Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

Caesar and the Triumvirates

There were three men in Rome who had made up their minds what should "come next." They were Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar. Pompey had won such victories that the Romans were proud of him, and he had brought about peace after the long war with Mithridates. He had much power, not only because of the devotion of his soldiers, but because when he had arranged a government for the provinces which he had conquered, he had put friends of his own into all the chief positions.

Crassus was strong because he had an enormous fortune. When Sulla sold the property of his enemies, Crassus bought a large amount of it very cheap, of course. Then, when houses tumbled down or caught fire, he promptly offered to buy them, and the discouraged owners sold them at a low price. Of his many slaves, more than five hundred were architects and builders, so he could repair the houses at small expense. "He gets his wealth from the troubles of others," the Romans said; but he had a pleasant, obliging manner, and that together with his money gave him much influence in Rome.

The third of these men was Caesar. He was of an old patrician family, but he had been a follower of Marius, and a most daring one. As has been said before, he would not divorce his wife, Cinna's daughter, to please Sulla; and later, when she died, he pronounced a funeral oration over her, although it was not the custom to do this in the case of young women. He even put images and trophies of Marius into the Capitol. The general's old soldiers thronged into the building to see them and wept for joy. When Caesar became aedile, he had charge of the public games, and what games they were! He had wild beasts from Africa, captives from the wars, gladiators by the hundred and a gladiator is thought to have cost about five hundred dollars. This was all done on borrowed money, and when, somewhat later, he was appointed governor of Farther Spain, his creditors demanded their pay so persistently that he appealed to Crassus for help. He received it, for there was something in this extravagant young man which made people believe that he would some day repay them generously for all that they had spent upon him.

In Spain he was successful in war and he governed well in peace. He treated the natives so much more fairly than they had been treated before that they were greatly pleased with him. He acted as if he were really interested in them, for he made some plans for teaching them Latin and behaved toward them as if they were good for something besides paying taxes. It is said that he went one day into a Spanish temple and gazed a long while at a statue of Alexander the Great. "When that man was no older than I," he said, "he had conquered many nations, and I have done nothing."

These three men, Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar, the First Triumvirate, as they are called, bargained together. The first two were to help Caesar become consul; then he was to pass a law giving land to Pompey's soldiers. This was done. Caesar wanted an army and a chance to make conquests, and he succeeded in being appointed governor of Gaul for five years. But he did not wish to go from Rome without weakening the power of the senate as much as possible, therefore one of his supporters presented some laws that would do this. There were two men in the senate whom he could not silence, Cato and Cicero. This same supporter brought it about that Cato should be sent away to govern the island of Cyprus. Next he proposed that any magistrate who had put Roman citizens to death without trial should be forbidden to use fire or water within four hundred miles of Rome. This drove Cicero into exile. Then Caesar set out for Gaul.

Soon wonderful stories began to come back to Rome from Gaul. Trees were cut down in the forests, and in a few days complicated bridges were built. Great chiefs yielded, towns surrendered. There were tales of forced marches, of surprises, attacks upon the enemy; and with it all the picture of the calm, cool commander who in the midst of a retreat had gently whirled a fugitive around and said, "Friend, you are going the wrong way; the enemy are yonder." There were stories, too, of a mysterious island called Britain across the straits from Gaul, whose white cliffs shone over the water.

Caesar made only a short visit to this island; but the following year he crossed the straits again and made a number of tribes in the southern part of the island submit to him. He wrote an account of these visits and of his campaigns in Gaul in such clear, simple language that it is a model of military description. The book is known as Caesar's Commentaries. Wherever this great man went, he conquered; but after the Gauls had once surrendered, he was so kind that many of them began to wish to learn Roman ways.

Of course Caesar kept watch on Rome. Crassus and Pompey became consuls, and then the three men arranged matters to suit themselves. Caesar was to remain in Gaul five years longer. Crassus was to rule the province of Syria for the same length of time; and Pompey was to rule Spain for five years. Crassus was soon slain, and now the world was in the hands of Pompey and Caesar.

But each wanted the whole world, and just as in the times of Jugurtha, the Roman world was for sale. Pompey began to set tables at which whoever chose might eat, and he gave games and gladiatorial contests. Caesar sent masses of gold back to Rome to do the same things. Then Pompey induced the senate to let him govern Spain for ten years instead of five. Caesar was aroused. In five years he would have to return to Rome and disband his army, while Pompey would have his army for five years longer. Nothing would be easier than for him to bring about Caesar's ruin. Pompey had married Caesar's daughter Julia; but just at this time, she died; so there was nothing to hold the two men together. They no longer pretended to be friends or even to belong to the same party. Pompey stood by the nobles and the present government. Caesar stood by the people and changes in the government.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Caesar now asked that he might be made consul; then when he returned to Rome, he would have as much power as Pompey. The senate refused, and commanded him to disband his army. The consul drove out from the senate house the two tribunes who had presented Caesar's request. This was putting an excellent weapon into his hands, for now he could say to his soldiers, "The tribunes of the Roman people have been insulted. We must take up arms to defend them." He marched on through Gaul to the little river Rubicon which separated Gaul from Italy. There he paused. To pass that stream with his army would be declaring war against Rome, and he might well hesitate. Suddenly he exclaimed, "The die is cast!" and crossed the river.

Then there was wild confusion in the land. Whole cities fled to Rome, while the people of Rome fled in all directions. "Let every man follow me who prefers his country and liberty to the rod of a tyrant!" declared Pompey, and hastened to Greece. The consuls forgot to offer the usual sacrifices; most of the senators caught up whatever they chanced to touch first in their houses, and they hurried away from Rome.

Before long, various stories of Caesar's kindness found their way to these terrified people. An old friend of his had gone over to Pompey's side; but Caesar had sent him his money and equipage. One man in his despair ordered his slave physician to give him poison; but when he learned that Caesar was merciful, he begged the slave to save him, and was delighted to find that instead of poison the physician had given him only a sleeping draught. The poet Catullus wrote a satire against Caesar, and this new sort of conqueror invited him to supper and did not poison him.

Caesar marched on through Italy. City after city yielded to him without the striking of a blow. When he reached Rome, he did not repeat the massacres of Marius and Sulla, but treated people kindly and justly, even those who ventured to oppose him. He had not ships enough to sail directly against Pompey, but he went to Spain, and there defeated Pompey's troops and added them to his own army. Sicily and Sardinia with their vast exports of wheat were soon in his hands. The following year, he started for Greece. He sailed from Brundusium across the Adriatic Sea to Macedonia. There was the camp of Pompey, well supplied with arms and food, and with twice as many soldiers as Caesar had. Nevertheless, Caesar made an attack. He was repulsed; then Pompey sounded a retreat. "This day victory would have declared for the enemy," said Caesar thoughtfully, "if they had had a general who knew how to conquer."

Caesar now withdrew into Thessaly, and Pompey pursued. On the plains of Pharsalus came the battle which decided who should rule the world. Caesar's friend Marcus Antonius commanded the left wing and Caesar himself the right, where stood his favorite Tenth Legion of tried and faithful soldiers. Pompey had placed his cavalry on his own left wing opposite Caesar's right. Caesar knew that the cavalry was made up of wealthy young men who were not used to wounds and valued their good looks. "Do not throw javelins, and do not strike at their legs and thighs," he had commanded his soldiers of the right wing, "but aim at their faces." He was correct in his judgment of the young cavaliers, for at the first charge, they turned their heads and even held their hands up before their faces. Then they ran away as fast as they could go. This ruined Pompey's plans and was the beginning of his total defeat.

Caesar used his victory mercifully. He pardoned many persons of rank, among them Marcus Brutus. The father of Brutus had been slain by Pompey, but Brutus believed that Pompey's cause was the better, and therefore he had joined the troops of the man whom he abhorred. Caesar thought so highly of Brutus that it is said he had ordered his men to let him escape if he would not surrender. Pompey had been so sure of success that he had crowned his tents with myrtle, strewn the beds with flowers, and even set bowls of wine upon the tables, that all things might be ready to celebrate his victory. Now he was a fugitive. He drank from a river and spent the night in a poor fisherman's cabin. He had once shown kindness to the father of the boy king of Egypt, and therefore he fled to that country. The king's councillors held a meeting. If they received him, Caesar would be angry; if they refused, he might some day become powerful enough to punish them, and, moreover, Caesar might be displeased that they had not delivered Pompey up to him. "The best plan is to invite him to come and then put him to death," urged one of the councillors. "Then you will have done Caesar a favor, and you will have nothing to fear from Pompey. Dead men do not bite." This advice was followed, and Pompey was slain as he was landing from a boat.

Caesar had followed Pompey to Egypt, and the bloody head of his enemy was brought to him at once; but the wily councillor had not read him aright. Caesar turned away in horror, then wept with profound grief and pity. He ordered funeral honors to be paid to the murdered general and afterward punished those who slew him.

In Egypt there was a contest between the boy king and his sister Cleopatra for the throne. Caesar decided in favor of Cleopatra and helped her to establish herself. He then went to Asia, for the son of Mithridates was arousing rebellion against Rome. Caesar met him at Zela and defeated him so promptly that the conqueror told the whole story in three words, "Veni, vidi, vici"  (I came, I saw, I conquered). His opponents had made a last stand at Thapsus in Africa. He overcame them in a sudden attack. Cato, the unflinching defender of the republic, was in Utica at the time of the battle. The cause was lost, and he would not live to be subject to Caesar. He fell upon his sword.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Then Caesar returned to Rome. The Romans had thought Pompey's triumph a marvel, but Caesar's was far more magnificent. Besides the triumph, there were feasts and games and gladiatorial shows and combats of wild beasts. There were gifts to the soldiers and to the poor. There was pardon for those who had been Caesar's most bitter enemies. The senate named him as dictator for ten years and censor for three years. No Roman had ever held so much power. He was called away for a short time to suppress a revolt of the sons of Pompey in Spain. Then he returned to Rome. The senate could not plan honors enough for him. They made him dictator for life; they gave him the title of "Father of his Country; "they changed the name of the month in which he was born from Quintilis to Julius (July); they stamped their money with his image; they allowed him to wear a crown of laurel at all times, and at public festivals to robe himself in garments worn by conquerors at their triumphs; they carried his image with those of the gods; they even dedicated temples and altars to him.

In the midst of all this flattery, Caesar set to work to rule the world as wisely as possible. He made just laws for settling debts; he sent the poor of the cities to live on farms; he gave land to his veterans and settled them in colonies; he gave citizenship to people of conquered countries, not carelessly, but where he was sure it would be appreciated; he reformed the calendar, so that the festivals of the gods would come at the same season each year; he planned a vast collection of Greek and Latin books, magnificent public buildings, the draining of the Pontine Marshes, an enormous aqueduct for the city, a survey of the state land, the rebuilding of Corinth and Carthage, a digest or code of the Roman laws, a superb artificial harbor, a road along the Apennines, and a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth. Enormous wealth had come into his hands, and he spent it freely upon the state.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


But there were men in Rome who could not forget that, well as Caesar was ruling, he had lawfully no right to rule at all, and that the Roman state was no longer a republic. Many believed that he meant to assume the title of king, and the Romans hated the very sound of that word. A conspiracy was made against him. The leaders were Brutus and Brutus's friend Cassius; although to both these men, as, indeed, to almost all of those who joined in the plot, Caesar had done many favors. On the 15th of March, 44 B.C., the senate met. The conspirators gathered around him as if to offer some petition. At the signal agreed upon, they drew their swords. Caesar struggled to break through the ring. Then he saw among them Brutus, the friend whom he so admired and loved. He cried, "You, too, Brutus!" drew his robe over his face and fell.

Brutus tried to explain to the senators why this deed had been done, and to declare that the old days of the republic were now to return, but they would not hear him. On the following morning they tried to pacify both Caesar's friends and his murderers by granting to Caesar the honors due to a god, and also bestowing much power and authority upon Brutus and his followers, whom they made governors of provinces.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Caesar's friend Marcus Antonius had secured Caesar's private papers, and now his will was read. His beautiful estate beyond the Tiber was given to the people. Every Roman in the city was to receive a sum equal to fourteen dollars, and generous legacies were left to some of those who murdered him. Marcus Antonius delivered the funeral oration. He showed the people Caesar's robe, pierced with the twenty-three sword thrusts, and they were wild with rage. They caught up firebrands and rushed through the city to find the murderers and burn their houses. Then they went back to the forum to make a funeral pyre. They piled up benches and sticks of wood, and threw upon the heap crowns and trophies and other treasures. All night they stood by the pyre. So it was that Caesar's body was burned. Meanwhile, Brutus and the other conspirators had escaped from Rome.

Caesar's soldiers were eager to avenge his death, and at first they sought Antonius as their leader. This was just what he wanted, for he had planned to gain the chief power for himself. Caesar had made his grand-nephew, Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus, his heir. This nephew was only eighteen, and when he demanded his rights, Antonius treated him like a troublesome child. Octavianus was hardly more than a boy, but he was wise, and Caesar's old soldiers liked him. Cicero had been recalled, and in the senate house he made fourteen burning speeches against Antonius. Three hundred years before this, Demosthenes, the most famous of Greek orators, had made some thrilling speeches against King Philip of Macedonia. These were called Philippics, and now the same name was given to these orations of Cicero. They influenced the senate to decide in favor of Octavianus. This was the beginning of war between the senate and Octavianus on one side, and Antonius on the other. Antonius had no army, but his friend, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, was governor in Spain and part of Gaul, and he had an army. A battle followed, and Antonius was defeated.

Octavianus was made consul. He then asked Antonius and Lepidus to meet him on a little island in the river Rhine. For three days these men, the Second Triumvirate, talked and planned. There was much to decide, for they were dividing the world among them. At length they agreed that Octavianus should rule in the West; Lepidus in Africa; and Antonius in the East. They concluded that the only way to make themselves safe was to kill all those who would be likely to oppose them. Hundreds were proscribed, and among them was Cicero. By his efforts, the senate had declared in favor of Octavianus, and the young man had often called him "Father "; but Antonius would come to no agreement whatever unless Octavianus would give up Cicero, and finally he yielded. Lepidus gave up his brother, and Antonius his uncle.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Cicero heard of this proscription, and fled. He went on board a vessel to go to Brutus in Macedonia, then left the sea and walked a long way toward Rome, then took to the sea again, then went to his summer home. Here his servants got him into his litter and carried him toward the sea. But the assassins came upon him, and a few minutes later they had murdered the greatest orator of Rome.

Octavianus, Antonius, and Lepidus had slain their enemies in Rome, but Brutus and Cassius had collected a great army in Macedonia, and they must be overcome. Two battles were fought at Philippi; Brutus and Cassius were defeated, and both committed suicide.

The Roman world was in the hands of Antonius, Octavianus, and Lepidus; but now Antonius and Octavianus were strong enough to support themselves without Lepidus; and they asserted that he had been plotting to unite with Sextius, son of Pompey, against them, and he was dropped from the Triumvirate. It was decided that Octavianus was to rule Rome and the West, while Antonius was to rule the East.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Antonius went to the East to put his territories in order. He heard that Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, had given some aid to his opponents, and he commanded her to meet him in Cilicia. She took her time about obeying, and when she appeared at the little river on which was the place of meeting, she came in great magnificence. She was rowed up the stream in a most beautiful galley. The stern was covered with gold, and the sails were of purple silk. The silver oars kept time to the music of flutes and harps and pipes. Clouds of fragrant incense floated down the stream. It is no wonder that the shores were thronged with people, gazing at such a sight as they had never seen before, and every one eager to get a glimpse of the famous queen. She reclined under a canopy most exquisitely embroidered with gold. She was dressed as Venus, and her maids represented the Graces and sea-nymphs. Little boys in the guise of Cupids stood fanning her.

When Antonius met her, he was delighted. She spoke in a sweet, melodious voice. She was witty and fascinating. She pleased and entertained him; and the ruler of half the world spent his time amusing himself with the queen of Egypt. They feasted and hunted and fished together. The story has been handed down that on one of their fishing excursions Antonius had poor success. He was so mortified that he ordered one of his men to dive and fasten to his hook fishes taken from the boat. Cleopatra perceived the trick, and on the following day when Antonius drew up his line, the company shouted with amusement, for she had bidden one of her divers fasten a salt fish to his hook. "Go, general," said she, "leave fishing to us petty princes. Your game is cities, kingdoms, and provinces."

In Rome, everyone was amazed that Antonius should remain in Egypt. They heard that he no longer behaved like a Roman, but like an Eastern ruler. There were even rumors that he meant to make Alexandria his capital, and from there go forth to conquer Rome. So it came about that Octavianus and Antonius met in battle off Actium on the western coast of Greece. Antonius was defeated, and committed suicide. Cleopatra was taken prisoner. She tried to win over Octavianus as she had won Antonius, but did not succeed. She heard that he intended to carry her to Rome to walk in chains at his triumph, and she killed herself. The story was told that she had an asp brought to her in a basket of fruit, and died of its sting. After this, Egypt was a Roman province, and the Roman world was in the hands of one man, the young Octavianus.


The three great men of Rome were Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar. In 60 B. C., they formed the First Triumvirate. Cato and Cicero were driven into exile; then Caesar set out to conquer Gaul. In 55 B. C., he visited Britain. His account of this visit and of his campaigns is called his Commentaries. The death of Crassus left the Roman world in the hands of Pompey and Caesar. They became rivals; Pompey stood by the nobles, Caesar by the people. Caesar crossed the Rubicon. The Romans fled, but, hearing of his mercy, they returned. Caesar conquered Italy, Spain, Sicily, and Sardinia. Pompey repulsed him in Macedonia; but by the battle of Pharsalus, in 48 B. C., Caesar became ruler of the world. He treated his former opponents with mercy. Pompey was slain by command of Ptolemy, King of Egypt. Caesar made Cleopatra queen of Egypt. He defeated the son of Mithridates at Zela; and at Thapsus, in 46 B. C.; he won a decisive victory over his remaining opponents. All the honors of Rome were heaped upon Caesar, and he made far-reaching plans for the good of the state; but a conspiracy was formed against him, and he was assassinated, 44 B. C. The people and his soldiers were eager to avenge his death.

Antonius schemed for power. He, Octavianus, and Lepidus formed, in 43 B. C., the Second Triumvirate. They proscribed all who would be likely to oppose them. Among those put to death was Cicero.

The triumvirs overpowered Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, in 42 B. C. Lepidus was dropped from the Triumvirate. Antony became ruler of the East. He was fascinated by Cleopatra. It was feared that he meant to make Rome subject to the East. He and Octavianus met in the battle of Actium in 31 B. C. Antonius was defeated, and killed himself. Cleopatra could not win over Octavianus, and she, too, took her own life. Egypt became a Roman province. Octavianus was ruler of the world.

Suggestions for Written Work

  • The crossing of the Rubicon.
  • The meeting of the Egyptian councillors.
  • The greatest thing that Caesar planned to do for the Romans. The reading of Caesar's will.