Roman Republic - The First Triumvirate

The first triumvirate was formed in 59BC by three prestigious politicians: Pompey, Caesar and Crassus. The triumvirate was neither an instrument of government nor a homogenous unit working toward the same ends. The pact was initially a short term one, made to fulfill a set number of aims for each triumvir. Therefore, the triumvirate deserves little of its reputation as a ‘three-headed monster’ or as a pact for securing the overthrowal and long term domination of the republican system. It is difficult to see therefore, how this initially private pact precipitated the civil war of 49BC and it is perhaps due to other circumstances that this came about. The triumvirate was not in constant existence during the 50s but was renewed at Lucca in 56BC for reasons similar to those which helped form it three years earlier. It is therefore important to determine the aims and ambitions of the triumvirs and the circumstances that forced the pact into existence.

Pompey was by far the most senior member of the triumvirate and his reputation, particularly in the military field was well established. He had defeated the pirates in just three months in 67BC and then went on to defeat Mithradates between 66 and 63BC. He thus, had built up an enormous amount of prestige, clientage and wealth. However as Syme says, ‘He was Princeps beyond dispute, but not at Rome’. Therefore, despite his immense popularity among the equestrians and the ordinary people, who viewed him as a ‘saviour’, amongst the Senate, where the power of the republic lay, he was regarded with suspicion. He returned from the East in 62BC with two objectives; firstly to get his veterans settled and secondly to get his Eastern settlement ratified. These two objectives were essential as he needed to satisfy his army and his Eastern client-kings in order to maintain his clientage. The Senate blocked him on both of these points, drawing out the process by examining both issues in detail. By 60BC he had given up hope on these two issues and thus was open to Caesar’s proposal of forming a triumvirate. He was perhaps aware that ‘a man like Caesar was a dangerous tool, especially as consul’, however he was forced to rely on him. Seager believes that after Caesar had granted these two wishes, Pompey had no more practical ambitions.

It is important to determine whether this statement is true or not, as they reveal Pompey’s motives. Was Pompey trying to dominate Rome long term, and was he using the triumvirate as a method of doing so? It does not seem likely that he was, as after he had secured these two aims the triumvirate really ceased to exist and was not renewed until 56BC at Lucca. In 62Bc many optimates feared that Pompey would return from the East with his armies and use them to march on Rome; that fact that he did not do this suggests both that domination of the republic was not his aim and that perhaps he was arrogant enough to believe that he did not have to use his armies to become the leading citizen of Rome. Shotter suggests that Pompey wanted to be regarded as the ‘saviour’ of the Republic, i..e someone who was called upon when the Republic was under threat and he flattered himself that he could get this by his auctoritas alone. When he realised that this was not the case he then began to see the benefits of the triumvirate. This perhaps explains why he was upset at Cicero’s suppression of Cataline, surely had the situation degenerated further it might have lead for calls for him to return at the head of an army and defeat him for the good of the republic. Similarly in 52BC when Rome was suffering from an urgent shortage of corn (largely because of Clodius’ corn dole legislation), he was perhaps flattered by the calls for him to be granted a dictatorship and to be given extended controls over the army and navy to deal with it. He perhaps even initiated calls for this. However, he realised that he needed to maintain the support of the optimates and thus he refused the dictatorship and the special armed forces command and instead became sole consul in 51BC . This vain attempt to keep on the good side of everybody can also be seen during the Vestal Virgin scandal, during which Pompey ‘trod warily, and pleased nobody’, reluctant to alienate either side.

The renewal of the triumvirate at Lucca in 56BC was probably due to the fact that Pompey had begun to realise that advantages of it. In 59BC, with Caesar passing his legislation, Crassus providing financial support and him being practically at the height of his military prestige he had been the leading force in the republic. As his military glories became more distant and as Caesar’s activities in Gaul and his excursions to Britain began to win him popularity in Rome, Pompey saw the need to demonstrate to Caesar that he still needed him and that he was still the superior triumvir. He did this largely by threatening to join the optimates and by offering support for Cicero’s call for Caesar to be recalled and stand charge for his illegal Campanian land legislation. Although it appeared as if all three emerged from Lucca with provinces of equal weight and importance, the fact that Pompey ruled his through legates and remained at Rome meant that he had the upper hand. He was in a position where ‘in effect all of the triumviral armies and resources were being used to support’ him.

During the late 50s the Republic suffered greatly from electoral corruption and Pompey and Crassus as consuls for 55BC stepped into to deal with this. This was also the theme of Pompey’s legislation of 51BC in which he undertook legislation that attacked Caesar’s position. The Law of the Ten Tribunes was passed to grant Caesar special dispensation from this legislation, thus showing how Pompey was not trying to mount a serious challenge to Caesar. However the lex Pompeis de provincis really drove a wedge between the two leading triumvirs. This stated that there should be a five year gap between holding a consulship and a pro-consulship. This was directed at the Equestrian financiers who funded the election campaigns of Roman politicians in the hope that when they received their pro-consulship they would repay the loan, with interest. Nevertheless, this law attacked Caesar’s career and although Pompey, in conciliatory mood offered a later date for the resignation of his consulship, i.e November 13th, this still left a two month gap in which Caesar, as a private citizen could be attacked. At this stage Pompey decided that his future lay with the optimates, and instead of continuing to try and persuade Caesar that he was subordinate to him he left for Pharsalus in the hope that Caesar would march on Rome and that he once again could step in and be the saviour of the republic.

Caesar was by far the junior partner of the triumvirate. He was in quite a weak position in 60BC, being in debt and not having had the chance to establish his military reputation. He thus needed the triumvirate; and he persuaded Crassus and Pompey to sink their differences for the greater good that they would get from the triumvirate. For him the triumvirate secured a consulship and pro-consulship to the promising province of Gaul. This would enable him to satisfy both of his ends with this one move. The fact that this was important to him is illustrated by an occurrence in 62BC when, on returning from his pro-praetorship of Spain he gave up the opportunity to mount a triumph and instead chose to return and stand for the consulship of 59BC when the senate made him choose between the two. When elected as consul in 59BC he ‘rode roughshod’ over the constitution, and many historians have seen this as a sign that he did not care about the republic and was in fact seeking to overthrow it. However he did try to compromise with the optimates at first, by proposing very reasonable and modest legislation. Nevertheless, as the Senate continued to oppose him he was forced to take the route of Tiberius Gracchus and to take his legislation to the popular assemblies. He needed to satisfy the aims of the other two triumvirs and the optimates were shortsighted in trying to prevent this. They elected Bibulus as his consular colleague just to try and obstruct him and thus he was forced to act illegally. This made his position more difficult later on as he was unable to spend any time as a private citizen in Rome. He was thus forced to adopt more radical techniques. However it is not possible to see him entirely as a defender of the Republic, after all it was he who said, ‘the republic is merely a name without form or substance’ and that Sulla was a fool to resign the dictatorship when he did. Nevertheless, the blame of the civil war can not be entirely laid at his feet. He tried to keep on good terms with Pompey, arranging a marriage alliance with his daughter Julia and offering a replacement when she died in 54BC. He was eventually forced into a corner by Pompey and the optimates and it could even be said that he fought in the civil war for two very Roman concepts, for the traditional rights of the tribunes, which had been undermined by the senate, and principally for his own dignitas. While it is true enough that when he had defeated the optimates he became a dictator, his actions before 49BC can not be seen as having precipitated the civil war on their own.

Crassus was by far the most insignificant of the triumvirs, he possessed a great deal of wealth but he had no military reputation or political auctoritas. His clientage consisted mainly of the equestrian class, a very insecure form of clientage, particularly when generals like Pompey could open up new territories for them to exploit, e.g. Asia Minor. Therefore Crassus was continually on his guard to do what he could for them. In the late 60s and early 50s the Equestrians were fighting to get their bid to collect taxes in Asia Minor reduced by a third, after they had found that they had overestimated it significantly. Therefore, Crassus saw the opportunity of joining the triumvirate as a way of securing this. Nevertheless once he had secured these goals, for him the triumviral arrangement had come to an end and he resumed his attempts to discredit Pompey. He was perhaps the ‘sinister and more senior hand behind’ Clodius’ attempts to intimidate Pompey by physical force. This would appear to be the case because Crassus had bribed the jury that tried Clodius in the Vestal Virgins case. Crassus had little real ability of succeeding against Pompey and Caesar and despite winning a chance to prove his military worth with the granting of a pro-consulship for him in Syria, at Lucca in 56BC he was no match for the Parthians. His death combined with the death of Julia a year earlier helped to unstick the glue that held Pompey and Caesar together and after 53BC the situation became more frought.

Therefore the outbreak of civil war can not be entirely put down to the formation of the triumvirate in 59BC and the aims of its members that it represented. Other events forced the hands of the two leading triumvirs. The triumvirate faced much opposition throughout its existence, particularly from Cicero and Clodius. However, it was the intransigence of the optimates that posed the real threat. Their continuos opposition to Caesar’s consulship of 59BC forced him to take extreme measures to protect himself. They resisted Pompey and Caesar because they were ‘too stubborn to admit a master, even on their own terms’ i.e. they did not want to risk having their own libertas reduced. They therefore decided that the best course of action was to use Pompey to destroy Caesar and then to withdraw their support from him. This was the motive behind the passing of the senatus consultum ultimatum of 49BC which finally forced Caesar’s hand. They defended their actions by claiming that they were trying to save the republic, however, they did not act out of any altruistic concern, they were ‘mostly bigots who looked no further than restoring the republic for the pursuance of their ancestral ambitions and dividing between them the spoils’ of war.

Therefore it was largely the influence of the optimates that lead to the outbreak of civil war in 49BC, nevertheless, the war probably would have broken out anyway at some time, as both leading triumvirs were powerful and ambition. The fact that Pompey was continuously trying to dominate Caesar and the instability of Caesar’s own position meant that the situation was bound to degenerate into some kind of civil war. It was therefore a combination of the formation of the triumvirate and the overwhelming opposition that they faced, that lead to the events of 49BC. They were both, ultimately using each other to secure for themselves primacy within the populares faction and thus it was as inevitable any historical event can be, that they would eventually come to blows over the issue.


Suzanne Francis
1997

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