Crisis of the Republic in Ancient Rome

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The period of crisis of the ancient Roman republicRoman History: | aeneas | Romulus, Remus & the origins of Rome | The ancient roman kings | Oath of the Horatii | The Kingdom and Seven Kings of Rome |  |  | The Republic in crisis | Julius Caesar and the end of the Republic | Queen Cleopatra of Egypt | Augustus and the Empire | The 12 Caesars | The Five Good Emperors | Other Emperors | Emperor Constantine and Christianisation | fall of the roman empire |

| roman empire | pax romana | Reasons for the collapse and fall of the roman empire | Contributions by Ancient Romans |

Crisis of the Republic of Ancient Rome

In order to understand the crisis of the Roman republic and the civil war in Rome it is worth having a very quick overview of how Roman society was changing. The end of the Roman Republic was rearing its ugly head in spite of the Conquest of Italy and the victory in the Punic Wars. We say "in spite" because one would think military and financial success should bring general social wellbeing but these very successes were part of the mounting problem in Roman society in much the same way that the industrial revolution brought recession and poverty for many people in 18th and 19th century Britain: one thing is success and creation of wealth but social adjustment and wealth distribution is quite a difficult matter. In the British case you can imagine old businesses based on manual work, and hence giving employment to the "plebeian" lower class, competing with new ones which used mechanisation: a hard change implying many jobless people as many businesses went bust.

Whilst Roman society had ample room for racial equality and social mobility, Roman expansion was coupled with a severe transformation of the Roman economy. This transformation of the economy was largely in favour of the richer noble Senatorial class who (lawfully!) profited by personal investment in the military campaigns and invested such profit to buy up land and slave labour. Land was more intensively cultivated for example in the growing Roman wine trade for export but this industrial growth implied a heavy loss for significant portions of society. During the following centuries the plebeian lower classes were progressively landless, unable to feed themselves and jobless. The very issues which the Gracchi brothers had foreseen and attempted to avoid.

A significant social change was Marius' creation of a professional army: giving the plebeians a new hope through a basic military salary, a cut of the booty and eventually a pension including a small parcel of land. It is hardly surprising that by the time of emperor Nero this growing plebeian army came to hold the knife by the handle in nominating the emperors, starting with claudius and Nero but most noticeably after Nero's fall during the year of the four emperors and the nomination of Vespasian.

Having sped forward to give a general overview of the emerging social patterns we can now step back to the end of the Republic: General Marius and Cinna staged a coup which was at first successful. In principle they represented "the people" against the senate and nobles. Marius took a fearful personal revenge against consuls, senators and anyone who might be opposed to him. At about this time the highly revered Sibylline books were burnt in a fire at the Capitol and this was taken as a bad omen. Marius soon after died of natural death. In the end he had reached his highest ambitions by force.

Sulla deposes Marius

Sure enough, Sulla a former lieutenant of Marius' returned with his legions from successful war campaigns in the east against Athens and Mithridates. He led a counter-coup and told the people of Rome that things were now going to go "as they ought to". Shadowing Marius, Sulla decided to "purge" Rome of all potential enemies and ex allies of Marius. Tens of thousands of Italians were killed. Sulla had long lists of "wanted" persons and whoever killed a proscribed person would receive a reward. It is said that a little short of 5000 citizens of Rome were killed.

At this time Caesar was approximately 18 years old and given the family ties and allegiances already mentioned you can see how he was soon added to Sulla's lists of proscribed persons. However he was fortunate enough that friends interceded for him and Sulla had the young man spared saying something along the lines of "In that boy there is many a Marius".

Sulla later resigned dictatorship having first managed to bring power back into the hands of the senate and nobles for whom unfortunately there was little respect at this time.

Sulla died soon after and a period of instability followed. For example, the peoples of neighbouring regions such as Etruria revolted and the armies of the two consuls sent out to settle them down ended up fighting one another.

Sertorius in Spain

To add to the troubles Lusitania (now Portugal) also rebelled and happily accepted Quintus Sertorius a former supporter of Marius as their general. Sertorius was joined by many exiled Romans, he made friends with the Gauls and even with the powerful pirates of the Mediterranean. In exchange he freely tought and gave these peoples the benefits of the Roman way: schools for the young and military training for the adults. He became so strong that the Romans began to believe they had completely lost control of the Iberian peninsula. They sent a general called Pompey to fight him but that never came to be because Sertorius was murdered by his own allies' jealousy.

Spartacus and the Revolt of the Gladiators

Last but not least within Italy itself there was a great revolt and war with the Gladiators in southern Italy. Many have heard of Spartacus who with some 150,000 gladiators and allies managed to defeat the Romans in several pitched battles. The Gladiators drove south and bargained with the pirates to be taken across to Sicily.

Unfortunately for Spartacus the pirates made off with the money but didn't undertake their part of the bargain and so the Gladiator's revolt was doomed to end.

The praetor Crassus was put in command of the war and sent in to quash the rebellion. He more or less accomplished his objectives when Spartacus and his men met Crassus' army in open combat and were severely defeated. However the glory for putting down the rebellion was taken by Pompey who happened to be returning from Spain and meeting a band of some 5000 rebels cut them down.

The result was that both men were rewarded with consulship although Pompey was also honoured with a triumphal march for his victories in Spain.


At about this time that the governor of Sicily, a man named Verres, was taking terrible liberties with the local population. He aimed to get rich through extortion and believed that a part of such riches would be sufficient to buying up his eventual judges. However the people of Sicily named a young lawyer named Cicero to put their case forward. Needless to say that well before Cicero was done with putting the case forward Verres fled (to Marseilles). The plain corruption of the jury, entirely made up of senators led to a reformulation of how trials were to be conducted and introduced a mix of representatives in juries to include merchants and other men of standing.

Pompey and Pirates in the Mediterranean

Given that the Romans had been so busy with wars on land it is hardly surprising that the Pirates had had a free hand to dominate the seas. They controlled and pillaged hundreds of cities and were beginning to threaten the much needed grain supplies to Italy from Sicily and Africa. As a consequence of this the price of grain was steadily rising.

Pompey was given the task and resources to put a stop to this situation. He divided the mediterranean into a number of sectors and with some 500 galleys and 250,000 men he managed to capture the pirates and their strongholds within three months. But rather than putting his captives to death he dispersed them as slaves across Roman territories. Along with this he gave land to the towns where the former pirates had been sent.

The Roman people were so overjoyed with the result that suggestions were made to send Pompey to terminate the ongoing war with Mithridates in the East. Julius Caesar was a formal supporter of this proposal in the senate and Cicero also made a brilliant speech in favour. The counter argument was that no general until then had ever held so much power. The result however was that Pompey was placed in charge of all forces outside Italy.

Under Roman rule the Asiatic peoples were in a terrible state of poverty and misery. Many had had to borrow from money lenders and/or deliver themselves into slavery. The mistreatment they were putting up with from the Roman money lenders and usurers soon delivered them into the hands of Mithridates to wage war against the Romans for a third time. The Roman consul Lucullus had attempted to right the state of affairs by making laws against usury and to govern interest and taxes but these were ill accepted by his countrymen and even his own soldiers mutinied.

So it was that Pompey went to wage war against Mithridates. He allowed the usury and tax gathering to resume as did the ill-treatment of the natives. He then set to harassing the allies of Mithridates until in the end he was left alone and was driven beyond the Caucasus mountains.

Syria, Phoneicia and Judaea were subdued and taken at this time. Mithridates had hopes of following in Hannibal's steps but the revolt of his own son brought him to commit suicide.

Cicero hero of Rome

Meanwhile, back in Rome, Cicero was becoming a hero of the people. An intense political struggle between the people and the nobles, the Tribunes vs the Senators, came to a head when a noble called Catiline plotted to overthrow the government, amongst other things his plot included an allegiance with the gladiators. Cicero happened to be consul that year and he exposed this plot and made some flaming speaches in the senate against Catiline. Catiline fled and was later killed in battle. Cicero was hailed as the saviour of Rome although many were to remember that during his consulship many had been put to justice without a fair trial.

Cicero's great popularity created discontent in Caesar and the Tribunes to the extent that it was proposed that Pompey should be called back with his army to take control. The proposal was rejected and the people named Cicero "Father of his country".

Pompey's Triumph

By this time Pompey returned to Rome in great triumph. The triumphal procession included many captives and wagons of coins, gold and other valuables. There were also treasures such as the throne and sceptre of Mithridates and it is said that Pompey himself was wearing the cape which some two hundred years earlier had belonged to Alexander the Great (it is difficult to judge just how credible that really is). It is also said that a three meter high image of Mithridates made of solid gold was carried as part of the procession. This was followed by scores of captives and conquered generals. Pompey would have followed up in his carriage studded with jewels.

The procession was unusually grand and unusual in its ending: The captives were not killed at the end but rather sent back to their own homes and countries.

In spite of all this grandeur the political air was thick with trouble. The people of Rome had become a powerful component of the Republic and the rivalry between Tribunes of the people and the Senate of the nobles was becoming increasingly tense. There was no clear leader either.

What was clear was that the military were growing in strength and leaders such as Pompey could quite easily compete for power against the politicians and political system. Generals such as Marius and Sulla had shown how such power could be used to take over control unfairly.

A BLOG POST from the Ancient Rome page which is more pertinent to this page is added below....

Dear Sir/Madam,
This is an excellent web site.  I am doing ancient history at university.  What are the more common questions that lecturers ask nearly all the time.?  I am studying through the book "the Punic wars until the death of cesar. (editor's note: it's written CAESAR)
What is your opnion of sulla, marius and Tiberius Gracchus?
My email address is leannes@xxxxxxxx
I would appreciate any feedback

Wow Leanne, a very big question in a very short paragraph, especially when I don't know how much you
know on the subject yourself.

The characters you refer to embody the various facets of pre-imperial Rome. They set the stage for Julius Caesar's and then Augustus' reforms as well as being the epitomy of all that was not well with the Republic.

The Gracchi brothers are the prototype of nineteenth and twentieth century social revolutionaries and as such bring to the fore the difficulties and struggles of the poor plebeians versus the socially advantaged patricians.

Part of the problem was linked to the traditional means by which Patricians took a portion of war booty and invested it in large agricultural investments whilst the plebs became poorer and poorer (as they were away fighting they couldn't work the land!) Better check up what I tell you but I believe general Marius was the first to set up a professional army: giving the plebs a paid career as an alternative to poverty in the fields.

Marius and Sulla essentially represented two political opposites, rather like Julius Caesar and Pompey did after them.

I could go on for ever. Look at: - the political parties around at the time (essentially it was a conservatives versus socialists kind of affair but it is important to understand who was on which side and why as this is the basis for the political manoeuvering which then showed through in
military form with the civil wars and nasty proscriptions whereby the side which had the upper
hand attempted to literally outlaw and assassinate the families of the opposite side)
- the form of government (power of veto of the "tribunes of the people")
- Sulla introduced a number of interesting laws of all sorts. I believe he himself actually retired from power at a certain moment, interesting move for what was essentially a dictator.
- agrarian laws: land division and free grain (bread) for the poor. By the time of Augustus almost half the population of Rome was essentially claiming the dole.

Hope this helps,
PS What is particularly interesting is how in spite of the social/civil wars at home the Romans continued to win wars abroad. Look at who was doing the fighting and who was getting richer.... eventually, during the empire, it might actually be beneficial for a free plebeian to give himself and his family into slavery:
with so much free labour around jobs were scarce and badly paid. By submitting to slavery you might be fortunate enough to get education, work and perhaps even the opportunity to make money and start your own business (an opportunity mind you - many were born, mistreated and died in slavery!) There are many instances of "liberti" who made fortunes and later became benefactors of local society.

Dear Giovanni,
Thanks for your information.  There is just so much to learn.  For our exam we have to write three essays on three different topics.  We are told to prepare for three.  I have chosen the punic wars, women, slavery and religion.
I am just making sure I understand Sulla, Marius so that the lecturers won't indicate on the exam we have to write about them.  I just want toknow my stuff. 

Would you say that anicent rome was a slave state?  I am getting that impression.

At this point I've chopped some chit chat then...

Leanne, You say you've had to pick three essays and that your third one is "slavery and religion"? Odd mix: did the teacher propose the titles?

The Punic wars one is a pretty stiff one to choose I recon as they spanned a relatively long period of time as well as impacting a broad spectrum of Rome's history thereafter. For example, Carthage was the real hurdle in the Romans stretching their dominion into Sicily and Africa (important grain producing centres) and across the Mediterranean.

The significance of these victories (such as the victory over Hannibal who with the battle at Cannae
literally scared the hell out of them for ever more) was such that even Virgil/Augustus deemed it useful propaganda to entwine the fates of Dido (mythical queen of Carthage) with that of Aeneas (mythical forefather of Rome's founders Romulus and Remus).

Re the "slave state" comment - it's not a feeling, it's a reality. In fact slavery and a generally low value on human life was a part of reality all over the world in those times except in Rome it was evolved to the nth degree. Don't forget that in subjects such as slavery or women you will have to consider how things changed over a period of 1000 years of ancient Rome.

ie the attitude and the Roman people of early Rome (Rome of kings - as it was first ruled by kings, then a republic and then an empire) was completely different to those of the late empire. This is another hefty subject, but extremely significant, especially if you consider it from the point of view of its effects on the Roman economy: free slave labour had an impact on the cost of goods as well as an impact on the availability of jobs for the plebeians. When the empire stopped expanding there were fewer and fewer slaves to be had, the cheap labour became increasingly expensive and the economy began to collapse (I'm being EXTREMELY simplistic but hope to have given you a lead).

Best get going, hope the above gives you sufficient tips for your studies.

Ciao from Rome,


PS If you really want to do it properly do a little research into the evolution of Roman law over time with respect to the different subjects. You'll find that in the early days of Rome (when laws weren't even written) it is said that Romulus approved of the killing of a woman - a wife - who had drunk wine: they had a "thing" about women not being allowed to drink wine as well as the rights of the house's master/husband over all it's contents including wife and children, he could even sell them into slavery if he wished. 800 years later there were laws enforcing a degree of care for slaves, to keep their families together, laws permitting divorce as well as diverse types of marriage and so on. So you see, it's not all cut and dried black and white!
Happy studies. G.



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Roman History: | aeneas | Romulus, Remus & the origins of Rome | The ancient roman kings | Oath of the Horatii | The Kingdom and Seven Kings of Rome | The Roman Republic | The Conquest of Italy and the Punic Wars | The Republic in crisis | Julius Caesar and the end of the Republic | Queen Cleopatra of Egypt | Augustus and the Empire | The 12 Caesars | The Five Good Emperors | Other Emperors | Emperor Constantine and Christianisation | fall of the roman empire |

| roman empire | pax romana | Reasons for the collapse and fall of the roman empire | Contributions by Ancient Romans |

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"Crisis of the Republic of Ancient Rome" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments