The Roman Republic embraced concepts greater than simply political institutions, forming a way of life that included ideals such as duty and restraint that were in a sense as if not more essential than the actually governmental process. The Republican government was complex with the main elements being the Republic’s chief officials (magistrates) who were called Consuls, the aristocratic peers in the Senate and the popular ensembles.
This complexity rather than enabling the Republic to adapt to new situations actually caused it’s evolution to be held back due to petty internal frictions between it’s own separate groups. For example, when the “struggle of the orders” took place due to personal ambitions instead of balancing power between the patricians and the plebeians it actually created a new upper class even more jealous of it’s privileges than the first. Yet it is how these frictions came about and how traditional and essential values were lost that really answer the question of why the Republic failed to adapt and finally collapsed.
The main contributing factor to the collapse of the Roman Republic to most was its own expansion out of the confines of Italy caused by a series of foreign wars with kingdoms such as Carthage, Mainland Greece, Hellenistic and Asia Minor which acquired new territories for Rome. One example is that the government gave responsibility of these provinces to senators, giving the consuls and praetors extended terms of office, by one year, making them pro-consuls and pro-praetors.
This may sound innocent enough but these terms proved much less constrained for the senators who were much further away from Rome and were not under the watchful eyes of their peers. This new found freedom was the perfect breeding ground for ambition, which soon began spilling over from the provinces to the domestic politics of Rome. Throughout the fall of the Roman Republic these petty struggles of ambition between key senators and factions brought the Republic a great deal of instability.
In the 140’s for example a powerful faction, headed by Scipio Aemilianus, were blocked by rivals when trying to legislate an issue, yet almost a decade later those very rivals proposed an issue that was almost identical. In the Roman Republic it was becoming very clear that the issues themselves were becoming less important to the ambitious political factions than their own personal power mongering. This ambition influx is just one example of how the tentative methods with which Rome governed itself in its early city-state stage failed when Rome was becoming an Empire.
It is clear here that there was a great weakness in the central government to control the provincial governors. Polybius was right when he said that the Roman constitution rested on a delicate balance of power that relied heavily on the Roman’s own sense of duty and restraint. Rather than change and define their political system logically as the world changed around them the Romans preferred to rely foolishly on tried and tested institutions. It is no wonder that the traditionalists saw the new wealth flooding into Rome as damaging to these traditions and age-old ideals.
The family, for instance, went from being a traditionally self-sufficient unit to buying slaves to educate their children and do most if not all of the household work. Bigger plots of land could also be bought by families all of the wealthy families as they did not have to pay the salves they bought to work on it. Soon larger estates were being managed with a lot more financial success than the smaller farmers could ever hope to match, especially as these farmers had to also compete against the taxed produce from new provinces, such as grain from Sicily.
The new and original wealthy citizens were also encouraged to finance building programs to enhance their reputations that in turn brought new facilities and employment vacancies. The towns now began to attract many small farmers who were disillusioned with making an unprofitable living in the highly competitive, corporate agricultural industry. Unfortunately in terms of the Roman Republic the shift in population caused great urban instability as there was not enough work to support the growing urban population, leading to most being supported on the patronage of the rich.
The shift in population also led to the “military crisis”, as before the standing army required to protect and campaign for Rome would be called up from the Roman citizens who owned land. When the Roman’s territory in which to campaign was in the relatively narrow confines of Italy it could be almost ensured that the men would also have time in the year to farm their lands as well. However, as Rome’s influences expanded to more distant lands farmers had to leave their land for more and more extended periods of time.
Many had already been ruined and lost their land which increased the “military crisis” as these farmers did now not qualify for military service and farmers around them became further disillusioned. It was in the attempts to rectify this crisis among others that factions such as the one headed by Aemilianus and his rivals, mentioned before, argued and inevitably failed to correct the problem. Tiberius Graccus, a tribune of the plebeians in 133BC, began a violent upheaval in more ways than one.
He suggested that the surplus population of the towns, particularly of Rome should be forcibly moved back to their land therefore ending the stain on the riches patronage and qualifying the people for military service once more. Far more significant was the way in which he passed the issue, consulting the plebeian assembly that he had to by law, but not consulting the Senate that was required of him by tradition. It is important here to stress that Gracchus was not consumed by the noble cause of ending the “military crisis” nor of ending the suffering of the urban population.
Instead he wished, as many did at that time, only to establish a dominant power base for himself and the plebeian assembly and remove the Senate from the governmental process. This caused violent battle lines to be drawn between the two broad factions of the aristocracy, although like Gracchus these men were merely occupied with gaining power for their individual factions. The two groups were the “optimates” (the “best man”) who believed in the continued supremacy of the Senate and the “populares” (the “mob-panderers”) who wanted more power for the popular assemblies.
The on going struggle in the late second and first century put strain on the Republic that was devastating, if the complex system of power could not stop warring with itself how could it sustain the wavering Empire? The spontaneous and violent nature of Gracchus for which he first appealed to the Senate was soon to provide the reason for his enemies to denounce him a usurper of autocratic power. This is why the Gracchan legislate when passed proved only to work as a short term solution to the “military crisis” and by the 110’s BC the problem was as bad as it had ever been.
Once again an even more radical solution was proposed to end the crisis, becoming more and more desperate as the Roman Republic was expanding and needed more troops to control the wild, uncivilised provinces. Gaius Marius, a consul in 107Bc and from 104-100Bc, finally abolished the long-standing, traditional law that required men to own land before they could serve in the army. The law was originally thought to bring the assurance of loyalty in armies so naturally many traditionalists were shocked by this move, yet it did ease the “military crisis” in one sense.
Unfortunately for the Republic this did not end the crisis in all senses, instead what is now known, as the “vicious nexus” became apparent. The stability of the men returning to their farms was lost meaning that the campaign had to be a profitable one to ensure that the discharge payments, usually in the form of land, could be met. As the Republic had not made automatic provisions for its men the armies and commanders were thrown together in mutual dependency, with the men wishing for help and support from their commander and the commander hoping that their gratitude would further his own political ambitions.
Campaigns had to be profitable to ensure this balance was kept, an extremely difficult request or the commanders who we must remember were not professional but climbing the political ladder. The “vicious nexus” in truth pushed the Senate’s needs into a secondary position. It may be because of this pressure and personal ambition, both not being controlled by the Republic that caused many generals to blackmail the Republic with the threat of civil war: Cornelius Sulla in 88 and 82BC; Pompey and Crassus in 71BC; Pompey, Crassus and Caesar in 60BC; Caesar in 49BC; and Octavian in 43BC.
Citizenship struggles also became a great strain on the Republic, yet another of how new instabilities were introduced by the expansion of the Empire. In the second century allied contingents such as the Italians were subject to increasingly harsh treatment, partially as the orthodox wisdom of Senators borrowing money to finance with the assurance of regaining it in pillaging in the provincial provinces. This need for money coupled with the need for discharge payments (discussed above) caused many generals to act with no integrity or justice when in control of their foreign provinces and not under the watchful eyes of their peers.
Many allies felt the only way out of this situation was to gain citizenship, a jealously guarded privilege that was only granted to a few Italians despite all of them giving troops and taxes. The understandable frustration this caused led to the so-called “Social war” between the Italians and Romans, at the end of which the citizenship concessions were grudgingly granted. This action opened up the Roman Republic making it a greater cosmopolitan and more vulnerable as many were asking themselves both at home and abroad why in principle the citizenship grants should stop there?
As a result of these wars and maybe partially due to the slight give in citizenship concessions there was once again a great influx in foreigners particularly Greeks bringing new less tired ideas in many areas including teaching, poetry, history and philosophy. They also brought new religions, mainly on the east that became popular for the same reasons – being new, original and fresh to the Roman people. The religions stressed the importance of the individual’s relationship with a deity rather than the original religions that were designed for the welfare of the state.
Once again the traditionalists in Rome believed that the influx of foreigners and their religions were damaging to the simple traditions such as pietas, so essential to the Republic’s power. In truth this great “harm” to the Republic was simply that the Senators realised that as more and more citizens turned away from the state religion the government actually had less control over them. The Senate suddenly felt that these new religions were morally or socially subversive and many attempts were made to outlaw them, including the orgiastic rites of Dionysus in 186BC.
It is true to say that there was a significant decline in pietas within the Roman people putting much more pressure on the fragile system of the Republic but in the Senate where simple and respectful duty was most needed it was noticeably absent. By the beginning of the first century BC the public confidence in the standards representing Rome was understandably in tatters, particularly in the case of governmental stability.
The Roman Republic was becoming ungovernable; rather than this dire situation bringing Senators, Magistrates, Consuls and the people’s representatives together petty challenges to the Senate’s auctoritas and the rivalling of factions and individuals made the situation worse. There seemed to be no solution. Many believed controversially that permanent or semi-permanent supervision was now the only thing that would resolve the situation, yet the Roman fear of kingship instilled in Rome’s early period and the uncontrollable ambitions of the Senate made this an unpopular concept.
More struggles and civil wars took place, in 82BC Sulla won power in one of these wars and using a dictatorship made reforms to seat the Senate at the top of the government thus ending the internal struggles. He then resigned in 79BC easing the Roman’s fear of kingship by proving his own disinterest in control. Yet his repressive reforms fuelled resentment in his peers, particularly the ambitious among them leading to only those who wished to, ultimately Sulla’s supporters, to obey them.
In 79BC Pompey and Crassus on this wave of public opinion took their opportunity to seize power and reverse Sulla’s work, working for their own personal ambitions rather than for the Republic which was left in the unsatisfactory situation as before. Yet things would get worse; the 60BC’s represented a decade progressively more damaging for the Republics structure and ideals. Pompey was a classic example of how ambition could overpower the Republics insufficient laws as he held great power with his military position despite not holding an office.
Marcus Cirero was inspired by his power without office and personally began pushing the idea that one man of prestige could guarantee stability for the Republic by inspiring it’s people once more to be patriotic and free of personal ambition. His hopes of this becoming reality were soon crushed by the diverse politics yet many believe many of his policies lived on and became Augustus’. Part of this politics was that the Senate soon began to resent the three most powerful men in Rome – Pompey, Caesar and Crassus as much as they did Sulla before them.
In 60Bc, encouraged by the traditionalist Marcus Cato, they began obstructing them. Not to lose their power the three men joined in an informal alliance called the First Triumvirate and successfully began to control the Republic – an act that undermined all the ideals of the Republic. Countless struggles between the three men took place before Crassus died; afterwards the Senate warily watched Caesar’s growing power and feared his desire to control the Senate as Sulla had before him.
Unlike Sulla Caesar believed that the Senate needed constant supervision and it was his opinion that Sulla was a fool to give up this opportunity. The Senate in return organised many manoeuvres to rob him of his power including the last that was to employ Pompey as their “champion”. This seemed to be the only solution as one of the greatest problem facing the Republic in it’s later stages was the preference for armies to support individuals rather than the Senate or Roman people (probably because it was the individuals not government who paid them).
Like all the rest of the manoeuvres the Senate’s “champion” was out-stratisized and brutally beaten by 48BC. For four years Caesar controlled the state until he was murdered for setting himself up as a “king” over the Republic, but also took make way for new ambition. The Republic represented so many ideals and institutions which as well as making it a wide and all embracing concept it also made it frustratingly intangible and it may be out of aggravation at not being able to come to grips with it that Caesar called it a “mere name without form or substance”.
In truth Caesar knew it’s power was in the minds of the population as even though he was able to force his way through the laws and systems he was killed for being a risk to the foundation of the Republic. We admire how the Republic grew from a small collection of settlers to become a huge Empire yet in truth it was this expansion that undid the governmental system, leading to the forth stage of Rome – the Emperors. The old ways and systems could not control the new situations and people and rather than change the Roman’s relied, sentimentally almost, on policies that did not support or protect the Republic.
Ambitions, the “military crisis,” civil wars, new ideals, the decline in pietas and people actively undermining the government’s authoritas weakened the Republic greatly and led to many great lives being lost. What was the greatest problem was that the Republic’s politics were so weak that they needed supervision and a suitable form could not be found: a stronger hand than Sulla was needed but not as publicallly feared and hated as Caesar.