The spectacular rise of Rome as a world power after the destruction of Carthage in 146BC changed the political structure of a city-state to that of an empire. The Roman Republic, governed by the elite members of the Oligarchy, the nobiles, whose power rested on the control of the votes of the Roman people, supported within the organization of a patron-client system, was to face the unprecedented challenge of governing an empire. This article examines the critical period from the tribunate of the Gracchi to Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon and his subsequent assassination to determine the causes that precipitated the fall of the Republic.
The Oligarchy, of which only a few prominent families held a monopoly over the elections of important magistracies, primarily the consulship, meant that the same families would occupy the office for generations. Thus, the elections were often accompanied by fierce competition between the ruling elite. The natural progression of such a system was the formation of political alliances to further their ambitions. Amicitia and competitions for consulship were part of the Roman tradition and in themselves were benign enough. The magistrates were the government’s administrative arms, but their tenure of office was only one year, and it was the Senate, which was the perpetual advisory body. Although its power was not based on any legal enactment, nevertheless it had its basis on mos maiorum.
We may assume that mos maiorum did not provide a firm foundation for the Republic, but in a conservative society such as Rome with a strong emphasis on tradition, it was unlikely anyone would challenge the role of the existing institution. As Cicero stated in de re publica, ‘The Roman state is founded firm upon ancient customs and men.’ Still, such a system could only be effective if it operated within the framework of a political structure for which it had been designed – the city-state.
It is broadly perceived that it was not until the Gracchi brothers’ challenge of the legalities of the Senate that it began to lose power. The Gracchi also suffered the accusation of splitting the state into two parties, later to be termed as the Optimates and the Populares. This is by no means conclusive, for according to Cicero, there had always been two classes of men active in the public affair: the Populares and the Optimates. Indeed, Gaius Flaminius (consul in 223 and 217) represented the former as he challenged the Senate by directly carrying his measure through the Assembly only a century before the Gracchi.
Admittedly the role of the two parties was crystalized during the Gracchi, particularly after Gaius’s transfer of the courts to the equites, which provided them with a wide latitude of political power without shouldering the responsibility, ultimately driving a sharp wedge between the two groups. It was the equites who, after the Social Wars, allied themselves with Sulpicius Rufus to pass a bill to remove those senators, who were in debt more than 2000 denarii, from the Senate. The equestrians also abused their position of power and took to bribery, but since the judicial laws regarding bribery only applied to the senatorial jurors, the equestrians could indulge in their illegal activities without the fear of any prosecution by law.
But long before the Gracchi, a change, however subtle, had taken place in Roman society as well as government, for beneath the foundation, cracks had appeared. The cracks were not the result of any particular activity within the city-state political system, but were made by the empire operating within a much larger structure, producing two particular ills for the Republic. In the early history of Rome, her army consisted of citizen-militia, ploughing with one hand, fighting with a sword on the other. The influx of slaves due to the conquest of the Mediterranean, combined with the pressure of military service in protracted foreign wars, destroyed the rural-based structure of Roman society. Small-farm peasantry vanished and instead grew the mass of unemployed proletariat, which swelled the city of Rome, creating a recruiting pool for professional armies.
The credit for creating the professional army must assuredly be given to Marius. However, Marius did not create a professional army to overthrow the Republic. Long before Marius, the needs of the empire had demanded the existence of such armies to sustain its evolution. Even so, a deadly weapon was forged whose masters were the generals that held the higher magistracies and were members of the elite. By creating extraordinary commands for these men, the empire introduced an unstable element into the small Republican government, whereby the competitiveness in the election moved into a larger structure, that of an empire. Now, the generals were the patrons and the armies along with the provinces, the clientele.
Nothing had ever shaken the foundation of the Republic as the army would in the last century of the Republic. And the guilt must rest with Marius. Blinded by his own crazed ambition to gain the command against Mithridates, he allied himself with Sulpicius. The result was calamitous. Sulpicius unconstitutionally withdrew the command from Sulla and ignited a chain of events that brought Rome her first taste of military dictatorship.
Nevertheless, it was the empire that had launched the events leading to the Italian enfranchisement, providing Marius and Sulpicius with necessary weaponry to undermine the stability of the city-state political structure. It was the empire that had generated the influx of wealth into Italy, which was to be concentrated in the hands of a few minority ruling elite, breeding nothing but selfish greed and cruelty. It was the callous and brutal conduct of this new generation of Oligarchy in dealing with the Gracchi that alienated the people and furnished them with justifiable hatred of the elite minority. Even during Marius’s first consulship, an illegal act had taken place, for an aggrieved people, disaffected with the aristocracy, disregarded the Senate’s prerogative to extend Metellus’s command and instead appointed Marius to replace Metellus to conduct the war against Jugurtha.
The avarice of the ruling elite was not lost on Jugurtha, who used his riches to corrupt various members of the Oligarchy to suit his own ends. The conduct of the aristocracy during the Jugurthine crisis not only did not endear them to the Roman people but also fanned the flame of their hatred. The image of the aristocracy was further muddied by Jugurtha’s parting comment from Rome: Yonder is a city put up for sale, and its days are numbered if it finds a buyer.
After Marius’s death, Cinna was the sole power, but he instituted no political reform, and his government was hardly peaceful. A lull in civil strife cannot be equated with peace since fear often produces the same result. Cicero’s writings reflect the stagnant and fearful climate of which he recorded that most orators were either dead or exiled and as for himself, he kept his head down and studied.
Upon Sulla’s return to Italy, after the conclusion of the war with Mithridates, he was to find Rome divided into two camps: the Populares and the Optimates. Sulla was determined to make an end of the Populares and restore the Republic. Historians have judged Sulla’s constitutional reforms as ineffectual and, worse still, his march on Rome. However, Sulla took all the appropriate measures to restore the Republic as he perceived it.
His reforms were based on sound political judgment, for he had considered the problem of powerful proconsuls with loyal armies, who could do what he did. Thus, he took steps to legislate more stringent rules in obtaining higher magistracies. By enforcing cursus honorum and reactivating the Lex Villia Annalis of 180 BC, which stipulated a period of ten years must pass between holding the same office and raising the age limit, he was trying to achieve two objectives. First, to prevent young men from acquiring too much power too soon, and second, they would learn responsibility and gain knowledge of the state’s political machinery. By stripping the tribunate of all its former power, which the office had come to exercise unconstitutionally, he removed the object of demagogy, but without violating the right of veto, which had always been part of the Roman tradition.
The tribunate was later restored to its former structure with Pompey’s support. The office had always been part of the Roman tradition, and without the backing of powerful dynasts, it was never a threat to the government. The fate of Saturninus after losing the support of Marius serves as an example. The most disrupting tribune of this period was Clodius, who held the tribunate in 58 and got killed by Milo in 53.
Next, Sulla turned his attention to the restoration of the Senate by handing over the courts to the senatorial order while at the same time expanding it. This act would have healed the wounds and ended the quarrel over the courts between the equites and the Senate. By enlarging the Senate, Sulla was rejuvenating a tired Senate worn out by a series of internal conflicts. Sulla introduced to this body the equites themselves, some already experienced jurors, others from the Italian aristocracy, thereby infusing the Senate with fresh talent.
Sulla took these measures to increase the efficacy of governmental administration and prevent the formation of a clique, which could monopolize the provincial commands due to insufficiency in the numbers of magistrates. He could have made the Senate an actual representative body of the government, but Sulla could not divorce himself from the fundamental yet outdated idea that the sovereign rights of the people exercised by the people cannot be transferred to any select body. More importantly, what Sulla could not apprehend was the rapidly advancing separation of soldiers from civilian society.
The Roman army operating within the political framework of a city-state had been a people’s army; thus, the politics and military were integrated. People had to assemble at Campus Martius and vote in comitia centuriata on matters of war and peace. The emergence of professional armies, raised from Italy after the enfranchisement, broke the link between military and civilian society, severing the ties with politics. The soldiers were physically far too removed from Rome to have any involvement in the politics of the city-state. Furthermore, the Oligarchy was neglectful of the soldiers’ needs and provided no form of pension or relief for when they were to retire from the army. Thus, the army was not serving the political needs of a city-state, or the empire for that matter, but the ambitious generals who provided means of advancement and saw to it that they were looked after upon retirement.
Nowhere the bond between the army and its general and the separation of the army from civilian life is better demonstrated than Caesar and his army. When Caesar’s Tenth Legion was agitating for discharge and bounty and was terrorizing the city, Caesar, in order to admonish them for their mutinous behaviour, addressed them as citizens. In response, the soldiers shouted: we are your soldiers, Caesar, not citizens! Here existed a warrior class loyal only to its commander. It was the conflicts between the Senate and the generals, who wanted land for their warriors, which led to the formation of the First Triumvirate in 60BC and Caesar’s coming into the political scene.
The First Triumvirate of which the participants were Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus was forged out of one man’s desire to rule an empire. According to Plutarch, Caesar sought support from both these men because he felt that his prospects would be hopeless without the help of either of them. Of the two men, Pompey was to play a critical role in the coming of the civil war, for Crassus was soon to be killed in an ill-conceived war with the Parthians at the battle of Carrhae in 53BC. Pompey, obsessed by an insatiable lust for both power and popularity, had obtained extraordinary commands, which seemed to have gone beyond what the Sullan constitution had set up. However, the forces responsible for Pompey’s rise were not the making of a city-state politics, although it was the flexibility of the Roman constitution and even mos maiorum which had always allowed such precedents to take place in times of crisis. The Senate’s decree authorized Pompey with extraordinary powers to meet the challenges of Lepidus, Sertorius, Spartacus, the pirates, and Mithridates. The Lex Gabinia in 67 invested Pompey with imperium infinitum for three years to deal with the problem of the pirates. In 66, the Lex Manilia empowered him further with the command against Mithridates.
While it is admissible to maintain that Pompey was never a serious threat to the Republic, nevertheless, he did not shy away from aggravating a state already plagued with chaos and discord, only to establish himself as a dictator. After the murder of Clodius by Milo, Rome was in the grip of anarchy, and Pompey encouraged this lawlessness to create the need for a dictatorship. Plutarch wrote that the people who went to the forum to vote for the candidates were not only heavily bribed but went there with swords, bows, and arrows to fight against the opposition. It was during these stressful times that intelligent people began to think that the only way out of this madness was the rule of one man. The dangerous climate was not lost on Cato, who persuaded the Senate to elect Pompey as the sole consul, only to thwart the danger of him becoming a dictator. The acquiescence of a people to one-man rule was a warning to a city-state to brace itself for an impact with its destiny – the Imperial rule.
Throughout history, Sulla has sustained the blame for Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. But there is an inherent flaw in this argument. Both men were forced to march against their country. Sulla did it out of necessity to restore the legitimate government; Caesar to preserve his dignitas. And both were faced with political extinction. Sulla was to relinquish his absolute rule willingly; Caesar was to hold on to it and criticize his predecessor for resigning his dictatorship.
What precipitated the civil war is to be found in the most revealing comment hoc voluerunt made by Caesar as he surveyed the dead bodies of the Optimates in Pompey’s camp at Pharsalus. The battle of Pharsalus was not about the restoration of the Republic but a mockery of the entire institution. The Optimates invalidated everything they had claimed they stood for by ignoring the procedure of casting lots, as they were assigning provincial commands to their friends. Worse still, they did not bother to seek ratification of those commands by the people. Nor did they uphold the sacrosanctity of the tribunate, for they abrogated the tribunician rights of veto, and the tribunes were given six days to secure their own safety. Fifteen thousand men died in vain so that twenty-two men could carry out their own private agenda and secure Caesar’s political extinction. Curio put the question to the Senate that both Caesar and Pompey should disarm simultaneously, which in response, three hundred and seventy men voted affirmative and only twenty-two voted against.
Not even Cicero, who viewed himself as the guardian of the Republic, favoured war. Two of his letters to his friend, Atticus, are particularly revealing in which Cicero, as he pondered on the inevitability of the war, questioned the logic of it by enumerating Pompey’s follies in aggrandizing Caesar’s power and then taking the side of the Optimates to take it all back. Certainly, Pompey’s duplicity was not lost on Cicero, for he also wrote that Pompey had shown greater concern to recall him from exile than to prevent his exile.
The Senatus Populusque Romanus, as Rome’s legitimate government, worked only in theory and provided no stable foundation for the empire as the power fluctuated between the people and the Senate without actually affecting the rule of the Oligarchy. Caesar was the protégé of the empire, for he had understood only too well the demands of the empire, which required the concentration of power in the hands of one political body. This is quite clear in his comment, which referred to the Republic as a mere name without form or substance.
Yet it must be maintained that at no stage, Caesar can be accused of seeking kingship. Monarchical power is not to be confused with a dynastic monarchy. Not even Augustus had begun his princeps with the idea of establishing a hereditary monarchy. The proof of this rests in the fact that when he was seriously taken ill in 23BC and thought he was dying, he handed his signet-ring to Agrippa and some state documents to Piso, who was sharing the consulship with him at the time. It would take Augustus four decades to establish his principate. The empire had assuredly produced men who were ready to seize power and rule supreme and alone, but they were not as yet ready to renounce their ancestral ideological belief, which was deeply rooted in the idea of Republicanism.
The last decade of the Republic had highlighted the force of the empire, which had imposed its will on the government of a city-state. Only an imperial system of government could resolve the endemic problems of factional infighting, which Plutarch described as the festering disease of envy in Roman politics. Caesar’s assassination was the triumph of the empire over a city-state, for, in his death, the Oligarchy was finally vanquished. The Republic, which was only a sentimental concept of a city-state, had been part of a city-state’s political structure and could only sustain itself so long as the city-state continued to operate within that structure. But the city-state had long ceased to be one, and an empire had emerged in its place. Rome was an empire, and its government was to function in a much larger political structure, whence it could not project the much-romanticized Republic.