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What Led to the Fall of the Roman Republic?

Andrew is an avid reader of history who enjoys researching and discussing ancient Roman topics with others.

Learn about the conditions and historical trends that contributed to the eventual fall of the Roman Republic.

Learn about the conditions and historical trends that contributed to the eventual fall of the Roman Republic.

What Doomed the Roman Republic?

Many people nowadays draw comparisons between the Fall of the Roman Republic and the moral degeneration of Western democracies. I personally don’t like these comparisons, the world we are living in is infinitely more complex than the world of late Republican Rome.

The main actors who doomed the Republic were humans, with distinctly human qualities and defects like greed and ambition. In making their comparisons, today's moralists like to point to these ancients' all-too-human downfalls, and therefore will inevitably find similarities between the past and the present.

The Roman Republic was the most successful state of Ancient Europe. Starting off from humble origins and limited territories, the Republic went on to conquer the whole Mediterranean world. The success of the Republic was no fluke — it was built on the ultra-competitive mentality of her citizens, which in the end destroyed the Republic itself.

The Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC when the last king of Rome was expelled from the city. The Romans had no intention of letting another tyrant take over the city, and the institutions of the new republic perfectly demonstrated that.

The Palatine Hill in Rome is the oldest of the city's 7 hills and is considered to be Rome's birthplace. According to legend, Romulus and Remus founded Rome here on April 21, 753 BC.

The Palatine Hill in Rome is the oldest of the city's 7 hills and is considered to be Rome's birthplace. According to legend, Romulus and Remus founded Rome here on April 21, 753 BC.

Changing Roman Society

The government of Rome passed from that of an authoritarian king to several elected magistrates, the Senate and the assemblies. Initially, none of these institutions had the power to run rough shoulder over the other and dominate the government like a king was able to. For example, the highest-ranking magistrate was the consul, but to avoid the danger of tyranny there were always two consuls, each one elected for one year. To appease the plebeian class the office of the Tribune of the plebs was created in the middle of the 4th century BC. This "magistrate" had the authority to veto even the actions of a consul.

For over 300 years the institutions worked well, despite the conflicts between the patrician and plebeian classes of the city. However, this state of affairs started to change following the Punic Wars. The main reason why the Republican institutions started to decline after the Punic Wars was the changing circumstances of the Mediterranean.

Rome had already conquered the Italian peninsula before the start of the First Punic War. However, the acquisition of Sicily (and later Spain from Carthage) made Rome the hegemon of the Western Mediterranean. Roman successes over Carthage were followed by victories over Macedon and other Greek states. By the end of the 2nd century BC, Rome was by far the most powerful state in the Mediterranean world.

The numerous wars of the Republic and the countless wealth her armies and officials plundered changed the social fabric of Rome forever. On the one hand, the provinces gave new business opportunities for the wealthier class of citizens. Some had amassed such fortunes that they rivaled the state coffers. One good example of this was of course Marcus Licinius Crassus.

On the other hand, Rome's numerous wars were fought by peasant militias of the state well into the 2nd century BC. Some of these wars were fought on Italian soil and decimated the Republic's pool of manpower, the lands left behind by dead peasant soldiers often being bought up by the rich who used slaves to cultivate them. In terms of the balance of things, Roman social inequality grew from the Republic's conquests.

This growing inequality saw the rise of a class of super-rich simultaneously with the impoverishment of the average citizen. Tom Holland, in his book, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic called the phenomenon the rise of a fiscal-military complex that had only one goal: the exploitation of Rome’s new conquests.

This meant that after the initial hesitation to build up the provinces' administration, Roman officials were finally sent to the provinces. However, these officials often were simple tax farmers (the position was given to the highest bidder, who in return bled his province dry to make good on his investment). The senatorial class was often too snobbish to directly take part in business ventures, but governors and officials were happy enough to look the other way for any illegality if the bribe was big enough.

Greed united officials and entrepreneurs alike, and this greed manifested itself in one of the greatest slave economies the world had seen. Researchers estimate that from the late Republic onwards the Romans built mining complexes that were unmatched until the Industrial Revolution. The military successes of the Republic also gave greedy businessmen slaves, which were the perfect instrument to exploit their new lands.

Slaves were not only the perfect instrument to exploit lands and mines, they made the perfect object of trade also. Thanks to constant new conquests, it seemed like a venture that was there to stay. According to Holland, the rich elite of Rome were even willing to ignore the pirate problem in the 70s BC for the simple reason that the pirates were one of their main sources of slaves.

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It was only when the city of Rome was going hungry, and the daring pirates raided as far as the port of Ostia, that the elite of the Republic gave Pompey the backing to end the pirate threat.

A Roman auxiliary infantry helmet, c. 98-117 AD. This helmet is currently in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

A Roman auxiliary infantry helmet, c. 98-117 AD. This helmet is currently in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Metamorphosis of the Roman Army

The growing inequality had a crucial effect even on the army, the instrument that allowed the Republic to subjugate all her rivals. As I had mentioned before, the Roman Army was a peasant militia well into the 2nd century BC, and as such the soldiers had to pass certain criteria to be eligible to serve in the armed forces. The criteria were mostly related to property, which meant that only those who had property and were able to arm themselves were allowed to fight in the army.

These criteria were still in place during the Second Punic War when Rome was able to field huge armies against Hannibal. Unfortunately for the Republic, the traditional pool of manpower constantly dwindled away during the next 100 years. By the time Gaius Marius had to fight the invading Cimbris and Teutons, it would be impossible to raise a sufficient number of soldiers if these criteria were respected. Marius had no choice but to recruit the urban poor.

The reforms of Marius saved the Republic in the short run, as his new army defeated the Germanic invaders. However, these reforms almost certainly doomed it in the long run. The reforms of Marius fundamentally changed the Roman military. Before the reforms as the army was made up of militia who were was usually disbanded when the campaign ended. However, the new soldiers of Marius were enlisted for 16 years.

Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. The First general to march on Rome was?
    • Caesar
    • Sulla
    • Crassus

Answer Key

  1. Sulla

Thanks to the altered status of the Republic, campaigns became longer, some spanning 5-10 years. This time was more than enough for a charismatic general like Sulla, Pompey or Caesar to turn the Republic’s army into his private army by the time the campaign was finished. And if a general's charisma was not able to turn their men into private soldiers, the changing economic situation of the soldiers often did the job.

The soldiers of a Marius, Sulla or Caesar, unlike the soldiers of a Scipio, had no property or wealth of their own, besides the loot they got during the wars, once their 16 years of service was finished. Unless their general procured them good farming land, they would be returned to the poverty from which they came.

As the rich grew richer and richer and the poor poorer, armies increasingly became private armies. By the time of Caesar’s Civil War, the rival armies were more the private armies of Caesar or Pompey than the Republic's. After Caesar was murdered, his great-nephew Octavian ( later emperor Augustus), was able to raise an army without the approval of the Senate and led it to war because he had inherited Caesar’s fortune and name.

An abbreviation for "Senātus Populusque Rōmānus" (meaning "The Senate and People of Rome") is a symbolic phrase referring to the ancient Roman Republic's government.

An abbreviation for "Senātus Populusque Rōmānus" (meaning "The Senate and People of Rome") is a symbolic phrase referring to the ancient Roman Republic's government.

Disrespect and Privatization of the Republic's Institutions

A third change that also occurred after the Punic Wars was the increased lack of respect ambitious politicians and businessmen had for the institutions of the Republic. When the Gracchi brothers tried to use public lands to alleviate the situation of the poor they were murdered by their opponents, the rich who would lose out by the reforms.

The murder of the Gracchi brothers opened up Pandora’s box. Before their assassinations, political assassinations were rare in Rome — from then onwards, however, this changed. Political violence became an increasing problem during the last hundred years of the Republic’s existence, as politicians increasingly used armed gangs to intimidate their opponents. In one instance, Sulla had to flee to the house of his enemy Marius to save himself from an angry mob.

Wealthy citizens like Crassus, or a lesser-known figure like Publius Cethegus, were able to simply buy enough senators to influence key political decisions — this way wealthy individuals were able to privatize the institutions of the state.

As time passed, ancient traditions became more and more disregarded. One good example is the consulship. Traditionally, the consulship was the highest position a Roman citizen could achieve, due to the great power the consuls wielded. Once an individual became consul he could not run again for the position in the next 10 years. By the late 2nd century BC, however, this tradition went out the window, and Gaius Marius was consul for 5 years in a row between 104-100. And later, the 19-year-old Octavian became consul, even though the age limit for the position was 40 years.

The Gracchan Crisis

The Fall of the Roman Republic Was Inevitable

I believe that the fall of the Republic was inevitable, for the simple reason that the society that formed the Republic and whose reflection the Republic was, was long gone. Rome changed, progressing from a small city-state to a huge empire, the mistress of the whole Mediterranean world, and this mistress made her leading citizens wealthy beyond imagination. Once individuals gathered the resources with which they were able to privatize the institutions of the Republic, its fall was only a matter of time.

Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Second General to take Rome by force was?
    • Marcus Crassus
    • Julius Caesar
    • Mark Antony

Answer Key

  1. Julius Caesar

References and Further Reading

Duncan, Mike. (2018). The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic. Public Affairs Books.

Holland, Tom. (2007). Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. Anchor Books.

Watts, Edward J. (2018). Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny. Basic Books.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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