The 1st century BCE was a bloody time in history. This was especially the case for people who were involved in Julius Caesar’s rise and fall in Rome. Assassination, death in battle and suicide were common ends for the numerous people playing the dangerous game of imperial politics.
One of the first deaths of Caesar’s political partners was that of Crassus in 53 BCE, who died under a volley of arrows launched by skilled Parthian archers. That was the first death of a member of the First Triumvirate between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. From there, Caesar’s alliances only continued to deteriorate. One of his best generals, Labienus, left his side to the faction of Pompey and the conservative senators, Cato and Cicero.
Caesar fought an intense war against Pompey, in which he was continuously outnumbered in battles from one side of the Mediterranean to the other. Despite the setbacks, Caesar’s ability to always do the unexpected, and the resolve of his elite, veteran troops allowed him to repeatedly put Pompey on the defensive. When Pompey lost a major battle to Caesar at Pharsalus, he fled to Egypt. When Pompey arrived, the Egyptians, wishing to gain the support of Caesar, had Pompey assassinated in 48 BCE.
Though Pompey was dead, the war was not over for Caesar. He invaded North Africa and defeated a combination of Roman and Numidian forces. Hearing of Caesar’s victories, Cato felt his cause was hopeless. Rather than be pardoned or punished by Caesar he attempted suicide—he gutted himself with a knife in 46 BCE, but his friends found him and were somehow able to stitch him back together. Cato survived that attempt, but when he regained consciousness, he tore at his stitches and succeeded in killing himself.
There were still legions hostile to Caesar in Spain. Caesar defeated them, and in the process, killed his former war friend, Labienus, at the Battle of Munda in 45 BCE. With Spain pacified, Caesar could enjoy power. He had very little time to experience sole rule of Rome, however, for he was assassinated in 44 BCE.
Upon Caesar’s death, his admirers and loyalists took power in a Second Triumvirate. Octavian, Caesar’s grand-nephew (and adopted son), allied with Caesar’s trusted military aid, Mark Antony and the politician Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.
The Second Triumvirate hunted down the assassins who killed Caesar and also eliminated some of the people who criticized the deceased dictator. The great statesman and orator, Cicero, was assassinated in 43 BCE, and the main conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, who killed Caesar, were hunted down and driven to commit suicide after being defeated in battle at Philippi in 42 BCE.
The bloodshed continued in 31 BCE, when Octavian declared war on Cleopatra and Mark Antony. After Octavian’s victory in the Battle of Actium, Mark Antony committed suicide, and Cleopatra followed his example, soon after. With his competitors to power dead, Octavian named himself Augustus and became the first emperor of Rome.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008.