbending civic spirit, and his contribution to independent thought. As a promoter of culture and a critic thinker, he refused to give up his own libertas and showed to his peers that even in more autocratic times, submission could be fought by fomenting the arts, culture and erudition.
He never aimed to overthrow or sabotage the new regime; instead his behavior reflects the unique struggle of a man unwilling to betray his republican values. Through irreverence and scholar zeal, he carved his own civic space in which erudites and commoners alike could allow themselves breathing room to think and criticize beyond what was allowed in the political atmosphere of the Principate. This post has the purpose of honoring a man who, ideologically, probably was the last authentic champion of the Free State. At the same time, it serves the purpose to rehabilitate the memory of this forgotten hero of the Republic; his name Gaius Asinius Pollio.
I can trace back my interest in Pollio to the exceptional fictional stories written by Colleen McCullough in her Masters of Rome series. Among the varied cast of characters that appear in her literary work over the course of seven books, one name caught my attention. Though, just a minor character in them, Pollio showed an interesting mix of political neutrality and independence of mind that I did not notice in others. That left me wondering about the true nature of the character and how akin it was to the fictional representation presented by McCullough. Afterwards, while I read Ronald Syme’s, The Roman Revolution, I was surprised by how well Syme regarded Pollio, being the only one to elude any negative judgement on his actions or criteria during the transition from the Republic to the Principate.
Nonetheless, writing about Asinius Pollio is a challenge in itself due to the lack of primary and secondary sources. Most of the work written by him disappeared, and we know about his reputation through scholars of later periods. Likewise, it seems no modern scholar was interested enough to devote its time to the study of this public servant. The only author that dedicated her PHD dissertation to the life of Pollio was Elizabeth Denny Pierce, a Columbia University student who wrote in 1922, A Roman Man of Letters, Gaius Asinius Pollio. A small booklet in comparison to today’s dissertation standards, it is the only piece of academic work I have found that provides more detail about this Roman thinker. It is from Pierce and Syme that I have gathered most of the information to write the next paragraphs honoring this champion of civility and free thought.
Gaius Asinius Pollio was born into the Gens Asinii around the year 75 BC in a town called Teate (modern Chieti). His family was granted the Roman citizenship after the Social War (91-88 BC). His ancestors fought for Rome as allies during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) and also as enemies during the Social War. As such, Pollio was an outsider in Roman politics, lacking lineage or any important connections with the nobility that ruled the Republic. Little is known about his life from his birth to the year 54 BC, when a young Pollio became relevant as a prosecutor in Rome.
A public servant in a tumultuous period
In that year he brought charges against Marcus Porcius Cato without any success. He was young and inexperienced but this situation must have allowed him to become known among the different factions of the Senate. At the same time, by antagonizing Cato, he probably alienated the faction that soon would rally behind Pompeius, making enemies in that party early on.
Soon his republican sentiments were tested. As the political situation between Gaius Julius Caesar, stationed in Cisalpine Gaul, and the Senate deteriorated, Pollio found his loyalties at variance. During the next fifteen years he chose sides; one could dismiss his political allegiances as a proof that his republican values were a farce. His was a tough situation. How should a republican behave in the midst of an ongoing civil war? Pollio was young; by this time he had not held office yet, nor was he part of the Senate. He wanted to preserve the republican system of government; but he blamed the republican faction led by Cato, Bibulus and others, for their role provoking a civil war with Caesar. Even in this complicated context choosing neutrality would have been the equivalent to political suicide for a relative unknown man in Roman politics. It would have also meant to renounce any action to save the Republic; a disservice to the State. Therefore, he acted.
Sometime around the year 53 BC he chose Caesar, despite his reservations regarding the goals or values he defended. He could not have any place in Pompeius’ faction due to his actions against Cato in the year 54 BC. Soon enough he befriended Caesar and became part of his junior staff, perhaps serving as a legati.
At the outset of the Great Roman Civil War (49 BC-45 BC), he served under the propraetorian command of Caius Scribonius Curio in the campaigns in Sicily. Then, the expedition crossed to Africa to confront the Pompeian forces stationed there. The ensuing engagements concluded with a massive defeat for Curio and his death at the Battle of the Bagradas (49 BC). In this dire situation Pollio was able to gather the remaining forces of the army and saved them from utter destruction by transporting them back to Italy. He achieved this by relying on merchant ships and without the support of the Roman admiral assigned to the Caesarian campaign in Africa who, upon hearing about the outcome of the battle, fled the area.
He also fought with Caesar at the decisive battle of Pharsalus (48 BC), where Caesar’s legions crushed Pompeius’ forces. After this victory, and with the republican faction in disarray, Pollio returned to Rome and was elected as a tribune of the plebs in the year 47 BC, holding office for the first time. In the year 45 BC, under almost complete Caesarian control of the Free State, he was elected to the office of praetor. By 44 BC he was sent to Hispania Ulterior as a governor with propraetorian imperium. During that time Caesar was assassinated and, in the ensuing chaos, Pollio remained in his province for the subsequent year awaiting orders from the Senate.
So far the scant details of his campaigns in Africa and Spain offer little evidence to assess Pollio’s military expertise. It seems he was not a distinguished general but his actions in Africa showed courage, consideration and competence on the battlefield. From the evidence available we can assume he was a good and efficient military officer. Likewise, it appears that in the span of ten years, Pollio became a close friend of Caesar, serving him well.
Compromise to bring concord to the Republic
With the death of Caesar, new factions emerged. The defeated republican faction regrouped under the leadership of the Liberators. Meanwhile, Antonius, Lepidus and Octavius joined forces to form a new Caesarian party. Pollio remained neutral during the first months after the death of the dictator because he was effectively isolated from outer communications with Rome; any letter was intercepted by Lepidus who governed Hispania Citerior. After the passing of the Lex Titia of 43 BC to establish the Triumvirate, and the final demise of the Liberators at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, Pollio had to choose allegiances once more.
Even if by this time he was a seasoned politician and military officer, he could not oppose the tyrannical rule of the triumvirs by himself. Additionally, despite the abomination that the Lex Titia represented, it also meant a respite from the ongoing civil strife that had engulfed Rome in the last eight years. In the new political landscape he aligned himself with Marcus Antonius, an old colleague he met while serving Caesar. In any case, soon enough misunderstandings and tensions began to build up between the triumvirs, threatening the precarious peace achieved through the subversion of republican institutions. Pollio, trusting in concord to avoid the shedding of more Roman blood, played a pivotal role bringing the rulers of the Roman world to the negotiating table to vent their grievances through words and not arms.
In 40 BC they met at Brundisium, a port city, to confer. A negotiation team was quickly assembled to act as intermediaries in any agreement that could be brokered between the triumvirs. This task fell to the hands of three persons; Maecenas, an agent of Octavius, Asinius Pollio, on behalf of Marcus Antonius, and Marcus Cocceius Nerva, also on the side of the latter, and the great grandfather of the future emperor Nerva (AD 96-AD 98).
It is interesting to notice that in the composition of this team there were at least two members that belonged formally to Antonius’ faction, but were accepted by Lepidus and especially by Octavius. This speaks at least of a certain degree of impartiality and uncompromising honesty showed by both, that was welcomed in political negotiations. The outcome was peace through marriage alliances between the families of Octavius and Antonius, binding their destinies together. For Pollio it meant averting another civil war, reaffirming his republican convictions of settling matters politically, and seeking compromise to restore concord in the Roman world. His auspices facilitated this political agreement, and by doing so, he played his part for peace and for the preservation of the Republic.
That same year, he reached the pinnacle of Roman political success. He was elected consul with Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus as a colleague. They were elected in absentia and neither of them completed their terms, being replaced by suffect consuls. Pollio reached this magistracy at the age of 35, seven years before the law could have allowed him to stand for office. Nonetheless, these anomalies were manifestations of the decline of Roman institutions under the rule of the triumvirs.
In the year 39 BC, Asinius Pollio went to the Roman province of Dalmatia as governor with proconsular imperium. There he waged a successful war against a foreign enemy, the Parthini, an Illyrian tribe. This allowed him to return to Rome to celebrate his own triumph. With this last achievement he retired from political life in the year 37 BC, at the age of 39, devoting the rest of his long life to civil and intellectual pursuits.
This does not mean that he withdrew from public life. He retained his status as senator, participating in the meetings of that institution frequently. When civil war finally broke out nine years after the peace he had helped to broker, he refused Octavius’ request to join him in the Battle of Actium against Antonius. In the same way, he rejected taking part on Antonius’ side. The reasons were twofold: ties of friendship precluded him from waging war against his old friend and superior; but he also considered that he had served Antonius well in the past and was freed of any debt to him. Finally, having seen how both leaders disdained republican institutions by veering towards supreme power, and how not even peace was able to dissuade Romans from killing each other, he arrived to the conclusion that the Free State was definitely doomed. Having done everything he could politically to save the Republic, he decided not to take part in its dismemberment. He had no use for any party, he knew about them all.
Patron of the Arts
After withdrawing from political life, Pollio became an accomplished poet, historian and orator. He was probably one of the last great orators of his time, belonging to a selected group formed by Caesar, Cicero, Marcus Junius Brutus, Calvus and Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus. Syme even claims that during the Augustan period Pollio and Mesalla were reckoned as the greatest orators of the new age.
He also excelled as an historian. It is a shame that none of his works have survived. Nonetheless, we know about his contributions through other authors. He wrote his own Histories documenting the transition from the Republic to the Principate, and addressing the Civil War between Pompeius and Caesar from the point of view of a contemporary and a witness. As a historian he was well regarded among his colleagues as a fair and open minded person, not guided by partisanship. In his analyses of the conflict he was capable of putting aside his own feelings and emotions, and offer a balanced treatment of adversaries such as Pompeius, or even of bitter enemies such as Cato.
He was a relentless critic and always spoke up his mind to criticize the work of the great writers of his day; among them, Caesar, Cicero, Titus Livius (Livy) and Gaius Sallustius Crispus (Sallust). At some point he criticized the accuracy of Caesar’s Commentarii de Bellum Civile, refuting some of the facts and situations narrated by the author. His high esteem among the intellectual elite of Rome stemmed in part from his pursuit for veracity. Later scholars such as Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus (Plutarch AD 46- AD 120) and Appian (AD 95-AD 165), even drew on his works, relying on his statements over those of other contemporary historians and intellectuals. Elizabeth Denny Pierce saw in Pollio’s scholarly criticism of Caesar’s Commentaries the reflection of those essential qualities that any historian should harbor: accuracy and reverence for the truth.
He was also a prominent protector and patron of the Arts, supporting and sponsoring poets such as Publius Vergilius Maro (Virgil) and Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace). In fact, during the period of proscriptions and confiscations of properties promoted by the triumvirs, Virgil was on the verge of losing his farm when Pollio interceded on his behalf, saving him and forging an unbreakable bond of gratitude and friendship that would last until the poet’s last days. These displays of protection by Asinius Pollio were manifest among other artists and intellectuals of this time as happened with the Greek historian, Timagenes, who had a falling out with Augustus. By constituting a distinctive civic space and sheltering any scholar not necessarily aligned with the new regime, Pollio effectively upheld libertas, and the right to criticize and speak up within the boundaries of scholar rigor.
Among his other great achievements was the establishment of the institution of Recitationes in Rome. These were public readings by authors of their works before a select group of scholars, and later before the public. This was a way for writers to become known within the intellectual circles of Roman society. The original purpose was for an author to present its work and gather the impressions and criticisms of its peers in order to improve it. Afterwards, the Recitationes evolved into authentic examinations in which the assessment of the public could determine the success or failure of the work recited.
The last contribution of Pollio to the promotion and diffusion of knowledge among the people of Rome was the creation of the first public library. The Atrium Libertatis (rebuilt in 39 BC) was funded and equipped by him from his spoils of the Dalmatian campaign, boasting a collection of Greek and Latin works in its interior. Culture meant more to him than war and politics and this was evident throughout his long life. These two last examples are a remarkable proof of his commitment towards the education of Roman men and the spread of values such as tolerance, literacy and independent thought.
In regards to his relationship with Augustus some things can be discerned. They never became enemies nor was any animosity between them. Intellectually, they were opposed and diverged in their perception of politics and power. Despite having political differences, it seems that both shared similar literary tastes. They were not friends but colleagues, and Augustus respected Pollio’s intellectual standing. His could be an uncomfortable voice but one that did not portend active subversion or discord; only a desire to seek knowledge and the truth.
He lived long enough to witness the almost complete dismantling of the Republic he once knew, dying in the year 4 AD, at the age of 79. He sired two sons, being Gaius Asinius Gallus Saloninus (40 BC-33 AD) the most prominent one. Asinius Gallus married Vipsania Agrippina, daughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, and the first wife of the future emperor Tiberius. They had at least five sons. The father and, at least three of the sons, achieved consular rank in their lives.
Pollio could be accused of doing little to save the Republic considering all the years he lived. I disagree. To begin with, the end of the Free State was a process initiated decades ago. The finest and brightest men of the last century BC were not able to revert or control the different forces pushing towards chaos. Instead, in their wake, they left animosity and civil wars that tarnished the idea of a republican system of government. Many tried to confront the situation militarily and failed.
Pollio was never a military man, never aspired to become a warlord. The lack of important military and political distinctions in his life were due to his temperament and his inclination towards peace and the quiet life of a scholar. Recognizing that he was not a man of political or military action is that we can understand and appreciate his contribution to the Republic as an academic and a patron of the Arts.
He was a mediator, an ambassador and a public servant committed to the Republic. But above all he was a scholar. He chose sides during the Civil War. Not doing so would have meant political ostracism for a man of his modest backgrounds; inaction would have been a worst fate. He served leaders that did not share his values, but he served them faithfully. Asinius Pollio never felt blind devotion for anyone, nor allegiance for any party. He always spoke up his mind, refusing Augustus’ orders to join him against Antonius, and rejecting the latter’s request to serve him again. He sponsored and protected artists and intellectuals, and used his own financial resources to bring culture and knowledge to a mostly illiterate Rome. He chose to fight tyranny from another angle. His legacy was marked by the promotion of the Arts and the encouragement of free thought. The Republic died under his watch, but as long as he lived he kept republican values and libertas alive through those civic pockets created and protected by him. Pollio’s claim to greatness lies in his unbending civic spirit and his influence on the cultural development of his day. Considering his inclinations, limitations and historical context, he genuinely fought for the Free State. He witnessed the physical demise of that system, but the ideas he cherished and upheld lived on during millennia, shaping our modern democracies until this day. By achieving this, the honest and uncompromising Pollio became the last hero of the Roman Republic.
 Pierce, E. (1922). A Roman Man of Letters, Gaius Asinius Pollio, p.37.