Everyone seems to write about the fall of the Roman Empire – Gibbon et al. I guess they look at the end of the Empire as the seminal event because it marks the end of a thousand years of Roman power and the onset of the Dark Ages. I, however, would rather study the fall of the Roman Republic because it is much more interesting. First of all the Republic is a classic governmental form like the democracies of Greece. The Empire, by contrast, was a corrupt totalitarian system which was bound to collapse at some point under its own weight.
Secondly, the Republic was a political incubator, unique in its time. When the Romans threw out the Etruscan kings they made a conscious decision to create a representational government. In the beginning the Patrician class had too much power and the Plebian class had none. Then, over time, the classes came into better balance with the rise of the middle class and its increased political influence. Finally, after three hundred and fifty years, the Republic began to develop problems that would snowball into its collapse.
Thirdly, it’s interesting to look at the reasons why the Republic fell. What does this tell us about the evolution of political systems? Are they all bound to fail at some point or can the path toward collapse be reversed. Lastly, is there something we can learn about the Roman republic that is applicable to our contemporary world?
When The Third Punic War ended in 146 B.C. Carthage was eliminated as a rival to Rome, and the Mediterranean Sea became Mare Nostrum. By then Greece was a client state, the Germans were behaving, and except for some problems in Spain the provinces seemed stable. All was not well at home, however, because class problems were about to serve as the spark which would burn down the Republic.
In the paragraphs following I will lay out a chronology showing how the collapse of the Republic became the inevitable outcome of a series of events which undermined the old system and created opportunities for those who wanted power for themselves.
1. The incessant wars of the second century had profound impact on the small landowner. Many died in battle or returned from war to find themselves destitute because their land was not worked while they were away. The wealthy accumulated forfeited land and began to work it for themselves often employing slaves instead of Roman citizens. The huge estates resulting from this accumulation further concentrated wealth in the hands of the few. Displaced farmers gravitated to the city hoping to find work but were largely unsuccessful.
Impact: A permanent underclass of was created upsetting the balance between Patricians, Knights, and Plebians.
2. The destruction of the peasant farmer caused hardship for the army because there were not enough landowners left to meet its requirements.
Impact: A shortage of recruits at a time when Rome was expanding.
3. During the period 133-122 B.C. the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus sought to alleviate the problems described above by passing land distribution bills. These bills would have created farms for the unemployed and veterans, slowing down the drift to poverty and increasing the number of recruits. The brothers were indifferent to the risk of taking on the wealthy because they wanted to solve the social problems of the Republic. Both were murdered by supporters of rich senators who did not want to see their assets re-allocated to the lower classes.
Impact: By murdering tribunes of the people the Senate showed an inclination to circumvent the law when necessary even to the point of having legitimately elected officials murdered. They also showed themselves to be against the people and unable to govern a society where the powers were balanced.
4. Political factions developed. Optimates representing conservatives supported the Senate’s desire for status quo and they were opposed by the Populares who supported change.
Impact: The interests of the people as expressed through the assembly were now determined to overcome the will of the Senate.
5. In 110 B.C. Rome began a war with Numidia and its charismatic leader Jugurtha. After a series of failed attempts to defeat the enemy, and the replacement of several commanding generals, the Plebian general Marius was chosen as the commander by the assembly against the wishes of the Senate.
Impact: The people’s assembly used its power to manage foreign policy, an invasion the rights previously held exclusively by the Senate.
6. Marius suspended the property qualification for military service in 107 B.C. This solved the problem of recruiting but opens up a much more ominous precedent – loyalty of the army.
Impact: The loyalty of the Roman army was now transferred from the Senate and the people to the commanding general. The army now looked to Marius to give them property after the war.
So now we were forty years into the collapse of the Republic and it’s obvious that a reversal is not possible. The people (or mob as some might say) have taken power from the Senate which had lost its moral authority. The army now belonged to the commanding general instead of the government. Respect for the old institutions is gone forever because they were not able to solve the socio-economic problems of the Roman people.
7. Marius, never the politician, resorted to political types to act as his agents. One tribune, named Saturninus, strong-armed the Senate into allocating land for Marius’ veterans by threatening Senators with exile. Marius later tired of Saturninus using gangs to influence policy, marched an improvised army into Rome, and killed Saturninus and his followers.
Impact: A new precedent was set for the army attacking Rome and killing its political opponents.
8. King Mithridates of Pontus raised an army in 88 B.C. and attacked Athens forcing Rome to respond. Command for the Greek army of invasion was entrusted to Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a Patrician who had distinguished himself previously during the Jurguthine War. Blocking Sulla, a tribune named Sulpicius Rufus had Marius named commander instead. Sulla, unwilling to put up with this rebuke, marched his army on Rome and took the city.
Impact: The Roman Army and its commanders now understood that they could take power whenever they wanted. All that remained was for the last vestiges of honor and respect for the Roman political system to pass away. But not quite yet!
9. Sulla defeated Mithridates, returned to Rome, and declared himself dictator – a move he claimed was necessary to save the Republic. He passed many new laws – some good, some bad – but in all cases followed the proper form and passed them through the assembly. In 80 B.C. Sulla abdicated his position as dictator and was elected consul. Following the consulship, he retired.
Impact: A commander, in control of the army, made himself dictator and tried to use legislation to save the Republic. Most of these laws were rescinded once he left the scene proving that political momentum cannot be reversed. Surprisingly, Sulla went to the brink of creating an empire but then pulled back.
10. In the period following Sulla (80-60 B.C.), Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar rose to power. Although each had different abilities and objectives, they become aligned when each was snubbed by a Senate that was trying to regain its power. They split the provinces between themselves accumulating power and wealth along the way.
Impact: Rome was now controlled by a triumvirate of military commanders who ruled jointly without restraint.
11. In 60 B.C, Caesar decided that he needed greater military success on his resume so he had Gaul assigned to him as a province and went to war there for ten years. Crassus was killed in battle in 52 B.C. and that coupled with the death of Pompey’s wife (Caesar’s daughter) broke up the alliance. With the Gallic victory complete, Caesar marched on Rome, crossing the Rubicon River in 49 B.C.
Impact: Now for the first time the stars were completely aligned for Empire building. We had a man who wanted wealth and power without a care for tradition. He controlled an army, which gave him the means to control Rome.
As we look at the fall of the Republic, we see in the beginning a power vacuum created when the Senate failed what the people perceived was its responsibility. These failures would have been masked previously through their own control mechanisms such as patronage, but those controls were now largely eroded by the growth of the middle class (Knights) who wanted some of that power and the displaced landowners who were now urban poor.
The people, through their advocates, resisted the Senate until the watershed event of Marius’ elimination of the property qualification. That event turned the army into a force engine for any commander who wanted control of Rome. Back and forth the struggle went until the stars were aligned for Caesar. Ironic that Caesar would be assassinated by a group of Republicans trying to hang on to the old system. They were too late.