First Triumvirate: Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and Marcus Licinius Crassus
First Triumvirate: Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and Marcus Licinius Crassus

The years prior to the First Triumvirate were unstable and anticipated future conflicts. A series of external struggles—such as a long war to suffocate the rebellion of Sertorius in Spain, the second war against Mithridates, and the fight against the gladiators and slaves commanded by Spartacus—weakened the vigor of the already wounded Roman Republic.

After Marius and Sulla disappeared from the political arena, the civil wars seemed to be over but only temporarily. A much bloodier struggle was about to begin. The First Triumvirate was a tripartite alliance shared by three of the most influential men in politics during those days: Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey), and Marcus Licinius Crassus.

This coalition lasted from 60 to 54 b.c.e.; however, the name First Triumvirate was never used by the Romans, and it is somewhat deceptive since many other men were involved in the agreement, such as Lucius Lucceius and Lucius Calpurnius Piso.

The First Triumvirate and Caesar

By 60 b.c.e. Caesar was the foremost figure of the popular party, particularly after his achievements in Spain, which put him in a position to demand an opportunity in the near election for consulship. The Senate considered him a powerful opponent, and his candidature arose considerable resistance from the optimates.

Even though Caesar had overwhelming popularity within the citizen assemblies, he was compelled to forge alliances within the Senate in order to secure his election. He needed a wealthy ally to support his ambitions, and he found that backing in one of Pompey’s rivals, Crassus.

Pompey was discouraged by the lack of land reform for his eastern veterans, and Caesar skillfully mended any differences between the two powerful leaders. On the other hand, Crassus, whose business in the East was significant, could not achieve his projects without a politician like Caesar supporting his interests, so he joined the coalition with enthusiasm.

Under the protection of these two prominent men, Caesar won the consulship in 59 b.c.e., and one of his main concerns was conciliation with Pompey. He managed to secure the passage of an agrarian law providing Campanian lands for 20,000 indigent citizens and veterans, which was expected not only to lighten the problem of the unemployed mass in Rome but also to please Pompey and his legions. Julia, Caesar’s daughter, married Pompey, further securing the alliance.

By the end of his consulship, through the lex Vatinia, he succeeded in obtaining the proconsulship of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum with four legions for the term of five years, from 58 to 54 b.c.e. The extension of this period, unprecedented for an area with no imminent seditious crisis, was a real sign of Caesar’s ambition for external conquests.

During this time he accomplished remarkable achievements, such as the conquest of the Britons and the successful defeat of one of his greatest enemies, the Gaul leader Vercingetorix, who was vanquished in the Battle of Alesia in 52 b.c.e. During his absence old rivalries between Pompey and Crassus returned, and in 56 b.c.e.

Caesar returned to Rome to patch up matters, and it was agreed that both Pompey and Crassus should be consuls in 55 b.c.e. They obtained—as proconsular provinces Spain and Syria, respectively, and Caesar gained an extension of his command in Gaul until 49 b.c.e.

Breakup the First Triumvirate

The bonds that connected these three personalities were soon broken. The first symptom of the imminent rupture was the death of Caesar’s daughter, Julia, in 59 b.c.e. Furthermore, during the years Caesar spent abroad, Pompey progressively withdrew from the senatorial party, which had never fully accepted Caesar’s power.

The death of Marcus Licinius Crassus
The death of Marcus Licinius Crassus

Since the beginning it was clear that the weakest element of the group was Crassus. He died soon after the Battle of Carrhae, leaving the ground ready for an open clash between the two remaining forces. Civil war broke out between Caesar and Pompey; they fought for control over Rome.

In 49 b.c.e. Pompey convinced the Senate that Caesar was a danger to their interests. Ceaser was immediately ordered to disband his army and give up the province of Gaul. Instead, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River.

The river, close to Rimini, indicated the frontier between the Cisalpine Gaul, where the proconsul had the right to instruct his army, and the Italic territory, where it was forbidden to drive the army. No Roman could legally cross that line, so Caesar’s decision was a slap in the Senate’s face, and war against Pompey and the optimates began.

As Caesar marched to Rome, Pompey and his allies escaped to Brundisium and, from there, to Greece. Finally, in 48 b.c.e. in the famous Battle of Pharsalia, Caesar struck Pompey, who retreated to the court of King Ptolemy XII of Egypt, where he was assassinated as a gesture of gratitude to Caesar. Caesar went to Alexandria and participated actively in the internal political conflict between opposing Ptolemy and Cleopatra.

From 47 to 45 b.c.e. Caesar fought with followers of Pompey. After Pompey’s death Caesar’s power grew, and the Senate felt unease with his power. In 44 b.c.e. a conspiracy grew, led by Cassius and Brutus—thought by some to be the illegitimate son of Casear. Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March before a meeting of the senators.

The political situation changed abruptly after the assassination of Caesar, and the political map had to be redesigned. His murderers were amnestied and forced to leave the city, while Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, also named pontifex maximus, became the two official heads of state.

In his will Caesar adopted Gaius Octavius (Octavian) as his heir—the future Augustus Caesar—and left him almost all of his fortune. This practically unknown, inexperienced, and extremely young man was studying in Illyricum at the time of Caesar’s murder and promptly set out for Rome to take control of his heritage. He tried allying with Antony, who refused to help him, having been offended at not having been appointed Caesar’s legitimate inheritor.

Octavian gained power and raised a private army. He gained influence in Rome, which he secured through a series of demagogical acts, such as the provisions of food and entertainment for the urban plebs and adopting the name of the late Caesar.

Mark Anthony and The Second Triumvirate

Second Triumvirate
Second Triumvirate

Antony departed to Gaul where, by means of the powerful legions that were stationed there, he gained increasing strength. In November Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus met near the river Bononia with their legions and formed the Second Triumvirate.

Whereas the First Triumvirate was almost a secret pact of mutual help, the lex Titia presented to the tribunal assembly consolidated the Second Triumvirate within an official framework and invested the initiative with legality.

The triumvirate was backed and sealed by the marital union of Octavian and Antony’s stepdaughter, Claudia, and by Antony’s marriage to Octavia, Octavian’s sister. Lepidus, a former consul in 46 b.c.e. with no major political accomplishments, had an impressive military force in Spain and was wealthy enough to support the huge expenses that foreign campaigns demanded. He also acted as a shield between Antony and Octavian, whose personal relationship was never quite strong, both eagerly looking for power.

One of the first political acts carried out by the new government was the persecution of Caesar’s assassins. Brutus, after finding out that the Senate’s support could no longer save him, escaped toward the East, but he was captured and executed on the way, and according to Suetonius, his head was sent to Rome to be placed under Caesar’s statue. The punishment extended to some 300 senators, and 2,000 knights were banned and their possessions confiscated.

The most famous case was the murder of the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero. In 40 b.c.e. the Roman territories were divided into three regions: Lepidus received Africa, the West was granted to Octavian, and Antony obtained the Middle East, Greece, and Egypt, where in 42 b.c.e. he encountered Cleopatra. It was the beginning of a relationship that would seal Rome’s fortune and their destinies.

Anthony and Cleopatra

Octavian in Rome was dealing with one last menace: that of Sextus Pompey, son of Pompey, member of the First Triumvirate. Being the provincial governor of Sicily, he had a large amount of power in the area, and therefore many of the outlawed citizens sought his help. In 37 b.c.e. the Pact of Tarentum renewed the triumvirate for another five years.

Nevertheless, the relationship between Octavian and Antony was deteriorating daily. In 36 b.c.e. as the triumvirate foresaw a clear danger, the island of Sicily was invaded, and Agrippa—one of Octavian’s mendefeated Pompey’s army.

Later that year Lepidus tried to keep Sicily for himself, but his troops did not support him and deserted to Octavian, who consequently deprived Lepidus of all his triumviral powers, leaving Octavian with 40 legions.

In 35 b.c.e. Antony and his wife were in Greece, and he sent her back to Rome and carried his army against Labienus (the son of a general who had betrayed Caesar), who was helping the Persian king to assemble a powerful army. Cleopatra joined him.

In 34 b.c.e. he celebrated a huge triumph in Alexandria. He repudiated Octavia, married Cleopatra, and declared Caesarion, Caesar’s son, the legitimate heir of Egypt and Cyprus. By doing so he cut the final bond that connected him to Octavian.

The latter openly attacked him and turned him, in the eyes of Rome, into an Eastern enemy, dominated by the Egyptian queen. In 31 b.c.e. Octavian, elected consul for the third time, defeated Antony in the famous naval battle of Actium, which sealed not only Antony’s fate—he and Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 b.c.e.—but also the Republic’s destiny.