The Roman Revolution: The End of Republican Rome
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.