Climate and the Collapse of the Roman Empire: Part 3b2: The Fall of the Republic

Depiction of Caesar’s funeral. source

Caesar’s body lay in the Senate for some hours. The assassins barricaded themselves on the Capitoline Hill, fearful of Caesar’s many supporters among the lower classes. The conflict continued to break along the lines of wealth, as it had for almost a century. Marcus Aemillus Lepidus (89/88 — 13/12 B.C.) prepared to strip the Capitoline Hill with thousands of troops, but was cautioned by Mark Antony to take things slowly. As much as people loved Caesar, they loved peace more. And the past few years of Caesar’s rule had been the most peaceful in almost a century. Antony brokered a compromise to keep that peace — the assassins would be pardoned so long as all of Caesar’s remaining decisions were ratified. This wouldn’t be enough to mollify Caesar’s supporters, but at least provided some face-saving compromises to buy Mark Antony room to maneuver. Antony, Caesar’s most accomplished general, was an effective peace broker. For perhaps the first time in a long time, there was hope for peace despite the crises.

Four days after Caesar’s death, his will was read on the Senate floor. It announced that Caesar had posthumously adopted his great nephew, Gaius Octavius (63 B.C. — 14 A.D.) and named him his heir. Caesar had one son with Cleopatra, but he was considered illegitamate, too young, and insufficiently Roman. Caesar’s choice of Octavian was not preceded by any obvious signs — it was not clear that Caesar had even had a relationship with the 19 year old. His father had died when he was young; his mother thereafter married a descendant of Alexander the Great who didn’t have much interest in the young Octavian. His grandmother Julia Minor (101 — 51 B.C.), a sister to Caesar, took him in. She passed away when Octavian was only 12; he gave her funeral oration. It is unlikely Caesar could have attended the funeral, as Julia died between his defeat of the Gauls and his crossing of the Rubicon. But he would have heard of his young great-nephew. A teenage Octavian would attempt to participate in Caesar’s civil wars, but was frustrated by illness and shipwrecks. However, despite setbacks he would still cross enemy territory to join Caesar. Octavian accompanied Caesar thereafter. It is unclear what Caesar saw in Octavian when he was young. There were no obvious feats of heroism that would set him apart. Perhaps Caesar knew that family would always be more loyal than subordinates. Perhaps it was simply laziness and the need to have an heir -Caesar never seemed to be aware that he could be defeated or die. Or, Caesar recognized himself in the young Octavian.

Bust of the young Octavian. source

We will never know Caesar’s reasoning. What is not in doubt is that his heir would prove to be more capable than Caesar himself. Octavian had Caesar’s audaciousness. With it he would combine political genius with an understanding that success was not established by validating one’s narcissism, but instead by creating enduring institutions. Octavian returned to Rome from military training in Illyrian upon hearing of Caesar’s death, and his adoption by his great uncle upon landing in Italy. He immediately seized money to support the parts of Caesar’s army that greeted him. While this was embezzlement, the Senate looked the other way, recognizing that Octavian could provide a useful alternate power center from Mark Antony. In Caesar’s heir, the saw the prospect for a new champion of the Optimates.

As Octavian marched to Rome, he picked up veterans of Caesar’s force. Rome itself was the scene of two divisions. The first was between Mark Antony and Caesar’s assassins, though despite the violence of the act itself, an uneasy truce had thus far been steady. The second division was between the traditional optimates and populares. While Caesar himself had been in the populare camp, the Octavian himself built ties to the optimates. Chief among the optimates was Cicero, who loudly embraced Octavian despite his earlier relationship with Caesar.

“But Cicero, who was the most influential man in the city, and was trying to incite everybody against Antony, persuaded the senate to vote him a public enemy, to send to Caesar [Octavian] the fasces and other insignia of a praetor, and to dispatch Pansa and Hirtius to drive Antony out of Italy” — Plutarch,: Lives: Antony 17–1

This was surprising coming from the optimates, who had always opposed Caesar. It is difficult to understand their rational, though perhaps they were in part acquiescing to the changing times, and it probably didn’t hurt that Octavian, like them, had inherited his wealth and status. Octavian, for his part, likely needed the optimates to get the wealth, as Mark Anthony resisted giving Octavian his inheritance. The promise of Caesar’s fortune however cast a powerful spell, and Octavian recruited former veterans of his great uncles army into his own. This soon began to draw down Mark Antony’s support. Sensing the new direction of the wind, Mark Antony fled to Gaul to assume command of Caesar’s conquest. The previous/current commander, Decimus Brutus, had no intention of relinquishing his command.

Bust of Cicero. source

While Antony spent his time in Gaul in limbo, Octavian continued to curry favor from the optimates. He was inaugurated as a Senator in 43 B.C., though enjoyed some special authority normally grant d to consuls only. When open conflict broke out between Antony and Brutus in Gaul, the Senate sent the two consuls north with armies. While they would defeat Antony, the commanding consuls would be killed in battle. Within a year of Caesar’s death, Octavian had defacto consular authority, Senator status, an army of populares, and the backing of the optimates. It is hard to convey how bizarre this situation would be today. Octavian abused these relationships early on by demanding that Antony be declared an enemy of the state. He was rebuffed, and in retaliation he marched his legions in Rome. While they were greeted unopposed, we should pause and reflect that by this point, bringing an army into Rome to affect a political outcome was becoming a necessary step to establish oneself.

One could see the outlines of a now familiar conflict to the Romans: a proxy war between the optimates and populares through their preferred strongmen. This dynamic was quickly set aside by the strongmen for a tactic employed decades earlier by Caesar — a triumvirate. Octavian, Antony, and Marcus Amelius Lepidus (89/88 — 13/12 B.C.) entered a power sharing agreement designed to sideline all other Roman interests. We don’t have a clear picture of Lepidus, as future events would overwhelm him. We do know that he had an army, and had been instrumental in preventing wars, such as one with Sextus Pompeius (67 — 37 B.C.), the young surviving son of Pompey the Great who had amassed a pirate army to threaten Rome.

The first triumvirate, between Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey, had been orchestrated to grant each man an area of influence. Caesar received Gaul, Pompey Anatolia and the Levant, and unfortunately for Crassus, a war against the Parthians. The second triumvirate, between Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus, was a far less aspirational affair. Octavian surmised that it was not external conquest that these men wanted, but instead the slaughter of their enemies. Rather than look to the frontier, they looked inward to their grievances. The immediate consequence of the second triumvirate was a proscription, hardening back to the days of Sulla and Cinna.

“As soon as the triumvirs were by themselves they joined in making a list of those who were to be put to death. They put on the list those whom they suspected because of their power, and also their personal enemies, and they swapped their own relatives and friends with each other for death, both then and later. For they made additions to the catalogue from time to time, some on the ground of enmity, others for a grudge merely, or because the victims tims were friends of their enemies or enemies of their friends.” — Appian, The Civil Wars Book IV/II: 5

Hundreds of Senators and thousands of elite in general would be caught up in the ensuing systematized killings. Octavian, with the fewest ties to Rome, had the fewest enemies to seek retribution against. But he stepped out of the way of the other men as they targeted his hitherto allies. Chief among them was Cicero, who had been among the first to embrace the young heir to Caesar. Mark Antony had Cicero decapitated, and posted his head and hands on the speaker’s rostrum in the Senate where he had built his reputation for eloquence.

“The head and hand of Cicero were suspended for a long time from the rostra in the forum where formerly he had been accustomed to make public speeches, and more people came together to behold this spectacle than had previously come to listen to him. It is said that even at his meals Antony placed the head of Cicero before his table, until he became satiated with the horrid sight.” — Appian, the Civil Wars IV/IV:20

Octavian was not the only Triumvir to sacrifice friends for the cause of internal power sharing. Lepidus allowed his own brother to be murdered.

“Straightway, throughout city and country, wherever each one happened to be found, there were sudden arrests and murder in various forms, and decapitations for the sake of the rewards when the head should be shown; also undignified flights in strange costumes, of persons hitherto well dressed. Some descended into wells, others into filthy sewers. Some took refuge in chimneys. Others crouched in the deepest silence under the thick-set tiles of their roofs. Some were not less fearful of their wives and ill-disposed children than of the murderers. Others feared their freedmen and their slaves; creditors feared their debtors and neighbors feared neighbors who coveted their lands. There was a sudden outburst of previously smouldering hates and a shocking change in the condition of senators, consulars, prætors, tribunes (men who were about to enter upon those offices, or who had already held them), who threw themselves with lamentations at the feet of their own slaves, giving to the servant the character of savior and master. It was most lamentable that even after submitting to this humiliation they did not obtain pity.” — Appian, The Civil Wars IV/III: 13
The Death of Brutus. Flemish School. 17th century. source

The killings were ostensibly to raise funds for a war against the assassins of Caesar, and soon the triumvirate marched out of Rome with their combined force. They met, and defeated, the armies of Brutus and Cassius at Phillipi in Macedonia. The assassins turned their knives on themselves before the triumvirate reached them. Following the rapid collapse of that faction the Triumvir divided Rome’s existing territories into spheres of influence. Octavian received Gaul, Hispania, and Italy, Mark Antony received Egypt, and Lepidus received Africa.

Octavian resettled the army of the assassins within Rome, as there was little left that the Romans felt comfortable conquering. This displaced many in Italy, and made the young heir to Caesar much less popular.

“The task of assigning the soldiers to their colonies and dividing the land was one of exceeding difficulty. The soldiers demanded the cities which had been selected for them before the war as prizes for their valor. The cities demanded that the whole of Italy should share the burden, or that the cities should cast lots with the other cities, and that those who gave the land should be paid the value of it; but there was no money. They came to Rome in crowds, young and old, women and children, to the forum and the temples, uttering lamentations, saying that they had done no wrong for which they, Italians, should be driven from their fields and their hearthstones, like people conquered in war. The Romans mourned and wept with them, especially when they reflected that the war had been waged, and the rewards of victory given, not in behalf of the commonwealth, but against themselves and for a change of the form of government; that the colonies were established so that democracy should never again lift its head, — colonies composed of hirelings settled there by the rulers to be in readiness for whatever purpose they might be wanted.” Appian, The Civil Wars, V/II: 12

It telling the history of the fall of the Roman Republic, it is easy to make it simply a series of biographies from Sulla to Caesar to Octavian. To the Roman people, who had endured a century of war, the resettlement of the soldier stay have well been the true death of the Republic. To raise funds for their armies, Octavian and his fellow triumvirs had organized the systemic murder of rich citizens to plunder their land. They used this army not to extend Roman territory or fight enemies, but instead to defeat a Republican army led by forces opposed to the rule of dictators. Following their defeat, those armies would be forcibly resettled in Roman cities depopulated by citizens.

To add salt to the wound if the Romans, Octavian also divorced his wife Claudia Pulchera. Given the extraordinary resentment against him, this divorce precipitated a significant, though short-lived, civil war. The problem was that the divorce became the flashpoint for the Romans dispossessed by the settling of the Roman legions. The revolt would be led by Fulvia (83 — 40 B.C.), wife of Mark Antony and mother of Octavian’s former wife Claudia. With Lucius Antonius, the younger brother of her husband Mark Antony, she raised 8 legions to challenge Octavian. This army took Rome, but relocated in the more defensible Perusia in present-day Umbria. There Octavian found it most expedient to simply starve the force out. Fulvia would flee to Greece, where she would die shortly after meeting with her husband Mark Antony.

The second triumvirate survived the short civil war, but Octavian’s popularity was pummeled. The optimates, which had grown uneasy with the triumvirate and Italian instability, began to protest loudly. To quiet them, Octavian had hundreds of them killed. Over the course of a year, Octavian had gone from receiving the benefit of the doubt from both the optimates and populares to receiving their scorn. Octavian’s popularity perpetually suffered over the following three years. He married in 40 B.C. to Scribonia to secure an alliance, and on the day she gave birth to his daughter Julia he divorced her and married Livia Drussilla instead — all happening within about a year.

The infidelity would prove consequential. Sextus Pompeius had grown his naval empire, and could strangle Rome by denying grain and trade to reach the city. With a power center in Sicily, he had negotiated a favorable truce a year earlier. With Octavian spurning his former wife in such a cruel manner, he angered many Romans, including some of his naval commanders. Pompeius expanses his territory to Corsica and Sardinia — leaving Octavian with a smaller navy and less territory without a single battle. Octavian would need to negotiate with the other triumvirs, Mark Antony and Lepidus, to circle Sextus in.

While Octavian needed a navy, Mark Antony wanted an army. They agreed to a trade: 120 ships for Octavian, 20,000 legionaries for Mark Antony. Octavian would get the ships while Mark Antony would get only 2,000 troops. Lepidus and Octavian would both challenge Sextus, one from the south, the other from the north. To fight the war, Octavian turned to a childhood friend, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (64/62 B.C. — 12 A.D.). Agrippa had stayed loyal to Octavian, and had proven himself a capable fighter and commander. Agrippa rebuilt the fleet in a new, secret port to mobilize forces without drawing the attention of Sextus. Agrippa would sail out in 36 B.C. From Italy, while Lepidus sailed north from Africa. They would find Sextus’ fleet near Naulochus in Sicily. Using new artillery, Agrippa would wear Sextus down over the course of a long naval battle. Sextus withdrew from the battle to preserve his remaining fleet, but effectively ceded much of Sicily to do so. He fled to an island near Anatolia, where he would ultimately be defeated by an undoubtedly angry force under Mark Antony. There is a deep irony to the life of Sextus; his father had risen to dominance in Rome by suppressing the pirates in the Mediterranean, while Sextus himself had been the most powerful among them a generation later. He had fled to the sea after his father was beheaded in Egypt following his wars with Caesar. His connection to the sea was so strong that he was called Neptuni — the son of the Roman god of the Ocean Neptune.

Neptune at the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Photo by author

As Sextus portrayed himself as Neptune, Mark Antony adopted the visage of the god Baachus, the Roman god of fertility and wine. Since 41 B.C., he had been romantically involved with Cleopatra, the following year she gave birth to twins. Rather than stay in Egypt, Makr Antony left to continue the war against the Parthians, ostensibly to avenge the death of Crassus and deliver on Caesar’s promise to pacify them. This would be interrupted for a year following the fallout at his wife’s short-lived civil war in Italy. Frustratingly, the Parthians invaded Roman territory as Antony was handling the fallout from this episode. While the Parthian advance would be halted by one of his generals, Publius Ventidius Bassus (), Antony wanted to take the fight back to them. A second defeat the following year delivered again by Ventidius would kill the heir to the Parthian throne, driving them back across the Euphrates in the midst of a succession crises. Ventidius would enjoy a Roman triumph for his achievement — sadly we know nothing else about the rest of his life. Ventidius has been careful to only defend against Parthia, not deny Mark Antony his war. Unfortunately for Antony, his war would be set aside by the aggression of Sextus Pompey. An interesting consequence of the war was to result in the rise of Herod as a client-king of the Levant in the post-Parthian invasion aftermath.

Triumphal Procession of Bacchus. Maerten von Heemskerck, 1536–1537. source

Anthony remarried, this time to Octavian’s sister Octavia, and returned to the task of defeating Parthia. While he had given Octavian a navy, Octavian denied his end of the deal to supply legions for the Parthian invasion. Antony turned instead to Cleopatra for the armies needed, raising a force 200,000 strong. The mere size of the army convinced Armenia to surrender without struggle. Kingdoms in the Caucus would follow suit. The Parthians, still reeling from the crises caused by Ventidius’ earlier victories, decided to retreat before the Romans, drawing them deep into their territory. They were however, quick to take advantage of any mistake by the Romans. Antony would split two Roman legions off the main force, some 20,000 men, would would quickly be annihilated by the Parthians. Antony would still press on to try and take at least one provincial Capitol, but would have to retreat. The Parthians harassed Antony’s forces all the way back to Armenia, causing him to lose at least another 20,000 troops. More would be lost as he tried to pacify Syria. Antony had managed to lose 80,000 men with one territorial gains to show for it, aside from the intimidation of Armenia and the Caucus.

If Pompey was Neptune, and Mark Antony Baachus, Octavian instead eschewed the gods and played the traditional role of political upstart, this time against Lepidus. Following the defeat of Sextus, Lepidus tried to take Sicily has his own. Years earlier, Lepidus has provided Octavian with the majority of his troops to fight against Caesar’s assassins. This act of loyalty had guaranteed his influence at the time, but had sacrificed it in the long run, as in this era in Rome’s history armies were central to politics. His territory of Africa was much smaller than the holdings of either Octavian or Mark Antony — he likely felt that Sicily was his due. He challenged Octavian for Sicily, then tried to negotiate for it. The net result was that the remaining legions of Lepidus went over to Octavian. Lepidus would be sent to exile, effectively ending the second triumvirate in 36 B.C. Rome could tolerate power balanced between three men, but not two.

Mark Antony’s dependence on Cleopatra’s armies and defeat by the Parthians would provide powerful propaganda for Octavian, who was reinventing himself into the defender of traditional Roman values. After all, a true Roman army couldn’t lead a force of 200,000 to be defeated without a single major battle. That Cleopatra was involved made it al the worse — she had never been popular in Rome, not even when Caesar was in power. In 33 B.C., Octavian delivered a Senate Speech castigating Mark Antony as an eastern tyrant. This alarmed Senators — and the two consuls — that the civil wars were going to return. Octavian had hinted at this years earlier, offering to step down as Triumvir if only Mark Antony would do the same. But in the absence of Lepidus, it was becoming clear that while the Roman Empire was big enough for three, it was too small for two.

However, Antony too had his defectors, and they brought secrets. Upon hearing them, Octavian publicly broke into the temple of the Vestal Virgins, seized Mark Antony’s will, and read allowed who he had designated as his heirs. Mark Antony gave much of Rome’s territories to his sons in the event of his death, and he intended to be interred with Cleopatra in Alexandria. Outrage over Octavian’s actions quickly shifted to outrage over Mark Antony’s promises. It also initiated the civil war that had likely been inevitable since Caesar’s will was read aloud a decade earlier.

Battle of Actium. Layreys a Castro, 1672. source

This war, however, would be much shorter than the others. Antony and Cleopatra were in Greece, and Agrippa sailed his fleet across the Adriatic to cut them off from Egypt. Octavian led an army to their location. Victory seemed certain, and even Antony’s supporters began to peel off and join the winning faction while they could. Antony’s fleet made its way to the Bay of Actium, hoping to break through the siege. While Antony’s ships were larger, Agrippa’s were more numerous. The result would be a historic defeat, only narrowly not a catastrophic one through the efforts of Cleopatra — her reserve fleet would occupy Agrippa’s and offer an escape to Mark Antony. They would flee to Alexandria, and commit suicide together as Octavian’s army bore down on them. Cleopatra’s children were however still alive, and Caesarion, her son by Caesar, was a threat to Octavian. While Octavian killed him, he allegedly spared Mark Antony’s twins by Cleopatra. The Roman Republic may well have died with Caesar’s heir killing Caesar’s son.

The Death of Cleopatra. Reginald Arthur 1892. source

The Romans, while suspicious of one-man rule, were also weary after over century of civil wars. Octavian had, up until this point, had succeeded by manipulating his fellow triumvirs. He made promises, specifically to Lepidus by receiving legions and Mark Antony in promising them, that strengthened his position and weakened theirs. The Roman people were a different story. Here, Octavian proved far more shrewd than Caesar. Caesar prefers ostentatious displays of power to emphasize his greatness, even though it undermined his power. Octavian strove to do the opposite, amass power but appear to be just an influential citizen. Octavian wanted to be Emperor in all but the clothes. In 27 B.C., he made a show of stripping himself of both his armies and his provinces to restore the influence of the Senate. Procedurally, however, the Senate could do little without Octavian’s approval. When the Senate couldn’t finance the construction of roads, Octavian came in to (very publicly) finance their construction. When the Senate was unable to manage the provinces, Octavian (very publicly) reluctantly undertook restoring order. The settlement with Octavian formed the basis of the principate. While today the word ‘prince’ conveys royalty and inherited power, it began as a simple description of Octavian’s power as ‘first citizen’ — prima caput, or ‘princeps’. With the title of princeps from the Senate came the name ‘Augustus’. ‘Prince’ is hardly the only word associated with royalty that Octavian would leave us with. His house on the Pallazio hill, one of 7 prominent hills in the area of Rome, would become the basis of the word for ‘palace’. As Octavian distanced himself from old ideas of monarchy, he was laying down new ones that would last for over a millennia. And all was an open secret. In his Deeds of Augustus, which reads like a list of achievements by a Meopotamian despot, he proclaims his rejection of a dictatorship while establishing

“The dictatorship offered me by the people and the Roman Senate, in my absence and later when present, in the consulship of Marcus Marcellus and Lucius Arruntius I did not accept. I did not decline at a time of the greatest scarcity of grain the charge of the grain-supply, which I so administered that, within a few days, I freed the entire people, at my own expense, from the fear and danger in which they were. The consulship, either yearly or for life, then offered me I did not accept.” — Augustus: Res Gestae Divi Augusti 5
Territory of the Roman Empire under Octavian. source

The earliest stages of the consolidated Empire was hidden behind the trappings of a normal Republic. Octavian, the ‘princeps’, was merely the first citizen. But he controlled more legions than the Senate, even after the first settlement — he knew where his true power lay. He spoke first in the Senate. He even allowed Lepidus to return occasionally, though in a sign of contempt he only permitted him to speak last. But while Augustus had done his best to hide his de-facto king status, his persistent election to consul still caused some consternation. In 23 B.C. he fell seriously ill, and to assuage fears of a new civil war signified to the legions that Agrippa would be his successor. While he would recover, it nonetheless indicated that a succession plan was now in place. In typical Octavian style, this taking of a mile was obscured by giving an inch — he resigned the consulship. The second settlement, follow on ga controversial trial in the Senate, established the reality of his power across the entirety of the Roman Empire while allowing the surifice of Republican rule with the continuation of consular elections. In fact, the second settlement codified the word ‘Empire’ — the imperium proconsulare — as an authority, auctoritas, held by the princeps. Augustus also received the traditional republican power of tribune for life — that same office held by the Gracchi brothers a century earlier — but crucially, without the title of Tribunate of the Plebs. Augustus simultaneously held the most powerful offices of Rome, but without the title. In the United States, it would be as if a General was given the powers of Speaker of the House of Representatives, President, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but the title were still held and awarded as they had previously, pending approval of the general. The powers of an autocrat were reforming beneath the visage of Republican traditions. Caesar had attempted a similar feat, but was way too obvious about it. He had, at one point publicly refused a crown while dressed in purple. Octavian resisted any attempted at spiking the football. He sought to reinvent Rome. Even the title Augustus was chosen because it avoided the monarchical connotations of Romulus. Crises which followed, such as famine, resulted in calls for Octavian to gather more explicit dictatorial powers. Which, of course, he made a show of refusing, and then deciding the powers already fell in his authority.

Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century A.D. Photo by author

Octavian consolidated the Roman Empire, deposing Herod’s successor and incorporating the Levant directly under Roman Rule. Unlike Caesar he did not stretch the boundaries of the Empire, but he did clarify exactly what those boundaries meant. Establishing Roman dominance of the Alps was particularly important, as it established a strong natural border to the Empire. Perhaps Octavian’s greatest victory was in restoring the Roman eagle (aquila) that had been seized by the defeat of Crassus. Simply getting this eagle back had been one of the pretexts of Mark Antony’s invasion of Parthia. Losing an eagle was a crises to the Romans — it was an ignoble sign of defeat should one be lost. Octavian won the eagle back through negotiation.

The northern borders of the Empire were the most obvious area for future expansion. The Germans, like the Gauls, were organized into loose confederations, and deeply divided among themselves. The area was ripe for the kind of ‘civilizing’ that the Romans liked best. It also afforded the opportunity for members of Octavian’a family to distinguish themselves. One of the first to do so was Nero Claudius Drusus (38 B.C. — 9 A.D.), the son of Octavian’s wife Livia from a previous marriage. He and his brother, Tiberius Claudius Nero (42 B.C. — 37 A.D.). While not blood relatives, Octavian would take both under his wing, awarding them offices. Drusus received the governorship of Gaul in 15 B.C., and immediatly set to pascifying the province, fighting and defeating Germanic tribes like the Chauci, Bructeri, and Cherusci that bordered Gaul to the East. By 12 B.C., he had pushed Roman borders into Germania itself. To a population still traumatized by their first interactions with Germanic/Proto-Germanic tribes the Cimbri and the Teutones, Drusus reaffirmed Roman supremacy. In later campaigns he strengthened fortresses within the Rhineland, establishing a strong presence within Germany. Germanic tribes such as the Macromanni began to migrate away from Roman positions, for fear of conflict. He reached the Elbe in 9 B.C. According to historians, he had a dream in which a German woman warned him not to cross the river. On his return from the Elbe, he fell from his horse and was wounded. Wether it was from this wound or a later infection we cannot say, but Drusus would die in Germany.

His brother Tiberius turned his attention to Germany following his brother’s death. In the following years he pursued the Marcomanni, even through the territory of the Quadi. A revolt in the Balkans would force Tiberius to withdraw. Despite his success, he would announce his retirement from public life in 6 B.C. and sequestered himself on the island of Rhodes. It is unclear whether the death of his brother, disdain for politics, or his own personal unhappiness was the primary cause. Either way, the obvious successors to Drusus and Tiberius were not yet ten years old, and Octavian was already approaching the age of 60. While this would cause a crises in the dynasty Octavian hoped to establish, there was still the quintessential Roman business of absorbing German territory at hand.

To continue the advance on Germany, Octavian turned to Publius Quinctilius Varus (46 B.C. — 9 A.D.). Varus was married to a daughter of Agrippa, whose grandchildren were next in line for succession; the selection of Varus was still in line with Octavian’s objective to keep glory within the family. He had been a deeply unpopular, but still effective ruler in Syria. He received the governorship of the new Roman province of Germania.

In 9 A.D., a German prince with Roman citizenship, Arminius, warned Varus that a revolt to Roman rule was growing in the province. Varus responded to the threat by gathering 3 legions and marching out to meet the threat. The road would be long, and would take them through swamps and forests, stretching the legions out. Of the 20,000 men who left with Varus, only a handful would return. Romans knew there had been a defeat, an almost total one. The head of Varus would arrive in Rome some time later, delivered respectfully by the Marcomanni king to show that he was not allied with Arminius, who had led the Romans into the trap. Octavian has prided himself on retrieving the eagle from the Parthians. Three eagles had been lost to the Germans. A retaliatory force would follow 6 years later, and find the site of the massacre.

In the plain between were bleaching bones, scattered or in little heaps, as the men had fallen, fleeing or standing fast. Hard by lay splintered spears and limbs of horses, while human skulls were nailed prominently on the tree-trunks. In the neighbouring groves stood the savage altars at which they had slaughtered the tribunes and chief centurions. Survivors of the disaster, who had escaped the battle or their chains, told how here the legates fell, there the eagles were taken, where the first wound was dealt upon Varus, and where he found death by the suicidal stroke of his own unhappy hand. They spoke of the tribunal from which Arminius made his harangue, all the gibbets and torture-pits for the prisoners, and the arrogance with which he insulted the standards and eagles. Tacitus, 1063/1064
Photo in the Teutenberg Forest. source

The retaliatory force, led by the son of Drusus, would harass the Germans, but the exercise was not to conquer, but to wall off greater Germania from Rome. The Rhine would form the boundary between the world of the Germans in the forest, and the Empire of the Romans to the south. Octavian’s reign would continue, and his dynasty would be continued unhappily by his stepson Tiberius. The Roman Republic has expanded for as long as it had existed. The Empire, by contrast, would be stable following the reign of Octavian. There would be some exceptions, such as the addition of Dacia by Trajan, but the Danube and Rhine rivers would form the natural boundaries between the Emperors and the kings for the following centuries.

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