Every generation believes they live in politically turbulent times. But perhaps fewer people would say that if they studied Roman history between 43 BCE and 27 BCE. These were the years of the Second Triumvirate, established shortly after the slaying of Julius Caesar. The Second Triumvirate consisted of Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus, three Senators who formed an uneasy alliance to fill the power vacuum left by Caesar's passing. Thankfully, they did so in a completely peaceful way, and everyone was relaxed and nice about the whole thing, as Romans usually were.
Well, not exactly.
The Triumvirate was a three-man dictatorship, totally upending the democratic norms of ancient Rome and enacting a vicious series of purges called the Proscriptions. The Proscriptions wiped out hundreds of high-ranking officials. It wasn't just a fight between the elites either. The carnage and political paranoia rippled throughout Roman society, affecting everyone from poor farmers in the countryside to Senators, from generals to even the members of the Triumvirate themselves.
The reign of the Triumvirate was one of the most dangerous periods in Roman history. After an era of relative stability, Rome itself suddenly became an unpredictable police state, with soldiers on the roads, political purity tests, and a suspension of the democratic values that the Roman people cherished.
If it sounds turbulent, imagine what it'd be like to actually navigate it firsthand. Even if you were a lowly plebian minding your own business, your head could have been worth a hefty sum to the Freeman. If you consider yourself an activist and think you would have pointed out the tyrannical ambitions of Mark Antony, your chances of survival would have been even lower. Put yourself in the shoes of an everyday citizen and vote up how you would have bit the dust in the early Roman Empire.
It's a pain to be overshadowed by your more successful sibling - just ask Quintus Tullius Cicero. Quintus's older brother, Marcus Cicero, is one of the most famous orators and politicians in world history. His speeches were quoted all around Rome, helped shape policy, and have been taught in rhetoric classes since at least the Middle Ages.
Imagine then how frustrating it must have been for Quintus to learn he was sentenced not for anything he himself had done, but just because Mark Antony hated his brother. The elder Cicero had been critical of what he (correctly) saw as tyrannical overreach. In response, Mark Antony sentenced both Cicero brothers and Quintus's son to perish.
If you're a Quintus Cicero, even your own passing isn't about you.
The first round of Proscriptions was not accompanied by a public list, meaning soldiers were simply assigned targets and began butchering people. It was chaos in the streets of Rome, with many Senators believing they were next.
The first round was carried out by soldiers, but once the official lists were published, it became open season, with sizable rewards offered for the heads of the Proscribed. All citizens were required to open their houses for searches. As the historian Appian said: "Those who received fugitives, or concealed them, or refused to allow search [sic] to be made, were liable to the same penalties as the proscribed..."
Which brings us to you, the caretaker of a small Italian villa outside Rome. You hear there's some political chaos in the capital but never really pay attention to things like that. So when a Proscribed Senator who's fled Rome come to hide at your villa, you open your doors to him. But when soldiers come knocking on your door at night, you discover the size of your mistake.
Now, they're taking your head back to the Rome along with the Senator's.
You're a sailor, hauling goods from the Northern African provinces to Rome. Perhaps you're delivering textiles or a shipment of grain. You're the child of a sailor, and you've spent your whole life at sea. Roman politics don't interest you; you just want to make your living.
Unfortunately for you, General Sextus Pompey was on the list of the Proscribed, which means he and his powerful navy are now enemies of the state. They've taken to raiding shipping routes, disrupting commerce, and sinking ships like yours.
And there's a ship on the horizon flying his flag...
The period of the Second Triumvirate has another name in literary circles: the Ciceronian period. It's named after you, Marcus Cicero, the most persuasive Latin orator of any era. You dominated the Senate, and you saw a clear danger in the rise of Mark Antony, who you deemed a tyrant. In a series of 14 orations called the Philipics, you tried to push the Senate into taking the fight to him.
Your hopes were frustrated, however, by the formation of the Triumvirate. Knowing that your head was on the chopping block, you left Rome for your villa in southern Italy. When the official Proscription list was published, your name was on it, and so you made preparations to leave Rome and sail to Greece.
Too late, sadly. Mark Antony's soldiers catch up with you outside the port of Gaeta. The historian Appian later describes your end:
As [Cicero] leaned out of the litter and offered his neck unmoved, his head was cut off. Nor did this satisfy the senseless cruelty of the soldiers. They cut off his hands, also, for the offense of having written something against Antony.