Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris is amply reviewed, under this link, in the New York Times. My contribution in this article is to bring the book and the times to your attention and to offer a simple timeline of major players at the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. (Click on the following link to get a PDF file of the chart in the image below: Roman Republic Ends; you may use this image if you give me credit at http://pavellas.com)
The Roman Senate
At the center of the book is the Roman Senate. Outside Rome are the provinces, and the battles led by Caesar, Crassus and Pompey, among others, to add even more territory to the nascent Empire.
The Roman Senate was different from what we see in the US Senate:
The senate passed decrees called senatus consultum, which in form constituted “advice” from the senate to a magistrate. While these advices did not hold legal force, they usually were obeyed in practice.
The senate directed the magistrates, especially the Roman Consuls (the chief-magistrates) in their prosecution of military conflicts. Only the senate could authorize the disbursal of public funds from the treasury. As the empire (NB: not yet Empire) grew, the senate also supervised the administration of the provinces, which were governed by former consuls and praetors, in that it decided which magistrate should govern which province.
The senate also played a pivotal role in cases of emergency. It could call for the appointment of a dictator (a right resting with each consul with or without the senate’s involvement). However, after 202 the office of Dictator fell out use (and was revived only two more times) and was replaced with the senatus consultum ultimum (“ultimate decree of the senate”), a senatorial decree which authorized the consuls to employ any means necessary to solve the crisis.
The senate operated while under various religious restrictions. For example, before any meeting could begin, a sacrifice to the gods was made, and a search for divine omens (the auspices) was taken.
Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate: Cicero attacks Catilina, from a 19th century fresco in Palazzo Madama, Rome.
Meetings usually began at dawn, and a magistrate who wished to summon the senate had to issue a compulsory order. The senate meetings were public, and were directed by a presiding magistrate, usually a Consul. While in session, the senate had the power to act on its own, and even against the will of the presiding magistrate if it wished. The presiding magistrate began each meeting with a speech, and then referred an issue to the senators, who would discuss the issue by order of seniority. Senators had several other ways in which they could influence (or frustrate) a presiding magistrate. For example, all senators had to speak before a vote could be held, and since all meetings had to end by nightfall, a senator could talk a proposal to death (a filibuster or diem consumere) if he could keep the debate going until nightfall. When it was time to call a vote, the presiding magistrate could bring up whatever proposals he wished, and every vote was between a proposal and its negative. At any point before a motion passed, the proposed motion could be vetoed, usually by a tribune. If there was no veto, and the matter was of minor importance, it could be voted on by a voice vote or by a show of hands. If there was no veto, and the matter was of a significant nature, there was usually a physical division of the house, with senators voting by taking a place on either side of the chamber.
The ethical requirements of senators were significant. Senators could not engage in banking or any form of public contract. They could not own a ship that was large enough to participate in foreign commerce, and they could not leave Italy without permission from the senate. Senators were not paid a salary. Election to magisterial office resulted in automatic senate membership. (Source)
All the the constitutional and latent powers of the Senate were used by the various players and factions to further their interests and, for some, their quest for ultimate power. Caesar was a master in this realm. The book shows that certain alliances, and the power they created, were obtained through marriage between influential families, where women were the pawns in these maneuvers.
After reading this book, I accessed the Internet to get a larger picture of the events during the 40 years of Roman history it covers. What follows is a recapitulation of some of my reading. I choose to juxtapose Cicero and Cato, the scholars and intellectuals (as well as politicians) dedicated to order and process, against Caesar, the soldier-politician dedicated to accruing power to build the empire he intended to lead.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106—43 BCE)
Cicero was an orator, lawyer, politician, and philosopher. Significantly, he was not a soldier; he detested warfare and violence. Although known as a philosopher, he placed politics above philosophical study. The only periods of his life in which he wrote philosophical works were the times he was forcibly prevented from taking part in politics. He was murdered on December 7, 43 BC.
Cicero’s political career was a remarkable one. At the time, high political offices in Rome, though technically achieved by winning elections, were almost exclusively controlled by a group of wealthy aristocratic families that had held them for many generations. Cicero’s family, though aristocratic, was not one of them, nor did it have great wealth. But Cicero had a great deal of political ambition; at a very young age he chose as his motto the same one Achilles was said to have had: to always be the best and overtop the rest. Lacking the advantages of a proper ancestry, there were essentially only two career options open to him. One was a military career, the other a career in the law.
To prepare for the latter career he studied jurisprudence, rhetoric, and philosophy. Cicero proved to be an excellent orator and lawyer, and a shrewd politician. He was elected to each of the principle Roman offices (quaestor, aedile, praetor, and consul) on his first try and at the earliest age at which he was legally allowed to run for them. Having held office made him a member of the Roman Senate.
During his term as consul (the highest Roman office) in 63 BC he was responsible for unraveling and exposing the conspiracy of Catiline, which aimed at taking over the Roman state by force, and five of the conspirators were put to death without trial on Cicero’s orders. Cicero was proud of this, claiming that he had single-handedly saved the commonwealth. Cicero enjoyed widespread popularity at this time – though his policy regarding the Catilinarian conspirators had also made him enemies, and the executions without trial gave them an opening.
Cicero discovering the tomb of Archimedes by the Austrian baroque painter Martin Knoller (1725-1804)
In 60 BC Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus (the First Triumvirate) combined their resources and took control of Roman politics. Recognizing his popularity and talents, they made several attempts to get Cicero to join them, but Cicero hesitated and eventually refused, preferring to remain loyal to the Senate and the idea of the Republic. This left him open to attacks by his enemies, and in January of 58 BC the tribune Clodius (a follower of Caesar’s), proposed a law to be applied retroactively stating that anyone who killed a Roman citizen without trial would be stripped of their citizenship and forced into exile. The law passed. Cicero was forbidden to live within 500 miles of Italy, and all his property was confiscated. This exile provided the time for his first period of sustained philosophical study. After the political conditions changed, his property was restored to him, and he was allowed to return to Rome, which he did to great popular approval, claiming that the Republic was restored with him.
Cicero owed a debt to the triumvirate for ending his exile (and for not killing him), and for the next eight years he repaid that debt as a lawyer. Because he still could not engage in politics, he continued his studies of philosophy.
The triumvirate collapsed with the death of Crassus. In 49 BC Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, entering Italy with his army and igniting a civil war between himself and Pompey. Cicero was on Pompey’s side, though halfheartedly. He felt that at this point the question was not whether Rome would be a republic or an empire but whether Pompey or Caesar would be Emperor, and he believed it would be a disaster in either case. Caesar and his forces won in 48 BC, and Caesar became the first de facto Roman emperor. He gave Cicero a pardon and allowed him to return to Rome in July of 47 BC, but Cicero was forced to stay out of politics. Most of the rest of his life was devoted to studying and writing about philosophy.
After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Cicero again returned to politics. Hoping to see a restoration of the Republic, he supported Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian (later called Augustus) in the initial stages of Octavian’s power struggle with Marc Antony. But in this case, Cicero had chosen sides too soon: Octavian and Antony were temporarily reconciled, and Cicero was proscribed as an enemy of the state and murdered on December 7, 43 BC. (Major Source).
Marcius Porcius Cato Utensis
Cato (right) and his daughter, Porcia, who married Brutus, one of Caesar’s assassins (et tu brute?). Image source.
Cato the Younger was a Roman political figure whose opposition to Pompey and Caesar helped hasten the collapse of the Roman Republic.
Orphaned when a child and raised in the house of his uncle M. Livius Drusus, the reformer, Cato early cultivated habits of austerity and made a great show of political and moral probity. After serving as military tribune in Macedonia (67-66 B.C.), he toured Asia to prepare himself for public life. As quaestor, or minister of finance, Cato was notable for his punishment of corrupt treasury clerks and the strict rectitude of his accounts. But he was not free of favoritism. As tribune elect in 63, he prosecuted for electoral bribery one of the men who defeated Catiline for the consulship, exempting the other because he was a relative.
Cato’s fiery speech on December 5 led the Senate to vote for the execution of the Catilinarian conspirators who had been caught in Rome after an unsuccessful attempt at seizing control of the state. As tribune in 62, Cato blocked attempts by Metellus Nepos and Julius Caesar to recall Pompey to deal with Catiline and his army in Etruria.
When Pompey returned from the East, Cato led the senatorial opposition against him. He also outraged Crassus and the equestrians by refusing to allow reconsideration of the tax contract for Asia. The result was the formation of the First Triumvirate by Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar to attain their political ends. During Caesar’s consulship in 59 Cato bitterly opposed the triumvirate’s bills for the redistribution of land and the grant of an extraordinary command to Caesar. So violent were Cato’s tactics that Caesar at one point had him imprisoned only to think better of it later. In the following year the triumvirs rid themselves of Cato by offering him a special command in Cyprus. Though Cato was aware he was being removed from the center of power, his exaggerated sense of duty made it impossible for him to refuse.
When he returned to Rome in 56 B.C., he attempted to block the election of Pompey and Crassus to their second consulship. They therefore prevented Cato’s election to the praetorship, for which he had to wait until 54. To check the rioting and anarchy which developed in 53 and 52, Cato supported the proposal of the senatorial leaders to make Pompey sole consul. Thereafter he continued to back Pompey but only as a counterforce to the growing power of Caesar. Because Cato refused to cultivate the great politicians, he failed to win the consulship for 51.
In the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, Cato chose Pompey and was given command in Sicily, which he evacuated after the arrival of the Caesarian forces in order to avoid bloodshed. He garrisoned Dyrrachium for Pompey during the Battle of Pharsalus and after Pompey’s defeat joined the Pompeian refugees in Africa. There he refused military command because he had not held the consulship but took charge of the city of Utica (whence he derived his surname) and organized its defenses. When Caesar crushed the Pompeians in the Battle of Thapsus in 46 and approached the city, Cato committed suicide.
After his death Cato became a symbol of republicanism in the continuing struggle against Caesar, Antony, and Octavian. But during his lifetime his conservatism and obstructionism served only to strengthen the forces he opposed. (Source)
Gaius Julius Caesar, 102 B.C.-44 B.C.
Julius Caesar paved the way both for the end of the republic and the creation of the empire under his nephew Octavian, or Augustus Caesar. As a general he led military operations in Britain and elsewhere, and as dictator of Rome, he put through valuable reforms. But his actions, including his celebrated affair with Cleopatra, earned the distrust even of his closest friends, who conspired in his assassination.
Caesar (image source) was born on July 13, 102 B.C., to an aristocratic but not wealthy family. During his childhood, Rome was caught in a struggle between the aristocratic party, led by Sulla (137-78 B.C.), and the popular party, which—though its members were aristocrats as well—favored a greater distribution of power. With his aunt Julia’s marriage to the popular party leader, Marius (c. 157-86 B.C.), Caesar became linked with that faction, and he further increased his standing by marrying Cornelia (d. 67 B.C.), daughter of Marius’s ally Cinna (d. 84 B.C.) They later had a daughter, Julia.
Sulla established a dangerous example, one Caesar himself would later imitate, when in 88 B.C. he marched his troops into Rome. This ultimately meant the end of Marius’s power, and Sulla demanded that Caesar divorce Cornelia. Caesar refused, and had to go into hiding. His mother’s family convinced Sulla to relent, and Caesar returned to Rome and entered the army.
While serving in Asia Minor in 80 B.C., Caesar earned a high military decoration for bravery in the battle to take Mitylene on the isle of Lesbos, and went on to take part in a war against pirates from Cilicia. Following the death of Sulla, Caesar went back to Rome in 77 B.C., but soon after earning a name for himself as prosecutor in an important legal case, he traveled to Rhodes for further training in rhetoric. On the way, he was captured by Cilician pirates and held for ransom. After his release, he led a force to victory against the pirates, then—without being commanded to do so—led a successful attack against Mithradates of Pontus (r. 120-63 B.C.). Soon after this, he gained his first elected office as military tribune.
Cornelia died in 67 B.C., and within a year, Caesar remarried. Again the marriage had a political angle: Pompeia was the granddaughter of Sulla, and Caesar wanted to establish closer ties with Crassus (c. 115-53 B.C.), a leading figure in the aristocratic party.
To get ahead in Rome, a politician had to spend money on bribes and lavish entertainments for fellow politicians and the Roman citizens. As aedile, a type of magistrate responsible for all manner of public affairs, Caesar heavily outspent his colleague Bibulus (d. 48 B.C.), sponsoring the most magnificent set of gladiatorial games Rome had ever seen. Later, he obtained a position as governor in Spain, where he made back all the money he had spent—probably by means that were less than honorable.
Meanwhile Pompeia became involved in scandal when a character named Pulcher got into an all-female party at her house disguised as a woman. Caesar promptly divorced her. He was soon elected consul with Bibulus, but by then it was clear that only three men in Rome really mattered: Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey (106-48 B.C.)
The latter had just returned from his defeat of Mithradates, and together the three formed the First Triumvirate in 60 B.C. Pompey even married Caesar’s daughter Julia to solidify their bond, but despite their mutual claims of loyalty, the alliance was an uneasy one.
Death of Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini
The conflict would be delayed for many years, however, while Caesar went to Gaul. Anxious to gain military glory, he went looking for awar, and he soon had one when the Helvetii, from what is now Switzerland, tried to cross Gaul without permission. He drove them back, then dealt with the Suebi from Germany. Next, as a means of preventing the Celts of Britain from aiding their cousins on the mainland, he led the first Roman invasions of that island in 55 and 54 B.C. In the course of these campaigns, Caesar killed perhaps a million people, but eventually placed all of Gaul firmly under Roman control.
Julia died in 54 B.C., breaking the bond between Caesar and Pompey, and in the following year, Crassus was killed in Asia. Soon Pompey ordered Caesar back to Rome, and Caesar, knowing he would be killed if he went back alone, brought his army with him. By crossing the River Rubicon, a shallow stream which formed the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy, he passed a point of no return, making conflict with Pompey inescapable.
Pompey moved his forces to Greece in order to regroup, while Caesar defeated Pompey’s legions in Spain. The two met in battle at Pharsalus in Greece in 48 B.C., and though Caesar’s armies won, Pompey managed to escape. He fled to Egypt, where he was killed, and Caesar, hot in pursuit, soon had his attention diverted by Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.). They began a romance, and Caesar aided her in war against her brother, Ptolemy XII (r. 51-47 B.C.).
At the same time, Mithradates’s teenaged son Pharnaces (r. 63-47 B.C.), taking advantage of Caesar’s distraction in Egypt, had attempted to regain his father’s kingdom in Pontus. Caesar went to Asia Minor, and destroyed Pharnaces’s army in just five days. Afterward, he made his famous report of his victory: “I came, I saw, I conquered”; or in Latin, “Veni, vidi, vici.”
In 47 B.C. Caesar returned to Rome, where he assumed the powers of a dictator, and quickly pushed through a series of reforms. Most notable among these was his effort to reduce unemployment by requiring that every landowner hire one free man for every two slaves working in his fields. He increased the membership in the senate from 300 to 900, and included Celtic chieftains from Gaul in Rome’s legislative body.
Marc Antony offers a king’s crown to Caesar, who refuses it
Caesar managed to combine the authority of numerous political offices, giving himself more power than any Roman leader had ever enjoyed; yet he seemed to want more. He placed his portrait on coins, an honor previously reserved only for the gods, and declared that the month of his birth would no longer be called Quintilis but “Julius” or July. Instead of standing before the senate when he spoke to them, as rulers had always done before, he sat—more like a monarch than a citizen. His junior colleague Mark Antony (82?-30 B.C.) even tried to convince him to wear a crown.
Had Caesar accepted the crown, it would have been such an offense to the Romans’ views on government that he would have been an instant target for assassination. As it was, assassination was not long in coming. Just before leaving for a campaign in Persia, Caesar planned to address the senate on the Ides of March, or March 15, 44 B.C. Unbeknownst to him, however, a group of some 60 influential Romans—led by his supposed friends Brutus (85-42 B.C.) and Cassius (d. 42 B.C.)—had joined forces to assassinate him. As he entered the senate chamber, the assassins jumped at him with daggers, stabbing him 23 times. It would fall to Caesar’s nephew Octavian (63 B.C.-A.D. 14) to avenge the murder, which he did on his way to assuming power and establishing what would become the Roman Empire. (Source)