The Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic: part 4 of 4: the Empire as hegemonic “Banana Republic” ruled by caudillos

The Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic: part 4 of 4: the Empire as hegemonic “Banana Republic” ruled by caudillos

As we have seen, the Roman Republic was brought down by an escalating series of acts of political violence, from murders to organized political mobs, to private legions, to four military marches over a period of 40 years on a Rome which had no permanent  defense force whose loyalty was to the Republic. The violence and military takeovers occurred in part because senior magistrates were also expected to be generals in command of legions.

The underlying causes were the festering inequality between Romans and their Italian allies, and between the landed oligarchs and the urban and rural plebeians. Over the long term, rather than compromise their power, the oligarchs in the Senate in particular were willing to play “constitutional hardball” and do away with the limitations on power set by the Republic. In this way the downfall of the Roman Republic is very similar to the process described in Levitsky and Ziblatt’s “How Democracies Die.”

This brings us to Barry Strauss’s “Ten Caesars.” It is not so much a history of the Roman Empire, but rather brief biographies of ten Emperors from Augustus to Constantine, with Augustus, as the founder, being the longest. What I ultimately learned was that the Empire was an ancient, hegemonic version of what we would call today a “banana republic,” where there is rule by caudillo. Forms of succession varied: sometimes a dynastic succession worked, sometimes there was a succession chosen by the Senate, sometimes the most powerful general of the legions simply took over, and sometimes there was a palace coup by the Praetorian Guard acquiesced to by the armies and ratified by the Senate.

The book’s largest section is devoted to the first Emperor, Octavian, Julius Caesar’s nephew, who took for himself the name Augustus Caesar and ruled for 41 years, bequeathing stability to Rome after the convulsions of the late Republic, and deserving despite his tyranny to be recognized as a historical great man.

Leaving the details to the book, let me state that Octavian was both a shrewd general and a masterful politician, sort of like a Michael Corleone among Michael Corleones. He was only a teenager when his uncle Julius was assassinated, and made a cunning asset of his youth, as his adversaries underestimated his abilities. As the named heir in Julius’s will, he swiftly obtained the loyalty of Jullius’s legions. He engaged in the last civil wars of the era, first in league with Marc Antony against Brutus and Cassius, and then defeating Antony and Cleopatra to gain dictatorial power.

Like Michael Corleone, he settled all the accounts of the Caesar family quickly, engaging in a purge that did away with all his enemies.  But thereafter, his governing hand was stable but more relaxed, encouraging acceptance. The subsidized bread dole for the plebeians continued — in fact it continued through the course of the Western empire. To solve the problem of potential rivals marching on a defenseless city of Rome, Augstus established the Praetorian Guard of roughly 30,000 troops stationed just outside the city gates, whose loyalty was directly to the emperor. Finally, he established a system of professional administration of the far-flung provinces of the Empire, frequently making use of local magistrates, but in any event whose loyalties were directly to him rather than patronage doled out by the Senate as had been the case during the late Republic.

And many of the forms of the Republic continued, most notably, the Senate and the offices of consul and tribune, although they were appointed by the Emperor and were empty shells of authority. As you might imagine, what did totally disappear were the democratic “assemblies.” Also, determined not to repeat his uncle’s fatal mistake, Augustus never had himself decreed “dictator for life,” but rather took the more modest euphemism of “First Citizen,” a title that also survived for centuries.The form of succession also had similarities to the militarism of the late Republic, and is best likened to rule by a succession of caudillos in Latin American “banana republics.” Almost all emperors wanted to continue dynasties, but many never had children who survived into adulthood. So it was not uncommon for the emperor to adopt a nephew or even a loyal and successful general as their “son,” thus preparing for an orderly succession. For example, Augustus adopted his step-grandchild Tiberius as his son, and upon his deathbed went so far as to cold-bloodedly have his actual grandson, Agrippa Postumus, executed in order to remove a potential rival.

Similarly, the emperor Nerva adopted Trajan, who in turn adopted Hadrian (said Trajan’s wife Florian, and Hadrian himself at least), who in turn adopted Marcus Aurelius. Usually, these adoptions were of more distant relatives by blood or marriage, and in each case the existing emperor tried to select the most worthy successor among their relatives (but not in the case of Nerva’s adoption of Trajan. Nerva had been appointed by the Senate, and the army was not happy. The Praetorian Guard executed the assassins of Nerva’s predecessor, Domitian. Nerva avoided abdication – or worse – by adopting Trajan, who commanded several legions, and explicitly appointing him his successor). This system meant that no civil war for succession occurred until the death of Nero in 88 AD, and not again for 100 years until the 190s AD.

But sometimes there was civil war, and even in the case where a succession may have been anticipated, the “adopted” son would have been a successful general, who had the loyalty of his legions, and usually the loyalty of several other generals and their legions as well. In that case a march on Rome was always an option. Usually the loyalty of the troops was cemented by bonuses paid upon the general being acclaimed as emperor. For example, Hadrian paid a double bonus to Trajan’s legions upon his accession, as to which he did not wait for Senatorial benediction. In a few cases, as with the assassination of Caligula, the praetorian guard decided who they wanted the next emperor to be and had the Senate coerced into acclaiming him emperor, as with Claudius (alas, for those of us who remember the famous TV series, not one of the twelve emperors profiled, although Strauss does not indicate that Claudius was in any manner a closet Republican).

Strauss’s account of the twelve Emperors lends some support to the thesis of Paul Kennedy‘s book “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers,” which is that, since at least 1500, economic power (and decline) has preceded military power (and decline).  During the Republic and the early Empire, conquest brought land, slaves, and the vanquished state’s treasury (in the form of gold, silver, and precious jewels) which would be redistributed to the victors.

But the Roman Empire reached its military zenith under Trajan. His successor, Hadrian, explicitly established boundaries beyond which the Empire had no intention of further conquest. (As an aside, both Emperors were of Spanish, not Italian, descent. Subsequently other Emperors were frequently also not ethnic Italians).

Two economic factors gradually bled of the Empire’s wealth. First, it ran a chronic trade deficit with the East. Importation of silk from China and spices from the equatorial East cost money, and Rome imported so much of it that silk ultimately stopped being a luxury item. Second, because no new land was being conquered, the continual requirement of buying off the loyalty of the legions with each new imperial succession meant that more and more silver and gold had to be paid, which in turn meant either more taxes to raise the money necessary for bribing the military, or for debasement of the coinage so that more of it existed.

At any one time, the debasement of the coinage was not significant. But over time, the chronic debasement meant an economic decline of the Empire. At least partly as a result, the Empire had less means to resist the repeated pressure on its borders from Germanic tribes.

While Strauss stops his narrative with Constantine and the establishment of Constantinople as the new capital of the Eastern Empire, he notes in his brief epilogue that the Western part of the Empire continued to suffer a decline in the resources available to it in order to maintain its power. Finally, in 475 AD, the last, teenage Emperor Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate, and the Senate, which survived as an advisory body for the Germanic kings until 600 AD, sent the symbols of imperial power – the mace, diadem, and royal cloak – to Constantinople.

Thus endeth my book reports. I wrote this as a way of recalling the essence of what I learned about the causes of the fall of the Roman Republic in particular. I hope you’ve enjoyed them as well!

Now back to my current reading about the 1200 year history of the Republic of Venice….