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The Fall of the Roman Republic: A Narrative and Analytical Comparison with the Contemporary Conditions of the United States of America — (Part 1 of a Series)

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The Fall of the Roman Republic: A Narrative and Analytical Comparison with the Contemporary Conditions of the United States of America — (Part 1 of a Series)

Derek Suszko

Derek Suszko is an associate editor for The St. Croix Review.

I. Introduction

Historical representative republics may be defined broadly as of two types: abortive and abiding. Abortive republics were those which persisted for less than a generation and generally displayed characteristic instabilities. These types of republics are well-represented throughout history due to the observable truth that republics are most vulnerable in the infant stages of their developments. The quick failure of republican governments may be the result of a national inexperience in representative government (i.e. the Russian Provisional Government 1917), an over-endowment of the legislative authority against the executive (the French Fourth Republic 1946-1959), a refusal to respect basic rights such as private property (the Spanish Second Republic 1931-1939), an inability of the legislature to pass fundamental formatory legislation (the French First Republic 1792-1795), or direct foreign intervention and conquest (the Florentine Savonarolan Republic 1597 and the Paris Commune 1871). Many abortive republics faced a myriad of dilemmas requiring immediate resolution (and perhaps even the exercise of emergency authorities), and the fragile legislative functions proved incapable of rectifying a continuation of crises. The United States very nearly was such an abortive republic as the nascent government of the Articles of Confederation proved in only six years (1781-1787) to be wholly inadequate to the necessities of federalizing the 13 colonies into a single nation. Abiding republics have naturally been far less numerous in the long span of the history of republican government. There are elements of fortuity in the success of a republic, but certain characteristic features can be noted among those with impressive longevities. Foremost among these is an appropriate separation of powers. A deficient executive function often leads to a state of political stagnation while a deficient legislative function leads to tyranny. In long-standing republics, these functions (and the others) are in a harmonious balance. Long-standing republics also display a high degree of adaptability. It must be possible for a nation to make necessary alterations to its procedures and customs when these prove defunct or insufficient, and all successful republics have had firm yet flexible amendment processes to ensure the continuation of a republican standard. A third commonality among long-lasting republics is the high degrees of honor and competence among the early leaders. This may be more a matter of fortune than contrivance, and yet the early incidence of strong leadership nonetheless seems to be a requirement for the durability of a republic. All successful republics have had the blessings of formidable leaders in their formative phases.1

The eventual collapses of abiding republics are far more complex than the more straightforward collapses of abortive republics, and this is especially true if the dissolution of the state is due to internal causes. There is only one historical precedent for the collapse of a large, representative republic at the apex of political hegemony that transformed into a non-democratic totalitarianism. This is the republic of ancient Rome, and it is the only real historical republic that furnishes a proper comparison with the present-day situation of the American republic. The suspicion that the American political culture of liberty and representative government is eroding away is well-founded, and the possibility that our nation might slip into a form of government which is no longer democratic in orientation represents the great crisis of the coming decades. But in order to forestall or combat such an outcome, we must understand the course such developments are likely to take. The fall of the Roman republic represents a paradigmatic canvas for such an understanding. It is an ancient truism that history rhymes because it is forgotten. All ages are naturally so caught up in their own times that they often retain only a frail comprehension of the historical conditions that have long ago mirrored their own. Our own age is no exception, and it is crucial for our conception of the future to seek out those historical situations that parallel our present circumstances. To understand why the Roman republic fell and what instruction it confers to our own time is to arm ourselves against expectation and bolster our chances to preserve for ourselves the manner of government which has been foremost among all the constructions of the human intellect.

The plan of the following essay is to present a comprehensive comparison of the conditions of the late Roman republic (146-27 BC) with the present conditions of our American republic. The essay begins with a presentation of the root causes of the failure of the Roman republic. It proceeds to present a summary of the structure of the Roman republican government and a narrative of the history of the end of the republic. This narrative is not intensely detailed, but it is comprehensive and meticulous, and I believe, can promote an understanding of the central theses. The final part of the essay is a deep examination of the root causes and their parallels with the United States. The American republic (if it is to collapse) is in the early stages of crisis, and there is no guarantee that the eventualities which overtook the Roman republic will be similar to the ones that will overtake our own. But the political conditions of our republic bear striking resemblances to the political conditions in Rome which induced the end of Roman representative government. If sober-minded historians should think it presumptuous to make overt comparisons across millennia and disparate cultures, I will only say that the proper purpose of history is to give enlightened direction to the present. The discrepancies and divergences between two historical epochs are vast and obvious, and to insist on these is often to undermine the essential commonality of human nature, which no cultural distance, technological advance or gap in standard of living can supersede. Even a cursory survey of the history will testify that ancient Rome stalks the United States of America with ghostly parallels. As the two most powerful prevailing states in the history of the West, each fostered an unprecedented prosperity in the worlds of their hegemony. The Roman republic faced a grave political crisis brought on by its high standing and devolved into a military dictatorship. There is no reason to think that the patterns which led Rome to this fate are not in some sense universal to the nature of human political interaction and highly applicable to the analysis of our own times.2

Causes of the Fall of the Roman Republic

The most direct explanation for the fall of the republic was the pollution of its legislative function. The Roman legislative procedures (and how they differ from the American) are described at length below. For now, it is sufficient to note that the entire principle of republican government depends on the ability of a political faction to seek succor in appropriate representatives. The legislative function is polluted in the incidence that the representatives are barred from the exercise of their powers to address a majoritarian grievance. In the American system there are a number of rights (enshrined in the Bill of Rights) that are guaranteed to all individuals and cannot be legislated away by a majority faction. In practice however, the “letter” of the Bill of Rights is subject to wide and differing interpretation, and the guaranteed protections under the Bill of Rights depend on the changing verdicts of the Supreme Court. We can see the phenomenon with the 14th Amendment in particular, whereby a vagueness in the language can be deployed for almost any claim whatsoever. Thus “reasonable” limits on rampant individual expressions of “rights” are always imposed. And these “reasonable” limits generally accord with majoritarian conceptions of decency and tolerance. This is all to say that even in a state of guaranteed protections of rights, a large majority will still have its way at least in part. The Romans of the republic had no such conception of “universal individual rights” but they did retain a notion of essential human dignity for those who were citizens of the state.3 A grievance among a majority of citizens was sufficient under the Roman constitution to ensure legislative action. When these legitimate processes became subject to oligarchic interference, the Roman legislative function became corrupted and the republican mechanisms were no longer operable. The fall of the republic was due in large measure to such corruption.

The second cause of the fall of the republic was the apathy and criminality of the political elite. From its founding as a monarchy in 753 BC, Rome had always been a highly hierarchical society. Prestige in Rome was associated with familial lineage, and the wealthiest families of Rome claimed descent from gods. For a large part of the republican period (509-27 BC), the Roman aristocracy honored their lineages by taking on public duties and sometimes venturing grave personal danger for the good of the state. In the later republic, the Roman elite grew apathetic to the proper maintenance of the state. Many of the aristocrats became profligates and hedonists who abused their privileges against the interests of the Roman middle class. It is in the nature of society, at any time throughout history, to produce an “elite.” The legitimacy of an elite is dependent on whether their interests are cumulative for the nation and selfless for the entirety of the populace. If their interests are deficient in this regard then they are not worthy of aristocratic distinction. If they go even further and are actively oppressive towards those socially beneath them, then they deserve to be deposed from a condition of high status. The Roman elite of the late republic was an engine for corruption and greed, and the abuses they heaped on the broader Roman citizenry greatly contributed to the political crises that ended the republic.

The third cause of the fall of the republic was the failure to address the economic grievances of the necessary faction of the soldiership. By necessary faction, I mean a group or demographic whose members engage in essential or necessary operations of the state. Necessary factions are oppressed at the peril of the state and their political grievances cannot be slighted. Political oppression generally may go on uninterrupted if the oppressed class or faction is marginal to the maintenance of the state. We see this demonstrated in history by the frequent oppressions of ethnic minorities who do not have the numbers to be pivotal for a state economy or national interests. But a state endangers itself and fosters political dissension if it oppresses (either directly or by a refusal to address grievances) a group that fulfills necessary functions for the state. The Roman soldiership was such a group, and in refusing to countenance the remedial demands of the common soldiers who fought their wars, the Roman oligarchs doomed themselves.

The fourth cause of the fall, and the one most determinative of the form of government which resulted, was due to the ripple effect caused by the exercise of arbitrary power. By arbitrary power I refer to any exercise of authority which violates constitutional or legal procedures or to the exercise of unprescribed powers by officers and institutions contrary to the sanction of a constitution. A faction which ventures arbitrary powers always invites its opponents to do the same and, in its escalation, determines that the ultimate victory goes to the faction with the greatest level of force. Thus, the dilemma of an exercise of arbitrary power is that it demands a counter in kind. The equilibrium of republican government requires that all factions abide by the republican principle and respect the determinations of the republican mechanisms. It is generally the faction with the securest authority that first engages in an exercise of arbitrary power, naively believing that it is secure enough to manage the consequence. The Roman aristocracy represented such an “elite minority faction” and attempted to abrogate the republican mechanisms. In doing so it incited the “majority faction” of the Roman citizenry to deny the validity of the republic entirely.

The Structure of Roman Republican Government

The Romans of the republic referred to their own government, and by extension the state as a whole, by the term Senatus Populusque Romanus (The Roman Senate and People), abbreviated on coins and other state issuance as SPQR. The Roman constitution sanctioned a number of magistrate positions, the most important of which were the quaestor — initially the first office for a prospective politician and the duties of which related to the distribution of finances; the aedile — responsible for the infrastructural upkeep of the city of Rome; the praetor — generally the leading judicial officer or in some cases a military commander in the provinces; the consul — the lead executive figure and also an initiator of legislation; and, finally, the censor — often the capstone to a distinguished political or military career, a position which had a myriad of special responsibilities that frequently overlapped and exceeded the duties of the other magistrates. Each of these offices were tenured for only a single year, after which the officeholder was qualified to serve in the Roman senate. The number of persons exercising each office varied, but for most of the republican period there were two consuls elected each year. Censors were not elected every year, but only in circumstances when a distinguished political figure could garner enough support. Originally, each of the magistrate offices was restricted to the patrician class — the slender minority of citizens who comprised the aristocratic dynasties of the city of Rome — but gradually members of the plebeian class were allowed to hold each office. It even became customary for the consuls of each year to represent the two classes — one patrician, one plebeian. After serving the annual tenure in the offices of praetor or consul, the officeholder would frequently serve abroad as a pro-praetor or pro-consul. These positions exercised the same executive functions over the provinces that the previous positions had exercised in the city of Rome, and were highly sought after because they generally allowed for free rein in the pursuit of policy ambitions untethered from the political considerations of the city. A number of the most consequential Romans achieved their greatest legacies in the role of pro-consul. Each of the primary magistrate offices was outlined explicitly in the original Roman constitution of 509 BC, but one of the most powerful positions of the republic was not part of this formative cursus honorum (course of honors) at all.

The Roman tribunate was established in the early days of the republic as a consequence of plebeian unrest. The plebeians refused to accept the patrician domination of the republic and even ventured secession in the fragile early days of representative government. Without the plebeians, the patricians were impotent against hostile neighbors, so they agreed to a settlement. While the constitutional offices would remain in patrician hands, the plebeians would be permitted to elect two tribunes from their own ranks to serve as a check to patrician power. Patricians were forbidden from holding this office. The tribunes were empowered to veto any legislation brought forth by the magistrates and could propose legislation of their own (though initially this had to be approved by the magistrates). They could, in extreme circumstances, even arrest and charge magistrates with crimes while they themselves were theoretically restricted from prosecution.4 But the tribunate was also limited in many ways. A tribune was barred from holding the office for two years in succession and so lost all the privileges after only a single year. Any tribune overly aggressive against patrician interests was liable to be persecuted after his term in office had expired, especially if he was unable to retain a solid base of support when out of office. As the republic grew larger, universal plebeian suffrage was no longer practicable, and so the tribunes were elected by the concilium plebis, a body that operated out of the city of Rome and was thus susceptible to the corrupt influence of the patricians. Nominally the champion of the plebeians, tribunes were frequently mere lackeys of the patrician class whose primary function was to propagandize the efficacy of patrician policies to the plebs. By the time of the late republic (146 - 27 BC), the abuses of the patricians were such that the plebeians were rarely fooled by such machinations, and instead elected tribunes with radical platforms of reform. Confronted by implacable and incorruptible tribunes, the Roman bureaucratic regime turned to more forceful measures of quelling plebeian discontent. In the highly fraught political climate of the late republic, to hold the office of tribune was to court a violent end.

Despite our associations, the Roman senate was a consultative and not a legislative body. Though it could not pass legislation on its own authority, the senate was the most powerful single institution of the Roman republic because of its close associations with the serving magistrates. Its ranks were composed of former magistrates, most of whom were elite members of the aristocratic dynasties. It was possible, especially in the later republic, to become a distinguished senator as a novus homo (new man) unaffiliated with the dynastic families (as was Cicero) but this remained relatively rare. This general composition meant that the senate came to represent the arch-reactionary element of Roman society, far more resistant to the reform of policies and bureaucracies than the citizen body at large, to say nothing of the perspectives of the vast population of non-citizens. In the best days of the Roman senate, the majority of senators demonstrated the high-minded devotion to public duty and aristocratic selflessness that we associate with the American Founders. But by the time of the late republic, the Roman senate was a motley crew of grifters, decadents, exploiters, dissolute hedonists, well-meaning Stoics, wannabe autocrats and political intriguers not unlike the careerists, bureaucrats, staffers, and talking heads that make up our own political ecosystem. The perspective that characterizes the Roman senate in the last hundred years of the republic is its total contempt for the political demands (and needs) of those factions socially beneath its membership. The history of the senate in the late republic is that of a totally unscrupulous privileged class stopping at nothing (including bribes, falsification of elections, sham trials, and outright murder of political opponents) to prevent reductions to its power or reforms of the state. The hubris of this body and its ultimate failure to comprehend the nation beyond the confines of its narrow elitism represent the primary cause for the fall of the republic.

II. Narrative of the Descent of the Roman Republic

The Crisis of the Republic

The saga of the hundred-year collapse of the Roman republic begins with the final triumph over Rome’s great political rival, Carthage, in 146 BC in the last of the three Punic wars. For four generations the Romans had battled the Carthaginians for hegemony of the Mediterranean, and had experienced all the highs and lows of a titanic struggle of near equals. The Second Punic War had nearly seen the obliteration of the Roman state at the hands of the famed Carthaginian general Hannibal, but the fortitude and patriotic obstinacy of the Romans ultimately surmounted catastrophic losses on the way to victory over Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC. By the time of the launching of the Third Punic War in 149, BC Rome and Carthage were no longer political equals. In the five decades between the wars Rome had subdued all the major states of the Mediterranean, either through outright conquest or the imposition of vassalage. Carthage, devastated by its defeat in the Second Punic War, had only managed to restore a moderate fraction of its former prestige. Pressed by the venerable and formidable Cato the Censor (237-149 BC) who famously concluded every speech with the phrase Carthago delenda est (Carthage must be destroyed), the Romans decided to end the prospect of Carthaginian resurgence once and for all. Despite difficult odds, the Carthaginian forces fought valiantly in the field and warded the Romans off longer than was expected. Eventually the sheer numerical superiority of the Romans proved decisive and they laid siege to the capital in North Africa. When it was captured, the Romans massacred or enslaved the entire populace, burned the city to ashes and salted the scorched earth so that no city could ever rise there again. They incorporated the area into the republic as the province of Numidia and it gradually came to fill the economic role of chief supplier of grain to the city of Rome.

The Third Punic War was only one in a long line of wars ventured by the Romans of the mid-second century BC for the purposes of aggrandizement. Around the time of the destruction of Carthage, the Romans were also active in the subjugation of the Iberian peninsula (nominally annexed to Rome in the Second Punic War, though political control of the area, called the province of Hispania, was low, and the lower Balkans, including all of modern-day Greece. Where they did not yet take outright control (as in the Eastern Mediterranean states of Pontus, Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid empire) the Romans dictated terms and exacted tribute.5 This dominance was made possible by the development of a vast military bureaucracy incentivized to permanent conquest through increasing subsidies of the state and its growing expenses. The most lucrative assignments for Roman aristocrats were as pro-magistrates of outpost provinces. In these capacities, the officers were awarded legions and were free to pursue conquest at their own discretion. If they conquered territory, they frequently allotted these lands to themselves and their associates. All of this military activity naturally led to a demand for more soldiers. Under existing Roman laws, free, land-holding citizens were liable to be conscripted for a certain term for military service. Many of these laws were instituted in the dark days of the Second Punic War when drastic depletions in manpower rendered them imminently necessary, but by the time of the mid-second century BC, these laws were causing rampant strife for the Roman middle class landowners. In order to survive over ever longer periods of conscription, many soldiers were forced to sell or mortgage their lands to predatory aristocratic lenders.6 These aristocrats were wealthy enough to purchase slaves (many of whom were generated by Roman wars and sold to aristocrats by magistrates) who were exempt from military service so that they could till the land. Many of these estates grew to obscene sizes as the aristocrats accumulated greater purchasing power. Soon enough, the dwindling middle-class farmers were being crowded out of the market by the lower food prices offered by the aristocratic farms. The aristocracy even began encroaching on the ager publicus (public land) that was owned by the state and traditionally leased to small farmers for the purpose of development.7 Incidentally, a law existed on the books that outlawed such activity by prohibiting any Roman from owning more than 500 acres of ager publicus, but this law went unenforced. The rapid expansion of Roman territory in the mid-second century also produced rampant inflation as the state kept reissuing coins with diluted quantities of gold and silver to maximize expenditures and take advantage of its newly acquired reserve status for the Mediterranean transnational economy.8 It was only a matter of time before the overburdened class of common citizens, who fought the wars, produced the food and maintained the economy, sought a political remedy to an increasingly intolerable situation.

The Gracchi

The only real prospect for a consequential intervention lay in the tribunate. Though the tribunes were representatives of the plebeians, they often derived in this period from the upper class of plebeians who tended to consort more with the patricians than the small landowners. Thus, many of them were hardly sympathetic with the needs of the majority of those they putatively represented. The tribunes were not elected by direct universal plebeian suffrage but rather by the concilium plebis. This council, which convened in Rome, was frequently dominated by the interests of the “aristocratic” plebeians and prone to select tribunes who were palatable to the patrician class. Only an aggressive and persistent grassroots movement could produce a true champion of the plebeians in the tribunate, but even then the tribune required a strong sense of fortitude as any opposition to the senate could result in great personal risk. Such an individual finally emerged in the figure of Tiberius Gracchus (163-133 BC). Tiberius certainly had aristocratic pedigree: his grandfather on his mother Cornelia’s side was Scipio Africanus, the hero of Zama and victor over Hannibal in the Second Punic War. His father was Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, who distinguished himself by conquering and annexing the island of Sardinia as pro-consul.9 Over the course of his early military service, the younger Tiberius witnessed firsthand the corruption and greed of the magistrates and the abuse they heaped on the small landholders compelled to serve in their ranks. When Tiberius stood for tribune in the elections of 133 BC, he ran on the most significant platform in generations. He proposed returning all the land of the ager publicus back into state hands for the purpose of distribution to landless veterans, and he sought the restoration of the Licinian Law, which stated that no Roman could own more than 500 acres of the ager publicus. To the patricians in the Senate, these proposals represented a radical encroachment on their property claims even though Tiberius had refrained from extending the confiscations to the “private” lands the patricians had seized from smaller landholders, and Tiberius had even offered state compensation for the confiscated lands. Tiberius won his election, but was rather shocked to find that his fellow tribune Marcus Octavius vetoed his land legislation in a stark demonstration of the corrupting influence of the oligarchs on the tribunate. The stubborn and increasingly ideological Tiberius refused to back down and raised the stakes by withdrawing his offer of compensation for the confiscated land. He also summoned a legally questionable commission that ousted his fellow tribune Octavius from office before his term expired. This action exposed him to certain prosecution after his year in office, but it enabled him to pass the land legislation. In order to forestall the retribution of the senate, Tiberius ran for reelection, an unprecedented maneuver for a tribune at that time. However, circumstances were against him. The majority of his coalition were the small landowners, most of whom were unable to attend the elections of the concilium plebis in the city of Rome. Tiberius lost and, facing the wrath of the Roman senate, he attempted to assemble a crowd of supporters that would provide protection in his flight from the city. The senate declared a riot, and ordered the standing consul to confront the crowd. In an ensuing scuffle Tiberius and over 100 of his supporters were killed. The senate ordered his body to be thrown into the Tiber in the manner of executed criminals. For the first time in over 200 years of republican government, a domestic political dispute had been resolved by direct violence. In the years to come, such proceedings would come to represent a new normalcy.

Facing a potential uprising of the small landholders, the oligarchs finally conceded to the legislation of Tiberius Gracchus. But they were vengeful where they could afford to be and launched a purge of Gracchan supporters in the city of Rome, many of whom were murdered in the streets without benefit of trial. Among those the senate could not touch, however, was Tiberius’ younger brother Gaius (153-121 BC) who had been completing his military service in the provinces throughout the tribunate of Tiberius. Gaius fully intended to avenge his brother and commit himself to the cause for which Tiberius died, but he was willing to admit that Tiberius had made some self-wounding political blunders. Recognizing that the landholding coalition of Tiberius was too narrow and politically unreliable to form a durable faction, Gaius decided to court the equites, prosperous plebeians who were wealthy enough to buy horses for their required military service, and therefore they comprised the cavalry of the Roman army. The equites had only emerged as a powerful political faction during the second century, when cavalry became an integral part of Roman provincial campaigns. Alarmed by the greed and predation of the patricians, the equites were nonetheless suspicious of the landholding coalition of Tiberius and the consequences of the more extreme rhetoric voiced by his supporters. But whereas Tiberius had been fiery and hyperbolic in his public addresses in an effort to inflame the passions of his coalition, Gaius was more calculating and reasoned, and the equites found in him a sensible advocate for reform. To broaden the coalition further, Gaius also won the graces of the non-citizen Italian populations of the peninsula, known collectively as the “allies.” These peoples (who were, in the next generation, to present a mortal threat to the republic, see below) were conscripted into the Roman army in exchange for land and other favors, but as non-citizens they were denied the right to vote and also deprived of numerous government amenities. Gaius stopped short of offering citizenship to the allies, but he did promise that he would take into account their political grievances (foremost among them being patrician encroachments on their lands). Gaius won the tribunate in 124 BC despite the best efforts of the senate to prevent his eligibility. His legislative achievements were all concerned with curbing the powers of the senate: his first success was the passage of a law retroactively punishing those involved in the death of Tiberius and his supporters, citing the fact that they had died without benefit of a constitutionally guaranteed trial; next, in order to reward the backing of the equites, Gaius saw through the passage of a law barring senators from serving as jurists in cases of bribery and extortion, essentially leaving the judicial functions in crimes of corruption entirely in the hands of the equites. To the senators, accustomed to biased verdicts from peers, this was a severe blow. Finally, Gaius sought to interfere with the senate domination of the consulship by passing a law mandating that the consul up for election clarify his intended agenda (on penalty of perjury) prior to the voting. This law sought to curb the collusion of the consuls with the senate by making the consul legally liable for a failure to follow through on political promises. Each of these measures was bitterly opposed by the senators.

Though it was regarded as a breach of custom (though not a breach of the constitution) for a tribune to stand for immediate reelection, Gaius was nonetheless awarded a second term as tribune. Facing overwhelming popular opposition, the senatorial faction decided to change tactics by targeting the most vulnerable segment of the Gracchan coalition: they began to demagogue the dangers of granting privileges to the allies. Much of this rhetoric was in bad faith. The small landholders had much more in common with the plight of the allies who filled the ranks of the legions with them than with the patricians. Nonetheless, the senators were able to instill a great deal of fear that the elevation of the allies would lead to a loss of political power for the citizens. When Gaius began insisting that the allies be granted a partial citizenship by settling in colonies in the provinces, the senators pounced and called the move a covert attempt to raise the allies to an equal level with Roman citizens. Recognizing that his political career was in jeopardy and that without an office he would be vulnerable to arrest, Gaius followed his brother in arming his supporters in the city of Rome to protect him. Not surprisingly, this escalation quickly led to violent confrontations, and the senate authorized the senatus consultum ultimum — the law which allowed the consuls, with the blessing of the senate, to take whatever action so that the state would “come to no harm.” Ostensibly, it was an authorization for dictatorial force. The sitting consuls summoned Gaius to face charges, and when he refused they declared him an outlaw. Unable to flee from Rome, Gaius offered to negotiate, but the consuls refused. After a brief skirmish, Gaius retreated to the Temple of Diana on the city summit and, recognizing the hopelessness of his cause, fell on a sword propped up by one of his servants. In the wake of his death the senate launched a purge of his supporters in the city of Rome, executing hundreds without trial.

The failures and successes of the Gracchi exposed with stark clarity the depths of the divide within Roman society and the lengths to which the patricians would go to maintain their privileges. The violent deaths of both Gracchi brothers, sanctioned by the veneer of law, dealt a profound shock to a republican system accustomed to peaceable transitions of power and acceptance of constitutional processes. For die-hard supporters of the Gracchi, the events demonstrated that the republican mechanisms were broken and that only an insistence on the arbitrary power of a populist dictator could end the abuses of the patricians. This realization was accompanied by the sobering admission of a fundamental weakness of the office of tribune. For while a tribune could muster popular support and force through legislative initiatives, he remained permanently wedged out of administrative authority, most crucially with regard to the military. While much of the soldiership was sympathetic to the platform of the Gracchi, they would not as a plurality venture mutiny for them. So long as the functions of executive power lay in the hands of the patricians and their senatorial allies, any legislative reform passed by the tribunate would be fleeting, and there could be legal pretext for persecution of undesirable tribunes. It was evident that a permanent champion of the disaffected elements of Roman society would need to take a more comprehensive course to political power than merely the securing of the tribunate.10

(This essay will be continued in the next issue).


  1. Some examples, with their accompanying republics, are Solon of the Athenian Republic (594-338 BC), Lucius Junius Brutus and Publius Valerius Publicola of the Roman Republic (509-27 BC), William of Orange of the Dutch Republic (1588-1795), George Washington and the other Founders of the American Republic (1789-present), and Charles de Gaulle of the French Fifth Republic (1958-present).
  2. We should note that in the popular understanding, “the fall of Rome” is nearly always meant to describe the later fall of the Roman Empire, the imperial state established by the first emperor Augustus, which succeeded the Roman republic. There are some interesting comparisons to be made between the conditions of the United States and those which contributed to the fall of the empire. However, the fall of the empire was primarily an economic and demographic collapse and not a political one. The fall of the Roman republic was exclusively a failure of an abiding political system and not the story of the economic disintegration of a state. Many of our commentators are fond of warning of the imminent and permanent erosion of the American economy but such an assertion is premature. America remains a hegemon and will not be dislodged from the forefront of the world’s economies for many generations, even assuming the most incompetent management imaginable. In any case, the United States will see a resolution to its political crises well before it faces permanent economic regression. This is not to say that the political considerations will not drastically affect the standard of living for millions of Americans. The United States will remain highly wealthy for some bracket of citizens, and the political resolutions will partly determine whether this wealth is concentrated in a narrow political elite or whether it is disseminated across the middle and lower classes. For the purposes of this essay, unless otherwise explicitly stated, uses of phrases such as “fall” or “collapse” will refer to the Roman republic and not the empire.
  3. The Roman criteria for citizenship varied widely over the history of the republic. Initially, at the founding of the republic in 509 BC, only members of the aristocracy could be citizens. This was enlarged in 490 BC to include all land-holding free males of the city of Rome. Later, all free male residents of Rome, regardless of land or property ownership, were citizens. This was enlarged further to include free males living outside the city. Citizenship allowed an individual the right to vote in Roman elections, but the votes had to take place in the city of Rome.
  4. There is a dramatic depiction of this drastic action in Shakespeare's Coriolanus.
  5. For the Biblically curious, there is a fascinating look into the style of Roman diplomacy of this period in the apocryphal 1st Book of Maccabees. In 1 Maccabees 8 we are told that the Jewish leader of the rebel kingdom of the Maccabees, Judas Maccabeeus, sought Roman recognition for his state and a pact of mutual aid against the Seleucids and that the Romans courteously responded that they would rebuke the Seleucids for their abuses but would not give any firm guarantees of recognition.
  6. In some instances, piggish aristocrats, living profligately in Rome, simply “acquired” the estates of landholders on military leave through judicial bribes and manipulation.
  7. A policy similar to the American Homestead Act of 1862.
  8. It should be noted the Roman republic never descended to pure fiat as the United States and other modern nations have done.
  9. The death of Sempronius is legendary: after having come upon two snakes in the nursery of his two sons Tiberius and Gaius, Sempronius summoned soothsayers who told him that it was an omen of evil and that if both snakes escaped or were killed, disaster would befall the whole family. However, if Sempronius killed only one, his children would be spared at the cost of a parent. If the female snake was killed, his wife Cornelia would die while if the male was killed, he would die. Sempronius killed the male snake and died shortly thereafter.
  10. In an intriguing historical analogue, the Gracchi brothers of the Roman republic have been likened to the Kennedy brothers John and Robert of the American republic. All four individuals died violent deaths, the Gracchi and (likely) John and (perhaps) Robert at the hands of the reigning establishment. They derived from affluent families, and yet each built political careers on sympathy for the disaffected. Both Tiberius and John aroused populist enthusiasm in their lifetimes that became deified after their deaths, while Gaius and Robert were each hailed as the successor or culminator of the promises of the elder brother. While these parallels are fascinating, they should not be taken too far. The Gracchi were far more consequential for the Roman republic, both in terms of legislative achievements and in permanent alteration of the political landscape, than were the Kennedy brothers for the American. John F. Kennedy served as president at the height of American involvement in the Cold War at a time of relative national unity while the Gracchi served as tribunes during the most partisan period in the history of the Roman republic up to that point. The bullet that deprived Robert Kennedy of his life and the presidency also deprived him of a historical influence distinct from his brother, a statement which cannot be made of Gaius Gracchus. Nonetheless, the correspondence demonstrates something of the mirror-like inevitabilities in the flux of political history.     *
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