The Grandeur That Was Rome
The Late Republic, 133-30 B.C.
The century following 133 B.C., during which Rome's frontiers reached the
Euphrates and the Rhine, witnessed the failure of the Republic to solve the
problems that were the by-products of the acquisition of an empire.
Effects Of Roman Expansion
The political history of Rome thus far has consisted of two dominant
themes: the gradual extension of equal rights for all citizens and the
expansion of Roman dominion over the Mediterranean world. Largely as a result
of this expansion, important social and economic problems faced Rome by
roughly the midpoint of the second century B.C.
One of the most pressing problems was the decline in the number of small
landowners, whose spirit had made Rome great. Burdened by frequent military
service, their farm buildings destroyed by Hannibal, and unable to compete
with the cheap grain imported from the new Roman province of Sicily, small
farmers sold out and moved to Rome. Here they joined the unemployed,
discontented proletariat, so-called because their only contribution was proles, "children." The proletariat comprised a majority of the citizens in
On the other hand, improved farming methods learned from Greeks and
Carthaginians encouraged rich aristocrats to buy more and more land.
Abandoning the cultivation of grain, they introduced large-scale scientific
production of olive oil and wine, or of sheep and cattle. This change was
especially profitable because an abundance of cheap slaves from conquered
areas was available to work on the estates. These large slave plantations,
called latifundia, were now common in many parts of Italy.
The land problem was further complicated by the government's practice of
leasing part of the territory acquired in the conquest of the Italian
peninsula to anyone willing to pay a percentage of the crop or animals raised
on it. Only the patricians or wealthy plebeians could afford to lease large
tracts of this public land, and in time they treated it as if it were their
own property. Plebeian protests led to an attempt to limit the holdings of a
single individual to 320 acres of public land, but the law enacted for that
purpose was never enforced.
Corruption in the government was another mark of the growing degeneracy
of the Roman Republic. Provincial officials seized opportunities for lucrative
graft, and a new class of Roman businessmen scrambled selfishly for the
profitable state contracts to supply the armies, collect taxes and loan money
in the provinces, and lease state-owned mines and forests. An early example of
corrupt business practices occurred during the Second Punic War. According to
the Roman historian Livy, "Two scoundrels, taking advantage of the assumption
by the state of all risks from tempest in the case of goods carried by sea to
armies in the field," fabricated false accounts of shipwrecks. "Their method
was to load small and more or less worthless cargoes into old, rotten vessels,
sink them at sea..., and then, in reporting the loss, enormously to exaggerate
the value of the cargoes." When the swindle was reported to the Senate, it
took no action because it "did not wish at a time of such national danger to
make enemies of the capitalists." ^6
[Footnote 6: Livy Roman History 25.3, trans. Aubrey de Selincourt, Livy: The
War with Hannibal (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965), p. 296.]
Although in theory the government was a democracy, in practice it
remained a senatorial oligarchy. Wars tend to strengthen the executive power
in a state, and in Rome the Senate had such power. Even the tribunes,
guardians of the people's rights, became for the most part puppets of the
Senate. Thus by the middle of the second century B.C., the government was in
the hands of a wealthy, self-seeking Senate, which became increasingly
incapable of coping with the problems of governing a world-state. Ordinary
citizens were for the most part impoverished and landless; and Rome swarmed
with fortune hunters, imported slaves, unemployed farmers, and discontented
war veterans. The poverty of the many, coupled with the opulence of the few,
hastened the decay of the old Roman traits of discipline, simplicity, and
respect for authority.
The next century (133-30 B.C.) saw Rome convulsed by civil strife, which
led to the establishment of a permanent dictatorship and the end of the
Republic. The Senate was noticeably inefficient in carrying on foreign
conflicts, but its most serious weakness was its inability to solve the
economic and social problems following in the wake of Rome's conquests.
Reform Movement Of The Gracchi
An awareness of Rome's profound social and economic problems led to the
reform program of an idealistic young aristocrat named Tiberius Gracchus. His
reforming zeal was the product of the newly imported liberal learning of
Greece and an awareness that the old Roman character and way of life were fast
slipping away. He sought to arrest Roman decline by restoring the backbone of
the old Roman society - the small landowner. Supported by a few liberal
Senators, Tiberius was elected tribune for the year 133 B.C. at the age of
Tiberius proposed to the Tribal Assembly that the act limiting the
holding of public land to 320 acres per person be reenacted. Much of the
public land would in the future be held by the present occupants and their
descendants as private property, but the surplus was to be confiscated and
allotted to landless Roman citizens. In his address to the assembly Tiberius
it is with lying lips that their commanders exhort the
soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchres and shrines
from the enemy;... they fight and die to support others in
wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of
the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is
their own. ^7
[Footnote 7: Plutarch Lives "Tiberius Gracchus" 9.5, trans. Bernadotte Perrin,
The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), vol. 10, pp.
When it became evident that the Tribal Assembly would adopt Tiberius'
proposal, the Senate induced one of the other tribunes to veto the measure. On
the ground that a tribune who opposed the will of the people thereby forfeited
his office, Tiberius took a fateful - and, the Senate claimed,
unconstitutional - step by having the assembly depose the tribune in question.
The agrarian bill was then passed.
To ensure the implementation of his agrarian reform, Tiberius again
violated custom by standing for reelection after completing his one-year term.
Claiming that he sought to make himself king, partisans of the Senate murdered
Tiberius and 300 of his followers. The Republic's failure at this point to
solve its problems without bloodshed stands in striking contrast to its
earlier history of peaceful reform.
Tiberius' work was taken up by his younger brother, Gaius Gracchus, who
was elected tribune for 123 B.C. In addition to the reallocation of public
land, Gaius proposed establishing Roman colonies in southern Italy and on the
site of Carthage. To protect the poor against speculation in the grain market
(especially in times of famine), Gaius committed the government to the
purchase, storage, and subsequent distribution of wheat to the urban masses at
about half the former market price. Unfortunately, what Gaius intended as a
relief measure later became a dole, whereby free food was distributed - all
too often for the advancement of astute politicians - to the entire
Another of Gaius' proposals would have granted citizenship to Rome's
Italian allies, who were now being mistreated by Roman officials. This
proposal cost Gaius the support of the Roman proletariat, which did not wish
to share the privileges of citizenship or endanger its control of the Tribal
Assembly. Consequently, in 121 B.C. Gaius failed to be reelected to a third
term and the Senate again resorted to force. It decreed what is today called
martial law by authorizing the consuls to take any action deemed necessary "to
protect the state and suppress the tyrants." Three thousand of Gaius'
followers were arrested and executed, a fate Gaius avoided by committing
The Senate had shown that it had no intention of initiating needed
domestic reforms, or of allowing others to do so, and the Gracchi's deaths
were ominous portents of the way the Republic would decide its internal
In foreign affairs, too, the Senate soon demonstrated its incapability.
Rome was forced to grant citizenship to its Italian allies after the Senate's
failure to deal with their grievances goaded them into revolt (90-88 B.C.).
Other blunders led to the first of the civil wars that destroyed the Republic.
The First Civil War: Marius Vs. Sulla
Between 111 and 105 B.C. Roman armies, dispatched by the Senate and
commanded by senators, failed to protect Roman equestrians (capitalists) in
North Africa. Nor were they able to prevent Germanic tribes from overrunning
southern Gaul, now a Roman province, and threatening Italy itself. Accusing
the Senate of lethargy and incompetence in directing Rome's foreign affairs,
the capitalists and common people joined together to elect Gaius Marius consul
in 107 B.C., and the Tribal Assembly commissioned him to raise an army and
deal with the foreign danger. Marius first pacified North Africa and then
crushed the first German threat to Rome. In the process he created a new-style
Roman army that was destined to play a major role in the turbulent history of
the late Republic.
Unlike the old Roman army, which was composed of conscripts who owned
their own land and thought of themselves as loyal citizens of the Republic,
the new army created by Marius was recruited from landless citizens for long
terms of service. These professional soldiers identified their own interests
with those of their commanders, to whom they swore loyalty and looked to for
bonuses of land or money after the Senate had irresponsibly refused their
requests. Thus the character of the army changed from a militia of draftees to
a career service in which loyalty to the state was no longer paramount.
Aspiring generals were in a position to use their military power to seize the
In 88 B.C. the ambitious king of Pontus in Asia Minor, encouraged by the
growing anti-Roman sentiment in the province of Asia and in Greece caused by
corrupt governors, tax collectors, and money lenders, declared war on Rome.
The Senate ordered Cornelius Sulla, an able general and a staunch supporter of
the Senate's prerogatives, to march east. As a countermove, the Tribal
Assembly chose Marius for the eastern command. In effect both the Senate and
the Tribal Assembly, whose power the Gracchi had revived, claimed to be the
ultimate authority in the state. The result was the first of a series of civil
wars between rival generals, each claiming to champion the cause of either the
Senate or Tribal Assembly. The first civil war ended in a complete victory for
Sulla, who in 82 B.C. was appointed by the Senate to serve for an unlimited
term as "dictator for the revision of the constitution."
Sulla set out to restore the preeminence of the Senate. He drastically
curtailed the powers of the tribunes and Tribal Assembly, giving the Senate
the control of legislation it had enjoyed 200 years before. Having massacred
several thousand of the opposition, Sulla, was convinced that his work would
be permanent, and in 79 B.C. he voluntarily resigned his dictatorship. His
reactionary changes, however, were not to last.
The Second Civil War: Pompey Vs. Caesar
The first of the civil wars and its aftermath increased factionalism and
discontent and nursed the ambitions of individuals eager for personal power.
The first to come forward was Pompey, who had won fame as a military leader.
In 70 B.C. he was elected consul. Although he was a former partisan of Sulla,
he courted the populace by repealing Sulla's laws curtailing the power of the
tribunes and Tribal Assembly. Pompey then put an end to anarchy in the East
caused by piracy (the result of the Senate's neglect of the Roman navy), the
continuing threat of the king of Pontus, and the death throes of the Seleucid
Empire. New Roman provinces and client states set up by Pompey brought order
eastward as far as the Euphrates. These included the province of Syria - the
last remnant of the once vast Seleucid Empire - and the client state of Judea,
supervised by the governor of Syria.
Still another strong man made his appearance in 59 B.C., when Julius
Caesar allied himself politically with Pompey and was elected consul.
Following his consulship, Caesar spent nine years conquering Gaul on the
pretext of protecting the Gauls from the Germans across the Rhine, where he
accumulated a fortune in plunder and trained a loyal army of veterans. During
his absence from Rome, he cannily kept his name before the citizens by
publishing a lucidly written account of his military feats, Commentaries on
the Gallic War.
Caesar's conquest of Gaul was to have tremendous consequences for the
course of Western civilization, for its inhabitants quickly assimilated Roman
culture. Consequently, when the Roman Empire collapsed in the West in the
fifth century A.D., Romanized Gaul - or France - emerged before long as the
center of medieval civilization.
Jealous of Caesar's achievements in Gaul and fearful of his growing
power, Pompey conspired with the Senate to ruin him. When the Senate demanded
in 49 B.C. that Caesar disband his army, he crossed the Rubicon, the river in
northern Italy that formed the boundary of Caesar's province. By crossing the
Rubicon - a phrase employed today for any step that commits a person to a
given course of action - Caesar in effect declared war on Pompey and the
Senate. He marched on Rome while Pompey and most of the Senate fled to Greece,
where Caesar defeated them at Pharsala. "They would have it so" was Caesar's
curt comment as he walked among the Roman dead after the battle. Pompey was
killed in Egypt when he sought refuge there, but the last Pompeian army was
not defeated until 45 B.C.
Caesar assumed the office of dictator for life, and during the six-month
period before his death he initiated far-reaching reforms. He granted
citizenship liberally to non-Italians and packed the Senate with many new
provincial members, thus making it a more truly representative body as well as
a rubber stamp for his policies. In the interest of the poorer citizens, he
reduced debts, inaugurated a public works program, established colonies
outside Italy, and decreed that one third of the laborers on the slave-worked
estates in Italy be persons of free birth. As a result, he was able to reduce
from 320,000 to 150,000 the number of people in the city of Rome receiving
free grain. (The population of Rome is estimated to have been 500,000.) His
most enduring act was the reform of the calendar in the light of Egyptian
knowledge; with minor changes, this calendar of 365 1/4 days is still in use
Caesar realized that the Republic was, in fact, dead. In his own words,
"The Republic is merely a name, without form or substance." He believed that
benevolent despotism alone could save Rome from continued civil war and
collapse. But Caesar incurred the enmity of many, particularly those who
viewed him as a tyrant who had destroyed the Republic. On the Ides (the
fifteenth) of March, 44 B.C., a group of conspirators, led by ex-Pompeians
whom Caesar had pardoned, stabbed him to death in the Senate, and Rome was
once more plunged into conflict.
Caesar's assassins had been offended by his trappings of monarchy - his
purple robe, the statues erected in his honor, the coins bearing his portrait
- and they assumed that with his death the Republic would be restored to its
traditional status. But the people of Rome remained unmoved by the
conspirators' cry of "Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!" The majority of them
were prepared to accept a successor whose power and position stopped just
short of a royal title. The real question was: Who was to be Caesar's
The Third Civil War: Antony Vs. Octavian
Following Caesar's death, his eighteen-year-old grandnephew and heir,
Octavian, allied himself with Caesar's chief lieutenant, Mark Antony, against
the conspirators and the Senate. Although he was not a conspirator, Cicero,
the renowned orator and champion of the Senate, was put to death for his
hostility to Antony, and the conspirators' armies were routed. Then for more
than a decade Octavian and Antony exercised dictatorial power and divided the
Roman world between them. But the ambitions of each man proved too great for
the alliance to endure.
Antony, who took charge of the eastern half of the empire, became
infatuated with Cleopatra, the last of the Egyptian Ptolemies. He even went so
far as to transfer Roman territories to her dominions. Octavian took advantage
of this high-handedness to arouse Rome and Italy against Antony and his queen.
The ensuing struggle was depicted as a war between the West and the East. When
Octavian's fleet met Antony's off Actium in Greece, first Cleopatra and then
Antony deserted the battle and fled to Egypt. There Antony committed suicide,
as did Cleopatra soon afterwards when Alexandria was captured in 30 B.C.