The defeat of Carthage in 201 BCE left Rome the sole "super power" of the ancient world. Additional victories over the Gauls and Phillip of Macedon saw Roman power so feared that, when Antiochus IV, king of the Seleucid Empire, was threatening Alexandria, the Romans sent only a single envoy to stop him. Popillius Laenus handed Antiochus a decree from the Roman senate, then proceded to draw a circle around him and demand his answer before the king left the circle. Antiochus tamely retreated to Syria under the threat.
Rome was at the height of its power as a republic, but the republic soon found that managing such a massive empire would stretch its capabilities to the limit. Internally, the republic faced massive challenges caused by the increasing concentration of land withing the hands of the wealthy, a continuing struggle for power between the patricians and plebeians, and the question of how to manage an increasingly professional military force that had no purpose other than war.
Main Figures of the Late Republic
The Roman Republic had struggled along for centuries, characterized largely by a combination of internal conflict between the plebeian and Patrician classes and by threats from outside elements such as Carthage, the Gauls, and the Italions. The destruction of the Roman arguably begins with the rise to power of the Gracchi brothers: Tiberius and Gaius.
Prior to the Gracchi brothers, the plight of the poorer classes, the plebeians (middle class) and the proletariat (literally "head count," the masses that had no land or wealth and who were counted only to determine the free grain allocation to the poor), had been a significant, but manageble element of Roman society. by the late second century, however, the rapid rate of expansion had opened doors to massive new wealth, spreading corruption and mismanagement in its wake. The plebeian landowning class was providing fewer and fewer new rectruits to the Legions, and the patrician and equites classes were gradually driving the plebeian land ownders (primarily small farmers) into extinction as they bought up their lands and resources for their vast sprawling estates. During this time of massive change and uncertainty, the Populares party took root, allowing politicians to devote themselves to the causes of the common man and defend the "backbone" of Roman society.
Manipulating the mob with populist ideas was not a new political tool, but no one before had used it so effectively as the Gracchi. From 137 BCE to 121 BCE, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus rode the whirlwind. Corruption and mismanagement had accompanied the rapid growth of empire, and new recruits for the Legions--traditionally coming from the plebeian landowning class--were becoming more difficult to acquire as the the landowning plebeians were driven from existence. Roman law prevented the Legions from recruiting from the landless proletariat, but now the proletariat class was growing as the plebeians became dispossessed--and they had almost no opportunity to regain their status except through military service.
The class struggle was not solely fought by the Populares party, however. The patrician class had its own party: the Optimates (the "best" men). The Senate, dominated by the Optimates, wrote laws that consistently favored the wealthy. Slaves taken in the frequent conquests powered the farms of the wealthy, displacing the struggling small farmers. Thousands of landless and jobless displaced Romans gravitated to Rome, where they became idle and discontented. Debt became rampant, while the Italian allies were increasingly feeling disenfranchised. Things had taken a decided turn for the worse since Scipio Africanus had defeated Hannibal at Zama.
Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi saw opportunity in the chaos that was forming; opportunity to remake Rome into a more just society, and opportunity to make their political fortunes. The political conflict rapidly exploded out of control as individual egos became more important than any worthy goal. Rome, long a nation where the pursuit of individual achievement was a critical element of society, had become a nation where personal glory was paramount.
The Gracchi were members of the Patrician class, but their dissatisfaction with Patrician rule caused Tiberius to pursue the office of the tribunate. Once elected to the office of Tribune, Tiberius then proposed a law creating land allotments to the Plebes from land won in the Punic wars. Unfortunately, although the law may well have been proposed in perfect earnest, Tiberius intentionally bypassed the Senate, taking the law directly to the citizen assemblies. The Senate vigorously opposed the bill, which would have had a significant impact upon the Patricians. After a second try, Tiberius managed to move his bill into law, and land for the creation of nearly 75,000 small farms was set aside. Three men were selected to oversee the enforcement of the Agrarian Law: Tiberius Gracchus, his brother Gaius, and Appius Cladius Pulcher. While the plan had a positive impact on Roman society, it also proved exhorbitantly expensive, and Tiberius appealed to the people once more to draw money from the newly conquered lands of Pergamum. The Senate again acquiesced, but relations between Tiberius and the Optimates was growing increasingly strained due to Tiberius' tactic of threatening the Senate with the "mob."
The office of Tribune confered the person of the tribune sacrosanct, but the tribunate could only be held for one year. Tiberius desperately needed to retain his office to prevent either prosecution or outright assasination by his enemies. Unfortunately, Romans were required to undergo an interim period between offices, a measure intended to prevent the rise of a king, or dictator. Tiberius ran anyway, relying upon his popularity with the people to ensure his safety. It proved insufficient as, led by his own cousin Scipio Nasica, armed Senators charged in a Populares rally and clubbed Tiberius to death. Tiberius was gone, but his brother would usher in even greater chaos and conflict.
Gaius Gracchi took the same route to power as his late brother: he was elected to the tribunate. His first act was to pursue the man he thought had been most responsible for his brother's death; the Consul Popolius. After seeing to Popolius' banishment, he then proceeded to strike more directly at the power of the Optimates than his brother ever had. He arranged for the passing of the Lex Acilia, which established that judges would be selected from the equestrian class rather than the Patricians. This was both a slap in the face of Patrician prestige and an attack upon them economically, as they were deprived from the valuable wealth that could be derived through the court system. A more direct attack, however, was forthcoming. Gaius' next law removed Patrician power to collect taxes from the new province of Asia Minor, instead allowing the equestrian class to "farm" taxes from the province. He then further cemented his popularity among the Plebes by proposing a state-subsidized grain law, allowing every Roman citizen to purchase their grain at half price directly from the Roman state. His brother's agrarian laws were reinstated, and additional laws were passed to protect the residents of the provinces from the greed and corruption of Roman governers.
Gaius' laws were not only popular, they were also extremely successful. Unfortunately, his last law proved to be enough to alienate him not only from the Optimates, but even from his supporters. Gaius attempted to legislate the acceptance of all Italian allies as Roman citizens. This proved enormously unpopular among the Proletariat and plebeian classes, as they would have then been forced to share their grain subsidies and land allocations with the Italians. The Senate saw its chance to drive a wedge between Gaius and his populist allies, and they used a Tribune of their own, Livius Drusus, to pass laws increasingly supportive of the Proletariat--laws that were also opposed to the interests of the Italians. Gaius' fickle Proletariat allies turned from him and supported Drusus, and the erstwhile champion of the people failed to win election for a third time to the tribunate. Realizing his danger, Gaius organized his supporters into a mass protest in the streets of Rome, where they brandished weapons in defiance of Roman law. In response, the Senate authorized a first ever use of the senatus consultum ultimatum, a form of martial law, and Consul Lucius Opimius, a member of the Optimates, swiftly formed an armed legionary to attack the mob. In the end, thousands of the mob were killed, Gaius Gracchus committed suicide, and thousands more of his supporters were arrested and murdered.
The Gracchi legacy, noble though it goals may have been, resulted in Roman society splintering, social and economic upheaval, and the slow disintegration of the Roman political system. Politicians became increasingly willing to play to the mob for power, and the use of violence and mob tactics became mainstays of future politicians. Political parties became more polarized and ruthless, and even the Senate began to splinter into opposing factions. With Roman society collapsing into chaos, the stage was set for the rise of popular magnates like Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar.
Gaius Marius was a novus homo, a "new man" in the Roman power elite. Born a wealthy Plebeian in Arpinum, he was largely ostracized by the Optimates that regarded themselves as born to power. The unknown Marius gained fame during the Jugurthine War, when Rome's erstwhile North African ally Jugurtha turned against the Eternal City. A subordinate officer serving under the Optimate Mettelus Macedonicus, Marius quickly become disenchanted with the incompetence of his commander. After two years Marius returned to Rome himself, where he was elected to the first of his seven consulships.
Marius enacted four major reforms that changed the nature of the Legions forever. Shortages in the traditional source of manpower, the Plebs, forced Marius to recruit from the headcount--a significant deviation from Roman tradition. Landless and poverty stricken, the Proles would form the nucleus of a new kind of legionary, a professional wholly dependent upon the general who led him. Next, because his new legionaries could not afford their own equipment, Marius arranged for the state to provide standardized arms and armor for his men. He further established standardized training that every legionary had to undergo, professionalizing the army and ensuring the Roman legion's place as the most potent fighting force of its time. The hard marching legions, who now packed a sizeable amount of their gear on their own backs, became known as "Marius' mules."
As a further incentive to the headcount, he introduced legislation to provide retirement benefits in the form of land grants to his legionaries. Next, Marius shifted the Legions from a manipular based force (with the 160 man maniple as the base unit) to a cohort based force (three maniples made up one cohort of 480 men). Lastly, Marius arranged for Italian allies that served in the Legions to receive Roman citizenship.
Within two years Marius and his new army swept Jugurtha from power, and then proceeded to face and destroy a massive invasion of Germanic tribes from the north. By 100 BCE Marius had been elected Consul six times and had been hailed as the 3rd Founder of Rome. But as great as Marius had been in war, he found his limits as a politician. When Marius found the Optimates opposed to his plans to grant land to his retiring legions, he turned to the rabble rousing ideological descendants of the Gracchi to defeat them. The resulting clash proved devestating. One of Marius own lieutenants, the once penniless patrician Sulla, turned against him in support of the "old guard" of Rome.
Sulla had risen to power on the coattails of Marius, but he was a firm believer in the purity of the Patrician bloodlines. When the Social War erupted, Marius was once more called upon to serve Rome, and he quickly reversed the losses that previous Roman generals had suffered against the revolting Italian city states to the North. In the South, however, Sulla finally broke free from the long shadow of Marius, providing him with the opportunity to establish an alliance with the Optimates.
The Social War ended with the defeat of the Italians, but the Roman Senate would swiftly grant them the very rights they had gone into revolt to attain. The War had not gone unnoticed, however, as King Mithradates of Pontus concluded that Rome was too weak and preocuppied to deal with matters along its furthest frontiers. In 88 BCE, Sulla was elected Consul just as Mithradates was invading Asia Minor and slaughtering Roman citizens by the thousands. Sulla was designated the senior commander for the expedition, but the aging Marius (possibly suffering from dementia), desperate for another command, exerted all his influence to reverse the decision. He failed, but when Sulla marched away towards his embarkation points Marius again turned to the Plebeian tribunes to call a popular vote of the citizen assemblies. In a stunning move, the command was transferred to Marius.
The furious Sulla refused to turn over his command, however, and he proceeded to do something no Roman commander had ever done in the history of the Roman Republic: He marched on Rome with his legions. Sulla captured Rome easily, slaughtering many Marians and establishing marshall law. Marius escaped in the confusion but would return to lead another revolt soon after Sulla sailed to meet Mithridates. Like Sulla, Marius marched on Rome, laying seige to the imperial capital. When the Senate surrendered the city, five days of murder and mayhem ensued, with the heads of those deemed "enemies" placed upon spears around the Forum. In the confusion, friends and innocents were often mixed together with genuine enemies, forever marring Marius' reputation. Marius was elected to his seventh and final Consulship in 86 BCE, but he died seventeen days later of a mysterious fever.
For all the blood and destruction that Marius had inflicted, however, it would pale compared to Sulla's return. After successfully defeating Mithridates, he again marched on Rome and defeated the armies arrayed against him in several pitched battles. Siding with him was the 23 year old Pompey, who would one day be known as "the Great." By 81 BCE, Sulla was firmly back in power and he proceeded to attempt to turn back all the populist reforms, restoring Rome to a firmly Patrician dominated society. Most tellingly, the Tribunate was abolished, and Sulla maintained his control by a series of proscriptions, murders, and controlled riots. Declared Dictator, Sulla set out to eliminate any Marian supporters remaining. One crucial man he missed was the nephew of Gaius Marius; the young Julius Caesar.
Sulla's "reforms" were largely intended to eliminate his enemies and bolster the power of the Patrician class. The proscriptions allowed anyone to render an accusation against a fellow citizen, and successful prosecution resulted in the loss of property, exile, and often death. From among the thriving courts a new lawyer would emerge to fame: Marcus Tullius Cicero. Famed as an orator, Cicero walked a fine line in defending Romans against the proscriptions while avoiding landing on the lists himself.
At the time of Sulla's death in 78 BCE, Rome was primed for yet another round of civil unrest. With the loss of the dictator himself, his policies quickly came under attack. The old tensions between the classes continued to fester, and civil strife would dominate Rome for the next several decades. A civil war in Spain with the last of the Marians, Sertorius, would end with Sertorius' assasination and Pompey's victory, setting the stage for the rise of the men who would form the First Triumvirate.
Pompey had been an early supporter of Sulla, but while he governed Spain in 71 BCE, the Revolt of the Gladiators, led by Spartacus, was erupting. The Revolt was defeated by Crassus, another early supporter of Sulla, but also a bitter rival of Pompey. The remnants of the gladiators fled to the north from Crassus' victorious legions, right into the arms of the returning Pompey Magnus. An infuriated Crassus never forgave his rival, but the two men worked well enough together in repealing many of Sulla's laws when they were both elected Consuls in 70 BCE. When the ravages of the Cicilian Pirates began to threaten the empire's economic stability, Crassus remained in Rome while Pompey sailed off to massive fame and glory in his victories to the East.
Pompey executed his war against the pirates swiftly and efficiently, raising his popularity to new heights. Shortly after defeating the pirates, he was again called upon, this time to settle the Third Mithridaic War. He was again successful, this time adding the provinces of Bithynia, Pontus, and Syria to the empire. Pompey's popularity was at its height, and it was widely feared that he would return as another Sulla. Such fears were unfounded, however, and Pompey returned to Rome peacefully in 62 BCE. While Pompey had been away, however, other Romans had risen to prominence, including Cicero and the young Julius Caesar. Furthermore, Pompey had wrongfully assumed that his successes would ensure just settlements for his men and a position of prominence for himself. Instead, he returned to find himself fighting in an unfamiliar political battlefield, struggling to provide the land and pay he had promised his men.
Part of the challenge that Pompey faced upon his return was that, in his absence, things had continued much as before in Rome. In 64 BCE, Cicero had been elected Consul in a tumultuous election, and his opponent (and long time enemy) Cataline was suspected of attempting a murderous coup. Cicero received letters attesting to the coup from Crassus and was duly athorized emergency powers by the Senate. Cataline fled the capital and raised a small army in the countryside, which was quickly defeated by the legions. Although many suspected that Cicero had grossly exaggerated the threat, he was duly hailed the "Father of his Country" as a reward for his services. By the time of Pompey's return, social conditions in Rome were rapidly disintegrating, and the Republic was beginning to assume the same characteristics it had held during the civil wars between Marius and Sulla.
Gaius Julius Caesar's star had been rising for many years. By 63 BCE Caesar was 37 years of age, a close friend of Crassus, a popular young politician who was advancing swiftly up the Cursus Honorum (he was elected Pontifex Maximus and Urban Praetor in 63 BCE), a man of many enemies, and massively in debt. Caesar, although a member of the the revered Patrician Julii clan, was a member of the Populares party. The Optimates opposition to Pompey's land bills pushed the great man closer to Caesar, and Caesar found himself in the unique position of being on friendly terms with the two most powerful men in Rome: Pompey and Crassus. After polishing his military resume as the Proconsul of further Spain, he returned in 60 BCE to run for the ultimate prize: the Consulship.
Caesar's prospects for the Consulship appeared bleak, as the powerful Optimates were violently opposed to his election. Caesar, however, correctly gauged the political climate and approached Crassus and Pompey with a proposal: a secret alliance that would net Caesar the Consulship, Pompey land grants for his veterans, and Crassus political and economic benefits in the East. All three agreed, and the First Triumvirate was formed.
The Triumvirate quickly demonstrated its value as Caesar's land bill was backed successfully by Pompey and Crassus. Surprised by the alliance, the Optimates were unprepared and lost the popular vote for the bill. With Pompey satisfied, Caesar next proposed a series of economic bills that favored the interests of Crassus. Already secure with Crassus, Caesar next offered his daughter, Julia, in marriage to the uxorious Pompey. The marriage was a resounding success, and Pompey never opposed Caesar so long as Julia lived. Caesar's own future was next on the agenda, and he arranged a five year Proconsulship for himself in the provinces of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum. When the governer of Gallia Narbonensis. Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer died, Caesar was granted governship of it as well. As 59 BCE came to a close, Caesar's future looked bright indeed.
The Gallic Wars
Gaul was a region that Rome had long feared, and Caesar quickly took advantage of this fear when the Helvetii, fleeing from Germanic incursions into their lands, attempted to migrate through Roman lands. Opposing the migration, he defeated the migratory force in spectacular style, driving them back along the path they had entered upon. When Gallic allies of the Romans requested aid to deal with additional German incursions into their territories, Caesar responded and crushed the German force. Next, Caesar informs us, the Belgae, a Gallic tribe, began to muster against Rome. The truth of this will forever lie in question, but Caesar rapidly reacted to the perceived threat and the Gallic Wars were begun. By 53 BCE, Caesar had subdued Gaul, crossed the Rhine River, invaded Britain twice, and was a reknowned hero at home. He was also fabulously wealthy as a result of his conquests, and had the largest and most battle hardened army in the empire.
Unfortunately, while matters in Gaul had gone well for Caesar, matters in Rome were once more dissolving. In 54 BCE, Caesar's daughter Julia died in childbirth, removing the most powerful tie between Pompey and Caesar. Crassus had died in battle with the Parthians at Carrhae, losing most of seven legions. This tipped the delicate balance of power still further. Caesar attempted to strengthen his ties with Pompey, but without Julia, Pompey was increasingly coming under the influence of the Optimates. Like Marius before him, jealousy of a younger rival was eating away at Pompey, and his desire for acceptance in the Senate allowed the Optimates to flatter and sway him. By 50 BCE, the stage was set for a final showdown between the Optimates and Caesar.
Caesar's actions in Gaul were dubious at best. On the one hand he had delivered millions into the Roman treasury, added vast new lands to the empire, and subdued an ancient and feared enemy. On the other hand, his authority to undertake those campaigns had been debatable, and the Optimates were now prepared to dispute that authority. Pompey was elected sole Consul, effectively dictator without the title and, ignoring both the will of the Roman people and the vote of the Senate, the Optimates arranged to have Caesar recalled to Rome.
Caesar was now at a crossroads. He could return home to face a rigged trial and likely exile from his beloved Rome, or he could do what was once unthinkable: He could follow Sulla and Marius and march on Rome. In a last ditch attempt, Caesar offered a compromise that would allow him to keep some of his provinces and one or two legions, on the condition that he be allowed to run for Consul once more. When this was rejected, he uttered the fateful words, alea iacta est; "The die is cast." Civil war had returned to Rome.