The rise and fall of the Roman Republic: part 1 of 4: Structure and Background

The rise and fall of the Roman Republic: part 1 of 4: Structure and Background

“Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny,” by Edward J. Watts
“The Storm Before the Storm,: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic” by Mike Duncan
“Ten Emperors: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine,” by Barry Strauss

I’ve recently mentioned that lately I’ve been unable to read most American history books, with their currently unwarranted chipper optimism. Instead my recent reading has focused on other periods of crisis.

One question I’ve been considering is, just how rare, and how stable have Republics historically been? There are few antecedents for the experience of the US, because it has aspires to both be a Republic under the rule of law and simultaneously a superpower.  In fact I believe there are only four, in reverse historical order:

  1. The British Empire (yes, I know, it’s technically a monarchy, but it has been a parliamentary democracy really ever since the Glorious Revolution 400 years ago).
  2. The Dutch Republic (I’m not sure if this really qualifies, since it was more a confederation of principalities, but it was styled a Republic, and it did have global interests.)
  3. The Republic of Venice (this is a dark horse contender, but this Republic lasted almost 1200 years, from roughly 600 A.D. until it was conquered by that other “republican,” Napoleon, in 1797).
  4. The Roman Republic.

In these four posts, I’m going to summarize what I’ve learned about the Roman Republic from the three books that lead this post.

While we’re all familiar with Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and probably all had to read Shakespeare’s Tragedy of that name (but really about Brutus and Cassius) in high school, I don’t think much attention has been paid in modern education to the Roman Republic, which lasted 450 years – almost as long as the subsequent western Roman  Empire – and was avowedly the model that inspired the Framers of the American Constitution. None of the books that have come out in the past few years, to my knowledge, have discussed either the Roman Republic or other historical antecedents to the US. I believe studying the rise and demise of the Roman Republic, which during its existence was extremely – probably too – successful, is well worth the effort.

Without intending so, I read the above  three books in reverse chronological order above. “Ten Emperors” was first, followed by “The Storm Before the Storm.” Unfortunately this latter book (in my opinion) wound up being a chronological blow-by-blow vomiting of not well organized facts. It desperately needed a list of “dramatic personae” with at least a couple of lines describing the most prominent 20 or 30 individual’s role, so that when they re-appeared after a 30 or 80 page hiatus, I could recollect who they were. It also needed an initial chapter setting forth the basic governing details of the Republic, and most importantly the roles of the Senate and the Assemblies. In the end it left me so unsatisfied I went back and found “Mortal Republic,” which was a much more orderly and understandable if less detailed treatment.

If you are interested in the material, I recommend you read “Mortal Republic” in segments, and then read so much of “The Storm Before the Storm” to fill in the details until you reach the same chronological point. Once you do that, when you start the final book, you will see that the process of Imperial succession in the Empire was very much like the power struggles in the last 60 years of the Republic, and in particular sets forth Augustus’s programme and genius in more detail.

To cut to the chase, the Roman Republic, which was previously quite stable (as Republics, once they last a generation or more, tend to be), was toppled by a series of hammer-blows that fell over roughly a 100 year period. The shortest version is that the type of factional political violence that brought down the Weimar Republic in 10 years took 100 years to infect and ultimately destroy the Roman one.

There were three levels of causes for this fall, in order of importance:

  1. The de facto requirement that all senior magistrates and in particular the consuls (analogous to Presidents) be military commanders, who frequently raised, and increasingly paid for, their own armies.
  2. The increasing breaches of “mas maiorem,” or the customs and norms by which the Republic had operated, on all sides.
  3. The split between the oligarchical “optimates” who dominated the Senate on the one side vs. the “populares” or ordinary Roman plebeians who dominated the Assemblies, and also the Italian allies who were not Roman citizens, on the other.

More basically put, #3 was the substantive source of disagreement over which all parties were willing to go to extremes; #2 was the procedural unraveling of the manner of government; and #1 over time ensured the rise of what we would now call “caudillos,” or political generals, who had the force to overthrow it.

Both histories I have read suggest that the “turning point” where the stresses started to undermine the Republic was after its greatest triumph: the defeat and obliteration of Carthage after the third Punic War.

The structure of the Roman Republic 

From its founding as a trading point on the Tiber River until roughly 600 B.C., Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings, who were then overthrown and the Republic was founded. On a broader historical scale, it seems that Republics are actually pretty sturdy forms of government once their institutions take root after a generation or two. That’s good news at the present, where at very least, for example, Russians and Iranians are getting used to the concepts of having elections and courts.

The Roman Republic was a system by which “Assemblies” of the tribes of Romans directly elected the executive officers of the Republic for one year terms. Meanwhile the Senate, essentially a council of notables, gave direction to those executive officers in the carrying out of their duties. The lowest level official was a “quaestor,” basically an aide de camp and accountant for a legion; followed by aedile, in charge of religious observances and festivals. The next rung higher was “praetor,” similar to a colonel or brigadier general in an army, who also acted as a “president pro tempore” when the highest officials were absent. Finally, the highest office was “consul,” of which two were chosen every year, as co-chief executives, lead prosecutors, and commanders-in-chief of the legions. Upon completion of their terms, consuls joined the Senate.

Another important office was that of the 10 Tribunes. These were explicitly open only to plebeians, and were designed to protect their interests. Each of the 10 Tribunes could propose legislation before the Assemblies, and veto legislation proposed by others. Further, none of the other Tribunes could override the veto of any single one. As we’l see, this chokepoint proved a weakness in the structure of the Republic. Additionally, there were also “military tribunes” in the legions, who represented the interests of the soldiers.

Finally, in case of emergency the Republic allowed for the office of “dictator.” Most importantly, for the first 400 years of its use, this office had a strict 6 month time limit, which was faithfully respected. At the conclusion of the 6 months, the dictator was required to hand back power to the normal offices, and the status quo ante structure of government was to resume. The most famous of these was Cincannatus, who  returned to his farm after his six month office expired.

So powerful was the civic pride in the Republic that, when the Macedonian Pyrrhus (of “Pyrrhic victory” fame) tried to bribe a relatively poor Roman general, Fabricius, Fabricius refused by rejoining that the Roman Republic provided those who went into public service with higher honors than mere wealth could supply. In any event, by 300 B.C. Rome had brought all of Italy except for the far north under its domination. The other Italian city-states were called “allies,” but really they were tributaries, their form of tribute being the provision of soldiers to fight in Rome’s legions. Upon reaching adulthood, Roman males owed 10 years service in the legions. Importantly, the pattern was the planting of crops in the early spring, then going off to fight in the legions’ campaigns during the summers, and returning to harvest the crops in late autumn.

In any event, the accounts agree that matters began to change after 146 BC, when Rome simultaneously was victorious over Carthage and also Corinth in Greece.  Both treatments of the Republic pick up at that  historical turning point. Little known fact: Carthage was also a democracy, in fact the Romans considered it “too” democratic. Someone go tell Tom Friedman that two countries having democratic institutions does not mean that they all go happily ever after to McDonald’s.

But it was with the conquest of Carthage, that by happenstance coincided with the sacking of Corinth in Greece, also by Rome, that the scrappy little Roman Republic, which was founded roughly in 500 B.C., and had grown to the dominant power in Italy such that the other city states on the peninsula were its inferior “allies,” simultaneously turned into an empire, dominating the Mediterranean from Spain to Greece on the European side and present day Algeria and Tunisia on the African side.

The inhabitants of those unfortunate cities who weren’t slaughtered were sold into slavery, and the treasuries of each were sacked, the riches transported to Rome. Rome also thereby came into possession of extensive silver mines located in Carthage’s lands of  present-day Spain. In short, overnight Rome became filthy rich as well as controlling an  empire in the central and western Mediterranean.

But this very wealth permanently upset the balance between the landowning oligarchs in the Senate vs. the ordinary urban plebeians and rural farmers. For it was the Senate that had the power of the purse, and thus the power to distribute the land, gold, silver, jewels, slaves, and other loot plundered from the vanquished states, as well as the new precious ores mined in Spain. And, unsurprisingly, they allocated it to themselves. Even worse, because the wars in North Africa, Greece, and Spain lasted years, the legionnaire farmers spent multiple years away from their fields. When they returned home, they were victors, but their farms had fallen into ruinous disrepair. For all intents and purposes, they had to sell — and the buyers who had money were frequently none other than the wealthy Senators.

A second form of gross inequality was between Roman citizens and their Italian allies. Because while the allies were vital to Rome’s military success, the allies could be treated as slaves if the Romans wished to do so.

A final form of inequality affected the affluent or wealthy merchant class, called variously Knights or Equestrians, because they could afford to own horses, and thus serve as cavalrymen during military campaigns, depending on the account. But because they were not “old money,” their path to the top rungs of power was blocked by the oligarchs who controlled the Senate.

The huge inequalities just described gave rise to seething resentment by both the urban and rural plebeians as well as the Italian allies and the Equestrian class as well. The essential story of the Roman Republic between 146 BC and its fall a century later was the refusal of the oligarchs who usually controlled the Senate to make any significant compromises to this state of affairs, and the increasing violence used both by the opposing classes to wrench change, and the oligarchs to resist it.

(Continued in part 2)