The extensive campaigning abroad by Roman generals, and the rewarding of soldiers with plunder on these campaigns, led to a general trend of soldiers becoming increasingly loyal to their generals rather than to the state. This put the Roman Republic under the threat of military coups on a number of occasions. The first successful military coup was that of Sulla in 88 BC, but the coup that set the cogs in motion for the permanent fall of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Empire was that of Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar began his career as a popular politician, championing the cause of the Plebs: the common people of Rome. He was elected Consul in 59 BC amongst strong opposition from the Optimates, the conservative senators that were backed by Rome’s aristocratic class. Caesar later became an exceedingly successful general, conquering all of Gaul.
In 49 BC, on his return from his campaigns in Gaul, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River into Italy with his veteran troops, considered an act of treason in the Roman Republic, and marched on Rome itself. The Optimate senators, under the leadership of Pompey, fled Rome for Capua, and later Brundisium, where they sailed to Greece. Caesar now controlled the Italian Peninsula, but the rest of the Roman territories remained loyal to the Republic. Over the next few years, Caesar would engage in a number of successful campaigns against the Optimates allover the Mediterranean (see map 1), forcing Pompey to eventually flee and take refuge in Ptolemaic Egypt.
In an attempt to garner support from Caesar in his struggle for the Egyptian throne with his sister, Cleopatra VII, the young King Ptolemy XIII had Pompey killed. This proved to be a fatal miscalculation by Ptolemy XIII as Caesar and Pompey were once friends and allies and Caesar had no intention of having Pompey killed when captured. Caesar instead backed Cleopatra VII as ruler of Egypt and bore his only son with her. Caesar continued to wipe out the remaining vestiges of Optimate resistance, in 46 BC he traveled to Iberia to defeat the sons of Pompey. One of the sons, Sextus Pompey was able to escape to Sicily from where he was able to build a large navy and establish himself as ruler of the island.
Upon Caesar’s return to Rome, he was proclaimed as "dictator in perpetuity". However Caesar was stabbed to death just a few weeks later by a group of Senators led by Brutus (a former close friend of Caesar) and Cassius. The conspirators proclaimed themselves as the liberators of the Roman Republic, but they soon learned that their deed was not popular amongst the people of Rome, fleeing to Greece. Rome’s leadership would now pass to a triple alliance of Caesar’s closest allies, the so called “Second Triumvirate” made up of the 18 year old Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son and stated heir, and two of Caesar’s most trusted supporters; Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus. The Second Triumvirate’s first achievement was the defeat of Brutus and Cassius who had taken control of most of the Eastern Mediterranean (see map 2). Administration of Rome’s vast Mediterranean Empire was then divided in three, Marcus Lepidus in Africa, Octavian in Italy and the rest of Western Europe, and Mark Antony in the Hellenic Eastern Mediterranean (see map 3).
There was still one stronghold of resistance to the Second Triumvirate, the island of Sicily was still being ruled by Sextus Pompey and many that were opposed to the new regime had fled there. In 40 BC, Sextus Pompey’s forces captured the island of Sardinia and Octavian’s navy was twice defeated trying to invade Sicily. Finally at the Battle of Naulochus in 36 BC, Octavian was able to defeat Sextus Pompey for good, he also successfully stripped Marcus Lepidus of his power by accusing him of trying to rule Sicily for himself. Octavian had thus become sole ruler of the entire Western Roman Empire.
Meanwhile in the East, Mark Antony had begun an affair with Cleopatra VII of Egypt and had three children with her. In 34 BC Mark Antony announced that his children with Cleopatra would inherit the rule of Rome’s territories in the Eastern Mediterranean and the rule of Egypt would be passed on to Cleopatra’s sole son with Julius Caesar: Caesarion. Back in Rome Octavian began a propaganda campaign denouncing Mark Antony as a traitor who had abandoned his Roman wife and ‘gone native’. The stage was now set for Mark Antony and Octavian to come into a final conflict that would decide the fate of the entire Mediterranean World. (See map 4)
Antony and Cleopatra’s joint forces were defeated at the naval battle of Actium in 32 BC, Octavian then took the land route through Asia and into Egypt. By the time Octavian arrived at Alexandria, Mark Antony and Cleopatra had both committed suicide. With the final defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian, who had now taken on the name of Augustus, was proclaimed Emperor of Rome, and Egypt was incorporated into the new Roman Empire. Thus ended the Roman Republic, from this point on, Rome and all it’s territories would be ruled by Emperors.
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