The Roman Empire: The Fall of the Roman Republic


To fully understand the Roman Empire and how it operates, it is appropriate to start with a firm definition and explanation of the fall of the Roman Republic. Originally, the only true way for one to work his way up a political ladder in Rome was by previous family connections, and how influential you can be to the Roman people. The cursus honorum was the actual process of moving through the political positions in Rome. All magistrates of the Roman Republic also became part of the senate. As the Roman Republic continually deteriorated throughout the 5th century BC all the way to the 30’s BC, the senate continually had less and less power. The fall of the power, some conclude, is in direct relation to the fall of the power of the Roman senate. Roman tradition became less and less important to political figures later on in the Roman Republic, until 30’s BC where much Roman tradition was considered a thing of the past.

The fall of the senatorial power in Rome can be described by different specific events; for example, Tiberius Gracchus, elected tribune of the plebs in 133 BC, proposed a law known as  Lex Sempronia Agraria, which in essence gave land to those who are poor and have fought in the army and had no land to return to. This is the first of many acts that started to define the different views and wants of the Optimates (the people of power, such as the senate) and the Populares (the roman people as a whole). Knowing that the senate would disagree with his proposal, he bypassed the senate and took his proposal directly to the Popular Assembly; this was considered a major insult to the senate. Tiberius Gracchus’s younger and more persistent brother, Gaius Gracchus, also broke many rules of tradition and was blatantly insulting towards the senate. Gracchus, however, focused much more on the enfranchisement of the Italian allies of Rome (this is seen as a move towards populares). C. Marius began to break tradition and law as well by taking men into his army who did not own any land previously. Marius and Sulla were the first two political figures in Rome who used considerable military force to get what they wanted, and this trend continued all through the fall of the Roman Republic and into the Roman Empire.

Caesar is being presented the head of his now deceased enemy, Pompey.

Gaius Julius Caesar, previous general and consul of Rome, played a vital role in the fall of the Roman Republic. Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey), and Marcus Crassus together formed what was later called the “First Triumvirate” in 60 BC. Political differences and bickering eventually led to the fall of the Triumvirate, and Crassus’ death in 53 BC after a lost battle against Parthia in the East was the first true unsettlement in the Triumvirate. After years of civil war between Pompey and Caesar sparked from conflicting views, 48 BC marked Pompey’s brutal death in Egypt. 45 BC marked the true end of the civil war, leaving Caesar to be the only triumvir left of the First Triumvirate. Having many political enemies, however, Caesar was eventually assasinated on the Ides of March in 44 BC by two war veterans who fought for Pompey, M. Brutus and C. Cassius.

Now, with the dictator assassinated, there was mass confusion that was spread all throughout the Roman state as people impatiently waited and searched for some sort of political power to come back and help reorder the state. Through the confusion, a few political players came into play in the search for power: M. Antonius (Antony), who was Caesar’s fellow consul and close friend; C. Octavius, Caesar’s adopted son and therefore his heir; Sextus Pompeius, the son of Caesar’s greatest enemy, Pompey; and M. Aemilius Lepidus, Caesar’s master of the horse. All four of these political figures had different ideas as to what they wanted to become of Rome.

Antony, one of the most important figures stated above, was extremely politically influential and was a major key in the becoming of the Roman Empire. He was one of Ceasar’s great friends. Antony despised the act of the assassination of Caesar and hated M. Brutus and C. Cassius, the so-called “liberators” of Rome. Antony was responsible for reading at Caesar’s funeral, and swore revenge on the liberators who had killed him. Being such a strong political figure, many took up arms and searched out for those who opposed Caesar. Many fled from Rome, among which were the three key players in the assassination of Caesar: C. Cassius fled to Syria; Marcus Brutus, to Macedonia; and Demicus Brutus, to Cicalpine Gaul.

Although Antony had strong views of the way Caesar ruled Rome, C. Octavius, Caesar’s adopted son, also had great political power and had gained the popularity of the people (populares) of Rome. Gaius Julius Caesar Octavius was an extremely young politician for his age, but inherited many treasures from Caesar’s will (Antony was rather jealous of this aspect). Through acts of public humiliation and smart political games, Octavius slowly gained popularity over Antony.

A bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero, another important figure of political Rome, and a strong supporter of the republican Rome and the Roman senate, saw great fear in the uprising of Antony’s power. Cicero wanted to make sure that there would be no coalition between Antony and Octavius, and he did everything in his power to weaken Antony’s popularity and influence on the Roman people. A series of public attacks on Antony, written by Cicero in what was called the Phillipics, loses Antony his popularity over time. Antony is seen now as an enemy of Rome, and he decides to flee out of the state to go rule in Cicalpine Gaul. There is a problem with this, however; D. Brutus, one of the “liberators” in the assassination of Caesar, was already in rule of C. Gaul. Cicero saw this as an opportunity to pitch C. Octavius against Antony, and made Octavius consul in 43 BC to wage war against Antony and his attempts to take over Gaul. The Battle of Mutina (44 – 43 BC) saw Octavius successful and a war hero. Althouth Octavius wanted to be rewarded a triumph as consul, the senate did not grant his wish, as this triumph was originally intended for Demicus Brutus. Octavius, just like Caesar before him, was frustrated enough to take matters into his own hands and used violence to get his way. This is a clear way to see that violence in Roman politics was here to stay. Octavius is now seen as a head ruler of Rome.

The Phillipics was not the first time Cicero proved his power and influence to the Roman people. His speech against Cataline was also extremely influential. Beside Cato, Cicero was one of the best speakers who supported the senate of Rome.

Cicero’s fiery attempts to stop coalitions between Octavius and Antony, however, had failed. Octavius saw great advantages in friending Antony, because Antony had the support of Lepidus, another important political figure in Rome at the time. The three powerful men, Octavius, Antony and Lepidus, came together to form what was later formally known as the “Second Triumvirate”. Their ruling was much more cruel than the first, and each of them assigned theirselves five-year consular power. Their goals, as rulers, were to wipe out the liberators of Rome and seek to find peace in the ways of Caesar’s ruling before them. They wanted neither the respect of the senate nor the respect of the Roman people; all they wanted was revenge for Caesar’s death. Another round of proscriptions were made (similar to Sulla’s proscriptions of earlier) which marked all who were seen as liberators to be killed. Cicero, a powerful supporter of the ways of the senate, was on this list (this was mainly because of Antony’s frustration towards Cicero from Cicero’s Phillipics speeches against him). Unlike most, Cicero did not flee. He deemed it important and right to stay, and if necessary, die with his mother country. Cicero got what he wished, and was murdered on the 7th of December, 43 BC. Cicero was seen as one of the most influential speakers since Cato, and now that he is dead, not much political power stands in the way between the Second Triumvirate and Rome.

With their political enemies dead in the Roman state, the men of the triumvirate wanted to exterminate their foes in the east: M. Brutus and Cassius. The Battle of Phillipi (42 BC) saw the death of both Cassius and Brutus (both committed suidice) leaving nearly the entire Roman Empire in the hands of the Triumvirate. The death of the liberators is commonly seen as the official closing and end of the Roman Republic.

Now, the Triumvirate is in power and the republic is overthrown. Antony was in rule of the east with hopes to push back the forces of Parthia. Octavius remained in Italy in the west to overthrow Sextus Pompeius in Sicily. Octavius, being the more dominant and powerful, takes Sicily by force. Pompeius is forced to flee into the east, where he is exterminated by Antony’s forces. With Sextus Pompeius gone, the problem remained of the weaker Lepidus (he was clearly the weakest of the three rulers in the Triumvirate, and he was no longer seen as necessary). Lepidus saw him able to overthrow Octavius with a mere 20 legions. However, Octavius, being an influential speaker, turned Lepidus’s army away form him, leaving Lepidus with little to no power. Lepidus was allowed to keep his position as Pontifex maximus, but that’s it; he is no longer a triumvir. This is the first sign of the separation and fall of the Second Triumvirate.

The Battle of Actium, depicting Octavius's forces against Antony and Cleopatra.

Similarly to the first triumvirate, opposing views between Antony and Octavius created small bickering between them. Many started to doubt Antony and his power, mainly because of all of his failed battles in the east against the Parthians. Antony put his trust in Cleopatra – an Egyptian woman who had birthed Caesar’s first son – and her naval fleet proved not to be successful. Antony was constantly caught up in struggles with the Parthians in the east, and a slowly unveiling love affair with Cleopatra. When Antony’s wish to be buried next to Cleopatra upon his death became public, much of Rome saw this as a huge insult to the Roman state.

Many wanted war to be waged against Antony. However, Octavius persuaded that war not be declared on Antony, but rather on Egypt. Although this seems like a foreign war, it was clear to Antony and Octavius that it was truly to target Antony and his true aliance. Antony divorced himself from Octavius and the Triumvirate; this was seen as an act of betrayal, and Antony was now seen as a public enemy of Rome. War between Octavius and Antony had begun. The Battle of Actium in September of 31 BC saw the downfall of the forces of Antony and Cleopatra, along with both of their deaths (they both had committed suicide, similar to Brutus and Cassius before them). Octavius is seen as a massive war hero. The temple of Janus was closed by Octavius in a showing of peace in the Roman state. Octavius was rewarded a triple triumph (Dalmatia, Actium, and Egypt). Egypt was now annexed as a new province.

The Temple of Janus stood in the Roman Forum; its doors were opened in time of war, and closed in times of peace. It was very rarely ever closed before Augustus; only was it closed once under King Numa Pompilius in the late 700’s BC and once under Titus Manlius in the late 200’s BC.

With Octavius as a ruler, this was a new time for Rome. Octavius, now with the trust of the people of Rome, was rewarded a new title – a title which meant “sacred” and “revered” to the Roman people. Octavius, from this point onward, would be referred to as “Augustus” and is known as the first ruler of the Roman Empire.

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