Saturday, April 4, 2009

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

Our history of the fall of the Republic now takes us to the last player in the drama – Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a man who had no reservations about destroying the Republic. Sulla never understood that his attempts to fix the Republic could not overcome the things he did to destroy it, so by the time he left the scene, Rome was ready to fall to any power hungry candidate who would be bold enough and strong enough to take it.

As his first important military appointment, Sulla was ordered to command an army and defeat King Mithridates of Pontus in 88 B.C. after the king had overrun Athens and killed many Italians. Before leaving, however, his command was superseded by one of the Tribunes, Sulpicius, who had dangled Sulla’s command in front of Marius to pull him out of retirement. When Sulla and his followers tried to intervene, an armed clash took place and Sulla was forced to go into hiding.

After recovering from this political embarrassment, Sulla joined the army he was to lead in the East, turned it around, and attacked Rome. Sulpicius was hunted down and killed. Sulla then took the steps he thought necessary to stabilize the Republic including allowing the consular elections to be held. He left for war against Mithridates, after a promise from the consuls to move forward with his programs.

Almost immediately, the consul Cinna rescinded the edicts of Sulla and brought old Marius back from exile. Marius commanded a series of reprisals which murdered thousands, but he died the next year. Cinna controlled Rome for three more years naming himself consul each year.

In 82 B.C, the war in the East was under control, so Sulla once again marched on Rome and took the city. One of his first acts was to organize a mass murder that made Marius’ slaughter look amateurish. Sulla proclaimed himself dictator and set about re-designing the Republican government along conservative lines. He broke the power of the tribunes and changed the law courts to put them under the Senate rather than the Knights. He doubled the size of the Senate and made it easier to become a member. Oddly, he had all these measures passed through the traditional assemblies as if his power as dictator prevented him from creating new legislation.

Sulla resigned as dictator in 81 and was elected consul. Then in 80 B.C he retired to live in the country and died the following year.

The naïve attempts by Sulla to turn back the clock on the Republic failed completely because he had not taken into account the essential economic and social problems facing the Roman people. His legacy was to empower the leaders of the army to replace the authority of the Republican system whenever they felt inclined to do so. The Senate and the people were about to lose their power forever.

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