A new Caesar: the Second Triumvirate, 43–31 BC

The Republic was dead but not yet buried. Tim Cornell has summarized matters well: ‘With the beginning of the Civil Wars, the Republic, defined as the rule of magistrates, senate and people of Rome, was already dead. Since 60 BC control of affairs had passed from the oligarchy to the dynasts, who were supported by their private armies and clientelae, and were constitutionally provided for by special commands which freed them from the restrictions of the system of annual collegiate magistracies. The oligarchy that Sulla restored had shown itself to be irresponsible, corrupt, self-seeking and indifferent, and no longer commanded the respect or loyalty of any significant group in society. The propertied classes of Italy had no confidence in a regime which excluded their leading men from senior positions and was unable to guarantee order and stability; the poor happily surrendered their spurious freedoms and ineffectual political rights in favour of individual leaders who depended on them for support and who consequently took care to supply their material needs. The position of Pompey in the mid-50s … already fore-shadowed that of the emperors.’(20) To this I would add that the dynasts had been able to usurp power because the oligarchy’s social base had been eroded by the expansion of the empire, the rise of new classes, and the consequent dislocation of the old order of state and society – changes which had engendered a revolutionary crisis. But because the dynasts at the same time fought for themselves – for personal power within the existingsystem – the leadership they offered remained inchoate. For this reason there was no clear break: the end was messy and protracted, and the Republic remained a wraithlike presence now and for a century or more to come.

Pompey, for instance, was diverted from the role of reforming dictator by his rivalry with Caesar. But Cornell is surely right to see the First Triumvirate as a transitional government heralding the end of the Republic and the creation of the Principate. Until this time, Roman politics had been intermittently shaped by the intervention of warlords, but, between bouts of open war, the politicians, the Senate and the Concordia Ordinum had retained a fragile grip. Never again after 60 BC. The highest point of senatorial politics henceforward was to choose between masters. The Senate, anyway, was transformed in the civil-war generation: many of the old families, some claiming descent from noble ancestors centuries before, were consumed by battle, execution and purge; the triumvirs filled the empty seats – and more (the Senate grew from several hundred to a thousand) – with loyalist ‘new men’. An ‘aristocracy of the robe’, sitting by hereditary right, was gradually replaced by an ‘aristocracy of office’, men who had risen to the top through military and administrative service under the triumvirs.

Some men, though, could not stomach the subservience on which careers now depended. They resented the regal airs of those who had once been their peers; the arrogance of the sometimes low-born favourites and flunkies of the triumviral retinues; the shrivelling away of ancient nobility, of Roman traditions, of an ordered world where men knew their place, where privilege, property and power were safe. It was 60 to 80 such men, led by Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius, who had formed the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. In its aftermath, there was at first turmoil, and some must have hoped to reverse the outcome of the Civil War. But they deluded themselves. As men adjusted and the new situation crystallized into alliances and blocs, it was soon apparent that the birth of a new order was irreversible.

First, however, the confusion, the fog of events unfolding. The Roman polity that Caesar’s dictatorship had momentarily strapped together had burst apart; no one was sure what would replace it. Mark Antony and other Caesarian leaders, as eager as other members of the ruling class to avoid a repetition of the riots that had followed Clodius’s death in 52 BC, at first formed a common front with the Senate against disorder. Leading assassins were even appointed to top posts. But conservatives feared Antony as the new Caesar. Cicero delivered a series of excoriating speeches modelled on those of Demosthenes against Philip II of Macedon three centuries before (thus, the Philippics). Ironically, it was the dead man who seemed to have bequeathed the optimates their strongest weapon. Lacking a legitimate son, Caesar had named his 19-year-old great-nephew Gaius Octavianus his adoptive son and heir to his estate. The young man thus became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, conventionally known (now but not then) as Octavian.

Octavian was a complete unknown. Though his maternal grandmother was Julius Caesar’s sister, his father belonged to an obscure Italian municipal family from Velitrae. Octavian himself was still in the East when news reached him of his elevation. Surely this youth and ‘new man’ suddenly cast into the storm-centre of Roman politics would allow himself to be guided by the great men of the Senate? So at first it seemed. Courted and flattered by Cicero and others when he arrived in Rome, Octavian raised an army in alliance with the Senate and advanced against Antony early in 43 BC. Antony, who had been conducting a half-hearted siege against the assassin Decimus Brutus at Mutina in northern Italy, retreated in the face of overwhelming force into the old Caesarian power-base of Gaul. By the summer he had raised a new army and resumed the offensive. He drove Decimus Brutus from Mutina and opened the way south to Rome. All-out war between the two Caesarian leaders seemed possible.

But Octavian’s position straddled a contradiction and was unsustainable. He had raised an army in Caesar’s name but was asking it to fight for the Senate against a Caesarian army. The soldiers were restless and their loyalty could not be guaranteed. Even if they fought and won, their victory could only weaken the Caesarian cause overall. And if they lost? There is evidence that Octavian was a physical coward. Certainly he was no general. He cannot have been sanguine about the prospect of battle against Antony’s legions. He was untried. His reputation rested on his adoptive name alone. Defeat might extinguish his career at the outset. Above all was the simple fact that, because Octavian was his adoptive father’s son and a Caesarian leader, he could not risk fighting a civil war within Caesar’s party as the candidate of the Senate. Determined as he was to destroy his rival for the party leadership, he had been naïve to think he could achieve this in alliance with Cicero. In July 43 BC, therefore, Octavian took control of Rome in a military coup and revoked the amnesty for Caesar’s assassins. He then made overtures to Antony.

Three Caesarian leaders, Octavian, Antony and Marcus Lepidus, commander of the Gallic legions, met at Bononia in northern Italy to form ‘the Second Triumvirate’ (though real power rested with the first two, Lepidus’s most important role being to offset the rivalry of the principals). They then set about destroying their enemies. Three hundred senators (including Cicero) and 2,000 equestrians were proscribed and executed, and their family estates confiscated. A new cult of divus Iulius (divine Julius) was inaugurated. The empire was divided into three geographical zones, each ruled by a triumvir, but with Italy for the time being shared. Having settled matters thus, the triumvirs then prepared for war against the assassins Brutus and Cassius, who were raising a Republican army in Greece. The Caesarians crossed the Adriatic and marched into Macedonia to confront the Republicans the following year (42 BC). Antony and Octavian fought two battles near Philippi, the first against Cassius, the second, three weeks later, against Brutus: in both the Republicans were defeated, and the respective leaders committed suicide; captured officers were executed, while the rank and file were incorporated into the Caesarian army.

The Caesarians had drawn back from a private civil war in order to crush resurgent Republicanism, first in a military coup in Rome, then on the battlefield at Philippi. Lepidus had been marginalized by events. Antony had achieved temporary dominance by virtue of his successful military leadership. Octavian emerged with his power-base intact but his reputation tarnished. His alliance with the Senate in 44 BC followed by his abrupt volte-face and the military coup of 43 BC marked him as an ambitious opportunist without principle or honour. He was also an enthusiastic murderer. The bloody purge that followed the coup was in stark contrast to his adoptive father’s policy of clemency, and his treatment of defeated enemies after Philippi was boorish and brutal; so much so, Suetonius tells us, that ‘the prisoners, while being led off in chains, courteously saluted Antony as their conqueror, but abused Augustus [Octavian] to his face with the most obscene epithets.’(21) Weak, untalented, immoral, self-serving, arrogant, murderous: all these words applied to Octavian, and it is astonishing that this truly disgusting man has been admired by a succession of ancient historians mesmerized by the image-makers of the Augustan regime. He was in fact one of history’s bloody tyrants.

The triumvirs now reapportioned their enlarged domain. Lepidus received Africa, Octavian took most of the West, including Rome and Italy, and Antony became responsible for the East. If some final showdown between the two leading triumvirs was inevitable, it was postponed for many years by the demands and distractions of their respective spheres. The division appeared to favour Antony. The East was richer and it offered an opportunity for military glory in the resurrection of Caesar’s planned Parthian campaign. Octavian’s share seemed, by contrast, both unglamorous and dangerous.

He first had to find land for the settlement of 100,000 Philippi veterans. The anger of Italian landowners was successfully exploited by Lucius Antonius, brother of Mark, who raised a revolt against the land confiscations and other repressive measures in 41 BC. This turned out to be a misjudgement: Lucius Antonius was besieged and defeated at Perusia, and the war merely demonstrated the strength of support that Octavian enjoyed in the West. Lucius’s brother, moreover, felt obliged to intervene, landing belatedly at Brundisium to challenge Octavian; but the soldiers of the two Caesarian armies fraternized and refused to fight, compelling their respective leaders to come to terms. The Pact of Brundisium in 40 BC renewed the Second Triumvirate, which was now sealed by Antony’s marriage to Octavian’s sister. The division of the Empire was renegotiated and modified in detail. There is evidence, however, of long-term damage to Antony’s cause. His brother had raised rebellion on behalf of Italian landowners. Octavian had championed Caesarian veterans hungry for land. When the Caesarian general Calenus died shortly afterwards, all 11 of the Gallic legions he had commanded declared their allegiance to Octavian.

For the next ten years, though, Octavian was preoccupied fighting wars in defence of Italy. Between 42 and 36 BC he was at war with Sextus Pompeius, the surviving younger son of Pompey (the elder had been killed at Munda), who was operating from military bases in Sicily. Pompeius’s naval operations threatened seaborne trade, especially the corn-supply to Rome, so his suppression was a military necessity. But Octavian’s forces suffered reverses and the war dragged on. Marcus Agrippa now emerged as Octavian’s leading lieutenant and party loyalist. At great expense and effort he established a new shipbuilding complex on the Bay of Naples, where an enlarged fleet could be constructed. This fleet, reinforced by ships sent by Antony (with whom a further renewal of the triumvirate had been negotiated at Tarentum in 38 BC), finally brought Sextus Pompeius to battle off Naulochus near the Straits of Messina in 36 BC and inflicted crushing defeat. A second major land settlement was now necessary as the forces assembled against Sextus Pompeius were demobilized. Octavian retained a large army, however, and a campaign of conquest was fought in Illyricum (the coastal region of the north-western Balkans) in 35–34 BC. But ambitious plans to push north towards the Danube were soon cut short. Relations with Antony had soured, and from 33 BC onwards Octavian was preparing for a new civil war.

Antony’s attack on the Parthian Empire – like that of Crassus – had gone badly wrong. Though the lesson had been learnt that strong contingents of cavalry and light infantry were essential, Antony had opted for a direct assault on distant Persia, bypassing Mesopotamia. As winter closed in, his army found itself at the end of a dangerously long and exposed supply-line, having failed to bring the Parthians to battle. The relentless attacks of Parthian skirmishers on Antony’s retreating column in the winter of 36–35 BC decimated his army. His power was diminished at the very moment that of Octavian, after the defeat of Sextus Pompeius, reached its peak. Sensing his vulnerability, Antony entered deeper into alliance with Cleopatra, the Greek queen of Egypt. While it is undoubtedly the case that Antony – like Caesar before him – was Cleopatra’s lover, it does not follow that the alliance between Roman triumvir and Greek monarch was driven by lust. Rather, Antony required Cleopatra’s military support for his Parthian campaign, and yet further support after his retreat, and this was paid for in a series of political concessions (the so-called ‘Donations of Alexandria’) by which Cleopatra’s empire was to include Media, Parthia, Armenia, parts of Palestine and Nabataean Arabia, Cyprus, Cyrene, Syria and Cilicia. These territories – a mixture of Roman provinces, client-states and prospective conquests – were to be ruled either by Cleopatra herself, or by the couple’s anticipated son, or by Ptolemy Caesarion, Caesar’s son by Cleopatra. The ancient historian Max Cary sums up the implications laconically: ‘Had all these transfers of territory been carried into effect, the result would have been to form an empire within the Roman Empire, and in all probability to disintegrate the Roman dominions into two rival states. Antony’s complaisance to Cleopatra, if not actually treasonable, might easily be construed as such.’(22)

It was certainly so construed by Octavian’s propagandists. Antony was stereotyped as a Roman corrupted by the decadence of the East and emasculated by a devious seductress. He was the heinous turncoat in a Manichaean struggle between us and them, civilization and barbarism, the West and the Orient. ‘Opposing them [Octavian’s forces at the naval battle of Actium] was Antony; with him, on board, he had Egyptians and the whole strength of the East, even to most distant Bactria; on his side was the wealth of the Orient and arms of varied design, and he came victoriously from the nations of the Dawn and the Red Sea’s shore, followed – the shame of it! – by an Egyptian wife … The queen in the centre called up her columns by sounding the tambourine of her land … Her gods, monstrous shapes of every species, even to the barking Anubis, levelled weapons against Neptune, Venus, even Minerva herself.’(23) Thus the Augustan court-poet Virgil.

At first, Antony’s portion of the triumviral carve-up may have looked tastier. While Octavian landed the unhappy task of dispossessing Italian landowners to make farms for soldiers, and an unglamorous but expensive and difficult war against Sextus Pompeius’s sea-raiders, Antony seemed poised for glory in an eastern crusade. But things had worked out differently. The Republican opposition had been crushed, and peace restored to Italy and the West. Exhausted, Roman society had settled into relative stability. Octavian had been able to repackage himself: no longer a murderous civil war faction-leader, he now approximated to the image being conjured by court artists of a patriotic and paternal statesman. His popularity with both the propertied classes and the common people soared. But what truly mattered was his military power. Control of Italy and Cisalpine Gaul was a decisive advantage: these were still the principal recruiting-grounds of Rome’s army, and from here came most of the men of the 45 legions and 500 warships at Octavian’s command. These men were the military embodiment of the traditional Romanitas he claimed to represent in the struggle with Antony. The poet was not far wrong about Actium. Octavian’s forces were united by language, religion and ideology in a way that Antony’s polyglot army was not; Romans were a minority in the eastern army, and their discomfort among so many exotic allies was to be reflected in a wave of desertions in the days and hours before the battle.

The final breach had come in 32 BC. Antony had refused to see his wife Octavia after 35 BC. He had married Cleopatra and become the Egyptian queen’s prince-consort under Greek dynastic law in 33 BC. He then divorced Octavia the following year. Not until 31 BC, however, was Octavian ready to move; only then was he confident that his Italian base was secure, his forces large enough, their cohesion and commitment certain. Antony and Cleopatra moved to block an assault on their eastern empire, so that the civil war, just as in 48 and 42 BC, came to be fought in Greece. But the eastern forces lacked centralized command and a common cause. Mismanaged and demoralized, their fleet found itself blockaded in the port of Actium on the north-west coast of Greece, where it ran short of supplies and was weakened by desertions. Antony attempted a mass breakout, but in the confused and desultory fighting that followed, only Cleopatra, Antony and some 60 ships broke through; the rest of the eastern fleet returned to port and soon surrendered.

Octavian marched overland to the East – through Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, the Levant, and finally to Egypt. He encountered little opposition. Antony’s empire was a façade without substance. Once master and mistress had fled, the peoples of the East had no interest in resistance. Octavian’s march was a triumphal procession in which the new ruler showed himself to his new subjects. When Octavian reached Egypt in 30 BC, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. Their conqueror was then master of the entire Roman world. And, though people could not at first be sure, the civil wars were finally over. The Roman Revolution was complete. The Senate had been overthrown and replaced by a military dictator, a regime of new men, and a policy of conservative reform.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!