The last half of the 1st century B.C would be marked by generals forging unofficial alliances to govern Roman territory. Ultimately, they would succumb to jealousy and ambition and fight among themselves, this led to one-man rule and the naming of an Emperor.
After half a century of general after general seizing control, Pompey, Crassus (the richest man in Rome) and Julius Caesar agreed to rule together without official backing of the senate. They divided Roman territory between them, each managing his own part, working together to undermine the senate.
Caesar was made governor of southern Gaul and quickly conquered the rest – his loyal armies (four legions) became his source of power. He continued his conquests invading Britain, but while he was away, Crassus died in battle against the Parthians. Now it was every man for himself. Pompey was named consul back in Rome and became rival and enemy to Caesar in his absence. He persuaded the senate to try to strip Caesar of his command and recall him to Rome to be prosecuted for bribery, corruption and illegal warmongering.
Crossing the Rubicon
If Caesar returned to Rome without an army, he would be stripped of his rank and prosecuted; the only other option was to march on Rome possibly causing another Civil war. Caesar crossed the Rubicon with the 13th Legion, effectively marching on Rome as an aggressor; famously saying ‘the die is cast’, meaning what’s done is done. Pompey fled the city and by 48 BC Caesar was in total command, elected consul and Dictator (emergency leader in times of war).
Caesar followed Pompey to Egypt only to find out he had already been assassinated by agents of the Pharaoh Ptolemy (who was trying to curry favour with Caesar by killing his enemy). At this time Egypt was in the midst of its own Civil War between the Pharaoh and his sister / wife Cleopatra. Caesar took Cleopatra’s side and promptly bedded her resulting in a son Caesarion who would be an heir to the throne of Egypt.
By 45 BCE Caesar was the undisputed master of Rome and he pursued reforms that strengthened his own power; giving land to his retiring soldiers, and restructuring debts owed to Rome. He also began to rebuild the city into one worthy of its fame, he also changed the calendar (including a month named after himself – July). But by 44 B.C. many senators had decided that Caesar controlled too much of the power in Rome, as well as his links with Egypt – this was just too much, so they stabbed him 23 times as he came to vote at the senate. Beware the Ides of March!
The Second Triumvirate
The conspirators who had been friends and colleagues of Caesar thought his death would bring about the restoration of the Roman Republic, but they were wrong. Caesar’s reforms were really popular with the Roman people who were quick to hail his adopted son Octavian, his second-in-command Mark Antony and Lepidus as a second triumvirate. Mark Anthony was concerned with punishing Caesar’s assassins and Octavian was keen to gain experience and renown on campaign; Lepidus was the moderate one who spent his time mostly in Rome.
This triumvirate was an absolute failure, degenerating into a second Civil War despite intermarriages between them to strengthen the alliance. Anthony’s long-term love affair with Cleopatra caused friction in Rome as well as a fear that together they would be invincible.
In the end it came down to the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. between Octavian and Antony (with Cleopatra), Lepidus had already been side-lined sometime earlier. Anthony’s troops were defeated and he fled, famously killing himself and dying alone; Cleopatra took her own life shortly after.
AUGUSTUS – THE FIRST EMPEROR
Octavian annexed Egypt and returned to Rome in victory. He changed his name to Caesar Augustus, became sole ruler of Rome, adopted the title Emperor and started printing coins identifying himself as Divini Filius the Son of God. Although Augustus tried to pretend that the forms of the Roman Empire were still intact. The truth was that he made the laws and the senate had become nothing more than a rubber stamp.
With Augustus one-man rule had been reinstated, he was careful to appear to give control back to the Senate but essentially held sole control. Augustus was now Imperator (he who commands) of what would henceforth be known as an empire, although it was effectively an empire the minute the Romans conquered territory outside of the Italian peninsula.
Augustus restored peace to Rome and her territory after almost a century of discord created by the decay of the republic and the in-fighting between generals. His 56-year reign began a period of prosperity and peace, known as the pax Romana. Architecture, art, literature and religion flourished under Augustus and his following grew so strong that, when he died, he was elevated to the status of god by the Senate.
THE ROMAN EMPERORS
The Julio-Claudian dynasty (Augustus’ bloodline) apart from Augustus and Claudius have been dubbed bad emperors, many of whom were famously unstable. Nero committed suicide after a reign that wreaked havoc on the citizens as well as Rome’s treasury. Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian (Flavian Dynasty) – brought back a sense of calm to Rome and its citizens by restoring authority to the Senate and promoting public welfare. Vespasian filled the coffers with taxes and built the Colosseum. Titus gained victory in the Jewish Wars subduing Judaea and handled the recovery effort following the devastating eruption of Vesuvius. Domitian, was a good administrator and reformed the management of the empire, although he would ultimately be seen as a bad emperor after taking the Palatine hill for himself making many of the noble families of Rome homeless.
The Golden Age of Rome came with the Antonine Dynasty which began after Nerva (96-98 AD). The emperor Trajan was responsible for expanding Rome’s borders to their greatest extent by including Dacia (Romania) and Parthia (Armenia and Iran). Hadrian (117-138 AD) continued to establish Rome’s internal stability and administration and sponsored an enormous building programme which included the Pantheon, the temple of Venus and Roma and his villa in Tivoli. He solidified the frontiers of the empire with troops and in England he constructed a wall. The peace and prosperity of Rome continued into the reign of Antoninus Pius who was an accomplished administrator, he passed a number of laws regarding slaves and built another wall in Scotland.