|Bronze statue from the first century B.C.|
He and his friends were celebrating, making sacrifices in temples near the Forum, when he saw his name on the white boards there, and went white himself.
In the shifting civil unrest that prevailed since the assassination of Julius Caesar, former foes Mark Antony and Octavian (later the emperor Augustus) had met under truce on a small river island to pool their power.
They and Antony’s friend Lepidus had formed the Second Triumvirate, essentially a shared five-year dictatorship. They needed to raise money for armies to oppose the forces of Caesar’s assassins, but how?
The answer was proscription — declaring on white boards in the Forum the names of those citizens who were to be killed, with their lands and fortunes seized. The three of them haggled to create a list of political and personal enemies they wanted to see liquidated. Anyone who informed on one of the proscribed persons or helped to kill him got a cut of the loot.
The young Atilius’ only crime was having a fortune worth stealing. His friends and slaves immediately deserted him, and he went to his mother, who was too frightened to hide him and turned him away.
Alone, Atilius fled to the mountains. But the rich boy was eventually forced by hunger to return to the road, where a highwayman kidnapped and enslaved him. In chains, he managed to escape to a main road where he identified himself to passing centurions. Unwisely, as it turned out.
They killed Atilius and probably cut off his head. After all, why drag a whole body back to Rome for the reward when all you need is the head?
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love,” wrote Marcus Aurelius, the stoic philosopher who was also a Roman emperor. “Do every act of your life as if it were your last.”
The idea of taking nothing whatsoever for granted may seem unduly harsh to us now, but the Romans had their reasons.
Sources: “Augustus” by Anthony Everitt; “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius