Domestic Disturbances amid Territorial Overextension and the Various Causes of the Collapse of the Roman Republic. By Michael Beshara

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1 Domestic Disturbances amid Territorial Overextension and the Various Causes of the Collapse of the Roman Republic By Michael Beshara The causes of the collapse of the Roman Republic are manifold, and any attempt to point to one or two reasons that completely explain why the Republic deteriorated into a dictatorial empire is misleading. There are, however, numerous contributing factors that combined to cause the thriving Republic of the fourth, third, and early second centuries B.C. to evolve, or perhaps devolve, into a struggling state besieged by domestic disorder and instability abroad. Whether or not it is acceptable to categorize the internal political development and foreign policy as the two great successes of the earlier Roman Republic is debatable, partially because those are extremely broad categories and partially because, just like the fall of the Republic, the rise is attributable to many factors. But in the early republic, two important attributes of domestic politics and foreign policy that characterize the late Republic were not present. In particular, once violence became an accepted and oft resorted to means of political conduct and once the Republic became an offensively expanding state, the aristocratic Republic gave way to an autocratic Empire. The domestic violence that began during the Gracchan revolution, and continued through the death of Caesar and the ascension of Octavian, was something entirely new in the late second century Republic. Prior to that, social and political disagreements were for the most part handled peacefully. The so-called Struggle of the Orders, which essentially dominated the political landscape for the first 150 or so years

2 2 of the Republic, is one example of political division resolved through relatively peaceful means. Very early, at the beginning of the fifth century, plebeians sought relief from unjust treatment by the patrician class through non-violent avenues. With the creation of the concilium plebis, the tribunate, and then the concilium plebis tributum, the distressed lower classes relied on political institutional pressure to advance their cause. This peaceful pressure over time proved successful. By 449 B.C., the passage of the Valerio- Horatian laws gave the plebiscita the force of law and the plebeians began to enjoy an improved situation in Rome. The Licinio-Sextian laws of 367 B.C. further attest to plebeian political success. The debt reform, land reform, and plebeian access to the consulship that the Licinio-Sextian laws established were all the result of peaceful evolution. Contrast this with the violent disorder of the late-second and early first centuries B.C. among the combative optimates and populares in Rome. The resort to assassination by the opponents of the Gracchi only led to more violence and atrocity. Twenty years after Gaius murder, political assassination became a staple of Roman politics. Lucius Appuleius Saturninus served as tribune in 101 and 100 and advocated populares agenda. After he proposed the re-establishment of grain distribution and the establishment of colonies for Roman veterans, he was murdered by his political opponents. On the same day as Saturninus assassination, Gaius Servilius Glaucia was murdered by political opponents, but it was not until after he had arranged for the killing of the former tribune Gaius Memmius. When Sulla decided to march on Rome in 88 B.C., domestic disorder and violence achieved a new level. Chaos ensued when the army came inside the pomerium for the

3 3 first time in Roman history. Sulla put bounties on the heads of his opponents, including Marius and Sulpicius. When Sulla left to confront Mithridates, Marius returned to Rome and had his opponents slaughtered. A few years later, when Sulla returned, he instituted his famous proscriptions that led to the death of thousands of Roman citizens. Indeed, the peaceful political landscape of the early Republic had shifted dramatically. Violent tactics would become standard for Roman politicians, including Cataline, Pompey, Caesar, Octavian and many others of the late Republic. The ultimate cause of the civil and political disorder of the late Republic is hard to pin down. Certainly, extreme political ambition is to blame. But the exact causes for why and how political ambition, which was always part of Roman culture, developed into political violence are not obvious. One of the causes was the institutional strain that was caused by the rapid territorial expansion that began during and after the Second Punic War. The aggressive and expansionistic foreign policy that pervaded the second half of the Republic had many consequences, including a dramatic increase in bureaucracy, a professional and over-extended military, and a general increase in problems that in the end made the Republic unsustainable. The foreign policy of the first few hundred years of the Republic was generally defensive in character, at least more so than that of the late Republic. The attitude of early Rome stressed the protection of the city, and surrounding area. The earliest danger to the city was Veii, which was subjugated in the early fifth century. Later, threats by Gauls necessitated the securing of the territory to the north. And wars to the south, first with the Latins and Samnites and later with Magna Graecia, were precipitated by a perceived, whether real or not, threats. This type of expansion has been termed

4 4 defensive imperialism by historians, and is seen in various cases of history. Roman motives labeled purely defensive are usually overstated. What is accurate is that the aggressive expansion of the late Republic, which may have been an inevitable result of defensive imperialism, had a very different character than the expansion of the early years. In the first decades of the second century, Rome s foreign policies began to dramatically shift. No longer was defense the only priority. Territorial acquisition for economic reasons became regular. Whereas previous external conflicts had resulted in order and outside control being restored, now Rome began to establish direct control. Macedonia, Africa, the Spains, Corsica, and Sardinia all became provinces. Soon, Asia Minor, the Gauls, Cilicia, and Syria would be added. These provinces required a greatly expanded bureaucracy and military to govern and protect them. The expansion of the government and military to cope with the overextended Roman Republic are key factors in its collapse. The institutions like the senate, consulship, public assemblies, and the rest, were initially created for a small agricultural city-state. They were never intended to govern the entire Mediterranean world, and proved unable to do so. Many historians blame the increased bureaucracy as a cause for intense political ambition and conflict within Rome. Even though the Romans tried to adapt, successful governance as a Republic was not possible within the flexible parameters of the traditional infrastructure. The military, which had begun as landowning volunteers, became an army made up of all types of Romans and foreigners who were loyal to the general who promised them the most booty or land. There was simply no way to gather a sufficient force to take on Jugurtha or Mithridates, and still have

5 5 enough men to affect personal political agendas. The expanded bureaucracy and military of the late Republic, necessitated by the overextended territorial late Republic, became a liability to Rome and contributed to the domestic disorder and violence. The internal factional violence and the territorial overextension, which may be very closely tied to one another, were two primary causes of the collapse of the Republic. But the fall of the Republic, just like the rise, cannot simply be attributed to one or two factors. Some believe the waning of the morals and ideals of the early Republic led to its fall. Others blame one man, Gaius Julius Caesar, as the reason for the Republican deterioration. In the end, the causes were probably all of these and more.

6 6 References Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim and Cedric A. Yao, A History of the Roman People, 4 th ed. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2003). Francis R. Swietek, class lecture, History 3304-Roman Republic, University of Dallas, 31 Aug Dec Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold (eds.), Roman Civilization, Vol. I: The Republic and the Augustan Age, 3 rd ed. (New York: Columbia U.P., 1990).

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