Ancient History & Civilisation



First Mithridatic war, ending in the Treaty of Dardanus. Further wars with Rome followed in 83–81, and again in 73

88 BC

Sulla marches on Rome rather than give up the command against Mithridates to Marius, initiates a reign of terror, and then marches east

86 BC

Marius and his ally Cinna become consuls after recapturing Rome. Widespread political violence. Death of Marius

84 BC

Sulla returns from the east to depose his enemies who had established themselves in his absence, and to make himself dictator. Imposes political reforms on Rome, resigns dictatorship, and dies in 79


Spartacus leads a slave revolt, which engulfed central, southern, and eventually part of north Italy until Crassus defeated him in southern Italy

70 BC

The consulship of Pompey and Crassus. The trial of Verres for corruption as governor of Sicily establishes Cicero’s reputation

67 BC

The Lex Gabinia creates a super-command against the pirates. Pompey appointed and clears the Mediterranean of pirates in just three months


Pompey replaces Lucullus in the war against Mithridates, and then campaigns in Armenia, Syria, and Palestine, reorganizing Roman provinces and client kingdoms across the entire region

63 BC

Cicero’s consulship, the conspiracy of Catiline, Julius Caesar elected pontifex maximus

62 BC

Pompey returns from the east and lays down his command but the Senate is slow to ratify his settlements or provide land for his veterans

60 BC

Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar form a pact to pool their financial resources and political influence

59 BC

Caesar consul. Then campaigns between 58 and 53 in Gaul, with raids into southern Britain and Germany

53 BC

Death of Crassus following his defeat by the Parthians in the battle of Carrhae


Civil war between Pompey and Caesar ends with Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalus and murder in Egypt. Caesar becomes dictator

44 BC

Caesar murdered on Ides of March by a conspiracy of senators, led by Brutus

43 BC

Mark Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian form a pact, and eliminate their political enemies, including Cicero

42 BC

Mark Antony and Octavian defeat Brutus and Cassius, ‘the Liberators’, at the battle of Philippi

31 BC

Octavian defeats Antony and Cleopatra, ending civil wars



His monument is on the field of Mars, and inscribed on it an epitaph which he is said to have composed himself. The substance is that none of his friends outdid him in kindness, nor any of his enemies did him more harm than they received in return.

(Plutarch, Life of Sulla 38.4)

Deadly Rivals

Sulla’s epitaph is a chilling memorial to the horrors of politics at the end of the Republic. Friendship and enmity were both competitions, and Sulla had won on both accounts. He died owing no debts of gratitude, and leaving none of his rivals unpunished. Perhaps this was a traditional aspiration, but the scale of Sulla’s realization of it was truly terrifying.

Sulla had served under Marius in the war against Jugurtha and had pulled off a political coup by having the Numidian prince betrayed into his, rather than into Marius’, hands in 107 BC. That compounded a rivalry based on their opposing political positions. Marius, the new man, was the champion of the people, while aristocratic Sulla was better liked by the nobility. He continued to distinguish himself as a general in the wars against the Germans, on an eastern command in Anatolia, and then again in the Social War against the Italians. Elected consul for 88 BC, he was the obvious man to be given the command against Mithridates, and so he was. But then civil conflict made another of its lethal intersections with Roman imperialism. A tribune named Sulpicius Rufus passed a law transferring the command to Marius. That was a scandal, but one that was dwarfed by what Sulla did next. Refusing to accept the decision, he marched his soldiers into the city, had Sulpicius killed, and drove Marius into exile. Master of Rome, he compelled the Senate to pass his own legislation, including reassigning the eastern command to him. Sulla then marched east to Macedonia, rapidly put Mithridates’ generals on the defensive, and laid siege to Athens. He was as implacable there as in Rome: the Athenian agora, its ancient marketplace, was awash with blood. The story goes that Sulla only agreed to stop the massacre because of his love of classical Greek culture, saying that he spared the few for the sake of the many, the living for the sake of the dead. Then he pressed on to Asia to make a shameful peace with Mithridates at Dardanus. The king was granted his lands, recognized as a Roman ally once again, and effectively forgiven his crimes in Asia in return for supporting Sulla. For Sulla was keen to return. In his absence he had been outlawed, and his enemies Cinna and Marius had seized control of the city, waging their own reign of terror. Perhaps fortunately both were dead before Sulla got back home. His army invaded Italy in 84 and he soon seized the city. There he had himself made dictator and issued a list of his enemies, many of them associated with the popularis movement and friends of Marius. Those proscribed on the list could be killed with impunity and lost their property: in a cunning move it was auctioned off at knock-down prices, thereby implicating the buyers in Sulla’s coup. A few of the proscribed were killed, others—including the young Julius Caesar—fled for their lives. Sulla then used his dictatorship to impose his own political solution in a series of laws that in some ways resembled those proposed by Drusus just before the Social War. There would be a larger Senate (so recruiting the most prominent of the equestrians and ending the rift between the two orders engineered by the Gracchi); the tribunes were stripped of most of their powers, making it much more difficult for popularis politicians to use the assemblies to outflank the Senate (as the Gracchi, Saturninus, and Sulpicius Rufus had done); the Senate would control the courts, freeing governors from the need to kowtow to equestrian juries; and senatorial careers were to subjected to a stricter discipline with minimum ages for the senior magistracies. Sulla also distributed land to his soldiers, imposing colonies on many Italian cities: Pompeii was among those chosen and we can follow in detail the uneasy coexistence of ancient Oscan families and Sullan veterans in the politics of the city over the next few decades. Then Sulla surprised everyone once again, by resigning the dictatorship in 80. The next year he died in retirement of natural causes.1


Fig 9. Bust of Sulla in the Munich Glyptothek

Sulla left a grim legacy. It was not so much the constitutional laws, which were broken and abolished during the 70s with no power to protect them, or the administrative reforms, which were uncontroversial. But the example he set was a terrifying one. Sulla was the first general to attack Rome with a Roman army. Sulla made the dictatorship (originally an emergency measure designed for moments when the city was in peril) into a tool for suspending civil society. Sulla invented proscription. His violence and the feuds it stirred up haunted Rome for a generation. When Pompey won his victories in the east in the 60s, it was widely feared he would return ‘like Sulla’. Julius Caesar made himself dictator in the 40s. Octavian and Antony issued their own proscriptions. And politics had become incurably partisan. Perhaps the Gracchi had been idealists, and maybe Drusus had genuinely thought he had a solution to the Italian question. After Sulla, Roman politics got personal.

Sulla was not the first, or the last, reformer to forget that the act of changing the constitution sets a precedent for future changes, even if it is intended to bring harmony and stability. A number of his innovations were sensible, such as increasing the number of praetorships to provide enough magistrates and ex-magistrates to govern Rome’s growing empire. Others, like increasing the size of the Senate, were pragmatic, especially given all the potential new recruits from the enfranchised Italian cities. But his solution did not tackle the conditions that made his rivalry with Marius possible. Personal rivalry was old as Rome. The tomb of the Scipiones shows the high value placed on individual achievement as well as on the name of the greatest families.2 From Cato the Elder to late antiquity we can hear aristocrats singing the praise of great figures of the past while condemning the vices of their rivals. Cicero and Sallust occasionally imagined that before the tribunates of the Gracchi the virtues of individuals like Scipio Aemilianus had been harnessed to the common cause. Livy celebrated mythical acts of heroic self-sacrifice in the early days of the Republic.

But the lethal innovation of the last century BC was the involvement of the army. Marius had very nearly deployed his veterans in support of his popularis allies, but in the end it was Sulla who took the first step. The close bonds formed between Marius and Sulla and their veterans were not purely sentimental, nor even a recognition of the great quantities of booty that might be won in some campaigns. The increased recruitment of citizens without land made them depend on their generals for resettlement: Sulla’s army marched against Rome on the first occasion because they wanted eastern booty, and on the second in order to win land. He did not disappoint them. Why would future Roman armies not do the same as they had? None of Sulla’s reforms touched this problem. Augustus would solve it by creating a military treasury with hypothecated revenue to pay fixed discharge bonuses to the veterans of what had become a standing army, one bound to the emperors by ritual and ideology as well as self-interest. No solution of that kind was, as far as we know, ever discussed during the Republic. Romans still could not conceive of an alternative to a citizen army commanded by an aristocratic general. Besides, Sulla’s own career had established a model of the kind of behaviour he tried to outlaw, one that would be imitated by his lieutenants, including Lucullus, Crassus, and Pompey, and his enemies, especially Caesar. The failure of his constitutional solution within a decade of his death in 79 showed the power of the competitive urges he tried to stem. During the 70s the next generation of generals, most of them Sullan protégés, waged ferocious wars around the Mediterranean. Their opponents were very various. Pompey hunted down Marian survivors first in Africa in 82–81 and then in Spain in 77–71; Crassus waged war on Spartacus’ slave rebellion in 72–71; Marcus Antonius and Quintus Caecilius Metellus both took the name Creticus for their campaigns against pirate strongholds on Crete in 71 and 69–67; while Sulla’s oldest deputy, Lucullus, won the prized command against Mithridates. Every kind of campaign strengthened the bonds between generals and their armies, making renewed civil war ever more likely.

Most impressive of all was Pompey. After the long campaigns in Spain against Sertorius, Pompey returned to Italy just in time to join Marcus Crassus in the war against Spartacus, and to steal some of his thunder. By 70 BC, Pompey and Crassus were consuls together, in an uneasy alliance. This was the year Cicero drove Verres into exile, with a little help from Pompey, in fact. But it was a great command against the pirates, obtained with the help of Gabinius, that enabled Pompey to finally pull ahead of his competitors. His rapid success led to another bill, supported by Cicero among others, by which the war against Mithridates was transferred from Lucullus to Pompey. Pompey rapidly repelled Mithridates, who fled to the Crimea and committed suicide, dismantled his kingdom, and pursued his allies. He then remained in the east, in effect conducting a global reorganization of Roman territories and alliances along the Parthian frontier.

During Pompey’s absence Rome was gripped once more by civil conflict. Cicero was consul in 63 and had to deal with a conspiracy that drew on a poisonous cocktail of social discontent and frustrated aristocratic ambition. Its leader, Catiline, enjoyed some real support and sympathy, including that of both Crassus and Caesar who shared his popularis politics. Cicero was given a free hand to arrest and execute the conspirators largely because the majority of senators, remembering Sulla’s terrifying return from the east in 84, feared the kind of solution Pompey that might impose if it were left up to him. The same year Caesar managed to bribe his way to election as the most senior priest, the pontifex maximus.


Fig 10. Bust of Julius Caesar

Pompey finally returned in 62 BC and surprised many by stepping down from his command and dismissing his troops. But when the Senate would not ratify his eastern settlements or help find land for his soldiers, he formed a new alliance with Crassus and Julius Caesar. Historians today know this as the First Triumvirate, but it had no formal legal standing. Backed by the threat of Pompey’s veterans, combined with Pompey and Crassus’ financial muscle, and the influence that Crassus and Caesar had over the people, the three effectively ran Rome for nearly a decade, picking the magistrates, allocating provinces and armies (mostly to themselves), and making debate in the Senate or the assemblies pointless. Their control was precarious and frequently challenged, and their opponents repeatedly tried to pull them apart. At times they sponsored different gangs in the city. For much of the 50s, Rome was a scene of mob warfare and appalling violence. Yet mutual interest kept them together.

What they themselves wanted most were super-commands of the kind Pompey had already enjoyed. After holding the consulship in 59 Caesar took the province of Cisalpine Gaul, the area that stretched across the Po Valley and up to the Alps. He was assigned a grand army and team of senatorial deputies, termed legates. The province of Transalpine Gaul was soon added to the command. It seems Caesar had first expected to be marching north-east into the Balkans following rumours of war, but news that the Helvetii were planning to leave their Alpine territory and pass through southern Gaul diverted him west of the Alps. That war began eight years of campaigns that resulted in the conquest of Gaul and invasions of Britain and Germany. The first books of hisCommentaries go to great lengths to explain why each campaign was justified. It is difficult to believe Roman interests were really threatened, even by the Helvetian migration, but memories of the Cimbri and Teutones were recent, and he was careful to make the connection. An element of mission creep is clear. Caesar’s later books spent less time justifying particular conflicts, and instead emphasized the unprecedented extensions of the power of the Roman people he had brought about.3 Roman armies had crossed both the Ocean and the Rhine for the first time, and city after city had fallen to his armies. News of his victories was greeted with public rejoicing in Rome. The campaigns were certainly lucrative, allowing Caesar to pay off the debts accumulated in successive election campaigns, and to begin several monumental building projects in Rome. The same years saw the complete disappearance of the gold and silver coinages of Gaul.

Caesar’s successes only inflamed the ambitions of his allies. By agreement among the three of them, Pompey and Crassus took the consulship for 55 BC. Both then claimed their own great provinces. Pompey was given Spain with the unprecedented permission to govern in absentia through legates of his own choosing. Crassus was assigned the province of Syria and a command against the Parthian Empire, with an army to match. The Roman and Parthian empires shared a small border and a much greater zone over which each tried to exercise influence. There is no sign that the Parthians wanted war with Rome; indeed they had declined to support Mithridates. All the same they looked a tempting target, and in late 55 BC Crassus headed east with an army based on seven legions. He spent the next year in Syria building up his forces. But not long after crossing the Euphrates in 53 BC, Crassus was defeated at Carrhae. His army was slaughtered and their standards were captured. Crassus himself was soon tracked down and killed. Avenging Crassus was allegedly one of Caesar’s future plans when he was assassinated. Two decades later Mark Antony did mount an invasion, one that was unsuccessful, if not as disastrous as that of Crassus. Parthia took advantage of Roman civil wars to raid the east, but seemed content enough to cease hostilities when Augustus offered peace. Every indication shows that Crassus’ campaign was as unnecessary as it was disastrous.

Up until the death of Crassus, the three-headed beast that ruled Rome seemed to be going from strength to strength. Together Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus commanded huge armies. Cicero and his friends were outraged, but the generals’ exploits made them popular with the people. Only those senators who did not enjoy their patronage were left out of the loop, and it was easy to see the sour grapes behind the high-minded talk of senatorial libery.

The Governance of the Empire

Rivalry between individuals was traditional in Roman politics. Roman writers even idealized it, seeing a competition to outdo each other in virtue as one of the driving forces of Roman success. A fragment of a speech of Gracchus warns the people of Rome that all those who address them are motivated by self-interest but his own self-interest is in providing them with the best possible advice. That was a rhetorical flourish but it reflected an ideology as well. Yet the negative side of competition was all too evident. Civil war was bad enough. But there was also an incoherence built into any system that worked by delegating the power to make major decisions to individuals without imposing on them any discipline beyond the fear of the law courts on their return. During the 50s even that sanction had disappeared. But perhaps one reason the activities of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus did not arouse more opposition outside the senatorial elite was that the system they had overthrown was clearly badly broken already.

In Chapter 7 I told the story of how, in the generation following Rome’s final defeat of Macedon, the Mediterranean world was gripped by successive crises. I explained those crises as a result of the inconsistent treatment given former allies such as Jugurtha and Mithridates, combined with an erratic alternation of long periods of neglect of the provinces and terrifying interventions like the sack of Corinth. Where tax collection had been handed over to public contractors with no interest in justice or the long-term viability of imperial government, all the conditions were ready for rebellion. These problems were structural. The Senate’s ‘policy’ was little more than the sum of the individual opinions of its members. There are signs that some popularis politicians thought that the behaviour of governors and generals could be controlled through subjecting them to more independent courts and more detailed legislation. One of Gaius Gracchus’ most unpopular acts had been to give control of the corruption courts to the equestrians. His enemies were outraged. Why should they be subject to trial by their social inferiors? And anyway, it meant more people who would have to be paid off. Similar ideas lay behind the great law on the provinces that required Roman pro-magistrates to work together, and alongside allies including the kings of Cyrene, Cyprus, and Egypt. But the failure of popularis politics after Sulla—and the absence of institutions able to enforce such laws—meant that that provincial government in the last century BC was no better than it had been in the second.

The enemy of consistency was ambition. Many senators never won more than a single magistracy in their lives. For the rest a provincial command would come once, or maybe twice in a lifetime. With competition at home becoming more intense and more expensive, many governors clearly felt they had to make their year of service pay. The infamous Verres, whose prosecution in 70 BC established Cicero’s reputation, allegedly quipped that a governor needed to raise three fortunes in his provinces, the first to pay back the debts he had incurred in getting elected, the second for himself, and the third to bribe the jurors on his return. Then there were the many other groups with vested interests in the provinces, Roman landowners and traders, those who lent money to provincials, and most of all those with public contracts, like the tax farmers. These were well connected, and an ambitious politician dared not offend, in his one year in office, a constituency who could help or hinder him for the rest of his career. Even Cicero, who tried very hard to govern justly during his single period as a governor in Cilicia in 51–50, found it hard to resist demands from back home. One man wanted help recovering sums he had lent provincials at ruinous rates, another wanted Cicero to find some panthers he could display in Rome, and even Cicero wondered if the risk of suppressing some banditry would be worth it if he could return to celebrate an ovatio, a sort of lesser triumph. Others had fewer scruples. Pro-magistrates exercised the power of life and death in their provinces, gave justice to cities and kings, and when far enough away from Rome they could behave like little autocrats. Many did. Verres allegedly crucified his enemies in sight of Italy. Another governor, when drunk, ordered an enemy envoy to be executed on the spot, to please his lover who complained that by accompanying him on campaign he was missing the games in Rome. Not all governors were wicked, but none wished to be regulated.

To the other structural deficiencies of the Republican hegemony, then, we can add an inability to operate effectively on any scale larger than could be handled by one man with a moderate-sized army and an oversized ego; and a system of government that more or less promoted corruption. Extortion, whether by governors themselves or conducted by tax farmers and other publicani with the governor turning a blind eye, increased the support that provincials gave figures like Mithridates. The reluctance of governors to work together made it difficult to tackle very large-scale problems. There had always been stories of failures of cooperation between consuls, both at home and on the battlefield. But as the empire grew, the problems became more acute.

Piracy is a case in point.4 The enemy was highly mobile, not confined to one particular sphere of command, and indeed could move rapidly between them. Pro-magistrates commanding in Macedonia and Asia, the free cities of the Aegean, and the kings of western Asia could not work together effectively. The first Roman attempt to deal with piracy was probably the campaign waged by Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony’s grandfather) in 102 BC. It seems a Roman fleet was moved into the Aegean, based first in the allied city of Athens, then campaigned off the southern coast of Asia Minor, supported by other allies including two Greek cities with small fleets, Rhodes and Byzantium. After victories in Cilicia, Antonius was awarded a triumph. But whatever solution he achieved was merely temporary. The popularis law on provincial government was passed just a year or two later, and piracy clearly remained a major priority. A new pro-magistrate is now mentioned in Cilicia, notorious as the ‘bad lands’ of Asia Minor. Yet the problem persisted. Some pirate bands cooperated with Mithridates against Rome in the 80s. Pirates were able to kidnap a young Julius Caesar in the mid-70s. Kidnapping for ransom was a nuisance but the real risk came from the pirates’ capacity to interrupt the supply of grain to the city of Rome. The conquest of Crete in 69 was largely motivated by the desire to shut down other pirate bases. Yet pirates were mobile and had many bases. Food shortages and rising prices in Rome pushed piracy to the top of the political agenda. With hindsight we can see the problem was systemic, the product of the absence of any permanent security system in the region. The great Greek kingdoms could no longer maintain fleets, and naval powers like Rhodes had been humiliated. No permanent fleets or naval patrols were created until the reign of Augustus.

This was the context for Pompey’s first great command. One of the tribunes for 67 BC, Aulus Gabinius, passed a law stating that a single commander be appointed against the pirates, with power to coordinate up to twenty-five legates (deputy commanders) and a fleet that perhaps numbered between 250 and 300 vessels not counting the contribution of allies. Even more radically, the commander would have authority to raise troops in any Roman territory and would outrank (literally have greater power, imperium maius, than) any pro-magistrate in an area extending 50 miles inland from the coast. The idea of giving any single magistrate or pro-magistrate the right to command other senators, both his deputies (legates) and other regular pro-magistrates in their own provinces, had no precedent. The command was to be for three years. It was designed for Pompey and, after some manoeuvring, he was given it. In practice he needed only three months. The Mediterranean was swept end to end, piracy was eliminated, and the captured pirates resettled in provincial communities. Pompey’s reputation was extraordinary, hence the award of the other major command, that against Mithridates. But the bigger lesson was also clear. Look at how much could be achieved with a new style of general and a new style of command.

During the 50s the lesson was applied elsewhere. Caesar’s command in Gaul included not only a number of legions, but also a number of senatorial deputies. As a result he could divide his army and organize much more complex operations. He was also able to return periodically to southern Gaul or north Italy, leaving his legions under the command of others. Pompey was allocated another great command in 57 BC —a five-year commission to secure the grain supply of the capital—and like Caesar was allocated senatorial legates. Pompey develop a further variant on this theme in 55 BC when he obtained permission to rule a vast province (and command its armies) from a distance, again through his legates. Crassus’ five-year command in Syria was clearly intended to be on the same scale as Caesar’s in Gaul, which was renewed for five years at the same time. Brutus and Cassius were given great commands in the east as part of the settlement after their murder of Caesar in 44: they used their commands and provinces to prepare for war against Octavian and Antony, who in their turn acquired vast commands as a means of dividing the spoils of victory at Philippi (and to help them prepare for the next civil war, against each other).

Romans had no special term for these super-commanders. None was needed, since they were so few in number. But there was clearly some recognition that something new had appeared. Greek cities gave them godlike honours similar to those they had previously lavished on the greatest kings. Among Romans a fascination with Alexander the Great appears. Pompey was said to have worn Alexander’s cloak in a triumph; Caesar reputedly wept before a statue of the Macedonian king, because he had achieved so little by the age at which Alexander died; Octavian paid homage at Alexander’s huge tomb in the heart of Alexandria. With hindsight we see the role of emperor emerging from the actions of these individuals. Interestingly it emerges first in the provinces, where the need for coordination of military power and revenues over great regions was most obvious. Only once it was established there was the controlling power of emperors applied to the bitter division of politics in the capital. The empire, in other words, had saved (and captured) the city.

More concretely the experience of the 70s, 60s, and especially the 50s had created a series of institutional innovations which would provide important precedents for the emperors. First, governors (or their equivalents) could now in effect be appointed not elected, and in ways that separated the role from that of civil magistrate. Second, the effectiveness of one commander coordinating operations over geographically vast areas and huge armies had been demonstrated. Cicero’s speech On the Command of Gnaeus Pompey even provides an explicit statement along these lines, the first draft of an imperial ideology. Third, vast armies were now recruited and commanded, deployed, and resettled in ways over which the Senate and people had effectively no say. Finally, systems of revenue raising had in a rather piecemeal manner begun to be fitted to the needs of the imperial state. These innovations were resented by many, most of all by those senators who were not beneficiaries. Yet they would be imitated and adapted over the years of civil war that followed, and provided inspiration in the years ahead. Caesar as dictator initiated great colonial ventures to settle his veterans, and planned wars against Parthia and Dacia on the same scale as that of Pompey against Mithridates. Antony and Octavian settled their own veterans around the Mediterranean. Whenever there was only one such super-general on the scene—Pompey in the 60s, Caesar in the 40s, and Octavian after Actium— Roman military and political action briefly achieved a new coherence. From the chaos of the Republican empire, Rome had sleepwalked into military autocracy, and it worked.

Civil War

Crassus had perished in the aftermath of Cannae in 53 BC. By 50 BC both Pompey and Caesar were preparing for war. Perhaps the pact between the two great generals was inherently unstable. Their marriage alliance had ended in 52 with the death of Pompey’s much younger wife Julia, Caesar’s daughter. And then there were the efforts of more than half the Senate fuelling distrust and jealousy. The war was mostly fought in the Balkans. Defeated at Pharsalus in 48, Pompey fled to Egypt, the last great kingdom not to have succumbed to Roman arms. There he was killed in an attempt by those in power to ingratiate themselves with Caesar. Caesar himself spent much of the time between Pharsalus and his own assassination in 44 BC tracking down Pompey’s supporters. The provinces were easier to master than the capital. Despite granting amnesties to most of his former enemies, and lavishing games and monumental building on the city of Rome, he failed to rally Rome around him. Politics was no more free than it had been in the 50s, and neither Caesar nor anyone else had much idea of how his position could be institutionalized. Many of those involved in the conspiracy that led to his murder on the Ides of March, 44 BC, were former supporters of Pompey, but the initial euphoria waned when it was clear they had no solution for Rome’s ills. Besides, the army and Caesar’s followers could not forgive the murder.

A phoney peace followed. But within two years civil war had resumed, this time with Caesar’s heir Octavian allied with Caesar’s deputy Mark Antony against the ‘Liberators’, Brutus and Cassius. Both men died after their defeat at Philippi in 42 BC. Octavian and Antony nearly came to blows the next year, but in the event a new pact was negotiated and each had their great commands. Neither Octavian in the Balkans nor Antony in a campaign against Persia was very successful, and the balance of power was unchanged. Pompey’s last son, Sextus, survived until 36 BC. After that everyone was a Caesarian and it was only a matter of time before conflict between the two broke out. From 33 BC a propaganda war was in full swing, and in 31 the two sides engaged in north-west Greece at the battle of Actium, a victory for Octavian. Like Pompey before them, Antony and Cleopatra made for Egypt where both committed suicide in 30 BC. Once again there was only one super-commander in place.

The domestic politics of the last generation of the Republic are documented in great detail by Cicero’s correspondence, and also by the works of Sallust and Caesar written in the 40s. Contemporary historians were also aware of the importance of this period, but very little of their accounts survives. It has been a major aim of recent scholarship to try to recover their perspective.5 Writers of the imperial period, including the biographer Plutarch and the historians Appian and Dio, had access to histories that are now vanished, and they used them to write vivid accounts of what they knew to be the last days of the Republic.

All these accounts focus on the struggle between personalities: Marius versus Sulla; Sulla’s dictatorship; the competition between his lieutenants Lucullus, Pompey, and Crassus; the abortive coups of Lepidus and Catiline; the alliance between Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus in the 50s; and finally a series of civil wars, Pompey versus Caesar, Caesar’s murderers versus Octavian and Antony, Octavian and Antony versus Pompey’s son Sextus, and finally Octavian versus Antony. Told in this way, the history of the provinces often seems peripheral. As it happens there were some universal historians in the tradition of Polybius, but almost none of their works have survived.6 Much missed is the historical work of the philosopher Posidonius which picked up where Polybius left off and narrated events into the 80s BC. Like Polybius he knew the greatest Romans of the day, and had travelled widely within their empire. The fragments of his work show he thought hard about the nature of the Roman Empire.7 Diodorus’ Library is the last great work composed before Actium, or the latest that has survived. As far as we can tell, this generation of provincial observers accepted the fact of Roman domination, the creation of which had so astonished Polybius, but they found the Roman world a very precarious one in which to live. So much depended on whether a community picked the right side in a civil war, attracted the patronage of a winner, or found itself caught up in a conflict originating far from home. The same picture emerges from the great inscriptions set up by eastern cities, recording honours given to one or another Roman general in the hope of staying on his good side. Rome’s subjects feature in much civil war history mostly in a subordinate role. Northern Greece was the setting for three major civil wars in the 40s and 30s, Asia had to pay for the armies raised by Brutus and Cassius, Egypt was acquired by Octavian almost accidentally, because Cleopatra had picked the wrong ally. A few cities consistently chose well, others badly—Sparta and Aphrodisias were exceptionally fortunate, Athens seemed unable to pick a winner (even after Actium). Added to this, Roman civil wars offered opportunities for old enemies to settle scores— within or between cities—and even for foreign powers like Parthia to take advantage. Episodes of peace might bring land confiscations and the imposition of colonists. And when rivalry between Roman generals resulted in grandiose foreign wars deep in temperate Europe or on the Persian frontiers, allies and subjects were dragged along. All this is exactly what we would expect. An empire’s provinces genuinely are peripheral; their history is always driven by conflicts in the metropole, as it has been in recent times from Eretria to Cuba.

The fall of the Republic probably was good news for many provincials if only because the emperors took the long view and in the end preferred to rule in partnership with provincial elites.8 Certainly the impact of Augustan autocracy is immediately visible in the works that follow that of Diodorus, including Livy’s vast history, the Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and the Geography of Strabo. Peace at the centre made the empire itself more predictable, allowed provincial communities and their leaders to plan in the long term, to invest in strategies of loyalty and collaboration. Tacitus put it pithily in a coda to his account of the origins of the Principate:

The provinces had no objection to the new state of affairs. For they distrusted the empire of the senate and people because of the rivalry of the most powerful men and the greed of the magistrates, against which the laws gave no protection, since they were corrupted by violence, ambition and most of all by bribery.9

Conquest Unlimited

The same generation that tore Rome apart in civil wars was also responsible for the most dramatic period of Roman expansion. Vast armies marched out in all directions, on the flimsiest of pretexts. They reached the Atlantic Ocean and the Caspian Sea, plunged deep into temperate Europe, and challenged the greatest empire of the day, Parthian Persia.10 Great tracts of territory were annexed, the number of provinces increased enormously, and military colonies were scattered around the Mediterranean. There were spectacular defeats too: Crassus’ invasion of Parthia in 53 BC ended with 20,000 Romans dead and 10,000 captured. There were catastrophic defeats in Germany too, most dramatically the loss of three entire legions in AD 9 during a three-day-long battle in the Teutoberger Forest near present-day Osnabrück.

Other great campaigns almost happened. The Bastarnae of the northern Balkans defeated the governor of Macedonia, Antonius Hybrida, in 62 BC. Cicero’s correspondence from the early 50s shows him apprehensive of Burebista, king of the Dacians in what is now Romania, who spent much of the last century BC creating a great tribal federation of peoples. Aulus Gabinius, who had served under Sulla, Lucullus, and Pompey, was proconsul of Syria between 57 and 54 BC: he used it as a base to impose a new king on Egypt and to intervene in the politics of Judaea. Cyrenaica drifted in and out of Roman influence over the same period. Elaborate arguments were made to justify this or that campaign, but there is no doubt that the main driver was competition between the most powerful men in the state. The collapse of the Senate’s authority, the creation of super-commands, and most of all the success of Pompey had altered the rules of the game. And it did not matter if ridiculous risks were taken, since if one general failed, there would always be another waiting to take his place.

But the gains outweighed the losses. When Sulla died in 79 BC Rome had just regained the position of dominant power in the Mediterranean world. Roman forces controlled Italy up to the Alps and most, if not quite all, of the coastal plains of the western Mediterranean. East of the Adriatic she controlled parts of the Balkans and the province of Asia. On the death of Augustus in AD 14, just under a century later, the territorial empire flanked the Atlantic from the mouth of the Rhine to the Straits of Gibraltar, and surrounded the Mediterranean (Our Sea, as the Romans came to call it) in a ring of provinces and client kingdoms. The Black Sea too was virtually a Roman lake, and Anatolia and the Near East were under Roman control. To the south, the frontier ran along the edge of the Sahara and extended to the southern frontier of Egypt. The eastern limit was fixed by the Euphrates and a line that included most of Anatolia. Its northern boundaries were the Rhine and the Danube. Much of this area was administered through provinces, the rest through client kingdoms which were closely controlled by Rome. The greater part of this vast extension had been acquired during the period when Pompey, Caesar, and finally Octavian/Augustus had led the state.

Further Reading

Many narratives, and quite a few novels, tell the story of the lives of the great figures of the last days of the Republic. It is also a period that emerges vividly from ancient writings. Plutarch’s lives of Sulla, Caesar, Pompey, Cicero, Crassus, Lucullus, and other figures offer as lively an introduction to these characters as any modern treatment. Even better, Caesar’s Gallic War and Cicero’s Letters offer actual contemporary witness to the events of the 50s. Sallust’s Catiline Conspiracy offers a view of the great crisis of Cicero’s consulship written in the 40s BC when the end of the Republic was not yet in sight.

An age dominated by great men is naturally a gift to biographers. Arthur Keaveney’s Sulla: The Last Republican (2nd edn. London, 2005) is both learned and lively. Robin Seager’s Pompey the Great: A Political Biography (2nd edn. London, 2002) is a classic. Cicero and Caesar have attracted many excellent biographers. For vivid evocation of each figure I recommend Elizabeth Rawson’s Cicero: A Portrait (London, 1975) and Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar: The Life of a Colossus (London, 2006).

Many of Ronald Syme’s interpretations of Roman politics have been challenged, but his Roman Revolution (Oxford, 1939) is a gripping read, and in its way is also an interesting document of its age. Our best witness to the imperialism of the age dominated by Pompey and Caesar is Cicero. His own thoughts and words on empire are lucidly discussed in Catherine Steel’s Cicero, Rhetoric and Empire (Oxford, 2001). Most ancient writers present this crisis as a Roman tragedy, but they shared it with the entire Mediterranean world. Liv Yarrow’s Historiography at the End of the Republic (Oxford, 2006) is a subtle and original exercise in looking in on the Republic’s collapse from the edge of empire.

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