Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Roman Politics in the Era of Cicero and Caesar

Steve Muhlberger
Last time we examined how social tensions within the expanding Roman Republic led to violent conflict.   We took the story as far as Sulla,  who seized  Rome by force, murdering thousands of his opponents and confiscating their property, and establishing his friends and allies on that property.

Sulla ended his career by imposing an oligarchical constitution on the Roman state, a constitution that took power from the tribunes and the popular assemblies and gave it back to the Senate.  This may have been simply an attempt to secure the gains of his party, by freezing politics.  But perhaps not --
just because one is a murderous revolutionary doesn't mean that one cannot believe in order and hierarchy, in rule by the best.  Deference to traditional leadership, to one's father, patron, or social superiors, was a consecrated tradition at Rome.  Maybe Sulla was a sincere oligarch.

Sulla died in 78 B.C.  The next generation, up to 44 B.C., is perhaps the best known and most intensely studied period of Roman Republican history.  For this period, we know the politics, the intrigues, and the personalities extremely well.  Why?  We owe our knowledge to the pen of
Marcus Tullius Cicero, one of the foremost politicians of the time and one of the best writers to ever be a politician.  Cicero has over the centuries exercised immense cultural influence.  This is not the result of his political deeds, but due to his mastery of Latin prose.

Cicero wrote extensively in his lifetime -- letters, both political and personal ones; speeches in the senate and the lawcourts; and philosophical works.  The Romans of his time, who like the Greeks much admired a good public speaker, thought he was the best who ever came down the pike, and preserved his works in great number, including more than seventy books of letters.  Ever since they have been considered the model of how to write Latin well.

But there is more to his influence than that.  Cicero, who had many faults including inconsistency, nevertheless considered himself to be a humane and philosophical politician.  In his various writings, he successfully projected the image of a humane, thoughtful man of action, an image in part true.  In them he has both taught generations of Latin readers the rudiments of Greek philosophy and provided a model of the humanistic man.  Thus, for instance, when Renaissance thinkers were rejecting the monastic ideal, they held up Cicero as their great alternative example.  Speaking
only of England, he influenced the Elizabethans, the Jacobeans, and the writers and politicians of the 18th century.

So Cicero has never lacked students, or people willing to recopy, edit or translate his works for the audience of the day.  Thanks to this fact, we have tons of letters, almost forty books of them.  Cicero was a compulsive writer, who often wrote his closest friend more than once a day, formulating his ideas and setting down his reactions to events as he wrote.  As an ambitious public man, he mainly talked about politics.

Cicero made himself such a great figure to later generations that it is hard to remember that he was considered an upstart in his time.  He was a "new man" from the small Italian city of Arpinum, a "new man" being someone without a "noble" background.  In other words, he had no consuls in
his family tree, nor any senators.  The odds were very much against him making a political career in the big city.  But Cicero was ambitious, and sought to advance himself along a traditional if very difficult route.

Through his eloquence he made himself the best barrister in Rome, and in this way gained a reputation as a man of affairs.  Then he advanced through the ranks of the senate by winning elections.  Having chosen this route, Cicero was of course devoted to the idea of electoral politics, and also to the idea that a good man like himself would win in the end, and join the
best men, the optimates  who ruled the senate and the state.

Thus his letters are full of electoral politics.  Thanks to him and his brother Quintus, we have a real feeling for how the system worked in the 60s, when it still worked:  how the candidate, in his chalked white robe and accompanied by his supporters and clients, would work the constituencies to get the right men to Rome to vote for him or his programs; how the two different assemblies, the centuriate and the tribal, worked; how one influenced urban voters, country voters, and most important, urbanites registered in rural tribes; how one built alliances with aristos, municipal bigwigs, rich equestrians, tribunes, military men, and freedmen who knew how to pull the right strings.  Cicero knew and loved the process.

Yet the brutal truth of Cicero's time -- and Cicero knew it better than most -- is that the electoral system hardly worked, and was progressively breaking down.  Throughout his time violence usually settled  the important political conflicts.  For instance, in the 15 years or so following the death of Sulla (in 78), the more stable part of the period, we have these incidents:

 But most of all, electoral politics were distorted by the efforts of men more adroit than Cataline to imitate the success of Marius, advancing not so much through elections, as by gaining extraordinary military commands, by gaining profitable victories against foreigners, and by gaining the support of their own soldier-clients, all with the aim of making themselves the chief men in the state.  These men have famous names:  Pompey the Great, one of the foremost Roman conquerors; Crassus, perhaps
the richest private citizen Rome ever had; and of course Julius Caesar, a slippery politician, a brilliant general, his own best propagandist, lover of Cleopatra, and, eventually, Rome's first king since Tarquin the Proud.

Here is a sketch out the shape of Roman politics in this crucial generation.  Sulla had concentrated power in the Senate before he died.  Right up to 44 B.C., a small group of immensely influential men of old families attempted to use his constitution, the accumulated prestige of the senate, and their own wealth and far-reaching client networks to run the state.  These were the optimates, the best men in their own view.

Their champion was Cato the Younger, a great-grandson of Cato the Censor.  He was
fairly young, but in his own mind he stood for those ancient republican virtues that his great-grandfather had claimed to champion.  He was also a student of Stoic philosophy, that Greek way of thought that emphasized one's duty to uphold truth and act virtuously.  Cato was perhaps not a very effective politician, all told, but he had a certain clout, even with the lower orders.  This is because, unlike most senators, including his fellow optimates, he was not a crook.  He could make people believe in the moral standards of the good old days, and sometimes influence their political
behavior in that direction.

Cicero, too, was sometimes affiliated with the optimates.  Remember that he believed in the traditional system with all the fervor of a talented man who wanted to join the best in running the

The optimates  feared and fought people who were called  populares.   The  populares  are sometimes described as the leaders of the "popular party," a group opposed to the aristocrats.  This is not quite correct.  There was no unified popular party, and  populares  fought each other as much as they did the optimatesPopulares  were all aristocrats themselves; but they were aristocrats who were out, who did not belong to the very small inner circle in the senate.  They were men of great ambition who were not willing, like Cicero, to take the traditional route, to suck up to the optimates.

Instead they sought power by appealing to the assemblies, to the chronic resentment of lesser men (many of whom were rich and influential in their own cities) for the exclusiveness of the optimates.  By appealing to this resentment, a  popularis  could, despite the opposition of the nobles, gain
not only office, but those extraordinary commands abroad that would give them access to loot, armies, and the prestige of conquest.   Populares were men in a hurry, jealous of each other, who wanted not just success, but astounding success, and as quickly as possible.

The first of the post-Sullan generalissimos was Pompey.  He was a former follower of Sulla, and began his independent career as a champion of  Sulla's conservative constitution.  He soon showed himself to be a very good general.  In the 70s, he beat Sertorius the Spanish rebel, Lepidus the
revolutionary consul, and Spartacus's slave army.  Pompey was even better at claiming credit for victories than winning them.  It was Crassus who won the main victory against Spartacus; Pompey just cleaned up the remnants of the revolt.  Nevertheless, Pompey got equal billing at the triumph.

A master of image politics, Pompey was called the Great in his lifetime and constantly compared to Alexander.  In the 60s, Pompey parlayed his prestige into an extraordinary campaign in Asia, where he added huge territories to the Roman state, including, as an afterthought, Palestine.  Pompey claimed to have increased the provincial revenues of Rome by 70% in one campaign, and was able to give his soldiers a bonus equivalent to 12 1/2 years pay  {C & M, 68}.  Pompey set up a bunch of client kings in places not worth conquering, and was effectively the overlord of the Eastern Mediterranean.

In 62, he returned to Italy, fully expecting to be treated as the dominant figure in Roman politics.  Here Pompey showed himself more moderate than either Sulla before or Caesar afterwards.  He sought no special office, enacted no new constitution.  But he got no reward, instead met opposition everywhere.  The optimates especially were worried by him and fought his influence.  Pompey, stung by rejection, became more of a  popularis as time went on.  In particular, he was forced to combine
with his rivals, Crassus and Caesar.

In 60 B.C., Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar formed a political alliance later called the First Triumvirate.  The purpose of the alliance was to pool their influence to control the next set of elections.  Caesar was to be elected consul; after his year in office, he and the other two would
each get extraordinary commands for five years.  Caesar was allotted Gaul and Illyricum; Pompey Spain; and Crassus the East, where he could fight the Parthians, who now controlled Iran and Mesopotamia.

They were not overreaching themselves.  Together they overpowered all other political forces, made Caesar consul, and got their commands.  It was a scary time for those not allied with the Triumvirs.  The atmosphere can be guessed at from a statement that Caesar made in the Senate:  He had, he said, reached his goal against the opposition and groans of his adversaries, and from it he would leap down on their heads {Taylor, 135}.

The success of the Triumvirs put the  optimates  and constitutional government itself under serious pressure.  But the Three were not in complete control.  The  optimates  still had much influence, and there were others looking for their main chance.  The 50s B.C. saw near-chaos in Rome as the ambitious used any tool available to gain a share of power.  The streets of Rome and especially the Forum during election time were terrorized by gangs of thugs.

The most famous gangs were led by two aristocrats, one named Milo, the other Clodius, one an ally of the Triumvirs, the other an opponent.  In 52, both men ran for office, determined to keep the other out.  One day they met in the street, each surrounded by their gangs, and fought it out.  Clodius was killed, and his body taken to the Forum, where his followers displayed his martyr's wounds.  Then they put his body in the Senate House and burned it as his funeral pyre.

The thing that threatened stability most was the fact that the Triumvirs were rivals as well as allies.  Their alliance actually lasted better than might be expected, but it did come apart.  In 53, Crassus was killed fighting the Parthians in an attempt to match Pompey's eastern success.
Afterwards, the optimates did their best to sow suspicion of Caesar in Pompey's mind.  Caesar had done amazing things with his Gallic command -- seizing a pretext for war, he conquered all of central and northern Gaul.  If we can believe his own claims, he also invaded Britain twice.  He was
now immensely rich and a famous hero.

Caesar's exploits in Gaul and Britain were written up in his  Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, where they can still be read.  Caesar's  Commentaries  are one of the most impressive accounts of the Roman army on campaign.  They show the systematic methods and discipline that allowed the Romans to conquer a huge empire.  But we must remember that the  Commentaries  were issued as propaganda, an understated and purposefully impersonal account to make Caesar look good
but unthreatening to the constitution.

Pompey, always inclined to jealousy, eventually turned against Caesar, and put pressure on him to lay down his command and return to Rome.  Caesar, who knew he would be charged with some crime as soon as he gave up his official immunity -- since that was the best way to harass a political enemy --  refused to do so.  On January 7 of 49 B.C., Caesar took his army across the Rubicon river, the official boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy, thus breaking the law and setting off what is usually known as  the  Roman Civil War.

The events of the Roman Civil War are very complicated.  Suffice it to say that Caesar outfought his enemies, which was an alliance between the  optimates  and Pompey at every turn.  Caesar crossed and recrossed the Mediterranean world with what looks like dazzling speed, considering the technology available.  Between 49 and 45, he invaded Italy, Spain twice, Greece, Syria, and Africa, destroying Roman and foreign armies both.  And he still found time to intervene in an Egyptian dynastic conflict, and put the famous Cleopatra on the Egyptian throne.  He spent the winter of 47
B.C. with her, thus launching the Cleopatra legend.

By 45, Pompey was dead, as was Cato.  Pompey's sons, who had had armies in Spain, were in flight.  The king of Pontus had been defeated and part of North Africa annexed to the empire.  Caesar was unchallenged, absolute ruler of Rome.

Unlike Pompey, Caesar made no bones about rearranging the constitution to his liking.  From the beginning of the war, Caesar had held Rome and had himself elected both consul and dictator, offices that were really mutually exclusive.  In 46, he was elected dictator for ten years.

Caesar had little respect for tradition as such, and made other changes as it suited him.  For instance, he considered himself a champion of the provincials against undue metropolitan exploitation.  As ruler he changed the methods of taxation so that the extortion of the past would be brought under
control.  He created many new citizens.  In fact the people of Cisalpine Gaul, northern Italy in our terms, were given a mass grant of citizenship -- a deed that increased his following of clients immensely.  Caesar likewise made citizens of many leading men in the older, more Romanized
provinces; there were good policy reasons for doing this, but it aided Caesar personally.

Caesar did not forget his soldiers, to whom he owed everything.  He gave them much land -- a good number of colonies were set up.  There are two interesting things about these colonies.  They were not planted in Italy.  To do this would mean massive confiscations, and create a new generation of enemies.  Advertising his mercy to his enemies lives and property, Caesar put the colonies overseas, which increased the Roman presence in some provinces dramatically.  Roman Carthage was one of his foundations.  The second interesting thing is that Caesar arranged his colonies so that they would be useful to him in the future.  Military units were kept together, and the magistrates of the new cities were the officers of the old formations.  This would make it easy for Caesar to call them up
in any future trouble.

Caesar was obviously a tireless man.  Reforming the entire calendar, setting up the system that we basically use today, was all in a day's work to him.  It should be noted that besides regularizing the
calendar, he renamed the month of his birth, Quintilis, after himself:  Julius, or July.

Caesar made his friends very happy, and did his best to avoid provoking his enemies in any cruel way.  But he constantly aggravated the political class at Rome, because he could not fake respect for the constitution, which had ceased to work in any meaningful fashion well before the Civil War broke out.

Indeed, after a while he began acting the role of king in all but name.  Like a Hellenistic king he had a temple to himself set up, something that was against all Roman religious traditions.  He issued decrees in the name of the Senate without saying anything to the Senate in advance.  He completely controlled who held office, even flaunting his power.  On the last day of 45 B.C., one of the two consuls
died.  Caesar insisted on replacing him with a man who would have the name of consul for the last few hours of the year.  He called together the assembly and his man was elected.  Cicero, describing this to a friend, said, "This may seem amusing to you.  You weren't here.  If you had seen it
you couldn't have kept back the tears"  {Taylor, 173}.
     Caesar, in fact, more and more insisted on acting as a superior person, a super-patron, to whom all men, even the greatest senators, were to be bound.  No more were there going to be parties and factions and alliances in the state, save only the party of Caesar.  Indeed, he planned in his last months to have all citizens swear loyalty to him.

In the last year of his life, Caesar was offered a crown by his ally, the consul Marc Antony.  He refused it.  But what he did not refuse was the equivalent title of dictator for life.  When the senators brought him a copy of the decree giving him this newfangled title, he received them sitting in a golden chair in front of the temple of Venus, his supposed ancestor, which he had recently built.  He failed to rise to thank the fathers of the state.  To a Roman, no more powerful symbol of his patronal
power could be imagined.  Some ancient writers say this was the incident that convinced some senators to kill Caesar {Taylor, 175}.

The deed was done by a fairly large conspiracy that gathered around Cassius and his brother-in-law, Marcus Brutus.  Brutus was no great figure himself, but he had a great name and family.  He was Cato's nephew and had recently married Cato's daughter, thus being connected by blood to the
great hero of ancient republican and optimate virtue.  He also was a descendant of the most famous of tyrant-fighter, the Brutus who had expelled the last king of Rome.  In the early months of 44 B.C., these men gathered together a number of like-minded senators.  On the ides of March, March 15, 44, these men attacked Caesar at a Senate meeting in the Theater building build by Pompey, in front of the statue of Pompey.  The famous phrase that Caesar uttered as he fell was "Et tu, Brute;" "You, too, Brutus?"  Caesar had forgiven Brutus his earlier opposition, Brutus had like other senators already sworn loyalty to Caesar.  Caesar died thinking about this ingratitude.

The assassins issued out of the building waving their bloody daggers and shouting "Liberty."  Had they restored liberty?  The short answer is no.  For the long answer, come back next time.

Lily Ross Taylor,  Party Politics in the Age of Caesar.

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.