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Fall of the Roman Republic: Road to Dictatorship

The Punic Wars changed Italy. Small farmers running from war crowded into cities. Rome became the most populous of cities, with many poor people dependent on food handouts. The countryside was changing to plantations, with slaves housed in barracks or underground dungeons, and chained at night. Small farmers couldn't compete, sold out for little and moved to the city. Runaway slaves roamed the countryside, surviving by banditry and making travel dangerous.

There was a new wealth among the Italians. Historian Nicholas K. Rauh (Purdue University) writes:

Roman overseas conquest resulted in too much wealth coming into Italy too quickly to enable equitable distribution throughout society. In general, wealthier elements benefited while lower elements failed to keep pace. In addition, rising expectations of profits from war led to abuses and illegal behavior by governors and generals in the field.

To appear affluent, a Roman family had to have at least ten slaves. Such families had slaves for just about every task.

War had enhanced the importance of the Senate as decision-maker, at the expense of the People's (Plebeian) assemblies. Professor Rauh:

The process of enrichment and heightened political importance rendered the Roman senatorial order chauvinistically arrogant and unaccountable for their actions.

Senators and others engaged in conspicuous consumption. They moved into palatial townhouses and with other wealthy Romans had begun importing more luxury goods from the East. They were also investing abroad, buying mines in Spain, tracts of land in Sicily and elsewhere and turning these lands into slave plantations. And some became money lenders.

In the People's Assembly, a military veteran who had been elected tribune, Tiberius Gracchus, from a famous aristocratic family, pushed to have some land restored to the poor. A ferocious political fight followed, and in the heat of an election campaign in the year 133 BCE a conspiracy by senators had Tiberius clubbed to death. A court tried some of his supporters and posthumously charged Tiberius with having planned to become king – a most serious offense in republican Rome – and the court had Tiberius's supporters executed.

Many of Rome's gullible commoners believed that the court consisted of honorable men and that the court had done right. But some did not. Tiberius's younger brother, Gaius, in the years 123 and 122 carried on the struggle for reforms. He also attempted to grant Roman citizenship to Italians who had fought in wars alongside the Romans while suffering second class status. (A Roman soldier could not be summarily executed by an officer, but an Italian soldier could.) The effort failed, and Gaius lost his next election for Tribune. The winners were those Roman businessmen who feared lost advantage and more competition from the Italians. Also, Roman citizens had been warned that the spread of citizenship would jeopardize their good seats at shows and festivals. In the year 121, Gaius's conservative opposition attacked and killed Gaius and his followers, while unrest outside Rome continued.

In the year 95 the Senate sought to punish non-Roman supporters of reform by having them deported from Rome. Italians were fed-up with Rome's autocratic rule and the imperious attitudes of visiting Roman officials. Rebellion erupted in the year 91, to be known as the Social War, or the Italian War. The following year, Rome gained the upper hand. In the year 89,a Roman army attacked the rebellious city of Asculum, and only a handful of that city's 60,000 people is said to have survived. Anxious to end the war, Rome offered citizenship to those cities that would agree to stop fighting. Many cities accepted, and the war ended in 88 BCE.

One of Rome's generals fighting the Italian rebellion was Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a man of conservative temperament. An aristocrat with inherited wealth, he dismissed grievances and political turmoil of recent times as the anarchistic inclinations of common people. Sulla's army has been described as more loyal to him than to the Roman state. He was opposed to another general who had his own loyal troops. This was the old military hero Gaius Marius, who allied himself with the reformers.

Sulla and his army left their successes in Greece,and in the year 83 marched on Rome. Marius fled and Sulla took power. Sulla drew up an enemies list of men that included 40 insufficiently loyal senators and a list of 1600 men of wealth. He gave rewards to informers. Men were dragged from their homes and from temples. Some were killed outright. Some were dragged through the streets as frightened spectators dared not protest. Sulla had the property of the executed distributed to his soldiers, which inspired some to accuse and attack anyone with property. Sulla set free the nearly forty thousand slaves of the executed, giving them his name and winning a new source of support and new recruits for repressing and terrorizing his opponents. Then, with dictatorial powers, he sought to undo the political failings of the previous fifty years. He had the constitution rewritten in an effort to make the republic great again. Believing in firm government by leaders of the upper classes, he reduced the powers that had been given the tribunes elected by the people reduced the powers of the People's Assembly (Comitia Plebis). Democracy was being diminished. (Meanwhile he was giving Senate seats to members of the business class, the "equites", believing that they too should be a part of the ruling elite.

In the year 79 BCE he retired. Then a year later he died – age sixty. Roman politics and society remained corrupt. And in the coming decades other generals had Sulla's march on Rome as a example of a successful political tool of last resort. Beginning in the summer of 54, political corruption and violence swept the city of Rome. A general in Gaul, Julius Caesar, was a hero to Rome's poor. On 1 January, 49 BCE, an agent of Caesar presented an ultimatum to the senate. The senate demanded a that Caesar disband his army and resign. Caesar chose to attack. With his army he crossed the Rubicon River that year, and Italians and some others rushed to join his force. Faced with a popular rising and the might of Caesar's army, most of the Senate fled. For two years, Caesar chased down and defeated the military forces of his conservative opponents, with a delirious citizenry celebrating his return.

Caesar launched plans for reform and construction, He wanted to diminish political rancor. On the morning of March 15, 44 BCE, five years after having crossed the Rubicon, Caesar went to a meeting at the Forum to ratify his using the title of king when outside Italy – a title for dealing with foreign peoples who understood authority mainly by that name. He was assassinated, stabbed 23 times, by adherents of the Stoic philosophy, moralistic people deluded by the belief that they were saving the republic. Soon it would be themselves needing to be saved. But most of them met their own death (including the famous Stoic philosophy Cicero.

In the year 31 BCE, war began between two rivals for power: Caesar's nephew, Octavian, then 32, against Marc Antony, who was allied with Egypt's queen, Cleopatra. To many Romans, Antony appeared to be in the employ of a foreign queen. Rumor spread that Antony wanted to make Cleopatra queen of Rome and to transfer Rome's government to Egypt. Romans disliked what they heard of Antony's fondness for luxuries. Octavian, as consul, obtained a declaration of war against Cleopatra – but not against Antony. It was to be a war against a foreigner, putting Antony in a position of treason.

Octavian won the war with the help of able commanders. Egypt and Illyricum (in the Balkans) were added to the Rome's empire. Celebrations lasted for days, with animals sacrificed to the gods.

The Senate, packed with his supporters, gave Octavian the permanent title "Commander Imperitor" – from which the English word emperor is derived. Octavian still held the title of Princeps, which could be translated as Leader, or in German as Führer. In keeping with his new prestige the Senate gave him a title associated with having been divinely chosen: Augustus Caesar. And the Senate made it law that he be included in the prayers of Rome's priests.

With the Senate there was an appearance of Rome as still a republic, but the senate was hardly the independent power it had been. Octavian had packed the Senate for the sake of unity and relief from factionalism and civil strife. Octavian wanted his Rome to continue to appear to be the republic that he thought had made Rome great. He believed that democracy contributed to instability, but he did not want to appear to be the autocrat that his uncle Julius Caesar had appeared to be. He was pretending that the Republic lived on, and Romans wanted to believe their hero-leader. But in reality the Republic had ended. Augustus Caesar had complete authority over the Roman state's military. Without democracy or a aristocratic senate with power, Augustus Caesar was ruling as a military dictator.


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Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.