Sunday 9 May 2021

The Fall of the Roman Republic 2, Spoilt by Success

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Part 2 of 3, the Middle Republican period 

The Early Roman Republican Period ends in 264 BC with Rome gaining mastery over all but the northern-most part of Continental Italy. It was then on the verge of going to war against Carthage in Sicily (which marked the beginning of the Middle Republican Period).

First Punic War

By the end of the Middle Republican period, Rome was already the greatest Empire of its time. It faced no credible external threat to its safety, and was poised for ever greater glory.

Embassies from small independent towns were frequently arriving before the Senate to swear allegiance to Rome, offer expensive gifts or ask Rome to mediate in disputes. The Senate had increasingly began dictating policy to allies and neighbours.

Rome’s merchants received an enormous windfall from the subjugation of the Greeks and the destruction of Carthage.  People and cheap goods flooded into Rome, including grain from Sicily and northern Africa, some as tribute.

Slaves were everywhere, building wealth for Rome’s rich, while cultured Greek slaves tutored their children. The din of new construction was constant as the city became adorned with elaborate new temples, gymnasia, baths, and palaces.

And yet, within a hundred years, the Republic had fallen.

What eventually brought the Republic to its knees was not an external threat. Deep in the heart of the Republic which had been founded on ideals of austerity, rule by consensus, devotion to honour and service to the Republic something was dying.

The beginning of the end was not marked by another military triumph or even a defeat.

It was the murder of a single man (along with many of his followers). Tiberius Gracchus, (132 BC) was murdered for trying to help Rome’s poor and fighting the entrenched self interest and corruption of many Senators.

Murder of Tiberius's brother

His death was the first open bloodshed in Roman politics in nearly four centuries and it was followed by a descent  into the use of force and murder in politics.

It showed that self interest, squabbling and corruption meant the Senate was unable to respond effectually to the internal problems of Rome's ‘Empire’ and it led to the civil wars that marked the final stages of the Republic.

Ongoing Military Triumphs

Roman’s main rivals at the start of the second Punic war.

The second Punic war was initiated by Hannibal (218 BC) and Rome came close to losing it, but Rome's position at the start of the war soon after the finish illustrates just how far Rome came by the end of the middle period.

Hannibal crossing the alps

At the start, Rome’s main rival empires were Carthage (which had expanded in Iberia) and the three inheritors of Alexander the Great’s empire: the Seleucid Empire (modern-day Turkey to India), Ptolemaic Egypt (with its territories in Syria and coastal Greece and Turkey) and Macedon (which dominated much of Greece).

Like the first Punic war, the second Punic war was one of the toughest Rome ever faced. For a long time Rome had no answer to Hannibal’s main army in Italy, raising large legions that suffering cataclysmic defeat after defeat. Hannibal managed to occupy a large part of southern Italy for 15 years, though he could not break Rome’s indomitable spirit.

All Rome could seem to do was to send smaller forces to attack Carthaginian captured territories and allies in Italy. It couldn’t face Hannibal front-on in Italy so went behind him  to disrupt his conquered territory and supply routes. It was a grueling war of attrition and the cost to Italy was appalling.

It was really only when Roman forces went even further behind, to attack Gaul (and later northern Africa) that they were able to weaken his position.   

By the end of the Middle Republican period, Macedon as an independent kingdom was no more (168 BC). Carthage had been goaded into a third war and was now completely destroyed (133 BC) and the few survivors sold into slavery.

The Greek Aetolian League had earlier been brought to heel and the Achaean league was crushed in the same year as the destruction of Carthage, with Corinth also completely destroyed. Macedonia, Greece and the former Carthaginian territories had been divided into Roman provinces, administered by Roman governors.  

The military victories and Rome’s ability to rise from adversity were incredible but, for the moment, we are focusing on the early Roman moral ideals and whether they were weakening. Here we will look at the Roman concept of justice in war.

It is difficult to judge the early Republic, because it was so long ago and the historical record is so uncertain. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that the early Republican Romans, especially their ruling classes, treated their ‘ mos maiorum’ (ancestral customs and honour) very seriously. 

This system wasn’t perfect, Rome was constantly looking for excuses to go to war that would fit within the rules they believed were lay down by their ancestors and Gods. Still, the prevailing culture moderated the extremes of militaristic, greedy or self-serving behaviour.

Justice in war and peace

The early Romans believed in ‘jus ad bellum’, or ‘justice in making war’, as mandated by both their ancestors and Gods. There was also justice in the treatment of the defeated and of allies.

Conquered people were given a treaty to sign, where they had to acknowledge Roman leadership, pay taxes, and supply soldiers. They were allowed to keep their own customs, money, and local government. The yolk of Roman rule was (at first) tolerable and the resolute loyalty to Rome of the other Latin cities (for example) was one of the only things that saved it in the second Punic war.

If a city surrendered ‘before the ram touched the wall’ (or unconditionally, trusting in Romans to treat the city honourably) they were treated well.

Of course, those that didn’t surrender or rebelled later faced harsh punishment.

These ideals didn’t abruptly disappear, especially amongst the Patricians and the somewhat conservative Senate, but there were signs they were weakening over time. 

Even towards the end of the Early Republic the event that triggered the first Samnite war was a sign that Roman greed could triumph over fair treatment of an ally.

Rome and the first Punic War.

This is even more evident in the Punic wars.

Rome had a long history of peace with Carthage dating back to the start of the Roman Republic. In a 303 BC treaty, Rome agreed not to enter Sicily and in 279 BC they had both signed a mutual aid pact (against Pyrrhus), offering each other military assistance if needed. Carthage did supply material to the Romans and ferried a few of its troops.

Carthage an economic superpower

Carthage was much less militarily aggressive than Rome.

If Rome was a military super power, Carthage was an economic super power and with Carthage's innovative agricultural techniques it, like Egypt, was a major producer of grain and other goods.

Its senate, unlike the Roman one, was not solely dominated by land owning nobles and their military class. There was representatives of the clever Carthaginian/ Phoenician merchants. Carthage was most happy to establish hegemony over maritime trading cities, and often did not follow this up with land expansion.

Wars, especially extended wars, were bad for business.

The Carthaginian wars with the Greeks in Sicily were mostly Carthaginians defending themselves (and others) from the more aggressive Dorian Greeks (related to Spartans) and did not lead to Carthaginian conquest of Sicily.  

Most Carthaginian land conquest (up to the first Carthaginian war) was in northern Africa, around Carthage itself. It was a series of loosely held client kingdoms populated by Numidians and this made Carthaginian control vulnerable.

In the last war with Carthage (which Syracuse initiated) Syracuse had broken a siege of its city by sending an army into northern Africa and threatening Carthage (310 BC) in a way similar to what the Romans did later.

Carthaginian armies employed a lot of mercenaries and they were sometimes in competition with Carthaginian military leaders.

Request for Roman intervention, first Punic War (264 BC).     

 The only request for Roman intervention in Sicily came from a group of displaced Italian mercenaries who had taken over the town of Messana twenty years before. They had slaughtered the locals after being welcomed into the city (which was a departure port in the journey back to Italy).  Then they turned to piracy and land raiding, getting progressively more destructive.

Syracuse had a treaty that had the city in the Carthaginian sphere of influence. The circumstances are far from clear but (Sicilian) Greek city of Syracuse and the Carthaginians (now allies) had been forced to move against them.

There was no ‘jus ad bellum’ for Rome joining this war on the pirate’s side.

In fact, the Roman Senate were steadfast in their refusal to allow Rome to be involved in such an unjust war. It was the ambitious consul, Appius Claudius Caudex, with dreams of glory and loot, that eventually took it directly to the people’s assembly, bypassing the Senate.

He promised the people great booty and pointed out the strategic advantages of a toe-hold in Sicily. Greed and military ambition triumphed over Roman honour, and Caudex got to lead an army into Sicily.

A long and bitter war

Caudex had badly underestimated the stubborn Carthaginians, the difficulty of defeating their navy and the difficulty fighting a land war in rugged Sicily.

At 23 years, the first Punic war was the longest continuous conflict, and greatest naval war in antiquity. It resulted in huge casualties and losses, effectively bankrupting both republics. Eventually Rome forced Carthage to sign the Treaty of Lutatius in 241 BC.

Treatment of Carthage in defeat

After the first Punic war, Carthage faced a series of rebellions in its territories, mainly from foreign mercenaries, some of whom it had struggled to pay. This included northern Africa. Rome was tolerant as Carthage retook her territories in Northern Africa but Romans were greedily eyeing Sardinia.

In Sardinia, Carthage was having trouble displacing a group of rebels until the ‘local’ coastal (pro- Carthaginian) cities rose up and forced them out. 

Some of the rebels fled to Italy and appealed for Roman help. The Romans had tried to invade Sardinia unsuccessfully during the war. Now (238 BC), they used this as a pretext to send an occupation force in a clear violation of the treaty signed only three years or so before. Carthage had held the island for three hundred years.

 The Carthaginians sent a delegation to Rome protesting the violation of the treaty and explaining they were already preparing their second expedition to relieve the island.

The Roman Senate (in an action universally condemned by modern historians) said that they had been invited into Sardinia, so this was all Roman territory now. They said even preparing an expedition to the island was an act of war against Rome, and they demanded an amendment to the treaty that gave them Sardinia and Corsica. To add insult to injury, they demanded an additional 1,200-talent indemnity.

Carthage was bankrupt ,defeated by Rome and had just fought a long campaign to recapture Northern Africa . They were forced to capitulate. This cemented the intense hatred towards the Romans and inevitably led to the second Punic war. 

Addition of Sardinia and Corsica

This (and the long war against its own mercenaries) shifted the balance of power in the  Carthaginian senate towards its military leaders and allowed Hannibal’s family to control Carthage’s expansion in Spain.

Fifty years after Hannibal's war, Rome used a pretext to force Carthage into a third cruel war and finally destroy it.  

Carthage was barred from defending herself without Roman permission. Masinissa, educated in Carthage, had become king of all the Numidians and was seen as a staunch Roman ally. He had significantly aided the Roman final victory against Carthage in the second Punic war.

It is said that he was keen to pick off chunks of Carthaginian territory and the Romans were happy to see Carthage weakened further and often mediated unfairly against their old enemy. 

When Cato the Elder, a veteran of the second Punic war (previously known for his terrible brutality and conspicuous cruelty) arrived (152 BC) to mediate in yet another dispute, the Carthaginians rejected him. They were unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing from Cato. He, for his part, was offended by this and outraged that the city (while militarily powerless) had made a mercantile-led recovery. He loudly and repeatedly demanded it be destroyed.

This emboldened Masinissa (though now elderly) who launched a massive campaign (150 BC) with his Numidian cavalry throughout Carthage’s remaining territory, attacking multiple towns. He now controlled 50 % of Carthaginian territory and was besieging Oroscopa.

 It was 50 years since the end of the last war and the Carthaginians had already repaid the war indemnity with Rome. Some in Carthage felt the treaty should no longer apply. They raised an army to try to unsuccessfully try to defend themselves against the Numidians.

Rome landed an army not long after. At first they fooled the Carthaginians into believing a settlement was possible, but then gave a list of impossible and escalating demands, many of which Carthage met (like disarming) but the Romans really wanted to utterly destroy Carthage, the city, the people, its history and its culture. 

Despite dogged and clever resistance, this was achieved in 146 BC, in an act that history Professors like  Naimark and Kiernan claim was genocide. 

A little later in the same year, 146 BC Rome defeated a rebellion in the Achaean league (which controlled most of the Greek Peloponnese). Corinth was sacked and burnt to the ground, those who had not fled were killed and enslaved, and its artwork plundered. The Greek mainland became a province, like Macedonian provinces before it.

The situation with Achaean League was a little more complicated than one with Carthage.

The League apparently flirted with joining the Macedonians in their third war against Rome. Rome took thousands of hostages to ensure their good behaviour but later (perhaps to teach them a lesson) was slow to release them despite five embassies sent to Rome.

Rome then began to micro-manage the affairs of the League. When internal problems caused some members (including Sparta) to want to break away, Rome threaten to break up the League. Reducing the power of the League would have made Rome’s job easier but the suggestion incensed the Greeks on top of many prior provocations.

When the League assembled a second force to punish Sparta they knew they would be fighting Rome, and soon Rome sent two armies against them.

Destruction of Corinth, Allom

The treatment of Carthage especially, but also Corinth, was shameful. Rome's greed and arrogance was no longer bound by the rules of justice in war and peace. It could no longer be trusted to be fair to those it defeated or respect treaties it had signed. 

Abuse of allies

The Senate did hear cases of allies abused and neutral tribes attacked by Romans in campaigns. While they ordered restitution, none of the commanders were prosecuted.  

The Senate’s control over the military was weakening and Roman morality was in decline..


Changes within Rome, and the moral decline


The deluge of wealth pouring into Rome, not just from tribute and taxes but from plunder is hard to comprehend.

When Lucius Aemilius Paullus defeated Macedonia in the third Macedonia war, his triumphant procession took three days to complete. The first day was hardly long enough to allow the priceless works of plundered art, carried on 250 wagons. The next day featured cart upon cart of fine arms and armour, 2,250 talents of silver carried in large pots by some 3,000 men. The third displayed 231 talents of gold, 400 gold wreaths, and finally the enslaved royal family. And this was just what he gave to the Roman treasury.

Rome demanded increasing indemnities from anyone who opposed her will. Philip II of Macedon, for example, was made to pay 1,000 talents of silver at the conclusion of the second Macedonian war. By the time they defeated the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III (in 188 BC), he was forced to pay a ruinous 15,000 talents.

All this plunder challenged previous austere Roman morality, and became a problem when Rome was no longer expanding and the plunder was not flowing in. 

Rome had become a plunder economy with all the problems that this implies.

Rome, a great city

Ancient Rome started as one small Latin city-state amongst many. It would reach 800,000 by 1 AD and reach 1.2 million at its peak (200 AD).

Only the ancient city of Alexandria (Ptolemaic Egypt) rivaled it in size.

There influx of foreigners as free men, traders, or slaves. Some of these, including freed slaves, became citizens and this engulfed the original Latin culture, especially amongst the man on the streets.

Foreign Influence

Romans always admired the Greeks and Greek became the second most common language. It became the primary language of the Byzantine Empire and was the written language of the new testament. Roman culture and education became more and more influenced by Greeks and Greek tutors.

Loss of Rome’s small farmers.

Rome at first had no standing army and the bulk of her legions were conscripted from small farmers. Conscripts had to supply their own equipment, pay a tax to fund the latest war, and sign up for the duration.

Of course, they took their duty to the Republic very seriously (at first). 

If they didn’t, the punishments were severe.

This ruined some farmers, even when the wars were local affairs. The first Punic war lasted 23 years and almost bankrupted both Rome and Carthage and depleted Rome of fighting men. The second Punic war brought conflict into central Italy and lasted 16 yrs.

Many family farms lay long neglected, waiting for them to return or, worse, become a burnt-out ruin as conflict rolled over them. Soldiers had to pay many of their own expenses, even later when legends were paid, the pay was poor and (unless there was a share in plunder) there were no retirement benefits.

Financial ruin increasingly faced those conscripted into military service.

With the conquest of Carthage, cheap grain flooded into Rome, some as tribute. Small Roman and Latin farmers simply could not compete.

Some even abandoned their farms and moved to the city to avoid military service.


In the early part of the second Punic war one estimate has Rome losing 120,000 men through death or capture in less than two years as they suffered defeat after defeat.

Romans took drastic steps to raise new legions: enrolling slaves and criminals. The senate repeatedly reduced the minimum wealth threshold for conscription before the system was abandoned all together (107 BC under Marius).

Treatment of veterans

From 177 BC there was a hiatus in the founding of ‘colonia’ in conquered territories.

These colonies had been established by veterans and their families. It was one way a small number could escape the poverty trap.

It’s not clear why the system stopped for a while, some senators were illegally using this public land for themselves, sometimes only paying nominal rents. Some of this rented land was seen as part of the family estate and passed down in inheritance.

An explosion in the number of Rome’s poor

Displaced farmers, veterans and impoverished labourers moved to the city, joining slaves, freed slaves and foreigners. There was a population explosion in Rome itself, with many plebeians desperately clinging to survival, while the ‘nobilitis’ (wealthy) lived-in undreamed-of splendour.

Rich landowners

The massive influx of slave labour allowed wealthy landowners to build vast estates (latifundia), worked by slaves and run by managers. They concentrated on more lucrative olives, grapes, and herding. By law, it was landowners that formed the Senate.

The land owners in the Senate determined who could use public land (originally taken by conquest). In theory the rights were auctioned and time-limited. In theory there were legal limits to the amount of public land each family could use. In practice these laws were ignored.

Some unscrupulous landowners even tapped water from city aqueducts to improve the quality of previously marginal land. They were happy to pay the occasional fine while officials looked the other way.

Now the once rich Latin farmland lay neglected and depopulated, apart from the large estates (latifundia).

While senators could only be wealthy landowners, the Equites, some plebeians and foreigners ran the other businesses and employed slaves. They also became wealthy but did not have the same political representation landholders had.


The early Republican Romans had judicial processes but citizens were trusted to police themselves inside the city. This broke down with increasing lawlessness. The city watch was limited to a small number of slaves (mostly carrying rope buckets sealed with pitch, in case of fire).

There was a religious prohibition on bearing arms in the central parts of old Rome but it was no longer safe to walk the streets at night, crime became rife. Most wealthier citizens had stoat doors and employed guards.


The Roman policy of weakening the Eastern Mediterranean regions caused a surge in piracy. Julius Caesar was captured by pirates early on in his career.


With Rome sacking cities and enslaving whole populations, and the renewed activities of pirates, there was a flood of slaves into Roman territories. Inevitably, the treatment of slaves deteriorated. Italy had become a thoroughgoing slave society, with well over one million slaves.

Loss of Roman ‘Mores’.

Roman Society had always been competitive but, with the influence coming from the East, austerity and humility gave way to lavish living and aggressive ostentation.

Patriotism and selfless service to the state, began to be replaced by self-service and greed.


Corruption became rampart. You could legally pay someone to vote for you, so it became increasingly routine for rich people to buy their way into the Senate or a magisterial office. Once they were there, there were many ways to recoup their money from their position. 

Merchants and builders bribed Senators and magistrates to get building and supply contracts and lobby groups bribed senators to make laws that they wanted. Favours were traded and cliches strengthened.

The Senate began to degenerate: from a consensus-driven group of elder aristocrats (stepped in the ideal of Roman morality) into factional groups. Corrupt, selfish, sinister, or fraudulent behaviour became common.

Rome’s infamous tax collectors

After 167 BC Roman citizens living in Rome no longer had to pay the usual wealth tax but this was not true in conquered territories. 

‘Publicani’ bid at auction for the rights to collect the wealth tax (tributa) in a given location for a given period.  In theory it was an auction, but it often involved bribes to senators.

If they collected less than what they bid, they made a loss; if they collected more, that was their profit. The tax collector at the head of the region would also employ others for a cut of the taxes they collected and these lower-level tax collectors were open to skimming and bribery.

The whole system became extortionate and corrupt but, as only citizens of Rome voted, and they were unaffected or actually profited by what was happening in the provinces , there was little will to change.


Censors, for a time, continued as the moral guardians of the Senate and Magistrates. In the late Republic the position was sometimes corrupted to expel opponents, without trial, in great purges. Increasingly, the prestigious position was unfilled or leading citizens were appointed but found the office untenable forced to resign within a year of their three year term. 

Corruption in the Provinces. With the defeat of the Carthaginians, Macedonian and then the Greeks , Rome departed from reliance on treaties to control her growing area of influence to appointing governors, sometimes with local client kings.

Such Governors were immune to prosecution unless entered Rome. Corruption and over taxation added to unrest in the provinces, especially in Spain.

‘Populares’ vs ‘Optimates’

Conflict between the poorer Plebs and the rich, especially the land owning aristocracy, wasn’t anything new. What had changed was the actual number of Rome’s poor, their increasing desperation and the need to find a resolution.

‘Populares’ were politicians who appealed to the people. While ‘Optimates’ favoured the power of the Senate.

Neither of these groups were political parties in the modern sense but most Populares tried to relieve the plight of the poor and were opposed by a group of corrupt and self interested Senators .

The Gracchus brothers and land reform

Tiberius Gracchus was one of the first people identified as a ‘Populares’. He  came from impeccable patrician and plebian aristocracy, and was elected plebian tribune in 133 BC.

Gracchi brothers, Guillaume

He headed a group that proposed enforcing an existing law that limit the amount of public land that could be rented by large landholders. The surplus land would be used to supply farms to poor plebeians.

Accounts we have of what happened were written much later and vary quite markedly in details, but essentially the Senate was resolutely opposed and did everything it could to block his reforms.

Eventually one group of senators sent an armed mob to kill Tiberius and many of his (unarmed) supporters. After this , the power of the Senate was used to send more into exile without trial and some were said to be executed. A similar fate would visit his brother, Gaius Gracchus, in 121 BC, when he tried similar reforms.

 The stage was set for the descent into the bloodshed and chaos that marked the late Republic.

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