Sunday, April 4, 2010


The fall of the Roman Empire is the most famous issue in European history (students have been writing essays on that topic for the last thousand years), but the forces that tore the Roman Republic apart are in some ways more relevant and more Intriguing. The relevance lies in the fact that the disintegration of the Roman Republic is the first example in European history of the collapse of a Constitutional system. One school of thought contends that individual generals and would be dictators like Julius Caesar, Pompey or L. Cornelius Sulla destroyed the traditional political system of Rome through ruthless ambition. According to this view, the Commanders of the Roman army, acting like feuding Mafia dons, turned their armies inward upon the Constitutional system. Contemporary Romans usually tried to explain the political crisis in terms of moral decline: “Fortune turned against us and brought confusion to all we did. Greed destroyed honor, honesty and every other virtue, and taught men to be arrogant and cruel, to neglect the gods; ambition men false. . .Rome changed: a government which had once surpassed all others in justice and excellence now became cruel and unbearable.”
The historian Sallust, author of these words also tried to explain why he found it impossible to behave in a moral fashion: “Instead of decency, selfdiscipline and competence, there was insolence, corruption and rapacity. Although I despised these things, being quite untouched by baseness, my insecure youth was nevertheless corrupted, in the presence of such great vices, by the desire for honors and gain and became their prisoner” (Meier, p. 23). In other words, the political crisis that destroyed the Roman republic was the result of individual bad behavior—generals who put their personal career ahead of the public good. There is something to this view. However, it is necessary to explain why aristocratic generals would act in defiance of constituted authority. It is also necessary to account for the fact that ordinary soldiers would be willing to follow such leaders into the destructive violence of civil war.
However, the causes of the violence which ultimately destroyed the Roman Republic lie deeper than the ambitions of men like Marius, Sulla and Julius Caesar. The Republic was caught up in what Christian Meier has called “a crisis without alternative.” The origins of this crisis lay in the stunning successes by which Rome conquered the Mediterranean world. The Roman Empire undercut the very republic it was built to protect. The Roman Constitution had been designed to govern a citystate. It was well adapted for Italy, but not to governing an overseas empire. Imagine the strains that might fracture the Utah state legislature if some of its members were commanding armies and administering the economies of Washington state, California, New York and Mexico. As trade increased, a class of merchants and financiers (the equestrian order) grew influential enough to inject their commercial interests into Roman politics. Masses of slaves captured in war undercut the small farmers who had been the backbone of early Roman society and its army. Many of them moved to Rome where they lived by selling their only asset: their vote…..
The Roman government (in its entire history from founding to fall) was a strange mix of a democracy and a republic. An interesting fact is that the people of Rome took many of their ideas of government from the Ancient Greeks. The Roman state was described as the republic (respublica) and its consuls, or chief magistrates, continued to be appointed even after the establishment of one-man rule under the empire, but in its pure form it lasted only until the beginning of the first century B.C. At the creation of the republic, supreme power probably resided with a popular assembly, but early on the Senate became very influential, and the traditional formula, which survived for centuries, was S.P.Q.R. - Senatus Populusque Romanus - the Roman Senate and People acting together. Since the Ancient Romans did not want one man to make all of the laws, they decided to balance the power of the government between three branches, there was first the executive branch, then the legislative branch, and finally the judicial branch.
Ancient Rome is that time in history when the Roman Empire existed. At its peak, the empire included most of Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East. The Romans were known for their army, architecture, and government. The empire existed from about 100 B.C. to 500 A.D.
Although many people talk about the "rise and fall" of the Roman Empire, others focus on how the civilization changed over time. Both positives (i.e., art and architecture) and negatives (i.e., slavery, cruelty) can be identified in the culture throughout the history of Ancient Rome. The first settlements were established around 753 B.C. At the height of the empire around 200 A.D., the empire covered 2.5 million square miles. The Western Empire fell in 476 A.D. and the Eastern Empire lasted until 1453. Based on strict organization and centralized control, the empire was connected by a huge network of roads with the city of Rome in the center. Each town was planned in exactly the same way including a system of streets, running water, and sewers. The forum at the center of town was surrounded by shops, temples, and government buildings. A strong army defended and expanded the empire. The soldiers belonged to legions of about 5,000 people. They were highly trained and well-equipped with armor, shields, spears, and swords. A well-organized civil service system governed the people. Roman history contains many famous figures including Augustus the first emperor, Julius Caesar, Caligula, and Nero.
The Romans had many festivals and rituals for events such as childbirth, marriage, and funerals. Like Greek culture, Roman culture was known for its mythology. The Romans enjoyed food, baths, and all kinds of entertainment. Public games such as chariot races were held in amphitheaters, while chariot races were held in circuses - - a Latin name for a racetrack or speedway.
The causes for the breakdown of the early Roman Republic cannot be attributed to a single event, trend or individual, rather it was due to a combination of all three in varying degrees. The principal and fundamental cause was the breakdown of the political checks and balances, particularly the Cursus Honorum from 133 BC onwards. This subversion occurred both accidentally and through the subversive behavior of individuals, unconsciously and consciously undermining the fabric of the republic in their quest for power and glory. One substantial outcome of this incapacitation was the emergence of violence as a political means. Once this had occurred the end of the old republic was heralded and autocratic dictatorship was born. The republic was born out of a collapsed monarchy and was specifically geared to prevent a centralization of power. The mechanisms to this end were contained in the Cursus Honorum, a document that outlined the ladder of offices. It demanded, among other things, 10 years of military or legal service before any magistracy could be held, annual election and two years between consecutive offices (Plutarch, 1974. p.140). This system was designed to ensure that no individual could become too powerful by dividing jurisdiction between several groups and allowing for veto.
The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius are often blamed for causing divisions and antagonizing the aristocracy and particularly the senate by introducing laws and legislation that, although promoting egalitarianism for the poor, were catalysts to later breaches of the Cursus Honorum. Both Tiberius and Gaius had laws enacted without consulting the senate. This weakened the senate’s power and started a trend of ignoring the senate that remained until the breakdown (Plutarch, 1986. p 176). These Graccian reforms included the implementation of a welfare system whereby Romans citizens would be given free corn and the Lex Agraria or land reforms that broke down the latafundia and increased the number of small-scale farms. The welfare corn system not only aroused violent anger from the nobility but also created an urban mob (Suetonius, 1979. p.42) that relied on handouts and later participated in violence.....
Marius and Sulla, great leaders of Rome from 119 to 78 BC, can be attributed part of the blame for the breakdown of the republic. Their constant quarreling led to factional fighting amongst the people and eventually to civil war......
Both Marius and Sulla used violence openly as a political means. The first such incident was during the tribunal election where Marius killed Nonnius, a political opponent to his friend Saturnius. This was not the only example of violence from Marius. When returned from exile, he killed everyone who had ever offended him and took their land for himself. Sulla was not much better, having a similar proscription list and sometimes adding names to the list simply to acquire property. Legions of Roman soldiers, who had effectualy turned into private armies, carried out these executions. This practice of obtaining soldiers for personal means led eventually to the widespread use of violence and eventually to civil war. Close to the end of the republic, a triumvirate arose, combining the three most powerful men in Rome-Pompey, Caesar and Crassus. Caesar engineered the union, using the military and political skill of Pompey and the Financial and political power of Crassus for his own benefit. He manipulated both men to pass legislation and reforms that would spell the end of the republic and catapult him into an autocratic Dictatorship.....
Each of the men was greedy for glory and power, demanding triumphs and ovations for military and political victories. Their earlier quarrels over such things had been damaging for the republic but their eventual union was to be its downfall. It is interesting to note however that, in the words of Plutarch. All of these men "came to an inglorious and ineffectual end" (Plutarch, 1974. p.213). Close to the breakdown, violence was used almost as a matter of course in political activities. From 133 BC mob violence became commonplace. Many politicians were dragged away and butchered by angry mobs, not the least of whom was Caesar himself. This trend towards violent resolution of political issues is well documented. Pompey used this element to his advantage, stirring up the crowd to the point that people were afraid to speak out against him since if they did, they were liable to be beaten to death by his supporters or murdered by his army. The culmination of these events and trends was the breakdown of the Republic and the regression into a dictatorship, a system that survived until the fall of the Empire hundreds of years later. The seeds for the fall were planted very early in the form of social and political problems that continued for the Romans long after the breakdown of the republic......
Rome shall perish – write that word
In the blood that she has spilt
-William Cowper
(Joseph Clark at
There is almost universal consensus that the fall was gradual and that the Republic truly ended when Octavian was made emperor. But, there is still contention as to the exact causes of the fall. Various theories have been posited, such as military expansion and inherent flaws in the Roman political system. It has been said that “Ironically it was the very success of the Roman republic in war and imperial expansion that led to the overthrow of the republic.” This is certainly one of the causes, and can be said to be the leading cause. Roman expansion led to a few things that precipitated the fall of the republic. For one, it did terrible damage to the Italian farmlands and gave power and money to the upper class. These members of aristocracy forced the peasant farmers off of their land, while many other peasant farmers abandoned their land themselves. This led to political and social instability, resulting in the Gracchi brothers attempting to fix the situation.....
The divide between the rich and the power, with the rich upper class receiving most of the wealth that was coming into Rome as a result of the expansion, resulted in political division between the populares and optimates. The two factions often came into conflict, causing much turmoil and strife within Rome. The wealth coming into Rome even led to political bribery and illegal political abuses.........
A result of Roman expansion was private militaries. When the Roman Republic failed to resolve rebellions on its own, it called on its private armies. These private armies, such as the ones by Marius and Sulla, were more loyal to its generals than the Roman state (Mellor). Because of this loyalty, Sulla was able to march into Rome with his army and eventually incite a civil war. This loyalty to the generals was carried on in conflicts between figures such as Pompey and Julius Caesar as well as the one between Octavian and Marcus Antonius. Because the generals had so much military power, they were able to convert that into political power and dominate Rome, laying the foundations for the Empire (Bringmann 247-59).
Finally, the burdens of the growing Republic were supported mostly by the Roman provinces. This burden was made intolerable by the greedy tax collectors, and led to turmoil in those provinces. Rebellions occurred in Spain, Corsica, Sardinia, and Greece, with Mithradates of Pontus deciding to go to war every once in a while (Levick 56-7).
All this strife and turmoil gave Julius Caesar an ample excuse to make himself dictator in order to sort out the problems. This was a prime opportunity for him to take control and essentially make himself emperor for life. Even after he was assassinated, his successor, Octavian, carried on what Caesar started and made himself emperor. Although it was a gradual transition and Octavian made use of heavy propaganda, his transformation into emperor was generally well-received by a public tired of social and political upheaval. Octavian provided the power and ability needed to end the chaos (Mellor).

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