Monday, March 15, 2010

The Fall of the Roman Republic a Note

The Roman Empire 60 B.C.E.

The fall of the Roman Republic and its replacement by the Roman Imperial Empire was one of the most epoch shaking events in history for failure would have meant the end of the Roman state and empire.

As I said in an earlier posting the obvious if not only solution to the serious problems with the Roman Republic governing an empire with a governmental structure geared to running a city state was autocratic one man rule. The problem was the ethos and political sense of the Roman ruling classes basically forbade accepting the rule of one man and hence elevating one man has superior to them all. The very idea of “King” was anathema to the Roman ruling class and utterly unacceptable. The problem was the cooperation of this ruling class was absolutely essential in order for the state to function, but they would also likely bring down or kill anyone who aspired to dictatorial or one man rule.1

In fact it was not just the fact that the Roman ruling class was so opposed to one man rule; it was also in many respects hopelessly corrupt and out of control. In many respects the greed and brutality of the Roman Ruling class was so vicious and so widespread has to endanger the very survival of the state. A classic example was the violence and corruption by which the Roman ruling class opposed the extension of Roman Citizenship to Italians in the period 100-90 B.C.E., including murdering the politician who championed it. The result was the near destruction of the empire at its core. The details of this war are poorly given in our sources but the war seems to have been bloody and very brutal.

What happened was that despairing of getting Roman Citizenship many of the Italian states allied with Rome succeeded from Rome and set up their own state, with their own Senate and capital. When Rome tried to crush the revolt, called the Social War, proved impossible to crush. Which was hardly a surprise given that the Italian allies, who had fought in Rome’s wars also were just as good at war making as full fledged Romans. After c. 1 year of indecisive warfare with all of Etruria about to go over to the rebels, and thus sealing the collapse of Rome as a major power, the Roman Senate finally did the right thing. Citizenship was offered to allies who remained loyal, then to those who quite the rebel cause. The rebellion instead of being crushed simply petered out. However it had been an incredibly close call. This event is amazingly enough not given the status it deserves in the historical records as one of the most important events of ancient times. Because failure to solve this issue would have but an end to the Roman Empire by fatally dividing Italy.2

After that close call, which indicated that the Roman ruling class, as personified by the doings of the Roman Senate was losing its grasp of doing the sensible and expedient and instead acting in crass, narrow minded self interest with potentially fatal consequences, Rome plunged into a series of destructive civil conflicts, pointless intrigues, purges and much gratuitous, pointless violence. During all this the empire continued to expand and so did the venality and corruption of the Roman officials sent to govern the empire. So at the same time the empire expanded it was creaking at the seams ready to fall apart.3

The long history of the various intrigues, machinations etc, which occurred in the period after the Social War, are not germane to the topic of this post except to note that they indicate the steady loss of command of the situation by the traditional governing institutions of the state, most especially the Senate, and those institutions steady loss of political sense. In effect the idea emerged that the state existed so that members of the Roman Ruling class through their command of the state could personally profit from such control over the state. Not surprisingly this attitude was deeply resented by other members of the state who had citizenship rights and felt they also had a right to benefit from the Roman state. Of course all sorts of other groups also through their champions tried to influence the state. The fact that the Roman State, although Oligarchic, had democratic features through its popular assemblies insured that those who felt they were being exploited would have both a voice and champions. The Senate and other supporters of the ruling class position, called Optimates, through its systems of clientele and patronage could deflect and eliminate much of this popular opposition but could never quite defuse it; especially since various members of the ruling class for reasons of self advancement and in the interest of jockeying for power felt it expedient to support the popular cause against the ruling class.

The resulting conflict of the orders was frequently bloody and quite ruthless, with purges, massacres, terror and all round mayhem. All of which further weakened the state. The Republic was dying a long slow and quite contorted death. But in the end the chief characteristic of the decline of the Roman Republic was the almost incredible, but the undeniable loss of political sense in the Roman ruling class and it's seeming hell bent suicidal drive to self destruction.4

The event that more than anything signifies the terminal stupidity and lack of sense of the Roman Ruling class as shown by the Roman Senate is a series of events in 61-59 B.C.E. Basically the Roman Ruling class through its instrument the Senate managed to quite effectively cut its own throat.

Before going into these events I should give an overview of a man who in many ways is an outstanding example of why and how the Roman ruling class self destructed and literally had to be saved against its will. I am of course referring to Cicero, (106-43 B.C.E.).

Cicero also called old chick pea, has a wonderfully inflated reputation as a great mind. Well he certainly had a great, literary, oratorical, philosophical mind, but has a politician he was utterly hopeless. In many respects a legend in his own mind. Cicero was in many respects a totally clueless reactionary intellectual who had little real understanding of what the developments of his own time meant.

Bust of Cicero

What Cicero wanted was a “concord of the Orders”, basically an agreement among the various members of the Roman ruling classes to band together to fight off both popular revolts and measures and one man rule. Part of this ethos was an un-wavering belief in the right of the Senatorial class in alliance with what Cicero called the “New M en” to use the state for their own benefit. This along with Cicero’s almost fanatical belief in private property rights makes him nothing more than a backward looking reactionary.5
…Cicero, in despair and longing, wrote of an ideal commonwealth that had once existed, the Rome of the Scipiones, with the balanced and ordered constitution that excited the admiration of Polybius:…6
Cicero’s view of private property rights was such that he viewed any attempt to deal with the truly horrible problem of indebtedness, that was helping to choke the Roman Republic with significant economic and political problems, that did not uphold the property rights of lenders to the maximum dictated by the law as nothing less than a unwarranted attack on the most fundamental rights of property. The simple fact is that a very large percentage of the debtors could not pay the full amounts owing or that the steadily rising interest amounts were making these debts more impossible to pay. That all this created disastrous class conflict and further tied up enormous amounts of money in unproductive enterprises. Also an enormous amount of the wealth of the lenders was in loans that could not ever be paid to them. Some sort of debt relief was the only possible solution but this Cicero adamantly opposed as an attack on property. The fact that at this rate the lenders would get very little was ignored or that the enraged debtors facing perpetual, never ending debts frequently stopped paying anything at all or contemplated murdering the lenders was simply brushed aside.7

Cicero foolishly also fancied himself a brilliant politician and painted a hugely inflated picture of himself as a gifted politician and sneered, which given his oratorical abilities was quite wounding, at other much more gifted politicians. Cicero, thinking himself gifted at the art of political intrigue, engaged in dubious political intrigues and was with monotonous regularity out manoeuvred by other politicians like Caesar / Crassus or Pompey.8

But then the Roman politician Brutus is supposed to have described Cicero as follows:
…as long as Cicero can get people to give him what he wants, to flatter and praise him, he will put up with servitude.9
In the end Cicero fancying himself a hero in rhetorical speech tried to use Caesar’s heir Octavian (Called later Augustus) against Mark Anthony. Cicero hoped to use Octavian and then discard him. Unfortunately Cicero did not seem to realize that all the speeches he uttered against Mark Anthony meant little in terms of real power. Octavian and Mark Anthony got together and made an agreement and Cicero, considered, rightly, a duplicitous double dealer was proscribed and killed. Right to the end Cicero never understood what was going on or that has a politician he was at best mediocre and likely totally incompetent. What he also was; was totally unaware about how to solve Rome’s serious political and economic problems.10

If the Roman ruling class included among its members, people has intelligent as the very gifted Cicero who unfortunately was an inept politician one can easily guess how blinkered the average member of the governing classes was. The classic example, or perhaps the moment when the Roman ruling class finally lost it and demonstrated to the world its supreme almost sublime idiocy occurred in the years 60-59 B.C.E. it involved the handling of the three most powerful politicians in Rome at the time and how the Roman ruling class through its instrument the Senate completely dropped the ball.

It occurred in the following manner. By the year 60 B.C.E., the three most important Roman politicians were Pompey, Caesar and Crassus. They were each pissed off, one after the other, by an arrogant and frankly brain dead Senate, which seemed to have had a death wish.

Head of Pompey

Pompey, (106-48 B.C.E.) was at the time the most powerful of the three. He had just returned from a spectacularly successful, military and political mission in the east. During which Pompey had quelled various threats to Rome and added much new territory and more importantly added massive new revenues to the Roman state. He had also consolidated Roman authority in the eastern Mediterranean. Pompey had also come back very wealthy. Pompey had also in fact came back with a huge army prompting fears that he intended to establish one man rule. Certainly he could have done so. Instead he disbanded his army upon entering Italy and indicated that he was perfectly willing to work with the Senate. He did however have two requests. The first was that all the decisions he made regarding reorganizing the east be ratified by the Senate. The second was that land be given to his veterans.11 As one of our sources says:
At this time Pompey entered Italy and had Lucius Afranius and Metellus Celer appointed consuls, vainly hoping that through them he could effect whatever he desired. He wished in particular to have some land given to his soldiers and to have all his acts approved; but he failed of these objects at that time. For, in the first place, the optimates, who even before this had not been pleased with him, prevented the questions from being brought to vote.12
Two politicians Lucullus, (who had preceded Pompey in the east) and Cato the Younger helped organize Senate opposition to Pompey:
When Pompey got back, the Senate, wishing to curtail his great reputation, were all the more urgent in encouraging Lucullus to take an active part in politics. By this time Lucullus had abandoned himself to the pleasures of an easy life and to enjoyment of his wealth; most things made little impression on him and he seemed to have lost all zest for action. However, in the case of Pompey he plunged straight into the fray. He made a vigorous and indeed overwhelming attack on him in connection with those administrative arrangements of his own which Pompey had cancelled, and, with the support of Cato, gained a majority for his own views.13
There was also a whole string of lesser slights that added to Pompey’s quite understandable annoyance.

If annoying Pompey to this degree indicates a lack of political sense then the Senate compounded the problem by annoying Caesar.

Head of Caesar

Caesar, (100-44 B.C.E.) by this time was an important politician in Rome were he was the leader of a powerful faction. Caesar had recently completed a tour as Governor of Baetica, (part of Spain), were he had engaged in military operations. Caesar had been awarded Triumph. Now Caesar was also interested in becoming Consul for the following year, however he would lose his Triumph if he entered Rome before hand. So Caesar asked permission to stand for election as Consul by proxy. The Senate led by Cato refused.14
Many of the Senators were willing to consent to it, [Caesar standing for election by proxy] but Cato opposed it, and perceiving them inclined to favour Caesar, spent the whole day in speaking, and so prevented the Senate from coming to any conclusion.15
Then realizing that Caesar would almost certainly become Consul in 59 B.C.E. if not in 60 B.C.E, the Senate decided to slap him in the face. Now generally Consuls after their terms were done were given provinces to govern and what provinces would be given were selected by the Senatee several years in advance. It was decided to give the Consuls for that year the woodlands and cattle drifts of Italy. This was a deliberate insult aimed against Caesar.16

Having thoroughly pissed off Pompey and Caesar, the Senate had to complete the triangle by pissing off Crassus.

Head of Crassus

Crassus, (c. 112-53 B.C.E.) was one of the wealthiest men in Rome, if not the wealthiest, he was also a successful general and after Pompey’s return from the east was filled with envy and dislike of Pompey. Crassus controlled an important political faction which was also antagonistic to Caesar as well.17

Crassus considered himself an advocate of those with business interests and he had taken under his wing a group of tax farmers who had purchased a contract to collect tax revenue in Asia, (tax farming). Those revenues proved to be much less lucrative than expected, in fact they proved to be a net loss. Crassus campaigning on their behalf requested some sort of relief from the purchase price. The Senate again led by Cato rejected the claim. Crassus was now upset.18

Thus the Senate managed to alienate the three most powerful men in Rome. If doing just one of those things was dumb; doing all three at the same time was simply insane. Pompey, Caesar and Crassus disliked and distrusted each other giving the Senate room to manoeuvre, and play them against each other, instead the Senate managed to offend all three. The Senatorial aristocracy had apparently lost all political sense. The result was inevitable.19

It appears that Caesar took the initiative:
He [Caesar] entered the city and immediately adopted a policy which deceived everyone except Cato. This was to effect a reconciliation between Pompey and Crassus, the two most powerful people in Rome. Caesar brought these men together, making them friends instead of enemies, and used their united power for the strengthening of himself. So before anyone was aware of it, he had, by an action which could be called a simple piece of kindness, succeeded in producing what was in effect a revolution. For the cause of the civil wars was not, as most people think, the quarrel between Caesar and Pompey; it was rather their friendship, since in the first place they worked together to destroy the power of the aristocracy and only when this had been accomplished quarrelled amongst themselves.20
And in another source:
Thus the three for these reasons formed their friendship and ratified it with oaths, and then managed public affairs among themselves. Next they gave to each other and received in turn one from another, whatever they set their hearts on and whatever it suited them to do in view of the circumstances.21
Thus was created the First Triumvirate, which was very quickly to turn the Roman state into their tool for increasing their power and the Senate was totally incapable of thwarting Them. This event announced the death throes of the Roman Republic.22

Subsequently Crassus got killed in a hair-brained invasion of the Parthian Empire and Caesar and Pompey fell out afterwards over who would be dominant in the Roman state. A civil war resulted, during which Caesar defeated Pompey and Pompey was murdered to please Caesar. Caesar shortly after was assassinated by an aristocratic plot because so many of his fellow Roman aristocrats could not bear Caesar’s autocratic ways.23

The rest of story need not detail us except to note that Octavian / Augustus eventually came on top and the Roman Republic was suceeded by the Roman Empire which finally put an end to the anachronistic Republic and established an Empire that would last for hundreds of years.24

1. Grant, Michael, History of Rome, Faber and Faber, London, 1978, p. 198.

2. Appian, The Civil Wars, Penguin Books, London, 1996, Book 1, s. 34-54, Grant, pp. 156-158, Florus, Epitome of Roman History, Book 2, s. 6, Lacus Curtius Here.

3. Grant, pp. 127-142, Cowell, F.R., Cicero and the Roman Republic, Penguin Books, London, 1948, pp. 270-279, 356-382, de Ste. Croix, G.E.M., The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 1981, pp. 350-372.

4. IBID, de Ste. Croix, Grant, pp. 150-152, Cowell, pp. 280-309, Syme, The Roman Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1939, pp. 10-27.

5. IBID, Cowell, & 219-235, de Ste. Croix, 352-357, 286, Syme, pp. 15, 37, 146, 88, 319-320, Grant, pp. 168-172.

6. Syme, p. 319.

7. de Ste. Croix, Footnote 5, Grant, pp. 193-194, Cowell, pp. 195-196, 293-295.

8. Grant, pp. 168-172, Syme, p. 138, 320-321.

9. Syme quoting Brutus, p. 138.

10. Syme, pp. 140-146, 192, Grant, p. 199.

11. Grant, pp. 172-174, Syme, pp. 28-46, Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Republic, Penguin Books, London, 1958, Pompey, s. 43-44, 48-49.

12. Dio, Cassius, Roman History, Book 37 s. 49, Lactus Curtius, Here.

13. Plutarch, Pompey, s. 46.

14. IBID, Footnote 11, Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Republic, Caesar, s. 13, Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Books, 1957, Julius Caesar, s. 18-19, Syme, pp. 28-46.

15. Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, The Modern Library, New York, 1955, Cato the Younger, p. 935.

16. Grant, p. 173-174, Suetonius, Julius Caesar, s. 19.

17. Grant, pp. 164-165, 173, Syme, pp. 27-46, Plutarch, The Fall of the Roman Republic, Crassus, s. 1-14, which gives a good outline of Crassus’ career before this crisis and his considerable wealth.

18. Grant, p. 173, Syme, p. 35, Appian, Book 2, s. 13, Dio, Book 38, s. 7.

19. Suetonius, Julius Caesar, s. 18-20, Plutarch, The Fall of the Roman Republic, Pompey, s. 46-47, Caesar, s. 13-14, Crassus, s. 14-15, Dio Book 37, s.55-57.

20. Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Republic, Caesar, s. 13.

21. Dio, Book 37, s. 57.

22. See Grant, pp. 168-174, Syme, pp. 27-46.

23, Grant, pp. 196-198, Syme, pp. 47-58, see also Plutarch’s lives of Crassus, Pompey and Caesar, See also Suetonius’ life of Julius Caesar, and Appian, Book 2, s. 14-119.

24. For a summary of Augustus’ achievement see Grant, pp. 198-221.

Pierre Cloutier

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