Second Triumvirate


Second triumvirate is the name that historians give to the alliance signed on November 26 of 43 BC between Octavian Augustus, Mark Anthony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. This alliance lasted until 33 BC, for ten years, but was not renewed.

Unlike the First Triumvirate, which was merely a private arrangement, the Second Triumvirate was an official, though extra-constitutional, organization that received imperium maius.

The death of Caesar opened a phase of serious internal instability in the Roman res publica. The reasons for which the conspiracy against Caesar was hatched are to be found in the almost monarchical powers that he had accumulated after his victory over Pompey. The assassins, defined by historians as Caesaricides, were moved by an atavistic aversion to any form of personal and absolute power, in the name of traditions and republican freedoms.

The limit of the action of the conspirators was the lack of a precise and coherent political design, and it was easy for the followers of the dictator to put an end to their design and to force them to flee. The political scene was soon dominated by Mark Antony, Caesar”s faithful and able general, who followed his destiny throughout the conflict and in 44, the year of the conspiracy, held with him the office of consul. Soon his true intentions were revealed: to appropriate the political legacy of Caesar and follow in his footsteps.

On the part of the Senate this was seen as a danger and was therefore issued a senatoconsult last, according to which the future triumvir was declared a public enemy. Against him were raised two armies, led by the consuls of 43 Irzio and Pansa. The clash took place in April of that year near Modena, where Decimus Brutus had barricaded himself with his forces (it seems at the suggestion of Octavius). Antony had the worst and was forced to flee into Gaul, where he was welcomed and protected by Lepidus, who had made a lever in Spain Citeriore and Gallia Narbonese. The Senate also used another weapon against the young general: the adopted son of Caesar, Gaius Octavius Turinus.

The latter, at the time of the conspiracy, was in Apollonia for reasons of study and was waiting to follow him in the Parthian expedition. Back in Rome, he was appreciated for his political skills and showed a coldness and confidence that brought him many sympathies, including those of Cicero. Antony himself realized the danger represented by Octavius, also because he knew that the young man would have been a dangerous opponent for him, also by virtue of the fact that he was the adopted son and universal heir of Caesar. For this reason, he did not fail to mock him and to prevent the ratification of his adoption.

Skillful and unscrupulous, the young adopted son of Caesar was able to take advantage of the situation to impose himself on the political scene and, not having returned the two consuls of 43 BC, he ran for the consulship for the following year. To the refusal of the Senate (alleged because of his young age), the future emperor responded by marching on Rome with his legions, consisting of veterans Caesar to him faithful as the son of the dictator. Elected by the committees, as a first act, the new consul revoked the amnesty for Caesaricides and established a tribunal to judge them. Then, after having its adoption recognized (which occurred in 45) and changed his name to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian, he decided to make peace with Lepidus and Antony.

The meeting between the three major heirs of Caesar was organized by Lepidus on a small island of the river Lavino, a tributary of the Rhine River, where there is still a memorial stone in memory of that event, near the Roman colony of Bononia, today”s Bologna. The pact, valid for five years, was legalized and had institutional validity with the Lex Titia of November 27, 43 BC. Officially, the members were known as Triumviri Rei Publicae Constituendae Consulari Potestate (Triumvirs for the Constitution of the Republic with Consular Power, abbreviated as “III VIR RPC”). Suetonius tells of a curious episode that occurred on this occasion:

The agreement was the natural development to which the situation created after the death of Caesar led. Antony and Octavian were the main political heirs of the dictator killed the year before; they found themselves in the common opposition to the optimates – intent on abolishing Caesar”s reforms – and in the will to hunt down the Caesaricides (who, in the meantime, with Brutus and Cassius, were organizing impressive forces in the East). In the meantime Sextus Pompey, son of Caesar”s adversary, with the surviving Pompeian forces and a powerful fleet, kept under control Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, and used it to raid the coasts of southern Italy, spreading terror.

The agreement was necessary especially for Octavian, who wanted to avoid being between two fires, on the one hand Antony with 17 legions (including those given to him by Lepidus, his partisan) and on the other hand the already mentioned forces of Caesaricides in the East. From the meeting came out a division of provinces, initially unfavorable to him: to Anthony would have been the proconsulate in Cisalpine Gaul and Comata, Lepidus the Narbonne Gaul and Spain, Octavian Africa, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica.

In order to find the necessary funds for the campaign in the East and to avenge the death of Caesar, the three drew up “proscription lists” of opponents to be eliminated and forfeit their assets. In Rome and Italy, a manhunt was unleashed without equal and in many cases more ferocious and indiscriminate than that operated after the victory of Sulla over Gaius Marius. Many were the illustrious victims: 300 senators fell under the blows of the assassins and 2000 knights followed their fate.

Among these was also Cicero, to whom Antony had not forgiven the orations against him, collected in the Filippiche. Octavian, although protected and encouraged by the great Latin intellectual, did nothing to save his life. Another barbarity decided by the triumvirs was the use of hanging from the rostrums of the forum the heads of the enemies killed and give a proportional reward to those who brought them: 25,000 denarii to free men, 10,000 to slaves with the addition of tampering and citizenship.

The three men of the triumvirate

The three protagonists of the pact had very different personalities and, as we have seen, they made the agreement for personal convenience, rather than for a sincere identity of views. Mark Antony was eager to collect and continue the work already begun by Caesar: reform in a monarchical sense of the state and expansion to the East of the empire. After having given public reading of the dictator”s will, he was able to use for his own purposes the popular anger against the Caesaricides, thus becoming the undisputed leader of the Caesarian party.

His consulship of 44 was characterized by demagogic policies and confused legislation. He soon perceived the danger posed by the young Octavius, both because he was Caesar”s universal heir and because he was well regarded by the optimates. Forced after Modena obtorto collo to share with the future rival the political scene, unleashed, as we have seen, bloody reprisals against their political enemies. Octavian, Caesar”s adopted son, was astute and skillful at the same time in exploiting the confusion created by the struggles between the different parties.

Despite the dangerous relationship, was initially seen as a champion of the optimates, to be opposed to Anthony. Not surprisingly, at the battle of Modena, accompanied as propraetor consuls with militias loyal to him. Soon, however, did repent the aristocracy of the choice made, showing that he wanted to avenge his adoptive father and collect the political legacy. He was able to reach immediately in an unscrupulous way the highest magistracy of the Res publica with a real coup dӎtat and, as we will see, once entered in contrast with Antony, presented himself as a champion of mos maiorum so dear to the senatorial aristocracy, the preservation and protection of the values of the republic and its institutions.

He was not only good at knowing how to move in the political arena, but surrounded himself with good men, such as Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a skilled general, who gave him his most important military successes. Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, supporter of Caesar and then of Anthony immediately after the Ides of March, was soon a supporting actor, a shoulder to the other two colleagues and in many cases not very reliable. Faced with the growth of the personality and importance of the other triumvirs, he was increasingly relegated to the margins of the political scene.

After Philippi, which, as we shall see, was the definitive victory over the Caesaricides, he only obtained Africa. Called to support Octavian, against Sextus Pompey in Sicily (36 BC), was an ally unfaithful and came to the end with partisan for the son of Pompey the Great. Abandoned by the soldiers, had to surrender and ask forgiveness to Octavian (now master of the West). As a punishment he was forced to give up the eight legions arrived in Sicily in the wake of Sextus Pompey who had taken command, the magistracy entrusted to him (keeping only that of pontifex maximus, purely honorific title) and to retire to private life at Circeo until his death (ca. 12 BC).

The pact allowed the three to take political control of Italy and the entire West. After the proscriptions, many optimates took refuge or at the Caesaricides, who were organizing a large expedition against the triumvirs, or at Sextus Pompey. The defeat of the common enemies at Philippi and Nauloco delivered the entire empire in the hands of Octavian and Antony.

Battle of Philippi

Having demonstrated that they had no clear political plan after the elimination of Caesar, the conspirators, taken by surprise by the reaction of the Caesarians, fled from Italy. This was also due to the threatening attitude assumed by the veterans of the dictator just killed. They were anxious to receive compensation (i.e. the allocation of a plot of land for cultivation) for their services. To complicate the situation for the Caesaricides also contributed the reading of Caesar”s will, made in public by Mark Antony on the occasion of his grandiose funeral: 300 sesterces each for the veterans, plus various provisions in favor of the latter and the popular classes.

Marcus Junius Brutus and Cassius Longinus took refuge in Macedonia, where they enlisted an impressive army – 19 legions (about 80,000 men) – ready to cross the Adriatic. Decimus Brutus, on the other hand, took refuge in Cisalpine Gaul, assigned to him as a province to govern. After Modena, seeing the situation worsening for him day by day (both for the mass desertion of his legionaries in favor of Octavian, and because he was now isolated from the other Caesaricides), Brutus decided to move towards Macedonia, but was killed by a Gaul loyal to Antony.

Meanwhile Antony and Octavian, while they agreed and divide the areas of influence in the West with Lepidus, without worrying about the naval blockade of Sextus Pompey, also moved 19 legions in Greece. The clash between the two armies took place in October 42 BC in Philippi, on the way Egnatia. The battle took place in two distinct phases, fought respectively on 3 and 23 October.

At the beginning of the first phase, Brutus instead obtained a brilliant success over the forces of Octavian. Having put the enemy on the run and won three military insignia (sign of victory), he lingered in his camp in search of prey. Cassius, not seeing his companion and believing him dead, took his own life. Brutus wept over the body of Cassius, calling him “the last of the Romans”, but prevented a public ceremony in front of the entire army, not to lower the morale. Meanwhile, the fleet that Antony had asked Cleopatra for supplies and the conquest of the port garrisoned by the enemies, had withdrawn because of a strong storm. Other sources believe that it was the hesitation of Brutus that made a victory a defeat. His men, in fact, did not pursue those of Octavian, who had plenty of time to reform. As a result of this, at the time when Octavian would take the name Augustus, becoming the first emperor in the history of Rome, the saying, “Finish the battle once you”ve started it!” would be born.

The second battle took place on October 23, three weeks after the first. The legionaries of Brutus, impatient to give battle and having no esteem for their commander, pushed him to give battle to the two triumvirs, who meanwhile had deployed their forces and had begun to provoke the opponents with shouts and insults. After they had positioned themselves, one of Brutus” best officers surrendered, and he decided to start the fight.

Antony, during the battle, after having divided the army into three parts (therefore, since the left wing of the enemy had to necessarily move to the left so that his army would not be surrounded), the center of Brutus” array had to widen and weaken, to occupy the space left by the displacement of his comrades. An additional space between Brutus” center and his left wing was exploited by the opposing horsemen, who entered it pushing the center towards the left wing of their army, while the infantry pushed it forward.

The center then made a 90-degree retreat, to have the front facing Brutus” left wing. On the front of this division was Antony”s infantry, on the left flank the cavalry, and on the right side the infantry. The latter opposed at the same time the enemy right flank, which had been entrusted to it at the beginning of the battle and on which Brutus” center had poured during the retreat. This was Antony”s main strategy in this battle. Finally, Brutus” attack was repulsed and his army sent en route. Octavian”s soldiers reached the gates of the enemy camp before he could close in. Brutus was able to retreat to the surrounding hills with the equivalent of only four legions and, seeing himself defeated, committed suicide.

The success of the Caesars is due to the fact that the enemy presented an army too heterogeneous and little amalgamated, unlike that of the triumvirs, more homogeneous and compact. In addition, Anthony was a skilled strategist and knew how to maneuver their veterans, trained and at the same time attracted by the prey and the riches that would open up for them in the opulent East, what could not be said of the militants in the enemy, often unaware of the reason for which they fought, resulting in numerous desertions.

The defeat of the last Pompeians

The reprisals and revenge of Caesar, as already mentioned, were cruel and bloody, many proscribed fled to Sicily, in the hands of Sextus Pompey, followed closely by many landowners dispossessed of their funds, slaves and stragglers Pompeian veterans still circulating in the empire. Meanwhile, the political scene had fallen into the hands of Antony and Octavian, who divided the territory of the state in areas of influence: the superintendence of the East and Narbonne Gaul to the first, Spain and the care of Italy (although formally undivided between the triumvirate) to Octavian, who soon had control of the entire West.

Lepidus, on the other hand, was relegated to the role of a supporting actor, with Africa being entrusted to him and his position as pontifex maximus being maintained. This sidelining was also due to his ambiguous attitude during the last events. Antony, intent on avenging (as was Caesar”s plan before his death) the snub suffered by Crassus in the battle of Carre against the Parthians, remained for a long time in the East, extorting and harassing the cities and provinces guilty of having supported Brutus and Cassius. In this part of the empire he lived an “inimitable life” of divinity on earth together with his lover, the beautiful and fascinating Cleopatra.

Octavian, on the other hand, found himself having to manage the most difficult part of the post-Philippines period: arranging and distributing the lands promised in Italy to the almost 180,000 veterans of the Caesarian party. He chose eighteen cities punishable for their infidelity to the triumvirate (among them are to remember, from north to south, Trieste, Rimini, Cremona, Pisa, Lucca, Fermo, Benevento, Lucera, Vibo Valentia), confiscated the land of the inhabitants and distributed them to his own. The operation was carried out indiscriminately and were also expropriated estates of small and medium-sized owners who were not at all involved with the Pompeian party or with that of Caesaricides. Among these is to remember the spoliation of the properties of the family of Virgil in Mantua, a city loyal to the triumvirate, but affected because the agro of nearby Cremona, infidel, was not enough to settle the new settlers.

Because of these measures was created a strong discontent against the young triumvir, also fomented by Lucius Antony, brother of Mark, and his sister Fulvia, interested in making the situation difficult for Octavian. To exacerbate the moment also contributed to the naval blockade of southern Italy operated by the fleet of Sextus Pompey, which made it difficult for supplies to Rome. For these reasons, riots broke out in Rome, also caused by the financial crisis that had affected the lower classes; dissatisfaction with the expropriations throughout Italy was used by Lucius Antony and Fulvia as a reason to take up arms and, having the legions of Antony, march against Octavian.

These was ready and, thanks to its valiant general Marco Vipsanio Agrippa, defeated the conspirators near Perugia (winter 41-40 a.C.). Anthony, recalled in the West by the Italian events, presented himself to Brindisi with a powerful fleet. Here, thanks to the intercession of the general Asinio Pollione, of Maecenas and Agrippa, a fratricidal clash was avoided, not wanted even by the same legionaries, reluctant to fight against the companions of many battles. Between the two contenders was then reached an agreement that reaffirmed the de facto situation: to one the East, to the other the West. In Italy, held in a neutral position between the two contenders, they had permission to enlist an equal number of forces.

A further agreement was reached by the three with Lucius Domitius Enobarbus, a valiant Pompeian general and great-great-grandfather of Nero, and with Sextus Pompey. It seemed therefore re-established peace and harmony in the Republic, so that the event was celebrated by Virgil in the IV ecloga, where he announced a new era of peace with the birth of a puer (what the medieval Christian commentators would have interpreted as a premonition of the advent of Christ), or the son of Pollione, friend of Antony and promoter of the agreement. Soon, however, the situation degenerated: Sextus Pompey, feeling defrauded of the promises made by Anthony, resumed infesting the Italian coasts.

Octavian responded by surrounding with his fleet the Strait of Messina, but when his forces tried to land were severely defeated. In 37 BC the two triumvirate met in Tarentum. Antonio, leaving to Ottaviano 120 ships in reinforcement to its 300 units, allowed to these to face Pompey in front of Nauloco, to win him and to force him to the escape in East. In this circumstance the city of Messina was severely sacked. As a result of the fact that Lepidus had once again held an equivocal attitude, finally turning against Octavian, these, after the victory, punished him by removing Africa: left with only the office of pontifex maximus, was confined to Circei, where he spent the rest of his days.

The elimination of the last Pompeians gathered around the figure of Sextus Pompeius and the marginalization of Lepidus were the last episodes of the long political dispute that preceded the clash between Antony and Octavian. As we have seen, the two rivaled very soon in contending for the political legacy of Caesar. Only the good offices of Lepidus and the circumstances pushed the two to leave aside the mutual hatreds and allowed them to reach a political alliance beneficial to both.

After the meeting of Tarentum in 37 BC, the empire was divided between the two triumvirs: Octavian had the superintendence of the West, while Antony the rich and coveted East. Always in the Apulian city, the two future rivals decided that the exceptional triumviral powers recognized by the lex Titia should cease in 32 BC and that the following year they would hold the consulship as colleagues, but this pact was not respected, because it consumed the final break between them, caused by the struggle for power conducted by any means, including defamation. An example, in 32 BC, is the attempted incrimination of Octavian by the consul Sosio, partisan of Anthony. The future emperor, however, reacted promptly to the accusations and had the curia surrounded by his legionaries; the consul, finding himself in difficulty with his colleague Gnaeus Domitius, who also belonged to Antony”s party, fled to the East.

At the same time, the same Octavian used every means to put in bad light the opponent, making public his will, in which he asked to be buried in Egypt. This was unacceptable for the traditionalist senatorial aristocracy, which – in a session of the Senate – declared him deprived of all power. Caesar”s son had exploited the abandonment of traditional customs by his former ally, the “inimitable life” as Ptolemaic ruler that he led in Egypt and his alleged intention to want to make Alexandria the new capital of the empire. In his will, however, there was also a truth that was very uncomfortable for him: from the union between Caesar and Cleopatra a son was born, Caesarion, who would have had every right to claim the inheritance of his father and frustrate the propaganda of Octavian, who presented himself as the only true successor of the great leader.

Thus, a strong contrast was created between the two ex-triviri, who impersonated two models artfully spread by Octavian”s propaganda: the austere and traditionalist West, as opposed to the weak and corrupt East. To tell the truth, if Octavian had been a true follower of Caesar”s thought, he would have acted like Antony, who was convinced that the Roman-Italic civilization should be framed within the Eastern-Hellenistic one, infinitely superior in many ways. But the future emperor was a politician very skilled in understanding and supporting the mood of the Roman population, anchored to the values of mos maiorum, recognized not only by the senatorial aristocracy but also by the same popular classes.

The two, now close to the clash, although no longer exercising triumviral powers, demanded an oath of allegiance from the allies of the res publica: one from the west, the other from the east. Octavian, among other things, received the almost unanimous consent of the Senate, while the minority who did not want to recognize him took refuge in Alexandria. After years of great turbulence and fratricidal civil wars, to him were turned the hopes of a definitive pacification of the state.

It was not easy for Octavian to find the resources for the enlistment, but in the end he was able to deploy about 80,000 men and 400 ships of medium size; Antony, however, could count on 120,000 infantrymen and about 500 naval units of great tonnage. The two sides faced each other on September 2, 31 BC at Actium, a promontory at the entrance to the Gulf of Ambracia (modern Arta) in Epirus. It is not known for what reason Antony preferred the clash on the sea rather than an attack with the land forces; the fact is probably due to his lack of confidence in the infantry, quite heterogeneous.

The success arisen to the forces of Octavian, well guided from the faithful general Agrippa; the precipitous escape of Anthony and Cleopatra, that had followed him in battle, accelerated the success of Octavian. The naval victory was followed by that of land, when the army surrendered to the son of Caesar after waiting in vain for their commander. On this occasion there was a large transfer of forces from one camp to the other. The fact, rather usual at the time, is also ascribed to the ability of individual leaders to flatter and convince (with promises of greater benefits) the opposing soldiers: as Caesar had done in his time with the Pompeians who had surrendered, so did Octavian on this occasion.

After Actium, the future princeps crossed Greece, stopping in major cities, when he finally reached Alexandria, Anthony had already taken his own life along with his beloved Cleopatra. Egypt became a personal property of the winner and remained so even in imperial times, while its government was entrusted to a procurator of equestrian rank. After staying in the East and have rearranged its internal organization, now the sole master of Rome, Octavian returned to the capital and celebrated three triumphs: one on Pannonian, one on Dalmatian and the other for victories at sea and the conquest of Egypt. He could not celebrate the success on Antony and other opponents because they were Roman citizens, and the triumph was reserved for the victory over foreigners.

The dawn of the first century BC saw the res publica now unable to manage with its obsolete institutions the huge empire created in centuries of warfare. That of this century was a troubled history and characterized by the emergence of elements and trends that led to the end of the republican regime and the birth of a new political system. The change was perhaps not inevitable, but certainly contributed to this the ability and prudence demonstrated by Octavian. While presenting himself as a champion of the republican tradition and mos maiorum, he cunningly emptied the old magistracy of any real value. In 31 BC and in the following years led the state covering regularly and without interruption the office of consul and triumvir (although, after the second five-year extension, he would have to leave the powers recognized by that office).

Symptom of the change of regime and the centralization of power in his hands was the recognition, even before Actium, in 36 BC, of his sacrosanctitas, ie the inviolability of his body under penalty of death, characteristic of the tribunes of the plebs. Six years later he was recognized another important aspect of the tribunicia potestas: the ius auxilii (i.e. the possibility of giving help and, possibly, asylum in his own home to a plebeian). With this he became the patron saint of all plebs and made his home inviolable by anyone, including the public force. Another honor given to him in 32, before the clash with Antony, was the oath of allegiance by the whole of Italy.

In 28, after his return from the East, the people greeted him as princeps, a prestigious title that was later specified in princeps senatus, i.e., the one who had the right to speak first in the Senate. As a result of the fact that his opinion, because of the military forces at his disposal, was indisputable and decisive, the function of the assembly as the fulcrum of political power was severely limited. In addition to this he obtained the perpetual title of Imperator.

His was therefore a mixture of powers, including the regal powers of the consulate, the proconsulate and the triumvirate, the prerogatives of the tribunes and other honors and awards that gave him a moral authority and prestige and helped to make him a primus over all. From the propaganda point of view, he had also presented himself as a peacemaker of the state; in fact, after Actium, he had the temple of Janus in Rome closed, an ancient symbolic gesture that marked the end of a conflict and the beginning of a period of peace.

The changes made were obviously preceded by a careful consultation of the most trusted advisors; there were those who, like Maecenas, wanted the establishment of a pure monarchy and those who, like Agrippa, wanted a return to the republic. Octavian, careful connoisseur of the souls and mindful of the errors committed by his great adoptive father, opted for a median way: to centralize all the powers in his hands, making at the same time guarantor and guardian of the res publica and the regular functioning of its institutions.

Final act of his political hegemony was, in 27 BC, the recognition by the Senate in two sessions, the title of augustus, ie a man worthy of veneration and honor, which sanctioned his sacred position based on the consensus universorum of the Senate and the Roman people. On that occasion he used the stratagem of remitting all the powers attributed to him, keeping only those of consul; powers that, after an equally fake insistence of the senators, not only were reconfirmed, but he was also attributed the imperium proconsulare – initially lasting ten years, later for life – so that he could pacify the borders; imperium that was valid for Rome itself and for Italy, traditionally outside the jurisdiction of the proconsuls.

After this date Octavian called himself Augustus, and as such is remembered today. Further attribute and new honor granted him was the assignment of the tribunicia potestas in its entirety (23 BC), renewed annually. Perhaps not to arouse the resentment of the nostalgic of the republic, or perhaps because not necessary, he renounced to other powers, such as the dictatorship – which he considered contra morem maiorum and outlawed by Antony, certainly because this office reminded him of the negative experience of Caesar; that of curator legum et morum; the censoria potestas; the consulship only for life. He accepted instead the office of pontifex maximus (12 BC), held until his death by Lepidus, after having been set aside by him. Finally, in 2 BC, he was also given the title of pater patriae.

The victory of Octavian Augustus at Actium was therefore not only the end of a turbulent and bloody period of Roman history, but represented an important turning point in the history of the Roman state. The regime born from the changes at the end of the first century BC is commonly called empire, while historiography prefers to use the term principality (derived precisely from the title granted to Augustus and inherited by his successors) for the first period, to mark the character not yet monarchical-absolute of the new course. When, slowly over time, the autocratic and despotic aspect of imperial power prevailed, the term dominated was used, especially from the time of Diocletian (284-305). For the general historical picture, what is most important is the fact that from Augustus onwards it will be individual men, with the exercise of their enormous powers and their personalities, to characterize the political, military and social life of the Roman state, and no longer an oligarchy, closed and tied to their moral and political traditions and gathered in a collegial body such as the Senate.

AA.VV. La storia, vol. 3, Roma: dalle origini ad Augusto, 2004, Rome, La biblioteca di Repubblica.


  1. Secondo triumvirato
  2. Second Triumvirate
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