External Expansion, Internal Implosion

‘This is Rome.’ Our city is a cesspool of humanity, a place of deceit, plots and vice of every imaginable kind. Anywhere you turn you will see arrogance, stubbornness, malevolence, pride and hatred. Amid such a swirl of evil, it takes a remarkable man with sound judgement and great skill to avoid stumbling, gossip and betrayal.

[Q. Cicero] A Short Guide to Electioneering, 541

Trojans, Kings and Republicans

The history of the Romans stretches well in excess of a millennium on even the shortest calculation, and their mythology extends the time frame even further. They traced their origins back to Troy via the mythical Trojan prince Aeneas, who escaped from the carnage inflicted by the Greeks after they had used the trick of the Wooden Horse. He and a small band of survivors made their way to Italy, where they fought, and then united with, the native inhabitants to form the future Roman race. Legend has it that the city of Rome was founded by Romulus in 753 BCE, and was then ruled by seven kings until 510 BCE, when the populist but tyrannical King Tarquinius Superbus was expelled by Brutus the Liberator. Rome became a Republic the year after, and the Romans always remained acutely sensitive to the difference between a Kingdom (Regnum) and a Republic (Res Publica, literally ‘the Public Thing’). During the Republican period (509–27 BCE), when the government was (theoretically) controlled by elected magistrates, Rome gradually became the dominant power in Italy, and then in the Mediterranean (see Map 1). However, they seemed ‘to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind’,2 and the acquisition of these overseas territories had opened a Pandora’s box of unforeseen domestic problems. From around the late second century BCE, Rome started to implode in a series of violent internal struggles.

The Year 63 BCE

In the midst of those struggles, the year 63 BCE – or ‘the consulship of Gaius Antonius and Marcus Tullius Cicero’, as the Romans called it – was a critical one for the history of the world, and not purely because a child was born in that year who would become the first Emperor of Rome. The situation that Rome was in often elicits comments of the ‘History is always repeating itself’ variety:3 there was a domestic crisis centred around debt and credit; recent elections had been sullied by bribery, corruption and political sleaze; the world’s superpower to the West had recently witnessed the demise of one in the East, but had just become embroiled in troubles with people living in what are now Iraq, Iran, Palestine / Israel, Syria and Lebanon; Arabs were fighting with Jews; Jews were fighting among themselves; and Rome was struggling not only to keep all this under control, but, on the domestic front, desperately needed to reconcile the competing interests of a number of very powerful personalities, the State and the people.

At the heart of this was an up-and-coming politician called C. Julius Caesar,4 who belonged to an aristocratic family that traced its descent to Aeneas and the goddess Venus. Caesar had a particularly good year in 63 BCE, managing not only to get himself appointed Pontifex Maximus (Chief Priest), but also, thanks to some lavish and well-targeted bribery, securing Rome’s second-highest elective office, the praetorship, for the following year. He wasn’t yet bestriding the world like the colossus he was to become, but his career was definitely on an upward trajectory.

The real big beast of Roman politics that year was Cn. Pompeius Magnus5 (‘Pompey’). His meteoric rise to power and fame had violated many of Roman politics’ most hallowed protocols (he was both too young and unqualified for the posts he held), but he had successfully solved a number of Rome’s nagging issues. In 67 BCE he had been appointed to eradicate the Mediterranean’s endemic pirate problem. This was not a case of the odd swashbuckling, parrot-wearing buccaneer: entire communities were involved, and even Caesar had once been captured by pirates. However, the legislation that granted Pompey the wherewithal to take on the pirates made his opponents feel uneasy about the potential security ramifications, even though Pompey himself was a good choice for the job. He ended up with 500 ships, 125 000 troops, numerous high-ranking subordinates, vast financial resources, and a three-year imperium (command) whose power applied throughout the Mediterranean and extended 80 kilometres inland of its coasts.6 Pompey justified his appointment not only by defeating the pirates in just three months, but by putting them into ‘rehab’ and attempting to repair some of the desolation caused by the fighting. He was so successful that many pirates actually turned towards agriculture and depopulated areas were reinvigorated.

The following year Pompey had been given the command versus King Mithridates VI of Pontus on the southern coast of the Black Sea, whom Velleius Paterculus described as:

Ever eager for war, of exceptional bravery, always great in spirit and sometimes in achievement, in strategy a general, in bodily prowess a soldier, in hatred of the Romans, a Hannibal.7

Mithridates had been a thorn in the eastern side of Rome’s interests ever since he had imprisoned his mother, killed his younger brother, married his sister and taken the throne in 120 BCE. Pompey’s imperium was probably upgraded to maius, and he certainly had the hugely significant power of making war and peace on his own initiative. Cicero, whose speech survives,8 spoke in favour of the measures, and by 63 BCE Mithridates was blockaded in the Crimea, albeit still alive and taking a daily regime of antidotes to safeguard himself from would-be poisoners.

One significant knock-on effect of this conflict was to sour Rome’s relations with the Parthian Kingdom, which at its greatest extent stretched from the Euphrates to the Indus (thus encompassing both modern Iraq and Iran), with its capital at Ctesiphon (near what is now Baghdad). Its king, Phraates III, felt short-changed by Pompey for the help he had given him in dealing with Mithridates. Another ramification of the Mithridatic Wars was Rome’s annexation of Syria, once the focal point of the proud and mighty Seleucid Kingdom, carved out of the remains of Alexander the Great’s empire by Seleukos I Nikator. However, the Seleucid Empire was now merely a faded memory, and Syria was ravaged by extortion and war. It was ripe for picking. Pompey marched through the region imposing order and discipline, giving the Syrian king, Antiochus XIII Asiaticus, short shrift at a meeting at Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey), annexing his territory to secure it from incursions by Jews and Arabs, and ultimately bringing Syria under Rome’s direct rule. Egypt, under the dissolute, arrogant King Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos, whose addiction to music had earned him the derisory title of ‘Auletes’ (‘Flute Player’), was now the only surviving autonomous remnant of Alexander’s empire.

In 63 BCE Pompey had made his way into Judaea, where he got involved in the Hasmonean Civil War. Two brothers, Aristoboulus and Hyrcanus, were contesting the Jewish throne. Pompey seemed to back Hyrcanus, and Aristoboulus ultimately withdrew to Jerusalem. When Pompey had reached Jericho in his pursuit, he received news of the death of Mithridates: faced by a rebellion from one of his sons, the old king had taken poison, but since the daily antidotes had pretty well immunized him, a loyal servant duly dispatched him, providing the inspiration behind the famous verses written by A. E. Housman in A Shropshire Lad:

I tell the tale that I heard told.

Mithridates, he died old.

Things now moved quite quickly in Judaea: Aristoboulus fortified Jerusalem; Pompey laid siege to it; Aristoboulus was arrested when he tried to negotiate; further internal strife arose among the Jews, as the factions of Aristoboulus and Hyrcanus were confronted by those who wanted a theocracy (the Psalms of Solomon represent the Roman conquest as the ‘reward’ for Jewish impiety);9 the three-month siege of Jerusalem ended with horrendous bloodshed; Pompey desecrated the sanctuary of the Temple, although he didn’t plunder it; Hyrcanus was established as High Priest, but not King; and Pompey made his so-called Eastern Settlement.

Pompey had exceptional organizational skills, and his Eastern Settlement of 62 BCE laid the foundations for the later Pax Romana in the region by means of a three-faceted arrangement that involved: creating a virtually continuous ring of provinces from the southern shore of the Black Sea to Syria/Palestine; founding about forty new cities; and organizing and promoting independent ‘client’ states as a kind of firewall outside the ring of provinces. On the whole, the new cities began to flourish, bringing Rome a 70 per cent increase in revenue from the region. The client states, many of whose rulers owed their position to Pompey, were nominally independent and maintained friendly relations with Rome in an arrangement modelled on that between a high-ranking Roman patronus(‘patron’) and his clientes (‘dependents’). Pompey’s administrative talents were indisputable, but what really mattered to Rome was that he was a conqueror. He was now an incredibly powerful man: he received divine cult on Delos; his eye-watering wealth made him the richest man in Rome; kings were in his debt, both literally and figuratively; his client base encompassed individuals, cities, provinces and kingdoms; and he commanded vast military resources.

Throughout this period, Pompey’s interests back in Rome had been promoted by M. Tullius Cicero.10 Cicero was a Novus Homo (‘New Man’), in other words from a family new to the political scene at Rome. A man like Cicero could regularly enter the lower echelons of the political hierarchy, but he had his heart set on holding the consulship, Rome’s highest elective office. This was an incredibly ambitious aspiration. Every Roman citizen could vote in this election, and also on legislation in Rome’s Assemblies, but he (they were all male) had to do so in person at Rome. The Romans therefore had a ‘direct’ democracy, rather than the ‘representative’ systems that most Western democracies now use, and this had worked effectively enough while Rome was just a small town, but in Cicero’s time many Roman citizens couldn’t exercise this right because they didn’t live anywhere near Rome. There was no local voting, so Cicero would have to go to Rome and canvass personally, and do so in the toga candida, a specially whitened toga that gives us our word ‘candidate’. He could expect vigorous political opposition, and indeed was warned in the pamphlet known as the Commentariolum Petitionis (Short Guide to Electioneering) to expect deceit, plots, vice, arrogance, stubbornness, malevolence, pride, hatred and betrayal.11 The underlying reason for this atmosphere was that Rome had become the venue for ruthless power struggles between factions within a ruling elite that Cicero was trying to break into.


In Cicero’s day, Rome’s governmental system combined a Senate, various magistrates and several Popular Assemblies, into what was designated Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR), ‘the Roman Senate and People’.

The magistrates were usually elected for a one-year term and progressed through a series of offices known as the Cursus Honorum. After a spell of military and/or legal service, you would hope to be elected as Quaestor, with potestas (the power, which all the magistrates had, to enforce the law by the authority of your office), along with financial and administrative duties.

After this you might take an optional spell as Tribune of the Plebs, when you would benefit from personal sacrosanctity, the power of veto (= ‘I forbid’ in Latin), and the right to summon the Concilium Plebis (Assembly of the Plebs) and put resolutions (plebiscita) to it. The social divide between the plebs and the patricians was most fundamental at Rome: the patricians were a hereditary aristocracy of exceptionally wealthy landowners, and for a great part of Rome’s history they had held all the legal, political and religious posts. Patrician rank was normally inherited, and the non-patricians, who were the vast majority of Rome’s population, were known as plebeians (Latin plebs = multitude). Tribunes were supposed to act as champions of the lower classes, but this happened far less often than it should have. You might, on the other hand, stand for the post of Aedilis(‘Aedile’), which would entail an obligation personally to finance things like the upkeep of the streets, the water supply or the arrangement of public games and festivals. Either way, you would hope that your burgeoning fame and popularity might win you the office of Praetor.

As Praetor you received imperium, which took your power to a whole new level. Imperium gave you the right to command an army, interpret and carry out the law, and to issue orders and expect them to be obeyed. You would be attended by six Lictors, who carried the fasces, a bundle of rods, to which an axe was added whenever they left the city precincts, symbolizing the right to inflict corporal and capital punishment that imperium conferred, although magistrates were not allowed to execute Roman citizens without trial. As Propraetor (pro in Latin = ‘on behalf of’) you would then take up a provincial governorship with imperium for one year. The provinces were Rome’s dependent territories (provincia = ‘a sphere of duty assigned to a magistrate’), and now you could start to recoup the money you had spent on your election campaigns: a provincial governorship could be very lucrative even if you were honest; if you weren’t, you could make an absolute fortune.

The ultimate achievement was to secure one of the two consulships. Your imperium was limited by your colleague’s right of veto, but you now held twelve fasces, and would become Commander-in-Chief of the army, preside over the Senate, organize the community religion, conduct the main elections and implement the Senate’s decisions, before moving on to a ‘better’ provincial governorship as Proconsul.

There were three Popular Assemblies at Rome at this time: the Comitia Centuriata, arranged into 193 Centuries (constituencies) in which the richer ones dominated, that could pass leges (laws, sing. lex) and elect magistrates with imperium; the Comitia Tributa, which was based on Rome’s thirty-five tribes and acted as a lawmaking body and elected magistrates known as Curule Aediles and Quaestors; and the Concilium Plebis, comprising only plebeians, which could pass plebiscita binding on the whole community, and elected Tribunes of the Plebs and Plebeian Aediles.

Technically and traditionally speaking, the Senate (senes = ‘old men’) was an advisory body, composed of ex-magistrates who did unpaid public service as legal advisers, judges, diplomats, military officers and priests. Its membership generally ranged between 300 and 600 men, who had to possess a minimum property qualification of one million sestertii in the time of Augustus – an enormous amount, given that in around 50 BCE a rankand-file soldier was paid 900 sestertii a year. Two Censors had the power to remove anyone guilty of misconduct. Members of the Senatorial order (Latin ordo = ‘class’/‘rank’) wore a broad purple stripe (latus clavus) on their togas and occupied prominent seats on major religious and public occasions. As Cicero put it,

a Senator has many privileges [. . .] rank, position, magnificence at home, reputation and influence abroad, the embroidered robe, the chair of state, the badges of rank, the lictor’s rods, armies, commands, provinces.12

The Roman belief in tradition was so incredibly strong that over the centuries the Senate’s advice had acquired the force of law. Fundamentally the Senators felt that their wealth and status justified their right to control Rome. They were ambitious and individualistic, had a strong sense of their own self-worth (dignitas), and for a very long time their control over domestic and foreign policy had seldom been questioned: Rome might have called herself a Republic, but in fact she was ruled by a closely circumscribed group of families. Furthermore, within the Senate itself there was an exclusive inner clique called the nobiles (nobles), who were either ex-Consuls or men who could boast a Consul among their ancestors. The elitist nature of the system is shown by the fact that over a period of 300 years only fifteen non-nobles had held the office of Consul.

‘New men’ like Cicero tended to be ‘Equestrian’ (Latin equites = ‘horsemen’/’knights’). The key qualification for admission to the order was possession of 400 000 sestertii. Distinguished by a narrow purple stripe on their togas, the Equites were not a middle class (Rome did not really have one in the modern sense): what distinguished them from the Senators was participation in politics; what distinguished them from the plebs was an absolutely enormous financial gulf that made upward social mobility extremely difficult. The standard of living of the majority of Rome’s population was far lower than that of the modern British, European or American working classes, and the notion of ‘poverty’ at Rome needs to be used with care: even the ‘poor’ still had to have a reasonably secure means of support, be this a trade, craft or some kind of connection with a prosperous family; if by ‘the poor’ we mean ‘the destitute’, there were hardly any – if you were destitute, you died.

Within the Senate there were also two factions, the Optimates and the Populares. According to Cicero:

Those who wanted everything they did and said to be pleasing to the masses were considered Populares; but those who conducted themselves so as to win for their policies the approval of all the best citizens were considered Optimates [. . .] All are Optimates who are neither malevolent, nor shameless in behaviour, nor insane, nor embarrassed by family problems.13

Actually, the Optimates were a powerful, determined, cohesive, ruthless and more or less permanent group who made up the majority in the Senate and defended the established traditions because it was in their interests. The Populares felt that they could achieve quicker results by whipping up popular feeling and sidestepping the Senate in order to gain personal advancement. They were not instinctive ‘democrats’, and although some Populares had genuine concerns about social justice, many were merely demagogues. Political idealism was rare at Rome.

The Consulship of M. Tullius Cicero and C. Antonius Hybrida (63 BCE)

Against all the odds, Cicero was elected Consul for 63 BCE alongside C. Antonius ‘Hybrida’, beating a colourful, disaffected aristocrat called L. Sergius Catilina (‘Catiline’)14 in the process. Contemporary sources, Cicero included, describe Catiline as a perverted, destructive, extravagant, over-ambitious traitor, although they do acknowledge his mental and physical energy, toughness and ability to win friends and influence people. With a shady political past and a string of unsuccessful election campaigns behind him, Catiline had found himself badly in debt, and when his wealthy backer M. Licinius Crassus withdrew his support, he opted to stand again for the consulship of 62 BCE on a platform of cancellation of debts. This was attractive to a wide range of people: the indebtedness of the poor was a big issue, but many wealthy property owners would also have benefited from Catiline’s programme.

However, Catiline was not elected, so he turned to violence. Amid armed risings and terrorism, Cicero exposed Catiline’s conspiracy in the Senate on 21 October 63 BCE, and the Senatus Consultum Ultimum (SCU, the Final Decree of the Senate, empowering the Consuls to see to it that the State came to no harm) was passed, yet Catiline stayed in Rome, plotting Cicero’s murder and trying to face him down. Cicero responded by making his First Catilinarian Speech in the Senate on 8 November, which forced Catiline to quit Rome and join his henchman Manlius in Etruria. Their co-conspirator Lentulus remained in the capital, though, and on 9 November Cicero’s magnificent Second Catilinarian was delivered to the people. The key moment came at the end of the month, when the conspirators tried to get some Gallic envoys to join them. But the Gauls chose instead to pass the details on to Cicero. With incontrovertible written proof of the conspiracy, he had the conspirators at Rome arrested, and on 3 December he made the Third Catilinarianto the people. Two days later the Senate discussed the conspirators’ fate, with Cicero making his Fourth Catilinarianin favour of the death penalty. He got his way and oversaw their execution, famously responding to the question of what had happened to them with an elegant use of Latin’s perfect tense: vixerunt = ‘they have lived’. Catiline himself was run to ground, defeated and killed early in 62 BCE; Cicero was proclaimed ‘Father of the Fatherland’; yet he had become vulnerable to accusations of having executed Roman citizens without trial.

Cicero was extremely pleased with himself: to many people’s irritation he referred endlessly in his speeches to how he had ‘restored the Republic’. However, he too became entangled in Rome’s factional infighting, and the ‘Republic’ was ultimately ‘restored’ (the inverted commas are significant) by a man who was probably born in a house on the north-east slopes of the Palatine Hill in Rome just before sunrise on 23 September in the year of his consulship: Gaius Octavius, who legend had it was the son of Apollo, and who would ultimately become Rome’s first Emperor.

Octavius came from a family of small-town big men from Velitrae (modern Velletri), just to the south-east of Rome. The historian Suetonius tells us that:

An ‘Octavian Street’ runs through the busiest part of the city, and an altar is shown there consecrated by one Octavius, a local commander [. . .] King Tarquinius Priscus admitted the Octavians, among other plebeian families, to the Roman Senate, and though Servius Tullius awarded them patrician privileges, they later reverted to plebeian rank until eventually Julius Caesar made them patricians once more.15

Some of Octavius’ ancestors had held high office at Rome; others had followed Equestrian career paths; and his greatgrandfather had fought in the Second Punic War. Octavius’ enemies, Mark Antony for instance, wrote that his great-grandfather had been an ex-slave and a rope-maker, and that his grandfather had been a money-changer. There were also jibes that his father, also called Gaius Octavius, was a money-changer who distributed electoral bribes. But whatever his day-job, C. Octavius senior became a Senator, held the praetorship in 61 BCE, and went on to govern Macedonia, courageously and justly by all accounts.

Little Octavius’ future prospects derived more from his mother Atia’s side of the family (See Genealogy Table 1). She was the daughter of M. Atius Balbus and Julius Caesar’s sister Julia (making Octavius Caesar’s great-nephew). Mark Antony also tried to besmirch Octavius’ maternal line by alleging that his great-grandfather Balbus had been born in Africa, and ran a perfumery and then a bakery, and Cassius of Parma also sneered at him as the grandson of a baker and a money-changer:

Your mother’s flour came from a miserable Arician bakery, and the coin-stained hands of a Nerulian money-changer kneaded it.16

However, when Atia’s husband died suddenly on his return to Rome (Octavius was four at the time), she remarried to L. Marcius Philippus, who proved to be a safe pair of hands for the upbringing of the rather sickly Octavius and his two siblings, Octavia Maior and Octavia Minor.17

The First Triumvirate: Pompey, Crassus and Caesar

On the political front at Rome, no sooner had Catiline been dispatched than another scandal broke. P. Clodius Pulcher18 was in love with Julius Caesar’s wife, Pompeia, who was, apparently, amenable to his advances. As the wife of the Pontifex Maximus, her public duties included presiding over the all-women festival of Bona Dea (‘the Good Goddess’), which was celebrated in Caesar’s house. Clodius took advantage of Caesar’s absence to infiltrate the event by dressing up as a woman in order to enjoy some ‘quality time’ with Pompeia. Unfortunately, his voice betrayed him and he was indicted for sacrilege. Other allegations were made against him, one of which was incestuous adultery with his notoriously promiscuous sister Clodia, who could well be the lover of the poet Catullus, under the literary name of Lesbia. Caesar insisted that Pompeia was innocent, but still divorced her: ‘I considered that my wife ought not to be even suspected,’ he said.19 At the trial Cicero annihilated Clodius’ alibi, but still didn’t secure a guilty verdict, and Clodius never forgave Cicero.

Pompey now arrived back from the East. To considerable relief he disbanded his army before celebrating a magnificent triumph. But then he ran into a brick wall. He had two needs and one want: land for his veteran soldiers as their pension on demobilization, ratification of his Eastern Settlement and marriage into the family of the arch-Optimate M. Porcius Cato. However, the Optimates closed ranks against him and prevented him achieving any of these, and he wasn’t the only man to be frustrated.

Prior to Pompey’s Eastern conquests, M. Licinius Crassus had been Rome’s richest individual, gaining the nickname Dives (=‘the Rich’). His dealings had made him the spokesman for a syndicate of Equestrian tax-farmers. The Pax Romana was expensive to maintain, and the Romans expected that their Empire should ‘happily pay for this continual peace and tranquillity, which benefits her’.20 Rome had a privatized tax-collection system, administered by ruthless syndicates who would guarantee to collect a certain amount from a given province, but who were free to retain any surplus that they could exact. To make things worse, provinces that struggled to pay their taxes frequently resorted to borrowing. Unfortunately for them, the Equestrian businessmen who lent them the money (an APR of 48 per cent was not unknown) were often the selfsame people who collected the tax. However, on this occasion Crassus’ syndicate had made a bad deal over the taxes of Asia, and they faced the prospect of merely breaking even. They wanted to renegotiate, but the Optimates would have none of it.

The third man to fall foul of the Optimates was Julius Caesar. He wanted both to celebrate a triumph for his recent campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula and to stand for the consulship of 59 BCE. The rules on this were clear: you had to wait outside the city boundaries of Rome for a triumph, but appear in the city in person to submit your candidacy for election. Caesar wanted to do both by standing for election in absentia, but the Optimates, who had never liked him, blocked his attempt. He completely wrong-footed them by giving up the triumph and arriving in Rome, whereupon they decreed that, should he be elected, his Provincia would be the third-rate post of Commissioner for the Forests and Cattle Drifts of Italy: this was blatantly insulting – it would not be acceptable to any Proconsul, let alone Julius Caesar.

Pompey, Crassus and Caesar were by no means good friends, but they knew that their combined political leverage could secure their individual short-term ambitions. So they formed an amicitia (an informal political deal), which later became known as the First Triumvirate. They could now dominate Roman politics.

The triumviri secured Caesar’s election as Consul for 59 BCE. However, his colleague was L. Calpurnius Bibulus, an Optimate who not only vetoed Caesar’s bill for Pompey’s veterans, but also, in a cynical piece of manipulation of religion for political ends, declared a ‘sacred period’, and went home to take the auspices – for the rest of the year. This meant that no legislation could now legally be passed, although Caesar pressed on regardless, securing the land for Pompey’s veterans, distributing 20 000 allotments of public land in Italy to the urban poor (and gaining 20 000 guaranteed votes for himself in the process), ratifying Pompey’s Eastern Settlement, securing Crassus’ tax renegotiation, and arranging for the patrician Clodius to be adopted into a plebeian gens so that he could stand as Tribune of the Plebs and attack Cicero.21 Caesar took Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum as his Provincia for five years, along with three legions, and when the governor of Transalpine Gaul died at a convenient (though not suspicious) juncture, he added this and one more legion to his area of control and embarked on the conquest of Gaul. To cement the amicitia, Pompey married Caesar’s beautiful and virtuous daughter Julia.

Clodius was elected Tribune for 58 BCE and immediately made a proposal that any magistrate (obviously Cicero) who had put Roman citizens to death without trial should be exiled. The spineless Pompey, cowed by the violence of Clodius, who was perhaps being financed by Crassus, abandoned Cicero and kept a very low profile until it became obvious to him that Cicero was actually a very valuable asset. Pompey then sought to neutralize Clodius by organizing a gang under T. Annius Milo,22 and getting Cicero recalled (by a majority of 416 to 1 – Clodius).

Yet amid all the acrimony the three amigos still needed one another: Crassus hankered after military prestige; Caesar wanted to complete his campaigns in Gaul, which was conquered but not totally pacified; and Pompey was not guaranteed the support of theOptimates even if he broke away from the others. So before the campaigning season of 56 BCE they hammered out a deal at Lucca in Italy that gave them total control of Rome: Pompey and Crassus became joint Consuls in 55 BCE; Crassus then took Syria for five years; Pompey got Spain for five years but could stay in Rome; Caesar’s Provincia was extended for five years; and impressive building projects that included Caesar’s Forum and Pompey’s Theatre (Rome’s first permanent stone theatre) were initiated at Rome.

Caesar’s Invasions of Britain

Things were looking good for the Triumvirate, and Caesar now took the opportunity to invade Britain. His pretext was not to stamp out the Druids, as is sometimes asserted, but, in his own words, because he ‘knew that in almost all the Gallic campaigns the Gauls had received reinforcements from the Britons’.23 This military justification stems from the fact that Caesar was technically exceeding his powers by campaigning outside his Provincia, and so running the risk of prosecution. Unspoken motives may have included a desire to assess Britain’s mineral wealth, tap into the island’s production of wheat in order to supply his troops in Gaul, and, of course, to win prestige. Britain was regarded as a distant, exotic, triangular land across the Ocean, near the ends of the earth, whose west side faced Spain (!) and Ireland, and whose inhabitants dyed themselves with blue woad and shaved all their bodies apart from their heads and the upper lips: conquest would match Pompey’s achievements in the East (see Map 2).

Towards the end of summer 55 BCE, Caesar detailed an officer called C. Volusenus to assess potential landing sites, and dispatched Commius, a pro-Roman chieftain of the Gallic Atrebates tribe, to persuade as many British tribes as possible to accept Rome’s ‘protection’. Neither man was particularly successful: Volusenus only found a series of open beaches rather than a suitable harbour, and Commius was taken prisoner.

Undeterred, Caesar requisitioned eighty transport vessels and a number of warships at Portus Itius (identified as modern Boulogne), plus eighteen transports for the cavalry 13 kilometres along the coast. He set sail around midnight on 24 August with Legio VII and his favourite Legio X. Unfortunately, the cavalry were slow off the mark, and were carried back to land by the tide. Caesar himself reached Britain at about 9 a.m. on the 25th, but with hostile forces on the hills ready to oppose him he rode at anchor until 3 p.m., when the wind and tide turned in his favour. He ran his ships aground on a sloping beach, but finding themselves shoulder-deep in the waves and weighed down by their weapons, his men struggled to establish a beachhead until, in an iconic moment in British history, the eagle-bearer of Legio X (subsequently called Equestris) yelled:

Jump down, comrades, unless you want to surrender our eagle to the enemy; I, at any rate, mean to do my duty to my country and my general!24

He leaped out of the ship; the Romans rallied round him and drove the Britons from the beach; the British chieftains released Commius and sued for peace; Caesar reproached them for making war on him ‘without provocation’,25 and took hostages.

When the cavalry eventually sailed, they immediately ran into a gale that forced them back to the continent. The storm, combined with a full moon and a particularly high tide – ‘a fact unknown to our men’, according to Caesar26 – severely damaged the Roman fleet, which was drawn up on the beach or riding at anchor. Caesar had never intended to winter in Britain, and his men had not provided themselves with a stock of grain with this in mind. The British chieftains knew that Caesar had no cavalry, ships or corn, and that his force was not large, and so decided to renew hostilities: if they repulsed the Romans now, it might deter anyone from invading Britain again.

As Caesar repaired his ships and sent out foraging parties, the Britons responded by ambushing Legio VII using their expert chariot fighters:

They combine the mobility of cavalry with the staying power of infantry; and by daily training and practice they attain such proficiency that even on a steep incline they are able to control the horses at full gallop, and to check and turn them in a moment. They can run along the chariot pole, stand on the yoke, and get back into the chariot as quick as lightning.27

Caesar’s timely intervention saved the day, but when some typical British weather curtailed the fighting, the Britons took the opportunity to assemble a large force in order to eradicate the Roman menace once and for all. However, this played into Caesar’s hands: the natives were no match for the Romans in formal warfare and were totally routed; the Romans devastated a wide area before returning to camp; British envoys sued for peace; Caesar demanded twice as many hostages (though only two tribes actually delivered them), and made a safe nightcrossing back to the continent.

Modern scholarly assessments tend to regard the outcomes of this expedition with circumspection. Objectively it had not been a spectacular success, and Caesar had been in considerable jeopardy, but on the other hand he had crossed the ocean and the barbarians of Britain had capitulated. Seen from Caesar’s perspective, it had ticked all the necessary boxes:

On the conclusion of these campaigns and the receipt of Caesar’s dispatches, the Senate decreed a public thanks giving of twenty days.28

The fact that Caesar had unfinished business in Britain is shown by the events of 54 BCE. He returned having learned important lessons: a purpose-built fleet of 600 extra transport ships was constructed; Gallic troublemakers were dealt with; and the invasion force was increased to five legions (about 25 000 men: Legio VII is the only one mentioned by name in Caesar’s account, but X was probably used, and also XIV (later called Gemina, which was commanded by Cicero’s brother Quintus, who wrote letters home from Britain) plus 2 000 auxiliary cavalry. Other lessons had not been learned: again he was driven far off course by the tidal current, but when he did finally land at about midday on 6 July, he was able to do so unopposed – his ‘invincible armada’ had frightened the Britons away.

Caesar struck hard and fast. A night march of about 32 kilometres brought him within sight of the enemy, who confronted him from across the River Stour. When the Roman cavalry drove them back they occupied the hill-fort of Bigbury, but assaulting this type of defence was meat and drink to Roman legionaries: the soldiers of the Legio VII locked their shields together in the testudo (‘tortoise’) formation and captured the place with relative ease.

So far so good. But then came news that a gale had severely damaged the Roman fleet, and that forty ships were a total right-off. Again Caesar was paying the price for not finding a suitable harbour, and for misreading the local weather conditions. During the ten days that it took him to enclose the ships in a fortified camp, a numerous British force had been assembled by Cassivellaunus of the Catuvellauni, a bellicose tribe whose territory lay north of the River Thames, with their capital at Wheathampstead.

The hit-and-run tactics of the British cavalry and charioteers made life difficult for the Romans as they advanced northwards, but when the Britons tried a more forceful onslaught Caesar routed them. This proved so demoralizing that the various tribes that had assembled to help Cassivellaunus dispersed, allowing Caesar to forge ahead to the Thames. Where he made the crossing into Cassivellaunus’ territory is disputed (Tilbury and Brentford are the favoured suggestions), but despite large enemy forces on the opposite bank using sharp stakes fixed along the edge and concealed in the river bed, his combined cavalry and infantry assault drove the Britons off.

Cassivellaunus reverted to guerrilla tactics with his charioteers, while Caesar received envoys from the Trinovantes, a rival tribe from Essex, whose young prince Mandubracius was a personal enemy of Cassivellaunus. Caesar agreed to protect Mandubracius from Cassivellaunus in return for his people’s support, and other tribes surrendered too. They gave Caesar the intelligence he needed to locate Cassivellaunus’ stronghold at Wheathampstead. Once found, this was easily captured, and Cassivellaunus sued for peace, using Commius as an intermediary. By now, Caesar was keen to return to Gaul, and he was relatively lenient: he demanded hostages, fixed an annual tribute to the Roman government, banned Cassivellaunus from harassing Mandubracius or the Trinovantes, and then took advantage of calm seas to take the fleet safely back to Gaul.

Caesar never divulges what his objectives really were, but as far as the Senate was concerned Britain had been conquered, and that was all that mattered. However, the mere fact of Caesar’s departure may indicate a moral victory for Cassivellaunus, and Tacitus tells us that a century or so later the British chieftain Caratacus

invoked their ancestors, who by routing Julius Caesar had valorously preserved their present descendants from Roman officials and taxes – and their wives and children from defilement.29

Even if history is written by the victors, as it literally was in Caesar’s case, not everyone always accepts their version of events.

1   Tr. Freeman, P., in Q. Tullius Cicero, How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians, translated and with an introduction by Philip Freeman, Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012. ‘Q.’ is the Roman abbreviation for Quintus.

2 The phrase comes from the Victorian historian J. R. Seeley, Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883, p. 8. He is talking about the British Empire.

3 History, of course, never repeats itself: see p. 223 below.

4 ‘C.’ is the Roman abbreviation for Gaius.

5 ‘Cn.’ is the Roman abbreviation for Gnaeus.

6 Cicero, pro lege Manilia 59; Sallust, Histories 5.24; Velleius Paterculus 2.32.1; Valerius Maximus 8.15.9; Dio 36.31 ff.. There is dispute about whether it was ‘maius’, i.e., greater than that of the other governors, or ‘aequum’, equal, at this stage. On balance it was most likely aequum: see Seager, R., Pompey: A Political Biography, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979, p. 35 f.

7   Velleius Paterculus, 2.18.1, tr. Shipley, F. W., in Velleius Paterculus, Compendium of Roman History, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1924. His name is spelled either Mithridates or Mithradates.

8   Pro lege Manilia.

9   2.3ff., 8.8ff., 25ff. Some scholars think that the Kittim mentioned in the Commentary on Habakkuk (Pesher Habakkuk, 1Q p Hab), one of the seven original Dead Sea Scrolls, may well be the Romans under Pompey and his predecessor Lucullus.

10   ‘M.’ is the Roman abbreviation for Marcus.

11   See [Q. Cicero] A Short Guide to Electioneering, 54, quoted above, p. 1.

12   Cicero, Pro Cluentio 154, tr. Grose Hodge, H., in Cicero in Twenty-eight Volumes, IX, Pro Lege Manilia, Pro Caecina, Pro Cluentio, Pro Rabirio Perduellionis, with an English Translation by H. Grose Hodge, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1929.

13   Cicero, Pro Sestio 45, 96, tr. Shenton, J. A., in As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman History, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 299.

14   ‘L.’ is the Roman abbreviation for Lucius.

15   Suetonius, Augustus 1–2, tr. Graves, R., in Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars, 2nd edn., Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979.

16   Quoted by Suetonius, Augustus 4, tr. Graves, R., op. cit.

17   The mother of Octavia Maior was C. Octavius’ first wife Ancharia; the other two were Octavius Senior’s children by Atia.

18   The ‘P.’ is the Roman abbreviation for Publius.

19   Suetonius, Caesar 10.

20   Cicero, Letters to His Brother Quintus 1.1.11.

21   Suetonius, Tiberius 2. His original name was Claudius: see Allen, W. jnr., ‘Claudius or Clodius?’, The Classical Journal, vol. 33, no. 2 (1937), 107–110.

22   ‘T.’ is the Roman abbreviation for Titus.

23   Caesar, Bellum Gallicum 4.20, in Caesar: The Conquest of Gaul, tr. Handford, S. A., London: Penguin Books, revised with a New Introduction by Jane F. Gardner, 1982.

24   Ibid. 4.25.

25   Ibid. 4.27.

26   Ibid. 4.29.

27   Ibid. 4.33.

28   Ibid. 4.38.

29   Tacitus, Annals 12.34. tr. Grant, M., in Tacitus: The Annals of Imperial Rome, Translated with an Introduction by Michael Grant, rev. edn., Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1989.

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