In this page:
Antony and Octavian, the Political Heirs of Caesar
The Second Triumvirate: Antony, Lepidus and Octavian
Partition of the Empire
Civil War (Iseo Campense)
Octavian becomes Augustus
Immediately after the death of Caesar
the Senate took control of the events and granted an amnesty to those who had killed him.
At Caesar's funeral however the consul Marcus Antonius (Antony) gained the favour of the
crowd by presenting himself as the political heir of Caesar and by reading Caesar's will
he so inflamed the Romans against those who had killed him, that they were forced to leave
But here is a parchment with a seal of Caesar;
I found it in his closet: 'tis his will:
Let but the commons hear this testament -
Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read -
And they would go and kiss Caesar's wounds
and dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
Yea, beg a hair of him for memory,
And dying mention it within their wills
Bequeathing it as a rich legacy
Unto their issue.
We'll hear the will: read it Mark Antony.
The will, the will! we will hear Caesar's will.
William Shakespeare - The Tragedy of Julius Caesar - Act III
In his will Caesar had nominated his heir, and it was not Antony. Caesar had married three times and his only daughter Julia, whom he had married to Pompey, died before him. He had a son from Cleopatra, named after him Caesarion, but he was just three years old when Caesar died.
The heir of Caesar was Gaius Octavius, the son of Atia, his niece, a young man aged 19 who was still at the first steps of the political/military ladder. He had been adopted by Julius Caesar in 45 and he had changed his name to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian). When Caesar was killed, Octavian was in Greece where he superintended (in a relatively minor capacity) the preparation of a campaign against the Parthians. He quickly returned to Rome to claim his heritage, but Antony challenged from a legal standpoint his adoption by Caesar. Octavian, who could rely on a substantial fortune, regardless of the heritage, gained the favour of the lower classes by celebrating games and distributing money: the conflict with Antony ended in an open fight. At Modena, near today's Bologna, Antony was defeated by an army of supporters of Octavian.
Foro di Augusto: (left) one of the two nymphaea (semicircular fountains) and (right) the base framed by two columns where a gigantic statue
of Augustus was placed
Octavian celebrated Caesar in the main temple of the Forum he built forty years later, close to that of his adoptive father. The temple was dedicated to Mars Ultor, Mars the Avenger (of Caesar's assassination). Inside the temple the statue of Mars was placed among those of Venus and of Caesar. A gigantic statue of Octavian himself (or rather Augustus as he was then called) stood on a base to the left of the temple: the statue is lost, but the base retains the shape of its left foot. Other statues portraying members of the gens Julia (Caesar's family) were placed in niches in two semicircular walls surrounding small fountains. The most impressive remaining element of this forum is the thick and high wall behind the temple, a sort of curtain which prevented seeing what lay behind it. This was exactly the purpose of the wall, to hide the vision of the poor dwellings of Subura, a very ill-famed quarter of Ancient Rome.
Antony and Octavian, notwithstanding their rivalry, were forced to reach an agreement
by their common need to defeat Junius Brutus and Gaius Longinus Cassius, the leaders
of the plot against Caesar; Brutus had been appointed proconsul of Illyria, Macedonia and Acaia
(Greece) and Cassius of Syria, thus constituting an obstacle to the ambitions of Antony and Octavian.
Another element which led Antony and Octavian to make an alliance was their interest in
frustrating the attempts made by many senators to
restore the Senate's authority.
In 43 they joined their forces with Marcus Emilius Lepidus, a general and politician, who had been appointed by Caesar commander of the Roman cavalry. Unlike the first triumvirate, the second one (triumviratus reipublicae constituendae) was not just a private agreement of mutual support. The Senate was forced to endorse it and to assign to the three triumvirs the government of the various provinces of the empire.
Details of Teatro di Marcello
Pompey had built a large theatre and Caesar thought he too should build one.
The site chosen was already the location of a temporary theatre made of timber. Caesar
did not live long enough
to see the completion of the building which was eventually dedicated by Octavian to his
nephew and son-in-law Marcellus, who had died at the age of twenty.
The structure of the building is almost the same of Colosseo, with three tiers of arches and a decoration of travertine slabs covering the thick masonry structure.
In some locations the travertine is so damaged that its original design is almost completely lost and it looks like a natural rock.
In 42 Antony and Octavian moved with their legions across the
Adriatic Sea to today's Albania; from there they marched along Via Egnatia until
they reached the shores of the Aegean Sea. At Philippi in eastern Macedonia they found the road blocked by the armies
of Brutus and Cassius: the two sides did not show a united front: both Antony and Octavian and
Brutus and Cassius had their own army and acted independently. So there were two distinct battles of Philippi:
in the first one, Antony managed to find, after various vain attempts, a dry path in the marsh
which protected the left wing of Cassius' army. His experienced veterans
reached the centre of the enemy camp; in the ensuing confusion some of the allies of Cassius deserted and
Cassius himself committed suicide.
In the meantime Octavian was much less successful than his ally and Brutus, reinforced
by part of the troops of Cassius, still retained a strong position. He felt however
that time was not in his favour and a few days later he decided to engage Octavian in the hope of winning
a decisive battle. But with the site previously held by Cassius now controlled by
Antony, he soon found himself in a critical position; in a few hours he
"The ghost of Caesar hath appear'd to me
Two several times by night; at Sardis once,
And this last night here in Philippi fields:
I know my hour is come."
William Shakespeare - The Tragedy of Julius Caesar - Act III
and he threw himself upon his naked sword.
Lepidus, the third member of the triumvirate did not contribute to the defeat of Brutus and Cassius and therefore Antony and Octavian redesigned in their favour the partition of the empire when in 40, after another period of conflict between them, they reached a lasting agreement and strengthened their bonds through the marriage of Antony with Octavia, Octavian's sister.
Antony was attributed all the provinces of the eastern Mediterranean, Octavian Italy, Gaul and Spain and Lepidus just the province of Africa.
Octavian dedicated to his beloved sister Octavia, mother of Marcellus, a group of buildings adjoining Teatro di Marcello: two temples were placed at the centre of a rectangular portico. What we call today Portico di Ottavia was just one of its two monumental entrances. Still in the same area Octavian relocated an existing temple to Apollo (Sosiano is a reference to the consul Gaius Sosius who was in charge when the temple was built). The details of the design and decoration of these buildings show a high level of craftsmanship.
In 36 Lepidus was forced by Octavian to give up his African province for a nominal
role as Pontifex Maximus in Rome. In practice he was confined in his villa
at Monte Circeo. In the meantime Antony had established his
residence in Alexandria, where in 37 he had married
Queen Cleopatra: he was still married to Octavia, Cleopatra was a widow for the second time as
she had arranged the killing of her second husband.
Antony aimed at establishing an independent kingdom over the eastern Mediterranean for himself and Cleopatra; he fought against the Parthians and in 34 he conquered Media, the north-western part of today's Iran. He celebrated his triumph in Alexandria and during the related ceremonies Caesarion, son of Caesar and Cleopatra, and the two children Cleopatra had borne to Antony were nominated kings (you can read Alexandrian Kings, a poem about this event in a page dedicated to Alexandria).
The underground confrontation between the two remaining triumvirs became an open conflict when Antony repudiated Octavia. Octavian reacted by denouncing the treason of Antony and he gained the support of all the western provinces of the empire.
The ensuing war was mainly fought at sea: in 31 at Actium a naval battle decided who would have been the sole ruler of the empire; according to the traditional account at one point Cleopatra abandoned the battlefield. Antony followed Cleopatra to Alexandria, while his fleet was being destroyed by that of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Octavian's son-in-law. Years later Octavian celebrated this key victory by founding Nikopolis.
One year later Octavian landed in Egypt and easily seized Alexandria; Antony killed himself in the traditional Roman way by falling on his sword. Cleopatra, having ascertained that the apparent clemency of Octavian was only aimed at bringing her alive to Rome to celebrate his triumph, chose a more elaborate way of escaping her fate. A trusted peasant brought her an asp (a small viper) hidden in a basket of figs. Her body was not disfigured by wounds or by swellings.
"...she looks like sleep,
As she would catch another Antony
In her strong toil of grace."
William Shakespeare - Antony and Cleopatra - Act V
Egypt became a Roman province.
(from left to right) details of the obelisks in Piazza della Minerva and in Piazza del Pantheon;
the bare breast and the Egyptian robe of Madama Lucrezia; detail of the obelisk in Piazza di Montecitorio
"Alexandritis" is the name some old-fashioned citizens gave to the success met in Rome by everything which came from Egypt. They regarded it as a dangerous sickness which would eventually undermine the traditional Roman virtues. The Egyptian fashion replaced in part the Greek one, although Egypt had been largely Hellenized by three centuries of Greek rule. Ptolomy I, the general who inherited Egypt from Alexander the Great, promoted the cult of Serapis, a god who combined elements of the Egyptian god Osiris with those of the Greek mythology.
Vatican Museums: statue of the River Nile found at Iseo Campense
A gigantic temple to Serapis and his wife Isis (Iseo Campense), was initially built during the second
triumvirate, but it was completed only many years later; destroyed by a fire in 80 AD it was
rebuilt by Domitian.
The alley leading to the temple was flanked not by trees, but by obelisks. Some of its
structures can still be seen inside the buildings of Rione Pigna,
while elements of its decoration are scattered in the area: a cat (more likely a small monkey)
in Palazzo Grazioli, a gigantic foot (Pič di marmo) near Collegio Romano and
part of the
statue of Isis (Madama Lucrezia), which
became one of the talking statues of Rome, near Palazzetto Venezia. Two
of the obelisks are still in nearby Piazza della Minerva and
Piazza del Pantheon; four other obelisks have travelled a bit: two are still in Rome
in Villa Celimontana and near the former Villa Peretti,
while of the other two one is in
the other in Urbino.
In Egypt the Romans found a much advanced astronomical knowledge; while Caesar had made use of it to reform the calendar, Octavian summoned to Rome Egyptian experts to help in the layout of a gigantic sundial for which an ancient Egyptian obelisk was brought to Rome.
On August 13, 29 Octavian celebrated the triumph related to the conquest of Egypt: a memory
of that day survives in the Italian holiday of Ferragosto
(Feriae Augusti), now celebrated on the 15th and "covered" by a Christian holiday.
The Romans were tired of internal conflicts and Octavian was given large authorities to ensure a period of stability; Octavian however, having seen how his adoptive father had lost support by his almost monarchical behaviour, in 27 gave up most of the powers he had received and he formally restored the traditional institutions of the Republic.
The first act of the Senate was to nominate him Augustus, a honorific title meaning consecrated and most likely derived from the original religion of the early Romans. This was based on the interpretation of the flight of birds (see the example of Romulus and Remus): the priests were called aruspices (avis=bird, spicio=see) and their response augurium; no important decision was made without the related augurium (hence to inaugurate). So augustus was a title having a religious, rather than a military (imperator) or political (king) meaning; Octavian chose to be referred to as Augustus, because he thought this title would have made his almost absolute power better accepted, both in Rome and in the remotest provinces of the empire. He decided to live in a house on the Palatine Hill, where Rome had been founded by Romulus.
Remaining walls and entablature of Basilica di Nettuno
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa did not only assist his father-in-law in war, but also in peace;
his name is associated with several adjoining buildings: his name appears on
the inscription of the
Pantheon (which was entirely rebuilt by Hadrian after a fire) and
certainly appeared also in the nearby Terme di Agrippa, the first large baths
built in Rome with the purpose of providing a location for recreation and social meetings.
He took care also of the erection of a large basilica between these two buildings:
Basilica di Nettuno was not a temple, but a large hall for indoor
meetings with a decoration of marine symbols. Its northern wall is located south of the
Pantheon and it retains fragments of a very elaborate entablature.
Because this part of Campo Marzio was often marshy, Agrippa drained it by digging a small open air canal which brought the excess of water to the Tiber: the canal was called Euripo, with a reference to the very narrow channel in Greece by the same name. Traces of Euripo can be seen in the underground rooms of Palazzo della Cancelleria.
Unlike Caesar who rushed from one corner of the empire to the other to personally
lead the Roman legions against external or internal enemies, Augustus seldom chose to do so.
His stepsons Tiberius and Drusus led several campaigns in Central Europe to consolidate the northern border
of the empire. Tiberius in particular conquered all the territories to the right of the river
Danube (today's Bavaria, Austria and western Hungary and a strip along the river in Bulgaria).
Drusus expanded the Roman influence beyond the Rhine, mainly along the coast of the North Sea.
The eastern border of the empire was secured by a peace treaty with the Parthians, who returned
the Roman insignia they had seized at Carrhae.
A dramatic setback for the Romans occurred in 9 AC when three legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus were massacred in the Teutoburg Forest by a coalition of German tribes led by Arminius (Hermann or Armin). He was a young prince who, while pretending to be a loyal ally, organized an uprising which caught the Romans when they were crossing a terrain (a thick and muddy forest), where they could not fight in the way they were accustomed to. The newly acquired province of Germania Magna was abandoned and the Romans gave up their expansion plans beyond the Rhine.
Modern map of the Roman Empire at the death of Augustus on the rear wall of Basilica di Massenzio
In 13 AC Augustus, then aged 75, prepared his succession; he confirmed the appointment
of his stepson and adoptive son Julius Caesar Tiberius as his political heir; he summarized
all he had done for the greatness of Rome in Index Rerum Gestarum aka Res Gestae Divi Augusti, a spiritual
testament which was affixed to the entrance of his Mausoleum
and sent to all the provinces of the empire (the most complete text is in Ankara).
In this summary Augustus included Ara Pacis Augustae,
an altar consecrated to him and to the periods of peace achieved during his rule.
In August 14 he passed away at Nola, near Naples.
British Museum: (left) cameo with the portrait of Augustus (formerly in Florence); (right) head of a bronze statue of Augustus which was erected in southern Egypt. It was looted by Nubian tribes and it was found in 1910 at Meroe, their capital in today's Sudan
Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna: upper part of "Gemma Augustea", a Ist century AD cameo believed to celebrate Augustus
The following external links show works of art portraying characters and events
mentioned in this page:
Brutus and Caesar's ghost by William Blake (1806).
Statue of Augustus found at Prima Porta.
Augustus as Pontifex Maximus.
Head of Cleopatra by Michelangelo.
Cleopatra with the asp by Guido Reni (1575-1642).
Cleopatra with the asp (2) by Guido Reni.
Cleopatra with the asp by Guercino (1591-1666).
The battle of Actium by Lorenzo A. Castro (1672) - it opens in a separate window.
Cleopatra's arrival and Cleopatra's banquet by Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770).
Cleopatra and the Peasant by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). If the link does not work try here.
Antony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1883) - it opens in a separate window.
Cleopatra with the asp by Reginald Arthur (1892).
Constantin Cavafy wrote several poems making reference to the events narrated in this page:
IN ALEXANDRIA, 31 B.C.
From his village near the outskirts of town,
still dust-covered from the journey in,
the peddler arrives. And "Incense!" "Gum!"
"The best olive oil!" "Perfume for your hair!"
he hawks through the streets. But with all the hubbub,
the music, the parades, who can hear him?
The crowd shoves him, drags him along, knocks him around.
And when he asks, now totally confused, "What's going on here?"
someone tosses him too the huge palace lie:
that Antony is winning in Greece.
But when he heard the women weeping,
lamenting his sorry state -
madam with her oriental gestures
and her slaves with their barbarized Greek -
the pride in his soul rose up,
his Italian blood sickened with disgust
and all he had worshipped blindly till then -
his passionate Alexandrian life -
now seemed dull and alien.
And he told them "to stop weeping for him,
that kind of thing was all wrong.
They ought to be singing his praises
for having been a great ruler,
so rich in worldly goods.
And if he'd fallen now, he hadn't fallen humbly,
but as a Roman vanquished by a Roman."
Translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.
I - The Foundation and the Early Days of Rome
II - The Early Republican Period
III - The Romans Meet the Elephants
IV - Expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea
V - Pompey and Caesar
VII - From Tiberius to Nero