Hey all my favourite bees and beans! (it's a thing.) Today it's time for another How To Understand, this time tackling what is arguably one of my least favourite parts of Ancient History - the Late Roman Republic. But stay with me!! Like any self respecting Gen Z kid, it's been a victim of my "if I'm not instantly good at it, I'd rather not do it thanks" policy (a great one to have I know!). Unfortunately it turns out a lot of people also find this period super confusing and I've had multiple requests to try and 'dumb it down' - and boy I do love a challenge. So strap in and strap on, we're going to crack this once and for all!!
Okay kids and not-kids, we're going to be looking at the Late Roman Republic, which is when we start to see a whole lot of exciting political drama, and also when a lot of exam papers focus on. Just saying. But yeah!! We're starting right slap bang in the middle of the 2nd century BCE, where Rome’s massive and super speedy expansion policies have led to unrest in Rome and a destabilisation of society. They’ve been focussed for so long on getting more and more stuff on the outside of their society, that they’ve missed all the angst going on in the middle. For a bit of context, Roman society at this point was pretty split into the plebians (think just the ‘normal’ folks), and the patricians (the super-rich/aristocratic families). Now, the patricians were only a small percentage of Rome’s population, but managed to hold all the power and influence (I know – can you imagine???? What a crazy world huh.) Now because the patricians also held all of the political seats, so in order to try and make life even a tiny bit more fair, the plebians got their own version of politicians, called ‘tribunes of the plebs’, who basically looked out for the rights of all us normal folk.
But yes, back to the Republic. So all this expansion and empire building might be bringing in money for some of the patricians, but actually most of the Romans aren’t doing that well at all, and would really like something to change soon please. With a bunch of them deciding that actually the current situation isn’t working out, a series of uprisings is kick-started.
Starting off all the Roman revolting was a bunch of uprisings known as the Servile Wars – when slaves decided that actually enough was enough, and they were going to teach the Romans that owning people was wrong. Starting in 135 BCE, they were initially pretty successful!! But then three years later they were completely destroyed by a consul (a big political deal, the most important of all the politicians) called Rupilius. At the same time, we get the a pair of bros called the Gracchi (aka Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus) – they’re kind of the Ed and David Miliband of Roman plebian politics. Because that’s right! They were Plebs – fighting for the common people. Now Tiberius comes to the front of the political stage first, and starts as he means to continue by trying to create a new law which would basically restrict how much land any single aristocrat could own. (- I’m thinking we bring this back hey??). But then a different tribune called Marcus Octavius was all like “Woah!!! Leftist politics much??? What are you a socialist???!” (but in ancient Roman chat), and blocked the vote. Then Tiberius was all “You class traitor!!!!” and got him fired for basically betraying the plebs he was supposed to support. It worked!!! But unfortunately for Tiberius, he wouldn’t get to enjoy the win for that long, because he got murdered. Sigh.
Enter brother number two!! Gaius Gracchus comes in to finish what his brother started, he’s aiming to weaken the wealthy, and give power back to the people. He stopped a bunch of laws which basically said that the rich senate could bypass all citizen rights, and was generally a pretty solid dude. But then our guy once again got too left wing for his audience when he tried to suggest that Rome’s Italian allies should also get to be citizens if they wanted. Even the rest of the plebs weren’t behind him on this one, and his political career was pretty much over.
Meanwhile over in North Africa, Rome had been fighting a king called Jugurtha for literally ages. The senate had been useless throughout the whole thing, seriously just the worst. But wait! There’s a new politician on the scene! It’s Gaius Marius, come back from fighting over in North Africa, and a newly elected consul (even though the super-rich really don’t like him much). As a new VIP, Marius goes back to the front, and basically immediately wins – showing the whole of Rome that the senate can’t do anything, and Marius is the one to back. Even the populares party (basically the pro plebs gang) are on his side, and paint themselves as his new allies.
Now it’s 91 BCE and we’re back to another social war. Remember a while ago when Gracchus version 2 tried to get that law passed to give Rome’s Italian chums citizenship and was booed out of the room? Yeah well it turns out that that was a bad call. Rome’s allies start to cause a fuss, pointing out that they’ve all been going and fighting for Rome, but when they get back Rome pretends it doesn’t even know them. While the Italian troops don’t beat the Romans in a fight, Rome has to admit that they might actually have a small point there, and laws are passed allowing Italians to become citizens (see how much stress they would’ve saved if they’d just trusted Gaius Gracchus in the first place??).
As if one civil war just wasn’t enough, soon there are another two on the way. Our old pal Marius is back, but this time he’s fighting another general called Sulla. What happened there? Well to cut a long story short, they were both military men with a pretty solid record. When a new threat popped up in the east (a guy called Mithradates), the senate decided Sulla should get to go and defeat him, which Marius wasn’t too pleased about (even though he was basically a senior citizen at this point?). He got a bunch of people behind him, and marched on the senate, declaring that he was going to kill Sulla. Unfortunately Sulla also had supporters, and the two groups clashed at the gates of Rome, in what is known as the Battle of the Colline Gate (catchy I know!!). Why is this important? Well it was pretty much the first time that Romans had fought against other Romans – starting a precedent that would lead to the fall of the Republic and the start of the Empire.
Marius lost this one, but don’t worry! As soon as Sulla returned to fighting Mithradates, the senators invited Marius back into Rome and gave him a whole bunch of power again. Unfortunately they forgot one thing! He was old as shit. Literally two weeks into his rule he dies. Not great lads. Marius left behind his co-consul, a guy called Cinna, who worshipped the ground that Marius walked on. Still bummed about the loss of his bff, Cinna gets even more bad news! Sulla is coming back, and he’s bringing his army!! Cinna declares he’ll fight him just like Marius would, but unfortunately ends up a lot more like Marius than he’d planned – that’s right, he gets killed.
So Sulla’s coming back, and there’s no one to stop him right?? Wrong! Turns out Marius has a son, and he decides to lead his dad’s supporters to victory in a second civil war! Unfortunately though, it turned out he could only lead them to failure. Pretty soon his army is defeated, and Marius version 2 is dead. Sulla makes himself dictator of Rome (basically like an emergency leader), and passes a set of laws to keep the rich people rich, before he resigns from the job. Classy move there Sulla!
Now I know what you’re thinking – probably about time for another slave uprising right? And that’s exactly what happened! This one involves the most famous of all the Roman slaves turned revolutionary leaders (admittedly not much of a contest) Spartacus! Spartacus is worthy of literally a whole other blog post (and will maybe get one? Who knows??) but basically to cut a long story short he really isn’t overhyped – he genuinely was that good. A great tactician and an out of the box thinker, he got tonnes of support from both slaves, and other people that felt Rome had been doing them dirty. The senate was understandably not chuffed by this massive uprising, so they sent two different legions to try and stop him. But Spartacus was just too good!! They couldn’t beat him! Until suddenly a super rich guy called Crassus (picture the Jeff Bezos of Ancient Rome) turned up and said he’d give it a go. With tonnes of cash and troops behind him, Crassus eventually managed to stop the revolution.
Meanwhile on the other side of Rome’s territories, Mithradates is back!! (Don’t remember? He was the one that Sulla beat!). Well Mithradates is stirring up trouble all over again, and Rome just can’t win! Until suddenly they can. A guy called Pompey is sent to stop him and he finally manages to. Yay for Pompey!! On his way back just for something to do Pompey completely clears all of the Mediterranean sea from pirates. Just a lil thing that he does for Rome, no biggie xox. He also manages it in just over a month – pretty much just showing off?? Next he’s heading over to Spain (honestly the grind never stops), where he puts down another uprising. It’s 71 BCE and he’s back baby! Pompey heads to Rome in glory. And guess who’s also back?? It’s Crassus! The two meet up, agree that they’re both legends, and decide to team up. They go to the populares party (the one that doesn’t like the rich) and say hey! if we get into power, we’ll ruin all of those shitty laws that Sulla put into place! Unsurprisingly this leads to to a speedy election for Pompey and Crassus, who in a crazily unprecedented political move, actually do what they promised they would! The majority of Sulla’s constitutions are dismantled, and things are looking up for the plebs.
Unfortunately this doesn’t last too long. There’s a well intentioned movement to try and get more class equality in Rome, but after the group doesn’t get anywhere fast, they decide that maybe violence is the best way to get heard. A guy called Catiline leads this movement, and they plan to assassinate the senators of Rome in order to reform society. Unfortunately for Catiline, a guy called Cicero finds out his super sneaky plan, and defeats Catiline and his supporters. In another piece of bad news for the plebs, Old Cat hasn’t done much for their rep, and the senates quick squashing of his plans has left the populares party looking pretty lame, and the senate actually looking okay for once.
Still with me?? Take a breath!!! We’re almost there. Now it’s time for (drumroll)....
THE FIRST TRIUMVIRATE
Okay so we’re in 60 BCE, and here comes the First Triumvirate. Pompey has come back to Rome all victorious AGAIN, but this time, the senate aren’t so keen to welcome him with open arms – after their win with Catiline, they don’t need ANYONE they’ve GOT THIS. (spoiler alert – they don’t got this!!!!) Understandably Pompey isn’t so happy about the new arrangement, and when a governor called Julius Caesar (yep that one!!) comes back from working in Spain, Pompey agrees to join his team to take back some power, and brings his old buddy Crassus along for the ride. They basically team up to take rotation on the job of consul, with the understanding that they’ll all help each other out with whatever they want.
And in 59 BCE, they kick it off! Julius Caesar is consul now, and he gets straight to work helping out his buddy Pompey. There’s a bit of trouble from the other consul Bibulus, but Caesar doesn’t pull punches, and basically uses force to make sure his laws get through. The next year Caesar gets even more of his buddies in place when he makes sure a guy called Clodius gets voted in as tribune, who immediately sets about trying to get Caesar’s enemies out of the picture. A guy called Cato is sent away to do some more invading, and Cicero gets called out for some dodginess during the Catiline trials we talked about earlier, which ends up in him being exiled. And boom!!! Two of Caesar’s biggest enemies are kicked out of Rome. Fab.
Okay I’m going to be real with you – the next section is going to be a bit light on details. Why? Because it’s basically just Caesar fighting a lot in different places in Europe and honestly I find that too dull to type out. Sorry not sorry. Maybe I’ll cover it later!! But the main idea is that Caesar doesn’t want to lounge about, and does lots of dramatic battles in Gaul which he ends up winning. If you want to look up the deets they’re called the Gallic Wars, and it’s basically ten years of fighting with different local tribes, but which ends in a Roman victory. And he also goes to Britain. And honestly I’m gonna leave it there!!
Because back in Rome, shit is about to hit the fan!!! Remember Caesar’s buddy Clodius the tribune?? Well he’s been busy making armed gangs to try and help him out - only problem is, they’ve started attacking Pompey’s pals. Pompey’s not happy, so he makes even more gangs to fight them. Honestly it’s not looking good for the Triumvirate right now. But eventually the gang meet up and talk it over and they agree to keep their boy band going for a bit longer. They decide to split up the hard work of territory managing between them so Caesar can keep looking after Gaul, Pompey will take care of Spain, and Crassus can keep an eye on Syria. And yay they worked it out!!
Things are good for a little bit, but then Crassus starts getting jealous of all of Caesar’s military success. He decides that he’s going to be even better, and starts an invasion of the Parthian empire (what is now Iran and Iraq!). Unfortunately for him, he didn’t realise there was quite so much desert. Crassus gets some early wins, but soon they get lost in the desert, surrounded by the enemy, and completely wiped out. And with that, Crassus is gone, and the Triumvirate is collapsing.
Over on the other side of the Roman territories, Caesar is still kicking ass in Gaul, and Pompey is making some new laws in Rome, which incidentally aren’t as nice and friendly towards Caesar as he would like. Their relationship is looking a little bit rocky, and it only gets worse when Pompey’s wife (who just so happens to be CAESAR’S DAUGHTER) dies! Pompey decides that’s it, there’s nothing connecting the two of them anymore, and the triumvirate has had it.
Now it’s 51 BCE, and Caesar has decided he wants to run for consul AGAIN. Honestly the senate are pretty tired of him now, and are also getting a bit antsy about the amount of military support he seems to be gathering. They chat it over and decide that Caesar is ONLY allowed to run for consul again if he gives them the control of his armies – meaning he would have zero defence when they got back to Rome. Unfortunately for the senate, Caesar wasn’t having it. Just like Captain America in 2016, it’s time for Civil War.
CAESAR’S CIVIL WARS
Well the senate aren’t backing down this time, but neither is Caesar. The senate declares that Caesar HAS to lay down his weapons and give up, or else he’s going to be their enemy!!! Oh no!!!! At the same time, Pompey has reached a new level of slimy by declaring himself Rome’s new champ against his old buddy Caesar, and the senate agree, giving him dictatorial powers (he’s basically DEFINITELY the boss rn).
Back over with Caesar he’s taking his army across Rome’s borders, and marching down towards the city. Drama!!!! Literally they’re racing down Italy towards Rome at an unprecedented rate, so fast that Pompey and the senate panic and run off to Greece. In a massive anti-climax, there’s no one left to try and stop Caesar! He takes hold of the city of Rome with no worries at all. But soon it’s time for revenge against his old pal turned enemy Pompey. In a crazy unexpected twist, Pompey actually beats Caesar at their first fight!! But very quickly everything gets back to normal, and despite having twice as many troops, he still gets destroyed. Pompey’s army is gone, and he runs away to Egypt, then immediately gets himself murdered (by the brother of everyone’s favourite gal Cleopatra!!).
You’d have thought that Pompey’s death would have cleared everything up for Caesar, but actually the dude was so massively disliked by the senate that more and more people kept joining in the fight against him. It takes another three years, but Caesar finally kills all the armies opposing him, and takes full control of Rome. In a wild move, Caesar becomes both the dictator, and a tribune, alongside his consulship. This basically means that Caesar represents both the ‘average Joe’s’ of the Roman world, and the wealthy upper class, and can basically do anything he wants to. There’s no one left to oppose him, and he’s got full control. He also puts a bunch of motions in place to reduce the powers of the senate, just to make sure his political career is rock solid, with exactly zero threats. He just can’t shake the conquering bug though, and makes plans to do what Crassus couldn’t achieve, and invade Parthia. But before he does so he passes a law which allows him to appoint literally every single political figure just so he can keep control of home while he’s abroad – basically meaning that the politicians of Rome will be definitely working for him, rather than for the Romans.
Unfortunately for Caesar he soon gets into a bit of a pickle. And by a bit of a pickle, I mean 23 knives. Yep, unhappy with the new power that Caesar has given himself, the senators are back, led by two dudes called Brutus and Cassius, and they’re going to get rid of Caesar and get straight back to the good old days, when only THEY could take advantage of the Roman people. Sixty senators agree to murder Caesar, but in the end Caesar only ends up getting stabbed 23 times. I mean I say only, but 23 stabbings was definitely enough to do the job, and just like that, Caesar is dead.
THE SECOND TRIUMVIRATE
In the chaos that follows, all of Rome is looking for a leader. And three step up! Marc Antony, one of Caesar’s fave generals and pretty much right hand man is a firm favourite of the plebs, and seems to get off to a good start. But Caesar’s adopted son Octavian also wants in on the power, and Caesar’s will seems to back him. There’s also another one of Caesar’s allies called Lepidus – but he’s a bit of a wall flower in this situation. But still! Lepidus is there! And with the three of them wanting power, they decide to resurrect the old Triumvirate (because it went SO WELL last time!). That’s right, it’s time for the Second Triumvirate.
Antony, Octavian and Lepidus basically keep hold of all of the power that Caesar used to have (meaning his assassination was a big ol’ failure but hey ho!). And speaking of assassination, its about time for Caesar’s killers to get their comeuppance hey?? Unfortunately for Octavian, he just doesn’t have too much army experience, and he gets beaten by Brutus. But all is not lost! Antony is off fighting Cassius and he beats him, leading to Cassius dying, and Brutus following him not long after.
There’s not much time for Antony to celebrate however because, you know what they say, like father, like (adopted) son. Pretty soon Octavian has decided actually he’d like a bit more power please. He and Antony decide to sideline Lepidus, claiming that he was being a traitor, and they divide the republic in half between them – Octavian gets the West, and Antony gets the East (where he’s having a great time with Cleopatra!). Coincidentally, Antony’s wife has recently died, so to try and keep the gang going a little bit longer, Octavia suggests Antony should marry his sister. See, now they’re family! And family never fights!
Unfortunately Antony wasn’t too keen on sticking around for his Roman wife, because he was actually having a pretty fab time with Cleopatra having fun and making babies (not making any friends with Octavian there!!). In fact, he became so attached to Cleo (who famously saved his troops by bringing them aid after a failed attack on Parthia), that he publicly divided up some land for Cleopatra’s three kids – Caesarion (aka baby Julius Caesar), the twins (aka Antony’s kids) Alexander Helios, and Cleopatra Selene, and the youngest tot (also Antony’s!) Ptolemy Philadelphus.
Unfortunately for Antony, this was exactly what Octavian needed to finally get all the power for himself. He illegally opened Antony’s will to the Roman public, which allegedly promised to give a whole tonne of power to Cleopatra and their kids. Rome wasn’t happy. It was time for the final showdown!! Octavian and his troops declare war on Antony and his soldiers, and they have a big old naval battle at a place called Actium. Octavian wins, and Antony and Cleo sail quickly back to Egypt with Octavian hot on their trail. Unfortunately that’s the end of the story for our plucky couple, who both take their own life. And it’s over, once again the triumvirate is down to one, and he’s got all the power. Octavian takes control of Egypt, and returns victorious to Rome, where he’ll soon rebrand himself as Augustus.
And that’s it folks!! From here, Octavian/Augustus forms the Principate – which will lead to him becoming the first emperor. That’s right, the Republic is over, and the Empire has just begun. What a wild ride hey??
Honestly if you’ve made it to the end of this post with your sanity intact I applaud you. But hopefully this has helped to clear up what can be a really confusing and messy part of Roman politics (but which also comes up a lot in exams!!). As I mentioned, this was DEFINITELY my least favourite part of A-Level Classics/my undergrad degree, but writing this actually made it at least 63% more entertaining. So there we go! Hope it can do the same for you.
Hope you've enjoyed this post, and I'll be back with more next week for an exciting blog post on my favourite Japanese goddess!! As always, drop me a message on the 'Contact' page with any thoughts on this piece, topics you'd love to know more about, or just general chit chat. Lots of love xox