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The fall of the Roman Republic 78 - 31 BC

The First Triumvirate

Principal focus
The First Triumvirate
The position of the Senate in 60 BC
Breakdown of the alliance
Looking further
This tutorial was written by
Elizabeth Kidd
Education consultant, Newcastle


H 1.1 describe and assess the significance of key people, groups, events, institutions, societies and sites within the historical context
H 2.1 explain historical factors and assess their significance in contributing to change and continuity in the ancient world
H 4.1 use historical terms and concepts appropriately
H 3.4 explain and evaluate differing perspectives and interpretations of the past
H 3.3 analyse and evaluate sources for their usefulness and reliability

Principal focus

Through an investigation of the archaeological and written sources for the fall of the Republic 78 – 31 BC, students learn about significant developments, forces and relevant historiographical issues that shaped the historical period.

Students learn about:

Political developments in the late Republic

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The First Triumvirate in this period

The First Triumvirate was formed in 60 BC by Pompey, Caesar and Crassus. It was a political coalition but a secret arrangement between three men who were never officially recognized as triumvirs. It was cemented by political marriages (Pompey married Caesar’s daughter Julia). It was to operate for five years and all three participants would gain from the coalition. The First Triumvirate was opposed by the Senate under the leadership of Cato [1]. It was not an easy coalition but rather, one which suffered many hiccups resulting in a renewal of the agreement at Luca in 56 BC. However, with the death of Julia in 54 BC and Crassus in 53 BC, the agreement began to falter. The First Triumvirate ended in 53 BC, resulting in civil war between Pompey and Caesar.

The Position of the Senate in 60 BC

The Senate in 60 BC was the most important governing body in Rome (see H.S.C. Online, Political Revolution in Rome 133 - 78 BC). It had lost some power under the Gracchi [2] brothers in 133 BC and 123/2 BC and Marius [3] in 100 BC, but much of its power had been re-instated in 82 - 80 BC by Sulla [4].

Marius and Sulla had shown that one man could use his army to rise to power. The Senate became afraid of this happening again in the future especially if that man opposed the Senate.

At this time there were two groups within the Senate; the Optimates (the old established order which wanted the Senate to govern) and the Populares (which was led by what the people wanted – i.e. popular opinion).

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Gnaeus Pompeius

In 60 BC Pompey was squabbling with the senate. He was 46 years old, of an equestrian [5] background and was extremely ambitious with a very good reputation as both a general and politician. In 62 BC, as general, he had returned from fighting King Mithridates in the East. Not only had he returned as a very wealthy man but he had eight legions which were devoted to him. He was the most powerful man in Rome. Due to his immense popularity with the Roman people, he was regarded with suspicion by the Optimates. The Senate subsequently refused not only to ratify his Eastern Settlements, nor grant land to his veteran soldiers, they also would not give Pompey any more commands.

Cato, a conservative member of the nobility and the leader of the Optimates faction in the Senate, encouraged this situation for the next two years. At this time, the Senate, decided to foster as general, an up and coming young patrician [6], Caesar, so that Pompey would not have as much power. Pompey was not the only general who had grievances against the Senate. Caesar, as well as one of the Optimates, Crassus, was in the same position. Cameron [7] claims It was politically expedient... for Pompey to enter into an alliance with Caesar and Crassus, who both had grievances against the Senate. (p. 51)

To view an image of Pompey click here (external website).

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Gaius Julius Caesar, like Pompey, was squabbling with the Senate in 60 BC. He was 40 years old. His parents were from two very important noble Roman families. As governor of Further Spain in 61 BC, he had gained several military victories and had accumulated enough money to get out of the massive debts he had incurred so far in his political career. Before arriving back in Rome in 60 BC, he asked the Senate to grant him a triumph [8] to celebrate his successes. Caesar also desperately wanted the consulship [9] of 59 BC. However, in order to be able to stand for election, he had to stand as a civilian. This meant that he could not enter Rome with an army that he would have to do if he were to celebrate his triumph. Because of the timing of the elections he did not have time to do both and he therefore asked the Senate to he able to stand for the consulship in absentia [10]. The Senate refused to agree to this and he was forced to give up the idea of having a triumph.

Caesar, like Pompey, was very popular with the Roman people. In 63 B he had been elected as pontifex maximus [11] that gave his great prestige in Rome.

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Marcus Licinius Crassus was also squabbling with the Senate in 60 BC. He was 55 years old. He was an extremely wealthy banker from an old Roman noble family. His wealth had been accumulated during his political career. It came from a number of sources. He had been able to buy many properties during the proscriptions [12] in the time of Sulla, he owned many silver mines, lent money to aspiring politicians, and was involved in many commercial undertakings including tax collection. He was therefore very popular with the business community in Rome that mainly involved the equites.

He had always seen Pompey as a rival and was afraid of his popularity amongst the Roman people. In 65 BC he had become censor [13]. At this time Crassus apparently financially assisted Caesar to become aedile. As censor Crassus wanted to grant citizenship to the people of the Transpadanes who lived in the area between the Po River and the Alps. Crassus would have wanted this so that he could add the people of the Traspadanes to his clientele [14], and thus gain their support. Pompey also had interests in this area and Crassus saw this as a way of getting at Pompey. His fellow censor, Catulus, opposed this proposal.

Crassus also wanted the annexation of Egypt that was the main supplier of grain to Rome. This would mean an increase in trade and thus an increase in wealth for the equites and Crassus. Once again Catulus opposed this proposal. Crassus also wanted compensation to be paid to the equites who had lost investments in tax collection in the East during the Mithridatic War.

Plutarch [15] claims that Crassus was important to Pompey and Caesar because in the Senate Crassus was the more influential of the two, but Pompey had great power with the people. (Pompey 22)


1. What was the First Triumvirate?

2. How powerful was the Senate in 60 BC?

3. Why did Pompey want to make an agreement with Caesar and Crassus?

4. Why did Caesar want to make an agreement with Pompey and Crassus?

5. Why did Crassus want to make an agreement with Pompey and Caesar?

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Breakdown of the alliance

Each of the three triumvirs had wanted something and hence had formed the First Triumvirate. In actual fact they were all jealous of each other. They only joined forces because each realised that they could not achieve their aims individually because of the Senate’s power and men such as Catulus, Cato and Cicero. Hence their alliance was secret.

Suetonius [16] says of the First Triumvirate Pompey, Caesar and Crassus now formed a triple pact, jointly swearing to oppose all legislation of which any of them may disapprove. (Julius Caesar, 19)

Their aim was to elect Caesar to the consulship for 59 BC. He would be able to ensure their proposals were passed with the support of Pompey’s veterans, Crassus’s equites and the Roman people.

However, after 59 BC their relationship began to deteriorate. With Caesar in Gaul, the rivalry between Pompey and Crassus flared with clashes between their supporters becoming more and more frequent. In 56 BC they attempted to repair the rift at a meeting at Luca. Here they agreed to maintain their co-operation for their collective interests. Caesar was to remain in Gaul for a further five years and Pompey and Crassus were to become joint consuls for 55 BC. This meant that they would be able to determine where they would govern in 54 BC. Crassus chose Syria and Pompey chose the two Spains.

However, in 54 BC, Pompey’s wife (and Caesar’s daughter) Julia died. Crassus died in Parthia in 53 BC. These two deaths brought about the end of the First Triumvirate that was still on shaky ground. Pompey and Caesar remained jealous of each other. Pompey then married Cornelia, the widow of Crassus’ son, but also a member of the Metelli (a noble Roman family and firm supporters of the Optimates).

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The Senate was afraid of Caesar and made it difficult for him to remain in Gaul. They also denied him the right to stand for the consulship of 48 BC. Caesar had no other choice, he claimed in his memoirs, than to march on Rome. This was an act of Civil War on Caesar’s part.

Pompey was asked by the Senate to lead the Senatorial army against Caesar. Thus in 49 BC Pompey and Caesar were at war with each other. Caesar was to be the eventual victor. He became the undisputed leader of Rome with his acceptance of the dictatorship in 44BC. He initiated a series of reforms aimed at improving conditions in Rome and the provinces.

Unfortunately, in the process, he incurred the wrath of many of the senators because he showed little respect for the republican form of government. His acceptance of honours such as the renaming of the month of his birth after him,(from Quintilis to Iulius), showed he considered himself far above his contemporaries.

On 15th March, 44 BC he was assassinated by some sixty senators who were afraid that he was paving the way for a monarchy.

The First Triumvirate had shown that three powerful men could band together to gain complete power in Rome. Its formation set a precedent for a second triumvirate, a formal agreement this time, which was to eventually lead to Rome becoming a monarchy.

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Looking further

All these books are easily available:

Bradley, P Ancient Rome: Using Evidence, pp 333 - 393

Hennessy, D. (ed) Studies in Ancient Rome, pp 39 - 101

Koutsoukis, A. J. History of the Ancient World - Ancient Rome, pp 123 - 164

The following internet sites are excellent sources for a number of aspects relating to this historical period:

Caesar web sites (external website)

Pompey web sites (external website)

Crassus web sites (external website)

Triumvirate web sites (external website)

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1 Cato: Marcus Porcius Cato (95 - 46 BC). He was also known as Cato the Younger. He was leader of the Optimates/span> in the Senate and was well known for his obstinacy and rectitude.
2 Gracchi: These were two brothers from a noble Roman family who were both tribunes (magistrates or officials who defended the lives and property of the plebeians or Roman populace and who had the right of veto over other magistrates). Tiberius was tribune in 133 BC and Gaius was tribune in 123 and 122 BC.
3 Marius: Gaius Marius (157 - 86 BC). He allied himself with the extreme democrats in Rome undermining its Republican institutions, particularly the Senate. His career showed the incredible power that a military commander could wield in Rome. His rivalry with Sulla led to the first Civil War.
4 Sulla: Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 - 78 BC) was a Roman general and leader of the aristocratic, conservative party in the Civil War against Marius. He tried to give the Senate back some of its former power by making sweeping changes in the constitution and jury system.
5 equestrian: equestrian class or equites The Latin word equites means ‘horsemen’. They were originally an elite group of ‘knights’ whose horses were provided by the state. By the second century BC, it was a term used to describe the wealthy non-political business class.
6 patricians: These were large landowners of noble birth who had a privileged position within the state; they could trace their ancestry back to the original clans who occupied the seven hills of Rome.
7 Cameron: Cameron wrote an article: Sources of Power printed in Hennessy (ed) Studies in Ancient Rome (see Looking further below)
8 triumph: This was a victory procession through the streets of Rome when 5000 or more of the foreign enemy had been slain. The conquering general, riding in a triumphal chariot, led his troops, treasure, captives etc along the Via Sacra to the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus where he would make a sacrifice, slaughter his captives and store the treasure in the temple. The Roman populace would then take part in a feast.
9 consulship: A consul was a Roman magistrate, elected annually. The office of consul was the pinnacle of a Roman political career. Two were elected each year. A consul had the right to command an army. After one year of office, he took his place in the Senate as an ex-consul and was eligible to govern a designated province.
10 in absentia: in his absence.
11 pontifex maximus: chief priest.
12 Proscriptions: These were when so-called enemies of the state were imprisoned and/or killed when Sulla came to power. The same happened during the time of the Second Triumvirate.
13 censor: There were two censors. They took the census (list of citizens), had the right to take judicial proceedings, controlled public morals (could expel senators for lax morality) and supervised the leasing of public lands and buildings and letting of government contracts.
14 clientele: clients or dependants. These were free men who entrusted themselves to another and received protection in return.
15 Plutarch: (c. AD46 - c. 126). He was a Greek essayist and biographer who wrote a huge number of essays. The most well known of these are his Parallel Lives where he writes about 23 Greek and Roman soldiers and statesmen comparing them and also wrote some single Lives.
16 Suetonius: Suetonius Tranquillus Gaius (c. AD 69 - 140). He was a Roman historian and biographer. All his works on natural science and antiquities are lost. His Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Julius Caesar to Domitian) is complete.

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