Text #9685"Marcus Aemilius Lepidus", in .
Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (born c. 89 or 88 BC, died late 13 or early 12 BC) was a Roman patrician who was triumvir with Octavian (the future Augustus) and Mark Antony, and the last Pontifex Maximus of the Roman Republic. Lepidus had previously been a close ally of Julius Caesar.
Though he was an able military commander and proved a useful partisan of Caesar, Lepidus has always been portrayed as the weakest member of the triumvirate. He typically appears as a marginalised figure in depictions of the events of the era, most notably in Shakespeare’s plays. While some scholars have endorsed this view, others argue that the evidence is insufficient to discount the distorting effects of propaganda by his opponents, principally Cicero and, later, Augustus.
Lepidus was the son of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus; his mother may have been a daughter of Lucius Appuleius Saturninus. His brother was Lucius Aemilius Lepidus Paullus. His father was the first leader of the revived populares faction after the death of Sulla, and led an unsuccessful rebellion against the optimates.
Lepidus married Junia Secunda, sister of Marcus Junius Brutus and Junia Tertia, Cassius Longinus’s wife. Lepidus and Junia Secunda had at least one child, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus the Younger.
Lepidus joined the College of Pontiffs as a child. He started his cursus honorum as triumvir monetalis, overseeing the minting of coins, from c. 62–58 BC. Lepidus soon became one of Julius Caesar’s greatest supporters. He was appointed as a praetor in 49 BC, being placed in charge of Rome while Caesar defeated Pompey in Greece. He secured Caesar’s appointment as dictator, a position Caesar used to get himself elected as Consul, resigning the dictatorship after eleven days. Lepidus was rewarded with the position of Proconsul in the Spanish province of Hispania Citerior.
While in Spain Lepidus was called upon to act to quell a rebellion against Quintus Cassius Longinus, governor of neighbouring Hispania Ulterior. Lepidus refused to support Cassius, who had created opposition to Caesar’s regime by his corruption and avarice. He negotiated a deal with the rebel leader, quaestor Marcellus, and helped defeat an attack by the Mauretanian king Bogud. Cassius and his supporters were allowed to leave and order was restored. Caesar and the Senate were sufficiently impressed by Lepdius’s judicial mixture of negotiation and surgical military action that they granted him a Triumph.
Lepidus was rewarded with the consulship in 46 BC after the defeat of the Pompeians in the East. Caesar also made Lepidus magister equitum (“Master of the Horse”), effectively his deputy. Caesar appears to have had greater confidence in Lepidus than in Mark Antony to keep order in Rome, after Antony’s inflammatory actions led to disturbances in 47 BC. Lepidus appears to have been genuinely shocked when Antony provocatively offered Caesar a crown at the Lupercalia festival, an act that helped to precipitate the conspiracy to kill Caesar. Lepidus was probably sitting next to Caesar at the time. According to Cicero, he groaned, turned away and had tears in his eyes. (Weigel, Lepidus: The Tarnished Triumvir, p. 40.)
When in February 44 BC Caesar was elected dictator for life by the senate, he made Lepidus Master of the Horse for the second time. The brief alliance in power of Caesar and Lepidus came to a sudden end when Caesar was assassinated on March 15 44 BC (the Ides of March). Caesar had dined at Lepidus’ house the night before his murder. One of the ringleaders of the conspiracy, Gaius Cassius Longinus, had argued for the killing of Lepidus and Mark Antony as well, but Marcus Junius Brutus had overruled him, saying the action was an execution and not a political coup.
As soon as Lepidus learned of Caesar’s murder, he acted decisively to maintain order by moving troops to the Campus Martius. He proposed using his army to punish Caesar’s killers, but was dissuaded by Antony and Aulus Hirtius. Lepidus and Antony both spoke in the Senate the following day, accepting an amnesty for the assassins in return for preservation of their offices and Caesar’s reforms. Lepidus also obtained the post of Pontifex Maximus.
At this point Pompey’s surviving son Sextus Pompey tried to take advantage of the turmoil to threaten Spain. Lepidus was sent to negotiate with him. Lepidus successfully negotiated an agreement with Sextus that maintained the peace. The senate voted him a public thanksgiving festival. Lepidus thereafter administered both Hispania and Narbonese Gaul.
When Antony attempted to take control of Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) by force and displace Decimus Brutus, the Senate led by Cicero called on Lepidus to support Brutus – one of Caesar’s killers. Lepidus prevaricated, recommending negotiation with Antony. After Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Mutina, the Senate sent word that Lepidus’ troops were no longer needed. Antony, however, marched towards Lepidus’s province with his remaining forces. Lepidus continued to assure the Senate of his loyalty, but engaged in negotiations with Antony. When the two armies met, large portions of Lepidus’s forces joined up with Antony. Lepidus negotiated an agreement with him, while claiming to the Senate that he had no choice. It is unclear whether Lepidus’ troops forced him to join with Antony, whether that was always Lepidus’s plan, or whether he arranged matters to gauge the situation and make the best deal.
Antony and Lepidus now had to deal with Octavian Caesar, Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son in Caesar’s will. Octavian was the only surviving commander of the forces that had defeated Antony at Mutina (modern Modena). The Senate instructed Octavian to hand over control of the troops to Decimus Brutus, but he refused. Antony and Lepidus met with Octavian on an island in a river, possibly near Mutina but more likely near Bologna, their armies lined along opposite banks. They formed the Second Triumvirate, legalized with the name of Triumvirs for Confirming the Republic with Consular Power (Triumviri Rei Publicae Constituendae Consulari Potestate) by the Lex Titia of 43 BC. With the triumvirs in possession of overwhelming numerical superiority, Decimus Brutus’ remaining forces melted away, leaving the triumvirs in complete control of the western provinces.
Unlike the First Triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, this one was formally constituted. In effect, it sidelined the consuls and the senate and signalled the death of the Republic. The triumvirate’s legal life span was for five years. At the beginning Lepidus was confirmed in possession of both the provinces of Hispania, along with Narbonese Gaul, but also agreed to hand over seven of his legions to Octavian and Antony to continue the struggle against Brutus and Cassius, who controlled the eastern part of Roman territory. In the event of a defeat, Lepidus’ territories would provide a fall-back position. Lepidus was to become Consul and was confirmed as Pontifex Maximus. He would assume control of Rome while they were away.
According to Lepidus’s biographer Richard D. Weigel, Lepidus’ willingness to give up his legions inevitably consigned him to a subsidiary role in the triumvirate.
Lepidus had in fact already reached the peak of his power. By becoming pontifex maximus and triumvir he had gained a level of recognition that would preserve his name and save a very small niche for him in the history of western civilization. However, in agreeing to yield seven of his legions and allow Octavian and Antony the glory of defeating Brutus and Cassius, he had consigned himself to a minor role in the future.
Lepidus also agreed to the proscriptions that led to the death of Cicero and other die-hard opponents of Caesar’s faction. Later historians were particularly critical of him for agreeing to the death of his brother Lucius Paullus, a supporter of Cicero. However, Cassius Dio hints that Lepidus helped Paullus to escape.
After the pacification of the east and the defeat of the assassins’ faction in the Battle of Philippi, during which he remained in Rome, Antony and Octavian took over most of Lepidus’ territories, but granted him rights in the provinces of Numidia and Africa. For a while he managed to distance himself from the frequent quarrels between his colleagues Antony and Octavian. When the Perusine War broke out in 41 BC, Octavian tasked Lepidus with the defence of Rome against Lucius Antonius, Mark Antony’s brother. Lucius, with superior forces, easily took the city. Lepidus was forced to flee to Octavian’s camp. Lucius soon withdrew from Rome and Octavian retook the city. After this Lepidus was given six of Antony’s legions to govern Africa. In 37 BC the treaty of Tarentum formally renewed the Triumvirate for another five years.
During his governorship of Africa he promoted the distribution of land to veterans, possibly in order to build up a network of clients. He appears to have encouraged the Romanisation of Thibilis in Numidia and to have demolished illicit extensions to Carthage so that the formally cursed area of the old city, destroyed after the Third Punic War, was not built upon.
In 36 BC, during the Sicilian revolt, Lepidus raised a large army of 14 legions to help subdue Sextus Pompey. However, this was to lead to an ill-judged political move that gave Octavian the excuse he needed to remove Lepidus from power. After the defeat of Sextus Pompey, Lepidus had stationed his legions in Sicily and a dispute arose over whether he or Octavian had authority on the island. Lepidus had been the first to land troops in Sicily and had captured several of the main towns. However, he felt that Octavian was treating him as a subordinate rather than an equal. He asserted that Sicily should be absorbed into his sphere of influence. After negotiation, he suggested an alternative: Octavian could have Sicily and Africa, if he agreed to give Lepidus back his old territories in Spain and Gaul, which should legally have been his according to the Lex Titia. Octavian accused Lepidus of attempting to usurp power and fomenting rebellion. Humiliatingly, Lepidus’ legions in Sicily defected to Octavian and Lepidus himself was forced to submit to him.
On 22 September 36 BC Lepidus was stripped of all his offices except that of Pontifex Maximus. Octavian sent him into exile in Circeii. After the defeat of Antony in 30 BC, Lepidus’ son Lepidus the Younger was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Octavian, but the plot was discovered by Gaius Maecenas. The younger Lepidus was executed, but the former triumvir himself was left unmolested. His wife Junia was, however, implicated. Lepidus had to plead with his former enemy Lucius Saenius Balbinus to grant her bail.
Spending the rest of his life in obscurity, Lepidus was apparently allowed to return to Rome periodically to participate in some senate business. Octavian, now known as “Augustus”, is said to have belittled him by always asking for his vote last. He died peacefully in late 13 BC or early 12 BC.
Lepidus’s biographer Richard D. Weigel says that he has been typically caricatured by both ancient and modern historians as “weak, indecisive, fickle, disloyal and incompetent”. Cicero condemned Lepidus for “wickedness and sheer folly” after he allowed his forces to join with Mark Antony’s after Antony’s initial defeat at the Battle of Mutina. In his usual slanderous way, he also privately suggested that Lepidus’ wife Junia was unfaithful to him. Decimus Brutus called him a “weathercock” and Velleius Paterculus called him “the most fickle of mankind”, and incapable of command. According to Cassius Dio, while Mark Antony and Octavian were away from Rome fighting Brutus and Cassius, Lepidus was nominally in control of the city, but Mark Antony’s wife Fulvia was the real power. Dio wrote that “She, the mother-in‑law of Octavian and wife of Antony, had no respect for Lepidus because of his slothfulness, and managed affairs herself, so that neither the senate nor the people transacted any business contrary to her pleasure.”
These views are reflected in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Lepidus in Julius Caesar, in which Antony describes him as “a slight, unmeritable man, meet to be sent on errands”, comparable to a donkey required to bear burdens. In Antony and Cleopatra he is portrayed as extremely gullible, asking Antony silly questions about Egypt while very drunk. Antony taunts him with an elaborately nonsensical description of a Nile crocodile. After Lepidus’s fall from power, he is referred to as the “poor third” and “fool Lepidius”.
Modern writers have often been equally dismissive. Ronald Syme called him “a flimsy character…perfidious and despised”. Weigel argues that these views are coloured by evidence that was in large part politically motivated, and that Lepidus’s career was no more perfidious or inconsistent than that of the other major players in the power struggles at the time. Léonie Hayne says that he acted “skillfully and consistently in support of Antony and (indirectly) of the Caesarian faction”. She also argues that his power bid over Sicily was logical and justifiable. Alain Gowing has also argued that his actions in Sicily, though “futile”, were no more than an “attempt to regain a position from which he had been unfairly thrust.”
Weigel Lepidus: The Tarnished Triumvir
Holland, Tom, Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, Abacus, 2004, ISBN 0-349-11563-X, 316.
John Hazel, Who’s Who in the Roman World, Routledge, London, 2001
Hayne, Léonie, “Lepidus’ Role after the Ides of March”, Acta Classica, 14, 1971, pp. 116–17; “The Defeat of Lepidus in 36 B.C.”, Acta Classica 17, 1974, pp. 59–65.