Rome's New Political Order (48 to 46 B.C.E.)

Rome's New Political Order (48 to 46 B.C.E.)

Over the course of the Roman Civil War, Julius
Caesar spent about 4 years on campaign. In his absence, for a variety of reasons,
the city of Rome descended into a prolonged political crisis. In order to fully understand the mess that
Caesar left behind, we have to rewind a couple of years. After Caesar's victory over Pompey at the
battle of Pharsalus in 48, he sent one of his deputies, Marc Antony, back to Italy to
oversee the political situation while he was gone. Antony immediately ran into serious problems. A Tribune of the Plebs exploited Caesar's
absence by attempting to push a bill through the Senate would abolish all private debt. Debt abolition was a thing in the ancient
world. It's complicated, but sometimes ancient societies
would fall into a death financial spiral where an ever-growing number poor people would find
themselves saddled with multi-generational debts. This was a growing problem in Rome at the
time, and debt abolition was a crude but effective method of freeing these people so that they
could be productive citizens again. The aristocracy, as the holders of the debts,
came out against the bill and blocked it in the Senate. That should have been the end of the whole
thing, but instead, the Tribune started going around and making impassioned speeches in
front of growing crowds. Before too long, he was able to lead an angry
mob into downtown Rome and occupy the Forum. This tactic of taking to the streets wasn't
totally unprecedented, but the speed at which Rome's political class lost control of their
city was alarming to say the least. This was a problem, but it was a problem with
an clear solution, right? Antony was in charge and had an army sitting
just outside the pomerium, so obviously he crossed the pomerium and lead the army away
from the city. Hold on, he what? Yeah, he turned the city over to the angry
mob. Do you think this is what Caesar had in mind
when he left the city in Antony's hands? I imagine not. The likeliest explanation for this is that
he wanted to send a message. I didn't mention this before, but the Senate
got really bent out of shape when Caesar left Antony in charge. So much so that they actually tried to get
him removed. Antony was, uh, petty? Now that the city was in trouble, he wanted
the Senate to beg him to intervene. But things didn't quite go as he expected. The situation deteriorated quickly. The mob began to openly bring weapons across
the pomerium, which was illegal, but who was going to stop them? They eventually started launching deadly attacks
against their perceived enemies. Rome's political class became afraid to be
seen in public. The city was basically ungovernable. Under armed guard, the Senate met at an undisclosed
location and passed the Senatus Consultum Ultimum, or the Final Act. This legislation empowered the consuls to
do "whatever necessary" to defend the Republic. It's important to note although the Senate
clearly had a plan, there were currently no consuls in office, and so it's hard to see
how any of this would stand up in court. But before any plan could materialize, Antony
returned in force and marched right across pomerium with several armed cohorts. The soldiers descended on the mob with swords
drawn, and hundreds of Roman citizens were killed. This was the apex of pettiness. Antony deliberately allowed the situation
get out of control and then needlessly butchered a bunch of Roman citizens. If Antony was disliked before, he was despised
now. When the Senator Cicero arrived back in Italy
after the Pompeian defeat at the Battle of Pharsalus, a letter arrived from Antony telling
him that he could not guarantee Cicero's safety, and that it would be best if he stayed away
from Rome for a while. This was highly irregular. Cicero was one of Rome's most influential
politicians, and in case you missed it, this was a threat. Why? Because Antony didn't like Cicero, that's
why. This blatant and unnecessary abuse of power
hardly improved the Senate's opinion of Antony. But hang on, because it was about to get a
lot worse. For starters, Antony just straight up stole
Pompey's giant mansion in the centre of Rome. One day it was empty, and the next day Antony
had moved in. This was a giant red flag because a generation
earlier, the last Civil War had ended with the winning side murdering a bunch of Senators
and stealing their property. Caesar had promised that this Civil War would
be different, but with Antony doing stuff like this people weren't so sure anymore. Antony's behaviour quickly got out of hand. He would show up to Senate meetings blind
drunk, or would disappear for days at a time on wild benders. I don't know if we should believe this or
not, but there's one account that says that after butchering hundreds of Roman citizens,
Antony thought that it would be a good idea to be carted around the city like a triumphal
general in a chariot pulled by lions. This whole thing was made 10 times worse with
the fact that nobody had heard from Caesar in like 6 months. People began to fear the worst. Some whispered that with Caesar out of the
picture, they may have to take this Antony problem into their own hands. But Cicero was hopeful. He reassured his allies, writing: "it seems
to me that though Caesar is holding Alexandria, he is ashamed to send a dispatch on the operations
there." Cicero was exactly right. A couple of months later Caesar defeated the
Egyptian army at the Battle of the Nile, bringing the Siege of Alexandria to an end. After a brief detour to Asia Minor, the Senate
received word that Caesar would be returning to Italy. The political class in Rome breathed a collective
sigh of relief. When Caesar landed in Italy, Cicero was there
to meet him. When they saw each other, Caesar ran up and
gave Cicero a big ol' hug. As the retinue traveled inland, the two men
hung back from the group and spent several hours lost in private conversation. I imagine Antony's name came up once or twice. Caesar made a point of avoiding Rome for the
time being. He wouldn't be staying for very long anyways. The Civil War was still ongoing. This was just a quick pit stop to raise new
armies and then he was off again to North Africa. But he was still politically engaged, and
when he received a full report from his allies back in Rome, he as not pleased. Antony was unceremoniously fired. Caesar had his allies in Rome call for elections
for the coming year. Caesar was unsurprisingly elected consul en
absentia. This was against the rules, but rules were
mattering less and less as time went on. His consular colleague for that year would
be a politician named Marcus Lepidus. We know less about Lepidus than I would like,
but from what we do know he was a good administrator and a skilled politician. When Caesar went off to Spain at the beginning
of the Civil War, Lepidus had overseen Italy without incident. After Caesar's victory in Spain, he picked
Lepidus serve as one of Spain's new governors. As governor, Lepidus surpassed all expectations. While Caesar was away, a medium sized rebellion
flared up. Lepidus moved quickly and was able to defuse
the whole situation without losing a single man. This was exactly the kind of gumption that
Caesar was looking for. Unlike Antony, Lepidus didn't need any adult
supervision. When Caesar tapped Lepidus to be his co-consul
for the year 46, he unmistakably became Caesar's new #2. It's worth noting that Antony, who a second
ago had been the most powerful man in Italy, would hold no elected office. The Senate then turned to Caesar and named
him Dictator for a year. The Dictatorship was an emergency measure
that temporarily gave a person absolute control over the Roman military as well as the ability
to override political vetos. This would give Caesar plenty of leeway to
wrap up the Civil War. The office of Dictator came with a deputy,
who was called the the Master of the Horse. Caesar nominated his co-consul Lepidus as
his Master of the Horse, and empowered him to act on his behalf while he was on campaign
in North Africa. For Lepidus, this was a massive vote of confidence. Consider for a moment the pickle that Caesar
was in as he prepared to leave for North Africa. The regime had never been more unpopular. On one hand he couldn't really afford to spend
any extra time or money in Italy, but on the other hand any further political deterioration
might be catastrophic. The plan that Caesar came up with here is
just so next level, you just have to step back and marvel at it. The big hot button political issue of the
day was the movement for the abolition of debts. We've talked about this. It was the justification for the recent street
violence, and it was quickly becoming the rallying cry for anybody opposed the status
quo. Caesar injected himself into this debate by
sending his agents to all over Italy to the small and medium sized cities that dotted
the Italian countryside. These agents asked for meetings with the local
aristocracy and then, on Caesar's behalf, asked to borrow mind boggling sums of money. War was bad for business, they said, and this
loan would help Caesar bring an end to hostilities. When that was done, Caesar turned around and
published a bunch of pamphlets in Rome that said something like: "Debt abolition would
be awesome, but as Rome's richest AND most indebted citizen, it would benefit me most
of all! It wouldn't be fair!" This was one hell of a switcharoo. Not only did public enthusiasm for debt abolition
instantly dry up, but it no longer made sense for Caesar's political rivals to rally behind
a policy to which Caesar would be the chief beneficiary. But here's the really genius bit. It's a bit of a long walk, so pay attention. Every year, 20 new politicians gained lifetime
membership to the Roman Senate. These politicians were the people who had
just been elected Quaestor. Quaestors were elected through a body called
the Tribal Assembly. Now the Tribal Assembly was sharply skewed
– in today's terms you might say gerrymandered – in favour of rich people from the Italian
countryside at the expense of poor people from the city of Rome. And what do we know about rich people from
the Italian countryside? They had all loaned Caesar all of their money. What did this mean? It meant that every candidate for Quaestor
had to answer a very simple question from the most powerful part of their electorate:
"are you going to help Caesar end the Civil War? Yes or no?" With this one move, not only did Caesar defang
the movement for debt abolition, but he established a new set of political incentives that churned
out an annual crop of young senators that basically shared his policy goals. Or at least pretended to. It really was an inspired bit of business. When Caesar departed for North Africa, he
left behind a Rome that was under new management. Unlike Antony, Lepidus took his job seriously,
and was careful not to alienate the Senate any more than absolutely necessary. After some pretty lengthy delays due to weather,
he was able to send four additional legions to North Africa, which played a pretty big
role in Caesar's eventual victory over the Pompeians at the Battle of Thapsus. But Lepidus's competence couldn't fix Rome's
underlying problems. For years, whenever Caesar had been faced
with a difficult political problem, his response had been the same. "After the Civil War." Well, the Civil War was now over. When Caesar returned to Rome in the summer
of 46, he faced an angry populous; an embittered political class; a disgruntled military; and
oh yeah, a truly ludicrous amount of personal debt. To make matters worse, the Civil War had proven
that Rome's political system was thoroughly broken. This was now Caesar's problem, and it would
prove to be intractable.

24 thoughts on “Rome's New Political Order (48 to 46 B.C.E.)


  2. What if Caesar pushed for debt abolition instead? He would have been immensely popular, and would have had no problems raising an army to end the war

  3. @ 6:40 even the caesaer knew Cicero was his real insider. Shows his true intentions right there. What a statesmen.

  4. Is it just me or does anybody else found a colored square spinning "out of control" way too funny?

    You're a good narrator and the plain and minimalist representation really works. Keep up the good work man.

  5. Caesar: "I like you Lepidus. Your name sounds like Labie- I mean, you're a good general. You won't betray me"
    Lepidus: "cool, thx"

  6. Caesar and Antony had the whole thing planned. Caesar told Antony to go to Rome and cause chaos so he could be elected counsel.

  7. Caesar: "I just divided the republic in a civil war, how could things get worse?"
    Mark Antony: "Hold my beer."
    Mark Antony:"… Actually, I'll keep my beer."

  8. Things are heating up. I wonder how it will all turn out. I'm sure Caeser will figure it out and live a long and glorious life.

  9. This is such a funny opening lmao, this thing that's exactly what you know your society is like- they commonly dealt with it in the ancient world with the obvious solution

  10. The way ceasar respected his popitical advisaries is a leading example of how it should be done and one of the main reasons why i love ceasar, scipio was his enemy but when arriving in italy they met and talked like friends for both wanted only the best for rome, even if their opinions differ on what is best

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