The Rule of Threes: A Crash Course on the Roman Civil Wars, Part One

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: democracy just doesn’t work. – Kent Brockman 

While I was trying to decide what to entertain you all with this week, I was thinking back on one of my first my entries about Octavius and the First Settlement, and I realized that perhaps I should have started with some background even further back than that. Because what sets up a lot of Octavius’ rise, as well as much of the action in The God’s Wife, doesn’t actually involve either, at least at first. And that is the Roman civil wars. So I thought I’d give you a quick and dirty rundown of some of the factors that led to those and some of the consequences we see played out in The God’s Wife. As my previous sentence implies, vast, ancient forests’ worth of trees have been sacrificed to historians’ endless desire to rehash this topic, so one blog post by me shouldn’t be seen as exhaustive or definitive. 

If you’re looking for more depth, I personally like Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution as a good jumping off text for exploring the period where Rome went from a republic to an empire. He’s generally pretty even-handed about the major players, which is always a relief in this fraught time period where everyone has a pugio to grind. Though you’ll never see someone dismiss Cleopatra’s influence so thoroughly and with such certainty anywhere else.

Ronald Syme’s Four Cleopatra Thoughts: 1) Cleopatra’s importance has been GREATLY exaggerated. 2) Did Mark Antony love Cleopatra? No. 3) Did Julius love Cleopatra? HELL NO. 4) Is Caesarion Julius’ son? AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, no.

But that’s a good example of something to keep in mind as one reads nonfiction history about anything. A good historian will work very hard to be objective, but it is impossible to completely rid one’s writing of bias. And sometimes as a reader of history, it is easy to lose sight of that, particularly when the history books are older and have that sheen of authority. That’s part of why I enjoy writing about this period in history, because so much of what we know as the “history” of this time comes down from contemporary sources with buckets of bias and there’s a lot of room for a novelist to sandbox in and tease out a dozen different conclusions. 

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. The short way to begin this discussion is to say that the Roman Republic was created mainly with the intention of preventing one man from having complete control of the government, not with the intention that every man in Rome would have a say in said government. This was maintained primarily through a series of checks and balances regulated by the Roman Senate, a political body composed of an ancient aristocracy whose members descended from a handful of families who traced their lineage back to Rome’s quasi-mythological past. These were the patricians, of whom you were probably told of in some history class you weren’t really paying attention to. The other group you were probably told about in that class were the plebeians. Now, I was told the plebeians were the poor people (hence why we use that term today in that way), but that isn’t strictly true. Plebeian was a class you were born into, just as patrician was a class. Many plebeians held land and were quite wealthy, but they couldn’t change the fact that they weren’t one of the first families, so to speak. Plebeians as a class were ineligible to serve in the Senate, but they had elected tribunes that advocated for them on their behalf, the power of the pleb tribunes fluctuated wildly over the course of the republic, and assemblies that did have some legislative power. You’ll see an example of that later. 

Despite being a body composed entirely of aristocratic men intent on keeping power to themselves, that doesn’t mean the Senate was a monolithic apparatus. Like in any government, there were still cliques and factions, and the main ones at this period in Roman history (60s-30s BC) were the Optimates and the Populares

The Optimates were the conservatives; they represented the oldest of the old interests in the Senate: the traditional Roman land grants, opposition to expanding Roman citizenship to allies, and the supremacy of the Senate over the plebeian assemblies and tribunes. Now as Thomas Jefferson (via Lin-Manuel Miranda) might say, take one guess at who that benefits? – the same seat of government where the Optimates sit.  

The Populares were the closest thing the Senate had to a radical faction. They were usually in favor of all of the things that I just mentioned the Optimates were against: political reform, expanded rights for the plebeians, more open citizenship to Roman allies. But before you get all weepy-eyed at these bleeding-heart libs, most late-age Populares by this time are in it for the sweet pleb support, not because they’re trying to turn Rome into a true democracy. Populares were almost always political upstarts looking for a different power base to tap, rather than great reformers. The old guard Optimates had a lock on the rich patricians, so the Populares would use plebeian political momentum to strongarm the Senate into doing more of what they wanted (you’ll see more of that later, too). They were helped along with this by a couple of over-reaches by the Senate in the decades leading up to the 60s that stirred a lot of popular discontent against the government.

Now, with everyone jockeying for position in the halls of the Senate, three gentlemen found themselves in a position to be in a much better position to get some real influence if they teamed up. They were Marcus Lincinius Crassus, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (known to history and God’s Wife fans as Pompey), and, you guessed it… 

Boom, baby!

We’ll get to him in a minute. Crassus you might also know if you’ve ever seen Spartacus, but when he wasn’t crushing slave revolts, he was usually making more deals and even more money. But he had an eye for talent and by this time had long been a political ally of Julius’.   

If Crassus was the perfect Roman insider, and Caesar was his rising star, Pompey was a bit of an outsider at this point. He had spent many of the previous years outside of Roman politics winning some lauded victories for the Republic in the East, particularly against Mithridates IV, the king of Pontus (northeastern Turkey). He had the military acclaim (always helpful in Roman politics), but he needed an in. So basically, for personal and political expediency, these guys made a backroom pact to help each other out and the First Triumvirate was born. 

Julius, Crassus, and Pompey, respectively

The First Triumvirate backed each other into a variety of political posts in Rome and to governorships in the provinces until they were the three most powerful men in the Republic, and put the Senate on the ropes. This state of affairs was helped by the fact that Julius was a popular (heh) Populare, who loved using the plebeian assemblies to circumvent the Senate to get what he wanted. One of those things he wanted was the governorship of Cisalpine Gaul and control of its legions. But the Senate was already afraid of what Caesar could do if he was given more power and an army, so they sent him off to “guard the Roman forests,” which is the most bullshit-sounding assignment I have ever heard of. Not really interested in a camping trip, Caesar got Pompey and Crassus to help him use the pleb assemblies to pass legislation to quash that posting and give him the trip to France that he really wanted. The move worked, and the Senate could do little but sulk as Caesar rode north and into history. 

Pictured: the last time Italy beat Germany

To say Caesar made a success of his Gallic adventures is a bit of an understatement. This is where the Julius Caesar you’ve all heard of was really born. The brilliant military commander, the patron with the infinite rolls of clients and cash, this is where he comes in. And to say that Pompey was a little jealous is also an understatement. As the Roman writer Florus would report, “Pompey could not brook an equal or Caesar a superior.” But the Senate was also furious because most of the Gallic wars of Caesar were unauthorized and many of the leading Optimates, like Cato the Younger, wanted Caesar tried for treason when he got back to Rome. 

But the Senate’s not the only one with problems – the Triumvirate’s got them, too. Pompey hated Crassus to begin with, and now he’s starting to not like Caesar very much, either. The guys weren’t all blind to this going in, they’d even tried to shore up this rickety alliance in the usual ancient way. 

Pompey married Caesar’s beloved daughter, Julia Caesaris, and for a while this actually works. By all ancient accounts, Julia and Pompey were very happy together, and that certainly helped keep the peace between Pompey and Caesar, even if the former might grimace at all of the military success his new father-in-law was having while he was stuck as consul in Rome. But then the bane of many a woman in this period struck, and Julia died giving birth to the baby that might have really nailed this Triumvirate down. With no family feeling to stand in the way, tensions mounted between the rival generals. 

So where is Crassus in all of this, you might ask? Well, his goal out of the Triumvirate seems to have been to get the governorship of the wealthy province of Syria (and its golden capital of Antioch), where he could presumably become even more rich and powerful. A good idea… until he apparently decided he also wanted to be a military genius like his fellow Triumvirs and attacked long-time rival empire Parthia (modern Iran). It went really poorly and Crassus was killed in the ensuing quagmire. 

Legend claims molten gold was poured down his throat by the Parthians to mock his greed.

The typical joke is usually something along the lines of “What did Crassus bring to the First Triumvirate?” But the fact remains that the wheels really started to come off the whole kit and kaboodle once he was gone. He might have not really been in the same class as Pompey or Caesar, but at least he was fine with some good ol’ power and influence. Once he exits stage east, there’s nothing to stop the other two. Except for the Senate. 

The Optimates were gunning for Julius once his term as governor of Gaul expired, arms full of writs claiming accounting irregularities and war crimes that would get their hated rival exiled, or worse. With Caesar threatening to bring his army back to Rome with him (which he was not allowed to do) after the Senate tried to make him give them up before his governorship expired (which they weren’t allowed to do), the Optimates decided that Pompey was the lesser of two evils and started to back him against Caesar. Pompey marries a new Optimate bride (God’s Wife governor of Syria Metellus Scipio’s daughter), and he throws his lot in with the old order. 

Pompey and the Senate ordered Caesar home – sans legions, obviously – but Caesar had no intention of ending up in front of some Cato-led tribunal. Feeling he had no choice but to defend himself, he brought the XIII Gemina legion across the Rubicon River on the border of Gaul and Italy, and with or without saying the famous “Alea iacta est” (“The die is cast”), triggered the beginning of the civil war. Knowing the plebeians considered Caesar a hero and would have no problem with this breach of political etiquette, the Senate and Pompey felt they had no choice but to stop what the Senate had feared the most since the fall of the Roman monarchy some five hundred years previous: a renegade man popular enough to bring it back with an army behind him. 

I’m sure he was really torn up at the Rubicon…

And that’s where we sort of begin in The God’s Wife. Caesar and Pompey are dueling about all over the Mediterranean, Pompey on behalf of the Senate and Caesar with his army. Roman political aid during their father Ptolemy XII Auletes’ reign made Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy at least initially beholden to send Pompey whatever help they could. Additionally, Pompey had been the commander who helped reestablish their rule after his defeat of their sister, Berenice, so they were also personal friends and allies. Ptolemy’s rather assertive decision to switch sides to Caesar’s as the tide seemed to turn against Pompey’s forces would have been prescient if he’d managed to also have a plan on how to neutralize his sister in the aftermath. The fates of both Ptolemy XIII Philopator and Caesar’s future enemies, the Liberatores, show the importance of having a roadmap beyond an assassination. 

In my next entry, I’ll continue the story and we’ll see how all of this led to the Second Triumvirate – another doomed political triad that gets us from The God’s Wife into the world of the sequel. 

Octavius: Stay tuned…
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