Fall of the Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was in many ways the consolidating foundation of Roman identity, morality and sense of justice. Some of the learnings from that period continue to be a point of referencefor many modern public institutions and legal systems.
The Republican system of Rome was born from public revolt against the tyrannical power of Kings around the year 509BC and successfully developed during some 300 years.
However, the enormous expansion of Roman dominions, the increasing heterogeneous populationswith different access to legal rights, and the unequal accumulation of wealth across society continued to create pressure on the republican system. Ultimately these pressures brought the Roman Republic to an end, transforming it into an imperial system by 27BC.
Around 133BC there was a particular turning point in the development of the Roman Republic: The Gracchi brothers, in many ways revolutionary activists fighting for plebeian rights were murdered by Patrician assassins. From this point onwards violence became an increasingly legitimate tool in resolving political differences.
This article takes a quick look at some of the key steps of the fall of the Roman Republic
The double-edged sword of Marius’ military reforms
General Marius’ military reforms of 107BC were a double-edged sword: The introduction of a standing army made of professional waged soldiers created the basis for a highly effective, well trained, military capability which could be quickly mobilised against enemies. As well as enhancing military performance it addressed the increasing difficulty of finding and drafting eligible common citizens for military campaigns. It also addressed a growing labour issue since the inflow of slaves and accumulation of wealth by the elite had allowed them to create large farming estates, eliminating small landholdings and plebeian work.
Apart from their wages, their personal career would be rewarded with some sort of retirement grant. However, this also meant a closer bond of direct personal interests between the armed forces and the individual general they reported to, rather than to the Republic.
This new dynamic of power set a stronger bias for acrimonious civil wars: Unresolved political differences between the Optimates and Populares could now be escalated and resolved by politically aligned generals and their personally faithful troops.
The “Social Wars”: when the Roman Republic was forced to expand Roman citizen rights to its Italian allies
The development of Roman Republic and its power across the Italian peninsula had been successful also because of a clever set of Roman alliances – “social” (as in modern words like ‘society’). Around 91BC a number of allied Italic peoples, states and cities decided to rebel in protest for having an unfair share of the benefits of alliance and Roman expansion. Their desire for Roman citizenship status also meant the right to the court proceedings of Roman citizens and a better chance of personal justice at the hands of local (Roman) magistrates. The Social wars lasted until 87BC and whilst the protesting cities were militarily subdued, Rome had to concede much of what was demanded: Roman citizenship and rights spread across Italy.
As an example of this we have the city of Pompeii. Archaeological excavations and restoration of the city walls have brought considerable numbers of military ballistic projectiles from when it was sieged and subdued by the Romans. Roman victory also brought the elimination of the local Samnite elite. Their wealth and lands were confiscated to the benefit of Sullas retired soldiers and the formation of a Roman colony as part of the romanisation strategy.
It is interesting to note that the Republic may have learned something from the Social Wars: Both Sulla and later Caesar, dictators with absolute power, paid great attention to reforming the oppressive and corrupt behaviour of provincial governors.
General Sulla’s one-sided (and dictatorial) reforms failed to fix the Republic
Key to those years was General Sulla: Once under Marius (the military reformer) Sulla was now growing to a position of power, political alignments and a direct role to play in later civil conflict between Patricians (with General Sulla) and Plebeians (with General Marius).
The conflict became increasingly acrimonious but Marius died an unexpected death (pneumonia) leaving the path clear for Sulla to (re)take and retain full dictatorial power. He took control of Rome and created lists of enemies of the state – over 1000 equestrians and senators were executed. Between 82-80BC Sulla forced numerous constitutional reforms in an attempt to stabilise the Republican system – some were indeed an attempt at greater justice but many were extremely one-sided and vengeful such as severely reducing the power of the Plebeian Tribunes (remember the Gracchi in 133BC) whilst doubling the number of senators, obviously choosing those most aligned to himself. He retired in 79AD and died of ill health. His reforms did not last long.
Julius Caesar marks the end of the Roman Republic
Julius Caesar requires little introduction as the eponymous representative of Roman military and political might. He was a daring statesman, accomplished writer and an exceptional general: In many ways a model Roman citizen.
Incidentally he happened to be nephew to Marius and had only narrowly escaped Sulla’s proscription lists as a young man. On rising to public office he was decidedly supportive of the Plebeian faction (in spite of being a Patrician himself). He restored Marius’ trophies to a place of honour and publicly strove to reinstate the position of the Plebeian Tribunes.
Whilst he was of an upper-class family, Julius Caesar was poor of financial resources. His family connections had aided him in avoiding Sulla’s death lists and in starting a successful “cursus honorum” through various public magistrate and religious offices. Numerous victories at war in Spain, Gaul, Egypt and other regions won him wealth and public adoration which more than made up for the heavy debts of his early days.
Notwithstanding his actions in favour of the Plebeians and his undeniable successes at war, Caesar was in many ways the trigger for the end of the Roman Republic:
As the great generals before him, Caesar was directly involved in the political tensions between the plebeian and patrician classes. It was at this time – 49BC – that he made his great quote “Aleaiactaest” (the die is cast) as he marched down from Gaul towards Rome with his troops and literally took Rome whilst the Patrician class fled. Civil war ensued, Pompey died : Assassinated by the Egyptians and his head handed to Caesar on a plate – It is said Caesar wept for what had been done to Pompey. There was some forgiving and peace-making but all told he was now lord and master of Rome.
Only a couple of years later, as dictator, we have another memorable quote of “venividi vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered) when he quashed the expansionist moves of Pharnaces II of Pontus (~Turkey) which he celebrated with a public triumph. The public loved it.
Caesar’s military successes won him unprecedented power and the nomination of dictator for life – effectively recreating the position of “king” so hated by many that it led to his famous assassination by persons he trusted, such as Brutus – “You too Brutus, my son” and whom he had also forgiven for being on the wrong side of the civil war.
Caesar’s death left a power vacuum which could only be filled after a period of intense civil wars. At first these wars were his own allies versus the posse of assassins but later turned into inter-fighting of the allies themselves to take power. Most famously Mark Anthony (Caesar’s military commander) versus Octavian (Caesar’s adopted son) ended with the suicide of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra and the establishment of a new regime under Octavian: The Roman Empire with Caesar’s adoptive son Octavian proclaiming himself Emperor Augustus.