Caesar, Pompey and the Birth of the Roman Empire

Written by Nathaniel Robinson. Edited by Catherine Anderson.


Rome 49BC and Julius Caesar has crossed the Rubicon with his thirteenth legion and marches towards Rome. In response Pompey and his supporters flee the city, beginning a political and military power struggle which would span the Mediterranean and have significant implications for the future of Rome, ultimately transforming the Republic into an Empire.

The 60s and 50s BC saw increased aristocratic competition for elected offices in Rome. Roman politics was split between Optimates and Populares. The Optimates were the more conservative of the two whereas the Populares were populists who sought support from the people against the dominant oligarchy, either in the interests of the people themselves or in furtherance of their own personal ambitions. The Optimates were the dominant group in the Senate and blocked the wishes of the Populares, who were thus forced to seek support for their measures directly from the people and hence were labelled as demagogues by their opponents.

Alongside political division, gang warfare raged through the streets, leading to the food supply being endangered. Mass corruption and divisions in politics led to a stagnant political system and often gang violence was exploited by politicians in order to intimidate rivals. Roman military defeat against Parthia in 53BC further exacerbated the Republic’s problems. This chaos came to a head in 52BC when Clodius, a popular figure in Roman politics, was killed in gang warfare and the Senate House was burned in the hysteria of his funeral. With Caesar absent, the Senate voted for martial law to restore order and entrusted the Republic to Pompey, making him sole consul. Beside Pompey stood the Optimates who considered Caesar their main opponent and wished to try him for corruption and exceeding his authority as consul in 59BC. To do this they had to win over Pompey.  Following the death of Julia, the wife of Pompey and daughter of Caesar, all ties between the two were broken. These actions fuelled the increasing sense of crisis and it was clear that a power struggle was under way, as Cicero put it: “the greatest struggle that history has ever known.” With Pompey in control and the bonds between the two severed, supporters of Caesar fled Rome. The stage was now set for confrontation and with the faction who wished to try Caesar in control, he felt he was left with no option but to rebel against the government and so crossed the Rubicon.

Like a whirlwind, Caesar sped down the east coast of Italy forcing Pompey and the Senate to flee Rome for the Balkans, which they did with such speed that they abandoned the treasury. Rather than pursue Pompey, Caesar consolidated his power in the West. While Pompey built up a new army in Greece, Caesar attacked and beat Pompeian forces in Spain. Following this victory and with his power in the West consolidated, Caesar turned his attention to Pompey. Upon arriving in Greece, Caesar found himself isolated in a hostile country with only 22,000 men and short of provisions due to Pompey’s naval superiority.

Pompey wanted to delay battle, knowing Caesar would eventually surrender from hunger and exhaustion. However, pressured by the senators present and by his officers, Pompey reluctantly engaged in battle. On the 9th August 48BC the two men met at The Battle of Pharsalus which proved to be the decisive battle of the war as Pompey fled the camp for Egypt. This resulted in the Ptolemaic government, who were fearful of harbouring Pompey, cut of his head and sent it to Caesar. Caesar was now victorious, however, having followed Pompey to Egypt, he found himself embroiled in the row between Cleopatra and her brother-husband Ptolemy XIII over Egypt’s throne. Following the resolution of this dispute Caesar proceeded over the next three years to tranquilise the rest of the empire, fighting fugitive Pompeian generals and relatives.

The significance of Caesar’s victory depends largely on your interpretation of his motives. Was Caesar the man who saw the need for monarchy to cure Rome’s ills and become a democratic ruler by overthrowing a corrupt oligarchy? Or, was he someone who fought selfishly for power which he intended to legitimize by becoming a God and king? There is evidence for both explanations and historians still debate Caesar’s motives to this day.

Regardless of your image of Caesar, his victory had significant implications in setting the precedent for the transition from Republic to Empire. The idea of appointing a dictator was not new to Rome, however Caesar was the first to be appointed for life. Further to this, the Senate continued to pile honours on him such as a gilded chair, triumphal robe and the renaming of the month of Quinctilis after him. With his future ambitions arousing concern, the plot to kill Caesar began. Following his assassination, Mark Antony tried to seize power, which led to another civil war between him and Caesar’s grandnephew Octavian. Octavian’s victory would end the Roman Republic and create the Roman Empire as Caesar had set the precedent for the dictator for life, meaning that Octavian would not face as much hostility when he took over this power. Without Caesar’s consolidation of power, Rome would not have become an Empire and the stagnation of the Republic and civil wars would have continued, possibly leading to the fall of Rome much earlier, therefore significantly changing history.