After the dictatorship of Sulla, the institutions of Rome fell more and more into the hands of the elite. The Senate became almost all-powerful, and the tribunate and national assemblies lost much of their influence. Harsh social violence erupted as the common people grew outraged, suffering under the power of a few elite aristocrats.
As the Republic became more and more corrupted, personal political factions emerged. Senators, tribunes, and officials were divided into camps supporting one or another leader.
In 60 B.C. a secret alliance of influential men ganged up together and tried to take control of the Roman Republic. This Triumvirate was composed of three men.
Pompey "The Great" was a famous general and aristocrat who conquered much of the Eastern Mediterranean and purged the sea of pirates. He was older, but considered very experienced and a good representative of the Senatorial order.
Crassus was a fabulously rich man, noted for being friendly but exceedingly greedy. His wealth came from manipulating the financial and property system of the time. When slaves revolted and tried to flee Roman oppression, he helped put down the famous Slave leader Spartacus and his army of 90,000 slaves.
Julius Caesar was a brilliant, ambitious military leader who conquered Gaul (France) and attempted an invasion of Britain. He first borrowed and later amassed a huge fortune, which he used to become popular. His "De Bellum Gallorum", or "On The War in Gaul", is his famous and important history of his actions in Gaul, written partly to justify his actions. A famous writer and lawyer, Cicero, supported Caesar, because he thought Caesar would defend the Republic from complete collapse. Much of his writing still survives.
These three men divided political power, bought influence and wrested control of the Republic from the people and ancient institutions of Rome.
When war was declared on the ancient Parthian (Persian) Empire, centered in Iran, Crassus went off to battle. The Romans lost a critical battle at Carrhae, in the Middle East, and Crassus was killed. This defeat was one of the worst Roman military disasters ever, and it became infamous for hundreds of years.
Military standards were the symbols for legions. Usually they had a crest (an eagle) and the letters SPQR, which stood for "Senatus PopulusQue Romanus", or "The Senate and People of Rome". These symbols of the Roman legions slaughtered at Carrhae were captured by the Parthians, and Rome was utterly humiliated. Under a later treaty, the standards were returned, but Roman historians never forgot this humiliation.
Pompey was more supportive of some kind of Republican restoration, and towards the end of his life, seemed to play with the idea of Republican government under the authority of the Senate. But he fell into conflict with Caesar, and though the Senate gave him as much aid as they could, Caesar finally defeated him in battle. By 45 B.C., Caesar was the most powerful man in the Western world.
Ironically, to justify his rise to power, Caesar enacted some of the same reforms that the Gracchi had proposed 90 years before. His skills as a politician and his authoritarian reforms bought him quite a bit of credit with the populace. Of course, this was geared towards ensuring his continued power, rather than considering the needs of the Roman people and state first. When analyzed in detail, his reforms seem somewhat hollow and in no way sufficient to stop the impending collapse of the Republic.
Caesar had a famous affair with Cleopatra, the famous Greek queen of Egypt. The Greeks had invaded and occupied Egypt three hundred years before, when the almost invincible armies of Alexander the great conquered most of the ancient Middle East and even parts of India. When Alexander died, the conquered territory was divided up between his three chief generals. Egypt fell to Ptolemy. Descended from this Greek line, Cleopatra's ruling family had by this time adopted many of the customs of the Egyptians.
Cleopatra was a consummate politician. She knew that power lay in the hands of Rome, and cultivated her connection to Caesar, the most powerful Roman of his time. She had his son, and just so that no one could make a mistake, she named it Caesarion. Many Romans were offended that this foreigner was trying to acquire power and influence for herself in Rome, and Caesar had to distance himself from his Egyptian mistress.
Caesar knew that Egypt was wealthy, and he wanted it to remain firmly under the power of the Egyptian royal family. With Rome's control over the royal family, it would be possible to preserve Egypt as a source of great wealth for Rome and any Roman leaders who needed support.
Caesar managed to acquire so much influence and power that he started to threaten the old Republican institutions. He may have realized that the power available to him under the old Roman constitution was insufficient to serve his great ambition, and desired to take full power for himself. Perhaps he had nobler intentions. Of course, we don't know.
The Republic Strikes Back
"Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead! Run hence proclaim, cry it about the streets."
-- Cinna on the killing of Caesar, in William Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar"
There was a strong current of resistance to dictatorship in Rome. When it was obvious that he intended to assume absolute control and become a permanent dictator, a Republican party decided that Caesar had to be eliminated. Cassius, a member of the faction, approached Brutus and convinced Brutus to be the leader of their plot.
Brutus was a noble and respected Roman. We was considered a staunch defender of the Republic and totally incorruptible. He began his rise to military prominence while under Caesar's command in the conquest of Gaul. Julius Caesar may have been under the impression that Brutus was his son, through complicated sexual relations about the time of Brutus' birth (the more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems). In any event, he actively courted Brutus' respect. Brutus wasn't entirely fond of Caesar, and loathed his arrogance and ambition for power. Even though many advisors warned against it, Caesar tried to draw Brutus away from Brutus' friends and bring him under his own influence. They became limited friends.
Hundreds of years before Brutus and Caesar, a man named Brutus led a revolt against the tyranny of the Roman kings and liberated Rome, and established the Republic. According to historians, the conspirators admonished Brutus to "live up to your namesake, Brutus, the ancient liberator of Rome."
Led by Brutus and his ally Cassius, Republican partisans staged a well-planned, vicious assassination meant to show the people that Caesar was dead. Legend has it that Caesar's assassination had been foretold; "Beware the Ides of March". Maybe the assassins used this to their advantage. On March 15th, the "Ides of March", in 44 B.C., they drew Caesar away from his supporters at a gladiatorial show, and stabbed him repeatedly. Another story says that as he saw Brutus, he cried out, "ET TU, BRUTE?"-- "You too, Brutus?".
Shakespeare immortalized the story of Brutus and Julius Caesar in his play, "Julius Caesar".
The Second Triumvirate and Augustus Caesar
When this attempt to rule Rome fell apart, a second cabal of three would-be dictators emerged.
Caesar's good friend and military companion Marc Antony is famous, along with Caesar, for being the lover of Egypt's Greek ruler, Cleopatra. He apparently fell madly in love with her, and she parlayed this into a political opportunity for her and her kingdom.
Lepidus was a well-known Roman politician, but little is remembered about him today. He was an influential politician and had significant public support.
Octavius Caesar was Julius Caesar's great-nephew and adopted son, the most junior member of the conspiracy. He had not yet done anything terribly remarkable at that point in his career.
Supported by the Senate, Brutus led a struggle to restore the Republic. Unfortunately for their Republic, the forces of Antony and Octavian finally destroyed the Republican armies of Brutus and Cassius on the northern coast of the Aegean Sea. Brutus committed suicide in his tent. The dictators had so much respect for the noble Roman that they ordered the dead Republican general's body to be treated with honor. Some authors wrote that Octavian was very affected by the death of Brutus.
Lepidus lost influence while the others gained military victories and became little more than an appendage on the coattails of the other two leaders. He was eventually exiled.
The last two would-be dictators had great disagreements about how power was to be shared. To ease tensions, Antony married into Octavian's family. But he spurned his Roman aristocrat wife and lived instead with Cleopatra, Caesar's former lover and joint ruler of Egypt (the other ruler was her young son). Many in Rome were outraged that Antony spent so much time with a foreign mistress, and thought that he might try to unite Rome and Egypt into some kind of kingdom under his rule and the rule of the Egyptian royal family.
Civil war broke out, with Antony and Octavian leading the largest forces. Though Antony had all the money and power of the Egyptian throne behind him, his forces were routed at every turn by Octavian's armies and fleets. The loss of naval battles in Greece was critical, and though many stayed in their alliance with Antony, the war took on a desperate tone.
In 31 B.C., Octavius defeated Antony in battle off the coast of Greece, and Antony and Cleopatra fled with their money. Antony committed suicide, and while Cleopatra valiantly tried to manipulate Octavian as she had done Caesar and Antony, her efforts failed and she, too, committed suicide after threatening to burn and destroy the riches of the Egyptian monarchy.
Octavius, only 32, became the most powerful man in Mediterranean politics. He took the name of "Augustus" in 27 B.C., which meant "revered".
One man was absolute ruler of Rome and its vast Empire. The Senate proclaimed all types of honors for him, and conferred massive powers on the new leader. In the story made famous by authors throughout the centuries, Cleopatra committed suicide and then Egypt, and most of the Mediterranean, passed into the hands of Rome under Augustus Caesar's control.
Space, Craig. (January 27, 2003) “Civil War: End of the Republic.” Internet: www.interlog.com/~gilgames/civwar.htm