The Human Story – The Roman Republic. Or Was It Empire?

The Romans. The ancient world’s kings of badassery! Or, perhaps “king” is the wrong word to describe them.

Legend has it that the city of Rome was founded on seven hills in 753 BCE by a chap named Romulus who, along with his twin brother Remus, was raised by a wolf. Romulus and Remus had a falling out and the former killed his brother in a rage (in Romulus’ defence, I cannot imagine that there was much in the way of emotional education during their canine upbringing). As its founder Romulus was, naturally, appointed to act as the first King of Rome with six more were to follow him.

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The final and seventh king was a man by the name of Tarquinius who grew to become a very unpopular king despite various military victories (usually something that proved very popular throughout Roman history). He diminished the size and authority of the senate by killing some senators and refusing to replace them, and he failed to consult the senate on matters of government anyway. In another break with tradition, he judged capital criminal cases without the advice of counsellors, thereby creating fear amongst those who may oppose him. The final straw came when his son raped Lucretia, a married noblewoman, who could not live with the shame and tragically stabbed herself and died in her father’s arms. The people were so disgusted and horrified that in one voice they cried “that they would rather die a thousand deaths in defence of their liberty than suffer such outrages to be committed by the tyrants.”

And so, it was. The Roman people overthrew their monarchy in 509 BCE and established the Roman Republic with Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus and Lucius Junius Brutus, the two men who had led the revolution, as the first co-consuls.

Governing the Roman Republic

In order to understand the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire we need to indulge in a bit of Great Man History. No man epitomises this transition as much as Julius Caesar, “great man” that he was.

Caesar was stabbed in the back by some of his colleagues from the senate because they were convinced that he was going to destroy the Republic. Even if he that was what he was planning, we still need to ask ourselves two questions:

1. Was the Roman Republic worth preserving?
2. Whether or not Caesar actually destroyed it?

One thing that made the Roman Republic endure as long as it did (509 – 27 BCE) was its political balance. The Greek historian Polybius said that the three forms of government – Monarchy (although in the Republic’s case “Diarchy” – two-person rule would be more accurate), Aristocracy and Democracy – could all be found unified within the structure of the Roman political system. At the heart of this blended system was the senate (the body of legislators chosen from a group of elite families). Essentially, Roman society was broken into two broad categories:

Patricians – Small group of aristocratic families (where the senators were selected from)
Plebeians – Everyone else

The senate was a mixture of legislature and advisory council whose main job was to set policy for the consuls. Each year the senate would choose two co-consuls from amongst its ranks to serve as the heads of Rome – the monarchy (diarchy) aspect of Polybius’ description of the Republic. Two senators were elevated to the rank of consul in order to check one another’s ambitions and so that one could deal with domestic issues whilst the other was off fighting Rome’s enemies and conquering new lands. There were also an additional two checks on power. Firstly, the single year term – I mean, how much trouble can someone really cause in one year? Secondly, once a consul had served then he was forbidden from holding that office again for at least ten years (or at least that was supposed to be the case anyway).

Because co-consuls only reigned for one year, the calendar year was named after the reigning consuls of that given year. For example, 509 BCE, the first year of the Roman Republic was known as the “Year of Brutus and Collatinus” whilst 82 BCE was remembered as the “Year of Marius and Carbo”. An additional post was created for times of extreme danger when the Republic itself was in danger. This post was filled for the first time in 494 BCE when the Republic was scarcely a teenager and the senate decided that Manius Valerius Maximus was the right man for the job. However, the archetypal dictator was Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus – the selfless Roman general (and ex-consul) who came out of retirement from his farm, took command of an army and defeated Rome’s enemy before relinquishing power and returning to his modest life on the farm. He did this twice!! First in 458 BCE and and then again in 439 BCE.

The Life & Times of Julius Caesar

Now, back to Julius Caesar and Great Man History.

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Gaius Julius Caesar was born in July 100 BCE (Year of Marius and Flaccus, in case you were wondering) to one of Rome’s patrician families. It is often claimed that he was born of Caesarean Section, hence the name. This is, however, false – his family gained the name “Caesar” after an earlier ancestor had been born via this operation.

Seeing as Caesar was from the upper class of society it was only natural that he would serve both in the army and the senate. He proved to be a competent general and was rewarded with the post of governor of Hispania Ulterior (modern southern Spain) before deciding to run for the office: that of consul. However, Caesar was in debt and in order to win the consulship he needed financial aid. He turned to Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome at the time.

In 59 BCE, Caesar was elected to the office of consul and aimed to dominate the Roman political arena by allying himself with Crassus and Rome’s other powerful player, General Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known as Pompey – who you will remember egomaniacally styled himself as “the Great” in homage to Alexander).

Crassus, Pompey and Caesar made up the First Triumvirate and this alliance worked out exceedingly well for Caesar. Meh, not so much the other two.

After his year as consul, which involved getting the senate to pass laws largely through intimidation of Pompey’s troops, Caesar landed the governorship of Roman controlled Gaul. He quickly conquered the rest of the territory and his four loyal Legions became the source of his own personal power. He continued conquering new territories in the north, and even brought parts of Britain into the Roman sphere of influence.

While Caesar was off fighting his Gallic Wars, Crassus, the governor of Roman Syria (one of the richest Roman provinces, thanks in no small part to the Silk Road trade routes) by this time, was killed in battle with the Parthian Empire. Crassus’ wealth and political influence had acted as the counterbalance to the other two egos of the Triumvirate and the alliance quickly began to unravel after Pompey was elected consul. The senate and Pompey decided to strip Caesar of his command and recall him to Rome. Caesar knew that if he returned without his army he would have been prosecuted for corruption and exceeding his authority. So instead he returned to Rome with the Thirteenth Legion, crossed the Rubicon River and cast the die.

Pompey fled the city and by 48 BCE Gaius Julius Caesar was named both consul and dictator (although he resigned the office of dictator after only 11 days). He promptly left for Egypt to track down his old friend, only to discover that he had already been killed by the Pharaoh Ptolemy. Egypt had its own problems, however, and was also going through its own civil war between the pharaoh and his sister, Cleopatra. Ptolemy had been trying to gain favour with Caesar by killing Pompey, but Caesar was furious as he had wanted to capture his nemesis alive and so sided with Cleopatra after she seduced him. He withstood the Siege of Alexandria and later defeated the pharaoh’s forces at the Battle of the Nile in 47 BCE and installed Cleopatra as Egypt’s ruler.

Eventually, after much celebration, he made his way back to Rome, stopping off to defeat a few enemies in the east, most notably the King of Pontius. He then travelled the length of the Mediterranean Sea to defeat Pompey’s sons in Hispania Ulterior. When he arrived home he was, once again, declared as dictator and this was extended to 10 years and then for life. In 46 BCE he was elected consul and in 45 BCE he was elected as the sole consul. Julius Caesar truly was the undisputed master of the Roman Republic and he pursued reforms and policies that only strengthened his own position and consolidated his power. He granted land pensions for his soldiers; he restructured the debts of a huge amount of Rome’s debtors; and he changed the calendar to look much more like the one we have today; think of the “Julian Calendar”. Between crossing the Rubicon in 49 BCE and 44 BCE, Caesar established a new constitution which intended to accomplish three separate goals:

1. Suppress all armed resistance out in the provinces and thus bring order back to the Republic.
2. Create strong central government in Rome
3. Knit together all of the provinces into one single cohesive unit

The first of these he achieved after defeating Pompey and his supporters. He needed to ensure that the central government faced no internal challenge in order to secure the other two goals. Using his position as dictator, he simply assumed these powers by increasing his own authority which, in turn, decreased the power of Rome’s other political institutions.

By 44 BCE many senators were, understandably, beginning to feel that Caesar controlled too much power in Rome. According to the Roman historian Eutropius around 60 senators conspired to kill the dictator. Caesar was attacked and stabbed 23 times on the senate floor on the 15th March, a Roman holiday known as the Ides of March.

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The conspirators believed that the death of Caesar would bring about the restoration of the Roman Republic. Boy, were they wrong!!

Out With The Old, In With The New

There was one thing about Caesar’s policies and reforms…. they were very popular with the people who were quick to acknowledge his adopted son (his maternal great-nephew) and named heir Octavian, Caesar’s second in command, Mark Antony and his friend and ally Marcus Aemilius Lepidus as the Second Triumvirate.

This new Triumvirate proved to be an even bigger disaster than the first one and the Republic descended into another civil war. Octavian and Mark Antony fought it out with Octavian emerging as the victor. He changed his name to Augustus and became the sole ruler and first emperor of Rome. Augustus liked to pretend that the structures and form of the Republic were still in tact but the truth is that he made the laws and the Senate was reduced to nothing more than a rubber stamper.

So, the question remains. Did Caesar destroy the Roman Republic?

Well, he did start a series of civil wars that ravaged the Roman Republic, seized power for himself, subverted the ideas of the Republic and alter the constitution to suit his own ambitions. But he would only be to blame if he had been the first to do these things. Spoiler – he was not.

The General Gaius Marius (an uncle of Julius Caesar) served as consul seven times and rose to power on the strength of his military leadership and willingness to open the army up to the poor. He promised land in exchange for service and because of this Marius’ soldiers were loyal to Marius, not to Rome. There was one small drawback to this scheme, however. In order to grant these new lands to the soldiers, the army had to keep conquering new lands.

Another General, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (Sulla), was around at the same time as Marius and he ensured that his armies pledged loyalty to him. The two men fought a brutal civil war, which many believe to be the beginning of the end for the Republic. Sulla emerged triumphant and installed himself as dictator, executing thousands in a political purge in 81 BCE.

Julius Caesar grew up during these violent and uncertain times. He was nothing more than a product of his time who was, himself, on the list of Sulla’s political enemies due to his connections with Marius’ regime. The threat against him was only lifted after the intervention of his mother’s family, which included supporters of Sulla. The dictator gave in reluctantly and is said to have declared that he “saw many a Marius in Caesar.”

All of this occurred only 20 years before Julius Caesar first took the office of consul. Ideas of grandeur must have been formulating in Caesar’s head during these formative years.

Another way to look at the question of whether Julius Caesar destroyed the Roman Republic is to set the Great Man outlook of history aside and focus on the fact that Rome became an empire before it had an emperor because… well, Rome was an empire. If we think back to the Persian Empire, we will remember that the empire had some characteristics that made it imperial:

1. A unified system of government
2. Continual military expansion
3. Diversity of subject peoples

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The Roman Empire possessed all three of these empire-creating qualities long before it became the “Roman Empire”. It may have started out as a city, but it soon morphed into a city-state and then kingdom before it became a republic. That entire time, it comprised only the area around Rome and was wholly confined to the Italian peninsula. During the fourth century BCE the Roman Republic began to incorporate neighbouring cities and their territories, such as the Latins and Etruscans, and pretty soon Rome was the undisputed king of Italy. However, there was not really diversification of subject peoples at this point.

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The real expansion of diversity began during the Punic Wars (so called because the Romans called the Carthaginians, their enemies, the Punics). There were three Punic Wars in all. The first one broke out because Rome wanted the island of Sicily which was under the control of the Carthaginians. Rome won the war and captured Sicily which made quite a few Carthaginians upset, so they began the Second Punic War. This was the war of the Roman Republic! In 219 BCE the Carthaginian general Hannibal attacked a Roman town and led an army through Spain and up across the Alps (all the more impressive as he brought war elephants with his army). Hannibal delivered stunning and monumental victories for Carthage but ultimately was unable to win the war, the result being that Rome took the Iberian Peninsula. Now, the people of Iberia are definitely not Roman and so the argument can be made that Rome had an empire in all but name as early as 201 BCE. The Third Punic War was really nothing more than a formality – Rome found an excuse to attack Carthage and utterly destroy it. Eventually, the whole area of North Africa (Carthage was located in modern day Tunisia) and much, much more became incorporated into Rome’s system of provinces and millions of people found themselves living in this Roman Empire.

To argue that Rome was not an empire before Augustus became its first official emperor is ludicrous. By the time that Augustus dissolved the Republic and proclaimed himself as Emperor, Rome itself had already been an empire for nearly 200 years.

There is a good argument to be made that the death of the Roman Republic came long before Caesar and probably around the time that it became an empire.

If anything destroyed the idea of republican Rome it was the concentration of power into the hands of one man – it was always an ambitious general. You cannot march on Rome without an army, after all. Why were there such powerful generals capable of this in the first place? Well, because Rome decided to become an empire and empires need to expand militarily (particularly the Roman Empire as it always needed new land to dole out to retired troops). This military expansion created the all-powerful general and the integration of diverse peoples into the army made it easier for the individual general to extract personal allegiance from his soldiers rather than them be loyal to the abstract idea of the Roman Republic.

Julius Caesar may often be accused of dissolving the republic and creating emperors, but the truth is he did not, he was just a catalyst. In the end it was empire that created the emperors of Rome.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade