Tuesday, April 7, 2009

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

In the last three posts we have described the personalities and the events that led directly to the fall of the Roman Republic. From that point when Sulla left the scene, Crassus, Pompey and Caesar carried on a mutually beneficial arrangement (The Triumvirate), which lasted until Crassus’ death and the death of Pompey’s wife (Caesar’s daughter). Any one of these three men could have made dictator. Caesar succeeded because of the death of Crassus and the hesitation of Pompey.

The Republic broke down as a political system and was superseded by authoritarian rule. Why? What is it exactly, that allowed this change to happen?

I started thinking about this in the context of a modern view of revolutions and their causes: the conceptual models of Kornhauser in The Politics of Mass Society or Greene’s Comparative Revolutionary Movements can be used as a reference. But, In truth, the Roman situation is much simpler than the complex forces Marx and other revolutionary theorists conjured up.

In any political system, stability depends on confidence. If the people believe their system will allow them to achieve their goals in life, they will not look for a change. In the period 140-80 B.C. the common people of Rome became economically disadvantaged and a weakened (or arrogant) Senate did nothing to help them. As a consequence, the people looked to popular leaders, such as Marius, to take control of the republic and make their lives better. During this period there was a enormous amount of violence. Whether or not it was purposeful or just a consequence of the battle for control, does not matter. Violence breaks down the institutions of government and drives the people toward any system that will produce stability. In the end, stability was the dictator, and the dictator held his power by controlling loyalty of the army.

Revolutions take the right man at the right time. Caesar was power hungry, but also brilliant – educated, courageous, and innovative. Still the ultimate political solution for Rome was not accomplished by Caesar who, in the end, was a transitional figure. The future of Rome depended on the brilliance of another man – Octavian, the man who became Caesar Augustus. Octavian, in creating his “Principate”, was successful at painting a Republican veneer over the top of a dictatorship. Octavian served as consul for the first eight years of his rule. Then, with a carefully crafted system in place, he declared he would transfer power back to the people – restore the Republic. In return he received the power to control Rome and its provinces through administrators appointed by himself. The Senate’s role was enlarged to further the illusion. In the end Augustus separated politics and administration: letting the Senate be the politicians while he controlled the apparatus of government and held the real power.

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