BMCR 2021.09.10

The triumviral period: civil war, political crisis and socioeconomic transformations

, The triumviral period: civil war, political crisis and socioeconomic transformations. Libera Res Publica, Monografías sobre la República romana, 2. Zaragoza: Prensas de la Universidad de Zaragoza, 2020. Pp. 512. ISBN 9788413400969 €24,04.

Authors and chapter titles are listed at the end of the review.

The tresviri rei publicae constituendae – C. Iulius Caesar, M. Antonius and, to a lesser extent, M. Aemilius Lepidus – dominated the Roman state from their formal appointment by the lex Titia on November 27th 43 through to the battle of Actium on September 2nd 31. Despite the large amount of surviving evidence, particularly numismatic and epigraphic, this period has received surprisingly little attention from scholarship.[1] For the most part, it is treated as a coda to the history of the Republic or a prelude to the history of the Principate. This recent volume, which arises from a colloquium held in Zaragoza from 3-5 September 2019, seeks to shift perspectives from assessing the triumviral period as a transitional phase between Republic and Principate to assessing it on its own terms. This clearly articulated aim is valuable and commendable and has had a noticeable impact on the final volume. The Augustan Principate remains largely off-stage, allowing the characters and more importantly the structural problems and attempted solutions of the triumviral period to stand out. The book consists of 21 chapters divided between an introduction, conclusion, and five distinct sections focusing on formal public institutions, war and peace, political communication (focusing on oratory, but extending to other media), social and economic impacts in Italy, and the provinces.

After a brief scene-setting introduction, the book opens with a section addressing the institutional setting. This is led by a bold and exhaustive article from Vervaet, which consciously attempts to set the institutional scene for the whole work. Drawing on his earlier work, Vervaet makes a careful and coherent case for the nature and extent of the powers of the triumvirs and their place within the ecosystem of Republican magistracies. The interaction between these magistracies is the subject of Pina Polo’s paper. He starts from the Augustan ‘restoration’ of normalcy, highlighting the carefully nurtured artifice of the institutional chaos of the previous regime. He emphasises the crucial point that throughout the period the quotidian functions of magistrates remained largely intact, even as the honores themselves were instrumentalised to prop up the regime. Meanwhile, Ferriès provides an interesting excursus on the motives surrounding the expansion of the Senate. She contends that while the increasing number of minor senatorial magistracies naturally inflated the number of senators, the resultant incapacity of the Senate to productively debate and reach consensus was to the political advantage of the tresviri.

In section 2, on war and peace, the first three articles investigate similar material and are in dialogue with one another. Arena focuses closely on the collocation bellum civile, its increasing employment in Latin literature throughout the period, and the development of the concept in the Roman imagination. She convincingly highlights the way in which bellum civile, in contrast with earlier concepts such as dissensio or discordia, implies the existence of (at least) two evenly matched groups in a divided community and that the ending of this condition required the imposition of pax through armed struggle. In reaching this conclusion, Arena engages meaningfully with Cornwell’s earlier work on pax in the late Republican and Augustan periods.[2] Cornwell’s own contribution takes a different starting point, focusing on the tensions in the triumvirate’s formation and maintenance and arguing that ‘peace and reconciliation’ became a triumviral ‘brand’ and that political concordia became privatised in the Latin narratives of the period. Hjort Lange also analyses the political discourses around civil war. Taking issue with Scheidel’s recent characterisation of Roman civil wars as similar to inter-state conflicts,[3] he argues that the externalisation of internal enemies, such as in the Actium campaign, did not conflict with the parallel discourse of the triumvirs and with Octavian later ending dissension and civil war. By contrast, Rohr Vio’s contribution on the political use of children during the triumvirate seems to be displaced, failing to engage well with the other articles in this section. While it addresses an intriguing question and engages well with the limited evidence, the argument that children were valued socially and for their political value is axiomatic, failing to move beyond the scholarship of Rawson, among others.[4] More substantive analysis of how and why the triumvirate changed the relationship between elite actors and their offspring would have been appreciated.

Section 3 focuses on political communication: Steel analyses the changes under the tresviri in the context of public speech. While noting the continuity in forms of oratory from the Republican period – forensic and deliberative speeches before the Senate and People are both amply attested – Steel shines a spotlight on the intriguing differences. In particular, through an analysis of attested public speeches by Hortensia, daughter of the Republican orator Q. Hortensius, and “Turia”, the honorand of the so-called laudatio Turiae funerary inscription, she emphasises how personal appeals (e.g., to the tresviri) had increased importance in the new institutional framework. Her closing observation: that the diffusion of power across a Mediterranean empire and the elimination of Senate and comitia as spaces of decision led to the rise of reported (rather than heard) oratory as a means of confrontation. Jehne focuses on the spectrum of insults and pejorative social attitudes which he characterises as ‘invectivity’. He argues persuasively that, despite the growing role of soldiers supporting the regime and its leaders, particular spaces, especially theatres, remained arenas for invective. Nevertheless, he does carefully observe that in an elite context, the change in power relations brought about by the rise of the tresviri (and eventually Augustus) did have a chilling influence on individuals’ capacity to employ it. By contrast, Hurlet uses a lexical approach to explore the creation and mobilisation of metus (fear) under the triumviral regime. He notes the term’s wide semantic range and the relative decline in its use during the Augustan period as indicating two different approaches to using emotionality to bolster legitimacy. Through a close analysis of the contio on November 10th 44, Van der Blom offers keen insight into Octavian’s oratory and its treatment during the Principate. Stressing the interest of our sources in his early speeches, she suggests plausibly that Augustus, through his memoirs, was able to exercise some control over the reception of his public speech. Meanwhile, García Ríaza concentrates on the practical side of circulation of information and its effect on decision-making. Taking up in turn the role of written missives, oral messages, and colloquia at liminal sites, he suggests that the period had a remarkable intensity of political negotiation. This lengthy section concludes with a robust reassessment of M. Antonius from Welch. Starting from Zanker’s negative appraisal of Antonius’ public image in contrast with Augustus, she argues convincingly that, by contrast, he was a perennial innovator in self-presentation, to whom rivals consistently and consciously responded.[5]

Section 4, addressing the economic sphere, is particularly strong. Maschek’s chapter focuses on architecture and conspicuous consumption, while re-engaging with the important role of violence in driving material complexity.[6] Maschek emphasises not only the lengthy lead times of public building work, which could result in incongruent messaging, but also the contemporary changes in funerary architecture which highlight the breakdown of social frameworks. Rosillo López, in analysing social change in Italy during the period, makes compelling points about the impact of non-elite agents in generating and sustaining unrest against the regime. García Morcíllo’s chapter provides an incisive analysis of triumviral fiscal and financial policy, starting from, but moving well beyond, the proscriptions. She argues persuasively that the triumviral regime had a coherent, if malleable, approach to state finance, seeking to reintroduce regular indirect taxation to lessen the reliance on irregular direct levies. This is a critical article and should be required reading for any scholar with an interest in the economic history of the Roman state.

The final section on the provinces, though less compelling, still contains valuable insights. Díaz Fernández, addressing the understudied question of the administration of the Iberian Peninsula between Caesar’s victory at Munda in 45 and the Augustan era, emphasises the precarity of Roman rule and argues that Hispania was governed as a single province for much of the period. Raggi provides a helpful update to Millar’s list of documents containing official decisions, making some astute observations. For example, he emphasises that letters from Aphrodisias show that Antonius accepted Octavian’s right to interfere in his provincia,[7] and, in light of the clustering of surviving documents in the Greek-speaking East to between 41 and 39, he suggests that some form of damnatio memoriae was exercised against Antonius. Similarly, Tatum, zooming in on the relationship between Antonius and Athens, entertains an intriguing, if necessarily speculative, suggestion that Athens inaugurated a festival in honour of Antonius, the Panathenaic Antonia in 42/41.

The volume closes with a typically thought-provoking essay by Ando directly engaging with Fergus Millar’s seminal ‘Triumvirate and Principate’ and contextualising the volume’s contributions in the absence of firm information regarding the normative operation of the triumviral state. He concludes by stressing the mobilisation by the tresviri of the language and forms of republican politics to maintain a very different form of regime.

Despite its affordability, the volume seems generally well-produced (notwithstanding that the reviewer had access only to a pdf copy). The few typographical errors do not detract from the overall quality. The photographs of coins within Welch’s paper are high-quality, rendering key features easily visible, and are well-integrated into the text. Unfortunately absent is meaningful cross-referencing between similar papers within the volume. In particular, Cornwell and Hjort Lange cover similar ground from different perspectives and explicit engagement between these viewpoints may have further enhanced their effectiveness. Similarly, the tight focus of section 4 on the experience of Italy, though allowing for a strong internal coherence, left one wishing for similar engagement with a provincial context. These remain, however, very minor quibbles.

In sum, this volume will prove necessary reading for all who work on the triumviral period, containing, within a single volume, several stimulating, incisive papers, which help set the agenda for future research into this fascinating period of Roman history.

Authors and Titles

Francisco Pina Polo ‘Introduction’
Frederik Juliaan Vervaet ‘The Triumvirate Rei Publicae Constituendae: Political and Constitutional Aspects’
Francisco Pina Polo ‘The Functioning of the Republican Institutions under the Triumvirs’
Marie-Claire Ferriès ‘Senatorum … incondita turba (Suet. Aug. 35.1). Was the Senate Composed so as to Ensure its Compliance?’
Valentina Arena ‘The Notion of Bellum Civile in the Last Century of the Republic’
Carsten  Hjort Lange ‘Civil War and the (Almost) Forgotten Pact of Brundisium’
Hannah Cornwell ‘A Framework of Negotiation and Reconciliation in the Triumviral Period’
Francesca Rohr Vio ‘Children for the Family, Children for the State: Attitudes towards and the Handling of Offspring during the Triumvirate’
Catherine Steel ‘The Intersection of Oratory and Institutional Change’
Martin Jehne ‘Invectivity in the City of Rome in the Caesarian and Triumviral Periods’
Frédéric Hurlet ‘Fear in the City during the Triumviral Period: The Expression and Exploitation of a Politic Emotion’
Henriette van der Blom ‘The Reception of Octavian’s Oratory and Public Communication in the Imperial Period’
Enrique García Riaza ‘Information Exchange and Political Communication in the Triumviral Period: Some Remarks on Means and Methods’
Kathryn Welch ‘Marcus Antonius: Words and Images’
Dominik Maschek ‘Consumption, Construction, and Conflagration: The Archaeology of Socio-political Change in the Triumviral Period’
Cristina Rosillo-López ‘The Socio-political Experience of the Italians during the Triumviral Period’
Marta García Morcillo ‘Hasta infinita? Financial Strategies in the Triumviral Period’
Alejandro Díaz Fernández ‘Provinces and Provincial Command during the Triumvirate: Hispania as a Study Case’
Andrea Raggi ‘Triumviral Documents from the Greek East’
W. Jeffrey Tatum ‘Antonius and Athens’
Clifford Ando ‘Law, Violence and Trauma in the Triumviral Period’


[1] Though note Fergus Millar’s 1973 article ‘Triumvirate and Principate’ (JRS 63: 50–67). Millar’s work, understandably, repeatedly informs the scholarship throughout the volume.

[2] Cornwell, Hannah, 2017, Pax and the Politics of Peace: Republic to Principate, Oxford.

[3] Scheidel, Walter, 2017, The Great Leveler. Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, Princeton.

[4] Rawson, Beryl, 2003, Children and childhood in Roman Italy, Oxford.

[5] Zanker, Paul, 1988, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Ann Arbor.

[6] Maschek responds particularly to the limited engagement of Wallace-Hadrill’s 2008 monograph Rome’s Cultural Revolution, with the role of violence in wealth-generation.

[7] Inscriptions of Aphrodisias 2007, 8.29, 30.