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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 2 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 2)

Derek Suszko

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

Summary of Previous Installment:

The Roman Republic, founded in 509 BC, emerged from numerous struggles after 300 years to become the pre-eminent power of the Western world. By 146 BC, Rome had total political control of the Mediterranean, but was wracked by internal strife. The Roman patricians, represented by the senate, dominated the politics of the state and frequently disenfranchised the Roman middle and lower classes. These classes sought a solution to their political grievances by electing the radical brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus as tribunes. When the Gracchi attempted to reform the state, the senate reacted with aggression and both brothers died violently for their opposition to the patrician oligarchy. In the wake of their deaths, the divisions of Roman society remained stark and unresolved.

The Crisis Deepens

The suicide of Gaius Gracchus in 121 BC produced a momentary lull in the frenzied political conditions of the Roman republic. Without a charismatic champion to shepherd their cause, the Gracchan coalition fizzled as the senatorial faction began the process of rolling back the reforms passed by the Gracchi. Deploying a series of compliant (and bribed) tribunes, the stringency of the Gracchan land legislation against patricians was eased and the tentative privileges awarded to the “allies” were entirely reversed. But many of the most crucial aspects of the Gracchan agenda remained intact. The senate did not dare reverse Tiberius’ restrictions on encroachments into the ager publicus (public land), and Gaius’ judicial reforms elevating the equites to domination of the courts remained. This judicial reform was to prove resoundingly consequential. Many of the cases brought before these courts related to accusations of corruption or misappropriation of funds in the provinces, since direct oversight was not often possible for magistrates exercising power far from the city of Rome. In the days when the senators composed these courts, patrician magistrates could expect easy acquittal for any dubious conduct. But with the equites as jurists, the magistrates functioning as pro-consuls or pro-praetors had to either keep themselves strictly within the compass of the law, or (more likely) cultivate the support of the equites, so that they would turn a blind eye to violations. This led to the phenomenon whereby formerly doggedly patrician consuls and praetors became far more populist in their provincial assignments. This in turn led to the weakening of the senatorial grip on executive control outside the city of Rome. It was only a matter of time before ambitious pro-magistrates would recognize the immense power to be had by wholeheartedly throwing themselves in with the populist cause.

The last two decades of the 2nd century BC produced a series of political crises that further exacerbated the political tensions between optimate — a supporter of the aristocratic faction — and popularis — a supporter of the populist faction. A demonstration of the corruption and incompetence of the patrician magistrates was furnished by the notorious Jugurthine War, so named after the Numidian king Jugurtha. Jugurtha was a client king authorized by the Romans to rule over the province of Numidia and quickly became infamous for the extent of his bribing of Roman officials for autonomy. Ostensibly tasked (and lavishly funded) by the Romans to subdue the independent tribes of the area, Jugurtha did nothing of the sort, and plundered his kingdom under the indifferent auspices of the placated Roman governors. When popular resentment finally pushed the senate in 107 BC into taking action against him (Jugurtha’s antics were raising the price of grain in the city), Jugurtha dealt a series of embarrassing defeats to Roman forces led by bumbling patrician generals. The war exposed the vast extent (and success) of Jugurtha’s bribery, and numerous senators and former consuls and praetors were implicated in having accepted his bribes. Jugurtha was finally defeated in 104 BC by Gaius Marius (a pivotal figure in our narrative, see below), and paraded through Rome, and ritually strangled, but the stain left by the entire episode further poisoned the patrician establishment in the minds of the broader population. Marius was hailed as a hero, not only as the victor over Jugurtha, but as an antidote to the intentional ineptitude of the Roman aristocracy, a position in the popular mind that he was determined to exploit.

The antipathy to the aristocracy produced by the Jugurthine War produced a tribune with a fanatical hatred of the aristocracy whose advocacy for radical reform went well beyond that of the Gracchi a generation before. Lucius Appuleius Saturninus (138-100 BC) rose to fame as a quaestor tasked with importing grain to Rome. This function, coupled with political savvy, could yield great popularity, and Saturninus was elected tribune in 103 as the people’s champion. As tribune, he had two objectives, each deemed radical at the time: he wanted to 1) award land from the ager publicus to the landless veterans of the Jugurthine War and the wars against the German tribes (see below), and 2) colonize non-citizens in conquered territories, and reward cultivation of the land for ownership. The senators were staunchly opposed to these measures, ostensibly on patriotic grounds, but more likely because the value of their commerce, and the potential for the enlargement of their estates, was diminished. Both reforms were far-reaching and the second of them might have even curbed the Social War (see below), but the character of Saturninus did not lend itself to easy political success. The land grants to veterans actually outraged certain contingents of the plebeians because some of the veterans were freed slaves or foreign non-citizens. Unable to corral a clean majority, Saturninus opted for intimidation, and orchestrated it so that armed veterans were present at the passing of the measure. When he stood for reelection in 101 BC Saturninus dispensed with a strong opponent by setting the mob to him, and he was promptly stabbed to death. During his third tribunate in 100 BC, Saturninus unleashed the mob to eliminate an undesirable candidate for consul. When the candidate was beaten to death, the senate authorized the Senatus Consultum Ultimum, and ordered the standing consuls to arrest Saturninus. Promised safety pending a trial, Saturninus surrendered to the senate only to be locked in the senate house and stoned to death by the young, fanatic sons of the nobility. As with the Gracchi, a purge of prominent supporters followed, along with efforts to repeal the reforms. It is easy to disparage Saturninus for his clumsy, brutish political tactics and ignominious behavior, especially when compared with the dignity of the Gracchi. But nobility did not save the Gracchi, and Saturninus was among the first to recognize that the societal divisions were too great to be patched and that any truly permanent political resolution would only come with blood.

The Flawed Populism of Marius

The seminal figure in the story of the fall of the Roman republic is, alongside Julius Caesar, Gaius Marius (157-86 BC). Had Marius lived a generation earlier, his career would have been entirely impossible. But the populist movement initiated by the Gracchi would reach its first culmination in the actions of Marius, who was the first to understand (if imperfectly) both the depths of popular resentment and the obstinacy of the aristocracy. This is not to say that Marius was animated by selfless motives. His volatile career bears out that his only consistent desire was for personal greatness, and he was willing to harness whatever faction or movement might optimally secure it for him. After Marius, the republic was unsalvageable, though his portion of the blame has been consistently overstated. Marius should be understood as a product of the conditions of the time, and not as a controlling agent. If Marius demonstrated by his actions a dogged commitment to escalation, and the exercise of extra-legal authority, it is because the sieve opened by the patricians for the denial of republican process and the deployment of political terror demanded a populist counterstroke. And if Marius is to be deemed a moral failure, this is not sufficient to condemn the causes of the factions he championed. As a novus homo, Marius began his political career in inauspicious circumstances, and his significance was slow to gestate. He served without fanfare as tribune in 119 BC, and consul in 107 BC, typifying himself as a plodding and opportunistic powerbroker, unwilling to stand strongly for or against either the patrician or populist factions. In truth, Marius had negligible talent for administration and politicking. His real talents lay in generalship and demagoguery, and he would have likely died a footnote had he not been assigned as lieutenant to the proconsul Numidicus in North Africa in 111 BC. The venerable (and ultra-patrician) Numidicus was no general, and shrewdly surrendered the command of his North African legionaries to the consul Marius in 107 BC, with the outbreak of the Jugurthine War. As commander and pro-consul, Marius ventured on a policy that was to have a far-reaching effect on the course of the next century: instead of recruiting his legionaries from the body of landholding citizens, Marius conscripted from the capite censi — the masses of non-citizens, landless urbanites and freed slaves — with the implicit promise that they would be awarded for their service in land compensation. When Marius won a speedy victory in the Jugurthine War, a feat much enhanced by the contrasts with the bumbling ineptitude of his predecessor generals in the area, he had unwittingly foisted a grave policy crisis on the republic. 

The veterans of the army of Marius, politically sophisticated and lethally trained, were quite willing to deploy intimidation tactics to secure favorable policy outcomes, and were not keen to compromise on the question of land compensation. Elected consul in 104 BC, Marius served an unprecedented four consecutive terms. Before settling the question of the Jugurthine veterans, however, the Roman state was suddenly confronted by a new threat from the north. Two Germanic tribes, the Cimbri and the Teutones, had for some years been plundering into Roman-held Hispania and had annihilated a Roman force sent to subdue them in 105 BC at the height of the Jugurthine War. The fear of a Germanic invasion of Italy somewhat marred the triumph of the North African victory, but the immediacy of the threat also covered for the rather unsavory manner in which Marius had secured the consulship. Allying himself with the tribune Saturninus (see above), Marius wanted to guarantee his continuation as consul before leading a campaign against the Germans. Winning reelection in 102 BC to the great consternation of the senate (which now thoroughly loathed him for his advocacy of the Jugurthine veterans and his alliance with Saturninus), Marius finally marched his army north. Despite a cautious beginning, Marius was able to corner the Germans on optimal terrain in Aquae Sextae (modern Aix en Provence). He won a crushing victory against the vastly under-armored Germans, inflicting nearly 100,000 casualties. During this campaign the Germans had actually managed to slip a smaller force to plunder an undefended northern Italy, but Marius (consul again in 101 BC) won another victory at Campi Raudii, annihilating the entire cohort of Germans in Italy. The tribes had suffered such a bludgeoning in these two losses that the remnant of them fled into Germany. The threat to the republic had totally subsided. Marius was duly awarded a hero’s welcome, and held a lavish triumph in Rome.1 But the patrician class was thoroughly uneasy with Marius and the problem of his landless legionaries. Marius himself did not disband the veteran legionaries of the Germanic War, fearing that to do so would unleash a chaos even he would be unable to control. After the assassination of Saturninus, Marius was forced to make a partial peace with the senate and, though he remained popular with the masses, he declined to stand for censor, realizing that the patricians would prevail against his candidacy. For nearly a decade he remained on the outskirts of power, awaiting an opportunity to harness the abundant political capital he possessed.

The political questions of the past fifty years were now reaching a denouement. Due to the forceful efforts of Saturninus, the senate had placated the landless veterans with lands, not from the ager publicus, but from newly acquired territories in southern Gaul, Asia Minor, and North Africa. Despite the uncultivated nature of this land, compared to the ager publicus, this proved temporarily satisfactory to the veterans. However, the senate’s refusal to countenance any acquiescence to the demands of the Italian allies had led to a situation of incontrovertible hostility and the likelihood of violence if no settlement was found. In 91 BC, with Marius still in political no-man’s land, Livius Drusus (128-91 BC) of arch-patrician stock was elected tribune. Drusus sought to solve all the lingering impasses of the factional disputes in one swoop. In a hugely ambitious program, Drusus proposed the following: 1) the control of the courts would be given back to the senate, thus reversing the law of Gaius Gracchus; in exchange, the senate would be expanded by 300 to include the wealthiest equites in its ranks; 2) grain prices would become fixed for the city of Rome, and veterans were to be given land from the ager publicus; 3) the Italian allies were to be enfranchised, with all the rights of Roman citizenship. In proposing all this, Drusus was attempting to appease all factions, each of which would lose at the gains of the other. His legislation was challenged by the sitting consul Marcus Philippus on the basis of a law which stated that differing policy items could not appear on the same legislative proposal. Drusus nonetheless prevailed, but just as he was beginning to administer the new conditions he was assassinated. The assassin escaped and was never identified. Most likely the senatorial faction, which stood most firmly against the enfranchisement of the Italian, was responsible; if so, then Drusus was the fourth tribune killed by the machinations of the patricians of the last 40 years. However, it has been suggested that Drusus was actually killed by a conspiracy of his Italian allies who deplored a political settlement and desired open conflict with Rome to assert their claims. The truth will never be known for certain. At the death of Drusus, the Italians rose up in revolt, thus instigating the Social War (91-88 BC).

The Italian allies comprised a large number of peoples, the most prominent among them being the Marsi, Ferentini, Picentines, Samnites, Apulians and Umbrians. Though they are all footnotes now, for the entire republican period each of these peoples represented a language and cultural tradition distinct from the Romans. The Roman subjugation of the Italian peninsula had been achieved over the long period 350 -164 BC, and this only infrequently took the form of outright conquest. Initially, the Romans required only tribute from the Italian cities, but as their territories expanded the city population became woefully inadequate to supply the number of soldiers necessary for a standing army. The Romans then began conscripting the Italians as auxilia to bolster the legions. During the period of the Punic Wars, when the state was fighting for its very survival, the Romans could not afford mutinous Italians, so they endowed Italian veterans with full citizenship and sometimes land. But in 170 BC, when Rome was the preeminent Mediterranean power, the senate felt secure enough to repeal these favors, though the conscription policy continued unabated. This produced enormous feelings of resentment and forward-thinking tribunes, such as Gaius Gracchus and Saturninus, recognized that it would lead to hostilities if it was not reversed. But the senate could not bear to enfranchise a group of people they rightly viewed as political adversaries. To enfranchise the Italians would double the voting power of the populist faction in Roman elections. The Romans crucially underestimated both the extent of the hatred for them among the Italians and the potency of the Italian soldiers who, after all, had received elite training in Roman legions. The Social War began bloodily, and the Romans quickly recognized that a political solution was necessary if they were to retain a hold on the peninsula. They sought to break the Italian confederacy by offering citizenship to all tribes that reneged on their pact and took up arms against the separatists. A significant number of tribes accepted this offer, but many of the larger tribes refused and insisted they would never be subject to Rome again. Marius was given command of the northern front and tasked with subduing the dangerous Marsi. A former subordinate of his, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BC), was given a proportional command closer to the city of Rome, much to Marius’ jealousy. Sulla had distinguished himself as a junior officer in the Jugurthine War, and then as a pro-praetor in campaigns in Asia Minor. His ambitions matched those of Marius, though his personality was far less frenzied and sensitive. During the campaigns of 90 BC, Marius achieved costly successes against the Marsi, but his victories were overshadowed by the resounding triumphs of Sulla in the south.

By 88 BC, the worst of the crisis had passed, thanks largely to defections from the Italians who accepted the senate’s offer of citizenship in exchange for military participation. Marius wanted to secure the command of the Roman army for the forthcoming campaign against the kingdom of Pontus in Asia Minor. Conspiring with the sitting tribune, Marius pressed his claim in the Roman forum and his armed supporters killed one of the opposing consul’s sons. He received the command but soon realized that the bulk of the army was loyal to Sulla, who was one of the consuls of 88 BC. Sulla had learned from Marius; his recruits were all taken from among the capite censi and the Italian defectors, and Sulla had been instrumental in protecting his Italian ranks from punishment by the Roman senate. When Marius sent two military tribunes to relay the news to the legions that he was their new commander, the legionaries lynched them, fearing rightly that Marius intended to replace them with soldiers more loyal to him. Fleeing Rome in fear of his life, Sulla returned to his army and, declaring the city to be under mob rule, marched in the legions to “restore order.” This was a shocking escalation. Never before had a Roman army marched on the city. When told that Sulla was on his way, Marius at first refused to believe it was possible. The senate dispatched two praetors to reason with Sulla, but he spurned them. Arriving in Rome, he found that Marius and his supporters had vacated the city and that his provocation in entering with an army had made him exceedingly unpopular with the people. In the election of 86 BC, the people elected one Cinna to the consulship on the promise that he would prosecute Sulla for his rash actions. But as long as Sulla had the loyalty of the legions he was untouchable. In defiance of a jury summons, he embarked on the conquest of Pontus and led the army into Anatolia.

Meanwhile Marius, who had escaped near assassination when the German soldier assigned to do the deed had balked on beholding the former consul’s face, had escaped to North Africa. When the consul Cinna quarreled with his colleague Octavius on empowering the patricians, Octavius, with the complicity of the senate, illegally banished Cinna from Rome. Marius spied his opportunity and offered an alliance with Cinna: if Cinna could secure Marius his seventh consulship, he would use his influence to purge Cinna’s enemies, and together they would dominate Roman politics. Though Sulla was away in Asia Minor, he had attempted to retain his influence in Rome by courting the senatorial faction; by 86 BC, most of the patricians could be called Sullans. Sulla declared his support for repealing the radical land legislation that had been passed by Saturninus, and though the senate could not now go back on the offer of citizenship to the Italians, Sulla endorsed a provision that would require all voting in elections of magistrates to take place on a single day, and exclusively in the city of Rome. This would require the Italians to travel, many arduously, in order to exercise their rights of citizenship. Sulla had left a competent deputy in Metellus Pius (130-64 BC) to lead his faction in Rome while he was campaigning. But Metellus could not withstand the threat from Marius and Cinna, and fled Rome with some prominent senators, so the city once again changed hands by military force. Marius, fat, old, embittered, unappreciated, and envious, determined on bloody retribution. He commanded a purge of all the senators and Sullan supporters who had defied his political ambitions. A grisly gang of Marius’ ex-slaves was given license to plunder, rape and murder throughout the wealthy areas of the city. Marius merely declared himself consul for a seventh time in 86 BC, alongside Cinna without the formality of elections. But he only enjoyed absolute power for three weeks before succumbing to a stroke. The death of the “people’s champion” went relatively unmourned in the city, for the long presence of Marius in politics had eroded much of the popular adulation for him. His political intrigues had become far too blatant, and his personal sensitivities much too pronounced, for the people to retain him in their affections. Though it would not fully manifest for another few decades, the purges of Marius had effectively ended the independent influence of the senate in political matters. After Marius, the interests of the senate were permanently subordinated to the personal ambitions of the figure selected to champion them.

Upon receiving word of the death of Marius, Sulla resolved to re-enter Rome. The city had not fared well since Marius’ death, as both Cinna and Marius’ son and Cinna continued bloody purges of patricians as the administrative business of the city went totally neglected. The campaign in Pontus was inconclusive, and Sulla’s legions were outraged that their general was seeking terms of peace. Sulla assuaged them by insisting that the halt in fighting was only temporary, but in order to convey the sincerity of this he was forced to leave the majority of his army in Pontus. Taking only a token force, Sulla would be outnumbered in any battle with the Marians. Arriving in the city of Brundisium on the Italian heel in 83 BC, he was greeted by a cabal of allied patricians, among them Marcus Licinius Crassus (115-53 BC) and Gnaeus Pompey (106-48 BC), each of whom would be most pivotal in the generation ahead. He also received word of the death of Cinna. Sulla fought his way north, largely against contingents of Italian allies worried that he would strip them of their new-won privileges (and some of whom had supported him in 88 BC), and was nearly defeated on the outskirts of the city at the Colline Gate by a legion of Samnites. But these, too, were overcome, and Sulla captured the city after a year of fighting in Italy. His revenges proved as punitive as those of Marius. He ordered captives to be massacred for public amusement in the Circus Maximus amphitheater and, after banning residents from leaving the city, he produced a list of individuals to be purged. The compliant senate awarded him the title of dictator, the first time such a title had been granted in 120 years.2 Having the support of the army in the city, Sulla was free to establish a personal tyranny, but he made a pretense of restoring the old patrician domination of the republic. The senate ranks had been considerably depleted by the purges of Marius, so Sulla not only filled the vacant spots (with his devoted supporters, naturally), but actually expanded the senate to 600 members. This act was the first sign of the senate’s obsolescence, since most of the new members were not drawn from the patrician class, but rather from Sulla’s army, and were generally plebeians. But Sulla satisfied the patricians by instituting a law requiring that all legislation brought forth by the tribunes be ratified by the senate. He also banned former tribunes from running for magistrate positions, a policy undoubtedly concocted with the career of Marius in mind. Sulla made great airs of stepping down from the dictatorship in 80 BC, declaring that he had restored the republic. Only the densest of his proponents could have believed this. The senate was unrecognizable from what it had been, and though the patricians hoped that Sulla’s reactionary policies would restore their privileges, they were surely unsettled by the unassailability of his singular authority. In endorsing the arbitrary power of Sulla, the senatorial faction had exposed its vacuity and unwittingly assured its collapse. Though Sulla might claim to be a traditionalist, he owed his power not to the patricians, but to his legions, and his willingness to deploy them to achieve political ends. It was only a matter of time before another general, far more sympathetic to the populists, would rise by the same methods. Sulla potuit, ego non potero? (Sulla did it, why can’t I?) became a colloquial saying in the final phase of the Roman republic, and many individuals would try to make good on the implication.

The Road to Caesar 

Sulla spent a two-year retirement and died in 78 BC “at the height of his happiness,” as a soothsayer had allegedly predicted (hence the appellation Felix, Latin for happy, was appended to his name). A number of ambitious generals immediately attempted to fill his void. The first of these was the bumbling Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (father of the future triumvir, see below), who marched on Rome with some scattered legions in 77 BC to enforce his claim on the consulship but was routed by the consul Lutatius Catulus and pursued in Sardinia by Pompey, where he died in confused circumstances. A rather contrasting effort at power was attempted by Quintus Sertorius (126-73 BC), who took advantage of the widespread hatred of the Romans among the natives of the province of Hispania and led them in revolt. His guerilla tactics proved considerably successful, and by the time the senate dispatched Pompey to deal with him in 77 BC, he had control over much of the province. Pompey had only mixed success, and even with the help of Metellus Pius he was unable to decisively defeat Sertorius. Luckily for the Romans, the talented Sertorius was assassinated by his lieutenant Perpenna in 73 BC. Perpenna attempted to negotiate with Pompey for his life by offering Pompey letters that incriminated a number of senators in collusion with Sertorius, but Pompey had Perpenna executed and allegedly burned the letters. However, there is some suspicion that he retained them for blackmail purposes, as his relationship with the senate improved markedly after the Spanish command. These rather reckless attempts hardly exemplified the blueprint for the acquisition of sustaining power, and many of the shrewder commanders recognized the obvious, that they must keep up the pretense of republican loyalty while accumulating accolades and popular renown. The year 70 BC saw the election of Crassus and Pompey as consuls, both with appreciable patrician support. Each had ambitions for dictatorial power, but lacked what the other had. Crassus had been a trusted subordinate of Sulla and was a formidable businessman. By the time of the triumvirate in 60 BC, Crassus was said to have personally owned half the real estate of the city of Rome. He used his vast wealth to garner political influence and promote allies, but his true ambition was for a military command. Pompey was, in 70 BC, the most illustrious general in Rome, but he needed an alliance with Crassus to fund his pursuit of higher political office. There was lingering animosity between the two from the suppression of the slave revolt of Spartacus in 72 BC. Crassus had defeated the slave army in pitched battle, but Pompey appeared on the field just in time to corral vast numbers of prisoners, and the public associated the victory with Pompey. Crassus was nonetheless willing to compromise his personal vendettas in the interest of securing a command. To curry favor with the populace, the two consuls repealed the limits imposed on the tribunes by Sulla only 10 years before. Though this seemed highly significant at the time, it would become increasingly apparent that the tribunate was an obsolete office. The Roman people were now far more likely to identify with, and politically invest in, heroic magistrates with legions at their disposal. The upheaval of the last six decades had furnished ample evidence of the impotence of singular tribunes, and the most ambitious Romans no longer sought the tribunate, but rather competed for the lucrative governorships of provinces as pro-magistrates or other specialized commands authorized by the senate. Pompey was given another such command after his consulship, tasked with eradicating sea pirates preying on Roman grain shipments from the Mediterranean. Awarded by the senate with extraordinary powers to deal with the threat, he proved markedly successful and returned to Rome basking in the adulation of the commons. He was promptly awarded with the most coveted command of all: that of bringing to a close the campaigns against Mithridates and his kingdom of Pontus. This effort had continued sporadically in the years since Sulla had withdrawn, but the kingdom remained tenuously independent. Pompey annexed the province of Syria (bringing Palestine under direct authority of Rome) in 66 BC, and prosecuted his campaign for three years, at last achieving the total occupation of Pontus in 63 BC. Pompey once again received individual glory for a cumulative achievement, and he returned to Rome in 62 BC to hold a lavish triumph.

The political landscape had decidedly altered. In 63 BC, a former praetor, Lucius Sergius Catiline, attempted to seize the consulship by coup. Initially standing for the office legitimately, Catiline offered a radical platform that included the abolition of all debts and extensive land distribution. The debt crisis in the city was a genuine problem, but Catiline’s blunt insistence on total abolition was only an impracticable ruse to incite the plebeians to revolt. To augment his forces, Catiline began treasonously courting Gallic tribes for reinforcements to take the city. Standing staunchly in opposition to Catiline was the venerable novus homo senator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC). Voluminous writings by Cicero have survived, and his influence on our perspective of the last decades of the republic has been so prominent (notably with a pro-senate stance) that the period is sometimes called “the age of Cicero.” In a stirring series of denunciations, Cicero castigated Catiline as an egocentric profligate and delinquent intent on entirely upturning Roman social order. His Catilinarian Orations have survived intact, and represent the best-known examples of classical Roman rhetoric. Due in large part to Cicero’s efforts, Catiline’s popular support began to falter, and he sought refuge in Gaul, hoping to raise up an army to march into Italy. He was pursued by the sitting consuls and killed in battle, and Cicero instigated a purge of the conspirators remaining in Rome, proclaiming that he had saved the republic. It was perhaps the last significant moment in the history of the Roman senate. The failure of Catiline once again exposed a truth: popular acclaim was insufficient to attain personal power if it was without reliable backing of an army. A number of Catiline backers who had promised to endorse his attempted coup abandoned him when he began to make irreversible actions towards revolt. In the narrow stakes of power in the fading republic, it was becoming clear that personal loyalties and seemingly strong fealties were illusory. Among Catiline’s tentative supporters was Julius Caesar, who was to reap the benefits of these crucial realizations.

The Rise of Caesar

By the time of his murder, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) could rightfully claim to have been the most consequential European since Alexander the Great. As one of the great fork-roads of history, Caesar set the Western world on a determinative course, a course which would have been utterly impossible without him. Appropriately for such a titanic figure, no consensus on his conduct and its consequences is possible. To the senatorial class in the generations that followed him, Caesar was the final menace to the republic and its great destroyer while, to much of the Roman populace and the army, he was the savior of the state. In modern times, assessments of Caesar have been generally negative. The American Founders identified with the patrician defenders of the Roman republic, and deplored the possibility of an American Caesar. In our own time there is among general historians a great uneasiness about Caesar, stemming perhaps from our association of him with 20th-century dictators. In truth, Caesar deserves a more generous assessment. That Caesar was vain, ruthless, and intermittently unscrupulous is indisputable. But in destroying the remnants of a corrupt and oppressive oligarchy, Caesar effectively dissolved the social fissures that had impaired the Roman state for the previous century. As dictator, Caesar never oppressed the Roman people, and his actions made a fine contrast with the “republicans,” who hid behind their supposed ideals to promote avaricious policies predatory to the Roman middle and lower classes. The generosity of Caesar’s will, endowing all his personal wealth to the people, is famous, and established a precedent for subsequent emperors. It was no accident that under the imperial period, Roman standard of living across all economic classes was to soar. The dictatorship of Caesar was not inevitable. Had the oligarchs respected the republican mechanisms that generated reform, they might have avoided Caesar. But they resorted to arbitrary power to stall or prevent them, leaving the people little choice but to entrust their grievances to military populists, a paradigm of which Caesar proved an enduring architect.

Caesar began his political career after compulsory military service by serving as quaestor in 69 BC. He made no secret of courting the disaffected coalition of Marius against the reigning Sullan faction, despite the fact that his first wife was Sulla’s granddaughter. His populism made him considerable enemies, but he was fortunate to obtain the funding of Crassus, and was elected aedile in 65 BC. He became Pontifex Maximus (chief priest)3 in 63 BC, and praetor in 62 BC, and became embroiled in the Catiline conspiracy, an entanglement from which he extricated himself by securing a pro-praetorship in Hispania. It was here that the greatness of Caesar the general was first manifested. Thanks to the pillage from his Hispanic campaigns, Caesar was wealthy enough to stand for the consulship in 60 BC. The senate thoroughly hated Caesar, chief among them Marcus Porcius Cato (95-46), and Caesar realized the need for allies if he were to attain a command as pro-consul. Thus was the idea of the first triumvirate between Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus concocted, and it proved lucrative for each member. Pompey was seeking consular support for a land settlement for his veterans of the Pontus campaign, and Crassus desired legislation related to his financial interests. To solidify the alliance, Pompey married Caesar’s daughter Julia. With the support of his fellow triumvirs, Caesar won the consulship and dutifully passed the wished-for laws. In return, Pompey and Crassus used their influence with the senate to grant Caesar a five-year pro-consulship in Gaul. In 59 BC, Caesar ventured on the total conquest and assimilation of the area into the Roman state.

Caesar has been accused of crimes of war (and even of genocide) in his militarily brilliant conduct of the Gallic War, but these claims are somewhat dubious. The war was indeed brutal, and was the first Roman war to inflict over a million casualties. But these figures have more to do with the sheer scope of the campaign than with any excess savagery on Caesar’s part, which was standard for Roman military campaigns of the republican era. Routine massacres of civilians, sacrificial torture, and treachery in negotiation were all hallmarks of Roman conquest (as they often were of Roman adversaries), and Caesar’s war was not unique in this regard. While Caesar personally profited greatly from the loot of the war, he made sure to distribute liberally to his soldiers, and also spent the funds on popular entertainment such as gladiatorial games in the Roman amphitheaters, to the great delight of the Roman citizenry. This was a refreshing contrast for a people long accustomed to patrician greed with spoils of conquests. In 55 BC with Caesar in Gaul, Pompey and Crassus were elected consuls once again. Caesar was given assurances that his pro-consular assignment in Gaul would be renewed for another five years, and in return he endorsed a pro-consular assignment for Crassus in the province of Syria, for the purposes of launching a conquest of the Parthian empire to the east. But the next two years saw the collapse of the triumvirate. In 54 BC Pompey’s wife, Julia, died unexpectedly, thus severing the familial ties between Pompey and Caesar. Crassus commenced his Parthian campaign in 53 BC with disastrous consequences. The Arab guides tasked with leading Crassus’ legions through the desert to the Parthian capital proved traitorous, and instead led them to where they were ambushed by the Parthians at the desert oasis of Carrhae. The Parthians, famed for their proficiency with the bow, rained down arrows on Crassus’ thirsty and exhausted legions. Crassus attempted to rally his soldiers even after the death of his own son, but they had no heart for the fight and forced him to attempt to seek terms. Upon meeting the Parthians, Crassus was swiftly beheaded and his head was delivered to the Parthian king, who had it used as a prop in a theatrical production. Virtually none of his legionaries escaped the massacre that followed.

In Rome, the shock of the disaster at Carrhae, coupled with the continued successes of Caesar in Gaul, caused the senate to insist on drastic measures for the defense of the state. Crassus had often acted as an intermediary between Caesar and Pompey and prevented each from attaining too much influence, but in the wake of his death it was suspected that both men would seek unbridled power. Though the senate was generally wary of Pompey, they could not bear the thought of a triumphant Caesar, and so Pompey was elected to a sole consulship in 52 BC, and essentially given indefinite authority in the city of Rome. The frightened senate pushed him into proclaiming Caesar a traitor in 50 BC, and publicized a warning that Caesar would be arrested should he set foot again in Italy. The senators likely hoped that Caesar’s soldiers would mutiny on hearing this, or that Caesar would be deterred from seeking power in Rome and simply remain in Gaul, perhaps opting to rule the territory as a rogue king. But the senate underestimated the fanaticism of the loyalty of Caesar’s soldiers to their general, and also crucially misassessed the degree of Caesar’s popularity in the city of Rome itself. Declaring that Alea iacta est (The die is cast), Caesar in 49 BC famously crossed the Rubicon stream that marked his entrance into the Italian peninsula with his legions. When the pro-Caesar tribune Mark Antony (83-30 BC) tried to nominate Caesar for consul in 48 BC, the oligarchs banished him from Rome. But the speed with which Caesar descended into the city caught his opponents by surprise, and they scattered to the provinces to raise their armies, fearing that the city would riot against them. Pompey fled to Greece, where he instituted a mass levy and raised an army over two times the size of Caesar’s. Caesar recognized that delay would only strengthen Pompey, so he decided to pursue him into Greece before he had a secure supply source from Italy. This recklessness almost undid him, as Pompey had numerous opportunities to rout Caesar’s unprepared legions but declined to seize the initiative. Pompey’s unwillingness to engage Caesar was astonishing, and his baffled subordinates finally forced him into action. From the beginning of his military career, Pompey’s abilities as a commander had been exaggerated. In the Battle of Pharsalus that followed, he inexplicably folded, allowing Caesar’s legions the better ground and refusing to press at advantage points. Caesar’s forces annihilated Pompey’s, and Pompey embarked for the tributary state of Ptolemaic Egypt. The reigning ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy XIII (Cleopatra’s brother and co-ruler, whom she later poisoned), was less than happy to see him, and knowing that Caesar was in pursuit he had Pompey beheaded before he could unload his ships. Caesar arrived to find his old colleague dead, and spent a few months in Egypt having an affair with Cleopatra, with whom he fathered a son called Caesarion. With Pompey gone the senatorial cause was hopeless, and Caesar easily dispensed with the remaining opposition across the empire. His fiercest enemy, Cato the Stoic, stabbed himself in North Africa after Caesar defeated his meager legionary force. Interestingly, when Caesar returned triumphantly to Rome, he announced a general amnesty of the patricians and senators who had opposed him, a gracious and unexpected gesture that was to contribute to his death.

The Last Stand of the Oligarchs

With absolute mastery of Rome, Caesar declared himself “perpetual dictator of the commonwealth”; unlike Sulla, he had no intention of retiring and returning power to the patricians. He abolished the tribunate, declaring that he himself was the people’s permanent advocate. Though this sounds presumptuous in the extreme, it is certainly true that had Caesar stood for election he would have won overwhelmingly any position he chose. He requited this popularity by liberally awarding land in the provinces (often confiscated from opposing senators) to his veterans and supporters, and re-established the colonization program of Gaius Gracchus whereby landless plebeians were rewarded with property ownership if they agreed to cultivate land in undeveloped areas of the empire. He also swelled the ranks of the senate with his military associates,\ and accepted the numerous honors the now entirely ceremonial body heaped on him. When the senate offered to make him king, Caesar made a show of declining the offer. Intending to avenge the death of Crassus by invading Parthia, Caesar in 44 BC began to make preparations for a lengthy military campaign. He was not to see this come to fruition. A cabal of senatorial conspirators led by Marcus Brutus (85-42 BC) and Caius Cassius (86-42 BC) planned to lure Caesar to the senate house on the pretext of new honors and there assassinate him. The motives of these conspirators varied widely; many were merely envious, and hardly opposed Caesar on the grounds of republican principle, since they desired for themselves the power that Caesar had attained. In the instance of Brutus, a man who had been a protégé of Caesar in the years prior to the civil war, it is generally thought that he was motivated by a genuine aspiration to restore the old ways of the republic.4 The conspirators rather blindly thought that with Caesar gone his political coalition would dissipate and that the senators would be free to reassert some degree of power in the resulting chaos. Despite forewarnings by soothsayers not to enter the capitol where the senate held session, Caesar accepted the senate summons on the Ides of March — March 15, 44 BC. The conspirators surrounded him and stabbed him to death beneath a statue of his old rival Pompey.5 On the advice of Brutus, the conspirators blundered enormously by allowing Mark Antony (who Cassius had desired to assassinate alongside Caesar) to give a funeral oration commemorating the death of Caesar. Antony incited the people to vengeful frenzy, and the conspirators were forced to flee Rome for their lives.

Brutus and Cassius fled to Greece to raise levies like Pompey had four years before and, in the confused aftermath of the assassination, Mark Antony attempted to take supreme power in Rome. But many of the pro-Caesar senators were disinclined to support Antony, who had a well-earned reputation for dissolute living, as Caesar’s successor. Instead they invited Caesar’s very young great-nephew and adopted heir, Octavian (63 BC-14 AD), to take power under the guardianship of the senate. Cicero, who had not been privy to the conspiracy and yet was uneasily close to many of the conspirators, was a personal enemy of Antony and believed that Octavian could be cultivated as a compliant pawn of the patricians. The senate declared Antony an outlaw and sent an army under Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (90-13 BC, son of the Lepidus of the ill-fated coup of 77 BC) to capture him. But in a shocking turn of events, Lepidus offered a partnership with Antony and Octavian in a move of incredible shrewdness for such a young statesman, abandoned his senatorial promoters and joined the two to form the second triumvirate. Octavian had correctly calculated that the people would not stand for even a brief return of senatorial rule, and that only a united front of Caesar’s associates would defeat the army of the conspirators. With Antony ascendant, a great number of senators paid the price for having opposed him, among them Cicero, who was killed in his home on orders of the triumvirs. With the alliance compacted, the triumvirate was free to pursue Brutus and Cassius into Greece. Lepidus was left to govern Rome while Antony and Octavian confronted the conspirators at the Battle of Philippi in 43 BC. The first day of the battle was a stalemate: Brutus defeated Octavian’s legions, and Antony defeated those of Cassius. Cassius, beholding messengers from Brutus across the field, mistook them for the enemy and ordered one of his slaves to stab him to death. This premature suicide shook the spirits of Brutus’ soldiers, and they were routed in the next day’s fight. To avoid capture Brutus, followed his colleague in death and fell on his sword. The triumvirate established a three-headed dictatorship and divided the regions of the empire among them. Antony was awarded the eastern provinces, Octavian the western, and Lepidus, far the feeblest of the three, was allotted North Africa.

The cooperation of the triumvirate hinged entirely on whether they had common enemies, and for some years they did. Pompey’s son Sextus (67-36 BC) had lived as a fugitive in various provinces of the empire since his father’s death, but he took his opportunity against the distracted triumvirs in 42 BC by building up a navy and seizing the island of Sicily. Pompey had notable naval successes against Octavian’s forces and for a time the triumvirs were forced to come to terms with him. Antony, meanwhile, had taken up a legendary affair with Cleopatra in Egypt, and as his attachment for her grew so did his alienation from Rome. When his fearsomely aggressive wife, Fulvia, revolted against Octavian, Antony was forced to leave Egypt and patch up the fomenting distrust between him and Octavian. As Antony was en route, Fulvia conveniently died, so the alliance was solidified by the marriage of Antony with Octavian’s sister Octavia. This was a disastrous prospect, given Antony’s continuing love for Cleopatra, and at the first opportunity he abandoned her and returned to Egypt. With this insult to a much-respected Roman woman, Antony’s political capital in Rome was totally depleted, and Octavian was in a position to follow his adoptive father and attempt to seize a sole dictatorship. He reneged on the agreement with Pompey and destroyed his Sicilian fleet (much thanks to his skilled lieutenant Marcus Agrippa) in 36 BC. Lepidus, who had always been the afterthought of the triumvirate, tried to assert his claims on Sicily by force, but his army defected to Octavian. Octavian arrested and imprisoned Lepidus and seized his territories without consulting Antony in the East. Octavian had only to remove Antony, and he would be master of the empire. He cleverly declared war not on Antony, but on Cleopatra’s client state of Egypt, knowing full well that Antony would take up her cause as his own. Antony, who had given up so much politically because of his love for Cleopatra, also proved incapable of conducting military operations with her by his side. Cleopatra insisted on commanding the Egyptian fleet herself, but this force was assembled of conscripts of dubious ability and loyalty. Antony was constantly terrified by the thought that Cleopatra would make a separate peace with Octavian, a fear that was far more emotional than it was political. At the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC off the western coast of Greece, Antony’s forces had the advantage over Octavian’s, but all was marred when the Cleopatra-led Egyptian contingent, in a burst of cowardice, fled from the fighting. Antony followed after his love, and the forces remaining in battle panicked without their commander. Octavian dismembered Antony’s fleet, and Antony had no choice but to scurry to Egypt. His un-Roman behavior had provoked numerous of his subordinates to defect to Octavian, and back in Alexandria he found that he had no army. When told that Cleopatra was dead, Antony attempted suicide by falling on his sword but succeeded only in mangling himself. Cleopatra was, in fact, not dead, and the expiring Antony was carried to her place of refuge to die in her arms.6 Octavian annexed the province of Egypt and consecrated it as the Roman province of Aegyptia, putting an end to a 3,000-year tradition of the pharaohs.7 He greatly desired to hold a triumph and parade the hated Cleopatra through Rome, but she outwitted his guard and smuggled venomous asps hidden in figs into her holding place, where she poisoned herself by applying one to her breast. An angered Octavian had her son by Caesar, Caesarion, put to death.

The Imperial Consolidation

The triumph of Octavian quelled the last vestiges of the old republic. Upon his return to Rome, Octavian declared himself perpetual dictator, tribune and censor, and the sycophantic ranks of the senate granted him numerous accolades. In his own words, Octavian was princeps, or first citizen, and he took on the permanent title of Imperator (victor). Having already adopted the name Caesar from his great-uncle, he shed his given name, Octavian, and had the senate bequeath him the name Augustus (the illustrious one).8 Thenceforward, all emperors would take the name Augustus Caesar upon assumption of the office of princeps. Having spent a lifetime mired in civil wars, Augustus sought to make certain that the government he founded would continue after his death, and he was aided in this by his ample administrative abilities. Augustus expanded the land settlement policies of Julius Caesar, and centralized tax collection across the empire.9 He reorganized the legions geographically and concentrated them on the frontiers, where they were equipped to act swiftly in the event of invasions. The army commanders now swore personal allegiance to the emperor, and Augustus created an elite force of them to protect the emperor and his family which came to be known as the Praetorian Guard. On economic matters, Augustus stabilized the currency at a fixed silver weight after a century of oscillating monetary policy and instituted a price ceiling on the price of grain (much to the relief of the common people who had faced poverty and sometimes outright starvation in the chaotic years of civil war). He induced the senate to adopt a measure declaring his stepson, Tiberius, to be his successor, and late in his reign he elevated Tiberius to the status of co-Caesar.

The success of the imperial system was only equivocal in its first century, for while the empire prospered economically, in the 1st century AD it hardly demonstrated an adequate level of political stability. Tiberius succeeded Augustus as mandated in 14 AD, but promptly neglected his office to live in luxuriant lechery on the island of Capri. Of the first eleven emperors, eight died by violent means, either by suicide or murder. Two of them, Caligula and Nero, are notorious to this day for their depravities. Though the emperor was all-powerful, he could not afford to alienate the army or the Praetorian Guard. These institutions had essentially replaced the senate of the republic as the determinative influencing body of the state, and naturally were more populist in outlook than the patrician senate had been. Since our source chroniclers for the early empire (Suetonius and Tacitus) were of the marginalized old patrician class, they naturally had little good to say about any emperor. Thus, we are rather shocked to find that Nero, for instance, who is known today as a matricidal megalomaniac and a prototype of the Antichrist for his persecution of the early Christians, was profusely mourned upon his suicide in 68 AD by the common people and the army. There must have been some compelling reason for this. When in 96 BC the senate finally secured the position of princeps for one of their own — Marcus Nerva — it ushered in the so-called Age of the Five Good Emperors: Nerva ruled 96-98, Trajan 98-117, Hadrian 117-138, Antoninus Pius 138-161, and the famed Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius 161-180. It was during this period that the empire reached its greatest extent and of which Edward Gibbon, author of the magisterial The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote: 

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian (96) to the accession of Commodus (180).”

It is hopeless to dispute Gibbon’s (and many have tried to) that, especially by the standards of the ancient world, the era witnessed unprecedented degrees of peace and prosperity. It is staggering to note that the estimated GDP of Europe in the 2nd century was not matched until the onset of the Industrial Revolution 1,600 years later. Such a period is surely a partial vindication of the imperial system established by Augustus, even if we grant the special perspicacities demonstrated in turn by each of the five emperors. It was in these five that Plato’s ideal of the “philosopher-king,” outlined in his Republic, was most persuasively manifested.10 Any analysis of the later collapse of the Western empire is beyond the subject of this paper, but to blame the imperial system itself as a cause is certainly erroneous, since it survived almost as long as the republic did, and with greater prosperity.11 Our chronicle of the descent of the republic is at an end; it now remains for us to glean from it what is applicable to our own.

This essay will be continued in the next issue.


  1. A triumph was a parade, often featuring large numbers of military captives and gaudy entertainment, which marched through the city with the triumphator at the head wearing a laurel crown. In the later empire period, the title of triumphator was permanently affixed to the reigning emperor and the laurel crown came to be associated with the empire itself.
  2. Under the Roman constitution, individuals could be granted the title of “dictator” by the senate and awarded “extraordinary powers necessary for the preservation of the state” in times of grave crisis. During the Punic Wars, the title was frequently granted to consuls, but a dictator did not necessarily have to be a magistrate. Far back in 458 BC, Cincinnatus was famously granted the title of dictator while in retirement, the embassy sent to inform him having located him in his fields working the plow.
  3. The continuous function of Pontifex Maximus was a relatively uncommon stop on the cursus honorum but, as the ceremonial head of all religious festivals and rituals in the city, the position had great potential for expanding popular support, a potential which Caesar exploited.
  4. This naiveté is illustrated dramatically in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where Brutus moves us with his sincerity but blunders every political calculation, frequently overriding the pragmatic objections of Cassius.
  5. It is unlikely that Caesar uttered the phrase Et tu, Brute? (Even you, Brutus?) as portrayed in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
  6. This is one of the great scenes of Shakespeare as is the scene of the death of Cleopatra, both portrayed in Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare’s sympathies in this play are certainly not with the realpolitik of Octavian, but rather with the plangent fall of Antony and the godlike defiance of Cleopatra, and their love emerges as an exemplar of the heroic. There is no greater demonstration than in this work that what is triumphant in life is rarely compelling in art, and that to the artists, it is the sublime catastrophe, not the carefully-wrought victory of tight-lipped intrigue that inspires the foremost fannings of the imagination. We offer this lest anyone should think that Shakespeare (or any truly great artist) writes in the motive of cautionary instruction.
  7. This lineage included Assyrians, Persians, and Greeks who assumed the title of pharaoh upon conquest.
  8. Augustus’ full titles at his death were Imperator Caesar Divi filius Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Consul XIII, Imperator XXI, Tribuniciae potestatis XXXVII, Pater patriae.
  9. Readers of the New Testament will be familiar with one of these reforms in the descriptions of the publicans, natives to a given area hired by Rome to enforce tax collection. These individuals could become very wealthy, since they received a generous cut of the revenue, but were hated by their local countrymen. Augustus also ordered periodic censuses of the provinces for the purposes of assessing the expected tax revenue, an instance of which can be found in the narration of the Nativity in the Gospel of Luke.
  10. It is extremely tempting to liken these five emperors to our first five presidents, though they are disjunctive chronologically, with Washington as Trajan, Adams as Nerva, Jefferson as Marcus Aurelius, Madison as Hadrian and Monroe as Antoninus Pius. There are fascinating similarities and also crucial discrepancies that I will not indulge here but encourage interested readers to examine for themselves.
  11. If the Byzantine Empire is counted as an authentic continuation of the Roman, then the empire lasted three times as long as the republic.     *
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