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In the year 60 BC, a very unlikely alliance was formed between three of Rome’s most powerful men.
Gaius Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and Marcus Licinius Crassus agreed to put aside their differences for mutual gain.
For many years the alliance worked, and the three men were able to run the Roman Republic….until it eventually fell apart.
Learn more about the First Triumvirate on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
In the early first century BC, the Roman Republic was a mess.
From 83 to 81 BC, the generals Marius and Sulla fought a civil war that devastated the Roman aristocracy.
In 71 BC, the slave revolt led by the gladiator Spartacus erupted in Italy until Crassus and Pompey put it down.
In 63 BC, Rome survived the Cataline Conspiracy, which threatened to put a small group in control of Rome.
I’ve touched on or have devoted entire episodes to each of those items which shaped this period of the Roman Republic. In those episodes, I’ve mentioned the actors who will be central to this episode.
At this point in Roman history, aristocratic Roman men of Senatorial rank would constantly vie for power and prestige. There was a set series of political offices, known as the Cursus Honoram, that you could hold, culminating in the position of consul.
These were all elected positions, and to get elected, you needed to do several things.
First, you needed auctoritas. Auctoritas was a Latin term that encompassed the ideas of clout, influence, and prestige. You could gain auctoritas in different ways, including being elected to lower offices and hosting games for the public.
However, the best way was probably to have some sort of military accomplishment that you could point to. Some sort of military glory was important but not absolutely necessary if you wanted to climb the Cursus Honoram.
Second, you needed money. There were a lot of palms to grease, and campaigning costs money. Especially as you worked your way up the ranks, you needed money to pay for food and games for the plebeians.
Finally, you needed a strong network of patrons and clients. The Roman patronage system was an informal system where people with high wealth and status would serve as patrons to those who were lower in status or wealth or perhaps just starting out.
Each side of the relationship would provide services to the other. A patron might extend a loan to allow a client to run for office. A client might support the political measures of their patron.
One person’s client might be someone else’s patron. This system was highly informal, but everyone knew who was who’s patron.
Having said that, let’s look at the three men who made up the triumvirate.
The first person, and the oldest of the group, was Marcus Licinius Crassus.
Crassus was rich. He is widely believed to be the richest person during the entire Republican period of Rome.
He amassed his fortune engaging in real estate speculation during the dictatorship of Sulla, under whom he served as an officer.
He supposedly created the fire brigade in Rome. He employed over 500 men who would rush to buildings that were on fire. When they arrived, they would do nothing, and Crassus would offer to buy the burning building for a pittance.
If the owner agreed to sell, Crassus’s firemen would put out the fire. If they didn’t agree to sell, they let it burn to the ground.
While Crassus was rich, he didn’t have much to show in the way of military accomplishments.
When the Spartacus slave revolt erupted, Crassus made sure he was appointed as the commander to crush the revolt. While it did probably boost his auctoritas, it was sort of a no-win situation. If he put down a slave revolt, no one would be impressed beating a bunch of slaves. If he lost, he would be the guy who lost to an army of slaves.
In the year 70 BC, Crassus won election as consul, and his co-consul for the year was his main rival, Pompey Magnus.
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus came to govern with Crassus via a very different path. Whereas Crassus had money, Pompey had earned his position via military victories.
He was appointed general at a very young age serving under Sulla during the civil war. He was sent to Sicily and North Africa, where he put down resistance to Sulla and also easily defeated the King of Numidia in Battle.
Sulla was so impressed he gave him the cognomen “Magnus” which means “the great” in Latin.
During the Spartacus revolt, the Senate sent Pompey to help Crassus, which angered Crassus to no end. It was Pompey who was sent to crush piracy in the Mediterranean, which he did with ruthless efficiency.
When Rome was having issues with King Mithridates of Pontus, they sent Pompey to fix the problem, which he did, growing the empire and also establishing Armenia as a client kingdom of Rome.
Despite his military success, Pompey was still considered an outsider by the optimates in the Senate. The optimates were the established senators from ancient families.
This became an issue when he came back to Rome in 61 BC to a triumph, and then tried to get legislation passed to distribute farmland to his veterans. The people went nuts for Pompey, but the Senate killed his proposal, and the head of the opposition was Crassus.
The final member of this group was Julius Caesar. However, at this time, he wasn’t the Julius Caesar that you think of.
Caesar was, at this time, a client of Crassus. Unlike Crassus and Pompey, Caesar’s family was on the Marian side of the civil war. In fact, he was the nephew of Marius and had to flee Rome so he wouldn’t get executed.
Caesar also had won the grass crown, the highest military award in Rome, at a very young age. It was the equivalent of the Medal of Honor, and I covered this in a previous episode.
In 63 BC, he decided to run for Pontifex Maximus, which was the head priest in Rome. It was an elected position and outside of the normal Cursus Honoram. It was a lifetime position, so Caesar put himself heavily into debt to win the election, which he did easily.
In his role as Pontifex Maximus, he could interpret auspices that could determine when the senate could sit and when specific actions could be taken.
Crassus agreed to pay much of Caesar’s debts in exchange for political support to oppose Pompey’s agenda.
Caesar, being a Marian, was popular with the populares, the common people, and supported land and social reform legislation.
He won election as praetor and was appointed as the governor of Hispania Ulterior, with proconsular powers, which made him immune to prosecution, which was a big deal considering his debts.
In 60 BC, Caesar came back to Rome from Hispania before his term of office was done so he could run for consul in 59 BC. The problem was that he was entitled to a military triumph for his success in Hispania. However, he couldn’t enter Rome before the triumph. But, if he wanted to run for consul, he had to do so in person inside Rome.
Everyone thought this would prevent him from running for consul because no one in their right mind would pass up a triumph. However, that is exactly what Caesar did.
As part of his campaign for consul, he managed to get the support of both Crassus and Pompey. All three of them had problems with the optimates faction in the senate.
Caesar managed to convince both men to put aside their differences to work together. Everyone would get something out of this arrangement.
Caesar would become consul. As consul, Caesar would then arrange to get Pompey’s land grant for his veterans passed. Crassus would get his pet legislation passed and an opportunity to finally get the military glory he never had.
Between the three of them, they could pretty much control the majority of votes in the Senate and get at least one of their choices for consul elected every year going forward.
Part of the deal included Pompey marrying Julia, the daughter of Caesar. This established a family bond between the two men to ensure that neither would turn on the other.
The odd thing about the marriage of Pompey and Julia is that the two, by all accounts, actually seemed to love each other, which was rare in a Roman marriage. They actually showed affection in public, which most Romans considered to be very tacky.
The Triumvirate was not a union of three men with a common political view for the future of Rome. This was a coming together so each man could achieve their personal ambitions.
I should note that supposedly, they tried to get Cicero on board, but he had too much respect for the law.
So, Caesar wins the consulship, and his co-consul is a guy by the name of Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, who was supported by the optimates.
Bibulus tried to block Caesar’s and Pompey’s legislation, but he was pretty much forced to retreat to his house by angry mobs, and he was ineffectual for the rest of the year. This allowed the triumvirate to push through much of the legislation they wanted to pass.
One of the things that Caesar got out of this was that after his tenure as consul, he received a five-year appointment as the governor of Cis and Transalpine Gaul, which was then later extended by another five years. Caesar didn’t return to Rome for a decade and spent those 10 years becoming the Julius Caesar that everyone is familiar with.
Two things caused the downfall of the Triumvirate.
The first occurred in September of 54 BC when Julia died in childbirth. She gave birth to a daughter who died two days later.
With the death of Julia, the ties between Caesar and Pompey were gone, and it resulted in a downward spiral which later resulted in another civil war. World history would have been profoundly different if Julia and her daughter had lived.
The other thing which killed the Triumvirate was the death of Crassus. Crassus was appointed as the governor of Syria, and it was there he would finally get his military glory in the biggest way possible. He was going to defeat the Parthian Empire, the one enemy that Rome was never able to conquer.
However, that didn’t happen. Instead, at the Battle of Carrhae in May of 53 BC, he and most of his troops were killed.
According to legend, he was killed when the Parthians poured molten gold down his throat to mock his wealth.
If you ever wondered where the inspiration for that scene in season one of Game of Thrones came from…..it was Crassus.
The endings for Pompey and Caesar weren’t any better. Caesar, as most of you know, was assassinated on the floor of the senate, and Pompey was beheaded in Egypt after the Battle of Pharsalus, when he lost to Caesar, proving once and for all who the better general really was.
The Roman historian Livy noted that the Triumvirate was “a conspiracy against the state by its three leading citizens.”
Livy was right. The First Triumvirate was just one more step along the path toward the end of the Roman Republic.
It would only be 10 years after the fall of the First Triumvirate that three more men would once again come together to form another Triumvirate.
Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, his right-hand man Marc Antony, and some other guy by the name of Marcus Lepidus would divide up the Republic in an attempt to control it.
However, that story is for another episode.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener LostInOklahoma
Glad I can rewind
You say so many thought provoking nuggets, that I often have to rewind to catch what I missed when my brain followed your words down a rabbit hole of thoughts. Thank you so much for doing this podcast. Especially the seven days a week part. Keep up the good work. You may never hear from me again but I will definitely be listening.
Thanks, LostinOklahoma! If I never hear from you again, is it because you are actually lost in Oklahoma? If you do happen to be Lost in Oklahoma, I know how you find your way out. Just stand up. The state is so flat that you should be able to see the exit no matter how far away it is. Just make sure to watch out for tornadoes.
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