[Revised 10/16/2014]

The Second Triumvirate


Welcome, once again, drama fans, to another exciting episode in the ongoing saga of the decline of the Roman Republic.  If you thought the material in the last episode was the stuff of which great plays are made, you’ll be even more intrigued by today’s adventure.  The story of the 2nd Triumvirate has it all: suspense, adventure, action, romance—even the hint of a game show. The big question today: who will wind the grand prize, control of the largest empire the world had ever seen?

Contestants and rules of the game

First, let’s meet our contestants.  Time to welcome, first of all, from Rome Italy….

1.  Mark Antony.  Antony is a 38-year-old Roman consul, the only consul after the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar.  A remarkably handsome and athletic young man—what one would expect, perhaps, of a man from a family who claimed decent from Hercules.  And, like the legendary Hercules, he tended to live a life of debauchery and extravagance—at one time going into debt to the tune of 100 talents (maybe $500,000,000 by today’s standards!).  Like many Roman men of his class and type, he joined the army, a place where, if one played one’s cards right, an officer might make a substantial sum of money.  Antony didn’t clean up his moral life, but he had found his career.  He became Caesar’s assistant in Gaul, and continued in that position during the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey.  Caesar made him “magister equituum,” master of the horse, a kind of assistant dictator.  But his continual debauchery got him into trouble, and Caesar had temporarily demoted him.  Antony was a drinker and a womanizer—but generous and popular with the soldiers and with the Roman people in general.

And then there’s our next contestant…

2.  Cleopatra.  Cleopatra is a 28-year-old housewife and mother.  Well, no.  The mother part, yes: she’s the mother of Caesarion, her son by Gaius Julius Caesar—and, I suppose, Caesar might have thought of her as something of a prize.  Here’s Plutarch’s description:

For her actual beauty was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all that she said or did, was something bewitching.  It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like so many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter; to most of them she spke herself, as to the Aethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, and Parthians, and many others, whose language she had learned.

There, by the way, is a beauty secret your women’s magazines may have missed.  Learn a foreign language!

As desirable as the companionship of Cleopatra might be, she’s no mere pawn in this contest, but a worthy and capable successor of the Ptolemies who had preceded her.  The Ptolemies were descended from one of Alexander the Great’s generals, and, for years, members of the family had aspired to become as great as Alexander himself.

Cleopatra could (and did) play ruthlessly.  She had one of her sister’s killed and, just in case she had to take the easy way out of difficulties, she did experiments with poisons, having different slaves take different poisons to discover which led to the most painless death.  It’s no wonder the Roman people feared Cleopatra more than any foreigner since Hannibal.

Our next contestants (as usual) play as a team and agree to split any winnings equitably among themselves.

3.  The Roman Senate. Much of the senate is pretty indifferent to this game, but there are still some fired up senators led by team captains Caius Cassius, and D. Junius Brutus.  They’d like to see true republican government restored to Rome—and (who knows?) there might have been some chance: the senatorial class were your original come-back kids. 

And speaking of come-backs possibilities, there are the remnants of that great team fashioned by Pompey the Great, now being led by our next competitor…

4.  Sextus Pompey.  Sextus Pompey has the loyalty of the soldiers that had served with his father plus great support from provincials in Spain, Sicily, and Africa.  He had considerable military ability, and a trace of that old Roman virtus.  He’s somewhat of a sentimental favorite—and a possible contender for the grand prize, along with another rather successful military figure…

5.  Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.  Lepidus had become magister equituum, Caesar’s assistant dictator when Antony had to be dismissed from the position.  At the time of Caesar’s assassination, he was putting together troops to take up positions in Spain and Southern France.  With his troops still in Italy and ready to go, he’ll certainly have a major say in what comes next.

Also determined to have as say (and, this time, I mean “say” literally)…..

6.  Marcus Tullius Cicero.  Cicero looked back to his old days as consul nearly twenty years before as a far preferable era, “What a happy date for the Roman state was the year of my consulate.”  Wasn’t it nice in those good old days where we all got along? 

And then there is our final contestant…

7. Gaius Octavius.  Octavius in an undistinguished, sickly 18-year-old kid whose only claim to fame is that Caesar, in his will, had named Octavius his heir and adopted son.  That meant a name change: he’s now Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, a name we generally shorten to Octavian. Well, what’s a name?  We’ll eventually find out!

There are our contestants.  Here’s how the game is played:

You follow the rules set forth in the constitution of the Roman Republic.  If you don’t like those rules, though, you can follow instead the rules laid down by that great master of statecraft Gaius Julius Caesar.  And, if you don’t like those rules either, you remember the secret that keeps men of class far apart from the fools: you make up the rules as you go.

In other words, there are no rules, and, in the absence of fixed rules, the winning players are those who come up with the best combination of force, guile, determination, and good old-fashioned luck.

Potential Sources of Force

Force can come from several different places.

1.  There’s the Roman mob which, as Clodius had shown, could be quite useful in securing legislation that works to one’s advantage.  And while rules are broken right and left during this game, it’s still pretty useful to be able to at least claim that your actions are authorized by the rules.

2.  Another source of force: the armies stationed in the various provinces of the Roman Empire.

3.   A third source of force: armies in Italy, either Lepidus’ army or (possibly) a reformation of Caesar’s army.

4.  Finally, there are the armies of allied states, e.g., Cleopatra’s army in Egypt or Hyrcanus’ army in Palestine.

So—the stage is set.  Now on to one of the most complicated and fascinating episodes in all Roman history.

Round One--Everyone's a Winner!

It’s the Ides of March, 44 BC.  Caesar lies dead at the foot of Pompey’s statue. The conspirators run to the marketplace shouting out, “Tyranny is dead!”  But they didn’t get the enthusiastic welcome they expected.  People were worried—and rightly.  Lepidus can easily direct his army into Rome: potential bad news.

But no-one really wants a return to civil war just yet, and the various contestants reach a compromise, a compromise mediated by that great statesman, Cicero.  Cicero makes sure that everyone comes out a winner.

1.  The Roman people and (especially) the soldiers get the ratification of Caesar’s laws and fairly substantial monetary gifts—the equivalent of 2 ½ month’s income if I calculate correctly. 

2.  The conspirators get amnesty, and some rather nice additional prizes.  Brutus and Cassius get control of Crete and Cyrene—soldiers at their disposal and some nice money-making opportunities.

3.  Lepidus gets a nicer prize, continued authorization to command his troops in France and Spain.

4.  Antony gets the great prize.  As consul, he’s in control of Rome itself, and he’s promised a 5-year command in Gaul and Macedon: lots of troops, and lots of money-making opportunities. 

So will he keep his prize, or try for more?  Well, you don’t have to guess.

Antony plays for a bigger prize

As part of Cicero’s arrangement, Caesar gets a great public funeral, and Antony gets to give the eulogy.  But he uses the eulogy to arouse popular sentiment against the conspirators.  Here’s Shakespeare’s version of the speech—quite true to the spirit of the account Plutarch gives us:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest--
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men--
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

Antony goes on until the riled up crowd is seized with a thirst for revenge.  Poor Cinna the Poet is killed though he had played no part in the conspiracy—it had been a different Cinna.  Here’s the scene in Shakespeare’s version:

Third Citizen

Your name, sir, truly.


Truly, my name is Cinna.

First Citizen

Tear him to pieces; he's a conspirator.


I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet.

Fourth Citizen

Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.


I am not Cinna the conspirator.

Fourth Citizen

It is no matter, his name's Cinna; pluck but his
name out of his heart, and turn him going.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the conspiracy make themselves scarce, Brutus and Cassius heading out to their assigned provinces—but hungry for more.  They soon take off for more promising territory, Brutus taking over in Greece and Crassus in Asia.  From there, they can gather both the military strength and the money needed to take on Antony.

Antony, needing troops of his own, crosses into France where his former soldiers are numerous and more eager to serve with him than under Lepidus.  Lepidus agrees to a join command with Antony, so, at least for a time, the two will work together.

Meanwhile, in Rome itself, Cicero is trying to stop an Antony take-over.  He gives a series of speeches against Antony, speeches we call “Philippics.”  This is a bit confusing.  What does Philip have to do with this?  Well, the great Athenian orator Demosthenes 300 years before had warned Athenians of the dangers to their liberty from Philip of Macedon.  Those speeches had become famous as “Philippics,” and so now Cicero’s very similar speeches against Antony end up with the same name.  Nice and confusing—not what we really need in the middle of what’s a very confusing time anyway!

Meanwhile, now 19-year-old Octavian thinks it’s time he had a say in the game.  He wants the money promised him in Caesar’s will—money he hadn’t gotten because Antony had spent it.  He wants revenge on the conspirators. Further, he’d like to be consul.  Well, dream on, young man…

But wait.  What’s in a name?  Plenty, if that name is Gaius Julius Caesar.  No matter what the Shakespeare lines say, the name of Caesar does stir a spirit if you conjure with better than a name like Brutus.  Using the magic of Caesar’s name, Octavian gather an army of his own, Caesar’s veterans flocking to the support of Caesar’s adopted son and heir.

But how does Octavian use these troops?  Cicero wants Octavian to come to the support of the senate and fight against Antony.  In a 5th Philippic (43 BC) Cicero pleads with the senators to support Octavian against Antony. 

Well, Octavian marches on Rome, takes over, and has to decide how to play the game.  Side with Brutus and Cassius?  Possible, but he hates these men.  Side with Cicero and the Senate?  Better.  But Lepidus and Antony had been Caesar allies.  Why not work with them?

The Formation of the 2nd Triumvirate

In the end, Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus form the 2nd Triumvirate—this time, taking “Triumvir” as an official title with officially designated privileges and responsibilities.  But securing their position is not easy.  Yes, they have troops at their disposal, but armies are fickle—and they have to be paid.

Well, let’s have a bake sale, then. Or, since we really need a lot of money, how about taking a page out of Sulla’s book and renewing the proscriptions? 

The triumvirs are ruthless as they sit down to talk over who they are going to target.  The ultimately proscribe 300 senators and 2000 equestrians!  Antony gives up an uncle.  Lepidus give up a brother. And will Octavian protect Cicero?  Not a chance.  Cicero’s out of the game.  Not without a consolation prize, though.  His tongue and hands are cut off and displayed in the forum: one more chance for this great orator words and gestures to have an impact on the Roman people….

Having consolidated control of Rome and the west, Octavian and Antony head east to deal with Brutus and Cassius.  In 42 BC, the opposing forces meet at the battle of Philippi, one of the greatest battles ever fought. There are more than 35 legions involved, 200 thousand or more combatants I would guess.  But, I have to cut to the chase and simply say that the Triumvirs win.  Brutus and Cassius are dead, and, with them, any hope of senatorial control of Roman affairs.

Antony emerges the big winner: Octavian had played an undistinguished part in the victory and Philippi.  Will Antony now just try to keep his very powerful position, or will he try for even more?  Well, you can certainly guess.

Breakdown and renewal

Antony now heads off for the east, determined to win even more military glory and rich prizes for himself, his soldiers, and Rome.  His allies at home (Antony’s wife Fulvia and Antony’s brother) end up making war on Octavian, and, with Lepidus temporarily squeezed out of his leading role, the triumvirate appeared to be coming apart.

[Fulvia probably deserves more time than I give her in class.  She is an extraordinarily formidable player in this game, the most poweful person in Rome itslef for a time.  It's well worth reading the Wikipedia ariticle on Fulvia--lot of material there that would add to a good essay on the 2nd Triumvirate.]

Fulvia’s war against Octavian isn’t successful, and she flees Italy—dying in exile. Meanwhile, Antony heads back to Italy to try to patch up the Triumvirate (40 BC).

We’ve got another one of those “everyone’s a winner” situations.  Lepidus is brought back in the arrangement. Sextus Pompey gets cut in on the deal as well, getting a nice proconsulship in Sicily.  To make sure Antony and Octavian get along better, we’ve got a new marriage.  With Fulvia dead, Antony is free to marry Octavian’s sister Octavia.  Here’s the Wikipedia description of Octavia:

One of the most prominent women in Roman history, Octavia was respected and admired by contemporaries for her loyalty, nobility and humanity, and for maintaining traditional Roman feminine virtues.

Anyway, Octavia seemed likely to play the same kind of mediator role Julia had played in the first triumvirate. 

The new deal was celebrated on board one of Sextus Pompey’s ships, and Plutarch tells us that, had Sextus been as ruthless as his opponents, he could have secured control for himself by simply having his men cut the tethers keeping the ship in place and holding Lepidus, Antony, and Octavian hostage.  Didn’t do it, though.  Probably content with a situation where everybody seemed to be a winner.

Breakdown and breakdown

But the new arrangement just doesn’t last. Octavian attacks Sextus Pompey who defends Sicily successfully for quite some time.  But when Lepidus raises a huge number of additional troops to aid Octavian, Sextus ends up defeated and having to abandon Sicily.  He is eventually tracked down and executed without a trial.  He deserved better.

And then Lepidus, for no reason that I can quite figure out, decides that it’s his turn to make a move.  He wants to annex Sicily for himself, runs into a conflict with Octavian, gets beaten, and has to step out of the game for good.  But at least he gets a nice consolation prize: he’s Pontifex Maximus for the rest of his life.

With the defeat of Lepidus, Octavian is now in a position to challenge Antony for top dog—and Antony isn’t playing the game well.

In 36 AD, Antony had launched an attack on Parthia.  He succeeded militarily, but lost 22,000 men on the return home.  Having escaped the Parthians, he now falls into the clutches of Cleopatra.

Antony and Cleopatra had had an affair before (41 BC)—much to the displeasure of Fulvia.  But from 40-36 BC, Antony stayed away from Cleopatra—quite rightly, since his marriage to Octavia was critical.

But now Antony falls completely under the spell of the Egyptian queen.  He makes the “Alexandrian Donations” promising that Cleopatra and her children will get control of what should have been Roman territory in the east.  He then divorce Octavia to marry Cleopatra. These two moves give Octavian all the excuse he needs to justify raising a massive force to fight against Antony and Cleopatra.  The two sides meet at the Battle of Actium (31 BC).  Antony loses his navy, and his army, thinking that he had deserted them to follow Cleopatra, essentially deserts him: not a man they are willing to fight for anymore.

Cleopatra and Antony end up fleeing to Egypt, and there is more skirmishing there, but Actium had really turned the tables decisively. Antony, his hope dashed and thinking Cleopatra already captured or dead, committed suicide.  Cleopatra is likewise a suicide.

And so what have we got?  The senate has been decimated, and champions of the Republic like Brutus and Cassius are long gone.  Sextus Pompey is gone. Lepidus is around, but out of the game. Cleopatra is dead. Antony is dead.  And so we’ve got only one player left—Octavian.  Congratulations to our grand-prize winner, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavanus—or, as he is much better known to history, Augustus Caesar.