World History 1 98 - 6.5.1 The First Triumvirate

Sulla was unable to crush the populares completely since some discontented groups still opposed the Senate leadership. After his retirement, new military and political leaders sought power with the support of these groups. Three men in particular eventually assumed enormous dominance. One was Pompey Magnus, who became a popular general, and thousands of landless Romans joined his client army on the promise of land. In 67 BCE, Roman armies under Pompey’s command suppressed pirates in the eastern Mediterranean who had threatened Rome’s imported grain supplies. Pompey next conclusively defeated Mithridates of Pontus, who had again gone on the attack against Rome. By 63 BCE, Pompey had subdued Asia Minor, annexed Syria, destroyed the Seleucid kingdom, and occupied Jerusalem.

Another politician and military commander of this era was Crassus. He had served under Sulla, achieved popularity in Rome by fighting against Spartacus, and used the support of disaffected wealthy Romans such as publicans to amass a huge fortune. The third influential figure was Julius Caesar, whose original source of popularity was the fact that Marius was his uncle. When Sulla took control, Caesar lost much of his influence, but by 69 BCE he was making a political comeback and winning the support of populares in Rome.

The optimates in the Senate distrusted all these men and cooperated to block their influence in Roman politics. In response, in 60 BCE the three decided to join forces to advance their interests though a political alliance known to history as the First Triumvirate (“rule by three men”). Together its members had the wealth and influence to run the Roman Republic, but they were all very ambitious and each greatly distrusted the others. After serving as consul in 60 BCE, Julius Caesar took command of the Roman army in Gaul (modern France). Over the next ten years, his armies conquered all Gaul and launched attacks against German tribes across the Rhine, and on the island of Britain across the English Channel. The Roman people were awed by Caesar’s military success, and Pompey and Crassus grew jealous of his popularity. In 54 BCE, Crassus invaded the Parthian Kingdom in central Asia, hoping for similar military and political triumphs. The invasion was a disaster, however, and Crassus was captured by the Parthians and executed.

The Roman Empire had now grown large, thanks to Pompey’s and Caesar’s conquests (Figure 6.35). After Crassus’s death, Pompey decided to break with Caesar and support his old enemies the optimates. In 49 BCE, the optimates and Pompey controlled the Senate and demanded that Caesar disband his army in Gaul and return to Rome to stand trial on various charges. Instead, Caesar convinced his client army to march on Rome. In January of that year he famously led his troops across the Rubicon River, the traditional boundary between Italy and Gaul. Since Caesar knew this move would trigger war, as it was illegal to bring a private army into Rome proper, the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” continues to mean “passing the point of no return.” In 48 BCE, Caesar defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in northern Greece. Shortly after this, Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was murdered by the Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy XIII, who hoped to win Caesar’s favor.

A map is shown labelled “The Roman Empire through 44 BCE.” Water is highlighted blue and land is highlighted beige. Water is shown at the northwest and running along the middle bottom of the map. An oval area of water is shown in the east. A boot-shaped peninsula in the middle of the map is highlighted green as well as the three islands to its west indicating “218 BCE.” A squarish area of land at the west of the map, three small areas in the middle of the map and two larger areas at the northern end of the water in the middle of the map are highlighted orange indicating “133 BCE.” A large area of land in the west is highlighted purple indicating “44 BCE.” Small areas along the south of the map as well as an “S” shaped area in the southeast of the map are also highlighted purple.
Figure 6.35 Some of the areas marked in purple, like Gaul and Syria, were added to the Roman Empire by the victories of Julius Caesar and Pompey, respectively. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

To prosecute the war against Pompey, Caesar had himself appointed dictator in 48 BCE. Despite the tradition that dictatorship was to be temporary, Caesar’s position was indefinite. In 46 BCE, he was appointed dictator for a term of ten years, and in 44 BCE his dictatorship was made permanent, or for life. These appointments and other efforts to accumulate power unnerved many Romans, who had a deep and abiding distrust of autocratic rulers that stretched all the way back to the period of Etruscan rule. Caesar had hoped to win over his former enemies by inviting them to serve again in the Senate and appointing them to positions in his government. However, these former optimates viewed him as a tyrant, and in 44 BCE two of them, Brutus and Cassius, led a conspiracy that resulted in his assassination.

Link to Learning

In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, written in about 1599, Marc Antony gives one of the most famous speeches in English literature, based in part on the work of ancient Roman historians like Plutarch. In this short clip of that speech from the 1970 film adaptation of the play, Charlton Heston plays the part of Marc Antony.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax