When the average person thinks of ancient Rome the first thoughts that often come to mind are the immense columns and marble architecture synonymous with the era, they imagine the power and wealth of one of the most successful Empires of its time or they see it is as the modern epicenter of, the Christian religious denomination, Catholicism for the bulk of the world. However, the history of Rome is not just a story of arts, architecture, wealth, decadence or religious locale; it is also a story of immense wars, dictatorships, religious intolerance, mass conquests, a number of bloody wars, shifting religious ideologies and of social ineptitudes, like slavery. One of the most significant periods of time in Roman history involves the era controlled by the joint powers of the First Triumvirate, beginning in 60 B.C.E, the name of the political alliance between Gnaeus Pompey, Marcus Crassus and Julius Caesar. This union represents a huge shift in political and social power and granted great power and control to these three ambitious and influential men. There are many who credit the First Triumvirate with many of the concepts and approaches that benefitted ancient Rome, others argue quite the opposite. There are some historians that discuss the fact that many of the time and well into the future referred to the First Triumvirate as the “Three-Headed Monster.” After reviewing the available history and associated research it becomes clear that the First Triumvirate, all of these wealthy and influential men spread, changed and reorganized the Roman political system and control throughout its conquered lands. However, the benefits to Rome appear to be secondary and more like positive happenstance when compared to the men’s desire for power, distrust of their partners, and was ultimately unsuccessful in benefitting Rome in any long-term considerations.
Ancient history is not an easy science, while modern archaeology and dating technologies have aided researchers in gaining greater understanding the ancient civilizations that fascinated human beings, is unfortunately not an exact science. The understanding of Rome is no different. History has been seeded with myth and grown together to the point where it can be difficult to separate what is pure history and what is cultural and traditional embellishments. Most modern scholars believe that the lands that would one day be called the Roman Empire began with the earliest building of the capitol, with the same name in, approximately, 626 B.C.E. Like many fledgling nations, earliest Rome was ruled by Kings that held sway through domination of the lands. However, it did not take long for the Roman people to rebel against this system, over through them and founded the “Republica,” which translates to “of the people” or “matters of the public.” Now the Senate, once only advisors to the kings of old, would appoint a consul, who would rule much like a king, but could only hold the station for a single year. This would ideally prevent any one leader from becoming too powerful and too influential.
Early Roman society acknowledged four classes of people. The lowest being the slave populations; they had no rights and were owned by other Romans who could afford slave labor. The “plebians” were the average common Roman person, having little power or say in anything that occurs on a political level. The “equestrians,” which means the “riders,” like knights they were wealthy and were called upon to ride into battle when Rome was in need of defense. Finally, the highest class was the “patricians,” these were the nobles of Roman society. They were among the powerful nobles, who were often, also, decorated as famous general and respected war heroes, and as legal and political philosophers, that would change Roman politics in historic ways. Many politically adept and highly ambitious men served in the Roman Senate. Three such men came together in a secret alliance that would allow them to sway and influence the course of the laws and policies that they wanted passed; these men were Pompey, Crassus and, of course, Julius Caesar.
At this time the Senate, led by a Senator named Cato, were fearful of the many powerful and wealthy members of the Senate there were and they were fearful of any one man gaining too much power. This was mostly true of the Senators that were favored by the public, many of which were opposed to Senate control. In order to gain greater influence and control that would lead to an alliance between incredibly powerful individuals. It is this alliance that would be remembered as both, the First Triumvirate and the “Three-Headed Monster,” as both people of that era and modern scholars alike has mixed opinions about the First Triumvirate and the men who formed it. In order to understand these powerful historic figures, the origins and the disintegration of and, finally, the impacts, both negative and positive, of this ancient pact it is best to discuss them individually.
Pompey the Great
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was born on September 29, 106 B.C.E, in Picenum in Northern Italy. He was born into a “non-Latin” family living in the region that happened to be quite wealthy. At the young 23 he entered into the political scene, but quickly became a removed military leader. He rallied troops to defend the ruler from the opposing Marians. Pompey had participated in resolving a grain crisis, preventing an uprising in Spain and aided in ending piracy in Rome within a few short months. In 66 B.C.E. he invaded Pontus, a region in Asia Minor, ending the Mirithidatic Wars were over; shortly after he, also, captured, both, Syria and Jerusalem in the name of Rome. When he returned to Rome in 61 B.C.E. he returned as a hero and well-liked by the Roman people. It is his popularity and assertive and decisive wins in battle with a following of many loyal troops that made him such a threat in the eyes of the Senate and its outspoken member, Cato. In their eyes it would be much too easy for him to gain sway and dominate the politics of Rome, something that must be avoided, at least, as the Roman Senate saw it. For this reason, Pompey, despite previous successes, was not given a campaign and he was refused lands that he wanted to donate to other military members. When the opportunity arose to form an alliance in secret against the Senate he accepted
Marcus Licinius Crassus, was born in the year 115 B.C.E. to an old, highly respected, member of the Senate, politician and military man. He, throughout his life, accumulated his wealth through purchasing a great deal of valuable land, banking, he owned a number of silver mines and was part of commercial undertakings like tax collection. He was incredibly popular among the business people of the Rome, which was made up, mostly, of equestrians. He also was known to lend money to other aspiring politicians, which no doubt gained him allies throughout the years. By the year 60, he was 55 years old and at odds with the Senate who continually refused to support his proposals. Pompey, whom he had known many years, but was not fond of, was a major rival in his eyes and was not his ally in the Senate. Crassus is most renowned for his participation in the subduing of the slave rebel Spartacus, however, it was Pompey, who came in to “clean of the mess,” and stole all of the credit for the event. This created animosity between the two men.However, when the wealthy man was offered a secret alliance that would allow them to benefit his own ends while working “under the radar” of the Senate. In many ways, Crassus probably realized that an alliance with Pompey could eliminate much of the resistance against him in the Senate.
Of all of the First Triumvirate’s members is Julius Caesar, who has been the subject of a Shakespearean play and countless books, is by and far the most recognizable. Born Gaius Julius Caesar on July 12, 100 B.C.E, he was a wealthy and intelligent young man. As early as 18 he had already decided that he wanted to do great things and make a name for himself in the realm of politics. He was wealthy and well-liked by the people, which made him a threat to existing Senate. Caesar was involved in many scandalous situations. Including refusing an Emperor’s order to divorce his first wife, Cornelia, or face possible execution, he refused and left to join the army and did not return to Rome until the Emperor was dead. Caesar is seen as quite the “lady’s man” as well, his affair with Egyptian ruler Cleopatra, even fathering a child with her, which he refused to claim. Caesar is described as the first “Renaissance Man,” he was a great speaker, thinker, military tactician and writer of popular Roman works. One of the great examples of Caesar’s gift in military campaigns was during the Alexandrian Wars, where he turned the tide on the oncoming ships, by ultimately sinking three galley ships and commandeering several more. Aulus Hirtius wrote of the battle he had witnessed, “Caesar would have made himself master of their whole fleet.” This only made him all the more popular with the people, but more of a threat to the Senate. One of his goals was to pass the Agrarian Law, which would grant land to the veterans, most of which serving in Pompey’s army. His policy was not favored by the Senate and, particularly, Cato. This may have played a huge role in bringing together the three powerful men who would become the First Triumvirate in the first place.
The Triumvirate Begins
As more and more lack of support for their interests in the Senate led them to form the secret alliance. Pompey and Crassus from the Senate for many years and the two were seldom in agreement, which would only worsen over time. Caesar was, more or less, the balancing factor. He was good friends with Crassus, who had helped finance much of his early career and the wealthy money-lender trusted Caesar. However, Pompey was not as easy to convince. Ultimately, Caesar would have to offer and present his daughter, Julia, to Pompey in marriage to create a bond with the famous military leader. Together the three as a singular force was one to be reckoned with. Each one brought different supporters, different facets of Roman society and differing goals. The latter is hugely important aspect of this union. Each of the three were not selfless men, they had a number of goals, policies and activities that could be more quickly achieved through the union. The triumvirate remained a secret until the Senate became suspicious at the way the remaining two men would wholeheartedly encourage and endorse the plans of the others in order to sway the decisions of the Senate in their favor.
The partnership of the First Triumvirate was not an easy one. Many critics of the time and modern historians alike agree that the First Triumvirate was, in fact, an unofficial designation. The men were not appointed as legitimate or appointed officials, but rather forced the situation by using their clout, combined wealth, and power to influence the situation to favor their interests. The Senate was not fond of the union and feared that there is nothing preventing one or all of these men for using their influence to take over the government and become an all-powerful ruler, negating the existing form of the Roman Republic political system that had flourished for some time.
One of the most significant changes made under the influence of the triumvirate is the expansion of their rule. The men would rule Rome jointly, but also, brought conquered and occupied lands that they alone would attend to. Pompey had invaded and controlled much of Spain. Crassus held control of Syria. Finally, Caesar brought the lands of Illyrica and the regions known, at the time, as Gaul, which included both the areas known as Transalpine Gaul and Cisalpine Gaul. All three left Rome to personally oversee their conquered lands. The overall goals of the triumvirate were being achieved, but after only 4 short years the relationship was already starting to break-down. The three men became distrustful of the others. A meeting was arranged in 56 B.C.E. was intended to rectify the problems evolving in their relationships. When Pompey’s wife and Caesar’s daughter, Julia, died in childbirth, this severed any real loyalty that had existed between the two great Generals. Crassus, eager to make a greater name for himself in the military realm, focused on conquest, would leave his lands behind to invade the Parthians at Carrhae with several legions of forces. Crassus would die in 53 B.C.E. in defeat. This only made the relationship between the two remaining triumvirate members all the more tense. When Pompey is elected as the sole consul in 52 B.C.E. it essentially guaranteed that there would be an inevitable confrontation between these two powerful and influential men.
Scholar William Cooke, in 1781, explained that the tentative relationship was never a matter of loyalty, but of mutual need; none of these men were ever genuinely interested in sharing powers. Making the triumvirate doomed from the start. In the year 49 B.C.E. Caesar made the strategic move to cross the Rubicon River with the intention of removing Pompey from power; this was a direct violation of existing Roman laws. Pompey enlisted the strength of the whole Roman army to meet Caesar at the head of his army. By the next year, Caesar was holding the advantage and made a decisive victory. In fact, according to Suetonius, Caesar sounded the battle horn himself and crossed the river saying, “Let us go where the omens of the Gods and the crimes of our enemies summon us! The Die is Now Cast!”
Ultimately, Caesar defeated Pompey who fled to Egypt to avoid capture; however, he was murdered a short time later.As the proverbial “last man standing,” Caesar became the ruler of all of Rome, but his success would not last for long. In 44 the Great Julius Caesar’s famous rule would come to an end as would his life at the hands of the very men that he trusted most. On what Shakespeare immortalized as the “ides of March,” March 15th, he was stabbed multiple times and would die at the feet of the statue erected in the memory Pompey.
The Legacy of the First Triumvirate
The First Triumvirate made history as the thing that destroyed the Roman Republic that had successfully ruled without the control of tyrants and their dictatorships. Once Caesar became the supreme ruler of the Roman Empire he set into motion a future that would include a long line of rulers to follow, many the descendants of Caesar himself; one of the most notable, Augustus Caesar, a nephew to Julius Caesar, who took power in 27 B.C.E.Augustus quickly abandoned the Senate and formed a “Second Triumvirate” with Marc Antony and Lepidus who would split the Roman Empire into regions, controlled by one of the three, as had Pompey, Crassus and Caesar before them. These rulers varied in success, popularity and the legacies they left behind; some more advantageous and beneficial than others.
Today, modern scholars argue that the Augustan system of government was weak and ineffectual overall. The system allowed for the wealthy, noble and elite to purchase their way to achieving their means. More so, they argue that the system all too often “gave in” to pressures regarding political favors and sway, as explained by the famous historian of the period, Tacitus. The long history of the Roman Empire would last for centuries controlled by many famous and infamous rulers. The Eastern Roman Empire would become the Byzantine Empire and would outlive the more traditional Western Roman Empire. The empire struggled for some time, slowly but surely losing power and sway over time. Historians date the fall of the Western Roman Empire as occurring in 476 C.E, having been invaded and defeated by “barbarians” from afar, after years of warfare and conquest in the religion adopted by Constantine, Christianity. Scholars today argue that while the success of Roman Empire cannot be denied, the nation might have fared better in the long term, had the First Triumvirate never prevailed.
The progressive nature of the initial Roman Republic has inspired the political ideology of many modern societies that still exist today, including France and, of course, the United States of America. Other historians argue that had the mistakes, tyranny and political monopoly implemented by the First Triumvirate not existed then the value of the Republic might never have been realized.That said history remembers the First Triumvirate as a significant event in the history of Rome and of ancient history as a whole; for better or worse it led to great change.
The First Triumvirate was a powerful but tentative alliance between some of the most influential and ambitious men of their Age. Rome made an incredibly progressive move when it may the change from, what many would call, a feudal system, involving powerful rulers and constant battles to maintain or gain more power. A “for the people” approach to government is the basis for many nations across the globe, most notably America. Men like Pompey, Crassus and Caesar are remembered as great because they were strong, successful and controlled many lands and vast military forces, not because they were interested in benefitting the people they would rule. In reality, these men were not so very different than many politicians today. They invested in the public’s issues in order to gain favor, they passed policies that benefitted their own agenda, and when the alliance faltered they drew people into their battles for supremacy. The First Triumvirate in hindsight was in many ways far more detrimental than beneficial; most of the public benefit was incidental not intentional. These men were guided by ambition and greed that brought down the ideal of a full Roman Republic; this far outweighs the any benefit that Rome may have experienced.
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