The Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic: part 2 of 4: the first hammer-blows

The Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic: part 2 of 4: the first hammer-blows

This is part 2 of my four part look at the Roman Republic and subsequent Empire. In part 1, I described the structure of the Republic, and its several centuries of stability and success, as well as the underlying causes of its ultimate downfall.

The hammer-blows that rained down on the Republic from the existential dispute between Senatorial oligarchs on the one hand, and Roman plebeians and Italian allies on the other, came in five episodes:

1. The Gracchus brothers – in the 130s and 120s
2. Saturninus – approximately 100 BC
3. Marius and the Italian civil wars 90 BC
4. Marius, Cinna, and Sulla 90-80 BC
5. Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar 50-40 BCIn this part I make a *brief* summary sketch of the first four of the above five episodes. The fifth will be described in the next part.

As each of the above five episodes occurred, there were further and further deviations from the “mas maiorem,” or customs, that underlay the Republic, and increasing problems with legions or private “brownshits” giving their allegiance to their military leader rather than to the Republic itself.

1. The Gracchus Brothers

Tiberius Gracchus was the more temperamental and passionate of the two brothers. Following the passage of the secret ballot in 139 B.C. the Assembly elected him a Tribune in 134. Violating custom, he did not consult with the Senate before bringing an Italian land reform bill to redistribute vacant land (much of which was illegally being farmed by oligarchs including those in the Senate), before the Assembly. A fellow Tribune, who had been bought off by Senate oligarchs, vetoed the bill. Tiberius than vetoed all other bills to try to force his fellow Tribune to relent. When that wasn’t enough, he introduced a bill to strip the obstructing Tribune from office – another violation of norms. Both bills passed when Tiberius packed the Assembly with his supporters.

The Senate, with the power of the purse, voted not to fund the Commission necessary to carry out Tiberius’s land reform. Then, in a twist of fate, a king in Asia Minor passed away without heir and willed his treasury to Rome. Tiberius proposed another bill that the Assembly could disperse the moneys in the will, thus funding his Commission.

At this the lead Senator, the “Pontifex Maximus,” Publius Nasica, led an armed mob of Senators to the Assembly and murdered Tiberius and 300 of his supporters. The Senate followed up by establishing a commission to put Tiberius’s supporters to death, despite the fact that only the Assembly was allowed to impose the death penalty for offenses.

Tiberius’s younger brother, Gaius, was more cerebral, thoughtful, and strategic. He was elected Tribune in 123 BC. He proposed an entire program of reforms, including offering Roman citizenship to the Italian allies, forbidding the Senate from establishing tribunals unless allowed by the Assembly, giving the land redistribution commission final say in boundary disputes, proposing new Italian roads and colonies for settlement, ending the deductions for expenses from soldiers’ pay, a grain dole for Rome’s urban plebeians, and replacing Senators with Equines from the merchant class on juries.

Once again the oligarchs employed another Tribune, Optimus, to veto the entire program. when Gaius ran for an unprecedented third term as Tribune – another violation of the mas maiorem – he was deemed defeated. Unwilling to accept defeat, he organized a demonstration by his followers to intimidate the Assembly. When a follower murdered a Senator’s servant, the Senate gave Optimus dictatorial power to crush the uprising, resulting in 250 killed including Gaius Gracchus.

Two things are important about Gaius Gracchus: (1) the Senate oligarchs refusal to compromise with his program served to exacerbate the inequalities and radicalize future reformers; and (2) gave those future reformers a blueprint for how to put together a coalition of anti-oligarch “populares.”

Interlude — 1.5 Gaius Marius and his armies

Gaius Marius was a pivotal figure in the demise of the Republic. He was a “novus homo,” or “new man,” who came from the rural areas outside Rome, I.e., not a blueblood – think of Bill Clinton as a modern analog. Despite this, he was a military genius, who won almost all his battles, and defeated foreign enemies in Gaul and North Africa. In short, he was the kind of leader the Republic would turn to in a military crisis.  In the course of events described below, he broke yet another tradition by becoming consul for five successive years in the 100s.

Most significantly, in 107 B.C., the Senate made a fateful mistake. As noted previously, Roman legions typically were raised from farmers who had at least some property. The demise of so many small farmers since the overseas Greek and Punic wars meant that this particular resource was nearly exhausted.

There was a revolt in North Africa, the details of which are not important. What *is* important is that the Senate gave Marius permission to raise an army on his own. He recruited especially from the urban and rural poor and landless, who saw the chance to enrich themselves with substantial plunder, and by allying themselves with Marius to have him reward them with land after the war was over. In other words, this was basically a private army whose primary allegiance was to their commander and not to the Republic.

And indeed, after Marius’s successful North African campaigns, as we will see below, his veterans formed a potent political bloc, the appeasement of whom could reap rewards for an able politician.

2. Saturninus and Glaucia

The Roman Republic might well have recovered from the violence associated with the Gracchi brothers. But the reign of terror by the demagogue Saturninus 20 years later started the true downward spiral of violence.

Saturninus was similar to Tiberius Gracchus, in that he was a “populare” demagogue, but he was much more prone to threatening and using physical violence, organizing mobs to intimidate adversaries and advance his causes. As a Tribune in 103 BC, he arranged for criminal trials of deposed “optimates,” had the Assembly pass a law estalishing a permanent corruption and treason court, and along with Glaucia, proposed land grants for thousands of successful legionnaires of Gaius Marius (more on him later), organized a mob to prevent the election of an adversary as consul.

His ally, Gaius Glaucia, a populare Senator, was elected a praetor in 100 BC. He tried to revive the coalition of Gaius Gracchus by offering a similar program benefiting the urban plebaiens, rural farmers and Equestrians, Italians, and legionnaire veterans. Unfortunately for Saturninus and Glaucia, once Marius’s soldiers got their land grants, neither they, nor more importantly, Marius himself, had no further interest in helping with the rest of the populare agenda.

Saturninus ultimately organized another mob to try to keep himself from being expelled from the Senate. The Senate responded in 99 BC by appointing Gaius Marius dictator and authorized him to restore order. Marius arrested Saturninus, who was ultimately beaten to death himself by a mob. Glaucia was also dragged from atop his horse and murdered.

3. Marius and the Italian ‘Social War’

In 91 BC, consul Marcus Livius Drusus, a Senator, again proposed reforms similar to those of Gaius Gracchus. This appears to have been an honest attempt at compromise. Equestrians were offered membership in the Senate if they gave up commerce. He also proposed a new grain dole for the urban plebeians, and citizenship to the Italian allies. He was opposed by Lucius Crassus, who had been consul in 95 BC. Although Drusus appeared to have majority support in the Senate, he was murdered.  Afterward Crassus had all of Drusus’s proposals repealed. This sparked a revolt by the Italian city-state allies, as their attempts to obtain citizenship were always abrogated at the last minute by conservative “optimates” in the Senate, usually by expelling them from Rome on the eve of elections by the Assembly. (In other words, preventing “illegal aliens” from voting!).

Once again, the Senate turned to Gaius Marius, who was broadly a “populare,” to put down the rebellion. As noted above, he was called upon by the Senate to crush Saturninus and Graucia. In 98 BC he “retired,” but could not restrain himself from continuing to seek the spotlight.

To cut to the chase, Marius (who supported Italian citizenship) came through again, defeating the Italians in the Social War three years later, in 88 BC, but the Senate had been sufficiently unnerved that the cost, to bring some of the Italian city-states back onside, was granting the Italians their long-sought citizenship.

4. Cinna, Marius, and Sulla

The violent convulsions which started in about 100 BC reached a climax in the 80s.

Sulla was an “optimate,” and another brilliant military commander who had learned at the feet of Marius. He was consul in 88 BC and was selected to lead a military expedition to Asia Minor. Once again, his troops counted on plunder and a post-war reward of land to follow him. Instead Marius, who had just won the Social Wars, had the Senate strip him of his command. In this Marius was aided by a wealthy politician named Sulpicius, who raised his own private army of 3,000 and handed it over to Marius. Fatefully, when Sulla and his legions learned of this, he called them together and asked them to declare their loyalty to his orders personally. Once again, with visions of plunder and land distributions from a successful campaign as inducements, they agreed. Sulla turned his army around, and for the first time in the Republic’s history, marched on Rome itself.

In response, Marius armed slaves to protect the city, and assassinated allies of Sulla.
Despite this, because Sulla had his legions behind him, and Marius had none nearby to command, Sulla won. He declared 12 men to be “enemies of the State” to be executed on sight, including Marius, who fled in true Huckleberry Finn style (too long to narrate), winding up in North Africa. Sulla declared that he sought to restore the “constitution of the elders,” including that the Senate must approve of any bill passed by the Assembly, and voting rights only for major landowners. To buy off the Equestrians, he added 300 of them to the Senate. Then, surprisingly, he left Rome and returned to his eastern military expedition.

As soon as this happened, yet another demagogue, Lucius Cinna, was elected consul in 87 BC and continued through 84 BC. By now, the tradition by which consuls only served for only one year was shredded.

Sulla had the newly elected consuls, including Cinna, swear an oath not to disturb his reforms. But as soon as Sulla left Italy, Cinna reneged. He organized his own partisan gangs, indicted Sulla for the murder of Romans, and proposed a voting gerrymander in the Assemblies that would give the new Italian citizens overwhelming power.

Needless to say, the urban plebeians who would suddenly find themselves outvoted reacted with fury and revolted. Cinna was stripped of his consulship (another violation of old norms) and fled the city. But he then raised his own legions of Italians and launched his own military attack on Rome, aided by Marius, who had returned to Italy with  6,000 troops of his own. Cinna was restored by the Senate as consul and had Sulla declared an enemy of the State. He also proscribed at least 14 prominent Romans, including the murder of 6 former consuls in five days.

Unfortunately for Cinna, the military genius Marius finally succumbed to age, and as he prepared an attack on Sulla in the east, he was murdered by a centurion as a tyrant.

The enraged Sulla marched his personally loyal legions on Rome yet again as soon as he finished his campaign in Asia. This time he proscribed hundreds of Romans, including a young Julius Caesar, who escaped execution due to the intervention of family friends. Many of those executed were simply large landowners whose assets were coveted by Sulla’s military allies. Sulla again “refounded” the Republic, most importantly stripping the Tribunes of virtually all their power, and forbidding them from holding higher office. It seemed that the “optimates” had finally triumphed. Sulla officially stepped down as consul in 79 BC, but continued to wield power behind the scenes until he died the next year of natural causes.

By 78 BC the Republic was dead on its feet. Virtually all of its norms of office-holding had been swept away. Political mobs using violence to get their way had become chronic. Even worse from a long-term point of view, prominent politicians of wealth were raising private armies that they themselves paid, and whose loyalty was to them rather than to the Republic, culminating in 3 separate military marches on Rome in short-lived dictatorships.

For the next 30 years, however, the Republic had a brief “Indian summer.” Plebeian agitation led to the reinstatement of most of the Tribunes’ powers, the continuation of the bread dole, and the integration of the new Italian citizens into public life. But the problem of politicians having the ability to raise powerful private legions remained, and Rome remained militarily defenseless against them, with no home guard with loyalty to the Republic itself.

(Continued in part 3)