The crisis of the Roman republic worsened over 100 years: Roman society changed as Roman dominions grew and wealth increased unevenly across society. Marius’ reforms had unwittingly created military forces more loyal to individual generals than to the state, allowing the social divisions to erupt in civil wars.
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. This was a similar effect to the industrial revolution bringing extreme poverty for many people in 18th and 19th century Britain.
One thing is success and accumulation of wealth, but social adjustment, flexible work forces and wealth distribution are hard to manage. In the British industrial revolution case we can imagine old businesses based on manual work, and hence giving employment to the Plebeian lower class, competing with new ones which used mechanisation: Rates of unemployment and poverty grew as many businesses went bust.
Whilst Roman society had 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 Patrician and 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 the creation of a professional army by General Marius. This gave 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 Roman army made of Plebeians came to hold the knife by the handle in nominating the emperors, starting with Claudius but most noticeably after Nero’s fall during the year of the four emperors and the nomination of Vespasian and many later emperors.
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: The deepening crisis of the Roman Republic
The crisis of the Roman Republic deepened when 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. Thousands of Italians were killed. Sulla had long proscription lists of wanted persons and offered rewards for their killing. It is said that a little short of 5000 citizens of Rome were killed.
At this time Julius Caesar was approximately 18 years old and given his family ties to Marius he was soon added to Sulla’s proscription lists. 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 taught 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.
Strengthening the justice system was not sufficient to resolve the crisis of the Roman Republic.
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. This consolidation of power was a further element in the deepening crisis of the Roman Republic.
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 local population. He then set to harassing the allies of Mithridates until in the end he was alone and 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 – the Catiline conspiracy
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”.
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. Pompey is said to have worn the cape that had belonged to Alexander the Great 200 years earlier (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 but rather sent back to their own homes and countries.
One would think with such successes the crisis of the Roman Republic would be resolved, but 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.