I came across the Sestius family when I read Cicero’s speech defending Publius Sestius on charges of political violence. In the middle of the speech, delivered in 56 BCE, Cicero points out that the teenage son of the defendant, the defendant’s daughter and even his aged father-in-law are there in court. Roman lawyers would use any trick they could – the defendant’s relatives were expected to turn up in court in their shabbiest clothes, the women weeping, the men with untrimmed hair and beards as a sign of their distress. But I felt for the teenager Lucius Sestius, as I read the few references to him in the speech. He was probably in his early teens, wearing the child’s toga still, and Cicero even pointed out that his voice was unbroken as he made Lucius read out a testimonial sent by some concerned supporters. And right at the end of the speech, Cicero tells the jury that young Lucius has tears in his eyes. Even to play his part in saving his father, how embarrassing must this have been? Or did the young Lucius enjoy the drama and play up? I spent twenty five years teaching teenage boys, so I went for embarrassment.
The next time the historical sources caught up with Lucius Sestius he was minting coins for Brutus and Cassius in Asia 43 BCE. It is an extraordinary leap, for between his father’s acquittal in 56 and these coins, Lucius had gone through the increasing political violence of the late 50s, the Civil War, the assassination of Julius Caesar. And he had ended up supporting the men who killed Caesar.
Now comes another big leap – Lucius survived the Battle of Philippi in 42 and then nearly twenty years later was appointed Consul, by the very man he had been fighting against, now the Emperor Augustus. I felt very curious about this turn-around, for while we all know of people who alter their political allegiances as they get older, Lucius had not changed. We know that he displayed portrait busts of Brutus and Cassius in his study, and the Emperor not only tolerated it but seemed impressed by it. Why then did Lucius agree to work for Augustus? The occurrence of a mysterious plot at around this time, together with the flooding of the Tiber made it appeal to the dramatic in me, and then there was an epidemic throughout Italy. Lucius did not have an easy time as Consul.
It was only as I was writing that Covid-19 reared its ugly head. It informed my writing but I wish it hadn’t.