For the moment Caesar’s fall produced sheer paralysis. The conspirators imagined that they were going to restore the senatorial republic mid general acclamation. The enemy they had most to fear was Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony, ca. 83-30 BC), consul designate and a favourite lieutenant of the murdered dictator, a man of brilliant, though erratic ability, boundless ambition and a whole-hearted devotion to his dead chief.
There would almost certainly be a duel between the conspirators and Antony. Neither side took much notice of a youngster of eighteen years away in Macedon, whom the childless Caesar had adopted, his great-nephew Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.
The conflict did not begin at once, for at first there was hollow reconciliation. Antony however secured Caesar’s papers and secured from the senate the ratification of Caesar’s acts and a public funeral – at which Antony’s speech and the reading of Caesar’s will produced a violent popular outcry of revulsion against the self-styled ‘liberators’.
Under the threat of being lynched by the angry mob, the conspirators hastily left Rome, leaving Antony master of the situation.
The ablest soldier of the conspirators Decimus Brutus (not to be mistaken for the famous Marcus Junius Brutus !), took possession of Cisalpine Gaul.
the military situation was extremely uncertain, which is well reflected in the fact that the two parties were still corresponding with each other at that time.
The young Octavian suddenly appeared on the scene, announcing himself the heir to Caesar’s will, ready to make terms with either party – but only his own terms.
Antony feared a rival, the conspirators saw a remorseless enemy.
The Italian legions seemed likely to transfer their allegiance to the one they saw as Caesar’s son, Octavian.
Decimus Brutus was in Possession of Cisalpine Gaul, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (d 13BC), Caesar’s former chief assistant, was in control of the old Transalpine Province. Caesar himself in his will (of course not knowing of his future assassination) had granted Macedon and Syria to his chief murderers Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius, both of whom left Italy to raise troops for the coming contest.
A time of chaos followed in which Antony besieged Decimus Brutus, suffered defeat, was declared a public enemy after a series of brilliant speeches against him by Cicero, Octavian joined the new consuls Hirtius and Pansa who were soon killed in fighting Antony’s troops, Antony then allied with Lepidus and then jointly came to terms with Octavian.
Octavian with his legions then simply marched on Rome and at the age of twenty claimed the consulship for himself, no one daring to deny him. Then he trial Caesar’s assassins tried and, of course, condemned to death.
At last the governor’s of Spain and Gaul, so far prudently neutral declared their support. Antony, Lepidus and Octavian then met up at Bononia (Bologna) and constituted themselves (officially by decree of a powerless senate) Triumvirs, joint rulers of the Republic.
A part of this joint programme was, as with Sulla, a merciless proscription, Cicero being the most distinguished of their victims. Then the Triumvirs went about appointing their shares of the empire, with little regard for Lepidus.
Climactic End of the Roman Republic
Antonius versus Octavian
No heavy engagement took place before the two battles on the plain of Philippi in Macedonia, fought with an interval of three weeks in the late autumn of 42 BC. The first battle actually went to Marcus Brutus, although Cassius mistakenly believing the day lost, ordered his slave to kill him. In the second battle however Brutus was defeated, his army refused another fight the next day, and so he was killed by the reluctant hand of a friend.
The victors, Antony and Octavian parted the empire between them, Lepidus having fallen by the side. In effect, Antony took the east, Octavian the west. However, they found an unexpected rival in Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey the Great and having held a command in the Decimus Brutus’ fleet having achieved naval supremacy across the Mediterranean. For ten years there was no open collision between Antony and Octavian, but there was much friction and actual war was overted several times only with great difficulty.
The root of the matter was, both were ambitious, but so too did the division of the empire prove that it required sole rule. For Rome, with its institutions of power lay in the west, whilst to the east lay the wealthiest regions of the empire. Octavian had naturally moved to Rome, Antony had set up camp in Egypt where he lived with Cleopatra. Antony struggled in the east, Labienus one of his Roman officers joining with Pacorus, King of Parthia and invading Syria. Weakened like this, he only overted war with Octavian by marrying Octavian’s sister Octavia, much to the dissatisfaction of Cleopatra. Meanwhile Sextus Pompeius used his fleet to blockade Italy, finally forcing the triumvirs to admit him to partnership, receiving in his share Sardinia, Sicily and Achaea.
Ventidius Bassus, commanding troops for Antony, in 39 BC routed the Parthians and drove them over the Euphrates, then repeated his success in 38 BC against King Pacorus himself, who fell in battle.
Octavian prepared for a struggle with with Sextus Pompeius and Antony, tired of his wife Octavia, returned to his Egyptian mistress Cleopatra. In 36 BC Antony flung himself into a new Parthian campaign but only narrowly escaped complete destruction by a hasty retreat. Back in Italy Antony’s brother Lucius; now consul tried to overthrow Octavian by armed force, but Octavian’s right-hand man Agrippa (63 BC-12 AD) compelled him in 40 BC to retire from Italy.
This was the occasion of the breach of the triumvirs, ended by the pact of Brundisium in 36 BC. Octavian still desperate to reorganize the west found Sextus Pompeius, still master of the seas, a growing embarrassment. Though the first attempts to challenge his power failed completely.
The invaluable Agrippa again came to the rescue. Only in 36 BC, having organized and trained new fleets, was his naval campaign begun. Sextus, defeated by Agrippa, then victorious over Octavian, was alas crushed by Agrippa at Naulochus, and having fled into the hands of Antony, was put to death.
Now Lepidus, the initial third triumvir, returned to the scene trying to reassert himself. But he quickly submitted as his troops deserted to Octavian and was relegated into dignified obscurity as pontifex maximus.
Finally things came to a climax when Antony in 32 BC openly repudiated his marriage to Octavia. Octavian’s time had come. Rome declared war on Egypt. Antony set out for Greece, designing on invading Italy. This was made impossible by Agrippa’s fleet. Octavian landed in Epirus, but wisely held back as he knew himself no match for Antony as a general. Though the winter both sides played a waiting game, which all worked to the favour of Octavian for Antony could trust none of his men.
In 31 Antony finally decided to abandon his army and retreat with his fleet. He embarked with Cleopatra at the end of August, but it was overtaken by Agrippa and forced to engage off Actium on September 2. Agrippa’s skill was the greater, yet Antony’s fleet was much the heavier. The battle hung in doubt, until Cleopatra with sixty ships broke away in full flight. Antony deserted the battle and followed his mistress. The rest of the fleet fought on desperately, until it was totally destroyed or captured. The deserted army naturally went over to Octavian. The battle of Actium was decisive.
Antony was beaten though not yet dead. In July of 30 BC a well prepared Octavian appeared before Pelusium with his fleet. Hearing a false rumour that Cleopatra was dead, Antony committed suicide. Hearing of her lover’s death and that Octavian intended to parade the defeated queen through the streets of Rome, she too killed herself.
Alas Octavian stood alone and unrivalled, undisputed and indisputable rival of the civilized world.
Octavian sole ruler of Rome
He remained in the east for nearly a year before returning to Rome in triumph. He signalized the restoration of peace long unknown throughout the empire by closing the temple of Janus.
In 28 BC Octavian’s role as pacificator was further emphasized by his reversal of the illegalities for he and his colleagues had been responsible during the long period of arbitrary authority. He also revised the senatorial list, restoring some of the dignity of that body.
Then in a remarkable demonstration that the public good, not his own ambition were his motivation, Octavian in 27 BC laid down his extraordinary powers. Though there was no question of him retiring. Naturally he resigned his powers only that he might resume them in slightly different guise in constitutional form.
The titles conferred on him were such to concentrate attention on his dignity, not his power; on the reverence he commanded from a ‘grateful world’.
The Republic was finally dissolved, The imperator was proclaimed pater patriae, father of his country, princeps, first citizen, Caesar Augustus, – almost, but not as yet, divine.
Henceforth he was known no longer as Octavian, but as Augustus.