Second Triumvirate Enacts Proscriptions Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The proscriptions of the Second Triumvirate removed many political opponents in Rome, raised funds to help pay the triumviral armies, and set a standard for ruthless bloodshed that proved to be a negative model for Western civilization.

Summary of Event

The Roman Republic was increasingly troubled after 135 b.c.e. The inadequacy of its city-state constitution to meet the needs of a growing empire, the stranglehold of great families on its offices, the rise of the equites and the consequent class struggle, and the twisting of its constitution initiated already by the Gracchi between 133 and 120 b.c.e. and by Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla between 105 and 80 b.c.e., all contributed to the Republic’s travail. Especially significant were the great rivals born in the decade between 110 and 100 b.c.e., men such as Pompey the Great (106-48 b.c.e.), Marcus Licinius Crassus (c. 115-53 b.c.e.), Julius Caesar (100-44 b.c.e.), Catiline (c. 108-62 b.c.e.), and Sertorius (c. 123-72 b.c.e.), who were ready to fulfill their ambitions between 70 and 60 b.c.e. Most of these men proved to be too big for the constitution to contain. The rise of private armies, extraordinary commands, absentee governorships, extended tenures of office, bribery, demagoguery, political manipulation, and outright violence became more and more commonplace. Marius and Sulla even dared to liquidate each other’s adherents by outright purges, a precedent set for the leaders who were to emerge as the Second Triumvirate. By decimating the old patrician stock, enabling Octavian to become Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, and silencing Republican sentiments, the proscriptions of the Second Triumvirate brought an end to the civil wars. Antony, Marc Cicero Aemilius Lepidus, Marcus Augustus

The formation of the Second Triumvirate by Augustus, Marc Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus in 43 b.c.e. was a pragmatic arrangement of three leaders who were united by their personal connections to Julius Caesar and because of their common enemies: a faction under the leadership of Marcus Junius Brutus (c. 85-42 b.c.e.) and Cassius (d. 42 b.c.e.) and another under the leadership of Sextus Pompey (d. 35 b.c.e.), the son of Pompey the Great. Unlike the First Triumvirate, this three-man dictatorship was given legal sanction. The three leaders met on a small island in a river near Bologna and formulated a joint policy. Although in effect they established a three-man dictatorship, of necessity they avoided the term because Antony, when consul, had abolished the office of dictator for all time. They formed themselves into an executive committee that was to hold absolute power for five years in order to rebuild the Roman state. The triumvirs planned to unite their armies for a war against the republican forces in the East. The West, already under their control, was divided among themselves: Lepidus kept his provinces of Hither Spain and Narbonese Gaul and picked up Farther Spain as well; Antony took the newly conquered parts of Gaul together with the Cisalpine province; and Augustus (as junior member) was assigned North Africa, Sardinia, Corsica, and Sicily, territories largely held by Pompeian adherents. Italy itself was to be under these three men’s combined rule.

At the same meeting, the triumvirs determined to ensure the success of their rule by declaring a proscription against their Republican enemies. In this purge, hundreds of senators and about two thousand wealthy equites were marked for destruction. The historian Livy (59 b.c.e.-17 c.e.) records that 130 senators were proscribed, Appian (c. 95-c. 165 c.e.) indicates that 300 were proscribed, and Plutarch (c. 46-after 120 c.e.) records that 200 to 300 were proscribed. The names of almost 100 of the proscribed have been recorded. Not all of these individuals were killed; a few obtained pardon and many successfully escaped from Italy. In most cases, the victims suffered only the confiscation of their properties.

In the official proclamation of the proscription, the triumvirs emphasized the injustices suffered at the hands of the enemies of the state and pointed out the necessity of removing a threat to peace at home while they were away fighting against the Republican armies. To justify their position and gain for it some semblance of respectability, they pointed out that when Julius Caesar had adopted a policy of clemency toward his enemies, he had paid for that policy by forfeiting his life.


While personal vengeance and political pragmatism played a part in the proscriptions, economic necessity also played a role. Augustus, Antony, and Lepidus had bought the support of their troops with lavish promises, and it was imperative that they pay them with more than words. Altogether, the triumvirs commanded forty-three legions, and they needed their support in the impending campaign against Brutus and Cassius. However, arguments have been made that a much smaller number was actually proscribed and that, rather than the economic demands for paying the soldiers, the proscriptions were based in a political motivation to avenge Caesar and terrorize their opponents.

In drawing up the lists, each of the three triumvirs had to give up some of his friends or relatives to satisfy the vengeance of one or the other of his colleagues and to make a public demonstration of their collective “toughness.” So it was that the most famous of the victims, Cicero, was found on the list of the condemned. Augustus might have spared the famous orator, but Antony insisted on his death. Although many of the proscribed acted quickly and escaped, Cicero dallied, uncertain of the best course to take, and died as a result. Livy, as quoted by Seneca, has given a full account of Cicero’s death.

The bloodshed of the proscriptions, highlighted by the execution of Cicero, tainted the historical reputations of the triumvirs, and especially those of Antony and Lepidus. During the religious wars of the sixteenth century, the French painter Antoine Caron (1521-1599) produced a series of massacre paintings showing the triumvirs watching or joining in the slaughter of unarmed citizens. The proscriptions of the triumvirs thus established a pattern of rule through force and political terrorism that periodically resurfaced throughout the age of the Empire.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gowing, Alain. The Triumviral Narratives of Appian and Cassius Dio. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. The author compares the accounts that Appian and Cassius Dio present of the principal personages of the triumviral period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huzar, Eleanor G. Mark Antony: A Biography. 1978. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 1986. Huzar surveys the slanted sources on Antony and sees him in a moderate light, while admitting that the proscriptions revealed him at his worst.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitchell, Thomas. Cicero: The Senior Statesman. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. A biography of the orator and defender of the Republic from his consulship in 63 b.c.e. until his honorable death in the proscriptions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Syme, Ronald. The Roman Revolution. 1939. Reprint. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. The classic study of the transition from Republic to Empire that credits the proscriptions with a chilling, yet major, role in this process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weigel, Richard. Lepidus: The Tarnished Triumvir. London: Routledge, 1992. A biography of the “third triumvir” that attempts to reassess the biased sources and create a relatively objective account of his career.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Marc Antony; Augustus; Marcus Junius Brutus; Julius Caesar; Cassius; Cicero; Marcus Licinius Crassus. Proscriptions, Roman

Categories: History