Rome’s first triumvirate was a power grab by Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey who sought to take the power of the Senate and share it among themselves. Crassus, the weakest of the three in political instincts, played an important role by siphoning off enough power to prevent a calamity between Caesar and Pompey. But, after his sudden death in 53 B.C, the six year old agreement became unstable as only Caesar and Pompey were left to fight each other for control of the Republic.
The second triumvirate, on the other hand, was sanctioned by the Senate as a legitimate source of consular power, because the elders had become too weak to resist anyone who would use military power to threaten them. The end point this time was the triumph of Octavian and the foundation of the imperial state.
In a certain sense, one would consider Octavian an unlikely candidate for title first emperor of imperial Rome. He grew up in modest circumstances and lost his father at a young age. Moreover, his constitution was weak and he did not have soldiering ability in him. What Octavian lacked in physical ability, he more than made up for in political skill -- and his instincts were uncanny.
Raised by his mother Atia, a niece of Caesar, Octavian drew the attention of his great uncle for unknown reasons and was made his heir without the boy’s knowledge. When Caesar was assassinated, Octavian returned from Illyricum and learned that Caesar’s bequest had made him immensely rich at age nineteen. He courted Anthony but was rebuffed out of jealousy over the boy gaining Caesar’s estate, so Octavian spent the remainder of 44 B.C. paying off Caesar’s legacies out of his inheritance and winning over Caesar’s former troops by leveraging the family connection.
The Senate eventually outlawed Anthony in favor of the republicans Cassius and Brutus, and when the consular army, accompanied by Octavian, was sent against Anthony in Gaul the latter was defeated. Rebuffed in his request for a consulship, Octavian marched on Rome and the Senate capitulated. Now Cassius and Brutus became the outlaws when their amnesty for killing Caesar was revoked and Antony and Lepidus returned to favor when their sins were forgiven.
Mark Antony, born in 83 B.C, was a patrician by birth who lived a dissipate lifestyle until a military career presented itself during his 26th year and he found himself proficient at it. His rise was rapid and by 54, Antony had become Caesar’s right hand man and close friend as they served together in Gaul. Following Caesar’s occupation of Rome, Antony served as administrator in Caesar’s absence and was lucky to escape death when Caesar returned and was assassinated. Antony gave the funeral oration for his friend and used the occasion to turn public opinion against the assassins.
Marcus Aemilianus Lepidus was born to a well-known patrician family in 89 B.C. Praetor in 49 B.C. and consul in 46, Lepidus was named “Master of the Horse” by Caesar in February of 44 B.C. After the assassination of Caesar, Lepidus sided with Antony and was declared to be an enemy of Rome by the Senate.
So now we have the set up for the second triumvirate: Antony and Lepidus, military men of great skill allied with each other and commanding a large army; Octavian, standing as a formidable opponent with an army, a famous name, and political skills beyond those of his rivals.
Octavian met Antony and Lepidus on an island in the Remo River near Bononia (Bologna) during October of 43 B.C. Each had legions with him. They agreed to form a triumvirate for five years giving them the authority to make laws and nominate magistrates and governors. The agreement became official when the Tribune P. Titius pushed it through the tribal assembly on November 27th. The territories were divided up: Antony taking Transalpine and Cisalpine Gaul, Lepidus taking the rest of Gaul and Spain, and Octavian taking Africa, Sicily and Sardinia. The triumvirs agreed that Lepidus would serve as consul in 42 while the others pursued Brutus and Cassius in the east. To provide security and money, they carried out a ruthless proscription which claimed the lives of 300 Senators and 2000 knights, including Cicero. The wealth obtained was partially used to pay off the legionnaires and settle them on confiscated lands.
As we know from the history, Brutus and Cassius were defeated at Philippi, avenging the murder of Caesar and ending the Republic once and for all. The triumvirs now signed a contract specifying the division of provinces: Antony took all Gaul except Cisalpine; Octavian received Spain, Sardinia, and Africa; and Lepidus received nothing because he was suspected of conspiring with Sextus Pompeius. For the short term, Antony would head east to raise money and Octavian would deal with Sextus Pompeius.
Between 40 and 37 B.C, there were at least three occasions when the agreement between Octavian and Antony looked like it would fall part, but at the last minute these disputes were resolved and, in 37 B.C, the triumvirate was renewed for another five years. The next year, Octavian was finally able to corner Pompeius in Sicily and defeat him, but, oddly, Lepidus took command of some Pompeian troops and ordered Octavian off the island. As a result, Lepidus was stripped of his powers as a triumvir and retired from public life. Now, as in the case of the first triumvirate, the balancing power was removed. When the triumvirs contract expired at the end of 33, the agreement was not renewed. Antony continued to use the title, but Octavian moved on as consul and son of a god (Caesar had been deified).
Octavian used Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra to paint him as more loyal to Egypt than Rome and a traitor to the Republic. This public relations campaign served as a prelude to the sea battle of Actium in 31 B.C, which spelled defeat for Antony and his death along with Cleopatra.
Octavian had triumphed by guile and calculation. He would utilize those same tools to build an Imperial system that pretended to be Republican.