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3.1 | The End Of The Roman Republic – Long Live The Emperor

What happened to Julius and the Roman Republic after he invaded Britain? Quite a lot. Including a few civil wars and a shiny new Empire.

Transcript – The End Of The Roman Republic


We have spent a couple of episodes of our History of Britain with Julius Caesar. He features a bit in British history, but he was a bit more important for Rome. He was a massive nail in the coffin of the Roman Republic and brought about the Roman Empire. It doesn’t sound like a massive difference, but if you think about how that would go down now you get a better picture of it.

The Roman Republic was ran a bit similar to a modern democracy. There was the Consuls, who were like Presidents or Prime Minister, the Senate who were like an Upper House similar to the American Senate and Assemblies where normal folk could get involved, like the House of Commons. In theory, this meant that Rome was run by its people. The move to an Empire meant that the place was run by one bloke, no matter how mad he was. Our politicians may be arseholes, but they are the arseholes we picked.

Let’s roll back a bit, and have a look how the change came about. Before, and during the time Julius was knocking about in Gaul and Britain he was a member of a trio of politicians called the First Triumvirate. This was Julius Caesar himself, a very popular commander and politician, Pompey the Great, a very successful military general and Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the richest people in Rome. The three of them worked together to help each other dominate the Senate. They formed the Triumvirate in 59 BC, when they worked together to get Julius elected to the top job of Consul.

The general tone of all of this is that the three men worked together for their own personal ends and they didn’t particularly get on. They didn’t even necessarily share a political view. Pompey and Crassus had both been Consul at the same time, and they didn’t get much done because of all the disagreements between the two of them.

At the time politicians divided into two rough camps. They weren’t exactly political parties, but the two groups didn’t get on. The groups were the Populares, who were pro ‘the people’, and the more conservative Optimates who wanted to limit the power of the assemblies in favour of the aristocratic Senate. There weren’t just your standard squabbling political groups. Their conflicts contributed to a number of civil wars in the first half of Julius life.

Julius was firmly in the Populares camp, while the others weren’t so much.

As a bit of an intro into how powerful these three men were, you can look at their CVs during this Triumvirate period. Crassus was Consul in 55 BC (having already had the job, Pre-Triumvirate in 70 BC) He was also the Governor of Syria in 54 BC. Pompey had already been Consul at the same time as Crassus in 70 BC, but he got the job again in 55 BC (again with Crassus) and separately in 52 BC. Between 58 and 55 BC he was the Governor of Hispania. Julius himself was Consul in 59 BC and from 58 BC he was governor of Cisalpine and TransAlpine Gaul and Illyricum.

The Triumvirate officially ended when Crassus died at the Battle of Carrhae, in 53 BC. fighting the Parthians in what is now Turkey, but it was unravelling before that. As has been the case through much of history, the political alliance was ‘strengthened’ by marrying one member’s daughter to another. While Julius Caesar was in Britain in 54 BC, his daughter died in childbirth. This was an issue, beyond the obvious grief, because she was married to Pompey, and there weren’t even any familial ties to stop the inevitable betrayal.

As a side point, this sort of family ties comes up constantly throughout European history. It sort of makes sense, joining together two powerful families to make sure they can dominate a political landscape. But it really just is a full-on hostage situation. Basically, it’s ‘don’t fuck with me or you daughter is trouble.’ Grim stuff.

From 54 BC to 49 BC Julius mostly stayed in Gaul fighting the remnants of Gallic resistance and a few full-on revolts. But back in Rome, it was all kicking off. Opposing politicians were funding gangs to attack the other side, not that Rome was unused to a bit of political violence. Caesar was growing in power even while away in Gaul. After Crassus death, the Senate, worried about Julius power, championed Pompey as the man to stop him.

In December 50 BC, the Senate tried to get Julius to disarm himself. They voted overwhelmingly that both Pompey and Julius would give up their armies, Julius in Gaul and Pompey, in Rome, but with an army in Hispania. We suppose the point of this would be to have both sides not being able to immediately seize power if the other was to give up their soldiers. Pompey just ignored them, and likewise, Julius decided he liked having his army. So in January 49 BC he took that army and marched to Rome. There was a sensible rule in place that no general could bring his army to Rome. Once Julius crossed a certain line at the head of an army, he had basically committed treason. That line was the Rubicon, a River that was the boundary between Italy proper and Cisalpine Gaul. You may have heard of the phrase ‘crossing the Rubicon’ for going too far with something. That’s where it comes from. One of the reasons Julius went in big on his actions was that he was convinced that the Senate, who were mostly not friendly, would arrest him on his return and he would be tried for, among other things, war crimes during his Gallic Wars. For example, Cato, a powerful enemy of Caesars suggested handing him back to the tribes in Gaul for a trial. It really is surprising how against Caesar’s actions in Gaul some Romans were, considering how un-squeamish they all were about this stuff. These were the people who had spend a couple of centuries fighting everyone they bordered with and had more than their fair shares of brutal civil wars and revolts. It wasn’t just his enemies, Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian writing a hundred years later referred it being ‘a crime against humanity.’ That doesn’t appear to be politically motivated and comes across as a fairly modern view of a war. It must have been harrowing.     

If he could get himself re-elected to an important magisterial position, he would be immune to those prosecutions and if he couldn’t do that the easy way he would do it the hard ‘march into Rome’ way.

The act kicked off the Great Roman Civil War, a.k.a Caesar’s’ Civil War. It lasted four years and involved every prominent Roman going, but at the start, it was Julius vs Pompey. Julius ran through Italy fairly easily, with Pompey deciding that Rome couldn’t be defended. He legged it south, then carried on legging it East, where his power base was, to the province of Epirus in Greece. The war was fought all over the place, but one of the first moves was Julius attacking Hispania because it was particularly pro Pompey.

He arrived back in Rome, after smashing the pro-Pompey army in Spain, and was made Dictator. The position of Dictator was a proper position in the Roman Republic – as much as it sounds more than a little negative these days. The job was occasionally given to political leaders in time of trouble. For example of a war was going badly, or there was a domestic revolt that was bigger than normal. The reasoning behind this thinking was that in a nation governed by two consuls, each with the power of veto over the other could mess that up.

We have found an interesting example of the problems the two consuls might cause, from the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC. The Romans were fighting a Carthaginian army led by world-famous elephant wrangler, Hannibal, at Cannae in Southern Italy. They were not doing well against the Carthaginians and had decided to combine their armies into one bigger army for this battle. Normally each Consul would be the general of their own army. When the armies were combined into one the law was that each day they took turns acting as General. The Consuls at the time were Paullus and Varro. Paullus liked the cautious approach, while Varro liked a more aggressive approach. This doesn’t work out. For example, if the more aggressive Consul ran headlong into battle on his day, and got everyone killed, there isn’t a lot of room for caution the next day. According to the sources, this is what happened and Cannae was one of the worst ever Roman defeats. It sounds like there is a little bit of pro-Paullus propaganda at play, but it is a good illustration of how sometimes two heads aren’t better than one, and too many cooks can indeed spoil the death count.

Anyway, Julius was made dictator, and he took the job for 11 whole days during which he made sure he was re-elected as Consul, giving a nice legitimising sheen over his civil war, and making sure he couldn’t be prosecuted – all though who is going to try an prosecute the bloke whose army was ripping through Italy and beyond? This use of the dictatorship did somewhat go against the spirit of the dictator rule, but it got the job done.

All this happened in less than a year. The next four years saw fighting all over the place, including modern day, Greece, Albania and Tunisia. It didn’t all go Julius way, and he lost the odd battle, but it was pretty clear who was winning. In 48 BC, Pompey escaped to Egypt. Egypt was having its own civil war, with the King Ptolemy XIII was fighting his sister Cleopatra (yep, that one). Ptolemy had Pompey assassinated, in an attempt to make a friend of Julius. Which, sort of made sense, as the Romans were obviously going to have a say in who ran Egypt sooner or later. The problem was that Julius didn’t like an Egyptian killing a Roman general – so either for his own political benefit or because he really was angry at Ptolemy killing his friend turned enemy, he dived in on Cleopatra’s side. He laid siege to Alexander, beating Pompey’s old army in the process.

The fighting continued for another 3 years, until 45 BC, after Pompey was killed, with Julius winning his last victory at the Battle of Munda, in Hispania.      

That was the more military side of Julius’ Civil War, but the more interesting bit (to us at least) is the political side. As we mentioned Julius was made dictator in 49 BC, but he gave it back immediately. He was made dictator again for a year in 48 BC and in 46 BC he was given the role of Dictator to last ten years. He also swapped between the titles of Consul and Proconsul. A Pro-consul someone who acted on behalf of a Consul, for example, if there was a job that was too far away or big for a Consul to do as well as their other duties, they could delegate the job to someone who had the same authority over everyone else as if they were doing it themselves. For a modern version of this move, we can look to Russia and Vladimir Putin. Putin was President between 2000 and 2008 and again from 2012 to now. During the gap of 2008 to 2012, he held the less important position of Prime Minister under the new President Dmitry Medvedev. This was because under Russian law you can’t serve 3 consecutive 4-year terms. So Putin had to take a step away and let Medvedev run Russia. Except you would have to be out of your mind to think that Medvedev even made the decision over what he had for lunch, let alone how to run Russia.

So Julius had the role of Consul sewn up, but he still had to worry about the Senate, because the Roman political system had their systems of checks and balances in place to stop a mad Consul gaining too much power. Except it didn’t work.

He also got himself granted tribunate powers – being a tribune meant you had powers to check the powers of the Senate. Julius being tribune, meant he had more control over the Senate and that other tribunes couldn’t get in the way. Just in case he also took advantage of a lot of Senators being dead, what with a civil war going on, and in 47 BC he just appointed loads of new Senators, he even increased the total number of senators from somewhere between 500 and 600 to 900 Senators. Surprisingly these new Senators were fairly agreeable in terms of letting Julius do what he wanted.  

By 45 BC, Julius was running the place by himself. No other Consul to worry him, no powerful Senate and no military resistance. He had even granted himself the power to appoint the next lot of Tribunes and Consuls, so he would have representatives in place to do what he wanted while he was away fighting any future wars. He was planning a nice war with Parthia, over in the east.  

Now, this wasn’t well received by a lot of people. Julius was very popular amongst the Roman people, but you really can only take that so far. So in 44 BC, on the Ides of March, Julius was assassinated. For anyone interested Ides just meaning the middle of a month, so in March this was the 15th. His assassins were a group of important Roman Senators. They didn’t hire an assassin or gang to do the killing, they surrounded Julius on his way to a session of the Senate and stabbed him to death. The most famous if these being Julius’ friend, Brutus. Most famous because of the phrase Et Tu Brute? (as in You too, Brutus) which he didn’t say and it just a line we know from a Shakespeare play.

This episode is about the death of the Roman Republic and the transition into the Roman Empire. The official date of the end of the Roman Republic and the start of the Empire was years after Julius’ assassination. But all of Julius actions were a massive leap towards that. As far as we can tell, the Republic was dead at this point but wasn’t yet an Empire. It’s all technicalities, but the Republic wasn’t finished with Julius, so let’s have a look at what happened next.

Basically what happened was another Civil War. A lot of people were still very pro-Julius Caesar at his death, and as a Populares, he had done a lot to benefit those Romans not lucky enough to be aristocratic. Marc Antony looked to take advantage of Julius death and whipped up those folk into a frenzy, hoping to ride the wave to the top. The frenzy bit worked with those men involved in the assassination having their houses attacked. Unfortunately for Marc Antony, Julius had made his grandnephew Gaius Octavian as his sole heir, effectively announcing him as the head of things (not to mention making him phenomenally wealthy). The events that followed were surprisingly slow. Brutus and his friends didn’t lose their political positions, and Octavian had to return from the East where he was preparing for war with Parthia. Brutus and co were sort of exiled to cushy governorships in the east and Octavian and Marc Antony had some skirmishes in Italy. They kissed and made up and     Antony, Octavian and a bloke called Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who had been Julius Master of the Horse, formed the Second Triumvirate. The Master of the Horse wasn’t, as the name suggests, the man in charge of the stables. It was in fact in effect Lieutenant of the Dictator, so a very important role. This Triumvirate was a five-year deal, that meant that the three men would control pretty much everything – it was a bit of a coup. This was formed on November 43 BC, a year and a half after Julius death. Nearly a year after that the Second Triumvirate fought the armies led by the men who led Julius assassination, Brutus and a man called Gaius Cassius Longinus, in what can be called The Liberators Civil War – Liberators being what Brutus and his mates called themselves. This war started in 43 BC and only lasted a year. We are going to go over this all in the next companion episode, but for now, you should know the Second Triumvirate won.

Following the victory, predictably, the Triumvirate fell apart, the two possibly stronger members Octavian and Antony didn’t get on, with Anthony mainly hanging about in the East, with Octavian mooching about in the West. Lepidus was stripped of his power in 36 BC and sent into exile.

In 32 BC another Civil War kicked off. No prizes for guessing what the two sides were – yep, that’s right, Octavian fought with Antony. It lasted 2 years and ended with an Octavian win.  The war was all a bit cinematic, and again we will go over it properly in the next companion episode. The important bit, for now, is that Octavian was ruling alone as the most important man in what was still the Roman Republic. He was Consul every year during this period, and it was still a position that was elected each year. By 30 BC he was pretty much in control of everything.You can easily call this year the end of the Republic and the start of the Empire. Saying that Octavian was made Consul for the 7th time in 27 BC, so he was still technically elected. It was in January that year that Octavian made a show of offering the powers he had gain back to the Senate, but they (probably quite wisely, just handed them back to him). It was also that month that he was given the title Augustus, which is how he is known through history. It means something like Illustrious or Majestic One. The more significant title he was given/took, was Princeps. He had already been called Princeps Senatus, which meant first amongst the Senate. Princeps, obviously meant that bit more – as in Augustus was the foremost.

An interesting development from all these changes was the beginning of sort of two classifications of provinces. Those on the edge of the Empire were ran under Augustus’ authority. He would appoint representative legates to run the day-to-day, but he was the one in charge. The provinces that sell into this category were Gaul, Spain, Syria, Cilicia and Cyprus, and Egypt. Apparently, the logic was that these were the provinces that were on the edge of the Empire, near enemies and susceptible to revolts that would require a significant armed Roman presence. The rest were placed under senatorial control, although you can assume that Augustus had a had in what was going on there. This split was continued long past Augustus reign

You might call the end of the Roman Republic as happening in 30 BC, when Augustus took complete control, or maybe 27 BC when Augustus more officially took over. Either way, the Republic had been dying for ages. I mean you can’t say that Julius Caesar’s rule was anything close to a legitimate Republic, and the decades before Julius reached the top was full of civil wars as well. You can even point to Pompey the Great before Julius rose to prominence. Mary Beard points out that he acted in many ways like an Emperor, especially when he was in the East. He was defied out there, like Julius and Augustus, he had coins minted with his head on, he even had a month named after him in Lesbos, again like Julius and Augustus. Back in Rome he was treated special and built massive impressive complexes and temples, much like actual Emperors would start to do. It’s a good point, unsurprisingly coming from Mary Beard, and you see a lot of talk about the expansion of the provinces outside of Rome being the root of the problem. They meant that men could go out from Rome and build power bases in a Province, particularly with an army under their command, and then take control in Rome directly or through political connections and threats. Which worked to massively reduce the power of the Senate and Assemblies, leaving the place wide open to corruption. This definitely applies to Pompey and his gathering of power in the East around Syria and Turkey. It also applied to Augustus, who made himself unbelievably rich by taking control of Egypt. It also makes sense that he moved to have the border provinces to be directly under his rule, as that was where people had previously gone to get their money and build their armies.

Even when Augustus made all these changes between 30 and 27 BC, it was done in a Republican tone, with him offering to relinquish his personal control over armies and provinces. It all happened relatively slowly, easing the people into living in an Empire. There was still the Senate and other elected positions that put forward and approved legislation. Although you do have to ask how much of that was put forward without pre-approval. It was clearly no longer the Republic as was, but it was done surprisingly politely. Apart from all the killing, we suppose. It certainly helped Augustus that the men before him, particularly Julius and Pompey had moved along what was deemed acceptable to the Romans.

And that is the end of the Roman Republic, and the start of the Roman Empire, which Britain was soon to become a part of as Britannia. Look out for the build-up to that in our next History of Britain episode.


Nice one, Cheers.