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The Roman Revolution: The End of Republican Rome

Tiberius Gracchus

We begin in the year 133 BC, with Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus.

Tiberius descended from the aristocracy (on his mother's side), of a fine and ancient house - very respectable. He had had a successful military career and was a war hero. His political goals were nothing more than to introduce certain reforms in order to take care of veteran soldiers and improve the quality of active soldiers.

All of this hardly sounds like the program of a revolutionary, and he was not one. Tiberius Gracchus was an experienced commander who saw a real need for serious reform. What marks him apart from others is the lengths to which he was prepared to go to achieve his reform, and the lengths to which his opponents were prepared to go to stop him.

The Issue
To understand Tiberius' reform proposal, we have to back up and understand the tie between farming, citizenship, the military, and Rome's empire.

The backbone of the Roman army was the citizen-soldier of some means, for the soldier had to provide his own weapons and armor. In practical terms this meant that the Roman army consisted of farmers, while the urban poor avoided military service. By the second century, citizenship had been extended somewhat by including a few cities that had earned Rome's special favor, plus various Roman colonies founded by veterans.

Military service was a heavy burden for a Roman man, for soldiers had to serve in 20 campaigns before they could retire. Because of the many wars between 250 and 150, a young farmer might find himself in military service and not return until he was aged. In the meantime, his farm fell into debt. The returned veteran might have no head for farming, nor inclination. Increasingly, these men drifted to Rome where they joined the legions of the unemployed.

The result was that small farms tended to fail, and they were often bought up by wealthy Romans who created larger and larger estates. These estates were worked by slaves, who were plentiful and cheap because of Rome's many conquests. These wide estates (Latin = latifundia) were commercial ventures, concentrating on vines, orchards and livestock. There was no need to worry about grain supply, for Sicily and North Africa provided that.

All of this could be, and was, ignored so long as the Roman army was successful. But the Third Punic War was rather an embarassment, with the early part of the war not having gone at all well. In other conflicts, too, Roman armies seemed to have unwonted difficulties.

And then, in 146, both the Fourth Macedonian and the Third Punic wars ended together. Large numbers of men were mustered out, with nowhere to go. The problem could no longer be ignored. But Tiberius Gracchus had a solution.

The Land Act

His solution was to give away huge tracts of land to Roman veterans. The veterans would settle the land and begin to farm it, in the traditional Roman manner. They would have families and raise a new generation of Romans. Thus, with a single reform, Tiberius proposed to redress both the quality of the army and the neglect of the many veterans.

The land to be given away was owned by the state in theory, but in fact much of it was in the hands of the aristocracy who had huge latifundia there (most of this land was in Italy, some in North Africa). In order to give the land to the veterans, the aristocrats would have to be compensated.

There was no question of not compensating them, for it was the Senate that had to pass the bill and it was the Senators who had the estates. But, in any case, it could hardly be more than a proposal, for where could that much cash be found?

Then, in 133 BC, something extraordinary happened. King Attalus III of Pergumum died and left his entire kingdom to the Senate and people of Rome. Attalus had no natural heirs and feared his kingdom would fall into civil war or be invaded by enemies upon his death. His was a wealthy, peaceful kingdom and rather than risk his lovely city, he delivered it into the arms of Rome for safe keeping.

Did I mention that Attalus was rich? The entire royal treasury became available, and just like that, Tiberius had his financing. His land reform could be implemented with no burden on Roman finances.

The Initial Contest

Tiberius tried to work through the Senate to enact his reforms, but he was opposed at every step. Frustrated there, he ran for tribune of the people and was elected for 133. A patrician could serve as tribune, though this was not common. He was not well-liked for his action.

Senate now persuaded the other tribune to veto the bill. This was a traditional way in which the Senate exercised influence in the other assembly. Any tribune could veto a bill simply by walking to the speaker's podium and announcing veto, which is Latin for "I deny."

When the moment came, and it was obvious the Land Act would pass, the other tribune went to the podium, whereupon some of Tiberius' men grabbed him and carried him out of the assembly. The veto had no effect unless it was delivered personally by the tribune, so he shouted in vain. The bill passed.

This is the traditional beginning of the Roman Revolution because it marks the use of violence for political ends. This was certainly not the first instance, but it was dramatic and public and there is a thread between this event and Caesar that is essentially unbroken.

A Second Term

The Senate was furious at being circumvented. Tiberius had broken a fundamental rule. If the Senate could no longer be assured of influence in the Tribunician Assembly, then it felt justified in itself resorting to more extreme measures, further escalating political violence.

Once the Land Act was passed, it had to be funded and implemented and administered, all of which functions were securely in the hands of the senators. Tiberius knew this. He knew that passing the reform was only the first step and he was convinced that only he could see it into reality.

So he decided to stand for tribune for a second term. This was unprecedented and alarmed the senators, who now claimed that Tiberius wanted to be a demagogue. Tiberius ignored the warning signs and went ahead with his plans.

First Blood

A committee was assembled to consider the constitutionality of Tiberius' request. As it met, the senators were stirring themselves up over in the Senate. A band of Tiberius' followers were in the Forum, in great enough numbers to alarm the good senators. They armed themselves and marched over to the Forum . . . to save the State, they later claimed.

Tiberius and 300 of his supporters were killed by the senators. The threat was ended.

Tiberius' Land Act was law, but as he had feared, it was essentially ignored. The senators congratulated themselves on having defended the Republic against a fearful peril and set about business as usual.

Gaius Gracchus

But the family of the Gracchi was not done yet. Gaius Gracchus was younger brother to Tiberius. He was an even better public speaker than his brother, and his political vision was much wider. He wanted to implement the Land Act finally and successfully, but he wanted other social reforms as well. It was his social programs that made him popular with the common people of Rome. And as the city continued to be flooded with immigrants from the countryside, this was a considerable political force indeed.

Gaius became tribune in 123 and again in 122. It is a mark of how volatile were the times that the question of constitutionality never even came up. Gaius was too popular with the mob.

A New Issue

As tribine, Gaius reaffirmed Tiberius' Land Act and saw to it that it was finally implemented. It was also Gaius who first instituted bread rations for the Roman poor. His reforms increased his fame and made the Senate his bitter enemy.

But he went too far when he proposed citizenship for the Italian allies. Like his elder brother, Gaius had a political vision and a strong sense of justice. He heard the allies complaint that they all had to serve in the Roman armies, but most had no voice in the Assemblies or in the Senate. So he introduced a bill in 122 for their partial enfranchisement.

The Senate tried to woo the mob by outbidding Gaius in its social legislation. Gaius' popularity began to slip. Roman voters didn't want to enfranchise the Italians either, because it would water down their own votes. Moreover, even Gaius' marvelous oratory began to wear thin.

Another tribune, Drusus, a pawn of the Senate, defeated his bill.

Death of Gaius Gracchus

Trouble broke out over a chance incident. By this time, many leaders in Rome had not only their personal followers, which we might call a bodyguard or a gang, but also secondary leaders who had their own gangs as well. These went about the streets of Rome armed and of course there were skirmishes and beatings and even murders.

On one occasion, a group of Gaius' followers met up with a servant of one of the consuls. Words were exchanged, and then blows, and the consul's servant ended up dead. This provided the excuse the Senate needed to move against Gaius, whose popularity was eroding fast.

The Senate issued an emergency decree, the senatus consultum ultimum. This suspended due process and yielded power to the consuls, allowing them to bring the army into the city. It said, in effect, that the Senate would support any actions taken by the consuls for the duration of the decree.

The Gracchan partisans realized that their number was up and they took a desperate action: they occupied the Aventine Hill and fortified it. The army, however, besieged them and Gaius and followers were overwhelmed and killed in 122.

Significance of the Gracchi

The Gracchi are tragic figures: genuine reformers who made fatal mistakes in political judgment. Together they mark the introduction of violence into Roman politics and the circumvention of the constitution, trends that will become more and more extreme in the next century.

They also raised the spectre of class warfare -- populares against optimates, a spectre that had not threatened Rome since the end of the Struggle of the Orders. The populares were those who advocated radical reform, and the optimates were those who opposed it, or who preferred to go slowly. In general, the wealthy and the Senate were in the optimate camp, while the common people supported the populares. What was most insidious was that the people of Rome could be bribed or bullied into voting for either at whim.

Finally, the crisis with the Gracchus brothers revealed the weakness of the patriciate and of the constitution. The Senate could be circumvented; not without price, but it appeared that there were those willing to pay the price. What was circumvented once would later be trampled repeatedly.

Gaius Marius

Marius is the next figure in the story of the fall of the Republic. In contrast to the Gracchus brothers, Marius was a self-made man with no aristocratic background. He came from humble origins and made a spectacular career for himself through the Roman army.

In 112, Rome went to war with the kingdom of Numidia, which bordered the Roman province of Africa (what had once been Carthage). Despite some early defeats, its king Jugurtha was able to hold out for quite a long time (the war lasted from 112 to 104). One consul after another took armies into Africa only to be outmaneuvered in the desert and to come up empty-handed.

Critics blamed the system. The Roman army was commanded by the aristocracy, with posts granted on the basis of family relations and bribes rather than ability. In truth, this was the same system that had beaten Hannibal, but these armies weren't winning. Jugurtha was little more than a barbarian king, the critics argued, and Rome should be able to conquer him in a single campaign. The only reasonable explanation was incompetence and corruption in the Senate.

In this setting, Gaius Marius ran for consul. He had won some victories in Africa under Metellus, but he claimed that only if he were made consul could he bring Jugurtha to ground and end the war. The campaign worked, and he was elected consul for 108.

Marius raised a new army, captured Jugurtha and delivered him to Rome for execution. One of Marius' trusted commanders in the war was Lucius Cornelius Sulla, of whom more later.

No sooner had Marius wrapped up matters in Africa than disaster struck in Gaul. At Arausio, in southern France, an entire consular army was wiped out by the Cimbri and Teutones, Germanic tribes from northern Germany. After the loss at Arausio in 105, there was suddenly no army between Rome and the barbarians, conjuring up memories of the invasion and sack of Rome by the Gauls in 391.

The plea went out immediately to Marius to save Rome. He again raised an army, being elected consul again (he was in fact elected consul five times in a row, which was unprecedented in Roman history), and again Marius came to the rescue. At Aquae Sextiae in 102, and at Vercellae the next year, Marius won successive victories that were so decisive that the Gauls not only ceased to be a threat to Rome, they ceased to be a threat to anyone.

At these triumphs, as in Africa, Marius' right-hand man was Cornelius Sulla. In fact, Sulla himself was beginning to gain his own following.

But the man of the hour was Gaius Marius, the defender of Rome, its leading citizen. He had won his victories partly on his own skill and partly on the strength of his reforms of the army. But a faction in the Senate despised him. He was, after all, a new man and not truly one of them. He had won his victories at their expense, and his influence and popularity were to the detriment of their own political ambitions.

Marius at his Height

In order for Marius to finance his campaigns and to carry out his reforms, he had to have legislation passed, for nothing of significance was done in Rome without the Senate. Marius was the general, however, and had to be with the troops.

Marius needed a representative in Rome, an advocate who could tend to the political side of Marius' career. This advocate was Saturninus - unscrupulous and brilliant, a rabble rouser of the first order. Himself ruthless, his only aim was to support the cause of Marius by whatever means. He used gangs and mob violence to see through Marius' measures.

Marius was never very good at politics, so he needed Saturninus. But he did not much like him. Eventually, Saturninus acquired his own ambitions. He went too far and Marius was forced to return and crush him in 99. At this time, Marius' army was in Rome; he could have used it to get anything he wanted. No one dared stand against him. He could have brought the Republic down and established himself as a tyrant.

Instead, he went to the East, where yet another war was offering. That Marius did not move against the Senate says much about his nature. He was no revolutionary. In truth, Gaius Marius wanted most the one thing he would never have: he wanted acceptance. He wanted to be part of the ruling class. But the path he took in fact dreadfully undermined the ruling class and the very balance of power within Roman politics.

Conflict with Sulla

Italian Wars (91-87) The Senate still adamantly refused to enfranchise the Italians allies, fearing their influence on politics. In the late 90s, the Italian cities organized, and rebellion broke out in 91.

Rome suffered some early losses and the Senate turned to L. Cornelius Sulla, Marius' right-hand man, to rescue the situation. Sulla raised a Marian-style army and by 87 had crushed the last of the rebels. These events now brought Sulla into political prominence.

Civil War In gratitude for his service to the state, the Senate gave Sulla command of the war against Mithradates, an eastern king. This angered Marius, who felt he should receive the honor and the opportunity, and he was able to get the Senate to change its orders.

Sulla refused to disband his troops, but marched on Rome. He passed a series of reforms to protect his position, and had the Senate outlaw Marius. He then went East to fight Mithradates.

Marius now marched on Rome and occupied the city with his army. He undertook bloody reprisals and a systematic purge of his enemies. He also confiscated the property of his enemies and handed them out again to those who served him, especially to his veterans.

Only Marius' death in 87 brought the proscriptions to an end. His ally, Cinna, ended the bloodbath. Cinna was in control of Rome until his own death in 84.

L. Cornelius Sulla

Sulla refused to cooperate or to compromise with the Senatorial forces. He made peace with Mithradates in 85, freeing him to pursue his political ambitions. It also freed the Senate to move against him.

The Senate outlawed him in 83, a step that certainly meant civil war. If he submitted to the law, his enemies would at the least exile him if not actually have him executed. This, for Cornelius Sulla, was not an option. It was time to fight or die.

He returned, with his army, to Italy. The Senate raised an army of 100,000, leavened by Marius' veterans. But it was commanded by Senators and they lacked skill and Sulla was a talented field commander.

Sulla landed unopposed and marched across Italy gaining easy victories. The real test came under the very walls of Rome. The Senatorial army met Sulla at the Colline Gate in 82 BC and Sulla won a complete victory.

His cruelty and his calculation can both be seen in his actions here. Once the Senatorial army surrendered, Sulla ordered that all the Marian veterans be killed on the spot. He knew these veterans were the core of any future resistance, and the most efficient way to deal with them was to execute them.

Sulla now stood in something of the position that Marius had in 99. He was at the gates of Rome with an army and no one to oppose him. His actions, however, were quite different.

The Temporary Monarchy of Sulla

Sulla, with soldiers in tow, called the Senate into session. There, he had his cronies declare that the Republic was threatened (as indeed it was), and the Senate proceeded to elect Sulla dictator.

After the six-month period, Sulla called the Senate back into session, his cronies again declared a national emergency, and Sulla was duly elected dictator again. The next time, he was elected dictator for life. Although this was not part of the Roman constitution, since the Senate passed the decree, all was legal.

What we have here is a blatant undermining of the system under the cover of legality. Everyone understood what opposing Sulla would mean. The use of political violence that we saw on a modest scale in 133 had now become open warfare for political ends. And, at every step, those doing violence to the system were claiming that they were defending it. Even Sulla.

But Sulla raised the ante even further with his extensive use of political murder. When he entered Rome in 82, he made up lists of his enemies. He posted those lists so everyone knew who was marked, and he gave rewards to anyone who would betray them. Those proscribed on the lists were brought to trial, but the trial was a mere sham. They were then either executed or exiled (if they did not first commit suicide or flee) and their estates were confiscated.

The technique was horrifyingly effective. Sulla not only published his proscription lists, he changed them from time to time, so that a man might find himself in danger and then suddenly out of danger. He went on editing his lists for over a year, frightening people to no end. Even those who were not proscribed tread lightly lest they find their name on Sulla's lists one day.

The proscription lists served another function. After killing thousands in this way, and seizing their estates, Sulla was able to confiscate land and wealth and offices for about 120,000 of his soldiers. This was not generosity on his part: his soldiers were mostly landless men and he had to pay them or face unrest and rebellion.

Sulla forced the Senate to make him dictator in 82. Although the office was supposed to last for only six months, he became dictator for life.

Despite this extraordinary appropriation of power, Sulla showed regard for Republican forms, keeping carefully within the law with the exception of himself. He instituted sweeping reforms -- of the Senate, finances, the army, and the provinces -- all carried through in proper form, though none were left to defy him.

Once he had implemented all the reforms he thought necessary, the dictator resigned in 79 and retired to his estates. He returned control of Rome to the Senate and refused to be drawn back into politics. He died the following year.

Significance of Sulla

As important as Africanus or Caesar in the history of the Republic, Sulla was a touchstone both for the popular and the optimate party. His reforms could have worked, but the Senate was unequal to thetask. On the other hand, his reforms left inadequate protection against another like himself should the Senate fail in its leadership.

For all his radicalism, Sulla still sought to preserve the Republic, not to destroy it. He saw the need for radical change and was convinced that the Senate would never effect it, so he used whatever means necessary to adminster the medicine he felt Rome needed.

Nevertheless, in seeking to preserve the Republic, Sulla did indeed help to destroy it. His use of the army for political ends set a precedent that would be revisited by Julius Caesar. Sulla had revealed that the Senate was ulimately powerless in the face of the army, and from that moment the Republic was truly doomed.

Marcus Crassus

Marcus Crassus was one of the wealthiest men in Rome. A member of the equestrian order, he had made a fortune in finance and investing. He longed, however, for military glory. He was a competent commander with political ambitions, and any ambitious Roman could climb to the top only after having won some signal victory on the battlefield.

In the late 70s, Crassus got his opportunity. In the year 73, a Greek slave in Sicily, Spartacus, led a slave rebellion. The local garrisons proved unable to quell the revolt, which quickly spread throughout Sicily and southern Italy. By 72 there was real fear in Rome of a general slave rebellion seizing all Italy.

This slave rebellion was yet another after-effect of the acquisition of empire. In the past century and a half, slaves had poured into Italy as the result of conquest. By Crassus' time, they were truly numerous and a general rebellion stood a real chance of success.

Spartacus was able to cross the straits and land in southern Italy, where he garnered even more support and his army soon numbered in the thousands. Some of their commanders were runaway gladiators, who were skilled in combat and who trained the others.

But Spartacus was doomed from the start. He failed to win the resounding victories he needed and the rebellion began to stall. It was here that Crassus entered. He was in the right place at the right time to deliver a crushing blow to Spartacus, and it was Crassus who put the revolt to rout.

Crassus, by 71, was the military hero he longed to be. He was hailed as the savior of Rome. He had an army of veterans to call upon. And he was ready for big-time political games.


Gnaeus Pompeius was also a hero in the 70s. He was a much better general than Crassus; in fact, if Pompey had not been overshadowed by Caesar, he would have been much admired as a commander. He had defended the Senate against a rebellion by Lepidus in 77 and against Sertorius in 72. Both these men were somewhat in the mold of Sulla or Marius -- powerful generals who ran afoul of the Senate and who resorted to rebellion.

So Pompey was twice over the savior of Rome. It is a measure of the overheated nature of politics at this time that there were so many saviors of Rome to be found, and so many rebellions. The Senate was nominally at the helm, but in fact Rome was prey to every successful general who became disgruntled.

In 72, Pompey returned to Italy -- with his army. He tactfully parked it some distance from Rome, but he quite pointedly put set the winter camp within an easy march of the city. He then went to the Senate and expressed his desire to run for consul. Pompey was too young to run for consul and the Senate was disinclined to humor him. The year was 71 and Crassus was returning (with his army) from the Spartacus revolt. The two men met, agreed to join their interests, and the Senate found itself faced with two armies.

Whereupon, Pompey was allowed to stand for consul. Not suprisingly, he won.

G. Julius Caesar

The third character in the final act was Gaius Julius Caesar.

He did not hesitate to use gangs to influence voting in the assemblies; Caesar was hardly the first to do this, but as with everything else in his life, he practiced it in a scale much larger than his contemporaries. He did manage to further his reputation by associating himself with the prosecution of the Catilinarian Conspiracy.

As a young man, Caesar had far more ambition than resources. He spent enormous amounts of money buying influence, including giving public games as aedile that eclipsed anything that had gone before. He was immensely popular, but he also found that he was broke. As he entered his military career (the next step after engaging in local politics), he found that he was not only broke but deeply in debt.

He was given command of the forces in Gaul. He went to Gaul knowing he must do something spectacular or face ruin.

Caesar in Gaul

Gaul made Caesar, and he knew it. Over the course of ten years, Caesar won several brilliant victories and suffered a few chastening defeats. He crossed the Rhine River in 56, the first to bring Roman armies into Germany. He invaded Britain in 55, and quelled a major Gallic rebellion in 53-51. After the revolt, he organized and pacified Gaul, exercising full political and military control there.

Gaul brought Caesar mountains of gold. The barbarians were rich in precious metals and jewels, and he plundered them willingly. The plunder catapulted Caesar into the uppermost ranks of the wealthy. He rewarded his soldiers handsomely, bribed Senators right and left, and essentially purchased for himself a political career.

Gaul also gave Caesar a fiercely loyal army. He was an outstanding commander, creating in his men a devotion that outlived Caesar himself. He cared for them, watched out for their interests, rewarded them well, and gave them a long string of victories.

By the end of the Gallic rebellion in 51, Caesar had great wealth and the best army in Rome. He was in a position to dare anything, and he dared a great deal.

The First Triumvirate

Pompey and Crassus did not get along with each other very well. By 57, their differences had boiled to the point that Rome was again on the brink of civil war. Both men had not only their armies, but had factions within the city that were loyal to them. Cicero, leader of the senatorial faction, allied himself with Pompey. He flattered Pompey with the prospect of acting as the protector of the Republic.

But Crassus was determined to be granted certain prizes and favors, and Pompey was determined to oppose him. Both men were in Italy in 57, with their armies.

At this point, Julius Caesar intervened. He offered his services as a neutral negotiator, and the three men met to work out a settlement.

The agreement worked out was quite extraordinary. Caesar persuaded the other two to combine their power and influence with his own (remember, he was enjoying great success in Gaul), and the three of them would dictate terms to the Senate.

So the three men (Latin=triumviri) forced the Senate to obey them. Crassus got command of an army and the province of Syria. He wanted this because the Parthian Empire was threatening Rome's eastern provinces and this would be his opportunity to win military glory (which Caesar and Pompey had won already).

Pompey, who was a successful general but who dearly wished to be a great statesman, got the province of Spain but received special permission to remain in Italy. Proconsuls were always required to go to their province, so this permission required special legislation from the Senate.

Caesar got Gaul for another five years. He knew that Gaul would provide him the resources he would need. And he knew that he was not yet in a position to enter directly into the political fray in Rome. Besides, he was as yet very much the junior member of the Triumvirate.

The 50s mark the effective end of the Republic, if not its official end. Political anarchy reigned in Rome at the hands of the triumvirs. Even as partners, their factions quarreled, and of course the Senatorial faction was at odds with all of them. All sides did not hesitate to use violence, with the result that there was more or less open gang warfare. The city was filled to overflowing with the unemployed, who found ample work by joining the gangs.

Cicero worked with Pompey once more, naming him Rector of the Republic, a grand-sounding title, but an empty one. In truth, Pompey was an excellent general and a poor politician. He was too easily swayed by others and too anxious to be accepted by the old guard of the Senate. In the end, he was little more than their pawn.

Crassus, on the other hand, was an outstanding financier, a reasonably good politician, and a poor general. He went to Syria, ordered affairs there, and assembled his army. Then, in 53, he pursued a Parthian army into the Syrian desert where he found himself trapped without water. After days of misery, the Parthians attacked and cut to pieces two full Roman legions. Crassus himself was killed.


Caesar's enemies, especially Cicero, decided that the hero must be brought to heel before he became too strong. They were able to bring treason charges against him in the year 50. The charges were not only false, everyone knew them to be false. But everyone also understood that there would be a conviction. Pompey, the champion of the Senate and acting on its behalf, ordered Caesar to return to Rome to stand trial. This was tantamount to a declaration of war. Caesar now had to decide whether to return to Rome and risk almost certain condemnation, or to defy the Senate and risk almost certain civil war.

He brought his army into Cisalpine Gaul -- what is today northern Italy. This was part of his province, but it was its southernmost border. Among Sulla's reforms was a law that prohibited a proconsul from bringing his armies beyond the limits of his province, a law designed by Sulla to prevent another Sulla.

The southernmost edge of Gaul was the little river called the Rubicon. Caesar brought his soldiers here in the winter and desperately tried to negotiate a last-minute compromise. By January, time was running out. When the messengers returned with the final refusal of Pompey to negotiate, Caesar retired to his tent.

He thought for an hour or so. He spoke with his officers. Then he gave the orders to cross the Rubicon, January 10 of 49. The moment his soldiers set foot on the other side, Caesar was automatically an outlaw and his only recourse was to war.

Civil War

In two months, Caesar had chased his enemies from Italy. This campaign confirmed that Julius Caesar was a general of extraordinary ability. True, the Senatorial forces were ill-prepared, and Pompey soon realized he would have to abandon Italy and so did not put up a concerted defense. But the speed of Caesar's advance caught everyone by surprise. His army was able to move as fast as 100 miles in a single day, and even his normal rate of march was much faster than his enemies could manage. Moreover, he could maintain the speed and still keep his army well-supplied.

Pompey crossed the Adriatic Sea, leaving Rome to Caesar, who found a city largely empty of Senators. Little daunted, he pursued Pompey into winter quarters in Illyria, to Dyrrhachium. There he hoped to trap the great general, but for once Caesar was thwarted. Pompey was able not only to defend himself but to escape the following spring (48). Caesar pursued Pompey into Greece, catching up with him at Pharsalus.

Pharsalus, and Egypt

Pompey had 40,000 men, Caesar only 22,000, but Caesar's men were seasoned veterans and much of Pompey's forces were little more than the home guard. On the other hand, Caesar had to be the one to attack and Pompey was on good ground. Nevertheless, the many senators in Pompey's camp pressed him to be the one to attack first, and in the end he did so, against his better judgment.

Despite the odds, Caesar won the battle. Quite a number of senators fell at Pharsalus, and Pompey himself fled to Egypt. Caesar quickly ordered matters in Greece and pursued Pompey. When the Egyptians saw Caesar coming after their unwelcome guest, they discreetly murdered Pompey.

Thus ended the first Triumvirate. Crassus was dead. Pompey was dead. Only Caesar remained. But he was in Egypt. A number of the provinces were either in rebellion or were threatened, most notably Syria and Asia, Africa, and Spain. Caesar might be the only one left standing, but he still had far to go before he could claim to be master of Rome.

Caesar stayed in Alexandria and was soon besieged in the palace by the Alexandrines, who hated the occupying force. At one point, the Egyptian pharoah had to come to his rescue.

That pharoah was a 17 year-old young woman named Cleopatra. She was a descendant not only of the pharoahs, but also of the Ptolemies, so she was both Greek and Macedonian. Caesar was smitten with her and the two spent much time together, including a four-month cruise up the Nile.

Conquests and Triumphs

Victorious at Pharsalus in 48, Caesar spent the next three years putting down rebellions and invasions. While he was away at war, his friend Marc Antony was seeing to the business of governing the Senate and people in the city itself.

Caesar left Egypt in 47 and marched north to Syria and Asia Minor, where a number of kings had taken advantage of the civil war to break their treaties with Rome. In a memorable series of battles over the course of five days, Julius Caesar defeated one army after another and quashed every rebel.

In 46, he was in Africa, dealing with another ambitious general who sought to test his strength against Caesar. Having dealt with that, Caesar went to Spain in 45 and defeated the last of the Roman resistance. He then returned to Rome, the undisputed master of the empire.

He celebrated an extraordinary triple triumph for his victories. In the triumph for his victory in Asia, a placard was carried before him that read "veni, vidi, vici": I came, I saw, I conquered. That, to me, captures Julius Caesar best -- brilliant generalship combined with brilliant politicking, all in the context of deeds played out on a stage grander than anything that had gone before.


Caesar was back in Rome, fresh from military victory, the darling of the mob, and no viable political opposition. What would he do next? All Romans knew what Marius had done in this position, and what Sulla had done. Caesar was, if anything, held a stronger hand than either of those two.

The first, most remarkable thing was what he did not do. Upon his return there were no reprisals, no proscription lists, no bloodbath. Caesar asked only that his enemies agree to oppose him no longer. The few who refused he did indeed prosecute, but to any who would simply agree not to be his enemy, he left them in peace. He even pardoned Cicero, his most ardent enemy.

Such clemency was unheard of, and it went far toward ending the rancor that accompanies civil war. He gave his veterans a generous settlement, founding many colonies, so that the army was not a source of unrest.

He revamped the administration of Rome itself, for corruption in the Senate had nearly ruined it. With his wealth, Caesar began a number of public works, thereby giving work to the unemployed and an alternative to the political gangs.

He won the favor of the provinces by reducing taxes there. Generations of senators, acting as provincial governors, had bled the provinces for every sheaf of wheat and ounce of gold. Caesar gave them some relief. In addition, Caesar granted Roman citizenship to certain cities, extending the franchise north of the Alps for the first time.

Most of these reforms were implemented to the detriment of the interest of the Senatorial class. Where were the Senators? Dead, many of them. Or in exile. Many of the rest were simply silent, powerless against the great man. But all Caesar's acts were approved by the Senate, including the decree that made him, like Sulla, dictator for life. With so many Senators gone, Caesar simply created new senators, doubling the size of the senate. So, even when some dared to speak against one of his proposals and to vote against it, Caesar could always be sure of a majority in his favor. He also instituted a reform in the Roman calendar. The traditional calendar was flawed and by his day the months did not agree with the seasons at all. Everyone knew it was flawed, but no one had the authority to change it. Caesar did. The result was what is called the Julian calendar (below), and it served as the calendar of the West until the 16th century (even then, the adjustment was minor).

The Julian Calendar

The old Roman calendar was not entirely accurate, and by Caesar's day it had become badly out of step; seasonal festivals, for example, were being celebrated at the wrong time of year. Caesar set up a commission to rectify the situation and he himself took an interest in its work.

The new calendar had twelve months instead of ten, and the length of the months were modified. This became known as the Julian calendar and is the calendar we still use, with a few minor adjustments.

If you know Latin (or Italian or Spanish), you may have noticed that the names for September, October, November and December don't make much sense. Septem is seven, but September is actually the ninth month. Those four months still bear their Roman names: the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months, for the old calendar had ten months.

Caesar added two months in the middle of the year, but the succeeding months did not change their name. The new months eventually were named after the first Caesars: July (Julius) and August (Augustus).


Despite his clemency, Caesar had many enemies, especially among the younger members of the nobility. Because he was dictator, he appointed officials without bothering with elections. This meant that the only possibility for advancement was by being one of Caesar's men. He had effectively shut down the traditional courses of political activity, and this was deeply resented among the young men who saw their futures closed. Caesar was dictator and there was no hint that he intended to do as Sulla had and resign.

He made matters worse by his autocratic behavior. Thoroughly disgusted with the corruption and pettiness among the senators, Caesar did not bother to consult them and behaved badly towards them. He rode over their objections and hesitations and while few dared speak openly, many resented this and feared where it would lead.

He did not bother to tell people his plans, either, leaving everyone free to assume the best or the worst. He also assumed a number of public offices himself - key positions in the state that would never fall to anyone else. Among these was the position of consul.

The last straw came in February 44, when he was made dictator for life. Would Caesar become king? At a public event, Marc Antony offered him a golden crown -- the mark of a king -- but he refused it. Some say the gesture was genuine, but others suspected it was but another instance of Caesarian politics, a carefully orchestrated event between he and Antony to reassure the mob that Caesar would not be king.

Also in February, Caesar dismissed his personal bodyguard. He appears to have believed either that he was in no personal danger, or that it was politically necessary to make such a gesture, to show confidence.

He also announced that he intended to leave Rome on the the 18th of March to go to Parthia. No Roman had forgotten the humiliation of Crassus' defeat. The Partians had captured two Roman eagles (symbols of a legion) and openly paraded them as prizes. Caesar would avenge Crassus.

All these factors precipitated the events of March 44. His enemies had new reasons to fear and hate him. They had to strike before March 18 because once he left for Parthia he would be safe in his army and would return even stronger (none doubted that he would be victorious, not even his enemies). And, by dismissing his bodyguard, he had given them an opportunity.

There would never be a better chance to eliminate the tyrant.

The Ides of March

Both Brutus and Cassius were young Roman noblemen who had received a thorough Greek education. They had been raised on edifying tales of Greek tyrannicides that always ended in the liberation of the city. They both were powerfully moved by the idea that their ancient Republic was on the verge of collapse at the hands of the dictator.

So they formed a conspiracy, consisting of themselves and a number of other senators, each agreeing to strike so that no one man could be blamed for the murder. They struck on the 15th of March, attacking Caesar when he was alone and unarmed. He received over 20 stab wounds and died on the spot.

The conspirators, by pre-arrangement, went immediately to the forum to proclaim the death of the tyrant and the restoration of liberty. Their announcement met with scattered applause and a few cheers. The Senate, upon hearing the news, immediately fled. The day did not develop at all as Brutus and Cassius had expected; not at all like in the stories.

The Tyrant is Dead

It turned out that they had no real plans. They thought the Republic would revive of itself when the tyrant was removed; that the Senate would pick up the reigns and lead once again. Instead, they found that they had created a vacuum at the very center of power and they themselves had no idea how to fill it.

Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators were as guilty as the rest of the Senate of a lack of leadership and vision. They were adventurers in their own right, but without real talent.

Senators hid in their homes, timid and uncertain. Caesar was dead -- who would be next? All feared that Caesar's partisans, even his veterans, would exact a terrible vengeance, and all wished to distance themselves from the assassination.

Many of them, moreover, were Caesar's creatures. If Caesar's men did not take vengeance, then surely the conspirators would come after them, seeking to root out his supporters. The streets of Rome emptied.

The conspirators were baffled by the response, and they began to worry. Perhaps things might not turn out well after all. Fearful, they withdrew to the Capitol under the guard of their gladiators.

Antony Moves to the Fore

Caesar was dead and no one knew what to do, except Marc Antony. He had been playing politics on his friends behalf for years and he knew the temper of both the Senate and the people. On his own authority he called the Senate into session. He asked that the conspirators be pardoned and that his friend be granted a public funeral.

Both moves were brilliant. Antony was in no position to prosecute Brutus and Cassius. Had he tried, he would have precipitated a bloody civil war. So instead, he pardoned them, and in so doing he quite disarmed the fears that Antony would avenge Caesar's death in a bloodbath.

The second move was even cleverer. Caesar's funeral would be the perfect opportunity for rousing the rabble of Rome. The senators knew this, of course, so Antony promised that he would do nothing of the sort. He would, he said, speak no ill of the conspirators and would not eulogize Caesar. He merely wanted his friend to have the respect due him as a great public figure. Reassured, the Senate agreed.

They played directly into Antony's hands. In a single move, Antony had seized effective leadership of the state and needed only to conduct himself well to make it permanent.

The funeral was a great success. Antony displayed Caesar's body, still wrapped in its blood-stained toga, the knife holes visible. He made a moving speech, memorably wrought by Shakespeare. Unknown to the Senate, Antony had seized Caesar's will and he read it to the crowd. Among the provisions was the creation of a number of gardens in the city for the poor, and a grant of money to every Roman citizen in gratitude for their loyalty to him. Not exactly the last wishes of a cruel tyrant.

The infuriated mob rioted. Brutus and Cassius feared for their lives and chose to flee Rome. They wandered Italy, forlorn and friendless, unable to understand what they did wrong. Eventually they went to Greece, where they were better received.

Antony ruled wisely over the course of the summer, but his vanity and greed began to show. He spent money profligately and embezzled shamelessly to finance his excesses. He treated the Senate with contempt and made even more enemies than he had before.


Into the tense weeks after the murder came a new figure--Octavian, Caesar's adopted son. He was 18 at the time of his father's death, and was in Greece. He was urged by his friends to go to Rome to protect his interests.

What he found out was that he was Caesar's chief heir. Antony, being Caesar's long-time friend and colleague, naturally expected to find himself in that role. Finding instead a mere boy, he was both angry and a little contemptuous. Octavian, he believed, would be easily handled, and he was less than courteous.

Octavian, however, was a very serious and very determined young man. The will named him and he was determined to receive his due. When he saw Antony at his revels, paid for by state funds, he was offended and angry. When he insisted on his rights, Antony became angry in his turn. By the summer of 44, the two were already at loggerheads.

Civil War . . . Again

By the autumn, Octavian felt genuinely threatened by Antony. In October, he took a desperate gamble: on his own authority and completely without any legal standing, he issued to call to arms to his father's veterans. This was a critical moment for the young man. He was banking everything on the power of a mere name -- Julius Caesar. And it worked. The veterans turned out in great numbers and Octavian had his army.

Cicero, ever the hopeful manipulator, had now cast Octavian in the role of champion of the Republic and Antony the great villian (Antony was, after all, Caesar's old friend, and Cicero hated Julius Caesar). Cicero, like Antony, believed he could steer the young Octavian along chosen paths.

So Cicero appealed to Octavian to save the Republic and the Senate declared Antony an outlaw in February 43. Antony withdrew to Gaul and gathered to himself 22 legions, a formidable force. He re-entered Italy in the summer of 43.

Meanwhile, over the winter, the Senate had managed to anger Octavian. Most senators did not really like him because he simply refused to play the role of pawn. He had his own course in mind and would cooperate with the Senate only so long as it served his purpose.

So, with Antony coming from the north, Octavian struck first against the Senate. He occupied Rome with his army and forced the Senate to revoke the amnesty for Brutus and Cassius -- one of his goals was to avenge his father's murder. He then turned his attention to his father's friend.

The Second Triumvirate

Octavian went to Antony and persuaded him to join forces rather than fight. Lepidus, a wealthy and powerful man in his own right, served as a third, and the Second Triumvirate was created. The critical relationship, though, was between Octavian and Antony, and this was sealed by a marriage: Marc Antony married Octavian's sister, Octavia.

The three men then turned to the Senate and forced the passage of a law granting all three of them consular power for five years. Lepidus received Spain as his area of command, Antony received Gaul, and Octavian received Africa and Sicily, but none of them were required to reside in their provinces. In effect, the three of them now shared supreme power in Rome.

With the Second Triumvirate, Republican government was thrown permanently out of gear. The triumvirs appointed magistrates at will. They again packed the Senate with their own men. They had full control of armies and treasury, and followed their own foreign policy. Octavian instituted another round of proscriptions, and about 2,300 died or were exiled.

Death of the Conspirators

Once Rome was ordered to Octavian's liking, he moved against the conspirators. In the year 42, he and Antony went to Greece, where Brutus and Cassius had each been raising an army. In the face of Octavian's proscriptions, many senators with Republican sympathies fled to their camps, so Brutus and Cassius now represented the bulk of the old guard of the Republic.

The armies met at Philippi. In successive battles on successive days, first Cassius was defeated and then Brutus. These were Octavian's first pitched battles. He was not a military genius, but he had a talent for surrounding himself with brilliant men loyal to him. These commanders won the battle for him. And Antony, of course, played an important role.

Both Cassius and Brutus committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of their enemies. A great many senators died at Philippi, and with them died another portion of the Republic itself. Whatever would happen next was entirely in the hands of the triumvirs.

The Second Triumvirate Dissolves

Almost immediately, Octavian and Antony began to squeeze out Lepidus. They garnered the lion's share of territories and honors and offices, effectively dividing the Empire between them. Octavian got the West while Antony got the East.

There followed an interlude of peace, at least among the triumvirs. Neither liked or trusted the other; conflicts were usually resolved by Octavian giving way in order to prevent open war. The Triumvirate was renewed in 38 for 5 more years, though Lepidus got little by the arrangement.

Octavian was inclined to avoid conflict among the triumvirs in part because he was not ready to test his strength, but also in part because he was preoccupied with rebellions elsewhere. Most notably, Sextus Pompeius, Pompey's son, fomented a major revolt in Spain. It took Octavian four years to bring him down (40-36). Sextus Pompeius might fairly be called the last real Republic commander, and his death closed another door on the Republic.

All during these years, Octavian steadily gained power. In 35, Lepidus, dissatisfied, rebelled. He was defeated and forced into retirement. This left only Antony with whom to share power.

And Octavian had plenty of power by 35. As a result of the years of campaigning since Philippi, he could command 45 legions and 500 warships, a force significantly larger than Antony's. But Antony wasn't worried, for he had a powerful ally, one that, he believed, would guarantee victory: Egypt.

Antony and Cleopatra

The ruler of Egypt was the proud and ambitious Cleopatra. Antony fell in love with her after returning from a disastrous campaign in Parthia (36-35). He was openly her consort and she had a child by him. Remember, at this time, Antony was still officially married to Octavia.

Romans tolerated the sins of her great men, but Antony and Cleopatra went too far. Cleopatra, after all, was pharoah. Rumors began: Egypt hoped to annex Rome; Antony would make Cleopatra Queen of Rome. When Antony made her heirs the heirs to Rome as well, the fears deepened. Then, after years of neglect, Antony repudiated Octavia, clearing the war for him to marry Cleopatra.

Octavian was, in personal and family matters, quite a conservative man. Antony's treatment of his sister offended him terribly. He disliked Antony's profligacy and shared Roman suspicion of his intentions regarding Egypt. Always before, when Antony had grown too outrageous, Octavian had compromised for the sake of unity. These latest excesses were too much, however.

The Triumvirate lapsed in 32, and neither man bothered to try to renew it. Both sides positioned themselves for battle.


Octavian sought the help of the Senate, only to be met with obstructionism and outright treachery. Furious, he drove both consuls and the Senate from Rome. The remarkable thing about this act is that few in Rome really objected. The Republic was truly dead, and the real question was whether Octavian or Antony would rule.

The Senate fled to Antony, who was in command of forces in Greece. As at Pharsalus and Philippi, the climactic battle for the control of Rome would be found on Greek soil. The name of the town was Actium. The year was 31.

Antony was overmatched. Octavian had more men and a better army. But Cleopatra had assured him that her navy would win the sea battle and give Antony the upper hand.

The battle itself was not at all inspired. The Egyptians bungled and allowed themselves to get trapped in the harbor at Actium. Once that happened, all was lost. Antony and Cleopatra fled, leaving both army and navy, which were crushed piecemeal.

Octavian immediately set out in pursuit. There followed a dramatic chase, with Octavian's forces sometimes only hours behind. When Antony and Cleopatra realized that the Egyptian army would not be able to stop Octavian, and that no help would arrive from elsewhere, they separately committed suicide.

Octavian arrived to find his enemies all but eliminated. He closed the books by hunting down Cleopatra's children and having them killed. With that act, the last pharoahs of Egypt disappeared, after 4,000 years of rule.

The only ruler of Egypt now was Octavian. He took personal possession of the country, not turning it over to the Senate as had been done with past conquests. Octavian literally owned Egypt. Its wealth flowed into his private treasury, and the wealth of the Ptolemies was legendary.

In a single year, 31 BC, Octavian had made himself the most powerful man in Rome by far. He had 60 legions at his command and entire nations for his pocketbook. No one even remotely approached his position. Most of the senators were dead. The consuls were dead. The Republic was dead.

Conclusion: Failure of the Republic

Why had this happened? The causes are myriad and complex, and I shall not try here to sort the all out, but I'll list at least the more important factors.

One was the failure of the Senate. The Republic was, in its essence, the Senate, and in the crisis of the late Republic, the Senate proved itself unworthy. In the face of need for radical reform, it proved too conservative and unwilling to change. The example of citizenship for the Italian allies illustrates this.

Moreover, the Senate proved unable to provide great leaders when they were needed. The great figures of the late Republic were men who went outside the Senate for their careers. To set against them, one can find only Cicero, and he came much too late.

Also, the Senate failed to follow a consistent course. Opportunism and self-interest dominated, and as a body the Senate proved unable or unwilling to place the interests of the Republic foremost.

The crisis that put the Senate to the test, however, was not of the Senate's making. There were flaws in the Roman state, flaws that, once exposed, could neither be repaired nor hidden again.

Most notably, Rome was not protected against military dictatorship. Once the army got involved with politics, as an instrument for political ends, no one was able to get it out again. In the end, the army alone dicated the course of Roman politics, and that spelled the Republic's doom.

Connected with this was the use of political violence. Roman law and politics was unable to deal with the political gangs, the assassinations, the terrorism, the proscriptions. Starting with Tiberius Gracchus, the story of the Roman Revolution is in part the narration of the increasing reliance on force to achieve political ends. The end of that narrative covers a quarter century of almost unbroken civil war. Few political structures could survive that.

After the Deluge

Another factor in the fall of the Republic was the empire; that is, the acquisition of numerous large provinces. The Republic was unable to withstand the strain of that, but could not shirk the responsibility to rule.

So, in 31, Octavian and Rome faced a dilemma. The old system was in shambles, but no alternatives offered. The one model that was available was monarchy, but Rome hated the very word "king" and Octavian was a good Roman.

Not only the Roman state, but the entire Mediterranean was in his hands. All eyes were upon him. None could oppose him. He was thirty-two years old and, like Alexander before him, the world was his.

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Copyright 1999, Ellis L. Knox. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.