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The Fall of the Roman Republic

By Edited May 18, 2015 1 2

Fall of the Republic

The Roman Republic was declining in power by the 2nd and 1st centuries. The Senate was composed of a group of aristocrats whom desired more and more power for themselves. With a growing population, Rome began to experience social unrest as more and more people became even more poor. To alleviate their pressures, Tiberius Gracchus tried to create bills that could help the poor, but he was eventually stopped by his opponents. Civil war and violent repercussions soon occurred and ultimately, the Republic fell and gave way to a dictatorship.

Class Struggles

By the 2nd and 1st centuries, Rome had begun to experience incredible problems from within. While Roman soldiers were fighting the Punic Wars, their lands had been acquired by the wealthy whom could afford to buy large estates. These elites also pushed many poor farmers out that were then recruited for military service. An estimated 19,000 people had left Rome by 136 b.c. These landless men could have been recruited for the army. Unfortunately, they were pushed off their land and were forced to move away. “The poor, who were thus deprived of their farms, were no longer either ready, as they had formerly been, to serve in war or careful in the education of their children; insomuch that in a short time there were comparatively few freemen remaining in all Italy, which swarmed with workplaces full of foreign-born slaves. These the rich men employed in cultivating their ground of which they dispossessed the citizens.”

Endless Aristocratic Greed

Soon after the Punic Wars, the soldiers that had returned and other commoners became very discontent with the aristocrats. In 145 b.c., Gaius Laelius proposed a law that would force wealthy landholders to limit their property to 500 acres. Thus, land could be given back to the returning legions and alleviate these pending pressures. However, he was met with heated disagreement and he then chose to retract his proposal.

In 133 b.c., Tiberius Gracchus took up Laelius’ proposal and vowed to see its enactment. Without consulting the Senate, he proposed the concilium plebis which was a bill designed to break up large estates. The lands would then be given to landless Romans. The owners of the large estates were to be compensated for their losses. Unfortunately, the concilium plebis was rejected by the Senate and especially Marcus Octavius whom could veto any bill. It was at this point that Tiberius made an important speech that gave him the power to get his bill passed.

“The savage beasts in Italy, have their particular dens, they have their places of repose and refuge; but the men who bear arms, and expose their lives for safety of their country, enjoy in the meantime nothing more in it but air and light and, having no houses or settlements of their own, are constrained to wander from place to place with their wives and children.” Tiberius accused the wealthy Senators of opposing the bill that would help the Roman people. With the power of the people behind him, Gracchus struck back at Octavius and got Octavius pushed out of office. The bill was then passed.

With the land commission bill in place and Marcus Octavius removed from office, Tiberius became loved by the people but hated by the Senate. He had ousted Octavius who was very popular as well, but in doing so, many felt that the dignity and honor of the tribunes was violated. To defend his actions, he gave another speech. He said, that  “a tribune of the people, is sacred indeed, and ought to be inviolable, because in a manner consecrated to be the guardian and protector of them; but if he degenerate so far as to oppress the people, abridge their powers, and take away their liberty of voting, he stands deprived by his own act of honours and immunities, by the neglect of duty for which the honour was bestowed upon him.” He believed that what the aristocrats had already injured the honor of the tribune by taking land away from the poor which was a violation of their rights.

By the 2nd and 1st centuries, the election to tribuneship and other high-ranking offices had become increasingly competitive and very unpopular. In a letter to his brother, Cicero described what needed to be done to become a Roman candidate. “In a word, you must secure friends of every class, magistrates, consuls and their tribunes to win you the vote of the centuries: men of wide popular influence. Those who either have gained or hope to gain the vote of a tribe or a century, or any other advantage, through your influence, take all pains to collect and secure.” To get elected, a candidate had to ally themselves with prominent people and use every trick whether it be a bribe or assassination. Tiberius was probably disgusted with immense corruption that had engulfed Roman politics.

Violent Repercussions to Rule

The hatred that he brewed among elite aristocrats finally showed when in it was time for the next election. “When the day appointed was come, and the people summoned to give their votes, the rich men seized upon the voting urns and carried them away by force; thus all things were in confusion.” Lots of confusion did occur and soon a riot broke out. During the outcry, an enemy of Tiberius told everyone that Tiberius wanted a crown and to become a king. Tiberius was really signaling for help because he had been encircled by a band of his enemies. Nevertheless, he and 300 others were clubbed to death. This was the first violent repercussion in Rome because of political struggle.

Tiberius was dead, but his land commission bill lived on. Within 6 years, 75,000 men had been settled creating a 20 percent increase in available recruits. By 123 b.c., Gaius Gracchus, Tiberius’s brother, campaigned and became tribune with the same motive to help the poor. He also desired to give more power to other classes so that he could have a broader support. One large contribution was that of the Grain Law. This law required the Roman government to buy and import grain to feed its citizens for free. This helped out the people because now they did not have to spend all of their money on food and also helped to prevent candidates from bribing the poor with food for votes. Overwhelmingly popular, Gaius traveled to Africa to lay the foundation of a new colony. Upon his return, his enemies had concentrated and had split his support in half. Soon out of the tribuneship, the Gracchi family was targeted and many were slaughtered. Gaius realized that he was cornered and ordered his slave to kill him.

The Gracchi brothers were the remaining hope for the Roman Republic. The Senate’s greedy members did not want to lose their wealthy estates to the mass of landless people. Murders, civil wars, bribery, and all around corruption led Rome into a transitional period of chaos. Political parties such as the Populares, the Gracchi followers, and the Optimates, the wealthy land-owners, fought each other for dominion of the Senate. After unprecedented turmoil, the Roman generals began to take control of Rome. “The despotisms of Cinna and Sulla were brief; the rule of Pompey and of Crassus soon yielded before Caesar; the arms of Lepidus and Mark Antony before Augustus; who, when the world was wearied by civil strife, subjected it to empire under the title of Prince.” Tacitus believes that the Roman Republic fell because of the constant assassinations and public executions of political leaders.

Underneath the political world, criminals became very useful to politicians who wanted to see their opponents eliminated. Sallust wrote of Catiline’s anarchistic conspiracy of 63 b.c. Catiline was villain, who gained enough support to run for consulship that knew how to teach desperate men to bribe, forge, and cheat their way to power. “All the shameless libertines and profligate rascals were his associates and intimate friends - the men who had squandered their paternal estates by gaming, luxury, sensuality, and all too who had plunged heavily into debt to buy immunity for crimes.” After losing the election, Catiline plotted to overthrow the government but was killed when the conspiracy was discovered by Cicero. This is a perfect example of the plotting and deceiving that is attributed to this chaotic time frame.

Ultimately, the Roman Republic because of this political turmoil. After the Gracchi deaths, the Republic steadily declined as political parties became incredibly competitive. Assassinations, civil war, violence, and bribery marked this period of decline. Egotistical military leaders marched to Rome and took over, but were soon made victims. With the rise and assassination of Julius Caesar, the Republic finally collapsed because the Senate had been behind the conspiracy. Inevitably, Augustus used his political strength to gain the popularity of the people and the army. He soon became the Princepate of Rome and all power was given to him. Symbolically, the Senate continued to function but with little political influence it never regained its former power.

Roman Civil War
Credit: imperatorbook.com
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Comments

Mar 19, 2011 6:10pm
Tessor
Nice summary of a major historical event. The end of Rome's Republic and transition to Empire is one of the most fascinating and tragic events in Western history. I think it has important lessons that are applicable even for modern society.
Feb 21, 2012 10:05pm
kcallarman
Thanks for the comment!
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