The Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic: part 3 of 4: the final hammer-blows

The Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic: part 3 of 4: the final hammer-blows

“The Republic is nothing, a mere name without body or form.” – Julius Caesar

This is part 3 of my four part look at why the Roman Republic, which was successful and stable for nearly 4 centuries, ultimately fell into tyranny. In part 1 I described the structure of the Republic and the underlying reasons for its fall. In part 2 I described the first 4 episodes of civil war that left the Republic dead on its feet in 78 BC. This part describes the final hammerblows.

5. Pompey and Caesar

The final blows were administered by the “first triumvirate” of Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar, after one last “Indian summer” for the Republic between the death of Sulla in 78 BC and 50 BC. Among other things, much of the power of the Tribunes and the plebeians was restored by 62 BC. But successful generals with privately raised armies whose loyalty was to them personally, together with the lack of a permanent defensive force near the city of Rome loyal to the Republic finally did it in.

While the Sulla and Marius civil war was playing out, Rome continued military campaigns in North Africa, Spain, Gaul, and Asia Minor. Pompey the Great emerged as an excellent military leader even though he was only in his young 20s during these campaigns. Meanwhile Crassus, who became fabulously wealthy as one who used Sulla’s proscriptions to expropriate land, had his own legions. By 70 BC, the tension between the two was so intense that either an ordinary Roman, or several soothsayers, leapt onto the stage of the Forum between them, and begged them for the good of the Republic not to make war on each other, saying that the god Jupiter had so commanded in a dream. Surprisingly, the public shaming worked.

Later, in 62 BC, after leading more successful military campaigns in the eastern Mediterranean, Pompey was feted by a succession of Greek cities as he and his legions made their way back to Italy. Fear that Pompey would march on the city, as Sulla had, gripped the Senate and city of Rome. Fatefully, in a show of good faith, Pompey disbanded his troops and sent them home as soon as they landed in southern Italy. For this good deed, the Senate in effect punished him by refusing to award his veterans any land or money bonuses; and further refused to ratify the political settlements that Pompey had made with the eastern Mediterranean states.

Julius Caesar was the nephew of Marius’s wife, and he was married to the daughter of Cinna. Needless to say, he was identified with the populare cause. As a quaestor in 69 BC, he began the rehabilitation of Marius’s memory as part of the funerals of both his aunt and his first wife, who both died during that year.  As aedile in 65 BC, he erected statues in tribute to Marius’s military victories.

Julius Caesar was an adept general, but he was a remarkably deft politician. The best modern model for his character would probably be that of corporate CEO’s who are described as “high-functioning sociopaths.” He had the ability to maneuver between opposing forces, and anticipate his opponents’ moves in such a way that they made themselves unpopular while making him more popular. Further, he almost always used the carrot instead of this stick. Where other generals or politicians might have executed a wrongdoer, he offered magnanimous public forgiveness, which had the effect of making the opponent indebted to him for their very lives.

For example, when Cicero demanded executions without trial of some of the Catilinian conspirators, Caesar opposed the move, which violated Roman norms, based on the precedent it would set – and indeed the move proved very unpopular while Caesar gained support.  Meanwhile he used his own private wealth to wine and dine clients and potential supporters. In 61 BC, as praetor assigned to Spain, he provoked a rebellion so that he could crush it and use the ensuing Triumph in Rome to launch a campaign for consulship. When Cato blocked this, Caesar proposed that Pompey, Crassus, and himself aid one another’s careers against those blocking them individually.

Note that this was simply a political alliance. But it also ensured that no one of the three alone could overcome the other two combined. This ensured that Caesar became consul in 59 BC. During his year in office, he had a land law passed to reward Pompey’s veterans with land purchased with the treasure obtained from his conquests. He also had a law passed to help tax collectors who were allies of Crassus, who, because the eastern provinces were close to destitute after Pompey’s wars, did not have enough wealth to pay in taxes, a share of which was kept by the collectors. He also passed a law to ratify Pompey’s land and tribute settlements in the east, bringing further tribute into Rome’s treasury. When some of their opponents threatened violence, Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus made counter-threats, causing the opponents to go into hiding. Pompey and Crassus, in turn, made sure Caesar was rewarded with a generalship in Gaul that was likely to and did prove both glorious and lucrative.

The coalition worked well, until 53 BC when Crassus, who was not a shrewd military leader, was lured into an ambush and executed while on a campaign in Asia. In 62 BC, once more serving as consul, Pompey had a law passed making it easier to prosecute “brownshirt” type of political mobs, and he also supported a law, ultimately passed by the Senate, to end Caesar’s command in Gaul in 50 BC.

The Senate tried to head off yet another civil war, by asking both Pompey and Caesar to disband their legions simultaneously. Pompey refused, and after finishing his business in Gaul, Caesar, who was again the paymaster of his own legionnaires, famously crossed the Rubicon. This should have meant his command ceased, but his legionnaires agreed to remain loyal to him.

Once again Rome was marched upon and occupied. Pompey fled, and died in the ensuing civil war. With no military force left to oppose him, Julius Caesar had himself declared “dictator for life” — a capital offense under the law of the Republic, but the only way to ensure that he remained in power and thus could not be executed by political opponents had he allowed Republican government to return. He had himself appointed consul for every year, and in 45 BC took away from the Senate and gave to himself complete control of the empire’s finances.

And as we know from our high school drama classes, on the Ides of March in 44 BC, he was assassinated in the Senate. After his assassination, his grand-nephew Octavian won the ensuing second civil war and had the Senate declare him both consul and Tribune for life, and “First Citizen.” The Republic was officially gone and the Empire had begun.

(concluded in part 4)