NO GOING BACK
In 458 BCE, when the consular army of Rome was besieged by the Aequins, the Senate declared a state of emergency so they might elect a dictator to save them from their peril. They chose Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus to take up this noble cause. He defeated the Aequins in one day, led a triumph through Rome, and shortly thereafter returned to his quiet, peaceful life as a farmer. Though most people today have not heard of Cincinnatus (aside from the city bearing his name), he had quite an important role to play in history. In the eyes of the Roman republic, he was the ideal citizen. He took command when the country needed him most, and he gave it up just as easily when the danger had passed.
In the glorious days of the republic, citizens recited the accounts of Cincinnatus as a reminder to those seeking absolute authority. Not all who listened heeded the warnings. Gaius Julius Caesar, for example, took far more interest in stories about fighting men like Achilles and Alexander the Great than he did in those about part-time warriors like Cincinnatus. He believed leadership must be determined by might, and in 49 BCE he exercised that might when he crossed the Rubicon with his army and marched on Rome. His army then controlled the city, and the mob adored him. After Caesar’s exploits in Egypt, his influence increased again, and he became even more powerful. Certain members of the Senate thought that he meant to take total control, and they came to the conclusion that he had to be stopped at all costs. So, on the Ides of March 44 BCE, these members stabbed Caesar to death on the Senate floor, thus ending the reign of the would-be dictator and stamping out any possibility of empiric rule. With Caesar’s threat gone once more, the Senate would rule the empire. Well . . . not exactly. In fact, the death of Julius Caesar had the opposite effect and forever put an end to the great age of the Roman republic.
Rome became a republic in 509 BCE when the people rose up against the last of the Etruscan kings, Tarquin the Proud, and deposed him. Although they rebelled against their king, the people still saw the need for supreme authority. So, they gave this power to two consuls who served one-year terms of office. Each had the power to veto the other, and neither could change the laws without the other’s permission. The government also included a Senate made up of the fathers of the community, or patricians. In the fifth century BCE, the government created the Tribunate of the Plebes in response to outcries by the plebeian class. Similar to the House of Commons, this branch consisted of a plebeian assembly and a tribune. The plebeian assembly included all the plebes of Rome, and they elected the tribune, who served one-year terms and had the power of veto, which by the way means, “I forbid.” The system seemed flawless, but it did not take into account humankind’s hunger for power.
Rivalries grew rampant in the government with each man vying for his own political gain. These rivalries came to a head in 91 BCE after the assassination of the newly elected tribune, Marcus Livius Drusus, who had some radical ideas like extending citizenship to all cities on the Italian peninsula. Needless to say, “Power to the people” was not in vogue at that time. Ten years later, antagonisms flared up again because of contention between two men, Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Marius. Sulla wanted to strengthen the power of the Senate, but Marius resisted him. Upon being elected consul in 88 BCE, Sulla had his authority undermined when Marius tried to take command of the army from him. Although Sulla was in Naples preparing to go to war against the king of Pontus, whose forces were encroaching on Rome, he elected instead to turn back to Rome and lead his forces into the city to face Marius once and for all. It was the first time in history that a Roman commander led troops against the city.
Sulla proclaimed himself dictator and remained in the role even after the death of Marius years later. He retired from politics in 79 BCE, but not before he had packed the Senate full of his friends, giving them more authority, while decreasing the power of the tribunes. Sulla’s rise to power put a sour taste in the mouths of the government officials, and they vowed to prevent any future recurrences. So, to curb the enthusiasm of overzealous generals, new laws were put into place. In spite of these laws, a new golden boy rose up through the ranks and won favor with the Senate.
Gnaeus Pompeius, better known as Pompey the Great, became consul despite being underage and having never before held office. He immediately rescinded one of Sulla’s laws, thereby restoring authority to the tribunes. Pompey seemed to be paving the road to his own dictatorship. However, after defeating the Mithridates of Pontus, Pompey disbanded his army and waited for an official invitation to enter the city in triumph. Although the Senate granted him a triumph, they refused to honor the agreements Pompey had made with foreign monarchs, and they did not approve the land grants for his veterans. Pompey formed a secret alliance with two other men who had been slighted by the Senate—Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gaius Julius Caesar.
Crassus is perhaps best known for his part in squelching the slave rebellion led by Spartacus. Caesar, of course, needs no introduction. In what became known as the First Triumvirate, the three members sought to use their influence to control choice offices and military commands. They did not seek total control. But, as is often the case, the appetites grew with the taking. Each man gained his own victories and jealousy soon began to rear its ugly head. After the death of Crassus in 53 BCE, Pompey and Caesar launched campaigns to destroy each other. While Caesar gained status from his military victories in Gaul, Pompey consolidated his power in Rome. Through their persuasion, the two men used the Senate as pawns to gain the upper hand in their personal feud. Pompey convinced the Senate to order Caesar to disband his army. It was the final straw.
Caesar’s famous march across the Rubicon was in direct response to Pompey’s vie for power. With the exploits of Sulla still fresh in their minds, most of the Senate fled, along with their ill-prepared leader. Caesar pursued Pompey through Spain, Greece, and finally Egypt, where his old rival and in-law was promptly stabbed to death as soon as his feet hit the dry Egyptian land. The assassin worked for the boy-king Ptolemy, who feared befriending Pompey on account of Caesar and also feared letting him escape. Ptolemy ruled Egypt alongside his alluring sister, Cleopatra, and we all know the scandal she caused. So Caesar became involved with the beautiful, exotic woman from a far-off land; he wanted to be worshiped as a god and wanted absolute power.
When Caesar returned to Rome, his authority far surpassed that of the Senate. With this power, he accomplished a great many deeds. He pardoned many of his old rivals, including Cicero, and had them reinstated into office. He created jobs for the poor and put a tighter leash on crime, and he corrected many problems in the empire’s administrative system. He planned roads, and he even gave us the Julian calendar. Many Roman nobles concerned themselves less with Caesar’s accomplishments and more with his motives. They suspected that, like Sulla, Caesar sought to make himself dictator. In fact, his unlimited power coupled with the fact that Caesar believed himself to be a god, left very little doubt in the minds of the people as to his plans. He would not be willing to simply step down from such a powerful position. This is what convinced certain members of the Senate in 44 BCE that the only way to put an end to Caesar’s reign would be to put an end to Caesar.
The conspirators should have taken a page from their own history, because looking back from the time of Drusus it becomes evident that the death of a dictator did not always guarantee the fall of the dictatorship. There would always be someone waiting for his chance to rise up and seize power. In the case of Caesar, three men rose up to take his place. This Second Triumvirate was made up of Caesar’s friend Marc Antony, who ruled in the east; Caesar’s great-nephew and heir, Gaius Octavius, who ruled in the west; and one of Caesar’s lieutenants, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who ruled in Africa. As with the First Triumvirate, each one of these leaders had his own personal agenda, and each wanted absolute authority.
The only deed they accomplished together was punishing the conspirators in Caesar’s assassination. After that, it was every man for himself. Octavius seized power from Lepidus in Africa, and he took over total control of the Italian homeland, which the three had originally ruled together. He then set his sights on Antony and produced a document that was allegedly Antony’s will and read it aloud before the Senate. The will bequeathed all of Rome’s interests in the east to Cleopatra. The enraged Senate gave Octavius permission to revoke Antony’s power and wage war on Cleopatra. Octavius crushed the infamous duo, after which the two lovers reportedly committed suicide. The Battle of Actium finally put an end to the constant civil wars that beleaguered Rome. Unfortunately, it also put an end to the Republic. For the next 500 years, Rome would be ruled by one supreme authority, known as “the Caesar.”
What Gaius Julius Caesar’s assassins failed to realize was that the power of Rome lay in her army. Control the army, and you control Rome. Numerous great generals who rose up through the ranks, many of them not even Italians, were able to become emperor of Rome just because they had an army behind them.
When Julius Caesar died, he was at the peak of his popularity with both the army and the people of Rome. But, as modern-day polls have shown, popularity waxes and wanes. Today’s star is tomorrow’s has-been. Before his murder, Caesar’s health was already failing him. Eventually, his funds would have run low. And, it is likely that the people’s esteem for him would have run out when he failed to solve all the problems his predecessors had wrestled with. From this position, the Senate could have then undermined their dictator’s authority and regained control of the army. With the Senate as the head of government, Rome might have avoided the rise of despotism altogether, and the names of insane radicals such as Caligula and Nero would have faded into oblivion.