The period of Greco-Roman history that we have the best records on is the final two decades of the Roman Republic, largely due to the survival of much of the work of the great lawyer, philosopher, politician and orator Cicero (106 – 43 BC).
The beginning of the end: The First Triumvirate
During this time the state of Roman politics was unstable and in 59 BC the consulship was shared between three powerful generals: Crassus, Pompey Magnus and Julius Caesar. This shaky accord became known as the First Triumvirate.
In 53 BC Crassus was killed in battle in Carrhae in what is now Turkey, and the tension between the camps of Caesar and Pompey escalated until 50 BC when Caesar marched his armies into Italy. Over the next five years Caesar routed all adversaries and solidified his position as sole console.
Caesar: life (as a dictator) is short
Already a hugely popular figure, Caesar won support in part by pardoning his former enemies. Members of the Senate and the general public generally expected him to bring back the political system to how it was during the Republic.
Instead, in 44 BC, he was made life-long dictator, which turned out to be a very short time, as he was murdered by his peers on the Senate floor only a couple of months later.
“Behold the man who conceived a great desire to be king of the Romans and master of the entire world, and accomplished this. Whoever says that this desire was honourable is a madman, since he approves of the death of the laws and liberty, and considers their hideous and repulsive suppression glorious.
—Cicero, On Duties 3.83
Though not an Emperor, Caesar set the tone for later rulers and was in style a monarch with plenty of the symbolism and accoutrements that that entailed. In order to consolidate power, Caesar used constitutional reforms inaugurated by former consul Sulla (c. 138 BC – 78 BC) — a favourite of Rome’s elite — during his short-lived dictatorship in 80 BC.
These reforms made armies loyal to their generals rather than Rome, forever changing the structures of power.
From civil war to empire
The 13 years following Caesar’s assassination were characterized by civil war and resulted in the emergence of Roman Imperial political culture and the end of the patrician-dominated Republic.
Though Caesar named his adopted son Octavian (later Augustus) as his successor, it was Mark Antony and Cicero — as consul and Senate spokesman, respectively — who filled the power vacuum left in Caesar’s wake. Due to a deal between the two, in which the assassins were granted amnesty, Caesar’s dictatorial reforms remained after his death.
Cicero then spoke out against Antony, siding with Octavian in the hope he would not continue in the style of his adopted father. But a second Triumvirate was formed between Octavian, Antony and Lepidus, a close ally of Caesar. Cicero, a highly popular figure in Rome, was hunted down and killed.
In 42 BC the Senate declared Julius Caesar to be a god, making Octavian Divi filius or ‘Son of God’, strengthening his right to rule Rome as divine.
By 27 BC Octavian had finally defeated his enemies, consolidated Rome under one power and assumed the title of Emperor Augustus. While Augustus appeared to give up power, as consul he was the richest and most powerful person in Rome.