Ancient History & Civilisation


The Spectre of Civil War

So this is what their love affair, their scandalous union has come to – not secret backbiting, but outright war. As for my own affairs, I don’t know what plan to take, and I don’t doubt that the same question is going to trouble you. I have ties of obligation and friendship with these people. On the other hand, I love the cause, but hate the men.

I do not suppose that it escapes you that when there is a dispute about affairs in a community, men ought to take the more respectable side so long as the dispute is political and not conducted by force of arms. But when it comes to actual war and army-camps, then they should choose the stronger and reckon that the better course is the one which is safer.

Caelius to Cicero, Letters to Friends 8.14 (c. 8 August 50 BC)

Within two years of fighting beyond the Alps Caesar would become too successful, too quickly. In the name of Gallic ‘freedom’, he launched attacks on neighbouring tribes, including the Helvetii, who were preparing to migrate westwards into Gallic territory: ‘all men’, he wrote in his commentaries, ‘have a natural keenness for liberty, and hate the condition of servitude’.1 But then he exploited divisions among the Gauls so as to pick off their tribes separately and make them into a vast Roman province. The last thing Caesar wanted was to be recalled, mission completed. So, ‘enemies’ and dangers were discovered ever further afield.

In Rome, Pompey and Crassus were still pre-eminent, but there was plenty of scope for popular legislation. For the city, as Cicero’s brother had described it in the mid-60s, was still ‘formed from the concourse of the peoples of the world’ and contained at least 750,000 inhabitants. This huge mass of citizen-freedmen, slaves and foreigners was the setting for the upper class’s intense disputes about order, ‘tradition’ and legal propriety. As tribune in 58, Clodius had restored the common people’s right to form social groups and associations, the ‘colleges’ which the Senate had simply declared ‘contrary to the interests of the Republic’ and abolished back in 64. He had also made the subsequent distribution of grain into a free monthly allotment. More than 300,000 citizens would be able to claim it, but it would be a vast burden on public funds and supply, although the allotment would sustain only one person, not an entire family. To increase funds, Clodius and others looked eastwards, not least to the rich domains of the Ptolemies in Cyprus. Clodius had an old grudge against its ruler and bya brilliant manoeuvre after Caesar’s departure, forced even the principled Cato to compromise in what was needed. By proposing legislation directly to the people, he had Cato appointed to take over Cyprus from its profligate Ptolemaic prince: the appointment was Cato’s publiclyvoted duty, so he could not refuse it. But by accepting, Cato was also accepting, indirectly, the legality of a whole chain of similarly approved legislation which he had contested, right back (some might say) to Caesar’s laws in 59: 6,000 talents came in from Cyprus’s resources.

Couriers and letters kept Caesar in touch. He is even said to have sent Clodius a letter approving the neat use of tribunes and an assembly-vote to compromise his rival Cato. The new settlement for Cyprus was also, usefully, a departure from Pompey’s previous dealings with a Ptolemaic prince. No doubt Caesar also heard of the amazing activities of the aedile in 58 BC, Aemilius Scaurus. Scaurus, the stepson of Sulla, displayed five crocodiles and the first hippopotamus Rome had ever seen at his customary games. He then built an extraordinary theatre, three storeys high (of marble, glass and gilding), packed with gold cloth and (it was later said) 3,000 statues and room for 80,000 spectators. He even displayed the vast skeleton of a dinosaur, brought back from his service in the Near East, believing it was a monster from Greek mythology.2 Popular life at Rome was really looking up, and like Clodius’ laws these games and displays set a new standard in politicians’ competition for popular prestige.

What most concerned Caesar was the duration of his command ‘beyond the Alps’. In 59 it had been granted, it seems, on a yearly basis. His other command, ‘this side of the Alps, and Illyricum’, was secure, by contrast, for five years. There was the increasing danger that a senatorial rival with Gallic connections, Domitius Ahenobarbus, would get himself elected consul for 55 and force Caesar to be replaced. So Caesar turned again to his artful ‘gentlemen’s agreement’. By 56 BC both Pompey and Crassus were wanting consulships again, to be followed by lucrative commands abroad, but neither of them was sure of the necessary popular support. Back in Rome, the free distribution of grain instituted by Clodius had been followed, predictably, by acute grain shortages. In autumn 57 Pompey had been given a commission to sort out the grain supply (with powers even ‘greater’ than those of other provincial governors, a fertile innovation), but the challenge was not easily met. Prices had stayed high and there were still shortages. Furthermore, the long-desired chance of intervening in Egypt had been denied to both him and Crassus. By early 56 neither man was the darling of the Roman populace and, in an atmosphere of violence and armed gangs, Pompey continued to fear for his life. When Caesar came south into Italy in spring 56, it was possible for a deal to be agreed. When he reached Ravenna in March, the first to come over was Crassus, because his ambitions were the more pressing. Then, byagreement at Lucca in mid-April, Pompey joined in the deal which was forming, for fear that his glorywould be eclipsed: there would be five-year commands in the provinces for each of them, preceded by consulships for Pompey and Crassus in 55. By postponing the year’s elections, they could count on support from troops whom Caesar would send to Rome for the voting and so they could keep out the rival threat of Ahenobarbus. Then, as the new consuls, Pompey and Crassus could prolong Caesar’s transalpine command for another five years in spring 55, by a law taken straight to the people.

The deal worked, although Caesar’s ‘commentaries’ never said a word about it. Previously, Caesar had even been thinking of a campaign in eastern Europe (Dacia) up to the Danube, but when his command ‘beyond the Alps’ was sure to be prolonged, he sought new fields in the north-west in which to exploit it. In 56 it was quite likely that he had already been planning an invasion of Britain3 and he certainly engaged in a gratuitous slaughter of two vulnerable German tribes. On receiving the news in Rome, Cato was so disgusted that he proposed that Caesar, by ancient precedent, should be handed over to the Germans in order to divert the anger of the gods from Rome. Instead, Caesar transferred himself to Britain, briefly in 55 and again in 54, when he took an elephant with him for show. Neither campaign was much of a success. The hopes of finding gold and precious metals in Britain were ill-founded and the effect was more of a raid than a solid conquest. But the publicitywas excellent: Britain was represented as ‘beyond the Ocean’ which had limited the ambitions of Alexander the Great. Back in Rome, Cicero had even been planning to write an epic poem on the ‘glorious conquest’, based on front-line reports from his brother. The news about Britain helped to stave off the danger that Caesar’s enemyAhenobarbus would contrive to replace him in the Gallic command after the consulship which would now be available to Ahenobarbus in 54.

In the city, the summer of 54 was exceptionally hot and tension was exacerbated by continuing shortages of grain. The political setting is still a challenge to our imaginations. Rome was home to such vast numbers and the fascinating politics of the next four years include intricate briberyscandals (Ahenobarbus and his noble colleagues tried to nominate their successors in return for payment), localized bouts of violence (gangs erupted in the city, made up of soldiers, freed slaves, artisans, shopkeepers and trained gladiators) and, in 53 and 52, yet another crisis over the consulship. And yet there was no popular uprising for a change of constitution, no challenge to the total system. The main continuing question was the scope of Pompey’s ambitions. After the consulship of 55 he had been allotted the provinces of Spain, a chance for glory, but since 54 he had preferred to wait with troops outside Rome’s boundaries and govern Spain through subordinates. His most personal link with Caesar now ended: his wife Julia, Caesar’s beloved daughter, died in childbirth. The people of Rome gave her a fine funeral, but what would Pompey now choose to do? He was, after all, becoming an old man. In 53 he lost one major competitor, then in 52 another. The first to go was the elderly Crassus, now in his late fifties, whose consulship had been followed by the granting of a command in the East against the hostile Parthians. At last, Crassus might return with the full glory of a military triumph, denied him after his actions against Spartacus in the late 70s: its absence had continued to needle the old man. In fact, he was too incompetent and was tricked into defeat by the Parthians in 53, costing him his life and most of his army.

In Rome, January 52 then saw the spectacular end of the most effective of the populists, Clodius. He was attacked on the Appian Way by a gang loyal to his conservative rival Milo, and what began as an accident ended with Clodius’ brutal murder. His corpse was brought into the city, where his wife’s impassioned mourning helped to incite the popular mood. Two of the tribunes added a eulogy over the dead man in the Forum, whereupon the crowd carried his corpse right into the Senate house and tried to cremate their champion on a bonfire of smashed furniture and documents. The house itself caught fire and its ashes were watched by spectators until nightfall. Meanwhile crowds rampaged in Rome and attacked anyone who was seen wearing jewels or fine clothes in the streets. There was no established police force and the one option seemed to be to call on Pompey to restore order with troops. Waiting outside the city, he had already used his power as an ex-consul inside the city in 53. Now he was voted a sole consulship, his third. It was a ‘divine’ one, according to an alarmed and thankful Cicero, and yet it was only two years since his last one. Caesar, by contrast, was still observing the proper ten-year interval between consulships and would not stand for election until summer 49, hoping to take up office in January 48. Meanwhile ambitious young men, new faces and those who simply relished a fight, were leaving Italy to seek promotions with Caesar in the West. Increasingly, he could reward them from his booty and so a real ‘Caesarian clique’ was building up outside Rome.

The crucial long-term question was whether Caesar would be allowed to stand as a candidate for a consulship while absent: if he had to return to canvass for it and laydown his power as a commander, his opponents would prosecute him inside Rome’s boundaries, probably before an intimidated and bribed court. In March 52 Caesar seemed to get what he wanted: the ten tribunes, supported by Pompey, carried a law which allowed him the unusual step of a candidacy in absence. Traditionalists in the Senate were by passed by it, but many other questions remained open: how would Caesar and Pompey coexist? Was it expected that, like Pompey, Caesar could now stand for a consulship earlier than 49, in (say) 50? If he was elected consul again, whatever would he do this time?

The answers were to mark a real rupture of the Roman Republic: why had such a crisis come? Abroad, the provinces were being ruled by individual governors with powers to do much as they wished and scope to extort huge gains from their subjects. These commands inflated their resources for competition back at Rome, but their victims, the provincials, did not bring about a crisis by rebelling against this type of rule. Nearer home, the previous bitter conflicts between senators and many of the knights and between Romans and Italians were also irrelevant: since the 70s the aftermath of the Social War and of Sulla’s brief ‘solution’ for the jury-courts had largely settled down. In the 50s, however, Romans themselves would still think of ‘luxury’ as a major culprit. As consuls in 55, Pompey and Crassus, inordinately rich men, had considered introducing measures to curb it. In 51 the arch-traditionalist Cato amused the plebs by giving ‘old-fashioned’ games, in disapproval at recent ostentation: he offered simple wreaths, not gold, as prizes and gave small presents of food to the spectators.

We have a sense, here, of men with a traditional obsession, like the ‘gypsies’ or ‘single mothers’ of modern political rhetoric, which is diverting them from the real structural weaknesses. For, despite the years of rhetoric, luxury had marvellously proliferated. Upper-class Romans were building magnificent villas as second homes along the coastline of the Bay of Naples, supporting them on piers of concrete and adorning them with the rows of pillars and terraces which we can enjoy in later paintings of them, preserved for us at Pompeii. These attacks on nature were the work of ‘Xerxes in a toga’, said moralists, recalling the canal-digging of this former Persian king. Since Pompey’s conquests in Asia, fine gems had reached avid Roman buyers, prompting collections of their different types. In the kitchen, specialized local delicacies were increasingly sought and identified, whether huge snails from north Africa or home-grown dormice raised in special ‘dormouse-houses’ (gliraria): ‘theyare fattened in jars which many keep even inside the villa; acorns, walnuts or chestnuts are put inside and when a cover is put on the jars they become fat in the dark.’ There were even flocks of peacocks, kept for display and consumption. In classical Athens, one prominent aristocrat displayed ‘Persian’ peacocks, a gift from the Persian king, and sold eggs to fascinated visitors: his son was then prosecuted for treating the birds as his own. At Rome, peacocks began to be bred by the hundred in the early first century BC and, before long, a flock was reckoned to yield a small fortune of an income: ‘a flock of 100’ would produce a tenth of the property qualification to be an upper-class knight.

We must remember Cicero’s comment: what Romans disliked was private luxury, whereas public display was munificence, and not disagreeable. It was, then, alarming to political rivals, but highly popular, when Pompey paid for a spectacular theatre in 55 BC, including a statue of himself and fourteen nations which he had conquered. Grander, even, than Scaurus’ theatre three years earlier, it led up to at least four temples (including one to Victorious Venus). At its dedication, elephants and 500 lions were staged in a beastly‘hunt’. In 53 a future tribune, Curio, put up not one wooden theatre but two, built as a pair which could turn back to back, or revolve into one and become a single arena for gladiators. These luxurious displays were public, at least. What was attackable, by contrast, was the ‘selfish’ luxury of marble-pillared houses (the huge pillars of dark-red marble in Scaurus’ hall were notorious) and when he took back the fantastic-ally rich decoration of his theatre to adorn his own Tuscan villa, the slaves at the property are said to have set fire to it in protest at his extravagance.4

To us, urban poverty and suffering at Rome seem much more relevant problems. The scarcity of food and water, the appalling housing for Rome’s masses were an intolerable negligence. Yet unlike the poor in many Greek cities in the age of Plato, Rome’s poor did not unite and rebel for a new constitution. Poor people rioted, certainly, for Clodius, but they were rioting for a great benefactor, now lost to them. In the process the Senate house burned down, but only byaccident, and there was no programme to abolish the Senate itself. There was no popular campaigning with a new ideology. One reason was that so many of the ‘plebs’ were still freed persons, dependent on their former masters; others were foreigners; by contrast, a hard core of Roman ‘city-folk’, persisting across the generations, was always much scarcer. The upper class spent lavishly in the city, and it was their spending which sustained the mass of shopkeepers and builders and even the specialists in the dreaded luxuries. Many of the plebs therefore needed the rich, and as none of them could stand up and speak in their assemblies or at political meetings, and few ever voted (and then in blocks), the ‘popular’ potential of the Roman constitution was wonderfully contained. At Athens, when democracywas adopted, the members of the Athenians’ supreme ‘senate’ had been discredited by their collaboration with the previous tyranny; the exiling of other nobles by those tyrants had already taught lesser people that they could cope well enough without an aristocrat to help them along. At Rome, no such crisis had discredited the senators. Above all, in Attica the citizenry had been so much smaller; it was linked by supposed ‘kinship’, and was much more cohesive than the Roman citizenry now up and down Italy.

In the Italian countryside, the plight of the poor was certainly no better than in Rome, yet here too there were no ‘peasants’ revolts’ in the 50s. Rather, more and more of the poor were being recruited, or forced, into the army for a long service abroad. Soldiers’ wages, though meagre, did at least exist: the problem was that, once in the army, soldiers looked to their generals, not to any ‘republican’ values. What had ‘the Republic’ ever done for them anyway? Here, indeed, was a cause of crisis. It was not that Rome needed monarchyor ‘stable government’ in the late 50s because the scale of her empire had grown so big. Instead, tensions arose from the very conquests by which much of this empire was still being won. Generals rewarded their soldiers with spoils from their victories abroad and then won credit by proposals to settle them on plots of land and reward them on their return to Italy. The same generals fought on with the prolonged commands which were now being obtained by ignoring the Senate and going directly to the popular assemblies for an enabling law. A friendly tribune would then veto the proposals to recall an important general in subsequent years. The old two-headed monster, as the Roman constitution had evolved, found the limbs (the people) being used to cow what had once represented itself as the nourishing, sensible stomach (the Senate). If Polybius had lived to see it, he would have considered it proof of his theory: ‘oligarchy’, as morals changed, would decline into ‘democracy’ and then into ‘monarchy’. But the ‘democracy’ was really no such thing.

The more the generals conquered, the more their riches grew, enabling them to paymore to their troops from their own gains. They could also payback the massive loans through which theyhad bought their way to a command in the first place. In reply, senators should have increased the soldiers’ pay from state funds and somehow paid publicly for their land-settlements. But even then, the sums needed would have been huge, and would have required much more than a new inheritance tax which, understandably, the rich detested.

The ‘liberty’ of legislation by the ‘people’ (few of whom actually voted) was thus manipulated to curb the ‘liberty’ of senators to do, and eventually say, whatever they wanted. But personal dignity, rank and esteem also exacerbated the problem. Once Pompey had set such a dazzling new standard after his conquests in Asia, his rivals could not regard themselves as his equal or superior unless they shone even more brightly. The values of their ancestors and the entire training of their careers encouraged them to compete with Pompey’s new lustre. In Caesar’s case, this ‘dignity’ was driving him to bring about the deaths of a million people in his Gallic provinces and to amass an increasingly incredible fortune. When Caesar returned to Rome he would not only be a consul. He would be able to triumph with the most astounding displays of gold, silver and booty. His debts would no longer be a problem. After plundering Gaul on an enormous scale he himself would be able to bribe and lend to people of influence at Rome, and eventuallyhe would ‘benefit’ the entire city plebs. Although the plebs would never dismantle the republican system by themselves, theyhad acute discontents, and the man who gave all of them benefits would be almost unopposable. Meanwhile Caesar’s soldiers were becoming hardened experts in warfare thanks to their years of practice at the Gauls’ expense. He himself could paythem, and he would duly provide for them. If he won the consulship again, what might he not do for the urban plebs and for his troops, now his men of ten years’ standing? Would he ever laythe office down? Opposition to one-man rule was the very lifeblood of republican values, and senators had certainly not become indifferent to it.

Despite the moralists’ complaints, the gangs in the streets of Rome, the bribery and the fears of civil war did not signifyan age of decadence. In the heart of Rome, the competition for glory was visible in the leaders’ expensive public buildings. An entire new Forum was being paid for by Caesar at vast cost, rivalling the huge stone theatre which had already been paid for by Pompey. The city’s architects were breaking new ground thanks to these new challenges. Above all, the years of tension were to be critical years for Latin thought and literature. Scholarship, philosophy and even the study of religious traditions blossomed under the spectre of the political crises. So did practical law. More interestingly, the superb poems of Catullus ranged from love-poetryto mythical narrative and personal invective, transcending their fine Greek models. At greater length, Lucretius’ fine poem On the Nature of Things expressed an Epicurean philosophy of the world and society and the irrelevance to them both of the traditional gods. This masterpiece was probably composed when the crisis had just broken into open Civil War, between 49 and 48.5 By the 50s most of the major participants in Roman political life had studied Greek thought themselves. Even Crassus had a taste for Greek philosophy, as did Marcus Brutus, a man who had named features in his garden after features of ancient Sparta. There was also a sharpened interest in history. Works on chronology tried to interrelate Roman and Greek events and from the mid-50s onwards examples from Greek history became more prominent in Cicero’s writings. Teachers (to his disgust) were even encouraging their pupils in oratory to study the historian Thucydides’ horribly difficult Greek speeches.6 When Civil War broke out, the examples of famous Greeks from the past would become even more immediate to those who became swept up in it.

Above all, there was a frankness of speech, a sharpness of wit and a magnificent scope for oratory. The wit and frankness still live for us in Cicero’s letters, in sayings of Caesar or his rivals and even in letters from Cicero’s lesser but educated friend, young Caelius, who favoured Caesar but wrote so vividly to Cicero on affairs at Rome in the late 50s. Here, we best catch what the ‘liberty’ of speech and thought reallymeant to such people. It is no coincidence that this age of great court-scenes, great addresses to the Senate and to popular meetings is also the supreme age of Roman oratory.

Not that the glitter was all male, either. Young Caelius was a fine dancer, but so was the remarkable lady Sempronia, whom even her critics admired for her wit, her wide reading and her personal culture.7 No wife of a classical Athenian could have compared with such a character. She was only one of several remarkable women who are known to us in the late Republic: Clodia, the desirable sister of Clodius, was probably the inspiration for Catullus’ best love-poems, while Fulvia, Sempronia’s daughter, was to be the wife of three great husbands, including Clodius and then Mark Antony. Fulvia was the woman whose laments for the dead Clodius had fired a Roman crowd in the Forum. The austere ideals of the wool-working ‘traditional’ housewife were not to the liking of such bold spirits. They had lovers, they joked, they even advised. In autumn 52 BC, as the crisis loomed, one of the consuls was honoured with a party in which his house was turned into a brothel and two high-society ladies (one of them supposedly Fulvia, the other a former wife of Pompey) were said to have serviced the guests.8

For centuries, the Roman Republic had bent, regrouped and survived new tensions. It had outlived the proud Scipio, Marius even, and the ruthless conservative Sulla. The latest tensions went deep, but could it not survive both Caesar and Pompey too? Huge risks and a swathe of wonderfully unpredictable decisions would have to be taken before Caesar could ever dominate. Even then, the Republic was not dead, although Caesar’s example was essential to its subsequent extinction by his successors. Out in Gaul, while the guests in Rome enjoyed their brothel-party, Caesar was beset with difficulties. His previous Gallic conquests had turned out to be not so secure after all; he still had to pacify them and he had to establish when his provincial command would end. Was it to end in 50 or 49, and if so, preciselywhen in the year? Could he run on, with the help of friendly tribunes’ vetoes, until he was elected consul in absence? Back in Rome, with Clodius gone, even Cicero had begun to hope that he, perhaps, might have a second consulship too. And after the crisis of Clodius’ death, the elections did work again: there were consuls, noble ones, for 51 and then for 50, and for once, we hear nothing about bribery.

Through the fragmented mirror of Cicero’s letters, we can follow the fascinating steps towards confrontation. In 52 Pompey was still ‘friendly’ to Caesar and Caesar was still said to have retained Pompey as heir to his will. ByJune 51 the question of a successor to Caesar in Gaul was to be raised explicitly in the Senate; on 29 September, however, it was decreed that discussions of the matter would not begin until 1 March 50. Remarks made by Pompey begin to make clear that he had a problem now with Caesar. The biggest problem, then and now, was when exactly Caesar’s command would expire.

The probable answer is that there were two separate dates, one in March 49 for ‘Gaul this side of the Alps and Illyricum’, and one in March 50 for ‘Gaul beyond the Alps’. The former, eventually, was the command which Caesar proposed he should retain, but his rivals were not allowing it. By September 50 the articulate Caelius was writing that the ‘love affair’ between Caesar and Pompey had broken up and that there would soon be a ‘gladiatorial’ fight between the two of them.9 Nonetheless, in November the senators still voted optimistic-ally (by 370 to 22) that both Pompey and Caesar should lay down their respective armies. Overwhelmingly, the senators simply wanted peace. But as if to stiffen Pompey, the consul of the year went out of the city and put a sword in Pompey’s hands.

During persistent meetings in early January 49 the senators heard the contents of letters in which Caesar offered, arguably correctly, to retain only ‘Gaul this side of the Alps and Illyricum’.10 But the noble consul Lentulus had the motion proposed that Caesar should leave his army by a fixed date. It was then blocked by the veto of tribunes: one of them was a loyal supporter of Caesar, now in his mid-thirties, Marcus Antonius (‘Mark Antony’). So on 7 January Lentulus proposed the ‘ultimate decree’ against the vetoing tribunes. Mark Antony and his colleagues promptly fled to Caesar, ever the ‘people’s friend’. Caesar was already at hand on ‘this side’ of the Alps and had only a few of his troops with him. But he did not hesitate. He decided to attack across the river-boundary in to Italy, a frank initiation of a civil war. On 10 January he watched gladiators at exercise, bathed and dressed for dinner. Quietly, he slipped away from his guests and by a prearranged, roundabout route, reached the river Rubicon where he paused. He thought, it is said, of the enormous evils which would follow for mankind if he crossed and of the reputation of the crossing among posterity. ‘The die is cast,’ he said theatrically, quoting the Greek poet Menander, and then he crossed the river.11 He had already sent a small party of armed commanders ahead of him, but he was right that his crossing was the moment to dramatize. It was also a moment for taking auspices and for religious respect: Caesar dedicated a herd of horses to the river and set them free to run where they pleased. Five years later it would be these horses, men said, who would give him a very different omen.12

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