Part 5:
Ancient Rome















21  The Roman Republic



The same year Athens became a democracy, Rome had a democratic experiment of its own. After ousting a foreign ruler, the Romans vowed never to be ruled over by a monarch ever again. Instead, they formed a republic, which combined monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic aspects.

Over the centuries, Rome expanded, first taking over Italy and later a large part of Europe and North Africa. The Romans explained their own success by their adoption of a number of virtues, including courage and the willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of the state. As long as they adhered to these principles, they believed, the republic would survive.

In the first century BC, the virtues of Rome started to erode. This eventually led to various civil wars, starring well-known strongmen such as Caesar, Pompey, and Mark Antony. Various figures, including the philosopher and statesman Cicero, gave their all to defend the republic, but after decades of instability, Octavian, commonly known as Augustus, took the throne by force. Although still a republic by name, Rome now functioned as an empire.


Romulus and Remus

Archeological evidence suggests that Rome was inhabited at least since 1000 BC and experienced a significant population explosion around 700 BC. The Roman accounts of what happened during these early days have mostly turned into legend. A myth, with the earliest versions dating back to about 200 BC, sought to link the origin of the Romans to the more sophisticated Greeks. They appropriated the character Aeneas, son of a Trojan prince and the goddess Aphrodite, who had managed to escape Troy after its fall. In this version of the story, Aeneas fled to Italy, where he married a local girl. After a few generations had passed, his descendant Amulius killed off various relatives in order to inherit the throne. Fearing that his niece would produce a new heir, he forced her to become a vestal virgin, yet the girl was raped by the god Mars and gave birth to two sons, Romulus and Remus. Afraid of Mars, the king did not dare kill the boys and instead put them in a basket and left them afloat on the river Tiber. The boys were found and raised by a she-wolf. Once they became adults, they overthrew the king and founded a new city. When they started to argue about who would become king, Romulus killed his brother, took the throne, and named the city Rome, after his own name. According to Roman tradition, this took place in 735 BC.


The Roman Republic

In time, Rome was conquered by the neighboring Etruscans. The Romans resented being ruled by foreign kings, which developed in them a strong aversion to monarchy. In 510 BC, the Etruscan king was chased out of Rome by Lucius Junius Brutus after the king’s son had been accused of raping a Roman woman named Lucretia. Afterward, the Romans decided not to rely on kingship any longer and instead established the Roman Republic in 509 BC (the same year Cleisthenes turned Athens into a democracy).

The newly-created republic recognized a number of elected officials that would serve for a one-year term. The lowest position was the quaestor, appointed to monitor taxation and government finances. At first, just two quaestors were elected, but this was later extended to twenty. The aedile was appointed to oversee the maintenance of infrastructure and public buildings, organize public games, and ensure free trade. Four of these positions were available each year. The praetors oversaw the law courts and ran the judiciary system. At first, only one of these positions was available, but this was eventually extended to eight. The highest position was consul. Rome was led by two consuls, who shared their power equally. The consuls served as generals of the army, served as judges, and had various religious duties. Both consuls also had the power to veto each other’s decisions. At first, the consuls had to come from the nobility (the patricians), but eventually the commoners (the plebeians) were also accepted.

The ideal career of a politician was called the course of honor (cursus honorum) and entailed holding each of these positions in succession at the minimum age requirement, with aedileship being optional. A quaestor was required to be at least 30 years old, an aedile had to be at least 36, a praetor 39, and a consul 42 years old.

After their term, consuls would join the Senate for life. The Senate consisted of a few hundred members who wore togas with a thick purple stripe. During the time of the monarchy, the Senate served as an advisory council for the king, but now they came to advise the consuls. Although the Senate had no official executive power, consuls were expected to take their advice seriously. In practice, their influence was so great that most things they recommended came to pass.

The most democratic elements of the republic were the assemblies, where votes were cast on legislative matters. The centuriate assembly (comitia centuriata) was initially composed of members of the army, and later, admission was based on wealth. It had the power to declare war and elect consuls, praetors, and censors. The tribal or general assembly (comitia populi tributa) included all Roman citizens. They elected quaestors and aediles and conducted trials for non-capital punishment cases. They also had the power to vote on bills proposed by consuls or praetors. Ordinary citizens were not allowed to speak before this assembly.

And finally, the plebeian assembly (concilium plebis) looked out for the rights and interests of the commoners. This government body was created early on in Roman history, in 494 BC, when the plebeians went on strike, evacuating Rome, leaving the patricians to fend for themselves. Similar to the situation in Greece, their main problems were growing debt and their lack of political representation. The strike was highly effective, leading the patricians to cancel some of the debt and concede some of their power by creating the plebeian assembly. The plebeian council was led by tribunes, who could directly propose legislation to the assemblies and convene meetings of the Senate. The tribunes were also given immunity during their time in office and had the right to veto new laws and legal decisions. At first, the number of tribunes was either two or five, but this was extended to ten in 457 BC. Politicians who favored the plebeians were called populares (“favoring the people”), while those supporting the Senate were called optimates (“best people”).

Speech in the political arena and the courts was free during the Roman Republic. Especially senators were known to viciously attack one another without repercussion. There were more restrictions on speech for the general population than in Greece, but nevertheless, philosophers and historians could generally speak their mind, especially during the Late Republic.

According to the Greek historian Polybius (c. 208–125 BC), the political system of Rome became an interesting combination of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, getting the best of each system and allowing for the separation of power. He wrote:

As for the Roman constitution, it had three elements, each of them possessing sovereign powers: and their respective share of power in the whole state had been regulated with such a scrupulous regard to equality and equilibrium, that no one could say for certain, not even a native, whether the constitution as a whole was an aristocracy, a democracy or despotism. And no wonder: for if we confine our observation to the power of the consuls we should be inclined to regard it as despotic; if on that of the Senate, as aristocratic; and if finally one looks at the power possessed by the people it would seem a clear case of a democracy. [...] When any one of the three classes becomes puffed up, and manifests an inclination to be contentious and unduly encroaching, the mutual interdependency of all the three, and the possibility of the pretensions of any one being checked and thwarted by the others, must plainly check this tendency: and so the proper equilibrium is maintained by the impulsiveness of the one part being checked by its fear of the other. [140]

The idea of different branches of government was later adopted by the Founding Fathers of America, who crafted their constitution in part in imitation of the Roman Republic.

The Roman system also had its flaws. Voting occurred throughout the year and only in the political center of Rome itself. Citizens who did not live near Rome were therefore effectively excluded from the system. People could also easily be bribed to show up in large numbers to elect an official. The modern solution to these problems is to allow citizens to cast their vote locally once every few years to elect representatives, who then make decisions in their stead.

Fig. 323 – Artist’s impression of the Roman Forum (1885) In the center, we see the speakers’ platform. (Edgar Shumway)


The political center of Rome was the Roman Forum. In Fig. 323, we see an artist’s impression of the Forum, including the speakers’ platform (rostra), on which politicians, advocates, and other orators addressed the crowds.

Fig. 324 – Remains of the Roman Forum (© Shutterstock)


The ideal citizen

In times of emergency, the republic would allow a dictator to rule, but only for a period of six months. This happened, for instance, in 458 BC, when the Senate sent a delegation to the farm of the retired general Cincinnatus (c. 519–430 BC), asking him to lead the fight against an invading enemy. He accepted the position and was victorious after just a few days. Although he was entitled to hang on to his position for the remainder of six months, he resigned in honor of the republic after only 16 days, after which he returned to his farm. His voluntary resignation made him a role model of the good citizen, exemplifying civic virtue by his willingness to work for the greater good of the community, even when it contradicted his individual interests.

Another person who embodied ideal Roman values was Gaius Mucius Scaevola. In 508 BC, he was said to have sneaked into an Etruscan camp to attempt to assassinate its leader. He got captured and was dragged before the king. Instead of complying, he proudly exclaimed:

I am a Roman citizen. My name is Gaius Mucius. I came here to kill my enemy and I am not afraid to die. Romans know both how to act with bravery and how to show bravery in suffering. I am the first to attempt to kill you, but I will not be the last, because there are many others like myself who will take up my mission. Therefore, prepare yourself to live in danger, to fear for your life every hour of the day. […] Watch me and learn how unimportant the body is to those who have dedicated themselves to a greater cause. [141]

Mucius then put his hand into a flame and held it there. “As the flesh burned from his bones, Mucius gave no sign that he felt anything.” Fearing to fight off such a formidable opponent, the Etruscan king released Mucius and ended the war.

The characters in these stories embody virtues belonging to the unwritten Roman code of social norms known as the mos maiorum (“the way of the ancestors”). All Romans were taught to aspire to these virtues since they were believed to be essential to the success of Rome. Among them, we find dignitas (dignity), frugalitas (moderation), gravitas (dignified self-control and responsibility), severitas (self-discipline), humanitas (being cultured and kind), industria (industriousness), pietas (dutifulness towards the gods, the state and family), veritas (truthfulness), clementia (mercy), virtus (manliness, courage, character, and worth), disciplina (discipline), constantia (perseverance), firmitas (tenacity), justitia (justice), fides (mutual trust), and innocencia (selfless action).



Citizenship was a big deal in Rome. Citizens were guaranteed equal treatment under the law, the right to run for political office, and the right to vote. The visible symbol of citizenship was the white toga, which only citizens were allowed to wear.

When Rome began to conquer the rest of Italy, only a few of the conquered Italians were granted citizenship. The rest were awarded either half-citizenship or obtained the status of ally. This situation persisted for generations, even after the Italians were thoroughly Romanized. Understandably, this caused a lot of resentment. The situation was even worse outside of Italy, where different parts of the empire were organized into taxpaying Roman provinces under the rule of a Roman governor.

There was, however, one path to citizenship open to allies, namely, to serve in the army. The Roman army was among the most successful armies in world history, conquering a large part of the known world and maintaining it for centuries. Due to its popularity, the army was, on most occasions, fully supplied by volunteers. Usually, there were so many applicants that the army could select the best candidates. Once enrolled, citizens were required to serve for 16 years (and later 25 years). After this term, they were given either a large sum of cash or a plot of land. They also acquired a metal military diploma, which gave them various legal and fiscal privileges. For non-citizen soldiers, called the auxilia, the big incentive came after 30 years. After discharge, they received full Roman citizenship. This system worked wonders integrating former enemies into Roman culture. It also allowed for social mobility, allowing young men from all over the empire to increase their status and earn a decent living. A surviving letter from an Egyptian teenager named Apion serves as a great example. We read that he left his small town in Egypt to join the Roman military, where he was given the Latin name Antonius Maximus. In a letter sent home, we read:

On arriving at Misenum, I received from Caesar three gold pieces for traveling expenses. And it is well with me. […] My [new Roman] name is Antonius Maximus, my company is the Athenonica. I pray for your health.

In a second letter, we read that Apion got married to a Roman wife and had three children:

My wife Aufidia greets you, and so does Maximus my son [...] as well as my daughters Elpis and Fortunata. [142]

In this way, men from across the republic proudly adopted a Roman destiny.


Aqueducts and baths

The Roman Republic is also known for its groundbreaking architecture. In particular, the Roman baths and aqueducts were remarkable. The Roman engineer Frontinus (c. 40–103) praised the usefulness of Roman structures in comparison to Greek and Egyptian architecture:

How could you compare such an array of indispensable structures carrying so much water with the idle pyramids, or the useless although famous works of the Greeks? [143]

Fig. 325 – Pond du Gard in France (c. 50 BC) (Ben Lieu Song, CC BY-SA 3.0)


Aqueducts moved water from a source to the city by gravity alone. Due to their length, this required water to be transported along a very slight downward slope. The first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, was constructed in 312 BC. It was about 10 kilometers long and was largely located underground. It dropped only 10 meters over its entire length. The famous Pond du Gard aqueduct, with a length of 50 kilometers, had a gradient of just 34 cm per kilometer. Pliny the Elder (23–79) wrote about these aqueducts that “nothing more remarkable has ever existed in all the world.”

By the fourth century AD, Rome had over ten aqueducts, which transported water to hundreds of fountains and baths. The per capita usage of water is estimated to have equaled that of modern industrial times. The most well-preserved imperial baths in Rome are known as the Baths of Caracalla (c. 215), which could house about 1600 bathers at the same time.


Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus

In 133 BC, Rome conquered Greece, which helped introduce the relatively “crude” Romans to the more sophisticated Greek culture. In spite of this great victory, however, events back home in that same year would start a chain of events that would eventually lead to the end of the Roman Republic. It all started with an aristocrat named Tiberius Gracchus (c. 165–133 BC), who became concerned about the grievances of the plebeians. He knew that the Italians were fed up with their lower status as allies and they also resented that powerful families were monopolizing government positions and newly acquired farmlands. These farmers also often employed slaves, leaving many Romans without a job. The Senate, enjoying their strong position in the status quo, showed no willingness to resolve these issues, but Tiberius became convinced that Rome would eventually face a crisis if these problems were not addressed.

To resolve the issue, Tiberius ran for tribune of the plebs, which allowed him to bypass the Senate and present legislation directly to the general assembly. Once elected, he proposed a plan to distribute newly conquered land more fairly. The Senate strongly opposed this plan and allied with another tribune to veto his proposals, which was another unprecedented move. Tiberius, in turn, managed to remove this tribune from office. When Tiberius’s term was up, he broke yet another tradition by running for reelection to continue his work. In response, members of the Senate beat Tiberius and nearly 300 of his followers to death.

In 123 BC, Tiberius’s younger brother Gaius Gracchus (154–121 BC) became tribune to pick up where his brother had left off. On top of his brother’s plans, he campaigned to turn all Italian allies into full citizens and got a law approved to subsidize grain, allowing poor citizens to buy it below market price. Not surprisingly, this plan became extremely popular among the poorer Romans (and from that point onward, it became a frequently used strategy by the populares to get the masses on their side. A century later, about a third of Rome received subsidized grain, to the detriment of the economy). As was the case with Tiberius, Gaius became extremely popular with the plebeians, but he made many enemies among the senators. When one of the consuls stirred up violent attacks against him, he committed suicide to avoid capture.

In 91 BC, another aristocrat, Marcus Livius Drusus (c. 124–91 BC), was elected tribune. He proposed a bill to give land to veterans and the poor, to extend citizenship to all Italians, and to admit 300 equestrians (the second class of Rome) to the Senate. With their usual short-sightedness, the Senate again resisted finding a solution to the legitimate problems of the people. When Drusus was assassinated in 91 BC, it was the final straw for the Italian allies, who declared war on Rome, called the War of the Allies. The allies were initially successful, but Rome won in the end. The allies did manage to put enough pressure on Rome to extend full citizenship to all Italians willing to cease hostilities.



Although the war had solved the problem of the allies, the violence and the erosion of republican norms only got worse. The last 80 years of the republic became dominated by strongmen. One of these men was Sulla (c. 138–78 BC), who had made his name on the battlefield in the War of the Allies, which helped get him elected consul in 87 BC. Later, he was given command of an army to defeat Mithridates, the king of Pontus, in Asia Minor. After a successful campaign, he marched his soldiers into Rome and took over the city. He then appointed himself dictator, claiming he needed to restore the power of the Senate. He passed a law prohibiting tribunes from presenting legislation directly to the general assembly and purged many of his opponents, including one of the tribunes. Believing he had brought stability back to Rome, he resigned and withdrew to his country estate. This suggests that his intentions had been sincere, but he set a dangerous precedent. He died only a few months later.



A man named Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC) became one of the last great defenders of the republic. Leaving behind hundreds of private letters to his friend Atticus (c. 110–31 BC), he also provides us with a personal account of the fall of the republic.

Cicero was not a native Roman but came from the nearby Volscian tribe and he also wasn’t part of the elites, as his family belonged to the equites, the second class of Rome. As a result, he was considered an outsider to the inner circle of Roman politics. For still finding his way in, he was considered part of a rare group of individuals known as new men (novi homines).

As a young man, Cicero had been intrigued by the great lawyers of the day, who presented their cases in front of large crowds in the Roman Forum. When he discovered he had a talent for both writing and public speaking, he became determined to become a lawyer himself. His career finally took off when he took on a murder case, which many of his famous colleagues had declined due to the involvement of a close friend of Sulla. In the trial, Cicero showed great talent as a speaker, strongly presenting his evidence, and also appealing to the emotions of the jury. He was especially gifted at brutal put-downs and character assassinations. About Sulla’s friend, he said:

And just look at the man himself, gentlemen of the jury. You see how, with his elegantly styled hair and reeking with perfume, he floats around the Forum, an ex-slave surrounded by a crowd of citizens of Rome, you see how superior he feels himself to be to everyone else, that he alone is wealthy and powerful. [144]

Cicero won the case, and luckily for him, Sulla took no action against him.


Fig. 326 - Sulla (Bibi Saint-Pol, PD; Glyptothek, Germany)

Fig. 327 - Cicero (Andy Montgomery, CC BY-SA 2.0; Capitoline Museum, Italy)

On another occasion, Cicero opposed a corrupt former general. He brilliantly put pressure on the senators in the jury, calling them corrupt in case they were unable to convict an obviously guilty general. He said:

Today the eyes of the world are upon you. This man’s case will establish whether a jury composed exclusively of Senators can possibly convict someone who is very guilty—and very rich. Let me add that because the defendant is the kind of man who is distinguished by nothing except his criminality and his wealth, the only imaginable explanation for an acquittal will be the one that brings the greatest discredit to you. No one will believe that anybody likes Verres, or that he is related to any of you, or that he has behaved well in other aspects of his life, no, nor even that he is moderate in his faults. No such excuses can extenuate the number and scale of his offenses. [144]

It didn’t take long for Cicero to become the leading lawyer of his day. While continuing to take on cases throughout his career, Cicero also set out to become consul. To do so, he became quaestor in 75 BC, aedile in 69 BC, praetor in 66 BC, and finally consul in 63 BC, winning every election at the minimum required age. Throughout his entire career, he presented himself to the public as a man who wanted to bring the different classes of Rome together and resolve their differences. He was convinced that Rome had no future without what he called the “concordia ordinum” (“the harmony of the classes”). In his view, this harmony was only sustainable if the breakdown of values and republican norms came to a halt. He encouraged all groups to search for reconciliation, moderation, compromise, and respect for the rule of law.

During his consulship, a man named Lucius Sergius Catilina (108–62 BC) rose to prominence. Catilina was another rebellious aristocrat who joined the populares and called for the cancellation of debts. As always, the Senate opposed him. Angered by the opposition, Catilina planned to assassinate a number of leading senators, including Cicero. Cicero learned about this plot from Fulvia (c. 83–40 BC), the mistress of one of Catilina’s fellow plotters. Cicero exposed Catilina in the Senate, and after some reluctance, the Senate declared him a public enemy. When this news reached Catilina, he left Rome with a large group of followers. Cicero felt that Catiline deserved the death penalty, but a man named Gaius Julius Caesar (100–44 BC) protested that the death penalty would set a dangerous precedent. Then, another important senator named Cato the Younger (95–46 BC) stepped up and managed to convince the Senate. He claimed that Caesar was trying to subvert the state by supporting Catilina. Catilina had confessed to planning massacres, and therefore, there was no need for the Senate to hesitate.

Cato was an uncompromising optimate and defender of the republic, who fought for the preservation of the mos maiorum, the traditional values of the Roman Republic. Cicero admired him for his strong moral convictions but sometimes found him difficult to handle because of his rigid views. Cicero wrote about him:

As for our friend Cato, I have as warm a regard for him as you do. The fact remains that with all his patriotism, he can be a political liability. He speaks in the Senate as if he were living in Plato’s Republic instead of Romulus’ cesspool. [144]

After the decision was made to execute Catilina, the Senate gave Cicero the title “Father of his Country” for snuffing out the conspiracy. Afterward, the army was sent after Catilina and his men, resulting in his death.


Cicero’s legacy

On top of his work as lawyer and politician, Cicero also wrote some of the most influential books on philosophy in world history. The American Founding Father John Adams (1735–1826) wrote about him:

All ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher combined.

Most of his works were aimed at improving Roman society, so even while he was writing in private, he was furthering his plans to restore the republic. In his own words:

It was through my books that I was addressing the Senate and the people. I took the view that philosophy was a substitute for political activity.

Although Cicero did not contribute many original ideas to philosophy, he did manage to make Greek philosophy accessible to the Roman reader. In his own words:

I only supply the words, and I have plenty of those. [144]

He managed to convey these ideas with a superb writing style, often considered the best in the ancient world. The important rhetorician Quintilian (c. 35–100) even declared that Cicero was “not the name of a man, but of eloquence itself.” To express the concepts of Greek philosophy in the relatively underdeveloped Latin language, he famously expanded the language, coining many words, such as the roots of the English words “moral,” “quality,” “essence,” “individual,” “property,” “induction,” “element,” “definition,” “probability,” “infinity,” “science,” “perception,” “humanity,” and more. Toward the end of his life, Caesar remarked that Cicero deserved more credit than the great Roman generals since he had extended not just the frontiers of Rome, but the frontiers of Roman genius.

Cicero’s work would resonate throughout the centuries. To many early Church Fathers, he became the role model of a good pagan, one of the few non-Christian authors deemed worthy of study. During the Middle Ages, when the Greek language disappeared from the West, Cicero’s work became one of the rare channels for medieval thinkers to gain some access to the Greek philosophers. When his personal letters were rediscovered at the end of the Middle Ages by Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), it pulled Europe out of the Middle Ages, initiating the Renaissance. His ideas about education, politics, morality, his brilliant writing style, and his active participation in society made him the ultimate role model for humanism, the main philosophical branch of the Renaissance (more on this in a later chapter). When the printing press was invented in Europe, Cicero’s work On Duty was one of the first books to be printed and during the Enlightenment, his analysis of the republic became one of the chief inspirations for the American Constitution.


The First Triumvirate

Having just survived the Catilinarian conspiracy, three new strongmen were already on the rise, and they would pose an even greater challenge to the republic. One of them was Pompey the Great (106–48 BC), who had been a successful general under Sulla. Pompey had raised an illegal army, which the Senate strongly opposed, but when a revolt broke out in Spain, they did not complain when Pompey was willing to restore order. Another one of the strongmen was Crassus (c. 115–53 BC), who was called upon to stop a Thracian man named Spartacus (c. 111–71 BC). Spartacus was at the head of a small group of escaped gladiators and had freed thousands of slaves to create an army. He turned out to be a first-rate general, but Crassus was able to defeat him. The successes of both Pompey and Crassus made them very popular with both the plebeians and the army, and as a result, both men won their elections for consul in 70 BC. Understandably, both their fame and their control over huge armies made the Senate worry. The third general to become a threat to the republic was Gaius Julius Caesar (100–44 BC). His successful campaigns in Spain, and later France, gained him much support.

In 60 BC, Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus joined forces to oppose the republic, forming the First Triumvirate. Cicero was asked to join, but he declined because of their anti-republican tendencies and instead attacked the alliance in his speeches. During the following years, the three members of the triumvirate supported each other in attaining positions of power and getting legislation passed. In 59 BC, Caesar became consul despite great resistance from the Senate. In 55 BC, Pompey and Crassus became consul for a second time. Caesar guaranteed their election by sending his soldiers to Rome to vote for them.

Meanwhile, a man named Clodius (c. 93–52 BC) changed his status from patrician to plebeian to become tribune. Clodius proposed legislation to make grain available to the citizens of Rome completely for free. He also revoked a veto that prohibited the formation of street gangs, which allowed him to organize a gang in the poorer districts of Rome. Clodius also introduced a law to exile anyone responsible for executing a Roman citizen without a trial. This law was specifically aimed at Cicero, as he had been responsible for putting Catiline to death. In Cicero’s absence, Clodius also burned his house on Palatine Hill and confiscated his goods. When the Senate passed a bill to allow Cicero to return, Clodius employed gladiators to prevent the bill from being put before the people. Since he was a destabilizing force against the republic, the triumvirate supported him behind the scenes (as they had also done for Catilina), but after a while, they agreed that Cicero could return, but only if he promised not to openly criticize them. Indebted to Caesar for his return, Cicero praised him in one of his speeches. In his private letters, however, we read that he despised himself for this.


Fig. 328 – Pompey the Great (Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0; The Glyptothek, Denmark)

Fig. 329 – The Chiaramonti portrait of Julius Caesar (Vatican Museum)

Clodius was finally killed when he clashed with another street gang. His death caused an outbreak of violence and Pompey was pushed forward to restore order. He was authorized to raise troops and the Senate made him sole consul in 52 BC, his third consulship.

One year earlier, in 53 BC, Crassus had been killed in battle against the Parthians, ending the triumvirate. As Caesar had gotten stronger, he dumped Pompey and marched on Rome with his army. In response Pompey fled to Greece. Cicero, who also left Rome, wrote about the chaos and uncertainty of this time:

From the day I arrived outside Rome, all my views, words, and actions were unceasingly directed towards peace. But a strange madness was abroad. Not only the rascals but even those who pass for honest men were possessed with the lust of battle, while I cried aloud that civil war is the worst of calamities. Swept along by some spirit of folly, forgetting the name he bears and the honors he has won, Caesar seized Ariminum, Pisaurum, Ancona, and Arretium. So we abandoned Rome—how wisely or how courageously it is idle to argue. [144]

Once in Rome, Caesar was elected consul for a second time. He then chased after Pompey and defeated his army. Pompey fled to Egypt, hoping for the support of Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (62–47 BC), but the pharaoh had him killed out of fear and presented his head to Caesar on his arrival. Ptolemy shared his throne with his sister Cleopatra VII (69–30 BC), who, around that time, started an affair with Caesar, resulting in the birth of a son. Cleopatra also convinced Caesar to defeat her brother, making her the sole ruler of Egypt.

In Africa, the republican forces managed to pull together an army, but when they clashed with Caesar, they lost once more. Unable to accept the end of the republic, Cato stabbed himself in the stomach, pulled out his intestines, and stated, “I, who have been brought up in freedom, with the right of free speech [parrhesia], cannot in my old age change and learn slavery instead.” The impact of his suicide was extremely damaging to Caesar’s reputation. Cicero, who was allowed back in Rome, wrote a work in praise of Cato, in which he presented him as a role model of Roman virtues, with a remarkable strength of character and a will to fight to the death to prevent the fall of the republic. Understandably, this did not please Caesar, who responded with a rebuttal, portraying Cato as a drunk and a miser, but this did not have the intended effect.

Meanwhile, Cicero gave a speech in which he argued that Caesar was the only one who could reconcile Rome and reinstate the republic, but it soon became clear that Caesar had no intention of doing so. Instead, he got the Senate to extend his dictatorship for another ten years, and later, for life.


Fig. 330 – Cleopatra (30-40 BC) (José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0; Altes Museum, Germany)

Fig. 331 – Mark Antony (1st century AD) (CC BY 4.0; Vatican Museum)


The assassination of Julius Caesar

Because of the traditional aversion of Romans to monarchs, Caesar quickly became unpopular in leading circles, leading to a conspiracy to assassinate him. Eventually about 60 people joined in, among them the senator Marcus Brutus (85–42 BC). Mark Antony (83–33 BC), Caesar’s most important general, was also invited to join. He declined, but surprisingly, did not report the conspiracy to Caesar.

To expose Caesar’s monarchical tendencies, some of the conspirators began saluting him as king, and diadems were placed on his statues. On one occasion, Antony appeared in public with a diadem in his hand while the crowd shouted that Caesar should be crowned with it. In what was likely a staged performance, Caesar refused the diadem and flung it back into the crowd, saying, “Jupiter alone is king of the Romans.” Unfortunately for Caesar, his performance did not convince his audience.

Shortly after, Caesar was stabbed by a large number of senators, who had all promised to join in to ensure all conspirators were equally complicit in his death. Once Caesar had died, Brutus shouted at Cicero by name, congratulating him “on the recovery of freedom.” Cicero had witnessed the event with surprise, for he had not been invited to join.

The conspirators assumed that after Caesar’s death, the republic would again function as normal, but they underestimated Caesar’s popularity with the army and the commoners. To awaken the anger in the people even further, Mark Antony gave a spectacular funeral oration, during which he lifted up a wax copy of Caesar, allowing the crowd to see the many stab wounds on his body. As a result, the crowd lost it. They burned down the Senate House, created a pyre and cremated Caesar on the spot. Out of fear, the conspirators withdrew from Rome, allowing Mark Antony to take over the city.


Octavian and Mark Antony

Mark Antony positioned himself as the sole heir of Caesar, but then something unexpected happened. Caesar’s last will was revealed, in which he made his 18-year-old grand-nephew and adopted son Octavian (63 BC–14 AD) the chief heir to his fortune. This was a complete surprise to everyone, including to Octavian himself. His family wanted him to renounce the dangerous inheritance, but Octavian did not. At first, Mark Antony was not overly concerned, since the boy had not been made Caesar’s political heir, but this changed when Octavian was received with enthusiasm by the army as Caesar’s son.

Around the same time, Cicero again became the leading defender of the republic, despite holding no public office. He became so powerful he outshone both consuls (he referred to them as “my consuls”). Defending republican values, he bravely delivered a series of speeches against Mark Antony, known as the Philippics (named after speeches by the democratic orator Demosthenes made against Philip II of Macedon). In his first speech, he aimed to find common ground with anyone who occupied the middle ground and strongly lashed out against Mark Antony for his unconstitutional activities. He denounced him as the greatest danger to the Republic. He stated:

I fought for the republic when I was young. I shall not abandon her in my old age. I scorned the daggers of Catiline; I shall not tremble before yours. Rather, I would willingly expose my body to them, if by my death the liberty of the nation could be recovered and the agony of the Roman people could at last bring to birth that with which it has been so long in labor. [145]

Cicero did his best to stay on good terms with Octavian, even becoming his mentor. It is said that Octavian even began to refer to him as “father.” Even after Octavian delivered a strong anti-republican speech to the General Assembly, Cicero remained on his side, even calling him “this heaven-sent boy” in one of the Philippics. Brutus, in particular, thought that Cicero was going too far with his support, stating, “I only wish you could see into my heart, how I fear that young man,” but Cicero believed that his good connection with Octavian was the only thing that kept Octavian from joining Mark Antony, which would likely mean the end of the republic.

Meanwhile, Octavian had raised an illegal army, which the Senate was willing to give legal status as long as he was willing to join the republicans against Mark Antony. The armies clashed in two battles in North Italy. Octavian won, forcing Antony to flee with what was left of his army. When the victory was announced in Rome, the city erupted in celebrations. Cicero wrote to Brutus:

The whole population of Rome thronged to my house and escorted me up to the Capitol, then set me on the Speaker’s Platform amid tumultuous applause. I am not a vain man, I do not need to be; but the unison of all classes in thanks and congratulations does move me, for to be popular in serving the people’s welfare is a fine thing. [144]

For a moment, it seemed like the republic was saved.


The end of the republic

Not long after, the news arrived in Rome that the two consuls of that year had died in battle, thus leaving the republic without leadership until new elections were held. In addition, Mark Antony found new support and was able to rebuild his army, and some of the republican troops went over to Octavian. Around that time, Cicero’s plan backfired when a joke he made in private became public knowledge. In this joke, he admitted to praising Octavian just to keep him on his side until an opportunity presented itself to get rid of him (he had said: “The young man should be praised, honored, and promoted,” but the last word in Latin also means “destroyed”). Soon Cicero had to admit that he could no longer control his student.

In 43 BC, when Octavian was only 20 years old, he marched on Rome with his army, pressuring the Senate to give him one of the still vacant positions of consul. Once in office, he declared the assassination of Caesar a crime and set up a tribunal to try the conspirators. He then left Rome to team up with Mark Antony, forming the Second Triumvirate (a third participant, named Lepidus, played a minor role). Together they marked 130 senators for execution, offering huge rewards for their heads. Cicero was also on the list, along with the rest of his family. It was claimed that Octavian didn’t want him killed, but Mark Antony insisted, most likely because of the Philippics, which were largely aimed against him. When Cicero was informed about the list, he left Italy to join the republican forces led by Brutus in Greece. On his way, however, he was tracked down by a hitman. Cicero knew his end was near. He said:



I am stopping here. Come here, soldier. There is nothing proper about what you are doing, but at least make sure you cut off my head properly. [144]

Cicero then stretched out his neck, and the hitman cut off his head. On Antony’s instructions, he also removed Cicero’s hands for having penned the Philippics. When these body parts were presented to Mark Antony, he was very pleased and nailed them to the speakers’ platform in the Roman Forum.

A year after Cicero’s death, the last great battle of the republic was fought. The republicans lost, and Brutus killed himself. Octavian and Mark Antony divided the land between them. Mark Antony took the east, where he, too, started a relationship with Cleopatra, while Octavian took the west and stayed in Italy. This arrangement lasted for a decade, after which another civil war broke out. Drawing upon the talents of his general Marcus Agrippa (c. 63–12 BC), Octavian defeated Mark Antony at sea at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. A year later, Mark Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide to avoid capture. This victory marked the end of the republic and the start of the Roman Empire, with Octavian as its first emperor under the name Augustus.

Roman writers of the day generally attributed the fall of the republic to the decline of morals and the erosion of character. While, in the early days, Roman leaders had prided themselves on working for the common good, they now lusted for their own political gain. The Roman historian Sallust (c. 86–35 BC) wrote:

Ambition prompted many to become deceitful; to keep one thing concealed in the breast, and another ready on the tongue; to estimate friendships and enmities, not by their worth, but according to interest; and to carry rather a specious countenance than an honest heart.

He continued:

When sloth has introduced itself in the place of industry, and covetousness and pride in that of moderation and equity, the condition of a state is altered together with its morals. [146]