Rome 1st Century BCE: Chronology

Important men who shaped the world of Rome and the events they took part in

The first century B.C. in Rome corresponds with the last decades of the Roman Republic and the start of the rule of Rome by emperors. It was an exciting era dominated by strong men, like Julius Caesar, Sulla, Marius, Pompey the Great, and Augustus Caesar, and civil wars.

Certain common threads run through the series of articles that follows, especially, the need to provide land for troops and grain the masses could afford, as well as autocratic power grabs, which are linked to the implicit Roman political conflict between the senatorial party or Optimates*, like Sulla and Cato, and those who challenged them, the Populares, like Marius and Caesar. 

Marius and the Agrarian Laws: 103-90 BCE

"Marius". Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Normally, men who served as consuls were over 40 and waited a decade before running a second time, so that Marius served as consul seven times was without precedent. Marius successfully stood for his sixth consulship by forming a coalition with L. Appuleius Saturninus and C. Servilius Glaucia, who were to be praetor and tribune. Saturninus had curried popular favor by proposing to reduce the price of grain. Grain was the main Roman food, especially for the poor. When the price was too high, it was the ordinary Roman who starved, not the powerful, but the poor had votes, too, and giving them a break garnered votes.... Read more.

Sulla and the Social War: 91-86 BCE

Sulla. Glyptothek, Munich, Germany
Sulla. Glyptothek, Munich, Germany. Bibi Saint-Pol

Rome's Italian allies started their revolt against the Romans by killing a praetor. During the winter between 91 and 90 B.C. Rome and the Italians each prepped for war. The Italians made attempts to settle peacefully, but they failed, so in the spring, consular armies set out north and south, with Marius a northern legate and Sulla a southern one.... Read more.

Mithradates and the Mithridatic Wars: 88-63 BCE

Mithridates Coin From the British Museum
Mithridates Coin From the British Museum. PD Granted by owner PHGCOM

Mithradates of antidote-to-poison fame inherited Pontus, a wealthy, mountainous kingdom in the northeast of the area that is now Turkey, in about 120 B.C. He was ambitious and allied himself with other local kingdoms in the area, creating an empire that may have offered greater opportunities for wealth for its residents than that offered people conquered and taxed by Rome. Greek cities asked for Mithradates' help against their foes. Even Scythian nomads became allies and mercenary soldiers, as did pirates. As his empire spread, one of his challenges was to defend his people and allies against Rome.... Read more.

Cato and the Conspiracy of Catiline: 63-62 BCE

Cato the Younger
Cato the Younger. Getty/Hulton Archive

A disgruntled patrician named Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline) conspired against the Republic with the help of his band of dissidents. When news of the conspiracy came to the attention of the Senate led by Cicero, and members of it confessed, the Senate debated how to proceed. The moral Cato the Younger gave a rousing speech about the old Roman virtues. As a result of his speech, the Senate voted to pass the "extreme decree," putting Rome under martial law.... Read more.

The First Triumvirate: 60-50 BCE

Triumvirate means three men and refers to a type of coalition government. Earlier, Marius, L. Appuleius Saturninus and C. Servilius Glaucia had formed what could have been called a triumvirate to get those three men elected and land for the veteran soldiers in Marius' army. What we in the modern world refer to as the first triumvirate came somewhat later and was formed of three men (Julius Caesar, Crassus and Pompey) who needed each other to get what they wanted, power and influence.

Caesar From the Rubicon to the Ides of March: 49-44 BCE

Julius Caesar. Marble, mid-first century A.D., discovery on the island of Pantelleria.
Julius Caesar. Marble, mid-first century A.D., discovery on the island of Pantelleria. CC Flickr User euthman

One of the most famous dates in history is the Ides of March. The big one happened in 44 B.C. when a group of conspiring senators assassinated Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator.

Caesar and his colleagues both within and outside of the first triumvirate had stretched the legal system of Rome, but hadn't yet broken it. On January 10/11, in 49 B.C., when Julius Caesar, who in 50 B.C. had been ordered back to Rome, crossed the Rubicon, everything changed.

The Second Triumvirate to the Principate: 44-31 BCE

Cleopatra Bust from Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany.
Cleopatra Bust from Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Caesar's assassins may have thought killing the dictator was a recipe for the return of the old republic, but if so, they were short-sighted. It was a recipe for disorder and violence. Unlike some of the Optimates, Caesar had kept the Roman people in mind, and he had developed firm personal friendships with loyal men who served under him. When he was killed, Rome was shaken to its core.

The Reign of the First Emperor Augustus Caesar: 31 BCE-A.D. 14

Prima Porta Augustus at Colosseum
Prima Porta Augustus at Colosseum. CC Flickr User euthman

After the Battle of Actium (ended September 2, 31 B.C.) Octavian no longer had to share power with any individual, although elections and other republican forms continued. The Senate honored Augustus with honor and titles. Among these was "Augustus" which became not only the name by which we mostly remember him, but also a term used for a top emperor when there was a junior one waiting in the wings.

Although prone to illness, Octavian reigned long as princeps, first among equals or emperor, as we think of him. During this time he failed to produce or keep alive a suitable heir, so, towards the end, he selected his unsuitable daughter's unsuitable husband, Tiberius, to succeed him. So began the first period of the Roman Empire, known as the Principate, which lasted until the fiction that Rome was still really a republic broke down.


*Optimates and Populares are often thought of—inaccurately—as political parties, the one conservative and the other liberal. To learn more about the Optimates and Populares, read Lily Ross Taylor's Party Politics in the Age of Caesar and take a look at Erich S. Gruen's The Last Generation of the Roman Republic and Ronald Syme's The Roman Revolution.

Unlike most of ancient history, there are a great many written sources on the period of the first century B.C., as well as coins and other evidence. We have ample writing from principals Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Cicero, as well as historical writing from the contemporary Sallust. From a little later, there are the Greek historian of Rome Appian, the biographical writings of Plutarch and Suetonius, and the poem by Lucan that we call Pharsalia, which is about the Roman civil war, as well as the Battle at Pharsalus.

The 19th century German scholar Theodor Mommsen is always a good starting point. Some 20th century books I've used in connection with this series are:

  • Gruen, Erich S., The Last Generation of the Roman Republic
  • Marsh, F.B., A History of the Roman World 146 to 30 B.C.
  • Scullard, H.H., From the The Gracchi to Nero
  • Syme, Ronald, The Roman Revolution
  • Taylor, Lily Ross, Party Politics in the Age of Caesar
  • See Books on the Roman Revolution
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Gill, N.S. "Rome 1st Century BCE: Chronology." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Rome 1st Century BCE: Chronology. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Rome 1st Century BCE: Chronology." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).