Ancient Rome’s First and Second Triumvirates: Uneasy Transition from Republic to Empire

Balances of power and ambitious pursuits.

By Jona Lendering
Historian and Founder
Livius Onderwijs


triumviratus is literally a college of three men. In the ancient Roman republic, there were several boards of tresviri. For example

  • tresviri agro dando divided newly conquered land among farmers;
  • tresviri capitales were responsible for the jail and prisoners;
  • tresviri coloniae deducendae founded new towns (coloniae);
  • tresviri epulones took care of the dinners that were sometimes served to the gods (lectisternia);
  • tresviri mensarii were responsible for public finances;
  • tresviri monetales minted coins;
  • tresviri (without specification) usually refers to the officials that recruited new soldiers.

The best known triumvirates, however, were less official: the First and Second Triumvirate were private agreements between Roman politicians, directed against the Senate and the People. (The Second Triumvirate was later officially recognized.)

First Triumvirate

Julius Caesar / Wikimedia Commons

The Roman historian Titus Livy (59 BCE – 17 CE) described the First Triumvirate as “a conspiracy against the state by its three leading citizens”, and this was exactly what it was. The three conspirators were

  1. general Pompey, who had defeated the Cilician pirates, conquered the declining Seleucid Empire and subdued Judaea, but discovered that the Senate would not ratify his organization of the Near East;
  2. Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest men in Rome and the conqueror of Spartacus, but also a man whose senatorial career was not as brilliant as he would like;
  3. and his ally, the popular politician Julius Caesar, who had been elected consul for the year 59, but knew he would encounter a lot of opposition from conservative senators.
Crassus / Wikimedia Commons

Although triumviratus was an official term, the First Triumvirate was a private agreement. Its members did not have a positive agenda, but simply wanted to bypass the Senate, obstruct the normal political process, and help each other. The deal was cemented by intermarriage: Pompey married Caesar’s daughter Julia (it appears to have been a happy marriage); Caesar married Calpurnia, whose father Piso was a close friend of Crassus.

Pompey the Great / Wikimedia Commons

The deal gave something to every member. As consul Caesar saw to the swift ratification of Pompey’s oriental acts; an agrarian law passed the Senate, distributing land among the urban poor and Pompey’s soldiers; and Crassus received a financial agreement that was beneficial to his allies, the Roman knights.

Caesar, who went on to conquer Gaul, soon eclipsed his fellow-triumvirs, who controlled Rome. In 56, Caesar convinced them to continue the cooperation, but they demanded armies of their own. Pompey received Hispania and Crassus Syria, including a war against the Parthian empire. Two years later, Julia died, and in 53, Crassus was defeated and killed by his enemies. This was the end of the collaboration, and although Caesar and Pompey tried to prevent civil war, it was bound to come.

Second Triumvirate

Portrait of Augustus as pontifex maximus / Wikimedia Commons

After Caesar had been killed, Marc Antony controlled the republic, but he had to do business with with the assassins, Brutus and Cassius. He made them governors of provinces in the east. However, Caesar’s adopted son Octavian thought this was too kind, and exploiting the anger of Caesar’s veterans, he launched a war against Antony, who was defeated at Modena in northern Italy. After his victory, Octavian returned to Rome, demanded the consulship, and surprised the world with the creation of an alliance with… Marc Antony. This remarkable volte-face had been designed by Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, like Antony a former general in Caesar’s army. He became the third member of the Second Triumvirate, which was recognized in November 43 by the People’s Assembly (Lex Titia).

Lepidus as triumvir / Wikimedia Commons

The triumviri rei publicae constituendae (“board of three to reconstitute the state”) accepted the powers of a dictator and took several measures

  • the execution of 4,700 opponents (e.g. Cicero);
  • land bills to give farms to Caesar’s veterans (the inhabitants of eighteen cities were sent away from their homes without any compensation);
  • war against Caesar’s murderers, who were defeated at Philippi;
  • measures against the Senate, including the appointment of all magistrates.
Marc Antony / Wikimedia Commons

Those opposed to the regime found refuge at Sicily, where a son of Pompey the Great, Sextus, organized resistance. In 36, he was defeated in a naval battle by Lepidus and Octavian (and Octavian’s admiral Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa), and Octavian proceeded to strip Lepidus of his powers.

Marc Antony, who was in charge of the east and had fallen in love with Cleopatra, was defeated in 31 in the naval battle of Actium. From now on, Octavian was sole ruler; from 27 on, he called himself Augustus (“the exalted one”).

The most impressive account of these years is the History of the Civil Wars by Appian of Alexandria, arguably the most underestimated historian from Antiquity.

Originally published by Livius, 04.04.2018, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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