The Rise and Fall of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey: 4 Critical Events that Shaped the First Triumvirate

The Rise and Fall of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey: 4 Critical Events that Shaped the First Triumvirate

Patrick Lynch - June 13, 2017

Alliances have always been at the forefront of human history, and they were a feature of ancient Rome. By 60 BC, the Roman Republic was in a state of turmoil and three of its most powerful individuals set aside their differences to dominate politics for the next few years to come.

The First Triumvirate was a mutually beneficial alliance between Julius Caesar, Crassus and Pompey which was formed in 59 BC (possibly late 60 BC) and ended six years later with the death of Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae. In many ways, the term ‘triumvirate’ is misleading because it involved a number of other political figures such as Lucius Calpurnius Piso and Lucius Lucceius. Cicero was also asked to join the alliance, but he refused. Also, contemporary Romans did not use the phrase ‘triumvirate’ to describe the alliance nor did it have any official power.

1 – The Rise of the First Triumvirate Members

The Rise and Fall of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey: 4 Critical Events that Shaped the First Triumvirate
Pompey the Great. Ancient History Encyclopedia

It was an unlikely alliance borne out of necessity and political maneuvering because the three main members did not like one another. Crassus and Pompey, in particular, had history due to Pompey’s actions in the Third Servile War in the late 70s BC. Crassus defeated Spartacus and his rebels, but Pompey swooped in at the last minute and claimed much of the glory. Both men refused to disband their armies, and in 70 BC, they became consuls. Crassus always hated Pompey for his arrogance and wanted a military command where he could lead alone and claim the glory.

Pompey gained further prestige by defeating a group of pirates that terrorized Romans on the high seas and also played a role in the defeat of Mithridates VI of Pontus. Meanwhile, Caesar returned from Spain in triumph and hoped to further his reputation in Rome. Crassus was one of the richest men in Rome; Pompey was also extremely wealthy while Caesar was deeply in debt.

Before the formation of the First Triumvirate, the politics of the Late Republic were quite clearly divided into two opposing groups; the optimates (Cicero called them ‘the good men’) and the populares (in favor of the people). The latter had the support of the commoners and promoted reforms to help landless Romans including debt relief and redistribution of land. The populares also opposed the power of the nobles in the Senate. The optimates opposed reforms and favored the nobility.

The First Triumvirate came together at a time when Rome was in complete chaos. There were rioting and street violence, clear evidence of moral decay, corrupt politicians and no real leadership. The Catiline Conspiracy of 63 BC was further proof that the Republic was in dire straits and it was only a matter of time before it fell. In fact, historians point to the Conspiracy as the starting point of the alliance.

After Cicero had discovered the plot, he ordered the execution of the plotters without trial, a measure opposed by Caesar. The optimates were accused of overstepping their power over the life and death of Roman citizens. Caesar proposed that Pompey would be given the job of restoring the temple of Jupiter, a role that belonged to a prominent optimate named Catullus. Caesar and Pompey were on good terms by now, but Crassus had mixed emotions for Pompey. Caesar recognized that it was in everyone’s best interests if they formed an alliance and made some steps towards achieving this goal soon after.

In 60 BC, Caesar did not seek a triumph for his achievements in Spain and sought the office of consul for 59 BC. However, he faced stiff opposition from the optimate Senators, so he decided to approach Pompey with a proposition. Caesar and Crassus were already allies at this point, and Caesar managed to patch things up between the two enemies. Therefore, the First Triumvirate was formed with mutual benefit for the three main members. Pompey wanted land for his veterans; Caesar wanted to become Consul and further his political ambitions while Crassus wanted the opportunity to command an army.

The Rise and Fall of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey: 4 Critical Events that Shaped the First Triumvirate
Roman World at 56 BC when the Triumvirate met at Luca. Wikimedia

2 – The First Triumvirate Exerts its Power

The so-called Gang of Three took advantage of the situation as they used bribes, threats, and intimidation to dominate military commands and the consulship for the next few years. Caesar won the consulship easily, but Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus was elected junior Consul. It was a clear attempt by the optimates to prevent Caesar from introducing radical reform.

Once he was in office, Caesar’s first course of action was to pass a law to make all of the Senate’s debates and procedures public. It was a smart move on his part as he could make certain arguments public and position himself as a hero of the people. The next step was to appease Pompey. He introduced an agrarian bill to allot land to the poor citizens of Rome. It cleverly helped Pompey’s veterans without making it obvious that he was assisting his new ally. Caesar made it clear that he would not stand to gain personally from the bill; a common problem with consuls that introduced agrarian bills in the past.

Eventually, the bill faced immense opposition, and one day, a plebian called Vettius apparently came to the Forum with a knife and tried to kill Pompey and Caesar at the behest of Cato the Younger. When Bibulus vetoed the bill, Caesar took it to the popular assembly and announced that Crassus and Pompey both supported it. Bibulus tried to interfere but was tossed to the ground outside the Temple of Castor and pelted with garbage while dung was thrown on his head. He resigned his position, and Caesar ruled as sole Consul for the rest of the year. Cato admitted defeat and the bill passed.

Fresh from this victory, Caesar moved to help Crassus by outlining tax reforms that would benefit the equestrian business interests of his new ally. This bill passed without opposition, and Caesar further cemented the alliance by marrying off his daughter Julia to Pompey in what turned out to be a happy marriage by all accounts. With the support of the Tribune, Publius Vatinius, Caesar secured the Proconsulship of Illyricum and Cisalpine Gaul for five years with the Lex Vatinia. It was an unprecedented term and a clear sign of Caesar’s lust for conquest. By the end of 59 BC, the members of the First Triumvirate were in excellent shape, a state of affairs that only lasted a few years.

The Rise and Fall of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey: 4 Critical Events that Shaped the First Triumvirate
Crassus. Ancient History Encyclopedia

3 – Be Careful What You Wish For: The Death of Crassus

Upon the completion of his year in office, Caesar left Rome for Gaul and did not return until 50 BC. It didn’t take long for Pompey to become jealous of Caesar’s accomplishments but the alliance held together for the time being. Meanwhile, Cicero had returned from exile and aligned himself with Pompey in 57 BC. At this time, there were grave food shortages, and the people threatened to kill senators. Cicero persuaded the Senate to elect Pompey as ‘prefect of the provisions’ in Italy and other Roman territories for the next five years. Pompey used his contacts and wealth to send ships to Sicily, Sardinia, and Africa to collect food. They returned with so much grain that the markets were filled; this success ensured Pompey earned favor with the Senate.

The First Triumvirate was renewed at Luca in 56 BC as Caesar left his campaign in Gaul to attend. Despite their intense dislike of one another, Pompey and Crassus held things together long enough to rule as joint Consuls in 55 BC. Although Pompey became governor of Spain the following year, he remained in Rome and ruled the province with the aid of trusted deputies.

Crassus yearned for the opportunity to command an army as he knew his achievements at the Battle of the Colline Gate in 82 BC and the war against Spartacus in 71 BC were all but forgotten. He finally got his wish when he undertook his ill-fated campaign against the Parthians. According to Plutarch, Caesar wrote to Crassus and spurred him on in his quest to achieve military greatness. Instead, the greedy alliance member launched a campaign doomed to failure from the outset.

He took Syria as his province in 54 BC and immediately sought to attack the Parthian Empire. Most Senate members opposed this plan of action since Rome and Parthia were not enemies. Crassus arrived in Syria in late 55 BC, and by the end of the following year, he was joined by his son and Gallic cavalry. Things went well for Crassus in 54 BC as he enjoyed a number of successes and extorted money from the local population. In early 53 BC, Crassus crossed the Euphrates with a vast army. He was confident of achieving even more success which would finally give him the military reputation he craved.

However, the campaign came to a disastrous conclusion. At the Battle of Carrhae, his limitations as a commander were brutally exposed. The Romans did not have much idea of how the Parthians fought so he was basically fighting blind. He spotted the Parthian army near Carrhae and moved his 35,000 heavy infantry into a large square to prevent them from getting outflanked and put his 4,000 cavalry inside the square. Then he attacked with his 4,000 light infantry.

Crassus did not plan his campaign well and was unable to cope with the desert terrain nor did he have enough cavalry. The Parthian army was led by Surena who attacked with up to 9,000 archers and forced the Roman light infantry back into the square. Then they fired at the heavy infantry while staying well out of range of a counter attack. Crassus’ son Publius tried to attack the archers with 1,500 cavalry but fell into a trap. They pretended to retreat only to spring forward with 1,000 cataphract which wiped Publius and his men out.

Crassus thought the enemy horse archers were gone from the field and advanced but the archers were waiting and launched a devastating attack. With the aid of the cataphracts, the Parthians whittled down the Roman army. Crassus went to Surena to surrender but was executed after the meeting. The Romans had 43,000 men against just 10,000 Parthians but 20,000 Romans died and 10,000 were captured. Most historians consider it the worst Roman defeat since Cannae. The Parthians apparently poured molten gold down Crassus’ throat as a final punishment for his greed.

The Rise and Fall of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey: 4 Critical Events that Shaped the First Triumvirate
Julius Caesar. Time and Date

4 – The First Triumvirate Collapses, Rome Descends Into Civil War

By 54 BC, Pompey was the only member of the Triumvirate left in Rome, and he took full advantage of the situation. By now, everything in Rome was achieved through bribery, and the relationship between Caesar and Pompey became irrevocably strained after the death of Julia, Caesar’s daughter, and Pompey’s fourth wife, in 54 BC.

The First Triumvirate officially came to an end in 53 BC when Crassus died at the Battle of Carrhae. Not only did the alliance lose one of its three main members, but it also lost the man that kept everything together. Crassus had been able to keep Caesar and Pompey on relatively friendly terms. With his death and the death of Julia, the two remaining members of the alliance had no reason to be friendly to one another. There was a deep hatred between the two for a number of years, and Pompey remained bitterly jealous of Caesar’s achievements.

Pompey became Consul in 52 BC, but when Caesar returned, he was wealthy, powerful and ambitious. By now, Pompey had become close to the optimates and was drifting away from Caesar and the populares. After recovering from a serious illness in 50 BC, Pompey became even more arrogant and dismissive towards Caesar. It was in this year that Caesar’s proconsular term expired and the Senate ordered him to disband his army. Caesar wrote to the Senate and said he would do so if Pompey followed suit. The outraged Senate demanded that Caesar disband his army immediately. This was an illegal action as Caesar was entitled to keep his army until his term officially ended.

Caesar was forbidden from standing for the consulship in absentia. He believed he would be prosecuted if he returned to Rome without the protection of a consulship so on January 10, 49 BC, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River. It was illegal to cross this boundary between the Cisalpine Gaul province and Italy for a general leading an army. Cicero remained on friendly terms with both men and wrote to Caesar in March 49 BC. In the letter, Cicero outlined that he remained an advocate of peace and spoke of his concern for Pompey’s rightful position. He concluded by saying that he hoped the two men could reconcile for the peace of Rome. Caesar replied by saying that he trusted Cicero not to interfere and take an ill-rushed action now that things had gone Caesar’s way.

Whatever hope Cicero had for peace was dashed when Pompey left Rome with his army in 49 BC, and Caesar quickly followed him. The following year, Caesar defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus despite being heavily outnumbered. While Pompey escaped the battlefield, he was not so lucky when he landed in Egypt as he was murdered on the orders of Ptolemy XIII.

While The First Triumvirate probably hastened the end of the Roman Republic, the truth is, the end was nigh for some time. Rome was rife with corruption and greed, and it was only a matter of time before someone emerged to take complete control. Caesar appeared to be that man, but his death in 44 BC led to more turmoil. Eventually, Octavian was the last man standing.