27 November 43 BC: Rome’s Second Triumvirate is born

Caesar’s murder leads to an uneasy, and short-lived, peace


The assassination of Julius Caesar in March 44 BC had plunged the Roman world into chaos. At first the initiative seemed to lie with his assassins: Brutus, Cassius and their senatorial allies. When they fled east, it passed to Caesar’s chief lieutenant, the rugged Mark Antony. But then a new contender emerged: the murdered commander’s great nephew and adopted heir, Octavian, who was inexperienced, but possessed of great ambition and remarkable political skill.

By the following spring, civil war seemed inevitable – not just between the Caesarian faction and the so-called Liberators, but between Antony and Octavian themselves. In April 43 BC, Octavian’s troops defeated Antony’s army in Modena, northern Italy, forcing him back into Gaul. Antony responded by striking a deal with an old Caesarian officer, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who commanded the army in Spain. And then, to universal surprise, Octavian did something entirely unexpected. Instead of taking them both on, he struck a deal of his own with them instead.

Meeting near Bologna in November, the three men came to an arrangement. After two days of talks, the result – passed into law on 27 November – was the “Three-Man Commission for Organising the State”, better known as the Second Triumvirate. From now on, the three triumvirs could pass laws without the approval of the Senate or the Roman people, name magistrates as they pleased and make judgments with no risk of appeal. They were, in other words, dictators.

From the start, the triumvirate was drenched in blood. To raise money, the triumvirs initiated a programme of confiscations and executions, targeting their old political critics. But the triumvirate was inherently unstable, riven by competing ambitions. First Lepidus was pushed aside; then Antony and Octavian turned on each other. And when Antony killed himself, Octavian became the first Roman emperor. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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27 November 1640

John Atherton, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, was found guilty of buggery and sentenced to death. Hanged in Dublin on 5 December he was buried in a rubbish dump in St John's churchyard in Fishamble Street.

27 November 1759

James Ramsay, surgeon on HMS Arundel boarded the English slave ship Swift. Ramsay was so horrified by the conditions there that he became a committed and outspoken opponent of the slave trade.

27 November 1810: Mrs Tottenham’s West End drama

A bizarre hoax sees the owner of a London address plagued by unwanted visitors

It was five in the morning of Tuesday, 27 November 1810, when the first caller knocked at Mrs Tottenham’s house at 54 Berners Street, London. Some accounts said he was a chimney sweep, others a porter with a wagon of coal. Either way, when the maid opened the door, she insisted that he must have the wrong address, since Mrs Tottenham was not expecting any callers. Unfortunately, poor Mrs Tottenham was in for a shock.

By mid-morning, it was obvious that something very peculiar was going on. The next day’s Morning Post described Mrs Tottenham as a “lady of fortune”, and Berners Street, in the warren of lanes north of Oxford Street, was a relatively smart address.

For her neighbours, therefore, the flood of callers must have seemed all the more bizarre. By some accounts, a dozen chimney sweeps showed up, followed by men with wedding cakes, fishmongers, boot makers and pastry chefs carrying a vast array of raspberry tarts.

Then came the lawyers, summoned to Mrs Tottenham’s ‘deathbed’; then the priests, called to give her the last rites; then “six stout men bearing an organ, surrounded with coal merchants with permits, barbers with wigs, mantuamakers with band-boxes, opticians with their various articles of trade”.

And so it went on, a huge crowd of onlookers roaring with laughter. At one point, the Lord Mayor of London even showed up in his carriage, convinced that Mrs Tottenham had asked for him personally. After it was all over – when the baffled coffin-makers, tooth-drawers and portrait-painters had gone home – it turned out that the hoax had been devised by a young man-about-town called Theodore Hook.

A few days earlier, Hook had been strolling down Berners Street with a friend, when he stopped, pointed to a random house and said: “I’ll lay you a guinea that in one week that nice modest dwelling shall be the most famous in all London.” The friend took the bet. And the rest, as they say, is history. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

27 November 1811

Death at Houston Mill, East Lothian, Scotland, of millwright and mechanical engineer Andrew Meikle. He was 92. Meikle is credited with inventing or at least improving the threshing machine, a device used to remove the outer husks from grains of wheat. He had also invented windmill spring sails which replaced earlier canvas sails and featured a series of lever-operated shutters. These enabled a windmill's sails to be quickly made safe in a storm. He was a neighbour of the civil engineer John Rennie who, as a child, was a regular visitor to Meikle's workshop.

27 November 1878

The birth in Stillorgan, County Dublin of painter Sir William Orpen. In 1917 he will travel to the Western Front as an official war artist.


27 November 1967

French President Charles de Gaulle announces he will veto Britain's entry into the Common Market.

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