A triumvirate is a ruling body that consists of three people called triumvirs. The Romans occasionally assigned triumvirs to oversee various responsibilities, such as the founding of new colonies. During the troubled final decades of the Roman Republic*, two different triumvirates seized supreme power in the state. Only the second of these had the legal basis to be considered an official triumvirate.

Some historians use the name First Triumvirate to describe the agreement made by three powerful Romans in 60 B.C. The three men were Julius Caesar, a rising politician; Marcus Licinius Crassus, perhaps the richest man in Rome; and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, or Pompey, a successful and popular general. In late 60 B.C., after voters had elected Caesar to be one of the consuls* for the coming year, Caesar suggested to Crassus, Pompey, and the orator* Marcus Tullius Cicero that they work together to run the government. They all had certain goals that they wanted to achieve, and by working together they could overcome their enemies in the Roman Senate. Because Cicero feared that such an alliance was potentially illegal, he decided not to join. The other three agreed to help one another.

Although Pompey and Crassus disliked each other, the three-way alliance lasted until Crassus’s death in 53 B.C. Soon afterward, Pompey and Caesar found themselves at odds. By 49 B.C. Pompey joined with leading forces in the Senate and turned against Caesar. The conflict between Caesar and Pompey plunged Rome into civil war. Caesar defeated Pompey and his supporters and won supreme power in Rome. He declared himself dictator for life in 44 B.C., only to be assassinated later that year.

The Second Triumvirate began as a power-sharing agreement among three of the dominant figures in Rome after Caesar’s death. They were Gaius Octavius, or Octavian, who was Caesar’s nephew and heir; Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), a general who had supported Caesar; and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, another associate of Caesar. In 43 B.C. the Senate passed a law that named them triumvirs for five years and gave them the power to reorganize the state.

The triumvirs claimed emergency powers, both in Rome and in the provinces*, that were greater than the powers of the consuls, the governors, and even the law. They defeated those fighting to restore republican* government to Rome. Although the triumvirs divided the Roman empire among themselves and controlled different geographic regions, they were unable to cooperate with one another. They renewed the triumvirate in 37 B.C., but Octavian soon forced Lepidus out of power.

As Octavian became stronger, Mark Antony’s power weakened. He suffered a crushing defeat in a military campaign at the eastern edge of the Roman empire. Around the same time, he became involved with Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, and gave her some Roman territory as a gift. Octavian used this as an excuse to wage war against his former ally. Octavian defeated Antony at the naval battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Antony and Cleopatra retreated to Egypt, where they committed suicide, and Octavian became the first emperor of Rome under the name Augustus. (See also Civil Wars, Roman; Rome, History of.)

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

* consul one of two chief governmental officials of Rome, chosen annually and serving for a year

* orator public speaker of great skill

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

* republican favoring or relating to a government in which citizens elect officials to represent them in a citizen assembly

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