Rome

The Crisis of the Republic


   Rome had begun as a small city-state. It's constitution, its government, its social structure, and its moral values were those of a small, mainly agrarian state. All of these, the constitution, government, social structure, and values, adapted well to the governing of Italy. The Empire, however, which Rome had stumbled into by accident, provoked a profound crisis in Roman society, government, and morals.

   In particular, the Second Punic War created vast disparities in wealth. Up until the Second Punic War, the plebeians were farmers, craftsmen, or laborers. They would farm their own land that, even though it was small, was still their property. As laborers or craftsmen, they worked for decent wages (or the equivalent of wages). However, Hannibal had razed the countryside; while the wealth sat secure within the walls of Rome, thousands of people had their farmlands and houses destroyed. With no land they had no work and so began to flood the cities. The wealthy, who had grown wealthier because of the spoils of war, bought up the farmlands so that by the middle of the second century, Roman agriculture was dominated by large plantations owned by fabulously wealthy landowners. This was only the tip of the iceberg, though. The Punic Wars and the Macedonian Wars flooded Rome and Roman territories with new slaves. Rome had had slave labor before then, but the second century saw a major shift in the Roman economy from a laborer economy to a slave economy. By the end of the second century BC, the majority of the population in Italy were slaves. This severly depressed job opportunities and wages. For slavery is an economic phenomenon more than anything else; slavery is an economic device to keep the remuneration of labor at or slightly below subsistence level. This meant that the poor who were not slaves either couldn't work or had to work at below subsistence wages; it also caused massive migrations of the unemployed into cities. As in most migrations of the unemployed, the result was not necessarily employment in a new place. In Rome, however, it meant the concentration of a large population of poor, disaffected, and angry free Romans. The tinder-box was set to go off.



The Gracchi

   The poor and the wealthy had been in conflict since the overthrow of the Tarquins in 509 BC; this conflict, however, largely revolved around political power and freedom. In 133 BC, the conflict erupted into civil war. In that year, Tiberius Gracchus was elected as one of the tribunes of the assembly (see the chapter on the Roman Republic for an explanation of the nature of the tribuneship). He proposed that the land ownership be limited to only 640 acres, thus removing much of the land from the hands of the wealthy. If a single person owned more than 640 acres, the excess would be seized by the state and given to the poor. As you might expect, the wealthy in Rome, and the Senate, were as opposed to this procedure as it is possible to be opposed. They controlled one of the tribunes, a man named Octavius, and persuaded him to consistently veto Tiberius's land reform. Fed up with the opposition, Tiberius removed Octavius from office, a manifestly unconstitutional procedure. When his term as tribune expired, he stood for reelection to a second term—another unconstitutional procedure. At the elections a riot erupted and a group of senators assassinated Tiberius: the first civil bloodshed in Roman history.


   One can't underestimate the importance of Tiberius Gracchus for Roman history. Although he was ultimately a failure in his reform, he created a new style of politics: appealing to the masses. Up until Tiberius Gracchus, political change had taken place largely in cooperation with and deference to the patrician class. Tiberius Gracchus, however, sought to bring about political change by ignoring the patricians altogether and appealing to the passions of the general populace. This created a new type of politician in Rome; they were called the populares for they attempted to gain power by raising the population in their favor. Against the populares were the optimates ("the best"), who continued to attempt political change by appealing to traditional methods and structures.


   The family of the Gracchi were not finished. In 123 BC (and again in 122 BC), Gaius Gracchus was elected tribune. Enormously popular among the people, Gaius managed to push several laws through the assembly. First, he stabilized the price of grain by building storehouses for excess grain. Fixing this price would help small farmers keep their heads above water and keep grain prices from rising so high that the poor could not afford to feed themselves. In his second law, the one that provoked the most opposition, he proposed that citizenship be granted to all Italians (in order to increase his power base).

   The Senate, in 121 BC, then passed a law which ordered the consuls to make the Republic safe and declared Gaius Gracchus an enemy to the state. The consuls hunted him down, and, in their final conflict, Gaius Gracchus killed himself and several thousand of his followers were killed or executed. Thus the Gracchan revolt.



Marius

   Shortly afterwards, Rome began a war with Jugurtha, the king of Numidia (south of Carthage), in 111 BC. This war, the Jugurthine War, was prosecuted with little enthusiasm and the Roman people grew suspicious of the Senate. So in 107 BC, Gaius Marius (157-86 BC) was elected consul and was assigned the province of Numidia by the assembly. He was a brilliant soldier and quickly defeated Jugurtha; but it was Marius' lieutenant, Sulla (138-78 BC) who defeated Jugurtha for good.   Now Sulla was of an old and well-established aristocratic family; although he was relatively poor, he was as blue-blooded as they came in Rome. Marius, on the other hand, was a novus homo , a "new man," who was the first in his family to occupy the consulship. These new men were bitterly resented by the aristocracy, and Sulla felt that Marius was being given credit for work that he, Sulla, had done. The rivalry between these two men would result in civil war in 88 BC.   Marius, however, was an innovator and a maverick. He changed the fundamental make-up of his army by enlisting mainly volunteers. These volunteers were drawn from the poorest (and hence most disaffected and angry) classes, still bitter over the killings of the Gracchi. Marius held out the promise of the spoils of war and land-parcels as payment for their service (this on top of the guarantee of food and shelter for the length of their service). Something new had occurred. Poverty now pushed vast numbers of the poor into the military; these soldiers, however, owed their loyalty and gratitutde not to the state, but to their general who served as a kind of patron. This personal loyalty gave Marius, and future generals, access to civilian power that they had never had before.



Sulla

   In the 80's BC, Rome was heavily engaged in wars with Italian allies who suffered greatly from the economic inequities. Sulla proved himself to be an astonishing general during these wars and was elected consul in 88 BC, finally getting the recognition he felt he deserved. Unlike Marius, Sulla was firmly in the patrician camp; he defeated Marius in a civil war and the Senate, fearful of the population, seized complete control of the Roman government by appointing Sulla dictator. Now the position of dictator ("one who speaks, one who dictates") was a constitutional position; the Roman government was allowed to hand complete authority, imperium , to a single individual in times of crisis. This imperium would not be shared with another, as it was in the consulship. Sulla promptly set about "reforming" the Roman government over the next three years by restoring power to the Senate and deracinating the authority of the assembly. Sulla, despite his intentions to restore Roman government to what he saw as its original form, nonetheless brought about a revolutionary new way of doing government: as a general, he used his army to kill his opponents (and even some who weren't his opponents). Dangerous new ground had been broken.



The Beginning of the End

   Sulla's reforms, rather than restoring order to Rome, provoked a violent reaction. After the death of Sulla, the Senate was facing armed rebellion. In 70 BC, two highly ambitious men, Crassus and Pompey, were elected consuls and promptly repealed Sulla's constitution. A new political order was emerging: ambitious generals, such as Pompey and Crassus, allied themselves with the tribunes and the disaffected assembly against the Senate and patricians.

   Pompey gained the imperium over the entire Mediterranean region in 67 BC for three years, and this imperium was extended several more years so he could prosecute a war in Asia Minor. By the end of this period, Pompey had become the single most popular leader in Rome. Crassus, however, was frightened of Pompey and, since he was unpopular in both the assembly and the Senate, he allied himself with popular leaders, the most popular of which was a brilliant general, Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC). Julius was from an old, noble family, and had served as a brilliant military leader in Spain and in Gaul.

   When he returned from Spain, he demanded a triumph, that is, a victory parade, through Rome. Denied this triumph by the Senate (who feared his popularity with the masses), Julius convinced Pompey and Crassus to reconcile and the First Triumvirate was established. This triumvirate ("three men") was the beginning of the end of the Republic, for this alliance between these three politicians, two of whom were generals, had as its end the control of the Roman government for the political advantage of the three men.

Richard Hooker



Julius Caesar

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-2-97