Background to war

The First Triumvirate

For nearly two years Sulla ruled as dictator with absolute power and only laid this down when he went into voluntary retirement. Before he did so, Sulla attempted to restore the Senate’s position within the Republic, confirming its traditional powers and filling it with his supporters. He passed a law that was intended to prevent army commanders from following his own example and using their legions outside their own provinces without permission. The career pattern (cursus honorum) followed by Roman senators was also to be regulated more closely. The Republic was not to be dominated by a few individuals, but guided by the collective wisdom of the 600 senators.

Sulla’s reforms were reactionary, impractical and weakened by the example of his own rise to power, so that many Romans did not consider them to be legitimate. Most importantly Sulla had failed to do anything to cater for the demands of the army on a permanent basis, so that discharged soldiers continued to have no source of livelihood and were therefore still inclined to follow any commander who promised them land. The chaos of the civil war and the rapid collapse of the Sullan constitution fostered a continuation of political disorder and eventually the renewal of open war in 49. This period also had a profound influence on the careers and attitudes of the main protagonists in 49-45. Caesar himself first rose to prominence during Sulla’s dictatorship, narrowly avoiding execution by the dictator when he publicly celebrated his relation by marriage to Marius at a family funeral.

However, a far more dramatic role was played by Cnaeus Pompey, who in 83 came to the support of Sulla at the head of three legions raised from his family’s estates and veterans who had served under his late father, Pompeius Strabo (‘squinty’). At the time Pompey was only 23 and, having never held public office, had no legal authority on which to base his power. Fighting with distinction in Italy, Sicily and north Africa, Pompey was granted the title Magnus (The Great’) by Sulla, though this may have been more than a little ironic. After Sulla’s retirement, the Senate continued to employ the services of this private citizen and his personal army to suppress an attempted coup in Italy in 78 and then to fight the last of Marius’ adherents in Spain. Employing Pompey, rather than a legally appointed magistrate under their control, set an exceptionally bad precedent. Probably the Senate felt that, since Pompey and his legions existed, it was better to use him than risk his turning against them.

In 71 Pompey returned victorious from Spain, and decided to stand for the consulship for the following year. He was too young, and had held none of the normally required junior magistracies, but he kept his legions outside the city as a scarcely veiled threat. Marcus Licinius Crassus, who had just returned from suppressing Spartacus’s slave rebellion, took the opportunity to retain his own army and in turn declared himself a candidate for the consulship. Crassus was exceptionally wealthy, his fortune based originally on property confiscated from Sulla’s executed opponents. The Senate was forced to permit their candidature and the Roman people, who were on the whole well disposed to both men after their successes, duly elected Pompey and Crassus as consuls for 70. Thus Pompey at the age of 36 entered the Senate directly as a consul, an utterly unprecedented action. His military record was already spectacular, but, given his age; he clearly expected to be given further important tasks.

Since Sulla’s reforms, a magistrate remained in Rome itself during his year of office. He was then appointed as a promagistrate to govern a province. Former consuls, or proconsuls, were sent to the most important provinces while former praetors, or propraetors, went to the less significant areas. The appointment as governor was normally made for a year, but could, if the Senate chose, be renewed for additional 12-month periods at the end of this time. As governor, the promagistrate possessed supreme military and civil power within his province, dispensing legal decisions or leading an army as the situation required. He could not be recalled or prosecuted until his term of office expired. A governor’s powers (or imperium), lapsed as soon as he re-entered Rome and he became a private citizen again, simply one senator among many.

The Senate had traditionally chosen the provinces for each new political year, although individual magistrates were then normally allocated a task by lot. In 88 Marius had arranged for a popular vote giving him the command in the Asian War, a move which prompted Sulla’s march on Rome. In 67 Pompey employed the same method of a vote in the People’s Assembly (concilium plebis) to give him a wide-ranging command against the pirates plaguing the Mediterranean. A combination of careful organisation, massive resources, and a willingness to accept the surrender of pirate communities and resettle them elsewhere, allowed Pompey to achieve victory in under two months. In 66 another law was passed by the people sending Pompey to Asia to fight against Mithridates of Pontus. This meant that the existing commander in this war, Lucullus, who had achieved great success, was replaced in spite of the Senate’s desire to leave him in charge. Since the war was virtually over before he arrived, it took little time for Pompey to complete the defeat of Mithridates, who committed suicide when his own son turned against him. Pompey then proceeded to campaign throughout the near east, for instance, intervening in a domestic squabble between the kings of Judaea. After a three-month siege, Pompey took Jerusalem. He and his officers went into the Holy of Holies in the Great Temple, although they declined to take any of its treasures. This was a great propaganda success, the Roman aristocracy always striving to be the first to do any spectacular deed. As well as his military operations, Pompey carried out extensive administrative reform of the east. Provincial boundaries were altered, cities founded or refounded with new constitutions and relations with client kingdoms regulated. Many aspects of his settlement would endure for over 500 years.

Bust of Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey). Joined with Crassus and Caesar’s form the First Triumvirate but after the death of Crassus, relations with Caesar broke down and led to Civil War (Ancient Art and Architecture Collection)

Pompey had acquired so much glory and plunder on his campaigns that he had no serious rival within the Senate, and there was growing fear of what he would do when he returned to Italy. Many wondered whether he might copy Sulla and seize absolute power by force. In fact, Pompey behaved in a manner that was scrupulously correct, disbanding his army almost as soon as it had landed in Brundisium, and returning to Rome to celebrate an especially lavish triumph. He seems to have simply wanted to take his place as one of the Senate’s most important members, but he also had two immediate political objectives. The first was to gain formal approval for all of his reforms in the eastern provinces. The second was to secure grants of land for the soldiers who had served him so well. In spite of his tremendous prestige, and in part because he had spent so much time on campaign and so little at Rome, Pompey was a poor politician. His speech in the Senate fell flat, and he did not seem to know how to use his great reputation and wealth to achieve his ends. He was opposed, most notably by Crassus, who was jealous of Pompey’s prestige; Lucullus, who resented having been superseded in the command against Mithridates; and Cato the Younger, who disliked the revolutionary nature of Pompey’s career and was reluctant to see him prosper. Time and again this opposition thwarted any attempt to ratify Pompey’s settlement or grant land to his veterans. The impasse dragged on for nearly two years and was finally resolved in a manner that astounded most senators.

In 60 Julius Caesar returned from Further Spain, where he had served as a propraetorian governor and campaigned with success against local tribes. Six years younger than Pompey, Caesar’s career had been fairly conventional up to this point, although his lavish spending on games and public feasting, combined with his rakish lifestyle, had won him numerous political enemies. Having won the right to celebrate a triumph, Caesar hoped this honour would permit him to win the consulship for 59. However, candidates had to present themselves for election in the city itself, and a general, still in command of the troops who would march in procession behind his chariot during the triumph, was not permitted to enter Rome until the day of the ceremony. Unable to gain an exemption, Caesar gave up his right to a triumph, dismissed his troops, and entered the city as a civilian. Thwarted, his opponents arranged for one of the consular provinces for the next year to be the supervision of the forests and country paths of Italy, a command without any troops or opportunities for profit and glory.

Around this time Caesar made approaches to both Crassus and Pompey and managed to reconcile them. Together the three men formed a secret political alliance, which is known by historians as the First Triumvirate. To cement the alliance, Pompey married Caesar’s daughter Julia, a union which, for all its political inspiration, proved to be a remarkably happy one. In return for supporting his candidature, Caesar undertook to gain land for Pompey’s veterans and to secure the ratification of his Eastern Settlement. Crassus paid off the massive debts Caesar had incurred in the promotion of his career, and gained a secure place as one of the most powerful men in the state. Caesar won the election and during his year of office was able to override his consular colleague, Lucius Calpurnius Bibulus. On several occasions large numbers of Pompey’s veterans packed into the forum and voting assemblies, using threats or actual force to control the voting. One common joke at the time was that this year Rome had two consuls—Julius and Caesar. Together the three members of the triumvirate possessed massive patronage. Many senators owed them money, especially Crassus, who was highly skilled in using his fortune to win influence, and all had to go to the triumvirs if they wished to secure an appointment to any of the more senior positions in the army or government. Both Crassus and Pompey were highly satisfied and, in return, Caesar was granted a far more important province by popular vote. A special command consisting of three normal provinces, Illyricum, Cisalpine Gaul and Transalpine Gaul (modern-day Provence in southern France) was allocated to him for five years.

Caesar departed for his province in 58, never to return to Italy until the beginning of the Civil War. Crassus had covered his immediate debts, but Caesar was in great need of money to further his career. Very much the junior partner in the triumvirate, he also needed military glory to rival Crassus and, especially, Pompey. At first he appears to have contemplated a Balkan war against the Dacian King Burebista, but the news of the migration of a Gallic tribe towards Transalpine Gaul shifted his focus away from Illyricum. Over the next years Caesar campaigned throughout Gaul, twice bridged the Rhine and marched into Germany, and led two expeditions across the sea to Britain. That island remained mysterious to the Romans, and the euphoria over Caesar’s expeditions could be compared to the excitement that greeted the moon landing in 1969. Caesar won massive glory during his Gallic campaigns, and produced his Commentaries, probably published in annual instalments, to celebrate his achievements. As well as gaining glory, Caesar became one of the wealthiest men in the world from plunder and sale of slaves, hundreds of thousands of whom were captured during the conflict.

Though unable to leave his province without also laying down his command, Caesar took care to keep a close eye on affairs in Rome, and spent every winter as close as possible, overseeing the administration of Cisalpine Gaul. He supported a radical politician, Publius Clodius, a demagogue who employed a gang of political thugs to force his legislation through. Rome had no police force, nor was it permitted for troops to be stationed within the city, so the state had no force with which to combat this violence. Clodius passed laws that complemented the legislation of Caesar’s consulship, but which also attacked prominent figures within the Senate. In 58 Cicero was forced into exile, a success Clodius celebrated by leading a riot which burned down his house. Next Clodius turned his attention to Pompey, a move that presumably was not sanctioned by Caesar. Pompey responded by backing another gang of thugs led by Titus Annius Milo. Running battles were fought in and around Rome as the city descended into chaos. In 57 Pompey sponsored a law recalling Cicero. Three days after Cicero’s return, that is on 7 September, Pompey was given the major responsibility of overseeing the City’s corn supply and once again displayed his considerable talents for organisation in rapidly remedying the situation. His return to the public eye provoked a renewal of rivalry with Crassus and it was clear that the triumvirate was coming under strain.

Crassus went to consult Caesar in his province and, after some cajoling, Pompey travelled to join them in April 56. In the town of Luca the triumvirs, along with a hundred or so senators who had accompanied them to show their goodwill, held a conference in which the alliance was patched up. Pompey and Crassus would both stand for the consulship in 55 and, since both their fame and the presence of a considerable body of Caesar’s soldiers on leave ensured success, they were able to arrange matters to the benefit of all three. Caesar’s command was extended for five years, although there is some doubt as to precisely when in late 50 or early 49 it was to expire. Pompey received both the Spanish provinces, but in an unprecedented move was allowed to remain in Rome and command through subordinates. Crassus was given Syria, from which he planned to lead an invasion of Parthia, for it seems that he felt the need to rival the conquests of his colleagues. Aged almost 60, he was considered rather old for active command by Roman standards and there were doubts about the legitimacy of a war with Parthia, but the triumvirs were too strong for any opposition to stand much chance.

This statue of young Gallic warrior was found in Vacheres in southern France. With the addition of a helmet he could easily be one of the Gallic cavalrymen who fought on both sides in the Civil War

In 54 Julia died in childbirth, and Crassus left to join the army in Syria. The following year he was defeated by the Parthians at Carrhae, and then killed when his army was forced to retreat. In spite of these blows, Pompey appeared still to consider himself bound to Caesar and in 53 sent one of his Spanish legions to reinforce Caesar’s army in Gaul. Rome continued to be plagued by political violence, as Clodius’ and Milo’s followers clashed with renewed frenzy. In 52 Clodius was killed and his supporters carried his body into the Senate House, where they cremated it, burning the building to the ground in the process. In the face of anarchy, the Senate appointed Pompey sole consul and charged him with restoring order, for the first time permitting troops to guard Rome itself. Milo was put on trial and forced into exile as order was restored.

Caesar knew that he had many opponents in the Senate, chief among them Cato the Younger. In spite of his new wealth and the freedom with which he had tried to buy support, Caesar knew that a good number of influential men loathed him, and would not forgive him for his actions in 59. As a serving magistrate he was not subject to prosecution, but as soon as his office expired and he returned to civilian life this protection was withdrawn. He did not believe that he would receive a fair trial. During the Gallic campaigns Cato had even once suggested that he ought to be handed over to the Germans for war crimes. Defeat would mean exile and the end of his political career. To avoid this, Caesar wanted to go straight into a second consulship, after which he would be given another military command, perhaps against the Parthians. In this way he could continue to serve the Republic in a distinguished capacity.

In 52 Pompey passed a law which stipulated a five-year interval between a magistracy and a provincial command, although he specifically exempted Caesar in a clause apparently written in his own handwriting. However, around the same time he married the daughter of Publius Metellus Scipio, a known opponent of Caesar. Pressure on Caesar mounted, as incoming consuls lobbied to have him replaced in his province, since the war in Gaul appeared to be over. Pompey’s attitude appeared increasingly ambivalent and the extension of his Spanish command gave him military might to match against Caesar. The latter was being forced into a corner. He had either to give up his command and trust to Pompey to protect him from the inevitable prosecution or to fight.

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