At the end of the Third Punic War, in 146 B.C, the Roman Republic was ascendant. The Carthaginians had been defeated once and for all, the city of Carthage razed, and salt was poured over its ground to symbolize utter destruction. Rome was now master of the Mediterranean Sea and called it Mare Nostrum or “Our sea”. What could possibly stop her? Certainly no army.
But ahead, in the not too distant future, stood the destruction of the Republic and no one knew it. A mere thirteen years would pass before the slide would begin. It’s an interesting story of class warfare, the quest for economic equity, and an aging political system.
The timeline of those thirteen years has the following entries:
146 B.C. Third Punic War ends
140-134 B.C War with the Numantines
140 B.C. Agrarian reform introduced by Laelius and withdrawn
139 B.C. Law passed to use written ballots in voting for the first time
139 B.C. Shortage of corn in Rome. Efforts to build up supplies were blocked
137 B.C. Mancinus defeated by the Numantines and is forced to surrender
136 B.C. Mancinus put on trial, found guilty, and banished
136 B.C. Slave rebellion in Sicily
134 B.C. Scipio Aemilianus takes an army to Spain and defeats the Numantines
133 B.C. The tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus
The socio-political forces at work in 240 B.C. included the following: a shortage of recruits for the army based on too few property owners, a swelling poverty class based on lost agricultural jobs, an empty treasury due to money spent funding wars, and a bitter struggle between factions in the Senate. In the latter case it was the Claudian family against the Scipios. Although the Republic did not have political parties, the Senate had factions which crossed the spectrum from conservative to liberal. The factional fighting was driven by the quest for power and the status that came with it. These power games so occupied their time the wealthy had little interest in the plight of the plebs.
During the Republican period, Rome operated as a timocracy, meaning a political system where only land holders could vote and serve in the army. After a landholder was killed in battle and there was no one left to work his farm, his family often fell into debt, lost the property, and were forced to work as farm labor or travel to Rome and look for a job. The only solution to the problem of recruits for the army was to create new landowners.
The Senate was also at odds with the Consilium Plebis or people’s assembly. The Consilium was created to pacify the plebs by giving them their own legislative body. In the Republican system, the Senate could introduce legislation, but could not vote on it. The Consilium could pass legislation but not introduce it. It had the right to pass laws binding on all of Rome, a power the Senate regretted having granted. The Senate used every means possible to control the Consilium including pressure or bribes of the ten Tribunes who were its leaders.
The Roman class system was divided with patricians at the top, then knights, plebs, and slaves at the bottom. Often slaves, as free labor, took jobs away from the plebs increasing their poverty. The knights were a rising middle class (new money) of merchants and bureaucrats.
So the period we are describing begins with the Numantine War, which lasted six years and bankrupted the Republican treasury. Things got so bad that when Scipio Aemilianus was named commander in 134 B.C. and told to end the war once and for all, he had to use his own assets to pay the troops. The Numantines were a hardy tribe from the north of Spain that proved tougher than the Romans could have imagined and the Senate sent Scipio because he had defeated the Carthaginians to end the Punic Wars. They figured he had the magic touch and they were right.
The other story from the Numantine War was the debacle of Mancinus who was made commander in 137 B.C. Mancinus managed to get his army surrounded and was forced to surrender. The future tribune Tiberius Gracchus negotiated a treaty to save the army but it was rejected by the Senate as too embarrassing. Mancinus and Tiberius Gracchus were both put on trial for treason. Mancinus was exiled. Gracchus was acquitted.
Back at home there was the slave revolt in Sicily that had to be put down and the corn shortage in 139 B.C.
The Republic stood at a crossroads: lower class discontent stirring a stew of rising independence and political will on the part of the plebs, who were not willing to suffer any longer at the hands of the Senate. Here Tiberius Gracchus emerges as the seminal figure: elected in 133 B.C as tribune of the people. Immediately after his election Tiberius introduced a land reform bill under the sponsorship of some Senators. This would take public land (ager publicus) and give it to those who would start farming, and become eligible for military service. In response, the Senate induced one of the other tribunes to veto the bill. Tiberius reacted by having that tribune removed from office. The bill passed but the Senate refused to provide funding for it. That made the new law stillborn until Tiberius’ fortunes changed. A king from Asia Minor died and left his kingdom to Rome. Tiberius took that money and used it to fund the land reform law. This move enraged the Senate because it had exclusive control over foreign policy and saw his actions as a power grab. At the end of his year in office, Tiberius decided to run for a second term, thinking it would provide him immunity from prosecution by an angry Senate. On Election Day he was assassinated by a group of Senators and their patrons.
The Senate conducted an inquiry into the case and found no one liable. To show that they supported the Plebs, they allowed the agrarian law to move forward and supported it. The Senate claimed that Tiberius was intent on overthrowing the government based on his questionable actions, and the Republic should be relieved that he was gone.
How did this series of events affect the Republic? Significantly. No elected official had been assassinated in Rome for some four hundred years. The public blamed the Senate and its prestige plummeted. Respect for the Senate was gone forever. The Plebian class remained unhappy because of the inequality forced on them. Soon after, pseudo political parties formed. On one side was the Optimates (best men) supported by the Senate and on the other side were the Populares (people’s men) who were the champions of the plebs.
The people would now use their numbers to oppose the will of the Senate in passing legislation and voting for commanders to lead the army. One of those commanders, Marius, who was a pleb himself, created a professional army loyal to him, and became the first in a series of man who would control the republic by force and complete the downfall of the Republic.