From the years 59 to 53 BC, three high-ranking Romans conspired to control the Roman political system for their own benefit. They called this system a triumvirate.
A decade later, Rome found itself under the control of three more men and yet another triumvirate.
This one was very different than than the first. It was given actual legal authority, and it was far more deadly.
Learn more about the Second Triumvirate, how it started, and how it ended on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
I’ve previously done an episode on the first triumvirate, but I’ll give a quick recap.
Three high-ranking Roman politicians, who had been opponents, came together for their mutual benefit: Rome’s greatest general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Rome’s richest man Marcus Licinius Crassus, and another guy you might have heard of, Gaius Julius Caesar.
The first triumvirate was very unofficial. The three men agreed to support each other’s big projects, gave themselves plum assignments, and determined who would run for high offices and probably win.
The system worked until it didn’t. Crassus died in the desert of Parthia, Pompey was beheaded by Egyptians, and Caesar was assassinated on the floor of the Senate.
The assassination of Julius Caesar is where this story begins.
Caesar had been appointed dictator for life and was the singular personality in control of all of Rome. His death created a power vacuum and sent everything into chaos.
The conspirators who killed him didn’t really have a plan for after Caesar was dead. They figured they would be hailed as heroes, and everything would naturally go back to normal.
That didn’t happen.
For starters, the common people actually liked Caesar. Second, Caesar had several large and loyal legions who were extremely upset that their leader and benefactor had been killed.
This resulted in the conspirators, led by Brutus and Cassius, fleeing Rome and heading east, where they sought to raise an army.
That left the Caesarian faction in control of Rome. In particular, there were two personalities that stood out as leaders of the Caesarians.
The first was Caesar’s right-hand man and the person he had previously left in charge of Rome when he was off in Egypt and other campaigns, Marcus Antonius, aka Mark Antony.
Mark Antony was the figure everyone knew and he figured that made him the Caesarians’ natural leader.
The other figure was the great-nephew, the posthumously adopted son, and heir to most of Caesar’s fortune, Octavian. The guy who would later be dubbed Augustus.
He was thrust into the spotlight at the age of 18.
No one had a clue who this Octavian kid was. He had no experience in anything. All he had at this point was the Caesar name, Caesar’s fortune, and a whole lot of smarts.
Both of them thought that they were the natural leader of the Caesarians.
It wasn’t long before civil war broke out between them.
Antony and one of Caesar’s generals, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, had fled to northern Italy and had lost battles to the legions loyal to Octavian.
While the Caesarians were beating each other up, it became obvious that they were just making themselves weaker for the eventual showdown they would have with the anti-Caesarians.
The solution to the problem of who would lead the Caesarian faction was to take a page out of Caesar’s playbook and create a new triumvirate.
The three members would be Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus.
Here I should talk about Lepidus. If the Second Triumvirate were the Beatles, Lepidus would be Ringo. If they were the girls in the Brady Bunch, Lepidus would be Jan. If they were the Three Stooges, Lepidus would be Larry.
It wasn’t that Lepidus was incompetent, he just didn’t have the assets that the other two partners brought to the table.
Lepidus had actually been named as the successor to Caesar in the role of Pontefix Maximums, which was the top priest in Rome.
One of the reasons he was so weak is that he handed control of the legions loyal to him to Mark Antony and Octavian early in the triumvirate, which rendered him rather powerless.
The three triumvirs did something that the first triumvirate didn’t do. They actually went to the Senate and had their arrangement formally ratified in late 43 BC.
The term of the agreement was approved for five years, and the triumvirate was collectively given consular powers.
One of the first things which the triumvirate did was one of the most controversial things which had ever been done in Roman history: Proscriptions.
Proscriptions involved the public listing of Roman citizens, usually wealthy ones, who, by the fact of being on the list, had their lives and property forfeit.
This was done for two reasons. The first was to eliminate any potential threats or rivals. Julius Caesar tried to be magnanimous after winning his civil war, which cost him his life. His successors weren’t going to make the same mistake.
The second reason was money. They needed cash to fight the upcoming war with the anti-Caesarians. The were several hundred senators and several thousand equites who were put on the list, which constituted some of the wealthiest men in Rome.
The list included Lepidus’ brother, Octavian’s cousins, the orator Cicero, and many others. Most of the people on the list were put there for no reason other than being rich.
Proscriptions were something that had only been done one other time in Roman history. The dictator Sulla a generation before, had proscribed his enemies during the first Roman civil war.
The fate of Cicero was particularly gruesome. He was beheaded, and his severed head was placed on the rosta in the forum, along with his severed hands, which were nailed to the door of the senate building.
No one else murdered in the proscriptions was put on public display like this.
With the messy business of murdering and stealing the property of so many Romans behind them, the next business of the triumvirate was defeating the anti-Caesrians.
The triumvirate forces chased the anti-Caesrians down in Greece and had a final confrontation which ended the civil war at the Battle of Philippi. It was a massive battle in which an estimated 200,000 men in total, with Roman legions, lined up against Roman legions.
The Caesarians were victorious, resulting in the death or suicide of most of the conspirators.
The battle was commanded by Mark Antony. Octavian was actually in bed during the battle as he claimed to be ill. Accusations of cowardice haunted him for the rest of his life because of his performance during the battle.
After the battle, the members of the triumvirate split up the Roman territories between themselves to govern.
Octavian got the western provinces, including Hispania, Gaul, as well as the Italian peninsula and Rome.
Mark Antony was given control of everything in the East, including Greece, Asia Minor, and Syria.
Lepidus was given a small hunk of North Africa.
With Lepidus’ diminished role, the triumvirate was really just Octavian and Antony at this point.
Mark Antony was considered to have gotten the better deal. Asia was the more wealthy part of the empire. He could raise more money in taxes. It was also where much of the grain was. It would give him a great deal of power back in Rome, but he wouldn’t have to deal with all the petty politics that Octavian would because he wasn’t there.
One of the problems that Octavian was stuck with was ending the revolt and piracy of Pompey’s son, Sextus Pompey. Sextus had been terrorizing the seas and held control of the island of Sicily.
Lepidus took part in the fight against Sextus and raised 14 legions that invaded Sicily. However, he attempted a political maneuver to get Sicily under his control, and it backfired against him horribly. All of his legions in Sicily defected to Octavian.
In 36 BC, he was stripped of all power save for his title of Pontifex Maximus.
Several years earlier, in 40 BC, Antony’s wife Fulvia died, and Octavian offered his sister in marriage to strengthen the ties between them. Very similar to what Caesar and Pompey did during the first triumvirate.
Despite the marriage, over time, relations between Antony and Octavian disintegrated.
Antony had shacked up with Caesar’s former mistress and the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. He attempted an invasion of Parthia, which failed.
Both Antony and Octavian wanted war, but neither wanted to be the one perceived to be the instigator.
It was here the Octavian being in Rome gave him the edge. He was able to influence public opinion within the City of Rome against Antony.
Antony mostly led a life of debauchery while he was in Egypt. He married Cleopatra according to Egyptian rituals, had several children with her, and dressed in an Egyptian manner.
All of this turned Roman opinion against Antony. The final nail in the coffin was Octavian getting a copy of Antony’s last will and testament, which he had put on file with the Vestal Virgins in 32 BC.
In it, he expressed his desire to be buried in Egypt and left Cleopatra Roman lands in his will.
This outraged the Roman public and the senate and decisively turned opinion against Antony enough that Octavian could declare war.
This cumulated in the Battle of Actium between Antony and Octavian in the year 31 BC. Unlike pretty much every other battle in every other Roman civil war, this was a naval battle off the west coast of Greece.
Despite having a significant numerical advantage, Octavian’s fleet, led by his right-hand man Agrippa, soundly defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s.
With this defeat, most of Antony’s men abandoned him and defected to Octavian. This left Antony and Cleopatra only with the choice of facing their end at the hands of Octavian or by their own hand.
Both Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves, ending the last in a series of civil wars which had ravaged Rome for over 50 years.
It also effectively ended the Roman Republic and gave birth to the Roman Empire.
Octavian learned the lessons of his adopted father and didn’t make the same mistakes he did. He never accepted the title of dictator. He made sure never to flaunt his power or wealth too much.
Mostly, however, people were sick of war and enjoyed his rule’s peace and stability.
Joint rule of Rome wasn’t to be a thing again for another 300 years when the Emperor Dominitian instituted the four-person rule called the tetrarchy.
The Second Triumvirate, despite its ultimate collapse, was successful in its immediate goals. It stopped the infighting amongst the Caesarian forces and unified them for long enough to defeat those who had assassinated Julius Caesar.
From a historical standpoint, however, the Second Triumvirate served as the event which transitioned Rome from a republic to an empire.