Many hands make light work.
This old saying reminds us of the value of teamwork. But in the case of ancient Rome, its most famous teams wound up collapsing on themselves.
Put together to help everyone improve their situation, they couldn’t stand up to the relentless ambition of each individual member.
The first example of this is the First Triumvirate, which facilitated Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire led by Julius Caesar.
Caesar did not live long enough to solidify his transition to emperor, so a new team formed in the wake of his death, the Second Triumvirate, to fill the gap. But this group would follow the fate of the one that came before it, collapsing under the ambition of its members.
In the meantime, though, they helped write the final chapter of the epic story that is Rome’s slow transition from a small republic on the coast of Italy into the most powerful empire of the ancient world.
The First Triumvirate and Caesar’s Assasination
The only reason we even call this alliance a Triumvirate is because of the First Triumvirate, the one that included Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus.
These three men worked together in secret. Each one was helping the other, and also himself, to advance his political aims.
Eventually, the three got too powerful and could no longer be friends. A civil war broke out, and Caesar emerged victorious. When he returned to Rome, he was declared dictator for life, and was the top man in the city.
Until he was murdered.
About five years after taking control of Rome, in 44 BC, Caesar was killed by some Senators on the Senate floor. They claimed to be saving the Roman republic. But all they actually did was unleash another civil war. Tough to say if that saved the republic.
The Triumvirate for Organizing the Republic
However, before this second civil war did break out, there was a brief period of peace.
Once again, three powerful men came together to form an alliance. But this time they weren’t shy about what they were doing. Instead, they came right out and told everyone they were working together.
This “Triumvirate for Organizing the Republic,” as it was called, was set up in 43 BC to help stabilize things in Rome and its territories after the untimely death of Julius Caesar.
To do this, the three men of the triumvirate, Marc Antony, Gaius Octavius (aka Octavian, aka Caesar’s adopted son), and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus divided up Roman territory into three parts and each took command of one.
Initially, they were to remain in power for five years. But this was extended for another five years, though the second term did not go nearly as smoothly as the first.
While the Second Triumvirate ultimately helped bring about the fall of the republic, it also played a key role in keeping it alive in the years after Caesar’s assasination.
This is because the primary objective of the Triumvirate was to hunt down and catch those who had participated in Caesar’s assasination, mainly Brutus and Cassus.
This meant waging war in eastern Roman territories, and this occupied the Triumvirate for the first few years of its existence.
During this period, however, the Triumvirate also worked to have Caesar deified, which means turned into a god. They derived their power from Caesar, who had been declared dictator for life, and who was immensely popular amongst the people, and so it was important to remind regular Romans of their connection to them.
As his adopted son, this was easier for Octavian than it was for others.
Lepidus Says Goodbye
While the three men of the Triumvirate managed to keep Rome under control for five years, defeating their enemies and securing their place as dictators of Rome, they were by no means friends.
In fact, they barely got along. Antony, for example, hated Octavian.
It’s not much of a surprise, then, that a war broke out between the three of them. But it was Lepidus who started it in 35 BC.
After conquering parts of Sicily, he demanded Octavian give up some of his territory for him. This didn’t sit well, and Octavian used it as an excuse to strip Lepidus of power.
To make things worse, Lepidus’ troops switched sides and joined Caesar, leaving him powerless.
He was sent into exile, never to be heard from again.
Octavian and Antony Fight
With Lepidus out of the way, control of Rome was down to just two people: Octavius and Marc Antony.
Of course, they didn’t wait long to start fighting. By 32 BC, it was on.
To get support for the war, Octavian got his hands on a copy of Antony’s will, which said he was going to leave much of his land to the children of Cleopatra of Egypt, who was not his official wife, though he lived with her and had children with her. A major scandal in ancient times.
Octavian used this as proof that Antony was not loyal to Rome and should be arrested, and so he set his forces on his one-time ally.
In 31 BC, the two sides met at Actium, in Greece, and Antony and Cleopatra were forced to retreat to Egypt. Octavian followed him, and the most famous couple of the time felt it had no other choice than to commit suicide.
This left Octavian as the only member of the Second Triumvirate, and with his one-time friends out of the way, he was now free to assume total control over the Roman state.
The Second Triumvirate Fails: The Empire Emerges
Anotny’s defeat had two major impacts. The first is that it brought Egypt officially under Roman control. But the second, far more important effect was that this marked the true beginning of the empire.
With his rivals out of the way, Octavian was the only one left to rule Rome, and through some political maneuverings, he managed to stay in office for most of his life.
Upon rising to power, the Senate was no longer the most powerful body in Rome. It had become Octavian, aka Augustus Caesar, and whoever would follow in his footsteps.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao