Dissecting Rome's first Triumvirate
The first triumvirate of the Roman Republic was a classic study in power and politics. Three men, each with their own unique personality, battled for control of the Republic. It took a titan of titans to defeat the other two, and that man removed the final brick from the Republic and used it to establish the foundation for an empire.
Gaius Julius Caesar was born in 100 B.C. A member of the famed Julian clan, he was the son of another Gaius Julius Caesar whose sister Julia married Gaius Marius, the famous general who rebuilt the Roman army around the turn of the first century B.C. Caesar matured during the civil war between Marius and Sulla (88-82 B.C), although his allegiance to the former caused his life to be threatened. When Marius was in control of Rome Caesar was named a priest and married the daughter or Marius’ ally Cinna. But then Sulla took control of the city and Caesar lost his wife’s dowry, his title, and had to go into hiding. Ironically, the loss of his priestly office allowed Caesar to join the army and serve in the east. Hearing of Sulla’s death in 78 B.C, he returned to Rome to work as an attorney in order to hone his skills in rhetoric and oratory. By 70 B.C, Caesar was ready to begin his political career.
After serving as a military tribune, Caesar was elected Questor in 69 B.C, Aedile in 66, and then Pontifex Maximus and Praetor Urbanus in 63 B.C. Once his term was complete, Caesar was appointed governor of Spain, but before he could take the position, he had to satisfy his creditors. Caesar appealed to Marcus Crassus for help and the richest man in Rome paid some of Caesar’s debts and guaranteed others. Caesar stood for Consul in 59 B.C. and was elected in one of the most corrupt campaigns on record.
Marcus Licinius Crassus was born in 115 B.C, son of P. Licinius Crassus, who was Consul in 97 B.C and Censor in 89. During the civil war, Crassus’ father and brother committed suicide rather than being captured by the troops of Marius. Later, after Marius’ death, his ally Cinna began proscriptions on all those who had supported Sulla, forcing the younger Crassus into exile. Then, after Cinna’s death in 84 B.C, Crassus joined Sulla in Africa and eventually became one of the leaders of the attack force that retook Rome in 82 B.C. Crassus spent the next few years amassing the greatest fortune in Roman history through land speculation, proscriptions against the followers of Marius, and slave trade. Now wealthy, he began his political career through the curule path. Political advancement was interrupted by the slave war with Spartacus, which Crassus helped put down in 71 B.C, but he was elected consul in 70 B.C, serving with Pompey and then Censor in 65 B.C. In 60, he was returned to consul, again serving with Pompey.
Gnaeus Pompey Magnus was born in 106 B.C. His father, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo served as Praetor in 92 B.C. and Consul in 89 B.C. He died during Marius’ siege on Rome in 87 B.C. The son served in the army under his father and found soldering to his liking. Prior to Sulla’s assault on Rome, Pompey raised three legions to support him and forever earned the trust of the new dictator. After his victories over the remaining Marians in Sicily and Africa, Sulla dubbed his young general “Magnus” supposedly in derision because Pompey had no political experience worthy of a title. After putting down a revolt following the death of Sulla, Pompey demanded that the Senate name him proconsul of Hispania. Fearing his rising military power, the Senate said no, but Pompey got his way when he threatened the Senate by refusing to disband his legions. He remained in Hispania until 71 B.C. when the Senate requested that he help Crassus with the war against Spartacus.
Pompey was elected consul with Crassus in 70 B.C. without having first served in the Senate, a very unusual accomplishment. At 35 years of age, he was already Rome’s greatest general and, as head of the army, a power to be reckoned with. Following his consulship, Pompey continued his military exploits, fighting in the east against Mithridates, and then on to Syria and Palestine. He returned to Rome for his third triumph in 61 B.C. and again joined Crassus as consul in 60.
So we had three men, three personalities, who had accumulated great power on their own, each harboring a defect preventing further glory. Caesar, the youngest, had little military experience and substantial debts which limited his influence. Crassus lacked leadership skills and was forced to use coin in its place. Pompey had no political resume and lacked a skill for politics. They all experienced Sulla’s attempts to reform the Republic. But Pandora’s Box had been opened and Sulla could not put the Republic back to the way it used to be. The new world would be fashioned by the triumvirate and that which would follow it.
The rule for election of Consuls of Rome required that a man be 43 years of age unless he was of the patrician class and then he would get two years credit and be eligible at 41. Election during the first year of eligibility was on Caesar’s mind as he waited for the end of 60 B.C. and the voting. During his term as provincial governor of Spain, Caesar had acquired enough capital to pay off many of his debts. Moreover, his experience leading men in battle had energized him for more efforts in the arena of war. But first it had to be Rome and the Consulship.
Caesar’s competitors in the election were Bibulus and Lucceius. Bibulus had served with Caesar as Aedile, but disliked him immensely. Nonetheless he offered bribes to Caesar for his support. Caesar refused and short on cash himself, borrowed money from Lucceius. He did not approach Crassus, as he was accustomed to because he didn’t want to offend Pompey who was still at odds with the wealthiest man in Rome. When the votes were tallied, Caesar was elected along with Bibulus who had benefitted from a campaign of bribery undertaken by Cato.
The force bringing the triumvirs together was now set in motion. Caesar was snubbed by the Senate when it assigned the “forests and cattle runs” of southeastern Italy as the province to be administered by the new Consuls.
Pompey was snubbed when the land bill he proposed to accommodate his veterans was defeated. The Senate looked down on Pompey as beneath their class – a plebian by heritage and only now elevated because of his father. They distrusted him fearing he would try to use his army to overthrow the government.
Finally, Crassus was snubbed when he supported the re-write of a tax collection contract favored by the knights. He got Cicero over to his position, but Cato killed the bill.
The Senate of this period was made up of three factions, each amounting to one third of the voting power: conservatives who supported the Republic as it had always been, moderates including Cicero and Cato who allowed some adaptation of the political system, and the liberals who supported Pompey and Caesar. The conservatives were so strict in their point of view, they tried to block all efforts of the triumvirs, unable to perceive the harm they would eventually bring to themselves.
Pompey and Crassus decided to bury the hatchet and go in with Caesar. The latter was still the least influential of the triumvirs but he had two important assets: he was by far the best negotiator and he had previously been a supporter of Marius, the man of the people, whereas the other two were seen as allies of the dictator Sulla.
The allies decided to add a fourth man to the group – make a quartumvirate, no less. The man they chose was Cicero, because of his oratorical skills. The invitation to join was delivered to him by Balbus, a confidant of Caesar. Cicero was certainly angry at the conservatives who were in the process of wrecking the Republic, but he could not abide the triumvirs either. He felt Pompey and Crassus were not supportive enough of his handling of the conspiracy of Cataline, while his antipathy toward Caesar was visceral. In the end, he refused to join the others and would suffer later because of it.
Michael Grant, in his biography of Caesar described what followed:
“During the next ten years the triumvirate remained the controlling factor in Roman politics. This is not, as it is sometimes called, a defeat for democracy. The dispute was not between senatorial government and democracy, which never existed in Rome and never would, but between a haughty, reactionary, corrupt oligarchy and an equally ruthless tyranny conducted by three individuals.”
Let me provide more detail for year one – 59 B.C.
When the newly elected Caesar introduced the land bill to the Senate, they filibustered until he withdrew the measure and took it to the assembly. It was vetoed by three tribunes but Pompey and Crassus spoke in favor, making it plain they were allied with Caesar. When Bibulus, the other Consul, tried to block the bill, Caesar had Pompey’s troops burst into the assembly and intimidate the opposition into surrender.
Frustrated, Bibulus and his allies tried the alternative tactic of using auspices to block all assembly meetings. Whenever an Assembly meeting was scheduled, he would take auspices and declare that the date was unsuitable. Caesar ignored this blocking attempt and used the Assembly to pass legislation beneficial to the Triumvirs.
In April, Pompey, who was 43, married Caesar’s daughter Julia, 17. It has been suggested that Pompey needed the link to be able to count on Caesar’s political skills. Caesar also married for political advantage -- Calpurnia, daughter of Lucius Piso+, who Caesar sought as a puppet Consul for the next year. These matrimonial maneuverings prompted Cato to remark that the Roman political system had become a marriage bureau.
Now Caesar decided it was time to improve his financial position and sought to use Egypt as the golden nugget. The king of Egypt had died and left a dubious will declaring his country would be bequeathed to Rome. Caesar then bribed the Senate and the Assembly with borrowed money to recognize Ptolemy XII as the rightful king so that he could gain a fortune through his relationship with the new monarch.
Even more important were Caesar’s efforts to secure a province for himself after his term of Consulship ended. Working through a trusted Tribune, Vatinius, he moved a bill through the assembly to allocate to himself Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum for a period of five years instead of the normal two. The Senate was not even consulted. Bibulus declared the law invalid because the omens were not favorable, but, once again, he was ignored. During a subsequent shouting match in the Senate, Caesar declared that he had gotten what he wanted despite the moaning of the Senate and that from now on he would “mount on top of the heads of the Senators”.
Caesar was allocated three legions for his dominion and as he prepared for the new assignment, fortune smiled down on him and changed history. Narbonese Gaul (also referred to as Transalpine Gaul) had previously been assigned with Cisalpine Gaul to a single Consul. This time the provinces were split with Metellus Celer receiving the former and Caesar receiving the latter. Before taken his post, however, Celer died, and Caesar used his father-in-law Piso and his son-in-law Pompey to argue that Narbonese Gaul should be added to his domain. The Senate gave in, possibly thinking that the more Caesar had on his plate away from Rome, the less he would meddle in its affairs.
But Caesar’s power remained a threat to the Senate. In July, an informer named Vettius accused Caesar of a plot to kill Pompey, but before the matter could be prosecuted, Vettius died mysteriously. An assassination attempt by a slave followed, but Caesar would survive to let history take its course.
He would spend eight years in Gaul conquering the tribes and write the Commentaries along the way. Julia, wife of Pompey and daughter or Caesar, would die in childbirth (54 B.C.) breaking the marital bond between husband and father. Crassus would be ambushed and killed in Pythia in 53 B.C. leaving no offset to mediate Caesar and Pompey. Caesar would use Gaul to fortify his resume as a military leader while Pompey languished in Rome, a general out of place as a politician. By the time Caesar crossed the Rubicon in January 49 B.C, he knew he was the man who would change the Republic forever.