Ancient Rome’s famous emperors, from the infamous Caligula to the industrious Hadrian, often overshadow its earlier Republic. We may forget that for some of its history, Rome was in fact ruled more democratically.
Senators were elected from the class of wealthy aristocrats, and from that group of senators, two consuls governed the Republic.
How did the Republic become an Empire? Read on to find out!
The First Triumvirate: How Three Men Manipulated the Senate
To prevent officials from seizing too much power, the senate had several checks in place. While these rules were not always followed to the letter, that balance of power was severely damaged in 60 BC when a secret pact was formed between three key figures: the great general Pompey, the wealthy Crassus, and the up-and-coming Julius Caesar.
Their pact is often referred to as the first triumvirate, and it allowed all three men to advance their own agendas. Pompey secured land for his retired soldiers, Crassus benefited from helpful tax laws, and Caesar was elected consul, the highest-ranked official, and then given legions and governorship in Gaul.
This triumvirate was already a dangerous step towards turning the Republic into an Empire. But as it crumbled, that power risked becoming concentrated into the hands of just one person.
Crossing the Rubicon: When Caesar Sparked a Civil War
As Caesar grew more powerful, Pompey and the senate grew more wary of him, worrying that Caesar might use his army to march on Rome and become dictator. And so, when Caesar returned from Gaul in 49 BC, he was ordered to disband his army and resign.
Instead, Caesar and his army crossed the Rubicon river that divided Gaul and Italy and marched on the capital, launching Rome into civil war. He defeated Pompey, as well as many others who opposed him, and became dictator – which some historians mark as the turning point when Rome officially ceased being a Republic.
The Ides of March: The Senate’s Desperate Attempt to Restore the Republic
After Caesar defeated Pompey, he returned to Rome as uncontested ruler and was eventually proclaimed consul for life. In an attempt to try and restore the Republic, several senators stabbed Caesar to death on the Ides of March (March 15th) in 44 BC.
While Caesar’s assassins had hoped to restore the Republic and wrench back power from Caesar, his death instead had the exact opposite effect: it launched Rome into a second civil war.
Students completing their classical studies in Rome often complement their learning of historical texts with on-site experience. They can visit locations where major turning points in Rome’s history unfolded – such as where Caesar was assassinated by the senate.
The Second Triumvirate: A Second Step Away from the Republic
Not long after Caesar’s death, his heir Octavian and close ally Mark Antony quickly established the second triumvirate with the often-forgotten Lepidus. Together, Octavian and Mark Antony crushed Caesar’s assassins, and then divided the empire amongst themselves.
While Octavian controlled the West, Mark Antony headed to Egypt and Lepidus took Africa.
Unlike the first triumvirate, this partnership was legally recognized – even though in many ways it functioned like a three-way dictatorship. And then, like the first triumvirate, it too collapsed into a fierce battle over the complete rule over Rome.
The Battle of Actium: The Final Blow to the Republic
Students enrolled in art history schools in Rome have the wonderful opportunity to examine ancient Egyptian obelisks. The first were brought to the Empire by Octavian, once he had changed his name to Augustus, annexed Egypt into the Roman Empire, and became emperor in all but name.
For many historians, the final blow to the Republic took place at the Battle of Actium, where Octavian defeated the combined powers of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Not only did his victory give Octavian command over Egypt, but it meant that he was now uncontested ruler of Rome.
Unlike his great uncle, though, Octavian worked hard to maintain the illusion that the Empire was still a Republic, which he ruled until his death at the age of 75.