With the assassination of the Roman Dictator Julius Caesar in 44BC, the Roman Republic was thrown into even more years of chaos and uncertainty than it had already been in. Caesar was killed by his fellow senators because he stood against what it meant to be Roman –he was a powerful autocrat (this means someone who rules by himself, so not in a democracy) who held too much influence. With his death however, Rome had no solid leadership.
Three men stepped forward to accept the challenge. Marcus Lepidus, Mark Anthony and Caesar’s own adopted son Octavian. The three senators divided the Roman world into three equal shares and became known as the Second Triumvirate – the acknowledged rulers of the Republic. Tensions were high between the three however and Mark Anthony and Octavian emerged as the two most prominent leaders having expelled Lepidus in 36BC. Octavian took control of the western provinces whilst Anthony took the east.
Inevitably this led to war. With Octavian in control of the city of Rome – the literal and symbolic heart of the Roman world, he was able to get the people on his side and cast Mark Anthony in a bad light. The two finally faced each other just off the coast of Greece at the battle of Actium in 31BC. This was a rare naval battle as Roman soldiers were much more used to fighting on land. Anthony was the more experienced General; Octavian was renowned for falling off his horse and relied upon his friend Marcus Agrippa to command his troops in battle. But whilst Anthony might have expected to win, Octavian and Agrippa were clever tacticians and crushed Anthony’s fleet, forcing him to sail off to Egypt with his lover Cleopatra.
With Anthony crushed and Octavian growing ever stronger with the support of the Roman people, Anthony was driven to despair, locking himself away in Cleopatra’s palace. Unwilling to surrender, the two chose instead to die together.
Octavian was victorious. He held a lavish and colourful triumph in Rome to celebrate his great victory, ushering in a new age of Roman leadership. Whilst Octavian now ruled Rome as Julius Caesar did, he was too clever to end up as his adoptive father did. Rather than calling himself Dictator or emperor, he called himself Princeps, or “first citizen.” He tried to fit in by sharing his power with the Senate, wore simple clothing, owned a small house and refused to wear any sort of crown. He went about rebuilding Rome to the extent that in his funerary inscription – the Res Gestae – he claimed to have “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.” This made him extremely popular and made him out to look like a regular citizen when the reality was that he was not only the most influential and powerful man in Rome, but has gone down as one of the most powerful men in history!