History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Tag: Pompey

Cleopatra

Cleopatra by Edward Mason Eggleston
Cleopatra by Edward Mason Eggleston

The rarely seen British Production of “Caesar and Cleopatra” featuring Vivian Leigh and Claude Rains on YouTube

Claudette Colbert in the 1934 movie …
The famous picture of a red-haired Cleopatra

Did she really look like Elizabeth Taylor? We will never know, but the odds are she did not – what we know from coins and ancient busts speaks against it. She may have had red hair, as in the famous picture, but most likely she shaved all her bodily hair, as it was Egyptian custom, and wore elaborate wigs. It seems clear, however, that she knew everything about ancient make-up, using belladonna to dilate her pupils and stibium (also called kohl, antimony sulphide) to colour her eyebrows. Very little, however, speaks against Cleopatra VII Philopator‘s force of personality, wits and political shrewdness.

Although she was, technically spoken, survived for a few days by her and Caesar‘s son Caesarion as sole ruler, she was in practical regards the last true pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, successor to the various Egyptian Empires in the lands of the Double Crowns.

Papyrus document, right bottom corner an annotation by the queen’s own hand

Her descent features more than a few incestual, er, complications – within her last four patrilineal generations (father to father), there were three brother-sister marriages and the same number of uncle-niece marriages, so that in the end her family tree looks suspiciously like a vertical line – in fact, she only had two pair of (instead of four) great-grandparents – of which one was the son and daughter of the other!

In her youth as a scion of the royal Macedonian but thoroughly Hellenized family of the Ptolemies, founded in 305 BC by Alexander‘s general, companion and historian Ptolemy I Soter (c. 367 – 282 BC), she stood out by her talent for languages – she was the first of the family to learn the Egyptian language, but also spoke Ethiopian, Troglodyte, Hebrew or Aramaic, Arabic, some Syrian language – perhaps Syriac – Median, Parthian, and Latin in addition to her native Koine Greek.

Robert Auer-Cleopatra
Robert Auer – Cleopatra
The Handmaidens, by John Collier

From 81 BC on, mayhem, murder and very irresponsible financial planning within the royal family ended with the Romans’ – initially under Sulla – titular takeover of Egypt as collateral for outstanding loans. Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy XII succeeded as a client king of Rome hanging on to power – by his nails – from 80 to 58 BC and again from 55 to 51 BC with a small interruption when having been intermittently deposed by his daughter and Cleopatra’s elder sister Berenice IV.

After Berenice’s fall and subsequent beheading, Cleopatra was made co-ruler with her father some time in 52 BC, but faced serious problems after her father’s death in 51 BC.  Irregularities of the Nile flooding had left the land in famine and a debt of 17,5 million drachmas to Rome (it is hard to assign a present-day value to the then-drachma, but for a long time in ancient Greek one drachma represented the daily wage of a skilled worker) petrified the state’s fiscus – aggravated by the lawless behaviour of the largely Germanic/Gallic-Roman garrison left by the financiers of the Empire.

Two factors further complicated Cleopatra’s new royal position – her younger brother Ptolemy XIII, whom she had initially rejected as co-regent but probably married for the sake of tradition – aspired to power and the ascendancy of the Roman civil war, which began to extend to Egypt.

By the summer of 49 BC, Cleopatra was fighting her brother and losing, when Pompey’s son Gnaeus Pompeius arrived from Greece with a request for military assistance against Caesar – which was granted by both Ptolemy and Cleopatra alike in their last concurrent decision. Eventually, she had to flee to Roman Syria, where she attempted to find troops for an invasion of Egypt. Yet the invasion soon stalled, and she was forced to camp outside the town of Pelousion in the Eastern Nile Delta over the winter.

Cleopatra Testing Poisons On Those Condemned To Death by Alexandre Cabanel
Cleopatra Testing Poisons On Those Condemned To Death by Alexandre Cabanel

Having lost the Battle of Pharsalus in August 48, Pompey decided to make Egypt the basis for his tactical retreat but was promptly murdered by agents of Ptolemy XIII soon after having made landfall near Pelousion. Ptolemy believed to have perfected nothing but a masterpiece – having removed Cleopatra’s supporter Pompey, thus weakening his sister, and simultaneously earning Caesar’s gratitude for the removal of his enemy.

Uh oh. Caesar was royally angry about the coward murder and ordered – from the royal palace – both Cleopatra and Ptolemy to stop the nonsense, end the war, kiss and make up. We know what happened then: Ptolemy decided on war and Cleopatra on love, arriving at Caesar’s quarters, as Plutarch recounts, in a rug or bed sack.

Cleopatra Before Caesar
Delivery

Caesar’s subsequent attempts to find a solution for Egypt momentarily fizzled, and he had to endure the famous siege of the palace – protected by 4000 guards and most likely in the arms of the queen – until reinforcements arrived in the spring of 47 BC. Ptolemy XIII, his sister Arsinoe IV (half-sister to Cleopatra) and their supporters were defeated quickly, but Caesar remained wary of the intricacies of Egypt and the preceding chaos of the sole-female-rulership of Berenice and proceeded to set up Cleopatra with her younger brother Ptolemy XIV as co-rulers. While his consulship had expired at the end of 48, Mark Antony had provided him the dictatorship of Rome until the end of 47, and thus he possessed the proper legal authority.

Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Leon Gerome
Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Leon Gerome
Caesar investing Cleopatra as Pharaoh

In April 47, Caesar departed for Rome, leaving three legions in Egypt, and his son Caesarion was born on June 23. In Rome, Caesar paid respect to his childless marriage with Calpurnia by keeping his mouth horkos odonton in public while Cleopatra blazoned forth the news of his paternity to everyone.

John William Godward painting purported to show Caesar and Cleopatra

In late 46 followed the visit of Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIV to Rome which is so memorably depicted in Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. The queen had to remain outside the pomerium, i.e., outside the holy precinct of the inner city, for no monarch was allowed to enter; she was put up in a villa in Caesar’s garden

They were still in Rome – unpopular with most of the senators – when Caesar was assassinated at the Ides of March 44. Perhaps she hoped for Caesarion to be named the heir to Caesar, but when that honour fell to Octavian, she left for Egypt, had her brother killed by poison (it is said) and elevated Caesarion to co-ruler.

Cleopatra and Mark Antony at the Funeral Bier of Julius Caesar, 1878. Lionel-Noel Royer

In the Liberators’ Civil War, forced by Mark Antony and Octavian against the assassins of Caesar, she was initially courted by both sides but quickly declared for Mark Antony. Alas, one of her own lieutenants, the governor of Cyprus, defected to the enemy and subsequently she had to attend a possibly dangerous confrontation with Mark Antony at Tarsus – which she, however, defused easily by a few lavish banquets and her considerable personal charms. Mark Anthony fell for her hook, line and sinker, and Arsinoe IV, who had only been banished before, and the treasonous governor were duly executed.

Antony and Cleopatra meet on a river barge, by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema
Antony and Cleopatra meet on a river barge, by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema

The lovely couple was fond of parties and even founded their own drinking club, the “Indestructible Livers” …

The Triumph of Cleopatra by William Etty
The Triumph of Cleopatra by William Etty

But the high life did not last long – trouble developed soon. After the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, Octavian faced the task of simultaneously providing land for the retirement of the pro- and contracaesarian veterans of the civil war – most of the latter having been pardoned by Caesar before his death. The choice was either to enrage the citizens by confiscating the required land or enrage the veterans, who then might easily decide to support a possible opponent of the triumvirate. Octavian resolved in favour of the veterans by confiscating no less than eighteen towns and their hinterlands for the soldiers – driving whole populations out – which, of course, resulted in civil unrest.

On the terraces of Philae, by Frederick Arthur Bridgeman

Enter Fulvia Flacca Bambula, widow of two former supporters of Caesar and third wife of Mark Antony (from 47 or 46 BC until 40 BC). She was, through her family connections, by far the most powerful woman in Roman politics ever, and managed even during Antony’s absence in Egypt to raise eight legions – formally commanded by Lucius Antonius, Mark’s younger brother – in Italy for a civil war against Octavian and his veterans, the so-called Perusine War. She apparently committed, however, the critical mistake of not telling her husband of her campaign and Anthony’s supporters in Gaul – for the want of orders – did not come to her aid. The rebels subsequently lost the war and Fulvia fled to her husband in Athens. It would appear that the triumvir, upset with his dear wife, sent her into exile, where she dutifully died and sailed back to Rome to mend affairs within the triumvirate.

Antony thus had to return to Rome on urgent business and Cleopatra was absolutely not amused when he – in a scheme to lessen tensions within the triumvirate – not only married Octavia, the elder sister of Augustus, in Rome but also produced two daughters with her. Yet the Perusine War had critically lessened his subsequent political influence and Octavian gained the upper hand, first in Italy, and then in Gallia.

Cleopatra by Mose Bianchi

This was documented by a new agreement between the triumvirs in the Treaty of Brudisium, in which the West fell to Octavian and the East to Antony, while Lepidus received Africa Provincia as a sort of junior partner. In this context also fell the above mentioned marriage of Antony and Octavia.

Making plans …

Anthony then set out on his grand design, the war against the Parthian Empire – for which Cleopatra and Egypt had to chip in a most substantial contribution. The less is said about the campaign the better – there were a few successes but defeats as well and the “Endsieg” remained a chimaera. At least the campaign had a somewhat positive end when Anthony conquered Armenia in 35 BC.

Yet in the aftermath of this success, Anthony developed a clear case of megalomania – in addition to his infatuation, yes, besottedness with the queen. For a long time, he had followed a strategy to use the prestige and power of the Egyptian Ptolemy dynasty to set up a Hellenistic follow-up state to the Seleucid Empire in Asia and in 36 BC had presented a plan of making pseudo-donations to titular Hellenistic rulers – client kings – which were to form buffer-states on the Parthian borders. At this time, Octavian had agreed and such donations were presented at Antiochia. In 34, however, as Jenny Hill describes …

Frederick Arthur Bridgeman – Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae

“… During this triumph in Alexandria (for his victory in Armenia the preceding year) , Mark Antony proclaimed Cleopatra the ‘Queen of Queens’ and claimed that he, not Octavian, was the adopted son of Caesar. He also formally pronounced Cleopatra and Caesarion joint rulers of Egypt and Cyprus, Alexander Helios (his first-born son by Cleopatra) the ruler of Media, Armenia and Parthia; Cleopatra Selene II (his daughter, twin of Alexander) the ruler of Cyrenaica and Libya; and Ptolemy Philadelphus (his second son by Cleopatra) the ruler of Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia.”

These declarations – usually called the Donations of Alexandria – meant not only the end of the triumvirate but were an invitation to war – not because of the titular land grants but because of Antony’s claim of the Caesarian inheritance for Caesarion – not Octavian. This Octavian could not suffer. His claim to rulership was adoption by Caesar – through which he not only had inherited possessions and authority but also the loyalty of Caesar’s veterans and personal popularity. This status being called into question by a biological son of Caesar – by the richest woman in the world – he could, politically, not possibly survive. Antony’s declaration meant war – but it hadn’t yet begun.

Cleopatra by William Wetmore Story

Sparks began to fly in earnest and a full-fledged propaganda war began. Octavian basically argued – very much in public – that Anthony was not only giving away the spoils of the Armenian war but also possessions that legitimately belonged to Rome and had been paid for by the blood of the legions, that Antony was but the “slave” of a foreign queen, to whom he had bequeathed huge properties – and that to his children, a most non-Roman idea. By his giving away provinces he also deprived deserving senators of proconsulships and was starting wars, as against Parthia and Armenia, without the senate’s consent. The pro-Antony faction in the capital accused Octavian of unspeakable crimes in Gallia and Spain in addition to homosexuality and cowardice. Par for the course, one could say.

In the eyes of most Romans, Octavians arguments were better and thus the political battle developed very much to his advantage. He was also able to rouse the feelings of the citizens of the capital in regard to the various executions without trial that had become standard procedure in the East – and of course in Egypt.

Marc Antony and Cleopatra planning …

In 32 BC, the senate formally deprived Antony of his powers and declared war on Cleopatra – not Anthony. It was very important for Octavius not to appear to start another civil war – thus Cleopatra – still very unpopular in Rome – was the perfect target. Yet the political majorities were not clear and almost half of the Senate left Rome and defected to Antony and Cleopatra in Greece.

War finally broke out, and the naval Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC, decided emphatically against the fortunes of the couple. In the August of 30 BC, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa led an invasion of Egypt which the wrought-out country was powerless to resist.

The Battle of Actium – September 2, 31 BC
The Battle of Actium – September 2, 31 BC

Antony committed suicide in the mistaken belief that Cleopatra had done so already. When he, lethally wounded, was informed of the fact that she was still alive, he was brought to her and died in her arms.

Louis Gauffier – Cleopatra and Octavian
Guercino – Cleopatra and Octavian

Octavian captured Cleopatra but allowed her to bury Antony in the usual fashion. She was destined to be led through Rome in Octavians’ subsequent triumph and afterwards ritually murdered. Robby House writes:

Another prevalent form of execution was that of Strangulation. This was perhaps the most popular form of execution for Rome’s greatest enemies although in those cases it was usually referred to as ritualistic strangulation which would often occur after the vanquished and shackled enemy was paraded through the streets of Rome as part of a Roman Triumph. While many of the victims were publicly strangled in the Forum area, perhaps the most famous war trophy was that of Gallic Chieftain Vercingetorix, arguably Caesar’s greatest foe in the field of battle. Perhaps out of some sort of pity, Caesar had him strangled away from the eyes of Rome’s citizens inside the confines of his cell in the Tullianum Prison (a.k.a. the Mamertine Prison).

Cleopatra knew very well what Octavian intended, and hence, after a few failed attempts, she took her own life – either on August 10 or 12, 30 BC.
The popular story goes that she died by the bite of an asp – an Egyptian cobra – but it is also quite possible that she took poison. Egyptian medicine knew many potent toxins, such as HemlockOpiumBelladonna or Aconitine, and combinations of them which yielded deadly potables or ointments.  The snake story is, of course, the best copy, and hence it does not surprise that the subject was taken on by a plethora of painters and sculptors, of which we show a few below.

La mort de Cleopatre. Rixens Jean Andre. 1874.
The Death of Cleopatra by Hans Makart
The Death of Cleopatra by John Collier
The Death of Cleopatra by John Collier
The Death Of Cleopatra – by Louis Jean François Lagrenée
The Death Of Cleopatra – by Louis Jean François Lagrenée
Cleopatra by Alfonso Balzico, 1874

And a few famous statues …

Esquiline Venus in the Capitol Museum – Woman and Snake
Esquiline Venus in the Capitol Museum – Woman and Snake
Cleopatra, by Charles Gauthier, 1880
Cleopatra, by Charles Gauthier, 1880
Cleopatra taking her own life with the bite of a venomous serpent, by Adam Lenckhardt
Cleopatra, taking her own life with the bite of a venomous serpent, by Adam Lenckhardt

Thus ended the life of the last Pharaoh of Egypt.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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The Division of Rome in 39 BC

The Pact of Misenum - 39 BC
The Pact of Misenum – 39 BC – Legend: Orange – remaining under the Senate – Yellow and Ochre: Client states – Purple: Octavian – Brown: Lepidus – Green: Mark Anthony – Blue: Sextus Pompeius – Pink: Cleopatra

Video: Octavian


Video: Octavian vs. Antony


It is barely known that, for practical reasons, one might as well attribute the end of the Roman Republic to the summer of the year 39 BC, when the triumvirs Gaius Octavius (Augustus), Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus negotiated a treaty with Sextus Pompey, the youngest son of the great Pompey and pirate scourge of the western Mediterranean Sea to the effect of a partitioning the Roman lands amongst themselves.

It is known as the Pact of Misenum, and its obscurity is illuminated by the fact that Wikipedia in English solely offers a stub on it, which is the reason why I link it here to the German edition.

The Place:

Capo Miseno today

Misenum was the imperial naval base for the Tyrrhenian Sea and Western Mediterranean, developed by Agrippa. Pliny the Elder was prefect of the fleet during the eruption of Mons Vesuvius in AD 79. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, apparently described the event watching from his uncle’s villa. His uncle died on this day on a rescue mission, probably due to a heart attack.

Eruption of Mons Vesuvius in AD 79

Gaius Marius had a famous villa there, which was, after his proscription, cheaply bought by Cornelia, the daughter of Sulla, who then sold it to Lucullus. [Link to source] Emperor Tiberius is said to have died there, en route to Rome.

The Background:

The Second Triumvirate had been established – distinctly from the first – by a legal act, the Lex Titia of November 43 BC, which invested its members with dictatorial powers for five years (and was duly renewed in 38 BC). They utilized the very convenient method of proscription – introduced by Sulla – to get rid of their political enemies, of which there were many. The prospective victims naturally fled – most to the camp of Brutus and Cassius but many also to Sicily to find refuge with Sextus Pompey, who provided shelter.

The triumvirs first and foremost aim was the destruction of their main opposition, led by the two most prominent assassins of Caesar, Marcus Junius Brutus and his brother-in-law Gaius Cassius Longinus, who had, after the end of the Civil War, fled to Illyria and concentrated their forces in Asia. This being the triumvirate’s priority at the moment, they chose to ignore – for the moment – Sextus Pompey, who ruled Sicily and its neighbouring islands, and concentrated on the creation of a strong navy being the most useful instrument of his power he could imagine – and he was right. With his fleet, he was able to block the all-important grain shipments from Africa Provincia to Italy and thus had the triumvirs by the throat.

Mosaic of a Roman warship

After the assassins had been beaten at Philippi and forced to commit suicide, the triumvirate’s attention turned on Sextus and Sicily, but early skirmishes not only came to no conclusive result, but they also lost Sardinia to Sextus in 40 BC. 

Meanwhile, Antony, as the possessor of the eastern provinces, was hatching the egg of a decisive campaign against the Parthian Empire, the perennial scourge on the eastern border. For this, however, he would have to raise money in the form of new taxes, a plan that drove the already starving population of the capital to revolt. Octavian was forced to give in.

An armistice and a treaty with Pompey would free a few legions from guard duty against Sicily and ensure the unimpeded grain supply to Italy. Hence, in the early summer of 39 BC, a conference near Cape Misenum in the bay of Neapolis was agreed on.

Negotiations proved tough. Sextus apparently had the idea to replace Lepidus as the third partner of the triumvirate, and complicated things by his demand to reinstate the victims of the proscriptions and allow him to keep all the slaves who had fled with their owners to Sicily.

Yet finally a consensus was reached and a pact was signed with a period of five years’ validity.

Pompey was given the possession of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica as well as the surrounding islands. He was promised a province in Greece – historians argue whether it was the Peloponnese or Achaia, i.e. the whole Grecia Provincia, and a near future consulship together with Octavian.

Perhaps even more important for him – quite a family trait – were matters of personal possessions. He wrested from the triumvirs not only the restitution of his father’s possession – which had been confiscated – rewards for his soldiers after their eventual release – the manumission of all his slaves and the end of proscriptions and restitution of the refugees’ possessions.

The quid pro quo was the evacuation of all Italian grounds he had conquered or held occupied, restore unhindered trade to Italy, in particular, secure an unimpeded grain supply and stop his practise of providing shelter to runaway slaves.

The treaty was duly signed and stored with the Vestal Virgins but never came truly into force. It is true that during initial festivities in Rome – under the applause of the relieved burghers of the capital – Pompey plighted his three-year-old daughter Pompeia to Octavian’s nephew Marcus Claudius Marcellus, but nothing further came of it. Many refugees subsequently returned to Rome but indeed, that was pretty much all that happened – the benefits to Sextus never really materialized.

By the following year the conflict flared up again and after several years of low-level warfare, the fleet of Pompey was destroyed by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in the Battle of Naulochus. Sextus fled to Asia Minor, was caught in Miletus, and executed without trial on the orders of Antony

The Battle of Naulochus must have looked quite like the one at Actium pictured here
The Battle of Naulochus must have looked quite like the one at Actium pictured here

This was the end of the first division of  Rome …

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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The Power of Command


Authority in Rome

The exercise of authority in Rome – at least during much of the Republic – things changed under the Principate and the Empire – was based, as were morals and religion upon the mos maiorum, the laws of the elder, and Roman society was very much a mirror image of its core, the family.

Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate - Cicero attacking Catilina, from a 19th-century fresco
Representation of proceedings in the Roman Senate – Cicero attacking Catilina, from a 19th-century fresco

The family – which rather should be translated as “household” in the sense of an economic unit than referring to blood relatives only – was almost dictatorially headed by the pater familias, while the relations outside of the family were guided by the principles of patron (patronus) and client (cliens).  

It surprises little that these two elements were largely mirrored within the legal concepts of civil and military authority.

Caesar crossing the Rubicon River

The concept of potestas was applied, as we would say, in matters of the private law, within the family as the Patria potestas, and in civil law the power, or perhaps better the jurisdiction and responsibility, of a magistrate to promulgate the laws and arrange the workings of the state, i.e. rather an expression of socially recognized power than an executive function.

Paterfamilias
Paterfamilias

Auctoritas, however, was different in nature, not a matter of the law but a measure of the prestige a man (or, in Imperial times, a woman) enjoyed within the Roman society. Politically, it expressed itself predominantly in the Senate, in the auctoritas of the Princeps Senatus, the censors, and other outstanding personalities. (1) It was, naturally, a matter of charisma.

Imperium was a more serious matter. It was the legally prescribed formal power of command a citizen held over a civil or military entity – a military unit, a province, territory, campaign or special command (e.g. Pompey against the Cilician pirates in 67-66 BC). Imperium was held by the curule aedile, the praetor, the consul, the magister equitum, and the dictator, and such promagistrates (propraetors and proconsuls) which were appointed annually for the government of provinces.

Imperium was bestowed by a legal act of the Senate and originally limited to one year with the exception of the dictator’s term of six months and the rare imperium maius which could last as long as the underlying mandate. In the last century of the Republic, these rules were commonly broken – Marius‘ seven consulships, Caesar‘s five-year term in Gallia and his and Sulla‘s dictatorships. The emperors’ Imperium, naturally, ran for a lifetime.

Imperium sometimes included – at least for a dictator, or later the emperor – the power to command the death penalty for offenders (although various laws limited the death penalty for Romans citizens, which, however, tended to work better for the rich and famous than for the poor sods of Subura and the bottom of Esquilina, the two tribes reserved for the majority of the plebs).

Imperium was limited to geographical borders – see the praetor peregrinus outside of Rome but not inside; imperium over provinces ended on its borders. That is why Caesar crossing the Rubicon as the border river f Gallia cisalpina was technically high treason and was taken as the declaration of civil war.

The outside symbol of imperium was the prominence of lictors, guards accompanying the holder of office:

  • Curule aedile (aedilis curulis) – 2 lictors
    • Since a plebeian aedile (aedilis plebis) did not own imperium, he was not escorted by lictors.
  • Magister equitum (the dictator‘s deputy) – 6 lictors
  • Praetor – 6 lictors (2 lictors within the pomerium)
  • Consul – 12 lictors each
  • Dictator – 24 lictors outside the Pomerium and 12 inside; starting from the dictatorship of Lucius Sulla the latter rule was ignored.
    • Because the dictator could enact capital punishment within Rome as well as without, his lictors did not remove the axes from their fasces within the pomerium. (see Wikipedia)

Since many magistrates held Imperium, the question of overruling was a constant practical matter. Commonly it worked by seniority – an aedile could be overruled by a praetor, the praetor by the consul and so forth. Colleagues could overrule each other, i.e. veto – and frequently did, except for the dictator, whose orders were above the law and not subject to subsequent judicial proceedings.

In special cases – see Pompey above – the Senate could give out imperium maius (“greater”) to an official, usually for a closely defined task (dictators held it by definition). This proved such a desirable and effective method of office that it was quickly appropriated by the emperors and became their hallmark.

Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, the two famous tribunes, by Eugene Guillaume

The last and rather different form of a command – being entirely a negative power – was the famous “Intercessio!” – ‘I step in!’, by which any Tribune of the Plebs (of which they were usually ten) could veto discussions, commands, trials and even laws. This being a most practical way of interference, every bigwig of the late republic – Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar and the like – made sure they always had one or two tame tribunes on their payroll which they could use for political sabotage.

This ability proved so useful and desirable that, from Augustus on, every emperor made sure to receive the tribunal character on the occasion of his ascension to the throne. Imperium maius and the tribunal power became the major instruments of Imperial reign.

Clemency could be obtained by appealing to a Vestal Virgin

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

(1) See Wiki: The 19th-century classicist Theodor Mommsen describes the “force” of auctoritas as “more than advice and less than command, a piece of advice which one may not safely ignore.” Cicero says of power and authority, “Cum potestas in populo auctoritas in senatu sit.” (“While power resides in the people, authority rests with the Senate.”)

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The Cursus Honorum

Roman Offices
Roman Offices

Political procedures of the Roman Republic

In the first two hundred years or so, Rome was a monarchy: the names of seven kings are known, of whom the last, Tarquinius, possibly of Etruscan origin, was deposed in 509 BC and the republic proclaimed. From then on, Rome was socially and politically divided in two “classes”, ninety-one “centuries” and thirty-five “tribes”, each of these classifications counting for a different political purpose. The two “classes” were, for one, the common men or “plebs” [short ‘e’, rhymes with ‘pets’, adjective ‘plebeian’, ¶], and, second, the “patricians” [from Latin ‘pater’, i.e. father, ¶], the nobility. These ancient aristocrats professed to rule the plebs much like a stern but benevolent father rules his children – for their own benefit.

These two classes worked together, or, rather, against each other, in four different legislative and executive congregations: one “Senate“, which comprised only patricians (in the first centuries), and three “assemblies of the people“, which had different legislative authorities. Since the origins of all these bodies reached back into the mythical days when Rome had been a monarchy, these bodies had been created without the benefit of written laws; hence legislative competition was furious, and it took three centuries to iron things out.

Due to its seniority as the oldest political institution, the Senate did not limit itself with technical jurisdictional issues; its members viewed themselves as the natural leaders of the commonwealth due to their former status as the king’s advisors. Membership was for life unless a senator was expelled for pauperism, immorality or treason. Technically, the senators were limited to income from agrarian possessions, for they were legally forbidden to entertain plebeian businesses; but they knew everything about silent partnerships and employing straw men.

The death of Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate by Vincenzo Camuccini
The death of Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate by Vincenzo Camuccini

In ancient times, the Senate had been a purely patrician affair, consisting of one hundred members. Around 500 BC, plebeians gained access, and during the days of the republic the membership swelled to 300, and in imperial times to 600 and eventually 1,000 members. As it may be assumed, it took the plebs decades and sometimes centuries to effect changes in the elitist club. In the early days, the Senate could not pass laws binding all Romans, for its exclusive patrician membership, but this technicality was easily circumvented. A decision of the Senate was called a “consultum”, a decree, and was technically a request to one of the assemblies of the people to enact a law in the form suggested by the Senate. Despite vigorous plebeian opposition, the house succeeded in retaining sole jurisdiction in matters of the treasury or  fiscus, foreign affairs, including war, and the appointment of provincial governors.

The three assemblies of the people dealt, each in its own distinctive way and composition, with elections and the enactment of lesser laws. The “Comitia Centuriata”, the Centuriate Assembly, included both plebeians and patricians and was organized in “Centuriae”, i.e. “centuries” of one hundred men each, classified by wealth. The system of centuries hinted at the congregation’s original military character: a centuria of one hundred men was, of course, the basic unit of the legion. In the Comitia Centuriata, ninety-one centuries were represented, and each centuria had one vote.

Cicero indicts Catilina - Painting by Hans Werner Schmidt
Cicero indicts Catilina – Painting by Hans Werner Schmidt

This small number of votes reflects on the character of Roman voting rights, which were timocratic in nature, not democratic: based on wealth or status, not “one man -one vote”. Each centuria had one vote, which was decided by the relative majority of votes within it; the swindle in favour of the nobility lay in the fact that a centuria of patricians was indeed composed of one hundred men, while each centuria of the plebs was comprised of many thousand men. The following description of the political system of the Republic is much indebted to the late Colleen McCullough.

Since forty-six votes were needed for an absolute majority of 46 to 45 in the 91 “centuries”, the 4,600 wealthiest men, all nobles, organized in these 46 centuries, were automatically assured of a majority.

The business of the Centuriate Assembly was to elect consuls and praetors annually, and two Censors every five years. In theory, the assembly could also pass laws, which happened seldom and was the proper court to charge and try “Perduellio” – high treason. Such trials, however, became increasingly rare when the plebs realized that it was impossible to convict a nobleman against the votes of his fellow aristocrats.

The “Comitia Populi Tributa”, the Tribal Assembly or Assembly of the People, was also composed of both plebs and patricians but rigged in a different way. The “tribes” were based upon the ancient rural origins of Rome and centred on the old families: a “tribe” was the equivalent of a former territory, a village, perhaps, that had belonged to one of the old clans. Thirty-one of the total thirty-five tribes were made up from people whose ancestry related back to these ancient rural communities, and it made no difference if only three or five living members were left: they had one vote. The multitudes of the plebs, however, were assigned to two of the four “city” tribes, Esquilina and Subura, and hence these tens of thousands of men together only had two votes. The business of the Tribal Assembly was to elect lower magistrates, the curule aedile, the quaestors and the military tribunes, the apprentices for future generalships. It could pass laws and hear criminal and “civil trials.

The principal political instrument of the plebs was the “Comitia Plebis Tributa” or “Concilium Plebis”, the Assembly or Council of the People. It was the youngest of the legislative bodies, excluded patricians, and had earned its power by sheer and determined opposition against Senate and nobility. It could only be convoked by the peoples’ own elected officers, the “Tribuni Plebis“, Tribunes of the People, and could pass any law law [which were called “plebiscites”, an appellation still in use today, ¶]. The three assemblies, as mentioned, but not the Senate, elected public officials, some of which wielded “Imperium” while others did not.

The word “Imperium” is best translated as the “power of command” and is obviously the root for the words “emperor” or “empire”. It prescribed the degree of legal authority vested in the office, the execution of power that bound every Roman citizen, plebe and patrician alike. It was conferred by legal act of the respective comitia and lasted for one year. Every holder of “imperium” was preceded in public by lictors, bodyguards, who shouldered fasces. Fasces were bundles of birch rods tied together crisscross wise with red leather thongs; an ancient design, probably of Etruscan origin. The number of lictors preceding the magistrate depended on the office: an “Aedile” was preceded by two lictors, a “Praetor”, “Propraetor” or “Master of the Horse” by six, a “Consul” by twelve, and a “Dictator” by twenty-four.

Outside of Rome, axes were inserted in the birch bundles to indicate that the magistrate wielded power over life and death. Only a dictator was allowed to show axes inserted in his fasces within the pomerium (the religious borders of Rome), a reminder of his unconditional power that could not be gainsaid. The words fascism and fascist derive, of course, from fasces; after his takeover of Italy, Benito Mussolini reintroduced them as symbols of his power. The number of legislative bodies and magistrates makes the Roman government a complicated affair; the graphic at the bottom may be of assistance.

In order of ascending authority, the following were Roman public offices: The “Tribunes of the Soldiers” were two dozen aspiring men, more often than not from noble families, between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine, which were elected by the Tribal Assembly and were basically cadets, officer trainees: six of them were allotted to each of the four Roman legions that, together with four legions of allies, made up the standing army in the days of the republic. They should not be confused with the centurions, which were essentially Roman NCO’s, company commanders. These tribunes could have authority in the field, if the general so decided, but carried no imperium.

Roman politics were a male-only affair - perhaps with the exception of the legendary Fulvia
Roman politics were a male-only affair – perhaps with the exception of the legendary Fulvia – here with the head of her arch-enemy Cicero

The “pomerium” were the sacred borders of the city, which ran essentially around the Capitol, Palatine and Aventine hills. To cross these borders from the outside meant to lose any imperium one possessed. This was essentially a precaution against military putsches, for the legions always assembled outside of the town and a general leading them in with designs on usurpation automatically lost his power of command. Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, which was the border from his province Gallia Cisalpina to Italia proper was the crossing of a similar legal border and thus amounted to a declaration of civil war against the Roman Republic.

The lowest rank of civil public servant was the “Quaestor”. They were also elected by the Tribal Assembly, usually six per year. This office was also considered the lowest rung of the “cursus honorum“, the acknowledged stations in the career of a full-time Roman politician. The quaestor’s duties were of financial nature: he was either seconded to a praetor or propraetor who governed a province, detailed to duty in the treasury, or consigned to one of the great ports. They did not carry imperium.

The next rank in the system was the “Aedile”, of which two varieties existed: two “Plebeian Aediles”, elected by the Assembly of the Plebs and hence not possessing imperium, and two “Curule Aediles”, which were elected by the Tribal Assembly and did wield imperium. Originally, the curule aediles had to be of patrician descent but this proviso was abandoned in the fourth century BC. The aediles governed the town itself: supervising construction and enforcing (or not) the building code, securing the supply of clean water flowing from the great aqueducts, and keeping roads, markets and other facilities in order.

The most important political part of the office was the aediles’ responsibility to arrange the ludi, the games, Rome’s favourite pastime. They provided the principal opportunity for a young politician to build a reputation; the more splendid the games, the higher the aedile’s prestige in the peoples´ esteem and his chances to be elected to more prestigious offices later.

There was a drawback: the state did not allocate funds for the games. The aediles were counted on to pay the expenses, which ran into the millions of sesterces, from their own purses. Not surprisingly, some aediles ruined their family fortunes in pursuit of sensational games and ended in exile, fugitives from their creditors. In most cases, however, the loan sharks were willing to wait until their candidate reached the rank of “Praetor” and was dispatched to govern a province. At such time, the recovery of the mostly modest principal plus interest, compounded, up to fifty per cent annually, took place, on the backs of the provincials. Exploitation was the normal and accepted course of business in the governance of a province: the governor could, for example, levy his own taxes, sell the Roman citizenship, forgive tax debts or issue exceptions, for a consideration, or create criminal indictments and then peddle their dismissal; treason was the favourite charge. He could also take advantage of the tax-farming system Rome implemented upon the provinces: contracts were let to businesses that paid the whole amount of taxes of, say, a town, an estate, or a whole province, in advance to the treasury and obtained, as compensation, the right to collect the imperial taxes on their own cognizance from the unhappy people. The tax rates they assigned were, alas, mysteriously high; higher than the amounts legally prescribed on some scroll in the treasury in Rome. The company, which belonged to the governor or his creditors, kept the difference. It was an excellent business, and for many politicians the only way to get rid of the debts they had incurred during their aedileship.

The second-highest rank in the hierarchy of Roman magistrates was the Praetor, as mentioned above. Initially entrusted with legal duties, the administration of justice and oversight of the courts, the number and duties of praetors varied in later years, when the government of provinces was added to their curriculum. Of the two praetors elected in ancient times, one, the Praetor Urbanus, as the word indicates, was responsible for lawsuits between Roman citizens or parties within the pomerium, while the second one, the Praetor Peregrinus, was deputized to litigate cases involving foreign entities. If both consuls were absent, chiefly during times of war, the praetor urbanus assumed the command over town and people. In the later days of the Republic, when more and more provinces were added to the Roman fold, additional praetors were elected as regents. They ruled either during their standard one-year term of office or in a subsequent year, in the case of which they were officiating as Propraetor [“in the stead of a praetor”, ¶). In the last century of the Republic, between six and eight praetors were elected annually. They did, of course, possess imperium.

The most senior regular officer owning imperium was the “Consul“, the executive head, or heads, of the Roman administration. It was one of Rome’s peculiarities to elect two persons to fill the highest office, so as to publicly and expressively deny any resemblance to a monarchy. The position of consul was also the zenith of the “cursus honorum”, but a popular or exemplary meritorious consul could be re-elected to a second term, provided that ten years lay between the first and second consulship.

Two plebeians could be consul at any one time, but not two patricians. A consul’s imperium eclipsed any other officer’s power, anywhere, unless a “Dictator” was in office. At the end of his term, the retired consul was given the honorific “consular”; he now was an elder statesman and enjoyed a privileged position in the Senate. Consulars were often deputized to govern provinces if no praetor was available, or were sent on special diplomatic or economic missions, the most important and recurring of which was to secure the annual grain supply from Sicily and Africa.

The office of Dictator was reserved for emergencies, most of which were of military nature. The office absolved the holder from any legal consequence of his actions or omissions, but was limited to six months. A dictator was appointed by the Senate, more often than not on the recommendation of the “Princeps Senatus”, the unofficial president of the Senate, or the consuls. Technically, the dictator’s title was “Magister Populi”, Master of the People; in this context “people” referred to the infantry he would presumably lead into the field. The first decision he had to undertake on the assumption of office was the appointment of a lieutenant called the “Magister Equitum” or Master of the Horse, that is, the cavalry. Dictators were appointed very infrequently.

The most senior of all Roman magistrates were the “Censors“, although they did not possess imperium. A candidate for censor must have absolved the complete “cursus honorum”, hence must have been a consul, and preferably one of the better ones. A team of two Censors was elected by the Centuriate Assembly for a term of five years, which they, however, were at liberty not to complete. In general, they busied themselves with their tasks for a year or perhaps two and then semi-retired. In addition to the duties mentioned above in the context of the elder Cato, they also administered the general economic classification which determined every citizen’s place in the proper centuria. On the outside of Rome, their duty was to perform a full census of all Roman citizens every five years, as mentioned in Luke 2:1.

The complete antithesis to all the offices and governmental functions enumerated above were the “Tribuni Plebis”, or Tribuni Populi, the tribunes of the plebs respectively the people (both terms were used). Their origin lies in the town’s early history, when political decision-making was more of a physical than verbal matter.

They were ten, elected annually by the Assembly of the People, and their task was the defence of the rights, the property and the lives of the common man against the machinations of the patricians, who in the days of yore had enjoyed a political monopoly. Since the tribunes of the plebs were elected by the plebs alone, they had no preconceived place within the fabric of Roman governance and thus carried no imperium. Their safety and authority lay in the oath the assembly took after election, to defend the inviolability of their representatives with their own lives.

The tribunal power was chiefly negative; although they could bring in and pass laws in the assembly of the people, the main authority lay in their what since has been called the “veto power” against the actions of any magistrate, officer or even fellow tribune; he could stop not only the passing of laws but even their discussion in the Senate or the assemblies with the magic word “intercessio” [“I step in”, ¶].

Such an ability to frustrate political action was not overlooked by the movers and shakers of the last century BC: it became common practice for Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar to have at least one or two tame tribunes whose election they had financed on the payroll, to counteract any designs their enemies came up with. Many parts of the Roman administrative machine became, often in only slightly different form, stock features of European political organization in the next two thousand years. The word “senator” comes to mind, as does “dictator” as a generic term for autocrats who, alas, only very seldom retire after six months. Consuls, albeit with different functions, work in every nation, and the word “patrician” still denotes a revered elder statesman. But it was the great concept of the “Imperium” that exerted the loftiest influence on the political designs of the next two thousand years: hegemony over the European continent became the treacherous ideal of many a ruler’s political daydreams.

Below an organizational diagram of Roman politics (inspired by Colleen McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series. Link for bigger version here.) (NB: “¶” in the text denotes a remark by the author. © John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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