Continuous war, the victories and spread of the power of Rome to all parts of the Mediterranean had changed the character and aspirations the people of Rome and the roman republic. With the fall of Carthage the Mediterranean sea could be said to have become “a Roman lake” and Roman citizens had grown a love for the finer things in life.
Tributes and taxes exacted from all parts of Roman territories brought an enormous concentration of wealth within the roman republic itself. Tastes had become expensive and people increasingly aspired to the luxuries and culture offered by the East. Art, spices and all kinds of merchandise would be imported from the most distant lands in order to satisfy the most exotic of tastes.
The richer students would travel to countries such as Greece for the final years of their upbringing in order to perfect their Greek language and other disciplines such as Oratory. A good example of this is to be found in the writer Horace, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, who at about the time of the Catiline conspiracy (overcome by Cicero) came to Rome with his father. He was eight years old and the intention was that he might receive the best tuition. By the age of twenty Horace travelled to Athens and after a number of years returned to Rome. He impressed the likes of Virgil, Maecenas and the emperor Augustus with his wit and learning.
Not so positive was the fact that the wealthier classes were aspiring to increasingly large and ostentatious estates. The great increase in Rome’s dominions had driven down the cost of slaves and made slave labour more economical than paying wages to free men. At the same time the cost of land became forbidding to all but the richest and this happened to be accompanied with a shift from crops to shepherding with a consequent reduction in job numbers. Jobs for the poor were therefore extremely hard to find and very badly paid.
The wealth gap between rich and poor widened and, to use some modern terminology, inflation shot through the roof. The poor of Rome would have to depend on rich wealthy men to help them or join the army to be paid a wage.
As is to be expected this more or less sudden concentration of wealth created increasing social division and soon developed into a hundred years of class struggle and civil war. The attrition culminated in the murder of Julius Caesar who set the wheels of reform in motion with numerous laws and public works (before being murdered). A new era dawned only when Caesar’s adoptive son Octavianus, later known as emperor Augustus, took power.
The Gracchi and Social Revolution in Rome
Stepping back a little again, as the social divide widened discontent became increasingly evident and the wheels of reform accompanied by violence were set into motion by Tiberius Gracchus – a grandson of the great Scipio Africanus (the one who had subdued Carthage). Tiberius had witnessed the suffering of the poor and proposed to the Senate the revival of an old but hitherto ignored agrarian law which limited the extent of land any single person was allowed to own.
Given that most of the senate’s members belonged to the landowning Patrician families it is hardly surprising that Tiberius’ proposal wasn’t met with much sympathy. Not wanting to be outdone Tiberius circumvented the senate by forcing the law through the council of Tribunes and assembly of tribes which represented the Plebeians. In modern Britain this could be likened to forcing legislation on the basis of approval through the House of Commons alone and skipping approval of the House of Lords.
Around the year 133BC the agrarian law was passed but it was clearly very difficult to enforce. Also in order to have the law passed Tiberius had had to employ illegal methods. Events soon developed into a riot in the midst of which Tiberius was killed.
Tiberius had a brother called Caius Sempronius Gracchus. Some years after the death of his brother Caius reached a similar position of influence and proposed two laws in favour of the poor, both of which were passed.
The first favoured the poor by awarding them the right to purchase grain from the state at half of market price. (By the time of Augustus this social right for the poor was also being taken advantage of by the not-so-poor so that some 50% of the population were effectively living off social welfare). The second of Caius’ laws favoured the middle classes whose wealth lay in banking and merchandising as opposed to landholding and gave them power in the courts.
Caius then re-proposed the agrarian law his brother had first put forward ten years earlier and then dared propose that the Latin people should be granted the right to be considered Roman citizens. Not surprisingly a new riot broke out and Caius was slain like his brother.
To this day the Gracchi brothers represent the soul and inspiration of revolutionaries. However, once dead there were few who could or would stand up for the rights of the poor and indigent whilst the only power and justice of Rome was to be found through bribery and gold.
Rome’s Social Wars become Civil Wars
Under this tense climate, two great generals began their ascent: First Caius Marius and then Sulla. The former had fought under Scipio Africanus whilst the latter was actually a Lieutenant under Marius. As is described further on, Marius succeeded in defending Rome from grave threats such as barbarian invasions and rebellion of the other Italic peoples. Not only was he militarily able enough to abate these threats but he was also wise enough to see the reason in Caius Gracchus’ proposals for awarding citizenship to those faithful to Rome. This he undertook to great common benefit.
Unfortunately the tension between plebeians and patricians, the poor and the rich of Rome was not resolved and so grew into increasingly cruel civil wars between generals such as that between Marius and Sulla each of whom slew thousands of personal opponents whether Romans or not.
Julius Caesar and the Roman Republic
It was in this torrid environment that the Patrician Julius Caesar began his rise to power. He aligned himself with the Popular party which stood for the Plebeians and fought a civil war against general Pompey who was aligned with the Senate. The military side of things ended in Egypt with the death of Pompey and a love affair between Caesar and Cleopatra (from whom a child was born).
The class war had apparently culminated in a resounding victory for the people and Julius Caesar was subsequently declared perpetual dictator although he didn’t get the honor of a Triumphal march given that his adversary had been another Roman.
Julius Caesar was murdered shortly afterwards by personal friends of his who mistakenly believed they were defending republican rights. The “noble” conspirators were joined by a bunch of others who hoped to make personal gain out of Caesar’s death. At first sight all this may appear somewhat contradictory given that Caesar was politically aligned with the rights of the people, the “Plebs”, the “multitude”! But politics is politics.
In fact Caesar had been an able visionary as well as a unique general and statesman (and incorrigible adulterer). He had understood that the republican system had run its 500 year course and was now incapable of governing what was about to be called “the Roman Empire”.
During his short tenure as (benevolent) Dictator he initiated a huge number of urgently needed reforms ranging from social and legal aspects through to the construction of essential public works. Many of these came to a halt with Julius Caesar’s death but were soon picked up again by his adopted successor Augustus.
Click here to learn a little more about the Roman civil wars and the crisis of the Roman Republic. It’s epic stuff, proscriptions, assassinations, pirates, Gladiators on revolt and revenge. Wow.