Reading The Roman Revolution 17: The Rise of Octavianus

Chapter 17 of Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution describes the aftermath of the Pact of Brundisium. Antonius had asserted his predominance in the Triumvirate and humbled the young and vulnerable Octavianus whose tenuous hold on Italy required seemingly regularly reinforcement from his senior colleague. The elevation of Sex. Pompeius to senior standing within the Triumvirate was a blow to Octavianus and tension lingered between the two men.

That this tension would erupt, once again, in open warfare is hardly surprising. Syme tracks the defections among those loyal to Sex. Pompeius with his usual prosopographical acuity and contrasted them with Octavianus’s marriage to Livia, a scion of the Claudii family. For Octavianus: “The grandson of a small-town banker had joined the Julii by adoption and insinuated himself into the clan of the Claudii by a marriage.” For Pompeius: “Greek freedmen were his counsellors, his agents and his admirals, while freed slaves manned his ships and filled his motley legions… In reality an adventurer, Pompeius could easily be seen as a pirate.”

Nevertheless, Pompeius managed an early victory over Octavianus’s forces (borrowed from Antonius!), but, in the end, his ragtag forces were no match for the brute competence of Octavianus’s general Agrippa and the fourteen legions of Lepidus. Despite the rioting of the plebs in Rome, Octanvianus invaded Sicily and brought war to Sex. Pompeius at scale. Not only did he prevail over Pompeius’s forces, but also weakened his sometime ally Lepidus in the process. Syme’s cynicism toward Octavianus’s gambit:

“Lepidus, with twenty-two legions at his back, ordered Octavianus to depart from Sicily. But Octavianus had not acquired and practised the arts of the military demagogue for nothing. He entered the camp of Lepidus, with the name of Caesar as his sole protection: it was enough.”

Octavianus returned to Rome to a Triumph and managed over the following years to win more “cheap and frequent honors” through his status as proconsul in Africa (owing to the deposition of Lepidus) and Spain (part of his grant of the west as a triumvir), and then through campaigns in Illyricum and the Balkans where Octavianus: “in the campaigns in Illyricum risked his person with ostentation and received honourable wounds. Antonius must not be allowed to presume upon his Caesarian qualities or retain the monopoly of martial valour.”

On his return to Italy and his second Consulship in 33, Octavianus invested in rebuilding the city of Rome and repairing the aqueducts as well as ensuring a regular supply of cheap food to the city. By Syme reminds us that with his colleagues Agrippa and his diplomatic minister Maecenas, this work as not done out of a sense of noblesse oblige, but “to guide opinion gently into acceptance of the monarchy, to prepare not merely for the contest that was imminent but for the peace that was to follow victory in the last of all the civil wars.”


The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here. You can read the rest of the entries here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s