I am going to embark on a series of posts that describe the fall of the Roman Republic and what it reveals to us about governments and human behavior. We can argue back and forth about the value of history to the present, but I happen to believe that human beings have acted the same way for several thousand years, so we can use history as a lens into the future of contemporary political systems.
The Roman Republic experienced a radical impoverishment of the lower class, starting around the mid-second century B.C. Since the army was made up of landholders, those killed in battle left families challenged with respect to maintaining the farms, and those who did not die went into debt while they were away, because their land was not worked. Citizens lost their property which fell into the hands of the rich and the newly impoverished migrated to the city looking for work. On top of all this, Rome began to import large amounts of grain (particularly wheat from Sicily), which drove prices down for the Roman farmer. The end result over time was the concentration of farmland in the hands of the rich and the growth of a permanent underclass in the city.
The aristocratic class was divided over what to do about the problem – liberals wanted to help the poor; conservatives did not care to.
Two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, attempted to put forward agrarian reforms designed to return land to people who had lost their farms. The goal was to relieve poverty and create more recruits for the army. Both brothers pushed hard on the Senate, acting legally but setting precedent in some cases. In the end, the Senate saw them as becoming too powerful so they were murdered (Tiberius in 133 and Gaius in 122). The Senate had started an awful trend – killing the people’s tribunes for threatening the status of the aristocracy. This kind of political murder would be repeated with regularity later on.
What followed the Gracchi was the “reign” of Gaius Marius, an Plebian general who was favored by the lower classes. When the Senate’s hand-picked generals failed to win in battle the people forced the selection of Marius to lead the Roman Army. During the period 107-87 he served as consul seven times, won many victories for Rome, and put down an insurrection in 87 B.C. In 107, he reformed the army and made soldiers professional for the first time. This was a dangerous precedent because it made the army loyal to their commander instead of the people.
Marius was an excellent general but a terrible politician. He could rule Rome by force only but was unable, without surrogates, to create any kind of political stability. Rome would not be stable again until a general with political instincts would emerge.
In 83, Marius was defeated by the Patrician general Sulla who proclaimed himself dictator. Sulla was one of the last idealists in the Republic, spending a year reforming the governmental apparatus as an attempt to save the Republic. When his work was complete, Sulla retired and gave up his position. His reforms came to nothing as is always the case in history when men think idealism can overcome political momentum.
The seventies and sixties B.C. brought many wars and the emergence of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus as military rivals. These three men would seal the fate of the Republic when they formed the first triumvirate in 59 B.C.
In all, the republic lasted as a stable political system from 509 to 150 (half again as long as the US has existed), and then took another one hundred years to slide into one man rule.