The Fall of the Roman Republic (133-31 BCE)

September 24, 2012 9:03 am
The city’s life is for sale, and it would kill itself if it could find a buyer — Jugurtha of Numidia

Pattern of decline

Rome’s failure to adapt its city-state style government to ruling an empire triggered a century long pattern of events that would eventually lead to fall of the old oligarchy led by the Senate. Either out of genuine concern for reform, desire for personal gain and glory, or a combination of the two, an individual politician or general would introduce new, but also disruptive practices. These would weaken Roman customs, traditions, and institutions, especially the Senate. That would create the need and open the way for new figures to rise up that would introduce even more disruptive practices, and so on. Thus the cycle would keep repeating until the old order was destroyed. There were five main figures this process brought to the forefront of Roman politics and who in turn perpetuated the cycle, allowing the rise of the next figure: Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Marius, Sulla, and Julius Caesar. Not until Caesar’s nephew and heir, Octavian, seized power would the cycle be broken and a new more stable order established in place of senatorial rule.

First attempts at reform: the Gracchi

In 133 B.C.E., Tiberius Gracchus became tribune. He saw that many of Rome’s troubles revolved around the decline of the free peasantry who were flocking into the cities. Therefore, he proposed a bill to give land to the idle mob and re-establish them on their own farms. The land he proposed using was public land owned by the state that, unfortunately, was controlled by rich and powerful senators who most likely would be reluctant to give it up.
Seeing that the Senate could well be hostile to his plan, Tiberius did several rather unheard of things. Although not necessarily illegal, his actions certainly flaunted the deep-seated traditions by which Roman government had operated for centuries. For one thing, Tiberius by-passed the Senate and went directly to the tribal Assembly where his bill had a better chance to pass. When the Senate bribed another tribune to veto the bill, Tiberius took the radical step of impeaching the man. With that done, the land bill passed despite the fury of the Senate. In order to get money to start the peasants on their new farms, Tiberius had the assembly appropriate the treasury of Pergamum, which had just been willed to Rome. Financial and foreign matters were both the realm of the Senate, but Tiberius and the assembly just shoved that aside as well. Tiberius then tried to do away with one more tradition by running for re-election as tribune. This was too much, and in the discussion of its legality, a riot broke out that ended with the death of Tiberius and 300 of his followers. Civil violence was starting to be used to decide an issue in Roman politics.
Despite his good intentions, Tiberius’ methods hastened the decline of the Republic more than they helped it. For one thing, he made the Tribal Assembly, which controlled the Urban Assembly, a major factor in Roman politics. Likewise, he weakened the senatorial nobles who had traditionally run Rome. This gave rise to factional politics of the Optimates and Populares, causing Roman politics often to degenerate into little more than bribery contests and street fights to win power. However, Tiberius’ reforms also had some positive results as some 75,000 people were put back on farms in the decade after his death. However, there was still a lot of work to be done, and in 123 B.C.E. Gaius Gracchus, Tiberius’ younger brother, became tribune.
An ardent reformer like his brother, Gaius passed a law guaranteeing cheap grain for the urban poor. Later politicians would make that grain free at state expense. Another move to weaken the Senate and gain allies was to give the equites (rich businessmen) control of the juries in the courts that tried Roman governors for corruption. While this prevented corrupt senatorial governors from relying on their senatorial friends to acquit them in the extortion courts, it hardly solved the corruption problem. Now equites who had bought the right to “farm” a province’s taxes could threaten the governor with conviction in the extortion courts if he did not let them take all they wanted from the provincials. This also made the equites a new force in Roman politics, symbolized by special seats at the games and the right to wear distinctive rings. At the same time, it further weakened the Senate.
The Senate was understandably nervous about how far this new Gracchus would go, and tried to outbid him for popular support. Unfortunately, Gaius overstepped himself by proposing citizenship for the Italian allies. This was unpopular with the mob, which jealously guarded their citizenship as the only thing they had left to make them feel special. As a result, a riot broke out (probably with some help from the Senate), and Gaius was killed much as his brother had been.

Marius and the Roman army

The next figure to rise up was Gaius Marius, a man of equestrian rank and opposed to the senatorial nobility. Marius’ rise to power started when he was serving in the army in North Africa against the Numidian king Jugurtha. The war in itself was not too important except that it showed the further corruption of Roman politics. Through a series of intrigues against his general, Marius got leave of absence to get elected consul. He then had the Tribal Assembly give him command of the war in place of his former general, Metellus. Marius and an ambitious junior officer named Sulla finished off Jugurtha and Marius got the credit. This set him up for the next big step in his career.
For several years, the migrations of some Germanic tribes known as the Cimbri and Teutones had been wreaking havoc in the north. When they turned on Rome in earnest and mauled a Roman army in Gaul in 105 B.C.E., panic set in and Rome looked for a savior. That man, of course, was Marius, the conqueror of Jugurtha. He was elected to an unheard of six straight consulships in order to prepare the army for the northern menace.
Marius’ main legacy was a long overdue reform of the army. Rome’s extended campaigns required a long-term professional army to replace the reluctant and inefficient peasant draftees Rome had used till now. Marius took the final steps of making it just that, with volunteers serving instead of peasants hauled off their farms. Marius’ recruits came largely from the unemployed mob lured by the promise of land after their service was over. This had three main effects. For one thing, since these recruits were too poor to supply their own equipment, the state had to supply it, thus making equipment and training more regular and the army more efficient. Along these lines, professional soldiers could devote all their time to training which, combined with the proverbially tough Roman discipline, also made for a very effective army.
The third effect had to do with getting recruits. The main inducement to serve was that after his term of service, a veteran would receive a plot of land on which to start his own farm. However, since each general had to get a separate land bill passed by the Senate for his particular army, the soldier looked to his general for a land settlement. Therefore, the troops’ loyalty tended to belong to the individual generals rather than the Senate. This meant that a new element, generals backed by their own armies, had become a factor in Roman politics.
However, Marius’ recruiting and tactical reforms created a much more efficient and professional army, which is what Rome needed at this time. In Marius’ sixth consulship, the Cimbri and Teutones finally got around to invading Italy after a leisurely rampage through Spain and Gaul. The newly reformed legions cleverly maneuvered the invaders into a bad position and then destroyed them under the hot Italian sun. Marius was the hero of the hour and acclaimed the Third Founder of Rome after the legendary Romulus and Camillus.
Marius may have been a good general, but he was a mediocre politician. When his ally, the tribune Saturninus, tried to seize power, a riot broke out. Marius thus found himself in the difficult spot of having to suppress his own rioting supporters. He did his duty, killed many of his followers, and lost most of his popularity as a result. After all this, he retired from politics, waiting for a new opportunity for military glory.

Sulla and the First Civil War

For some time, one of the hot issues of the day in Rome was citizenship for the Italian allies. While the Romans had previously been fairly liberal in granting different allies full citizenship, lately they had been satisfied to grant only second class, or Latin, citizenship. Unfortunately, the Italian allies were not nearly as satisfied with this and were agitating for full rights. We have already seen how this issue cost Gaius Gracchus his life. When another Roman, Marcus Livius Drusus, proposed full citizenship and was assassinated, Italian frustration boiled over into open rebellion. This revolt, known as the Social War, or war of the allies (9l-88 B.C.E.), saw Rome faced with a formidable Italian enemy trained in Roman tactics. In fact, it was so formidable that the Senate did the one thing it could to defuse the rebellion: it granted full citizenship to any Italians who remained loyal or immediately laid down their arms. This clever move stripped the rebellion of much of its support. The Senate then called on two of its ablest generals, Marius and Sulla, to finish the job. In the end, the rebellion was put down, but the Italians had gained full citizenship, definitely a step forward for Rome and Italy.
The Social War had brought a poor, but very ambitious senatorial noble to the forefront of Roman politics, Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Always on the lookout for the opportunity for power and glory, he found it right after the Social War in the form of a new war in the East against Mithridates, king of Pontus on the Black Sea. Seeing widespread resentment against Rome for its corruption and mistreatment of the provincials in Asia Minor, Mithridates, stirred up a revolt that supposedly massacred 80,000 Italians in Asia Minor in one day. With Rome still preoccupied with the Social War, Mithridates overran Roman Asia and then crossed into Greece (90 B.C.E.). However, once the Social War was over, Rome was ready to tangle with the king of Pontus.
The problem was: which of Rome’s generals, Marius or Sulla, should get command of the war? Sulla, who was the consul at this time, legally had the right and initially got it. But as soon as he set out for the port of Brundisium, Marius’ followers seized power and gave Marius the command. Sulla then took the unprecedented step of marching on Rome with Roman troops to drive Marius’ followers away in flight. However, once Sulla had left again for the East, Marius returned to Rome and seized power again. He was now a bitter old man who started a reign of terror so bloody that his own followers had to put an end to it. Several days into his seventh consulship, Marius died, but his followers remained in power and sent an army to relieve Sulla in the East.
Meanwhile, Sulla had been driving Mithridates from Greece. After two desperate battles and a long terrible siege of Athens, Mithridates fled to Asia Minor. Luckily, the Roman army and general sent to relieve Sulla concentrated more on Mithridates and let Sulla track him into Asia. Mithridates sued for peace and Sulla gladly granted it so he could turn on his enemies in Rome.
What followed was the First Roman Civil War (83-82 B.C.E.). Sulla’s tremendous energy and drive made short work of his enemies, and he entered Rome in triumph. His first act was to massacre any of his enemies, including some 90 senators and 2600 rich equites. Among those narrowly escaping Sulla’s wrath was the defiant young son-in-law of Marius, Julius Caesar. Sulla then became dictator, and reformed the government to put the Senate back in firm control of the state, just like in the good old days. A year later, Sulla abdicated his powers and retired to the luxury of his villa where he died soon afterwards (78 B.C.E.).
Sulla’s settlement did little or nothing to solve Rome’s real problems. And after his strong hand was removed, political turmoil returned in full force. The first man to take advantage of this situation was Pompey, one of Sulla’s young army officers. Pompey’s early rise to power was the result of some drive and energy, but also a good deal of luck. He held several military commands before holding public office. That was illegal, but apparently of little account anymore in Rome. Quite a bit of luck accompanied Pompey as he destroyed Marius’ supporters holding out in North Africa and Spain. Also, by chance, as he returned to Rome from Spain, he encountered and mopped up the remnants of a great slave revolt led by a gladiator named Spartacus. Another of Sulla’s former officers, Crassus “Dives” (the rich), had actually broken the back of this slave revolt that had terrorized Italy for two years. Nevertheless, Pompey claimed partial credit.
Nerves were on edge as the two potentially hostile Roman generals and their armies were poised on the outskirts of Rome. Luckily, Pompey and Crassus made their peace and together became consuls for 70 B.C.E. Pompey’s star just kept rising. Soon afterwards he received an extraordinary command to clear the Mediterranean of pirates who had infested its waters for years and were even threatening Rome’s grain supply. After sweeping the seas clear of these pirates in an amazingly short time, Pompey received another important command. This time he was sent to fight Mithridates of Pontus who had revived his struggle against Rome. Once again luck was with Pompey, because another general, Lucullus, had already done most of the job. Still, it was Pompey who finally crushed Mithridates (who then committed suicide), and it was Pompey who got the credit and triumphal parade. He then spent the next few years marching through the Near East and reorganizing it along lines more favorable to Rome by creating new Roman provinces in Asia Minor and Syria (where he put a final end to the decrepit Seleucid dynasty) and establishing client kings loyal to himself and Rome elsewhere. In 6l B.C.E., Pompey finally returned to Rome, but this was where his star began to wane.

The rise of Julius Caesar

Pompey, like Marius, may have been a good military man, but he was not much of a politician. Trusting in the power and glory of his name alone, he disbanded his army before he got a land settlement for his veterans from the Senate. When the Senate refused to help him out, Pompey found two allies with whom he formed the First Triumvirate, an informal political alliance designed to control Roman politics. One of these was his old colleague, Crassus the Rich. The other was a popular young politician, Julius Caesar. With Pompey’s military reputation, Crassus’ wealth, and Caesar’s popularity with the mob, the Triumvirate should and could rule Rome effectively.
The first order of business was to elect Caesar as consul for 59 B.C.E. He had a wild term of office where he ran roughshod over the Roman constitution. Using a good deal of intimidation, he got Pompey’s troops their land and himself a lucrative military command in Gaul (modern France) where he was determined to gain a military reputation equal to Pompey’s.
Caesar had little military experience before going to Gaul. However, one would never have known it by looking at the masterful way he brought it under Roman control in a mere ten years. We can hardly imagine the sense of relief to the Romans now that the menace of the northern tribes was further removed from Rome. The Roman conquest of Gaul was also an important step in the process of civilizing Western Europe. Although Gaul was already showing major steps in that direction, the Roman conquest made it heir to the high cultures of the ancient Near East and Greece by way of Rome. It should be noted that, as in the case of Alexander, the glory of Caesar’s victories obscured the butchery of countless thousands of innocent people and blurred the distinction of who was civilized and who was barbarian.
During his ten years in Gaul, Caesar also built up a highly efficient and intensely loyal army that could brag of exploits to rival and even surpass those of Pompey’s army. Naturally, this caused jealousy and suspicion on Pompey’s part. Crassus, whose influence helped keep the Triumvirate together, was killed fighting the Parthians, nomadic tribesmen who had taken much of the old Persian Empire’s Asian lands from the now extinct Seleucid dynasty. The death of Julia, Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife, removed another bond holding the two men together. Day by day, tensions grew as rival political gangs disrupted the streets of Rome with their clashes and the Senate started to back Pompey in opposition to Caesar. Caesar, fearing for his life after he gave up his army, led his troops into Italy and started another civil war (49-45 B.C.E.).
Pompey was no match for Caesar’s quick, decisive, and brilliant generalship, and was crushed at the Battle of Pharsalus in Greece in 47 B.C.E. He fled to Egypt where Ptolemy XII who feared the wrath of Caesar murdered him. Soon afterwards, Caesar showed up in Egypt where he spent the next year supporting Ptolemy’s sister, Cleopatra, in a civil war against her brother. He then set out to meet Pompey’s other allies and followers. In a whirlwind series of campaigns in Pontus, North Africa, and Spain, Caesar crushed the Pompeian forces. By the end of 45 B.C.E., Caesar was the undisputed master of the Roman world and was appointed dictator for life.
Unfortunately, the problems plaguing Rome were too complex to be solved by mere military victories. Caesar did carry out several reforms. He extended citizenship outside of Italy for the first time. He also changed the old Roman lunar calendar to the more efficient and accurate Egyptian solar calendar, which we still use today with some minor adjustments. However, even Caesar seemed to be at a loss for finding solutions to the deep-seated problems plaguing Roman society and instead planned a major campaign against Parthia. The prospect of Caesar gaining more military glory and becoming even more of a dictator worried a number of senators who formed a plot against his life. On March 15, 44 B.C.E., the eve of his setting out on his campaigns, the conspirators surrounded Caesar in the Senate house and brought him down with twenty-three dagger wounds. Ironically, he fell at the foot of the statue of Pompey.

Octavian, Antony, and two more civil wars (44-31 B.C.E.)

Unfortunately, Caesar’s murder did nothing to solve Rome’s problems as there were always new generals waiting to follow in the footsteps of Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar. In this case, two men emerged in that capacity: Marc Antony, one of Caesar’s most trusted officers, and Octavian, Caesar’s 19 year old nephew and chosen heir. Octavian was young, inexperienced in politics and military affairs, and somewhat sickly. No one much gave him a very big chance to survive in the vicious snake pit of Roman politics. Surprisingly, he proved himself quite adept at politics, playing the Senate off against Antony while the Senate thought it was using him in the same way. He then did an about face and allied with Antony and another general, Lepidus, to form the Second Triumvirate.
The first act of the new triumvirate was to clear its enemies out of Rome in a bloody purge. Among the victims was the great Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher, Cicero. We still have many of his speeches and letters that tell us a great bit about life and politics in the crumbling Republic. After this purge, there were still several of Caesar’s murderers to contend with in Greece where they were building an army. In the third Roman civil war in less than 50 years, Antony and Octavian tracked down the conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, and destroyed their forces at Philippi (42 B.C.E.).
This put the Second Triumvirate in undisputed control of the Roman world. Lepidus was gradually forced out of the picture, leaving Antony and Octavian to split the spoils. Antony took the wealthier eastern provinces and got involved in his famous romance with Cleopatra of Egypt. Octavian took the less settled West along with the Roman homeland and recruiting grounds of Italy. As one might expect, tensions mounted between the two men and finally erupted into another civil war. At the battle of Actium in 3l B.C.E., Octavian’s fleet crushed the combined navies of Antony and Cleopatra. After a desperate defense of Egypt, both Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, leaving Octavian as sole ruler of the Roman Empire. It seems ironic that a non-military man should emerge as the final victor in these civil wars and bring them to an end. However, as a non-military man, Octavian saw that the solutions to Rome’s problems involved much more than marching some armies around. It would be Octavian, known from this point on as Augustus, who would bring order to Rome and inaugurate one of the most long lasting periods of peace and prosperity in human history: the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace.

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