In today’s edition of the Homewritten History of the World, we look at Rome’s bloody transition from Republic to Empire, focusing on the great leaders of the Roman Republic, such as Marius and Pompey and Caesar.
Now, before we go on, let me apologize for the fact that there is a lot of information and sources about the late Roman Republic. This means that I’m going to have to condense down a lot of the information and this post will be rather tight-packed. Some of you who are more familiar with this topic may think that I’m skipping over too much, but there’s nothing I can do about it, and I’m really sorry. Please do forgive me.
Last time, we’d focused on Rome’s rise from a relatively unknown Italian state to the greatest power of the Mediterranean. As it stands, the Republic had nothing to fear. Its invincible legions were the fear of all its enemies, wealth continued to pour in, more and more land was being conquered. What could hope to tear down such a foe? In the end, the Republic had nothing to fear from Macedon or Syria. Her own sons were the one who would bring the Republic down.
It all started with an internal crisis in the Roman Republic. Despite the fact that conquests brought Rome great wealth, the poor were no better off than they had been before. In fact, landowners began to push peasants off their land. This led to another crisis in the regarding Rome’s military, for there was a law that soldiers had to own land. With the peasants losing their land and thus becoming ineligible for military service, this was a crisis indeed for the Roman army. To combat the economic problem, two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, ran as tribunes (representatives of the plebeians) and offered a hugely reform programme to the poor. It was a hugely shocking programme for the aristocracy, however. Not only would some land be seized from the patricians and parceled out among the poor; land would be restored to displaced peasants; the Republic would even begin to do things like providing clothes for poor soldiers! It could hardly be allowed to proceed, and soon enough both brothers would be killed violently. It was the first bit of bloodshed that would be followed by much more in the Republic’s turmoil.
The assassination of the Gracchi did not combat the crisis, however.
Instead, in 107 B.C, the consul, Marius, decided to pass through a different reform. No longer were the soldiers required to own land. Instead, the soldiers would campaign with their generals and hope that the general would try to pass through a land grant for the soldiers after a war was over. It was a fateful decision, although Marius would not have known it at that time. The Republic’s armies were no longer fighting just for the glory of Rome, but also for their general in the hope of land. Loyalty was now owed to the general instead of the Republic.
An opportunity for the legions to fight was quick to come. In 91 B.C, a lot of Rome’s allies in Italy rebelled against her. The Italian allies had been wanting Roman citizenship, something the Romans were hardly willing to grant. Choosing Corfinium as their capital, the allies created a new state: Italia. The war, now called the Social War, was a desperate one for Rome, and she managed to stave off total defeat. Instead, the generals painstakingly defeated the Italian allies and finally declared that all the Italian allies who had not revolted were to be given citizenship; the ones who did and surrendered could expect it soon. This finished off the revolt, except for the Samnites who continued to hold on.
This was to have important consequences. Back in Rome, a hero of the war, Sulla, was voted consul. At around the same time, Mithridates, the king of Pontus, a kingdom in Asia Minor, was invading Roman territory. A military command to the east was any Roman’s general dream, for Asia was rich and wealthy, always ready to be bled white by the Romans. Sulla quickly had the command against Mithridates given to him. This, however, did not go well with Marius, another Roman hero. The resourceful general had a plan, however. When Sulla left Rome to continue the siege of Nola, a rebel city that still held out, Marius had a tame tribune transfer the command to him and force Sulla to give up command of his army. Unsurprisingly, when the messenger reached Sulla, the man refused and instead of giving up his army, decided to take it and march upon Rome. No Roman army had ever done this before, for it was a taboo for any general under arms to come into the city’s boundaries- but Sulla had done it. Marius fled the city, Sulla had the command transferred back to him, and embarked to the east. Meanwhile, Marius returned to Rome with a consul, Cinna. There, he killed numerous pro-Sulla friends and politicians, but he would not stay for long. Just a few days after his return, Marius was dead himself. Naturally, Sulla was not in a pleasant mood after wrapping up the war with Mithridates. He returned to Italy, smashed away the pro-Marius armies sent against him, and had himself proclaimed dictator in Rome. Then he started putting up ‘proscription lists’, which contained the names of people he wanted dead. Rome was being cleansed of anyone identified with the Marian cause, and blood could be smelled everywhere.
Sulla abdicated in 81 B.C, and this opened the way for a new generation of Romans to take over the power. We’ll be looking at Gaius
Julius Caesar, who was a nephew of Marius and was, after a lot of persuading by his friends in high places, spared from the death lists by Sulla. After Sulla’s death, Caesar returned to Rome and began his political career. He slowly rose through the positions and earned the position of Pontifex Maximus (high priest) in 63 B.C. 4 years later, he was elected consul. Here marks the start of the First Triumvirate of Rome. Caesar, despite being consul, was in fact sharing power with two other men: Pompey, a very successful general, and Crassus, the richest man in Rome. Together, they had virtually limitless power. Highly unpopular with the anti-triumvirate Romans, to be sure, for after all, Rome was a republic. Power could not lay with three individuals! But the triumvirate managed to stay in power. When Caesar’s consulship ended, they arranged for him to be charged with the defense of the Roman border in Gaul. Caesar used his position to slowly conquer the whole of Gaul and even launch invasions into Britain.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Pompey and Crassus, who were never exactly friends, was slowly eroding. Finally, Caesar called a meeting between the triumvirs. Caesar would continue to be Governor of Gaul, while Pompey and Crassus would be the consuls, and thus get whatever commands they want. In the end, Pompey received the command of Spain while Crassus had the command of Syria. In Syria, Crassus raised an army and prepared to invade and conquer the Parthian Empire. He failed, however, was defeated in battle and died in Parthia in 55 B.C. The triumvirate has lost a head.
Meanwhile, Caesar and Pompey came at odds with each other. In Rome, a bill was proposed that Caesar, the conqueror of Gaul, was to be allowed to stand for election without disbanding his army, meaning that he would never be a private citizen. Not a choice for Caesar’s enemies, for an officer could not be prosecuted. They weren’t willing to let their chance slip away. Pompey, who was becoming preeminent in Rome with Crassus dead, was constantly asked to speak against Caesar. Finally, Pompey ordered Caesar to disband his legions. Caesar refused and it was clear that Rome was on the verge of civil war. Finally, in 49 B.C, all hell broke loose. Caesar crossed the Rubicon river, which marked the boundary of his
province and Italy. No provincial army was allowed to cross it, but Caesar had done it and he marched straight for Rome. Panicking, Pompey with most of the Senate and his supporters fled for Greece and quickly raised an army. Caesar followed and in 48 B.C they met on the plains of Pharsalus, with two Roman armies facing each other.
Pompey, with his confidence, had already prepared a victory feast before the battle. In ended up that Caesar was the one dining in it, while Pompey escaped to Egypt and was killed by the Ptolemaic Pharaoh. Caesar followed and did all the famous stuff he did in Egypt (such as falling in love with Cleopatra), before returning back to the Roman world and defeating the rest of Pompey’s supporters. Finally, he was back in Rome and made himself dictator for life.
A dictator for life- in a republic. Caesar was king in all but name, and the Romans could hardly accept such a figure. The Republic was not yet dead! In 44 B.C, Caesar was assassinated while attending a Senate meeting.
This led to another round of Roman civil wars between various factions until finally, one man stepped up to take control of everything. Octavian, Caesar’s heir and nephew, was given the honorific title of ‘Augustus’ in 27 B.C. Like his adopted father, he had supreme control over Rome, but unlike his father, he did not have an official position of ‘dictator for life’. Yes, the Romans kept their Republic, but no, they had lost their freedom.
The first emperor was here. The Republic was truly dead.
In the next edition of the Homewritten History of the World, we take a step out and look at the larger picture of Eurasia, seeing the situation in Han Dynasty China, early-imperial Rome and the Parthian Middle East.