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From the Death of Sulla to the Death of Julius Caesar
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Suggested Background Reading
The history of the decades following the death of Sulla is extremely complex and chaotic. The account of these years here must, of necessity, be a mere outline, but should provide the background necessary for an understanding of the reign of Augustus and, more important, the literature written in the last years of the Republic and the beginning of Augustus' reign. It should be read in conjunction with *Chapter 25 of Chester Starr's A History of the Ancient World (available in the Resource Booklet).

Immediately upon Sulla's death, M. Aemilius Lepidus (a former lieutenant of Sulla) attempted to emulate Cinna and establish himself in a position of personal authority through a series of popularis-style initiatives. As consul in 78, he proposed a number of measures, the most important of which aimed to rescind the Sullan constitution and, in particular, restore the powers of the tribunate. Since the Senate naturally opposed such a move, the rise of an insurrection in Etruria offered a welcome diversion. Lepidus, along with his fellow consul, led the Roman forces that put down the rebellion, but he proved too apt a student of recent history: rather than simply returning to Rome, he attempted to employ the threat of his troops to extort a second consulship.

In response, the Senate turned to the next important actor on our stage, *Cn. Pompeius Magnus (better known as *Pompey the Great), another of Sulla's former lieutenants. [FN 1] Pompey readily put down Lepidus, but then, in 77, employed his army to coerce the Senate to grant him a command in Spain against Q. *Sertorius.

[Sertorius, a former adherent of Marius, was a brilliant general and popular leader. Upon Sulla's return from the East in 83, he withdrew to Spain and, later, Africa. Eventually, he attracted a sufficient following among the discontented peoples of Spain to establish his own government there and defy a number of attempts on the part of the Romans to oust him. Working in a loose alliance with other rebellious forces of the time — most notably, pirates in the eastern Mediterranean, the Romans' old foe Mithridates, and the leaders of a massive slave revolt in southern Italy (see below) — he posed a serious challenge to Rome's interests.]

A series of initial defeats soon undermined Pompey's position and led to a bitter feud between him and the Senate. Pompey retained his command, however, and eventually achieved victory — despite a number of costly errors — when Sertorius was assassinated and resistance in Spain dissolved.

Meanwhile, back in Italy, the Romans were confronted by a massive slave revolt led by the legendary *Spartacus (73-71).

[The revolt of Spartacus was the last and largest of a series of such revolts in southern Italy and Sicily. It began when a group of Thracian gladiators in Capua managed to escape and, under Spartacus' leadership, established themselves in the area of Mt. Vesuvius (near Pompeii). Their base soon became a magnet for runaway slaves and other malcontents, until eventually Spartacus was able to marshal a force of some 70,000 troops. While the rebels managed to establish their influence throughout Campania and Lucania, Spartacus realized the precariousness of their position and argued that they should move north of the Alps. Instead, his troops insisted on tarrying and enjoying the spoils of southern Italy — a move that doomed them once the Senate finally was led to view the threat seriously.]

To command the Roman forces against Spartacus, the Senate appointed *M. Licinius Crassus, another former lieutenant of Sulla who had grown immensely wealthy amid the financial opportunities presented by Sulla's proscriptions.

[Crassus is often compared to the 19th-century railroad barons in North America: he made his money largely at the public expense and without too fine a regard for how his ambitions affected any of the "little people" who stood in his way. (Most notorious is the account of Crassus' fire department. In an age when such services were not provided by the state, Crassus put together a private agency. If your dwelling caught fire, his men would pull up and make an offer on the building: if you sold, they would then extinguish the flame; if not, ...!) While not a great general or politician, Crassus will be another important player in the eventual demise of the Republic.]

Crassus won the war against Spartacus' troops (as one would expect, given the resources at his disposal), but Pompey returned from Spain just in time for the finale and robbed Crassus of the victory. Pompey then employed his military forces to coerce the consulship for the following year from an unwilling Senate. (Like others before him, he had learned from history. The fact that he was underage [35] and had not held the appropriate offices could have scarcely seemed an important obstacle at this stage of the Republic's history.)

The Senate appealed to Crassus, but he threw in his lot with Pompey and, as a result, the two shared the consulship in 70 and immediately set about rescinding or watering down Sulla's reforms. In particular, they restored partial control of the lawcourts to the equites by establishing that juries should consist of a mix of senators and equestrians. They also purged the Senate of many of its Sullan appointees, who had proven hostile to Pompey's ambitions. Most important, they restored the powers of the tribunes — a move designed to allow Pompey to gain access to the military commands he desired.

Pompey now set his eyes on the East, where Mithridates had once again seized the opportunity to expand his rule (via the annexation of Bithynia) at a time when the Romans were distracted elsewhere. It is fairly clear that Pompey was looking to Sulla as a model: a successful campaign against Mithridates would place immense wealth at his disposal, as well as a large number of seasoned and fiercely loyal troops.

Employing the powers of one of the newly re-established tribunes, Pompey was given an unprecedented twofold command (67/66). On the one hand, he was granted authority over the eastern Mediterranean sea-lanes, with the task of subduing the activities of pirates in the region. The latter, employing bases in southern Asia Minor, were becoming an increasing threat to trade and had in the past proven to be willing allies of Rome's enemies. The Senate's commander, Antonius, had been ineffective, thus opening the doors to Pompey's ambitions.

But Pompey was also granted sweeping powers to settle affairs in Asia Minor and the Near East — a command of unprecedented proportions and, arguably, against Rome's interests, since the senatorial commander at the time was enjoying a good measure of success. This individual, *L. Licinius Lucullus, had been appointed in 74 and had enjoyed a number of successes against both Mithridates and his son-in-law, Tigranes of Armenia. Lucullus had successfully driven Mithridates out of Bithynia and Pontus, had captured the capitol of Armenia, and had reorganized provincial finances in the region along rational lines. Unfortunately, Lucullus was of the old school and clearly had not learned the lessons of recent history. At the time of Pompey's appointments, he was facing a revolt on the part of his troops (who were enraged that they were not allowed to pillage the locals and line their own pockets as they had, for example, under Sulla) and intense resentment from the equites, who were chaffing under Lucullus' fair dealings with the cities of Asia Minor in instituting much-needed debt relief. Unlike Marius (who had had the cunning to employ Saturninus to look after his political interests in Rome), Lucullus soon found his position further undermined by his political foes back home, who denied him reinforcements and curtailed his authority. In 66, he was recalled and his command assumed by Pompey.

[Lucullus retired, a bitter man, to Rome, where he devoted himself to a life of riches and pleasure, becoming famous for the lavish grounds of his estates and his extravagant banquets. He eventually went insane and died. While his end was convenient for Roman moralists, who had long railed against life's pleasures, it speaks badly for the Romans themselves. For all of their supposed veneration of the old-fashioned virtues of their ancestors, Lucullus' career demonstrates the folly, in this period, of actually attempting to apply such virtues in practice.]

In the meanwhile, Pompey enjoyed spectacular success in settling the East in Rome's favor. As in Spain, he proved to be a better administrator than a general. Most notably: two new provinces were established (Pontus — now part of Bithynia — and Syria); the province of Cilicia was enlarged; Armenia was officially reduced to the status of a client state; and Jerusalem was subdued.

Meanwhile, back in Rome Crassus was laying plots of his own. Due to his own lack of ability and charisma, however, he elected to work mainly through agents, who were won over by the immense financial inducements (and attendant influence) that Crassus had at his disposal. (Most notable among these agents was a man by the name of *C. Julius Caesar [ca. 102-44]: see below.) In 65, Crassus attempted to establish a foothold in Nearer Spain by using his influence to secure the appointment of his underling, Cn. Calpurnius Piso, as governor there. When Piso was assassinated, Crassus next turned to Egypt, proposing that it be annexed as a province of Rome, with Caesar as governor. Again, this would have given Crassus a base from which to oppose Pompey more effectively. The measure was squashed, however, by the Senate under the leadership of *M. Tullius Cicero (who was, by this time, firmly in Pompey's camp, hoping to effect through him a coalition of the equestrian and senatorial factions, a union which he referred to as the *concord of the orders). Next Crassus supported the candidacy of *L. Sergius Catilina (Catiline) for the consulship of 63: this measure fell through when Catiline was defeated and, subsequently, discovered by Cicero (who won the consulship against him) to be actively plotting against the state. (See the selections from Sallust's The War with Catiline and, on Cicero's career, the account in Starr.) Finally, Crassus attempted to pass a Gracchan-style land-reform bill that would have put control of all free land in Italy under his control and allowed him to stymie any effort on the part of Pompey to secure land for his troops: again, Crassus' plans were foiled by the consul Cicero.

In 62, Pompey returned from the East, disbanded army, and sought a reconciliation with the Senate. As might have been expected, the Senate — under the leadership of Lucullus and Cato the Younger (below) — proved obstinate: it refused to ratify the treaties relating to Pompey's settlement in the East and denied any land for his veterans.

At this point, Caesar comes into his own. He had been born ca. 102 into an aristocratic family with clear Marian roots. (He was a nephew of Marius and a son-in-law [via his first wife] of Cinna.) In 83-81 he fought under Sulla against Mithridates. More recently, he had served as quaestor in Spain (68) and, with the financial backing of Crassus, as aedile (65). As a result of his lavish expenditures while holding that office (and of Crassus' influential support) he won the office of praetor and of pontifex maximus in the elections of 63. After his year in office, he spent the year 61 as governor of Further Spain (where he recouped some much needed cash) and returned to Rome in 60 seeking a triumph and the consulship. The Senate, which correctly perceived Caesar as a threat, denied him the former and, realizing that it could not effectively block his election to the consulship, decreed that the consuls for the year 59 were to serve as forest commissioners in 58.

As a result of the Senate's intransigence, Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus were driven into a loose alliance which today is referred to as the *"First Triumvirate" (60/59). (A triumvirate is a board of three men entrusted with a specific mandate by the government; the alliance between Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus was not official in nature, but wielded an incredible amount of influence.) Working together, they saw to it that Caesar was awarded the consulship and a military command in Gaul for 5 years. Pompey, on the other hand, got land for his veterans and the ratification of the treaties he had signed in Asia Minor. To shore up his alliance with Caesar, he also married Caesar's daughter Julia. Crassus was brought in by Caesar mainly as a counterweight to Pompey's immense influence, and to repay him for past favors. (Notice what this arrangement says about politics in the Late Republic: it has been reduced to the level of crude power brokering among immensely influential military, political, and financial leaders.)

The Senate blocked these measures, of course, under the leadership of L. Calpurnius Bibulus and *M. Porcius Cato (Cato of Utica, or Cato the Younger). Caesar responded, in turn, by passing the desired measures in the popular assembly, using Pompey's soldiers to intimidate the agents of the Senate.

[Like his namesake, Cato the Younger (95-46) was a staunch supporter of traditional Republican ideals. He devoted much of his public career to opposing the ambitions of Caesar and other opponents of the senatorial aristocracy. Cato was a man who was easy to admire but difficult to like. His firm adherence to the dictates of Roman Stoicism attests to his great strength of character, but says little for his political savvy or sense of reality.]

As a result, the years 58-50 saw Caesar in Gaul, occupied in his famous conquests (see Starr). In Rome, there was the usual unrest. The Senate was in disarray, having been shown up as incompetent and willfully intransigent. Meanwhile, the alliance between Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus soon began to fray around the edges, as Caesar's abilities, ambitions, and growing power became ever more clear. In the tradition begun by Marius and Saturninus, both Caesar and Pompey employed violent gangs of thugs to look after their political interests, with Caesar relying on *P. Clodius Pulcher (the brother of the infamous Clodia: see the course notes on Catullus), while Pompey employed the services of one *T. Annius Papianus Milo.

The resulting chaos in Rome led to a meeting of Caesar and Pompey in northern Italy at *Luca (56), where a temporary truce was arranged. Both Clodius and Milo were reined in for a brief time. Again, however, the accord was fleeting; in Rome, the constitution was all but suspended amid the increasing political violence. The final blows came in 54 (with the death of Julia, for whom Pompey seems to have had a real affection and who had provided a certain check on the ambitions of the two rivals) and 53 (with the death of Crassus at the disastrous battle of *Carrhae, fought against the Romans' long-time eastern foes the *Parthians in a bid, on Crassus' part, to establish his own name as a military leader).

[The Parthians were a warlike people, perhaps originally from a region southeast of the Caspian Sea, who were governed by a land-owning military aristocracy and eventually established themselves in what is today modern Iran. They first emerged as a power in the mid-third century BC and eventually extended their rule from the Euphrates to the river Indus. Noted in particular for their formidable cavalry and the deadly accuracy of the archers, the Parthians presented a constant challenge to Rome's interests in the East.]

With no buffers left between them, the rivalry between Caesar and Pompey soon came to a head. Caesar's successes in Gaul, along with his growing power and wealth, drove Pompey to make common cause with his old enemies in the Senate, For his part, Caesar began to rely on the services of the tribune *M. Antonius (Marc Antony), Clodius having been killed in a confrontation with Milo's men in 52. The final crisis came with the conclusion of Caesar's Gaulic campaigns in 50 BC. Caesar wanted to hold the consulship in 48, but to maintain his proconsular authority until he actually entered office. In this way he hoped to protect himself from the legal maneuvers of his enemies, who, in the event that he laid down the protection offered by his proconsular authority, would have been certain to prosecute Caesar on various charges in order to frustrate his ambitions. Caesar's proposal was without precedent, but at this point in the history of the Republic such a technicality carried little weight.

Nevertheless, the Senate and Pompey balked, leading Caesar to march on Rome in early 49. (In doing so, he crossed the *Rubicon, the river that marked the formal geographical boundary of his military authority. This put him in open defiance of the Senate and transformed him from a recalcitrant general into an outright rebel against Rome. Because of the irrevocable nature of this move — and its dire consequences — we still employ the phrase "crossing the Rubicon" to indicate a weighty decision that cannot be revoked.)

There is no doubt that Caesar represented a threat to the Republic, but the decision of the Senate, under the leadership of Cato the Younger, to cast their lot with Pompey was unrealistic in the extreme. It led to a series of wars that Caesar's opponents had little hope of winning, and, in the end, left him in a position of absolute authority, without the checks that the conservative faction in the Senate might otherwise have provided.

The Civil War

After crossing the Rubicon, Caesar quickly took Italy and Spain (49). Pompey's forces were compelled to withdraw to Thessalonica (in northern Greece). There he managed to gather more troops (mainly by drawing Roman forces from Asia Minor) and began to lay plans for the retaking of Italy. He set up a camp in Dyrrachium (the later name of Plautus' Epidamnus), just across the strait from Brundisium. Caesar seized the initiative, however, by a daring crossing of the Adriatic and soon lay siege to Pompey's less seasoned forces. Due to his better lines of supply, Pompey was able to compel Caesar to withdraw to *Pharsalus in Thessaly (48) — a happy situation for the senatorial faction. Instead of recapturing Italy, however, or merely waiting Caesar out, Pompey's forces elected to take Caesar on once and for all. Although Pompey enjoyed a two-to-one advantage in manpower, his troops were less seasoned than those of Caesar, while Pompey himself was by nature more tentative and hesitant as a general. Moreover, he was saddled with his senatorial allies, who insisted on having a hand in formulating and approving tactical decisions. (Thus, e.g., the ruinous decision to pursue Caesar rather than retaking Italy and leaving Caesar stranded in the East.) In the end, Pompey and the senatorial faction were simply no match for the brilliant Caesar and his experienced troops.

Following the loss, Pompey fled to Egypt, where, as he landed on shore, he was murdered and beheaded by the ministers of the young king Ptolemy, who tossed his headless corpse into the sea. Caesar soon arrived in pursuit, only to become caught up in a dispute between the young queen *Cleopatra and Ptolemy, her brother. [FN 2] Eventually open warfare broke out, with Caesar escaping only thanks to some unexpected help from ambitious military leaders in Syria and Cilicia, who no doubt saw some benefit in having Caesar in their debt.

Leaving Cleopatra as the virtual ruler of Egypt, Caesar quickly dealt with affairs in Asia Minor and was finally free to return to Rome in 47. [FN 3] Further campaigns were necessary to subdue representatives of the senatorial faction who had established themselves in Africa (defeated at the battle of Thapsus in 46, where Cato the Younger committed suicide rather than submit to Caesar's authority) and in Spain (at the battle of Munda in 45). With these forces having been subdued, virtually all effective opposition to Caesar was wiped out.

Caesar in Power

In March of 45 Caesar returned to Rome as a virtual dictator. Rather than engaging in wholesale bloodletting and profiteering, however — in the manner of Sulla and Marius — he distinguished himself by his acts of clemency and his public works. It seems fairly clear that his goal was to establish civic tranquility in Rome and thus clear the way for further military ventures in the East; nevertheless, many of the Roman commoners, in particular, must have welcomed his rule for its promise of domestic peace and prosperity.

As one might expect, prominent among Caesar's political program were a number of popularis-style measures: debt reform, building projects intended to stabilize the grain supply, the extension of citizen rights in the provinces (especially Gaul), the establishment of overseas colonies (which held out the promise of land and a settled income for the urban poor), massive public works projects throughout Italy. At the same time, however, he also promoted measures intended to address growing problems in both Rome and its provinces: for example, he reduced the number of people eligible for handouts of free grain at Rome (thus encouraging the "idle poor" to take part in his new colonies) and introduced minor reforms in the system of Roman taxation among the provinces.

In Rome itself, he began construction of massive public complexes: the Julian Forum (an extension of the Forum near the northern end) and, within the traditional Forum, the massive Julian Basilica. He also reformed the traditional Roman calendar, introducing the *Julian Calendar.

[The traditional Roman calendar was a lunar calendar. A not altogether reliable tradition maintains that originally there were only 10 months in the year: hence the names September ("7th month"), October ("8th month"), November ("9th month"), and December ("10th month"). (Note that this assumes that, as today, January would originally have been the first month in the reckoning.) Even with 12 months, the Roman year only totaled 355 days, with 31 days in the months of March, May, July, and October, and 29 days in all of the others (except February, which had 28). This meant that the official year was constantly at odds with reality. Under Caesar, today's system was implemented, but without a leap year: the latter was instituted under Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.]

Originally, it was thought that Caesar would step down from power, in the manner of Sulla, but as time wore on, ominous signs began to suggest that this was not his intention. On the one hand, he kept accumulating various offices and titles (particularly the consulship, which he held in 48 and then continuously from 46 to 44. In a more troubling vein, he began indulging in practices that recalled those of foreign monarchs. In the new calendar, for example, the 7th month was renamed "July," after Caesar's family name, while his portrait began to appear on coins. Such measures, small as they may seem, could be taken to suggest that Caesar intended to establish himself as a Hellenistic-style rex, a notion that must have been received with alarm by Roman traditionalists, however sympathetic they might have been to Caesar's initial cause.

More tangible, and more troubling, were the political measures Caesar instituted to ensure his continued control of affairs in Rome. As under Sulla, the Senate was flooded with new appointees, to a total of 900 members, and thus was reduced to a virtual rubber stamp. Then on the 14th of February in 44 Caesar assumed the office of Dictator for life, thus placing Rome (at least theoretically) in a perpetual state of martial law. Moreover, a temple was dedicated to Caesar's Clemency, with his loyal ally Antony (who during the civil wars had served as Caesar's Magister Equitum in charge of Italy) appointed as its flamen. Not only was this an affront to Roman religious and political tradition, but it readily suggested dangerous delusions of grandeur.

Plans were in place for Caesar to depart on March 18 for an ambitious campaign against the Parthians, when on *15 March (the *Ides, as they are called in the Roman religious calendar) he was assassinated by a coalition of senatorial traditionalists, political idealists, ex-Pompeians, and disgruntled former officers of Caesar, led by *C. Cassius Longinus (an ex-Pompeian) and *M. Junius Brutus (an ex-Pompeian but also a Stoic idealist, who was recruited to the cause in part because of his well-known integrity, but also because of his association with the Brutus, which helped the conspirators to present themselves — in their own minds, at least — as the restorers of Republican freedoms).

Caesar was a brilliant general and administrator but had not succeeded in finding the solution to Rome's constitutional crisis. While it was clear that the old system simply could not function effectively any longer, there was still too great an attachment to the Republican forms. For many, this attachment was no doubt grounded in traditional ideals; others clearly had political and/or financial motivations in coming to their defense. Certainly, Caesar was not without flaws as a political leader: in his arrogance, he failed to pay due respect to traditional forms and ideals. And, like many of his predecessors (Alexander, Marius, Pompey), he was clearly more interested in a life of military achievement rather than one mired in working out administrative details. In the end, however, it may simply be that the Romans, despite the years of violence and political turmoil that they had endured, were simply not yet worn out sufficiently to accept that the old system could no longer be maintained. That stage was to be reached under Caesar's successor, his grand-nephew and adopted son Octavian. As we will see in the *Course Notes on Octavian and Antony: The Rise of Augustus, in Octavian Rome at last found a leader who possessed both the political skills and the vision to thoroughly transform the old Republican system, but in a manner that allowed him to claim that he was merely defending established tradition and effecting a return to the glorious days of the early Republic.


[FN 1] Be sure to distinguish between Pompey (Póm-pee), the man, and Pompeii (Pom-páy), the town. [Return to text]

[FN 2] Later rumor held that the two were lovers and that Cleopatra's son *Caesarion was the product of their liaison. [Return to text]

[FN 3] The speed of Caesar's campaigns in Asia Minor resulted in his famous message to the Senate: *"Veni, vidi, vici" ("I came, I saw, I conquered"), implying that the settlement of the region took place in the blink of an eye. [Return to text]

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