The Roman Republic ~ The Civil Wars (49 – 30 BC)
In the course of approximately 450 years since its founding in 510 BC, the Roman Republic grew from a humble city-state to a vast empire that dominated the Mediterranean. But as its power grew, so did its internal problems: the Republic had been designed to govern a city-state, not to build and maintain an empire. A process of gradual divergence between the Roman masses (populares) and the ruling nobility (optimates) had been festering for over a century when in 49 BC, at last a man found himself in a position to try and sweep away the republican framework and replace it with an imperial one fit for an empire – Gaius Julius Caesar.
By 49 BC, Caesar’s power and prestige in the Roman world had reached unprecedented heights. Using his position as proconsul, he had spent the years 58 to 50 BC conquering the entirety of Gaul, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rhine and the Alps, causing his already considerable popularity among the Roman masses to skyrocket. Indeed, back in Rome the political situation grew increasingly hostile as the senatorial elite became ever more estranged from the masses and feared the day Caesar would return and topple the Republic with the support of the Roman people. Trying to mediate between the two sides was Pompey, Caesar’s former mentor and current political ally in the Triumvirate. However, Pompey had once been where Caesar was now – the champion of Rome – and soon realised that Caesar’s prestige had come to overshadow his own, thus driving Pompey into the arms of the optimates. On top of that, the violent death of Marcus Licinius Crassus in 53 BC caused the Triumvirate to lose its third member, leaving a vacuum that added to the rivalry between Caesar and Pompey.
Riots between pro-Senate and pro-Caesar parties broke out in Rome as early as 52 BC, disrupting the consular elections and resulting in Pompey’s election as ‘consul without colleague’ for the year 52 BC, which for the moment appeased both sides. Pompey wanted nothing more than such a role: a man above all civil strife, belonging to no party in particular but possessing the skill to bring both extremes to their senses, indeed a ‘first citizen’ almost. Hiding behind Pompey in such a manner bears witness to the increasingly obvious powerlessness of the senators and how desperately they clung to the old Republic. Yet the Senate was in fact as internally divided as the Republic. One party wished for conciliation and unity, claiming it was still possible for Caesar and Pompey to come together and defend the Republic alongside the Senate; the other party refused any token of appeasement toward Caesar, basically viewing him as an enemy of Rome, but one who was dangerously popular with the common people. Fear of Caesar eventually got hold of both the Senate and Pompey. Thus, when Caesar’s term as proconsul ended, the Senate demanded that he step down, disband his armies and return to Rome as an unarmed citizen. Though it was tradition for a Roman leader to do so, rendering Caesar theoretically immune from any senatorial prosecution, the existing political situation made such demands hard to meet. Caesar instead offered the Senate to extend his term as proconsul and leave him in command of two legions until he could be legally elected as consul again. When the Senate refused, Caesar responded by crossing the river Rubicon – the northern border of Roman Italy which no Roman commander should cross with an army – and marched on Rome itself.
The Senate now panicked, aware that the Roman people would side with Caesar, and gave Pompey the authority to defend the Republic against the Caesarian advance. Pompey accepted, not so much because he despised his former friend but because he was horrified at the news of Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, which was an illegal action. Caesar’s armies advanced rapidly, causing Pompey and most of the senators to flee to Greece and assemble forces there. Italy thus fell under the control of Caesar who – instead of pursuing – turned around and launched a lightning campaign into Spain, where Pompey also had considerable forces. Defeating the Pompeian legions at the Battle of Ilerda and capturing Massilia gave Caesar a free hand to turn east and deal with Pompey in Greece. He crossed the Adriatic Sea in 48 BC and – after a setback at Dyrrhachium – advanced south and decisively defeated the forces of Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus. Despite his past ruthlessness to foreign enemies and the advice of his long-time friend and general Mark Antony, Caesar was more than benevolent to his defeated Roman enemies, pardoning all senators and offering Pompey’s soldiers to enlist in his own armies. It was a mercy that would ultimately prove to be his downfall. But for now, Caesar’s success and popularity grew ever more.
Meanwhile, Pompey himself had fled to Egypt – the last Hellenistic kingdom, ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty. Pompey had long ago protected the Ptolemaic realm and had come there in hopes of being granted sanctuary by the young king Ptolemaios XIII. But Pompey was betrayed and assassinated under orders of Ptolemaios in an attempt at pleasing Caesar, who was in pursuit. Arriving in Egypt, Caesar allegedly wept upon being presented the severed head of Pompey, never having intended to kill his former friend and ally, let alone have him assassinated by foreigners. Caesar had Pompey’s Roman assassins executed and drove Ptolemaios XIII from power, installing Cleopatra VII on the throne under Roman protection. Caesar and Cleopatra had a brief romance and she bore him his only known son, Caesarion. In the spring and summer of 47 BC, Caesar launched another lightning campaign northwards through Syria and Cappadocia into Pontus, ensuring his hold on Rome’s eastern reaches and decisively defeating the forces of Pharnaces II of Pontus, who had attempted to profit from Rome’s internal strife. Next, Caesar returned to Rome and invaded Africa in 46 BC, clearing republican forces from the region at the Battles of Ruspina and Thapsus. Finally, Caesar returned to Spain in 45 BC and defeated the last resistance at the Battle of Munda. Caesar had become the undisputed master of the Roman Republic, returning to Rome in triumph.
All power had fallen into the hands of one man, but the Roman Republic was not formally abolished. Caesar’s political enemies in Rome were in no real position to criticise him publicly, but behind the scenes they retained significant influence. Caesar knew he needed a firm legal basis if he was to transform the republican institutions into an imperial framework under his leadership. To this end, he consolidated his popularity among the Roman masses by passing reforms beneficial to the proletariat and enlarging the Senate to ensure his supporters had the upper hand. Caesar manipulated the Senate into granting him a number of legislative powers, most prominently that of dictator for ten years, soon changed to dictator perpetuus (‘perpetual dictator’). It has been argued that Caesar intended to transform his title of dictator perpetuus to that of rex and topple the Republic by bringing back the monarchy or that he simply planned to remain dictator perpetuus and rule as de facto monarch. However, neither claim enjoys any real fundament. The title of rex and the notion of kingship were generally considered unacceptable by the Romans, stemming from the traumatic experiences during the Etruscan domination, the efforts required in overthrowing this monarchy and building the Roman Republic. Though all this happened centuries ago, the Roman distaste of anything kingly was alive and well during the time of Caesar, who refused to be called rex on several recorded occasions. Secondly, the idea that Caesar planned to rule as dictator for life is equally vague. In order to turn the Roman government from a republican one meant for a city-state to an imperial one meant for an empire, Caesar needed to implement significant reforms to Roman society, many of which would be opposed by his political enemies. This was a problem because several of these people enjoyed great political influence and popular support (cf. Cicero). While none of them could really challenge Caesar individually and publicly, collectively and secretly they could be a serious threat. Caesar thus needed to render his enemies politically impotent, which was his main motive in having the Senate appoint him dictator perpetuus. The word perpetuus did not mean he intended to keep his title for life – rather, it aimed to give him the political freedom to implement imperial institutions into the Roman Republic without behind-the-scenes sabotage.
Firmly established as leader of Rome, Caesar first reorganised the Republic’s provincial institutions, which had long been a problem. Up until then, the Romans hardly considered a provincia as a part of their empire for which they were responsible, but rather a conquered territory to be exploited for the Roman people in Italy. By the time of Caesar, corruption and mismanagement had reached unprecedented heights: many provincial governors behaved as de facto independent masters of the territory and people entrusted to them. Needless to say, Caesar’s reorganisation of the provincial framework was much-needed and widely welcomed. Next, Caesar expanded the number of senators to 900, giving many families of lower descent a chance at a political career and better life, simultaneously ensuring that no less than 150,000 proletarians in Rome received free grain supplies. Furthermore, Caesar guided the establishment of countless new Roman settlements outside of Italy for proletarians and war veterans – most famously at the ruined cities of Carthage and Corinth – and brought the Roman heartland of Italy under a homogeneous government. Lastly, Caesar replaced the old moon calendar with a modernised sun calendar – inspired by the Egyptian calendar – consisting of 365-and-a-quarter days, divided into twelve months. This Julian calendar remains the fundament of western chronology down to this day.
But the resentment and jealousy of Caesar’s political enemies turned into hatred. Moreover, doubt over what Caesar intended to do with his title of dictator perpetuus turned into paranoid fear. A conspiracy was thus put together to murder Caesar and ‘liberate Rome’ – that is, return to the old Roman Republic and undo Caesar’s work. The conspirators, of whom Brutus and Cassius are the most well-known, were successful and on 15 March 44 BC, Caesar was brutally stabbed to death. Though expecting to be hailed as liberators, the Roman people were outraged upon hearing of the betrayal and assassination of their leader, forcing the conspirators to flee Rome to avoid being lynched. With Caesar murdered, a power vacuum emerged which would plunge the Roman world into civil war once more. In his testament, Caesar adopted his grandnephew Gaius Octavius as his sole heir, henceforth known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. Despite being only eighteen, Octavian (known to his contemporaries simply as Caesar at the time) quickly secured the support of Caesar’s legions and forced the Senate to grant him several legislative powers, including the consulship. In 43 BC, Octavian established a military dictatorship with Caesar’s former generals Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus: the Second Triumvirate. Subsequently, the Roman people’s assembly granted the Triumvirate absolute power to avenge Caesar’s assassination and punish the conspirators. Brutus and Cassius had fled to the east, where they assembled forces of their own. In response, Octavian and Antony invaded Greece in 42 BC and advanced against the liberatores. In the ensuing Battles of Philippi, the conspirators were decisively defeated. Shortly afterwards, Octavian, Antony and Lepidus divided the Roman world between them: Octavian would rule the west, Antony the east and Lepidus the south with Italy as a joint-ruled territory. However, Octavian soon proved himself to be a brilliant politician and strategist, quickly consolidating his hold on both the western provinces and Italy, smashing the Sicilian Revolt of Sextus Pompey (son of) in 36 BC and ousting Lepidus from the Triumvirate.
Meanwhile, Antony consolidated his position in the east but made the fatal mistake of becoming the lover of Cleopatra VII. The couple soon announced their marriage. Octavian then launched a massive propaganda campaign against Antony, constantly emphasising how Antony had made himself unworthy of being Roman (or even a man, at that) by marrying a foreign queen (Roman citizens were forbidden to marry foreigners) and capitalising on the rumours that Antony intended to break the east away from Rome and establish an eastern Roman-Egyptian empire with its capital at Alexandria. However, Octavian knew that both the Roman masses and his legions were generally unsupportive of yet another war against fellow Romans, despite the firm support for Octavian in Italy and the west. Thus, Octavian brilliantly did not blame Antony for the supposed disgrace happening in the east but rather Cleopatra VII, portraying her (not entirely untruthfully) as having corrupted the virtuous Roman hero Antony, thus mobilising Roman public opinion against the last Ptolemaic queen. Octavian succeeded and in 32 BC manipulated the Senate into a declaration of war upon Cleopatra’s Egypt, knowing very well that Antony would join her. Romans in Italy and the western territories swore an oath of allegiance to Octavian as the war began. Realising a clash had become inevitable, Antony and Cleopatra moved from the Isle of Samos into Greece with their forces in 32 BC, while Octavian and his trusted second-in-command Agrippa did the same, crossing the Straits of Otranto. The two sides battled at Actium on 2 September 31 BC, resulting in a crushing victory for Octavian, despite Antony and Cleopatra escaping. The captured forces of Antony immediately ran over to Octavian, who now disbanded most of his veteran legions (many of whom traced their service back to the Gallic Wars) and directed a land distribution among them. In April 30 BC, Octavian and his army crossed into Asia and marched all the way to Egypt, subjugating the eastern territories along the way. Meanwhile, Antony attempted to assemble forces at Cyrene but the Roman commander there, Scarpus, switched his allegiance to Octavian and proceeded to march west with Octavian’s general Gallus. Antony subsequently fled back to Alexandria where he and Cleopatra waited for their enemies. The forces of Octavian invaded Egypt in July 30 BC, advancing towards Alexandria and entering the city on 1 August 30 BC. Antony attempted suicide by falling on his sword – in accordance with Roman tradition – upon hearing a false rumour that his love Cleopatra had committed suicide herself. Mortally wounded, he discovered this was not true and had himself brought to Cleopatra, allegedly dying in her arms. Cleopatra now desperately attempted last-ditch negotiations with Octavian but he refused her overture, promptly capturing her and informing her she would be paraded in his triumph back in Rome. In addition, Octavian’s forces captured the children of Antony and Cleopatra, as well as Caesarion – the child of Caesar and Cleopatra. Octavian ordered Caesarion killed, in the idea that “two Caesars is one too many”. Her kingdom conquered, her lover dead and her children captured or killed, Cleopatra had lost everything and succeeded in committing suicide, either by having herself bitten by an Egyptian asp or taking poison. Octavian thus became the undisputed master of the Roman Republic and would go on to prove himself as one of the greatest leaders in world history, becoming Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus in 27 BC and successfully turning the Roman Republic into the Principate (popularly known as the ‘Roman Empire’), thereby heralding the longest-recorded period of peace, stability and prosperity in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East…
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