The Year of Julius and Caesar: 59 BC and The Transformation of the Roman Republic

I have always been fascinated by politics in democratic societies both ancient and modern.  The focus of my research and teaching during the past 36 years, though, has been the Roman Republic (509-31B.C.), specifically the last century of the republic.  This was the era of the Roman “Revolution,” a long period of political violence and civil war inaugurated by the assassination of a tribune (133) and completed by the Battle of Actium (31), that transformed the republic into a monarchy.  At first, I thought of writing about the entire period, but then decided instead to focus on what I considered to be the pivotal year of the “revolution”: 59B.C.  The abundance of literary evidence means that this year is as well documented as any in ancient history.  Even more significant is the survival of copious letters the senator Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote to some of Rome’s most important figures.  They offer a behind-the-scenes look at Roman politics, something we are rarely privileged to glimpse.  By the year 59, the 695th since Romulus founded the city and the 451st since Lucius Junius Brutus banished the last king and established the republic, the Romans ruled most of the known world, and, on January 1 of that year, Rome’s two new consuls Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus officially began their terms as Rome’s highest elected magistrates.  Their year in office would mark a major turning point in the history of the republic and the “Revolution”—and even the ancients recognized its historical significance.  It was a dramatic and momentous year of political intrigue, violence and murder, which boasted some of the most famous personalities ever to grace the Roman historical stage including Cato the Younger, Clodius, Pompey “The Great,” Crassus, Cicero, Lucullus, and especially Caesar. 

I believed that this particular year cried out for an extended study, something no historian had attempted before, to examine the rich tapestry of people and events in the detail not possible in a general history of the late Republic.  First and foremost I wanted this book, The Year of Julius and Caesar, to be about politics in the late Roman Republic, tracing how the players (whether individuals, groups, or “parties”) accumulated power, how that power was exercised, and how it could be used to thwart others.  The book follows the political “game” that played out in an attempt to understand how the process worked (or did not work as was often the case), and why the players acted as they did.  The “game” of course was often played for enormous stakes and affected many people in Rome and throughout the ancient world.  I wanted to put the reader in the middle of the action, in the Forum during moments of tension, in the Senate during an important debate, or in a senator’s home during critical surreptitious negotiations.  Second, I wanted the book to use Caesar’s violent attack on Bibulus and his followers in the forum on April 4 as the year’s (and the republic’s) defining moment.  With this attack 59 abruptly took an entirely new path.  As a result of the assault Bibulus retired to his house for the rest of the year allowing Caesar and his allies the freedom to pass numerous laws which would have an enormous impact on the republic.  The attack and Bibulus’ subsequent absence also provided part of the title for this book: Romans began referring to the year 59 (their year 695) not as the year of the consuls Caesar and Bibulus as was proper, but instead as the year of Julius and Caesar.  My book provides a detailed reconstruction of that fateful day in April, something that no previous scholar has supplied before, and then proceeds to discuss the episode’s dramatic ramifications, which ultimately brought about the republic’s fall.

There are two things that set this book apart from previous works on the period.  One, though many elements in the story have been examined previously, these works did not have nearly enough space to investigate these topics properly.  This book will not have the onerous job of following the course of Roman history over a period of decades or a century; instead, it will provide a snapshot of one specific moment in time by exploring the year in appropriate detail.  Two, an in-depth study of the year 59 will answer many of the important historical questions surrounding this year.  Its most important contribution: this book provides a precise and definite chronology for the year 59, a problem scholars have debated for decades.  I hope that this analysis will settle the matter. 

Though it was not necessarily a surprise, this book demonstrates once again the similarities in the political processes of democratic governments throughout history.  Indeed, though the book will not provide any detailed comparisons between ancient and modern history, I hope that it appeals to a general audience not only because of the dramatic nature of the year 59 but also because of the many obvious parallels between Roman and American political history.  Though separated by time and space, there were often dramatic similarities between these two states.  Both were established following revolutions to end tyrannies (in Rome’s case the expulsion of the last Etruscan king Tarquin the Proud, in America the revolution against the British king George III).  Each valued freedom (libertas in Latin), though there was often intense debate concerning the specific meaning of that term.  Both possessed systems in which citizens participated in the political process through voting and office-holding, enjoyed freedom of speech, and expected specific protections under the law.  Most importantly there was the constant presence of political “parties” and factions in the political process which competed, constitutionally or otherwise, to secure victory in the political game.  These similarities should not be unexpected since, as the writings of America’s Founding Fathers make clear, in certain ways the United States is Rome’s political descendant.   

The year 59 B.C. provides an extensive series of intriguing subjects which can lead to a much deeper understanding of the Roman political experience, and it will also facilitate a greater curiosity for and comprehension of similar complicated problems in our own time.  Rome dealt with many comparable issues such as the role of religion in the “public square,” vast sums of money in politics, bribery and corruption, organized special interest groups and their efforts to influence the political process, the role of the people and their power and “voice,” poverty and class division, the role of the state in society, obstructionism against political rivals, demagoguery, and the growing trepidation that the republic was ill and that “partisan” politics and gridlock prevented a cure.  Because of this constitutional dysfunction there was also a growing willingness amongst citizens and politicians to follow leaders who employed unprecedented, illegal, and even violent tactics if those leaders professed a similar political ideology and attacked perceived or real enemies of the cause.  These problems and concerns will be familiar to observers of contemporary American history.

Unfortunately, therefore, this book is meant to be a cautionary tale.  As a famous Roman politician and historian of the period observed: “The political divisions were so bad that politicians were motivated more by hatred than by patriotism … When parties do anything to defeat their opponents… they destroy great states.”  His prediction came true, which explains why this book does not have a happy ending.  Thanks in part to the events of 59, the free republic, which had lasted more than four and a half centuries, was eventually transformed into a monarchy, rule by one man, rule by emperor.  As a result, political liberty died in the western world for more than a thousand years.  I hope that this study of Rome during this pivotal year can help to illuminate contemporary political events and especially the current state of partisan politics by providing a clearer understanding of the origins of the present system and of the constants of a free political process.  In particular, it can be hoped that this book will provide a clear warning of the similar dangers that threaten all republics throughout history.

Stefan G. Chrissanthos teaches Greek and Roman political and military history at the University of California at Riverside. He is the author of The Year of Julius and Caesar: 59 BC and The Transformation of the Roman Republic and Warfare in the Ancient World: From the Bronze Age to the Fall of Rome.