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A Brief History of the First Imperial Civil War

By Jared Epstein


Silver Denarius of Mark Antony and Octavian
Ephesus mint, spring-summer 41 B.C.
Obverse: M ANT IMP AVG III VIR R P C BARBAT Q P C, bare head of Mark Antony right
Reverse: CAESAR IMP PONT III VIR R P C, bare head of Octavian right

Shortly after Caesar was assassinated there was a political vacuum in Rome. From the beginnings of Caesar 's civil war in 49 BC to his assassination in 44 BC, he shook up the foundations of Roman society and upon his death, there was the lingering thought of total power being so accessible that several people found it too hard to resist.

Octavian, born Gaius Octavius in 63 BC, was Julius Caesar 's grandnephew and had joined Caesar in Spain in 45 BC. In his travels with Octavian, Caesar became fond of the boy. In his will he proclaimed Octavian to be his heir and adopted son. Mark Antony was in Rome when Caesar was assassinated by Cassius and Brutus, along with many of their other senatorial followers, and as Caesar 's general and chief supporter, he seized Caesar 's assets, treating his will as null. Against all other advice, Octavian marched into Rome to confront Antony for his rightful inheritance. Antony refused and Octavian was forced to raise funds from other sources in order to continue his fight.

Cicero, a senator and famous orator, agreed to help Octavian and fund a campaign against Antony. Octavian reinstated the games Julius Caesar had started in 46 BC to celebrate his military victories in order to gain public support. At the same time, Octavian was awarded a consulship by request of the senate because the two acting consuls were killed in battle in Gaul. Once Octavian was in such a position, Antony had no choice but to officially recognized Octavian 's inheritance, allowing him to legally take the name Gaius Julius Caesar.

Since Octavian 's two primary goals in returning to Rome were to acquire his inheritance and to avenge Caesar 's murder, he no longer needed to keep Antony as an enemy when he was granted that inheritance. Making an arrangement for peace with Antony also appeased the senate, whom he had to keep happy, because they were the ones who had put him in power and who he needed to stay in power. Octavian, Antony and Lepidus, another of Caesar 's main supporters, formed an official Triumvirate, unlike the first formed by Caesar, Crassus and Pompey seventeen years before, and were granted many autocratic powers for five years starting at the end of 43 BC.

Octavian was now in the position for him to carry out the second of his goals, the death of Cassius and Brutus, who had escaped to the east after they killed Caesar. In 42 BC they were hunted by Octavian 's troops and were killed at Philippi. Octavian 's main enemies were out of the way and Caesar had just been declared a god by the state, granting the title of "son of a god" to Octavian. Had he not have fallen ill due to his delicate health, he would not have had to let Antony take the dominant position in the Triumvirate.

The Empire was split militarily, giving Lepidus Africa, Antony the east and Gaul and Octavian the west. Octavian began a war with Antony 's brother, Lucius Antonius, which finally ended in Perusia in 41 BC.  Sextus Pompey, the son of Pompey the great and a wondrous naval captain, had been troubling Octavian as well and he married one of his relatives, Scribonia. Ties between Antony and Octavian began to dwindle as a result of this marriage and Octavian divorced Scribonia and made Sextus Pompey an enemy again in order to keep Antony as an ally.

Antony had culminated a relationship with Cleopatra VII while he was in the east, running his territory from Egypt. He left Cleopatra in order to marry Octavia, Octavian 's sister, in order to show his good will and keep the peace. Hostilities increased with Sextus Pompey, whom Octavian had publicly declared a pirate in order to gain public support for his military actions against him. Antony returned to Egypt with Octavia and he and Octavian in 37 BC agreed to keep the Triumvirate together. One year later Octavian 's general, Agrippa, defeated Sextus Pompey and Octavian was awarded a lesser victory, an annual celebration, a gilded statue and the right to wear a laurel wreath to signify his victory in battle.

Lepidus at this time was building his military power and attempting to invade Octavian 's territory to take his position in the Triumvirate. Octavian, finished with Sextus Pompey, was able to turn and focus on Lepidus ' oncoming troops. Octavian defeated him easily and forced him to resign his position in the Triumvirate and retire his armies, leaving only Antony to contend with.

From 35-33 BC, Octavian turned his military attention to Dalmatia and Illyricum and as a result of the only somewhat successful campaigns, he secured the borders of the Empire. Understanding that soon the same thing that brought Lepidus to fight against him would bring Antony against him as well, he began spending a great deal of his own funds, with help from Agrippa, to build great architecture within Rome in order to secure his public support. He also began a propaganda campaign against Antony, holding nothing back. He portrayed Antony as having been too heavily influenced by the barbarous foreign country he resided in.

His coins had been minted with the name Caesar on it, reminding the citizens of his relation to the recently deified Julius Caesar. He overloaded the citizens of Rome with pictures of piety, virtue, and his ties with the gods. Hearing of the way he was being portrayed by Octavian, the Triumvirate agreements were dismissed in 32 BC and Antony divorced his sister, feeling that tie was no longer worth keeping, in order to return to Cleopatra. Octavian in reaction to this insult disclosed Antony 's will to the public, declaring that Antony had made concessions to Cleopatra that were preposterous.

Octavian used Antony 's attachment to Cleopatra to his advantage. In order to avoid the image of a civil war to the public by declaring war against Antony, he declared war against Cleopatra, accusing her of actions unfit for a Roman citizen. Octavian knew that Antony would stand beside her and that her defeat would signal his as well. War ensued between Rome and the province of Egypt and Antony, as predicted, pulled his armies to support Cleopatra in this war, knowing that if he won, he would have control over the Empire. Antony minted silver denarii with a praetorian galley on the obverse and an eagle between legionary standards on the reverse in order to pay his legions.  In 31 BC, Antony and Cleopatra 's fleets were overpowered at the battle of Actium and after losing three quarters of their fleet, they fled back to Egypt. One year later, Octavian invaded Egypt with a massive force and in order to escape confrontation, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide.


Silver Denarius Struck By Anthony and Cleopatra
Minted at Patrae for his fleet and legions while preparing for the struggle with Octavian, 32-31 B.C.
Obverse: ANT AVG III VIR R P C, galley right
Reverse: LEG III, legionary eagle between two standards

With the death of Antony, Octavian 's work was not completed. He had to prove to the people of Rome that he was fit to lead them as their sole leader. It had now been eighteen years since any hint of the republic had been intact. The people knew Octavian could not and would not attempt to restore the republic. It had been too long and he had gone through so much to attain power for himself. In addition, the people wanted anything but civil war and the only way to avoid more civil war was for him to rule the Empire. What was left was for him to appease the people in whatever way he could so that he would not come to such an end as his granduncle, Julius Caesar.

In order to put down all contentions to the throne, his first action was to have Caesarion killed because he was thought to be Caesar 's son by Cleopatra. Military strategies were not Octavian 's strong quality, as he left most of that to Agrippa. But politics and civil organization, he had quite a knack for. He reshaped the senate and the military in order to keep chance of rebellion down.

At first he did not declare himself emperor, though he had taken the title imperator after he had put down Lepidus ' rebellion several years earlier. Instead he released Imperial power to the people and the state, thought the people knew it was just an act. He was granted control of Spain, Gaul and Syria by the senate, the provinces that just happened to contain most of his army. He left the senate to choose the princeps to govern the rest of the territories of the Empire as it had always been, in order to show his support of the senate. He took a continuous consulship from 31-23 BC, and in 27 BC was given the title of Augustus.

One of Augustus ' major contributions was to the Roman economy and system of coinage. Augustus added to the already present aureus, denarius and sestertius the dupondius, as, and follis. Because of his major reform of coinage, trade was positively affected.

Works Cited
Grant, Michael. The Roman Emperors. (New York, 1997)., pp. 9-16.
Klawans, Zander H. Ancient Greek and Roman Coins. (New York, 1995)., pp. 177-183.

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