Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why the Roman Republic Failed and What It Means to Us - Part II

As I mentioned in the last post, the Gracchi brothers took popular reform to a new level during the years 133-122 B.C. The projects of Tiberius which led to his murder in 133, were taken up and extended by his brother in 123, so the commons experienced the frustration of Senate’s intransigence for more than a decade. The door to popular control of the government was open a crack, but the people themselves could only go so far. Mobs do not make revolutions. Mob leaders do.

So we move on to Marius – the last Republican who was willing to work within the system.

War broke out in Africa in 112 when a young renegade African prince, Jugurtha, massacred the Italian residents of Numidia. The first two Roman expeditionary forces sent to destroy him accomplished nothing. Then, in 109, a more competent general, Metellus, was sent out to get the job done. Again, two years of trying and two years of failure.

Frustrated to the limit, the public demanded that one of Metellus’ deputies, Gaius Marius, be appointed commander of the army. Overcoming modest origins, Marius had built a career as a knight and publican before distinguishing himself in the military. Seizing the opportunity to cap his career, Marius obtained a consulship for himself in addition to the commander’s role.

Before going to war against the Numidians, Marius trained his soldiers extensively and modified Roman battle tactics. He also made his soldiers professionals by removing the property qualification. Even though this new motivated army won a series of impressive battles in Numidia, Marius was unable to defeat Jugurtha until the young prince was captured by a treachery in 104. His capture was arranged by Marius’ deputy Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

Marius was elected consul for five consecutive years from 104-100 B.C. During that time he developed of habit of aligning himself with men who were willing to act as his political surrogates. The first of these was Saturninus who put through programs to provide land for Marius’ veterans. It wasn't long, however, before Saturninus got out of control and started to murder his political opponents. Marius, unwilling to stand for wholesale lawlessness, removed his support and raised an improvised army which destroyed Saturninus and his followers. During this period of instability, Marius’ lack of principle was exposed and he decided to go into retirement.

Then in 87 B.C. another opportunist named Sulpicius brought Marius back to Rome as a military backer for a set of reforms designed to weaken the Senate. These measures were a direct attack on the emerging power of Sulla who marched on Rome and took the city.

Marius fled to Africa but returned again to join the conspiracy of Cinna who was able to retake the Rome while Sulla was in the east during the year 86 B.C. Marius died of a heart attack the next year.

The legacy of Marius makes him a central figure in the fall of the Republic. Although he wanted to work within the system, his tolerance for violence and his lack of political skill fostered a series of unscrupulous political actors who used his power for political ends, and contributed to the instability that destroyed the Republic.

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