Ancient History

The Roman Civil Wars That Shaped Ancient Rome

As the old saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Instead, it was constructed over a series of violent wars, known for the fearsome generals and soldiers that aided in epic conquests.

Interestingly, it was violent internal conflicts within Ancient Rome that were responsible for how it eventually formed. A consistent stream of civil wars occurred during these times that were more influential than most external Roman army campaigns.

Read below to learn how, in many cases, Rome’s greatest nemesis was itself.

Marius Versus Sulla: A Blood-Soaked Rivalry

It shouldn’t amount to much of a surprise that such internal conflicts tend to stem from furious struggles for power. The first civil war in Rome lived up to this notion, with the two opposing parties being Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

These politician-generals had feuded for some time, dating back to when Marius took credit for Sulla’s military conquests.

As one would imagine, this slight did not sit well—boiling over in 88 B.C., when the civil war began. Unfortunately for Sulla, his desire for revenge went unfulfilled, initially. He was outmaneuvered by Marius, who assumed command over the Roman legions in a conflict with King Mithridates of Pontus.

Sulla, not one to throw in the proverbial towel, furiously marshaled his forces, spearheading a march on Rome.

The angry general ruffled feathers with this strategy, being the first of his ilk to enter the city bearing arms. However, the decision paid off, as Sulla did away with his rival’s supporters, soon forcing Marius to abandon his post and escape to Africa.

There was no rest for Sulla or much time to drink in the spoils of his victory. His troops found themselves embroiled in another civil war. The Populares faction, a group of plebeians, stood up to Sulla’s Optimate upper class.  

From the ruins of this blood-soaked struggle arose Marius, who took back the city, ruling as a tyrant.

Again, Sulla would not let his rival play the conqueror without a pushback, leading 40,000 of his troops to Rome once more. By this point, Marius had died of old age. His army was now led by his son and was handily defeated in the ensuing battles.

Now, Sulla became a dictator and executed any opposing politicians and nobles before retiring of his own volition in 79 B.C.

This struggle and Sulla’s dictatorship (brief as it was) contributed to the Roman Republic’s eventual crumbling. It would only stand for a few more decades.

Julius Caesar’s Famous Victory and Scandalous Death

Julius Caesar was on the heels of tremendous glory in 49 B.C., after a stunning victory in Gaul.

Yet the legendary general found himself at a fork in the road. Caesar benefitted from a once dependable alliance with Pompey the Great for years, which had morphed into an ugly rivalry.

Pompey also had many allies on the senate who sought the disbandment of Caesar’s armies. They wanted Caesar to assume the role of an obedient civilian – which was never going to happen.

Caesar, with his men, crossed the Rubicon into Italy, bolstered by the rallying cry of “The die is cast.” This maneuver acted as the primary catalyst to a civil war, where the two rival generals’ forces shed blood throughout Italy, Spain, Greece, and North Africa for several months.

In 48 B.C., Caesar – while considerably outnumbered – bested Pompey’s army in the Battle of Pharsalus.

This victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat proved to be a pivotal turning point. It wasn’t long before Pompey was hiding out in Egypt, where he was executed after a betrayal from its king. With his fiercest adversary removed from the equation, Caesar’s path to victory was almost clear, other than a couple of lop-sided affairs with Pompey’s last-standing allies in North Africa and Spain.

Soon, Caesar assumed his position as the Roman dictator for life in 44 B.C. upon his return home. His reign was a short one, because on March 15th – during the Ides of March – Rome’s most notorious figure was assassinated by a cabal of senators.

The Tragic Tale of Marc Antony and Cleopatra 

Caesar’s stabbing was responsible for much unrest in the Roman Republic, to the point of collapse.

When the dust had settled after a period of violent civil war, Octavian – Caesar’s heir – and his general, Marc Antony, remained standing. These two were the most viable entities to control Rome.

As is a common theme in these stories, Antony and Octavian were once thick-as-thieve allies, both fulfilling their roles in the Second Triumvirate. By 32 B.C., however, Antony’s relationship with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, combined by a conflicting lust for power, led to the relationship turning sour.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the senate declared war on Cleopatra at Octavian’s persuasive behest. From there, the two rivals would fight for power in Rome.

After some maneuvering and strategizing, it was the naval battle at Actium in 31 B.C. that proved to be the crucial decider of this conflict. Antony, despite his better numbers, was soundly defeated by Octavian’s savvy general, Agrippa.

Antony and Cleopatra would flee to Alexandria, where they would commit suicide a year later. Octavian would take over what was left of the Roman Republic. He was declared Rome’s first emperor, where he was given the title “Augustus.”

One Year, Four Emperors

The Julio-Claudian Dynasty, which almost lasted 100 years, was birthed from Augustus’ successful reign as Emperor. But, in 68 A.D., Emperor Nero infamously committed suicide, which sparked a stream of civil war where four different emperors ruled over a year and a half.

Galba, a governor of Spain whose best years were behind him, first attempted to take over. He was proclaimed as Emperor before Nero’s death. His authoritarian style of ruling did not sit well, leading to his murder by the Praetorian Guard.

A former ally of Galba, named Otho, was brought in as a replacement – but this reign would last all of three months. Vitellius, a cruel and gluttonous military ruler, displaced Otho, but he too didn’t last long on the throne.

General Vespasian, the ruler of the armies in Judea, crushed Vitellius’ defenders in a brutal battle at Cremona in the autumn of 69 A.D. Marched half-naked through the city to signify his defeat, Vitellius was murdered as Vespasian took the title of Caesar.

While the savagery on display would suggest otherwise, Vespasian ended up being a stable leader, bringing some form of steadiness to Rome – for the time being.

A Plagued Third Century

Alexander Severus, a young Roman Emperor, was betrayed and murdered by his own troops during a campaign along the Rhine in 235 A.D.

The timing of this coup was destructive, as Rome was struggling to fend off raids by barbarian tribes. As such, the ensuing political strife and civil wars weakened the Empire, turning it into a shadow of its former self.

Several dozen usurpers and generals claimed the Roman throne over the next 35 years. The vast majority of these individuals lost their lives during battles or were slain by their own troops.

These internal conflicts coincided with a severe plague and the surging Goths, an army comprised of Persians and other outside forces. In response to this disrepair, the Empire would separate itself into three states until Emperor Aurelian restored unity.

Aurelian took Rome back by driving the enemy forces beyond the frontier. The positives of the Emperor’s victory were short-lived, as chaos resumed after he died.

It took until late into the third century for the crisis to reach its end. Ground-breaking reforms were passed by Diocletian, which divided Rome into Eastern and Western Empires. Four leaders would rule as a tetrarchy, comprised of two senior Augusti and a couple of Caesars considered to be lower on the totem pole.

The Tetrarchy’s Civil Wars

The government stability brought forth by the Tetrarchy wasn’t long for this world. Conflicts soon arose between the four separate empires, and civil war would run rampant.

Maxentius, the son of a former ruler, conspired with the Praetorian Guard to become the Roman Emperor in 306 A.D.

In an immediate response to the above usurping, Severus – the Western Emperor – marched to the city to confront Maxentius. But the Western Emperor’s men deserted him, and Maxentius put Severus to his death.

During this time, Maxentius brought his father – Maximian – out of retirement, to rule with him.

These occurrences would only serve to cause further conspiracies, which led to a series of pretenders taking their shot at the throne. There was even a moment in time where six men were declaring themselves as “Augustus.”

By 312 A.D., the duplicitous backstabbing finally turned into a civil war. Italy, via the Alps, was invaded by Emperor Constantine, who killed Maxentius during the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

Soon, Constantine would turn on his ally, Emperor Licinius, which sparked another civil war. This would lead to the end of the Tetrarchy, as Constantine staked his claim as the sole ruler of the Western and Eastern Empires by 324 A.D.

Constantine was the first Emperor to convert Christianity, but this only resulted in temporary stability. Rome was splintered into Eastern and Western Empires a few decades after Constantine’s death.

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