Tuesday 29 June 2021

The Fall of the Roman Republic 3, Descent into Chaos


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The Late Republic (133 BC-44 BC)

The Middle period of the Republic ended in 133 BC with the murder of Tiberius Gracchus (and three hundred of his supporters) for trying to help the poor.

It was the first political murder in the Republic’s 376 year history. Greed, corruption, and self-interest was now preventing the Senate from resolving pressing issues. The Senate was now fighting the common people. While it had done this before, its ruthlessness would prove to be the Republic’s final undoing.

Another Gracchi Brother, more political murders

Gaius Gracchus was nine years younger than Tiberius and became elected as a Tribune of the Plebs in 123 and in 122 BC. One of the best orators of his time, he proved even more effective than his brother.

He introduced the right of appeal to a popular assembly (provocatio) against a Senate-imposed death sentence. He made the army supply clothing and equipment to its soldiers, continued land reforms, established colonies, and introduced a subsidised grain dole. He also unsuccessfully tried to get full citizen rights to all Latins.

While he was away establishing a colony near the ruins of Carthage, Lucius Opimius, an arch conservative, was elected consul and moved to repeal Gaius’s legislation.

In the ensuing mass protests, the Senate declared a State of emergency (later called Senatus consultum ultimum).  Opimius took this as meaning he could use any means to end the crisis. He murdered Gracchus and others and set up a tribunal to execute a further 3,000 of his political opponents (without right of appeal). This was extra-ordinary behaviour and beyond the power of the Senate but now became accepted and a terrible weapon in the hands of the Senate.

Gaius Marius and reform of the Army (100 BC)

Gaius Marius, a war hero and one of the Populares. He was a Consul an incredible six times (107 -100 BC) before losing favour (with the Senate). He was foremost in reforming the Roman Army: abolishing the property requirement, resulting in a massive decline in conscription and making the army more effective and professional. The new legions were now loyal to their standard and commanders above the Republic, the importance of which wouldn’t become apparent till later.

Another reformer, another murder and another Purge

Marcus Livius Drusus became elected as Plebian tribune in 91 BC.

He was known as a principled, conscientious and generous Patrician, a member of a small circle of Optimates lead by Lucius Crassus that supported the power of the Senate but still wanted reform. He followed their agenda.

Firstly, he tried to reform jury selection which had switched from Senators to Equestrians but was now being used to extort tax payers and launch vexatious lawsuits against Senators. This alienated the Equites.

He then tried to help the poor in the model of previous reformers, which alienated the Senate. And he wanted to extend the full benefits of Roman citizenship to the Latins which alienated the rest of the Romans.

Later historians have viewed his motivation as more genuine, but at the time he was seen as trying to ‘buy’ a massive support base by introducing new citizens.

He was killed by an unknown assassin which triggered the ‘Bellum Sociale (91 to 87 BC) usually mistranslated as the ‘Social War’, during which many previous Italian Roman allies rose in revolt at entrenched Roman selfish interests.

 Instead of blaming itself, the Senate blamed Drusus and set up a tribunal to try many of his supporters for sedition.

Sulpicius, Drusus’ successor, defects to the Populares

If Drusus was accused of being opportunist, he was nothing to Publius Sulpicius Rufus, an Equites, who was second in Drusus’s circle and was elected Plebian tribune in 89 BC).

Sulpicius was not wealthy. The usual bribes left him with massive debts. Old Gaius Marius offered to clear his debts if he could somehow get him appointed to lead the army against Mithridates.

Kingdom of Pontos before entering Greece 
Mithridates, king of Pontos, had rapidly turned his modest kingdom into an empire at the expense of Roman interests (while Rome was distracted elsewhere and was unpopular in the East due to the extortionate tax collectors).

Sulla, the senior consul and an Optimate, had already been appointed to lead this lucrative campaign but was near Naples mopping up after the Social War. The Italians had been promised citizenship during the Social War, and Marius and Sulpicius introduced a bill to rapidly bring this into law. The Optimates were still determinedly opposed and got Sulla to declare an emergency suspension of business.

In an ensuing bloody riot, the two consuls had to withdraw the order, fearing for their lives.

Sulla then returned to Nola near Naples. While he was away, Sulpicius used his control of the popular assembly to get Marius appointed to the lead the army instead of Sulla.

He then used the popular Assembly to forcefully eject his opponents from the Senate.

Sulla’s first civil war, and the rise of the power of the Army

Sulla appealed to his loyal troops who were outraged. He was able to leave one legion at Nola (near Naples) and take the other five to march to Rome (88 BC) against little opposition.

No General had ever crossed the city limits armed before.

For the first time, the legions didn’t demonstrate absolute loyalty to the Republic. Any who could win the hearts and minds of the legions could dominate Rome.

The Optimates gain a shaky control over Rome

Sulla was popular with his troops and the Senate, but the Optimates had lost any support they might have had amongst the common people of Rome, and especially the Italians.

It didn’t help that the recent Social War had triggered a credit and loan crisis in Rome while Mithridates’ campaigns were depriving Rome of taxes from the East.

When two new consuls were elected, one, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, turned on Sulla. Presumably with support from the Plebian tribunes, he brought charges against him.

Sulla departed with his legions to fight against Mithridates. While he was out of Rome, he couldn’t be prosecuted, but this left the other consul, Octavius and the Senate, to defend against Cinna and his new allies.

There was a massive street fight in the Forum between the two factions and Cinna was stripped of his title and exiled (illegally).

The Populares and Italian allies fight back

In exile, Cinna joined with the Italians, Marius and an especially clever general called Sertorius. They raised an army and forced Rome’s surrender. Cinna and Marius became consuls but old Marius died shortly after. Cinna had Octavius and a few political opponents killed and others exiled but reports of a widespread blood bath and tyranny were likely exaggerated by Cinna’s enemies.

The People versus the Legions

The Populares may have strong support amongst the Plebs, the Italians, the provenances and some Legions (especially those that had fought on the rebel side in the Social War) but this did not translate into widespread support within the army.

The commanders were by and large taken from the Roman aristocracy and the rank and file were loyal to them, making the army largely conservative. Sulla was a darling of the legions, and he (unlike the Populares) was more than happy to let his troops plunder any town that resisted him, even Italian towns, and plunder was something very greatly desired by Roman soldiers.

Armies raised by the Populares were plagued by mass defections.

The first army sent against Sulla eventually defected to Sulla (85 BC). Cinna raised another army (84 BC) but was murdered by his own troops.

In the spring of 83 BC Sulla landed his army in southern Italy, triggering another major civil war.  Sulla and his allies acted brutally, sacking any towns that resisted them and slaughtering their populations.

 As the Optimates looked like losing a message was sent back to Rome. A meeting of the Senate was called and, in an unprecedented act of sacrilege, assassins were brought in to cut down any marked senators who might support Sulla. The chief priest of Rome was murdered in the Temple of Vesta itself.

Sulla’s reign of Terror

Sulla won and declared himself dictator. Until his resignations (81 BC) he initiated a massive reign of terror nominating against his opponents calling them  ‘enemies of the state’. He used 'proscription'  executing them and seizing all their property. He barred their impoverished descendants from holding public office and forbid their daughters (and widows) from marrying.

At first this was to remove political opponents, soon it used simply to seize land and property and enrich him and his followers. 9,000 leading Romans were murdered. He also removed most of the powers of the Plebian council and the Plebian tribunes and expanded the senate in power, and doubled its size by an infusion of wealthy Equites.

After Sulla

Most of the reforms of Sulla barely lasted a couple of decades but the massacres and prohibitions of this period accelerated the moral rot at the heart of the Republic.

It was not only the use of the legions, and the unprecedented chaos. He and his opponents had murdered Rome’s best leaders.  All men of principle, those that supported the law, had been amongst the first to be purged by either side. There were massive rewards given to the unscrupulous.

The Collapse of the Republic (59–44 BC)

It was the beginning of the end when Julius Caesar was elected consul in 59 BC with the help of Crassus and Pompey.

Crassus was the general that defeated Spartacus and had become the richest man in Rome through real estate. Pompey (known as Pompey the Great) was only forty-five and the greatest general of his time. He was almost equally as wealthy as Crassus, through conquest, and had returned for his third and greatest triumph after the final Mithridatic war.

Back in Rome, Pompey had found his wishes to settle veterans thwarted and his treaties disavowed by a jealous senate. He had previously squabbled with Crassus but Julius Caesar was an arch negotiator and a long-term supporter of both men.

Julius Caesar was already a distinguished soldier and, while as governor of Roman Spain, had conquered two local tribes. While he was the head of a Patrician family, he had no reason to love the Optimates.

He was a nephew of Gaius Marius, who, with Cinna, had fought against Sulla. Caesar had also married Cinna's daughter, Cornelia. During Sulla’s purges he was stripped of his family fortune, Cornelia’s dowry and an earlier priesthood (Jupiter). He was only barely able to keep his life. 

He was told to divorce Cornelia but he angrily refused.

To make ends meet, Caesar was forced to became a lawyer where he showed considerable skill but he remained so heavily in debt that he couldn’t begin his political and military career until becoming a client of Crassus (in everything but name). 

The informal alliance of these three is sometimes called the First Triumvirate. 

Pompey later married Julius Caesar’s daughter.

It was a bitterly fought election and his co-consul, Bibulus, vowed to block any of Caesar’s populist reforms. Caesar attempted persuasion at first but, in the end, Pompey flooded the streets with veterans, silencing the Optimate opposition and allowing Caesar to use the popular assembly to push his agenda.

Crassus obtained lucrative tax collecting contracts. Crassus and Pompey remained in control of politics in Rome while Caesar, after his one year term as consul, was given command over Gaul and Illyria for five years, allowing him to launch his Conquest of Gaul.

Accounts of how amicable the First Triumvirate continued to be varied considerably but around 56 BC Pompey and Crassus, as consuls, extended Caesar’s governorship for another five years. Pompey received governorship of Hispania, and Crassus of Syria.

During Caesar’s famous conquest of Gaul, one version was that he subjugated 300 tribes, and destroyed 800 cities, killed a million people and gained so much plunder that the price of gold briefly dropped in Rome.

Caesar was now not only a war hero and a darling of the people, he was a wealthy and could afford bribes.

End of the alliance

In September 54 BC Caesar’s daughter, Pompey’s wife, died giving birth to a girl who also died soon after. To secure Pompey, Caesar offered his great-niece in marriage but Pompey refused.

Soon after, Crassus was killed leading an ill-fated expedition against the Parthians (May 53 BC). The only people binding Pompey to Caesar were now dead.

What turned Pompey against Caesar is unclear. He was a proud and ambitious man and saw Caesar as his main rival. He was also the only member of the Triumvirate left in Rome and securing his power base in the Senate meant forming alliances with the Optimates.

In this, he was successful. In 52 BC as political violence got out of hand, he was elected as the sole consul (just one step short of a dictatorship).

There had been calls for Caesar to be recalled, and for Caesar and Pompey to give up their legions, but it didn’t come to a head until Caesar’s (unusual ten year) proconsular term came to an end in 50 BC.

His enemies began senate proceedings to try him for war crimes (in his conquest of Gaul) and his behaviour while a consul (in 59 BC). While he was a proconsul (governor) and out of Rome, he was immune to prosecution.

Marcus Anthonius (Mark Anthony), long term supporter of Caesar and a plebian tribune, tried to block the prosecution, but was threatened with violence. The senate then passed a state of emergency and demanded Caesar disband his army and return to Rome to face charges.

Mark Anthony and several of Caesar’s supporters fled to warn him.

Caesar was camped on the banks of the Rubicon in northern Italy, the southern-most limits of his territory. He crossed the Rubicon with the thirteenth legion, on January 10 triggering what would be a hard-fought civil war (49–45 BC).

Assassination of Caesar , Holmes Sullivan 

At the end of the war Pompey was dead, Caesar victorious, and declared dictator for life. Ironically, it was a position he held only for a little over a month. 

On the Ides of March, Caesar was stabbed to death by a mob of senators in the senate, where he had to leave his body guards outside.

After the Republic 44- 27 BC

The Roman Republic was over in everything but name. Julius Caesar was deified, literally.

Rome was now ruled by a military dictatorship of three.

Mark Antony and a man called Lepidus divided up Roman territories between them. They reintroduced proscription and property seizures.

 Octavian, only eighteen and Julius Caesar’s heir, was very a junior partner to these other two.

 Except that, while Mark Anthony was fighting Brutus and Cassius in Greece, and Lepidus was attempting to dislodge a very stubborn son of Pompey from Sicily, Octavian had his own legions and was able to cement his position as Caesar’s heir in Rome.


He eventually was able to strip Lepidus of all power and then win a civil war against Mark Anthony (joined by Caesar’s previous lover, Cleopatra), to become Rome’s first emperor in 27 BC.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog on the Late Roman Republic. I also write Epic Fantasy set in ancient times.  

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