Most people today know Rome thanks to its empire. But Rome actually existed as a powerful republic for more than 450 years before democracy finally failed and the empire was born.
This transition, though, from republic to empire, had been underway long before it became official in the final century BC. The Roman Republic, which was complex in nature, slowly broke down as Rome expanded and became more powerful throughout the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries BC.
By the end of this transition, power, which had traditionally been in the hands of the people, who elected Senators to the Senate and delegated them with the responsibilities of government, was transferred to just one person: the emperor of Rome.
Of course, the emperor ruled with the help of magistrates and other governors. But, in the end, during the days of the empire, final decisions always fell to the man at the top.
Thanks to the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this transition was gradual and was in the works for many decades if not more. But there had to be a moment: a specific period in time when the power officially changed hands and the Republic became an empire.
Officially speaking, this happened when Augustus Caesar took the throne as Rome’s first emperor in 27 BC. But unofficially, it happened when three powerful men in the Roman Senate decided to work together and seize control of Rome for themselves.
This alliance, known to us today as the First Triumvirate, defined the last chapter of the Roman Republic and ushered in the age of the empire, forever changing the course of Roman and human history.
Corruption and Chaos in the Republic
Starting in 509 BC, when the Roman senate abolished the title of “king,” Rome operated as a Republic. Senators were elected by the people to create the laws and, mostly, control the army and conduct foreign policy, which in the ancient world meant pretty much one thing: wage war.
The Senate also elected two consuls. Holding office for one year, these individuals were in charge of the Senate and also had special powers. For example, they could veto any law created by the Senate.
However, since the Senate voted on new consuls every year, it was in a consul’s best interest to listen to the Senate. Defying them would usually get you kicked out of office and maybe even out of the Senate altogether.
In theory, this system sounds like it would work pretty well. In fact, it’s the framework for most modern democracies. But in practice, as is often the case, things didn’t go quite that well.
Power shifted frequently in ancient Rome, and so there was constant fighting amongst the Senators, as well as army generals who had success and were therefore able to gain a great deal of political control.
A great example of this is Publius Cornelius Scipio, known today as Scipio Africanus. After his success against Carthage in the Punic Wars, he returned to Rome a hero. To honor his success, he was given the name Africanus, and he was also offered several high-ranking political positions, such as Consul for Life and Dictator.
Ultimately, he refused these and chose to live out his final days quietly. But that he was offered these jobs reminds us just how much power a general, with no real political standing to begin with, could earn by winning battles in the name of Rome.
All of this meant that most of the period of the Roman Republic was defined by chaos and turmoil. Rome was also rapidly expanding during this time, and this made it even harder for everyone to get along.
Gloria and Dignitas
Part of the reason Roman politics were so chaotic was because of the concepts of gloria and dignitas. Translated from Latin, these words mean just what you might think: glory and dignity.
They were tremendous sources of political power in ancient Rome. The more gloria and dignitas you had, the more popular you were with the people. And you could use this power to influence other Senators and politicians, all in the name of personal gain.
Most gloria and dignitas was earned on the battlefield. Victorious generals would return to Rome as heroes. Often, they came back as very wealthy heroes, too, which can’t hurt at all.
They could then leverage this wealth and popularity in the Senate, which overtime degraded the democratic nature of the Roman Republic. Senators were no longer beholden to the people who voted for them but rather to other more-powerful Senators.
This system perpetuated itself because powerful Senators would often use their influence to give them even more powerful positions, or to give them command of an army, which they could use to earn themselves even more gloria and dignitas.
All of this meant throughout the course of the Republic, Rome was becoming increasingly undemocratic. And all of this came to a head in the first century BC when three very powerful Romans decided to work together for personal gain.
The First Triumvirate
The best example of how gloria and dignitas interfered with democracy can be seen in the rise to power of the three men who would go on to form the First Triumvirate.
Gaius Julius Caesar (Caesar), Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) and Marcus Licinius Crassus (Crassus).
All three men were immensely powerful in their own right. Caesar, a military general, was hugely popular with commoners, but he was also the Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of Roman Religion.
Pompey was one of Rome’s most successful military commanders. His most well-known victory? Against the slaves of Rome, most notably Spartacus, who rebelled in the first century BC and shook Rome to its core.
After these victories, he was elected to the Senate and took on several powerful positions, including one that put him in charge of Rome’s grain supply, an important and supremely powerful position.
And Crassus? Well, he was just a super rich guy. But even in ancient times that was enough to make you supremely powerful. As a politician, he played a critical role in ending the Third Servile War, and this helped secure his political future.Individually, each of these three men had about as much gloria and dignitas as you could get. But because of Rome’s complex system of checks and balances, there was a limit to what each man could do on his own. But together? The possibilities were endless. And so, in 60 BC, roughly, for we don’t know exactly when they made the agreement, the three decided to start working together.
As a trio, these men wielded enough power to do as they pleased with the Senate, cutting democracy off at the knees and making the transition to empire all but inevitable.
But this was no team. Each man was in it for personal gain. They wanted things they couldn’t attain on their own, and so they chose to work together. But that was the extent of their friendship.
What could possibly go wrong?
The Glory Days of the Triumvirate
Almost immediately, the Triumvirate, which comes from the Latin word for “three,” started making its mark. The first thing they did? Get one of their own — Caesar — elected as consul.
He held office for a year and then appointed himself command of an army that is set out to try and conquer Gaul, the region we now know as France. Eventually, he did conquer it, and, thanks to the Triumvirate, he was given political control of the region. This was a huge promotion that also made him fabulously wealthy.
Crassus and Pompey stayed in Rome while Caesar was in Gaul, running things. They got elected to the consulship together in 55 BC and took a strong grip over everything that happened in Rome, especially with its money.
After ruling as consul, Pompey and Crassus gave themselves important foreign postings. Pompey was given Hispania, the region that is now Spain, and Crassus took Syria. He also appointed himself to the head of an army that he was going to use to try and outdo what Caesar had done in Gaul.
However, his ambition proved to be the death of him. He was killed in battle in 53 BC.
Now the Triumvirate was no more. It was just Caesar and Pompey. And since they were such good friends to begin with, they got along right away now that it was just the two of them.
Instead, Pompey, who was favored by the Senate and Rome’s political elite, tried to seize control of Rome for himself. Caesar, who was immensely popular amongst the commoners thanks to his numerous military victories (gloria and dignitas, again) thought he should rule.
The result of this conflict? You guessed it! Civil war!
The two men and the armies under their command fought each other outside of Rome for a little more than a year, starting in 49 BC and ending with Caesar’s victory over Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus, and the path to power was clear.
He then entered Rome and was declared by the Senate, who now had no choice but to recognize his power, as dictator perpetuo, dictator for life.
Caesar was the first man in Roman history to have this title. And by taking it, the Roman Republic as it had existed for nearly 450 years, came to an end.
The Beginning of Peace and Stability
Caesar’s rise to power was the result of centuries of conflict and corruption within Rome itself. But his emergence as dictator actually helped end some of these conflicts. Though there were still a few crazy things left to happen.
The most important was Caesar’s assasination, which came at the hand of Brutus and Cassius, two prominent senators opposed to Caesar’s rise, in 44 BC.
This launched yet another civil war, but this time, the victor, Caesar’s nephew Octavian, emerged as the true leader of Rome.
Officially an emperor, Octavian, who became known as Augustus Caesar, ushered in a period of unprecedented stability and peace, and this allowed Rome to grow into a full-fledged empire.
So, while Caesar may have ruled Rome by himself for just four years, his rise to power helped bring about the end of the Republic.
This was a change that dramatically altered the course of Roman history but that also made it possible for this ancient civilization to leave such a deep mark on the development of human civilization around the world.
Written by Matthew Jones