The Rule of Threes Redux: A Crash Course in the Roman Civil Wars, Part 2

All right, last week we looked at the start of the Roman Civil War, in the 40s BC. The conclusion of this first phase of the war you’re already somewhat familiar with if you’ve read The God’s Wife, or have a passing knowledge of its setting. But as a brief recap: Pompey loses his head in Egypt; Caesar narrowly avoids a similar fate, then rides off to rout the rest of the Senate’s forces in North Africa and Hispania (Spain), declares himself dictator for ten years (fine), then life (not fine), and then has a very unfortunate performance review at work. 

Caesar’s assassins were a mix of Optimates who hated him and disappointed Populares who were either upset about the continuation of the dictatorship, or upset that they weren’t further up the food chain in said dictatorship. But something to keep in mind about the role of Dictator in the Rome world is it isn’t a solely pejorative term as we might use it in a modern sense. Roman dictators were given extraordinary powers legally during times of crisis by the Senate. In Julius’ defense… 

You love me, puella

No comment… In his defense, he was initially declared dictator for perfectly legitimate reasons; it’s only in the extension of his mandate that things get a little fuzzy. He would make the argument that Rome was still reeling from the civil war, and there was trouble in the provinces and among Rome’s allied states (like Egypt, where he had just averted a major dynastic war). For him to retain the dictatorship was a move of prudence until things settled down. Why then make himself dictator for life then? Again, the argument could be made that Julius was abundantly aware of how many enemies he still had in the Senate, and to cement himself in the dictatorship was a way to make sure that his efforts to restore any kind of normalcy to Rome weren’t undermined by his opponents. In an attempt to maintain said normalcy, he forgave virtually everyone who fought against him in the wars for the sake of unity, but it didn’t mean he trusted most of the remaining Optimates any further than he could throw them. He knew they didn’t approve of his reforms, but also he knew that certain reforms were likely necessary in the face of the changing position of Rome in the world. But of course, it is a lot easier to say he was a power-mad egomaniac who overreached himself than it is to try to break down everyone’s motivations. 

Ha, you do love me, puella!

[Side note: if you told the wide-eyed ten-year-old who dreamed of writing books about Egypt that she’d end up spending most of her time writing about Romans and be some kind of Julius Caesar quasi-apologist, she would have been incredulous…]

Anyway, so the assassins formed a new Senatorial party, the Liberatores, and ran out into the streets, pugiones blazing, super-stoked to tell everyone in Rome about how they had just saved the Republic from a power-mad egomaniac. You know, everyone in Rome. The majority of whom were, as I explained last week, the plebeians who adored the guy they just left like a big pile of sashimi on the floor of the Forum.

One of the few Caesar partisans around to take advantage of the situation was Mark Antony, a Roman general who’d once been a protégé of Pompey’s, but for a long time had been Caesar’s most senior commander. 

Salvete, internet

Antony watched the people of Rome set rage- fires and build wax memorials of Caesar in the Forum for a couple of days, before rallying the Senate as the man who could help calm the city down. He agreed that the conspirators wouldn’t be punished, but at the same time he undermined theirs results at every turn. This leads to his famous speech at Caesar’s funeral where he subtlely throws Brutus and company to the mob’s continued fury. 

Lend me your ears

He also gets his hands on Caesar’s will, a document he no doubt expects to grant him a good nest egg of Julius’ vast fortune to back up the power in Rome he has already started to consolidate. 


Instead, what he found was that Caesar had left everything to his eighteen-year-old great-nephew, Octavius, who was now his adopted son. Because it wasn’t as though Julius could leave Octavius the dictatorship, you might think that the will was no big deal. But money = clients = power in Rome, and with the stroke of a stylus, Octavius became the richest man in the Republic. Perhaps more importantly, Julius leaves Octavius the Caesar name, a name that at the time was being chanted in the streets by rioting plebs worshipping the comet that had appeared at the dictator’s death. 

Antony swallowed his disappointment and agreed to work with the young Octavius when he arrived from Apollonia after the assassination. In this he was joined by Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, another Caesarian ally who’d seen that he was better off making an alliance with Antony than what was left of the Senate. The three men met and formally declared the Second Triumvirate, a legally organized directory with a term of five years. The deal might have been for only five years, but the Second Triumvirate sidelined the consuls and the Senate, leading to the very death of the Roman Republic that the Liberatores had meant to forestall. 

Now all the things we said about Crassus last week can basically be said of Lepidus. The latter is less overtly greedy, but he, too, is no match for his fellow Triumvirs. Octavius and Antony had way more power (read: money and military loyalty)  than Lepidus, and they soon effectively squeeze him out; both in terms of strength, and because it doesn’t take very long for Octavius and Antony to be at each other’s throats. 

Pictured: Crassus babysitting his other Triumvirs

For a while, it was in Octavius and Antony’s interest to work together. They had a common opponent in Brutus and the remaining Liberatores, who had fled to the provinces to round up an army. They were eventually victorious and defeated Brutus’ army at the Battle of Philippi, Antony doing most of the heavy lifting vis à vis the military. Closer to home, they have no intention of repeating Caesar’s mistake of pardoning his enemies and use the ruthless proscriptions to eliminate the opposition in Rome. In this way they gain some much-needed cash to fund the fight from those suddenly-vacant estates. And like the First Triumvirate, they try to make the whole thing stick together the old-fashioned way… 

Octavius marries Clodia Pulchra, a stepdaughter of Antony’s, and Antony marries Octavius’ sister, Octavia.

Yes, internet. I have returned.

But the marriage between Clodia and Octavius doesn’t last, and the rivalry between the two men isn’t soothed by even kindly Octavia’s best efforts. Virgil writes a poem predicting the birth a son to Antony and Octavia that will usher in a new age of peace, but the child turns out to be Antonia Major and this is not a world where girls are usually the solution to anyone’s problems. 

Cleopatra: Oh, hello, internet. I didn’t see you all standing there…

Yeah, so Octavius stays in Rome trying to settle the army after the war with the Liberatores, and Antony goes east to establish Triumvirate authority over the provinces they just got back from Liberatore control. He also decides, like Crassus, he’s going to go poke the Parthian bear, and has the same unfortunate result. 

Well, not exactly the same. He escapes the Parthian golden shower at least…

But it’s when he’s limping home from Parthia that an old friend shows up with succor and supplies. You see, there was someone else flitting about in the background in Rome during the upheaval after Caesar’s assassination. 

Who do you contact when your Airbnb host dies in a hail of stab wounds?

Julius’ death had left Cleopatra suddenly stranded in Rome with her son, Caesarion. Shorn of her ally, she quickly sought out Mark Antony, who offered her protection and assurances of Rome’s friendship, but not the formal recognition of Caesarion as Caesar’s son and heir that she was looking for. He was already annoyed about being shunted out of Julius’ will by Octavius, he wasn’t about to put a half-Greek bastard ahead of himself, too. 

But Cleopatra was, above all things, a realist. With Ptolemy dead and Arsinoë packed off to Ephesus, she could afford to go home and wait. She supported the Second Triumvirate from afar, and when Antony got himself into trouble with Parthia, she was there to swoop in and refit his troops. And things kind of went along from there… 

Octavius wasn’t thrilled about Antony’s new interest in Egypt. It wasn’t necessarily a threat to Octavius’ position in Rome, but it was a fairly humiliating state of affairs to watch his sister sit by herself in Rome while her husband openly paraded around Alexandria with the Queen of Egypt and gave away eastern provinces to the children their alliance produced. 

Pictured: a brother-in-law you probably don’t want to cross.

But the real turning point for events was when Antony decreed from Alexandria that Caesarion was the legitimate son of Caesar. Whether it was true or not was academic: such an announcement directly threatened Octavius’ entire power base. Everything he had he possessed because he was Julius’ sole heir. His adoption couldn’t be taken back, and he had the all-important Caesar name, but Antony was putting forth a boy who supposedly also had Caesar’s direct bloodline. The chances that Rome would accept a half-foreign bastard over the Latin Octavius was perhaps small, but the world had changed so much in last handful of decades, he couldn’t possibly be entirely sure. He’d seen how far one could go trading on the newly-deified Caesar’s identity.  

Pictured: a stepbrother you probably don’t want to cross.

And so began the last phase of the Roman Civil Wars, the war between Octavius and Antony. The latter and his new ally/baby mama clearly still thought of Octavius as the green eighteen-year-old who’d ridden out of the countryside, but he had been a quick learner. Antony might have had the loyalty of his men and the resources of Egypt, but Octavius was in Rome and in a position to sway the homeland against his rival. He painted Antony as a man who had abandoned Rome for a barbarian whore and only, he, Octavius, was the righteous and rightful heir of his adopted father’s burgeoning empire. Antony responded, and I quote, “Do I tell you whom you may fuck?” and implied that Octavius had received his adoption by performing sexual favors for the notoriously bisexual Julius. Truly, it was a noble and elegant age of political discourse. 

Classical poetry was also the epitome of beauty and grace.

It takes about two years of fighting, but as mentioned in my discussion of the First Settlement, Octavius’ forces, led by his childhood friend, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, decisively defeat the navy of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. They flee to Egypt, where after staging a weak and ultimately futile barricade of Alexandria, where Antony and Cleopatra commit suicide, and Octavius takes control of Egypt.

I know some of you are worried about Lepidus. Don’t worry — I banished him.

The third Triumvir Lepidus was forced into an obscure retirement where he was occasionally allowed to return to Rome for senatorial business. Supposedly Octavius reminded him of his place by always asking for his vote last. Because Rome’s Princeps was definitely not a sore winner.

And with that, we’ve arrived where I unintentionally started us in August: with Octavius as the cheese standing alone, so to speak. But hopefully now with a slightly better understanding of how we got here. 

Lepidus agrees with all of you.
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