's Ancient Civilizations of the World/From Republic to Empire

The GracchiEdit

Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune in 133 BCE. He attempted to enact a law which would have limited the amount of land that any individual could own. The aristocrats, who stood to lose an enormous amount of money, were bitterly opposed to this proposal. Tiberius submitted this law to the Plebeian Council, but the law was vetoed by a tribune named Marcus Octavius, who was acting on behalf of the senatorial/patrician class, who have already been acredited as representing a minority in this article, and against both the wishes and interests of a 'majority'. Tiberius then used the Plebeian Council to legitimately impeach Octavius. The theory, that a representative of the people ceases to be one when he acts against the wishes of the people, was counter to Roman constitutional theory. (according to whom?) If carried to its logical end, this theory would remove all constitutional restraints on the popular, as in majority, will, and put the state under the absolute control of a temporary popular majority. His law was enacted, but Tiberius was murdered when he stood for reelection to the tribunate, and his mirderers were never brought before the law.

Tiberius' brother Gaius was elected tribune in 123 BCE. Gaius Gracchus' ultimate goal was to weaken the senate and to strengthen the democratic forces. In the past, for example, the senate would eliminate political rivals either by establishing special judicial commissions or by passing a senatus consultum ultimum ("ultimate decree of the senate"). Both devices would allow the Senate to bypass the ordinary due process rights that all citizens had. Gaius outlawed the judicial commissions, and declared the senatus consultum ultimum to be unconstitutional. Gaius then proposed a law which would grant citizenship rights to Rome's Italian allies. By this point, however, a part of Rome deserted him. He stood for election to a third term in 121 BCE, but was defeated and then murdered. The senate was weakened significantly but the patrician class strengthend immeasurably because their combined wealth was so vast that they could use their family's clients en masse as a 'mob'. All purely political reform then became virtually impossible and led eventually to Sulla's illegal dictatorship and subsdequently to the 'forced' dictatorship of Gaius Julius Caesar.[1]

The populares and the optimatesEdit


In 118 BCE, King Micipsa of Numidia (current-day Algeria and Tunisia) died. He was survived by two legitimate sons, Adherbal and Hiempsal, and an illegitimate son, Jugurtha. Micipsa divided his kingdom between these three sons. Jugurtha, however, turned on his brothers, killing Hiempsal and driving Adherbal out of Numidia. Adherbal fled to Rome for assistance, and initially Rome mediated a division of the country between the two brothers. Eventually, Jugurtha renewed his offensive, leading to a long and inconclusive war with Rome. He also bribed several Roman commanders, and at least two tribunes, before and during the war. His nemesis, Gaius Marius, a legate from a virtually unknown provincial family, returned from the war in Numidia and was elected consul in 107 BCE over the objections of the aristocratic senators. Marius invaded Numidia and brought the war to a quick end, capturing Jugurtha in the process. The apparent incompetence of the Senate, and the brilliance of Marius, had been put on full display. The populares party took full advantage of this opportunity by allying itself with Marius.

Several years later, in 88 BCE, a Roman army was sent to put down an emerging Asian power, king Mithridates of Pontus. The army, however, was defeated. One of Marius' old quaestors, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, had been elected consul for the year, and was ordered by the senate to assume command of the war against Mithridates. Marius, a member of the "populares" party, had a tribune revoke Sulla's command of the war against Mithridates. Sulla, a member of the aristocratic ("optimates") party, brought his army back to Italy and marched on Rome. Sulla was so angry at Marius' tribune that he passed a law intended to permanently weaken the tribunate. He then returned to his war against Mithridates. With Sulla gone, the populares under Marius and Lucius Cornelius Cinna soon took control of the city.

During the period in which the populares party controlled the city, they flouted convention by re-electing Marius consul several times without observing the customary ten year interval between offices.[citation needed] They also transgressed the established oligarchy by advancing unelected individuals to magisterial office, and by substituting magisterial edicts for popular legislation.

Sulla soon made peace with Mithridates. In 83 BCE, he returned to Rome, overcame all resistance, and recaptured the city. Sulla and his supporters then slaughtered most of Marius' supporters. Sulla, having observed the violent results of radical popular reforms, was naturally conservative. As such, he sought to strengthen the aristocracy, and by extension the senate. Sulla made himself dictator, passed a series of constitutional reforms, resigned the dictatorship, and served one last term as consul. He died in 78 BCE.[2]

The First TriumvirateEdit

Bust of Pompey
Bust of Julius Caesar

The First Triumvirate was a political alliance between Gaius Julius Caesar, Marcus Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey)that existed between 60 and 53 BCE. Although the triumvirate had no official status in the Roman Republic, it held an unprecedented amount of political influence in its seven years of existence.

Crussus and Pompey had been rival colleagues in the Roman government, but Caesar reconciled the two men in order to use their own clout (along with his own) to win the consulship in 59 CE. This union, in which Caesar gave away his daughter Julia in marriage to Pompey, combined the wealth and reputations of three of the most prestigious men in Rome. The Triumvirate successfully pushed into existence an agrarian law which would create colonies of Roman citizens and distribute public land. In addition, the Triumvvirs outmaneuvered their greatest rivals, Marcus Cicero and Cato the Younger by allowing the demagogue Pulcher to become Tribune.

Caesar quickly manipulated the Senate through the tribune to be awarded the position of proconsul in both Gauls and Illyricum. In the next few years, as Caesar conquered Gaul, the rivalry within the Triumvirate began to increase. Pompey's dislike continued to increase, as did his jealousy over Caesar's stunning success in Gaul. The alliance was further undermined when Julia died and Pompey remarried, this time to the daughter of an arch-conservative Senator who loudly opposed the rise of Caesar. Of course, the real blow to the Triumvirate was the death of Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE. Crassus, who had been attempting to conquer the Parthian Empire in Syria, met a notable death. Legend holds that Crassus was put to death by pouring molten gold in his mouth, to symbolize his thirst for wealth.

Shortly after, Pompey became consul and began to politic against Caesar, leading to Caesar's famous crossing of the Rubicon river and the start of Caesar's civil war against Pompey. Caesar ultimately defeated Pompey in 48 BCE at the Battle of Pharsallus, leaving Caesar the sole master of the Roman world.

The Dictatorship and Assassination of Julius CaesarEdit

Roman Senators encircle Julius Caesar before his assassination

When Caesar returned to Rome, the Senate granted him triumphs for his victories, ostensibly over Gaul, Egypt, Pharnaces and Juba, rather than over his Roman opponents. Not everything went Caesar's way. When Arsinoe IV, Egypt's former queen, was paraded in chains, the spectators admired her dignified bearing and were moved to pity. Triumphal games were held, with beast-hunts involving 400 lions, and gladiator contests. A naval battle was held on a flooded basin at the Field of Mars. At the Circus Maximus, two armies of war captives, each of 2,000 people, 200 horse and 20 elephants, fought to the death. Again, some bystanders complained, this time at Caesar's wasteful extravagance. A riot broke out, and only stopped when Caesar had two rioters sacrificed by the priests on the Field of Mars.

After the triumph, Caesar set forth to passing an unprecedented legislative agenda.He ordered a census be taken, which forced a reduction in the grain dole, and that jurors could only come from the Senate or the equestrian ranks. He passed a sumptuary law that restricted the purchase of certain luxuries. After this, he passed a law that rewarded families for having many children, to speed up the repopulation of Italy. Then he outlawed professional guilds, except those of ancient foundation, since many of these were subversive political clubs. He then passed a term limit law applicable to governors. He passed a debt restructuring law, which ultimately eliminated about a fourth of all debts owed.

The Forum of Caesar, with its Temple of Venus Genetrix, was then built, among many other public works. Caesar also tightly regulated the purchase of state-subsidised grain and reduced the number of recipients to a fixed number, all of whom were entered into a special register.From 47 to 44 BCE he made plans for the distribution of land to about 15,000 of his veterans.

The most important change, however, was his reform of the calendar. The calendar at the time was regulated by the movement of the moon, and this had resulted in a great deal of disorder. Caesar replaced this calendar with the Egyptian calendar, which was regulated by the sun. He set the length of the year to 365.25 days by adding an intercalary/leap day at the end of February every fourth year.[80]

To bring the calendar into alignment with the seasons, he decreed that three extra months be inserted into 46 BCE (the ordinary intercalary month at the end of February, and two extra months after November). Thus, the Julian calendar opened on 1 January 45 BCE. This calendar is almost identical to the current Western calendar.

Shortly before his assassination, he passed a few more reforms. He established a police force, appointed officials to carry out his land reforms, and ordered the rebuilding of Carthage and Corinth. He also extended Latin rights throughout the Roman world, and then abolished the tax system and reverted to the earlier version that allowed cities to collect tribute however they wanted, rather than needing Roman intermediaries. His assassination prevented further and larger schemes, which included the construction of an unprecedented temple to Mars, a huge theater, and a library on the scale of the Library of Alexandria.

He also wanted to convert Ostia to a major port, and cut a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth. Militarily, he wanted to conquer the Dacians, Parthians, and avenge the loss at Carrhae. Thus, he instituted a massive mobilization. Shortly before his assassination, the Senate named him censor for life and Father of the Fatherland, and the month of Quintilis was renamed July in his honor.

He was granted further honors, which were later used to justify his assassination as a would-be divine monarch; coins were issued bearing his image and his statue was placed next to those of the kings. He was granted a golden chair in the Senate, was allowed to wear triumphal dress whenever he chose, and was offered a form of semi-official or popular cult, with Mark Antony as his high priest.

On the Ides of March (15 March) of 44 BCE, Caesar was due to appear at a session of the Senate. Mark Antony, having vaguely learned of the plot the night before from a terrified Liberator named Servilius Casca, and fearing the worst, went to head Caesar off. The plotters, however, had anticipated this and, fearing that Antony would come to Caesar's aid, had arranged for Trebonius to intercept him just as he approached the portico of Theatre of Pompey, where the session was to be held, and detain him outside. (Plutarch, however, assigns this action to delay Antony to Brutus Albinus). When he heard the commotion from the senate chamber, Antony fled.

According to Plutarch, as Caesar arrived at the Senate, Tillius Cimber presented him with a petition to recall his exiled brother.The other conspirators crowded round to offer support. Both Plutarch and Suetonius say that Caesar waved him away, but Cimber grabbed his shoulders and pulled down Caesar's tunic. Caesar then cried to Cimber, "Why, this is violence!" ("Ista quidem vis est!").


At the same time, Casca produced his dagger and made a glancing thrust at the dictator's neck. Caesar turned around quickly and caught Casca by the arm. According to Plutarch, he said in Latin, "Casca, you villain, what are you doing?" Casca, frightened, shouted, "Help, brother!" in Greek ("ἀδελφέ, βοήθει", "adelphe, boethei"). Within moments, the entire group, including Brutus, was striking out at the dictator. Caesar attempted to get away, but, blinded by blood, he tripped and fell; the men continued stabbing him as he lay defenceless on the lower steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, around 60 or more men participated in the assassination. He was stabbed 23 times.

According to Suetonius, a physician later established that only one wound, the second one to his chest, had been lethal. The dictator's last words are not known with certainty, and are a contested subject among scholars and historians alike. Suetonius reports that others have said Caesar's last words were the Greek phrase "καὶ σύ, τέκνον;"(transliterated as "Kai su, teknon?": "You too, child?" in English). However, for himself, Suetonius says Caesar said nothing.

Plutarch also reports that Caesar said nothing, pulling his toga over his head when he saw Brutus among the conspirators. The version best known in the English-speaking world is the Latin phrase "Et tu, Brute?" ("And you, Brutus?", commonly rendered as "You too, Brutus?"); this derives from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, where it actually forms the first half of a macaronic line: "Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar." It has no basis in historical fact and Shakespeare's use of Latin here is not from any assertion that Caesar would have been using the language, rather than the Greek reported by Suetonius, but because the phrase was already popular when the play was written.

According to Plutarch, after the assassination, Brutus stepped forward as if to say something to his fellow senators; they, however, fled the building. Brutus and his companions then marched to the Capitol while crying out to their beloved city: "People of Rome, we are once again free!" They were met with silence, as the citizens of Rome had locked themselves inside their houses as soon as the rumor of what had taken place had begun to spread. Caesar's dead body lay where it fell on the Senate floor for nearly three hours before other officials arrived to remove it.

Caesar's body was cremated, and on the site of his cremation the Temple of Caesar was erected a few years later (at the east side of the main square of the Roman Forum). Nowadays, only its altar remains. A lifesize wax statue of Caesar was later erected in the forum displaying the 23 stab wounds. A crowd who had gathered there started a fire, which badly damaged the forum and neighboring buildings. In the ensuing chaos Mark Antony, Octavian (later Augustus Caesar), and others fought a series of five civil wars, which would end in the formation of the Roman Empire.[3]

Civil War and the Second TriumvirateEdit

Mark Antony depicted on the left, Octavian on the right

The result unforeseen by the assassins was that Caesar's death precipitated the end of the Roman Republic. The Roman middle and lower classes, with whom Caesar was immensely popular and had been since before Gaul, became enraged that a small group of aristocrats had killed their champion. Antony, who had been drifting apart from Caesar, capitalised on the grief of the Roman mob and threatened to unleash them on the Optimates, perhaps with the intent of taking control of Rome himself. To his surprise and chagrin, Caesar had named his grandnephew Gaius Octavian his sole heir, bequeathing him the immensely potent Caesar name and making him one of the wealthiest citizens in the Republic.

The crowd at the funeral boiled over, throwing dry branches, furniture and even clothing on to Caesar's funeral pyre, causing the flames to spin out of control, seriously damaging the Forum. The mob then attacked the houses of Brutus and Cassius, where they were repelled only with considerable difficulty, ultimately providing the spark for the Liberators' civil war, fulfilling at least in part Antony's threat against the aristocrats. Antony did not foresee the ultimate outcome of the next series of civil wars, particularly with regard to Caesar's adopted heir. Octavian, aged only 18 when Caesar died, proved to have considerable political skills, and while Antony dealt with Decimus Brutus in the first round of the new civil wars, Octavian consolidated his tenuous position.

To combat Brutus and Cassius, who were massing an enormous army in Greece, Antony needed soldiers, the cash from Caesar's war chests, and the legitimacy that Caesar's name would provide for any action he took against them. With the passage of the lex Titia on 27 November 43 BCE, the Second Triumvirate was officially formed, composed of Antony, Octavian, and Caesar's loyal cavalry commander Lepidus. It formally deified Caesar as Divus Iulius in 42 BCE, and Caesar Octavian henceforth became Divi filius ("Son of a god").

Because Caesar's clemency had resulted in his murder, the Second Triumvirate reinstated the practice of proscription, abandoned since Sulla. It engaged in the legally sanctioned murder of a large number of its opponents to secure funding for its forty-five legions in the second civil war against Brutus and Cassius. Antony and Octavius defeated them at Philippi.

Image of Cleopatra and the son she purpotedly had with Caesar, Caesarion, from the Dendera Temple

Afterward, Mark Antony formed an alliance with Caesar's lover, Cleopatra, intending to use the fabulously wealthy Egypt as a base to dominate Rome. A third civil war broke out between Octavian on one hand and Antony and Cleopatra on the other. This final civil war, culminating in the latter's defeat at Actium, resulted in the permanent ascendancy of Octavian, who became the first Roman emperor, under the name Caesar Augustus, a name that raised him to the status of a deity.[4]


  1. "Roman Republic: The Gracci" (Wikipedia)
  2. "Roman Republic: The Populares and the Optimates" (Wikipedia)
  3. "Julius Caesar" (Wikipedia)
  4. "Assassination of Julius Caesar" (Wikipedia)