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Roman triumvirates

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

In ancient Rome, the term “triumvirate” (from trium viri – “three men”) was used to describe a college made up of three officials elected to perform certain tasks. Two such meetings have gone down in the history of Rome. Both took place during the so-called crisis of the Roman republic and decided about the division of power between influential politicians. In fact, these were agreements bypassing the senate, which was losing its prerogatives.

First Triumvirate (60 BCE)

Second Triumvirate (43 BCE)

Pompey the Great, Marcus Crassus, Julius Caesar

Mark Antony, Marcus Lepidus, Gaius Octavian

First triumvirate

Three powerful politicians: Pompey, Crassus and Caesar entered into the first triumvirate.

In 70 BCE, the relationship between Mark Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompey– politicians of great influence – began to deteriorate significantly. This was due to the fact that they both took over consulates and constituted the most important conglomerate in the Roman republic. Despite some common, earlier winning initiatives, incl. to restore the rights of people’s tribunes (the dictator Sulla stripped this office of all rights except ius auxiliandi – the right to object to officials’ orders), both Crassus and Pompey began to feel more and more hostile to each other. The situation was made worse by the fact that they both took up the same office and competed for influence.

During this time, Gaius Julius Caesar was trying to match both Crassus and Pompey in power. For this purpose, he carried out a victorious campaign in Spain, where he won large tracts of land for Rome. The successes whetted Caesar’s appetite, and he started running for the office of consul. Unexpectedly, however, his candidacy was blocked by Mark Porcjusa Catoin 61 BCE. Then the ambitious commander began to seek wider agreement with the two strongest men of Rome. With Crassus – Rome’s richest citizen – Caesar was in alliance with him since 65 BCE, when he supported his proposal to subordinate Egypt to Rome. He got involved with Pompey through his daughter Julia, whose hand was given to him. The powerful alliance that Caesar made gave him a chance to implement his plans. Crassus had a huge fortune and guaranteed the support of the Equestrian class, while Pompey had numerous contacts in the Senate and the army. The agreement was officially concluded in 60 BCE, and a year later Caesar assumed the coveted post of consul (59 BCE).

The triumvirate was kept secret from the Senate until Caesar’s proposal for agrarian reform1was blocked by Rome’s highest legislative body. Caesar then decided to make a speech to the people’s assembly, in which the agreement of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey was indirectly revealed. The Caesar Act passed, and the demagogic Publius Clodius Pulcher was appointed people’s tribune. In this way, the hostile triumvirs Cicero and Cato the Younger were stopped and temporarily removed from the political scene.

It was already known in Rome that there were three politicians in power who would not be opposed by anyone. The Senate was empty, but Caesar was not prevented from passing new bills. One of them was to grant him five years of governorship in Pre-Alpine Gaul and Illyria with the border on the Rubicon River and Narbonne Gaul. Especially the latter tempted Caesar with the possibility of conducting much-needed war campaigns and also obtaining money to pay off his enormous debts.

In 56 BCE, the bonds between the triumvirs loosened. Caesar decided to invite the two Romans to a secret meeting in Lucca (Pre-Alpine Gaul), where they were to jointly adopt a further strategy of action. This meeting de facto renewed the alliance. It was agreed that Pompey and Crassus would receive a consulate for 55 BCE. They pledged that when they took office they would extend Caesar’s command in Gaul for 5 years. At the end of his consulate, Crassus was given a wealthy Syria that he wanted to use to conquer the Parthia. Pompey, in turn, was to keep Spain in his hands in absentia.

The alliance allowed three politicians to take complete control of Rome’s political scene; as it turned out, however, it could not be permanent. This was due to the fact that Pompey still hated Crassus, and he envied Caesar his successes in Gaul. To make matters worse, the Battle of Carrhae saw the spectacular defeat of the Romans and the death of one of the triumvirs – Crassus. This event finally shattered the “alliance of the three”. Pompey, who was in Rome, and who was governing Spain through his subordinates, gradually “moved away” from Caesar. The proof of this was his marriage to the daughter of Scipio Metellus Nazyki, a representative of the patrician and old part of the Senate, which took place after the unfortunate death of Caesar’s daughter2. In 52 BCE Pompey became a single consul and began practising politics, which indirectly hit Caesar hard. The rivalry deepened, and the Senate demanded that Caesar be tried for the war crimes he had committed while serving as governor. The alliance of Pompey and the Senate majorities forced Caesar to make drastic decisions – he decided to cross the Rubicon in 49 BCE and start a civil war.

The issue of the first triumvirate is interpreted in various ways by contemporary historians, but it is most often assumed that the dominant position in this political conspiracy was Pompey, who had a large political base, and Crassus with an equally large financial background, while Caesar, due to his popularity among the people and the army he was only the executor of their decisions.

Second triumvirate

Mark Antony, Marcus Lepidus and Gaius Octavian entered into a second triumvirate aimed at Caesar’s assassins.

After the assassination of Caesar Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, the main initiators of the coup had to flee to the East in 44 BCE to organize an armed force there against the consul Mark Antony, who won the influence of Caesar’s supporters.

At that time, Octavian himself unexpectedly appeared on the political scene. When Caesar was murdered on March 15, 44 BCE, Octavian dropped out of college and travelled to Rome to find out what political and military support he had. Soon he also learned that he had been adopted by Caesar and recognized as the main heir (2/?of the estate) under his will, took a new name, Gaius Julius Caesaradding a family member Octavianus. From now on, Octavian functioned in political life as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, son of the great leader Julius Caesar.

Octavian landed in Brundisium (south-eastern Italy), where he gained the support of Caesar’s troops stationed there, previously to take part in the war with the Party. Moreover, he demanded that part of the money accumulated in the city be spent on him during the war. With their help, he was able to win the favour of many other veterans of Caesar’s legions. During the march to Rome, many other soldiers joined him in Campania. Under his command, the young and inexperienced Octavian already had 3,000 loyal veterans, to whom he paid 500 denarii.

Gaius Octavian, despite his young age, forced the Senate to become co-opted consul (consul suffectus) for 43 BCE After a year of chaos, the change of alliances in Rome and the rivalry with Mark Antony, the former Caesar chief and his adopted son agreed. In October 43 BCE in Bononia (today’s Bologna), Mark Antony, Octavian and Marcus Lepidus met in order to sort out the situation in Rome after the death of Gaius Julius Caesar and punish his murderers. According to Lex Titia the second-ever triumvirate, named Triumviri Rei Publicae Constituendae Consulari Potestate(“the college of three for the ordering of the state”) was established. Unlike the first triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, this one was formally concluded. As a result of this agreement, the consuls and the Senate were marginalized, the future death of the republican system was signalled and the full power of Lepidus, Antony and Octavius ​​was emphasized. The agreement was valid for a period of five years.

Territories of the Roman Republic held by triumvirs and their opponents in 43 BCE.
Author: ColdEel | Creative license Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0.

As a result of the agreement, Lepidus was confirmed to be assigned both Spanish provinces, together with Gaul of Narbonne. Antony kept Gaul under his rule, while Octavian kept Africa, Sicily and Sardinia. In practice, however, both islands were under the control of Pompey’s son, Sextus Pompey, who was the leader of the “Pompeians”. In fact, the strongest positions were held by Antony and Lepidus, but the subsequent handing over of Lepidus’ seven legions to Octavian and Antony, in order to defeat the army of Brutus and Cassius, automatically pushed him to the backstage. Caesar’s murderers had all the eastern territories of the Republic in their possession. After the defeat of the opponents of Octavian and Antony, the lands of Lepidus were to become a retreat for the “republicans”.

In order to fill the treasury, the triumvirs decided to conduct a proscription, which consisted in entering into the list of outlaws – political opponents and, consequently, depriving them of their property and sentencing them to exile. Naturally, the target was Caesar’s opponents, including: Cicero, who opposed Caesar and ridiculed Antony in the Philippicae; Marcus Favonius, a supporter of Cato the Younger and opponent of the triumvirs; or Caesar’s legate – Quintus Tullius Cicero, younger brother of Cicero.

From February 1, 42 BCE, Caesar became a god as Divus Iulius, young Octavian could be called Divi filius, meaning “Son of God”. Earlier that same year, Antony and Octavian sent 28 legions by sea to Greece, the “fortress” of Brutus and Cassius. There, too, in two the battles of Philippi in Macedonia, in October 42 BCE Antony and Octavian joined forces have won. Their rivals, seeing no chance of defeating their opponents in the war, decided to commit suicide. Their fate was shared by most of Caesar’s opponents, only a few managed to escape to Sicily, finding refuge with Sextus Pompey.
Unexpected news from Rome that Lepidus had entered into an alliance with Sextus led to the establishment of a new division of the empire, to the detriment of Lepidus. Spain, taken away from him, was assigned to Octavian, while he himself could keep Africa if he could clear the charges of treason, which he did.

After defeating Caesar’s assassins, Octavian returned to Italy, while Mark Antony travelled eastward and formed an alliance with Egypt’s queen, Cleopatra VII. Octavian came to Italy at the beginning of 41 BCE. From the very beginning, things did not go his way. The constant attacks by Sextus, who prevented the supply of grain from Africa, only increased public discontent. The brother of Mark Antony, Lucius, decided to use the opportunity. He incited his own troops against Octavian, and armed gangs robbed and stole. Unfavourable information also came from Gaul, where a force of about 15 legions was stationed, the commanders of which only obeyed Antony. Octavian, without waiting for further unfavourable events to unfold, left Rome to prepare for a deal with Lucius. His absence did not last long, and at the first information about Octavian’s approaching army, Lucius fled towards Perusia. The dispute ended only at the beginning of February 40 BCE, when the inhabitants of the besieged Perusia decided to surrender to Octavian’s mercy. Only the city council was imprisoned and then beheaded at the altar of the divine Julius. Lucius himself became governor of Spain. Of the many senators hiding outside the city walls, only a few were sentenced to death, but the city was handed over to the victors.

As soon as Marcus Antony found out about Octavian’s problems with Lucius, he hurriedly went to Italy, where he besieged Brundizium. When it seemed that the civil war would begin anew, the chiefs of the hostile armies once again decided to hold talks in Brundizium in September 40 BCE. After a few days, they ended with an agreement under which Octavian kept the western provinces, Antony kept the entire east, while Lepidus Africa. Italy was granted the status of a neutral province, from which both Octavian and Antony could recruit to their armies. The alliance was cemented by the announcement of an engagement between Antony and Octavian’s birth sister, Octavia.

Roman Republic after the Brundizium Agreement (39 BCE).
Author: Borsanova | Under the Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

The problems that arose in Italy related to Sextus Pompey led to a meeting at Cape Misenum in the Bay of Naples in the summer of 39 BCE, where Sextus, Octavian and Antony were once again divided the state. Sextus was granted the 5-year governorship of Sardinia, Sicily, Corsica and the Peloponnese, with the proviso that after this period, Sextus was entitled to the office of consul and 70 million sesterces as compensation for the property lost by his father. To consolidate the alliance, earlier in 40 BCE Octavian married Scribonia, with whom he had a daughter, Julia. In 39 BCE there was a divorce at the request of Octavian who needed the political connections of Livians and Claudians. To this end, he married Livia. Their marriage lasted more than fifty years and was characterized by mutual loyalty and respect. However, she was childless, their only child was born still.

The treaty, however, did not last long and thanks to Octavian himself, who not only did not hand over Sextus of Sardinia but also appropriated it himself, there was a resumption of hostilities in the summer of 38 BCE. However, the defeats did not break Octavian, who deployed a new fleet. In 37 BCE, the reinforcements ordered by Octavian Mark Vipsanius Agrippa, who had hitherto been in Gaul, arrived in Rome. At about the same time, Antony’s reinforcements arrived in Italy. Soon there was a meeting between Octavian and Antony in Taranto (37 BCE), where the two men decided to dissolve the alliance with Sextus and assured of mutual assistance in their battles.

Octavian’s offensive began on July 36 BEE at Tauromenium, where he lost almost his entire fleet and barely survived. The losses, however, were quickly replenished and the next battle fought on September 3, 36 BCE in the Gulf of Naulochus, ended with the great defeat of Sextus, who fled to Messana under cover of night. Sicily came under the control of Lepidus and Octavian, to finally fall into the hands of Octavian.

In 36 BCE, Octavian dragged Lepidus’ army over to his side, who was stripped of all influence. He also lost all offices except for the position of the high priest (Pontifex Maximus). There are only two triumvirs left on the stage.

At that time, in the east, Mark Antony waged an unsuccessful war with the Parthians. The unsuccessful struggle in the east was fully compensated by the successes of Octavian, who conquered Panonia in 35 BCE and successfully completed the mission in Dalmatia the following year. In addition, Antony married the Queen of Egypt Cleopatra VII and divorced Octavian’s sister, Octavia. From then on, the triumvirs broke up with each other and began to pursue an increasingly aggressive policy.

Octavian, having great influence in Rome, persuaded the Vestals to give him Antony’s will, which showed that he bequeathed some eastern provinces to his and Cleopatra’s children, including Caesarion, son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. In addition, the Senate at the end of 32 BCE officially deprived Antony of consular power and declared war on the Cleopatra regime. These facts led to another civil war.

Octavian managed to collect about 250 ships, as well as 8 legions and 12,000 cavalry. Antony’s strength was definitely more impressive. Antony’s navy consisted of 500 ships, which were much larger than those at Octavian’s disposal. In addition, he had a total of 30 legions, but he had only 19 at his immediate disposal in Greece, which he chose as his headquarters, supplemented by a 12,000 cavalry unit.

Octavian was the first to act. He quickly took Korkyra, and then landed on the shores of Epirus. To such a move by Octavian, Antony hardly reacted at all. In addition, many of Antony’s soldiers deserted to Octavian’s camp.

The decisive settlement between the generals came on September 2, 31 BCE, in the Sea battle of Actium. Octavian’s forces were led by Marcus Agrippa. Ultimately, Octavian won, despite the advantage of the enemy. After winning the battle of Akjcum, he went to Athens, from where in 30 BCE he was forced to return briefly to Italy in order to put an end to the rebellions of Antony’s soldiers, and then head towards Alexandria. Antony and Cleopatra fled to Alexandria immediately after the battle, where they planned to continue their hostilities. However, when Octavian’s troops appeared at Alexandria and Antony’s forces began to surrender, Mark and Cleopatra committed suicide, seeing no chance of escape.

The question was what about Caesar’s young son – Caesarion. Octavian asked the philosopher Areios if he had the right to kill Caesarion. The philosopher, paraphrasing Homer, said: “it’s not good to have too many Caesars”3. He had him killed. He left the remaining children of Antony and Cleopatra under the care of Octavia. In 30 BCE, Egypt became a Roman province, and Octavian took overall power over the Roman Empire.

  1. Its basic change was the prohibition of compulsory purchase of land without the consent of the owner. Also, Pompey's veterans received the land.
  2. Ancient authors say that there was a sincere feeling between Pompey and Julia (despite the age difference).
  3. Actually: "Not a good thing were a Caesar too many"; Plutarch, Antony, 81
  • Bringmann Klaus, Historia Republiki Rzymskiej: Od początków do czasów Augusta, 2010
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Cesarz August, Warszawa 1973
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Gajusz Juliusz Cezar, Warszawa 1972
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Kronika starożytnego Rzymu, Warszawa, 1994

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