The events that followed the murder of Julius Caesar were complicated. Initially, there were riots, but there was no resumption of civil war. The assassins were persuaded to retreat from Rome. The senators led by Cicero took an increasingly hostile position with regard to the consul Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony).
Antony was regarded as Caesar’s successor and there was a fear that he would continue his political role and seize power or pursue an agenda hostile to the assassins.
The political situation was further confused by the emergence of Octavian. He had been in Greece when Caesar was murdered, but was named as his heir. He emerged as a rival to Antony. Towards the end of 44, Rome was preparing for a civil war once more. Octavian and the senate were in alliance with Decimus Brutus, one of the assassins, against Antony. Two battles were fought at Mutina in north Italy. Antony retreated to Gaul where he joined with the forces of Marcus Lepidus.
Octavian then made his peace with Antony and in late 43 BC, he marched on Rome. The senators were taken by surprise, but they could not resist. Octavian, Lepidus, and Antony quickly made an agreement. This gave rise to the formation of the triumvirate.
The Nature of the Triumvirate
The triumvirate was a magistracy which came into being through the passing of a law, the lex Titia, through a popular assembly. It was constitutional in form. The magistracy was ‘the three men for the making of the Republic’. Those three men were Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus. The title recalls the dictatorship of Sulla and the closest equivalent of the position of the triumvirs was that of dictator.
A dictator was a Roman constitutional position used in emergencies when the state was threatened. It was meant to be a short-term post which would lapse when the crisis was resolved, which could be in a matter of days. Caesar perverted this in become dictator perpetuus (perpetual dictator), which suggested that the ‘crisis’ was on-going and without obvious resolution. The law establishing the triumvirate granted the triumvirs powers for a period of five years.
It is not clear what powers were granted the triumvirate: we do not have the text of the lex Titia. It is possible that the law specified the rights and powers of the triumvirs, but that would be an unusual way for the Romans to think about magisterial power. It is more likely that the law was an an enabling act which brought into being the magistracy and empowered the magistrates to do what was necessary to ‘constitute’ the Republic. In so doing, it would have similarities with what is called ‘the last decree of the Senate’ (Senatus Consultum ultimum [SCU]) which called for magistrates (and potentially others) to act in defence of the Republic. But whereas the SCU was a senatorial decree and potentially open to legal challenge, the lex Titia was law. The law may have made some provision for the imperium (power) of the triumvirs. Since consular power was theoretically without significant limits (other than the territorial limits in which it operated), there was a potential clash between consuls and governors of consular status and the triumvirs. Fortunately for them, Pompey had already invented something called imperium maius (greater imperium) that had allowed him to issues instructions to governors.
The legal effect of the lex is reasonably obvious.
- Rights of the individual were suspended. These included protection from violence and rights over property. A Roman citizen could be subject to summary violence up to an including death.
- The powers of the tribune to intervene against magisterial action were removed.
- The triumvirs had the right to lead armies, seemingly without the territories in which they held that power being defined.
- The triumvirs appear to have taken control of the financial and military machinery of government.
- They appointed persons to military commands and as governors in the provinces.
- They seem to have designated magistrates for several years in advance. The exact procedure here is unclear. It may be that elections occurred, but that no candidates other than those designated by the triumvirs were allowed to stand for election.
Much of the machinery of Republican government continued to function. The magistrates continued to be appointed and fulfil their duties. The senate continued to meet and debate and the triumvirs referred matters to the senate.
Was the triumvirate a suspension of the Republic?
In December 43 and in the subsequent years, the senate was meeting, the magistrates were being appointed, and there was measure of law, if only rule by the lex Titia. A constitutional lawyer might argue that the Republic continued to function.
- The title of the triumvirs suggests that the Republic had ceased to exist and that their function was to restore the Republic. The Republic could therefore be seen not exist before the passing of the lex Titia.
- Augustus claims for 28-27 that‘In my sixth and seventh consulships when I had extinguished the flames of civil war, after receiving by universal consent the absolute control of affairs, I transferred the republic from my own control to the will of the senate and the Roman people’.Res Gestae 34. This would suggest that the Republic was not previously under the control of the senate and people.
- Appian, Civil Wars 4.8-11 gives the text of a decree issued by the triumvirs which announces their intention to murder a large number of citizens in order to protect the citizen body (a paradox with which many dictatorships seem very comfortable). The language is overwhelmingly moral. It suggests that the behaviour of their enemies has effectively suspended the Republic.
- Augustan reforms in 28-27 BC are presented as a restoration of Republican norms. To restore something, it must have been suspended.
- The suspension of the rights of the individual citizen removed the basic protections of citizenship. If the Republic belonged to the citizens and they were therefore participants within that, the suspension of rights suggests that they were not ‘owners’ of the triumviral state. A republic guaranteed the freedom of the citizen. But no-one could pretend that the citizen was free or safe under triumviral rule.
Although the constitutional machinery continued to function, it seems that the ten years of triumviral rule was a suspension of the Republic. The difference between constitutional and legal forms and political operations is crucial for an understanding of the Augustan settlement of 28-27 BC.