10. The Start of the Decline of the Roman Republic
Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (circa 164 – 133 BC), a Roman tribune of the plebes and a pro-commoners populares politician, met a violent end at the hands of Rome’s conservative upper classes. His widowed mother Cornelia, who became known as “Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi”, was a daughter of Scipio Africanus, the general who had defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War. She had refused a marriage proposal from King Ptolemy VIII to devote herself to her children. Tiberius’ political platform revolved around public lands that had been steadily concentrated into illegal giant estates controlled by Rome’s patrician senators. That threatened to extinguish the class of small independent farmers who formed the backbone of the Roman military.
Tiberius had served in the military as a young man, and he noticed that the legions faced a manpower crisis. Rome’s legions were drawn from those who could afford to arm and equip themselves, mostly independent farmers. However, the class of independent farmers had drastically shrunk over a generation, as public lands were illegally seized and consolidated into vast estates controlled by Roman elites. In addition to illegality, it drove small farmers off their lands and into poverty. That diminished the pool of prospective legionaries. Tiberius sponsored agrarian reform laws to redistribute those public lands from the elites to the commoners. Unsurprisingly, his efforts were met by a vicious backlash from the elites.
Tiberius Gracchus wanted to save the independent Roman farmers. So he proposed agrarian reforms to break the giant estates illegally seized by the elites from public lands, and redistribute them in small parcels to lower-class citizens. He was vehemently opposed by the Rome’s elites. When he nonetheless pushed through legislation that began to redistribute the land, he was taken out by a senatorial mob in a riot organized by optimates. That was the name of a faction of conservatives who sought to limit the power of the popular assemblies and the tribunes, and extend that of the pro-aristocratic Senate. It was the Roman Republic’s first act of organized political violence.
That broke two taboos: one against political violence in general, and one against violence against a tribune of the plebes, whose persons had been deemed sacrosanct and inviolate for centuries. Violence begat violence, and Tiberius Gracchus’ political murder ushered in nearly a century of turmoil. The Roman Republic eventually tore itself apart in bouts of civil wars and bloody political purges. In a historic irony, the violence fell disproportionately upon and virtually wiped out the very patrician and senatorial class whose interests the optimates sought to advance.
8. A Brother Who Followed in the Footsteps of His Tragic Sibling
The reformist torch of Tiberius Gracchus was picked by his younger brother, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (154 – 121 BC). Gaius was influenced by his brother’s reform policies and his end at the hands of a senatorial mob, and followed in his footsteps. He became a tribune of the plebes, a populares politician who advanced the cause of the plebeians, and an advocate of agrarian reform. He also followed in Tiberius’ footsteps as a victim of political violence when the conservative Roman Senate and the optimates murdered him.
Elected a tribune of the plebes in 123 BC, Gaius Gracchus made innovative use of the popular assemblies to push through legislation to reenact his brother’s agrarian reforms. He also advocated other measures to lessen the power of the patrician senators. Gaius also pushed through legislation to provide all Romans with subsidized wheat, and was reelected tribune in 122 BC. In 121 BC, the Senate and the Roman conservative elites once again turned to political violence, and organized a riot to go after a tribune.
7. In Hindsight, Roman Conservatives Would Have Been Better Off if They Had Allowed a Little Change
When Roman conservatives murdered one of Gaius Gracchus’ supporters, he and his followers retreated to the Aventine Hill, the traditional asylum of plebeians in an earlier age. In response, the Senate enacted a novel decree that ordered the consuls to go after Gaius, which they did with a mob. When he saw that all was lost, Gaius committed suicide, while the mob fell upon and massacred hundreds of his followers, then threw their bodies into the Tiber River. In the long run, the political murders of the Gracchi brothers backfired upon the optimates‘ cause and the patrician senatorial class whose interests they sought to advance.
Roman patricians were virtually exterminated in rounds of proscriptions that ended members of their class and confiscated the properties. First, the dictator Sulla went after the populares after his victory in Rome’s first civil war. Then the pendulum swung a generation later. Octavian and Mark Antony went after the optimates in an even bloodier and more thorough proscription after their victory in a civil war against Julius Caesar’s assassins. What relatively few patricians survived were gradually taken out later as they were caught up in or were falsely accused of conspiracies against various emperors. By the end of the first century AD, the Roman patrician class was virtually extinct.
History’s best dictator was probably Gaius Octavius, better known as Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD). Rome’s first emperor, Octavius was born into an affluent plebian family on his father’s side, while his mother was of the patrician Julii lineage, and a niece of Julius Caesar. Octavius’ famous grand-uncle launched his grand-nephew into public life, and groomed him to be his heir. Octavius was in Albania, completing his military and academic studies, when Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC.
When he got back to Rome, Octavius learned that Caesar had adopted him as his son in his will, and made him his chief heir. He was advised to decline the dangerous inheritance, but he ignored the advice and went to Rome. There, Caesar’s lieutenant, Mark Antony, refused to honor the will. Caesar’s assassins, from the conservative faction known as the optimates, ignored the teenaged Octavius. Cicero, one of Rome’s prominent elder statesmen and a key member of a politically powerful but militarily weak faction, sought to manipulate him. He quipped that he would: “raise, praise, then erase” the young man. He was mistaken.
5. Underestimating This Teenager Turned Out to Be a Huge Mistake
Everybody in the Roman political scene underestimated Octavius. They took him for a lightweight teenager whose only asset was the famous Caesar name. However, the unprepossessing young man – he was frail and prone to illness throughout his life – was a master politician, and played a long game. The future emperor paid for public games in honor of Julius Caesar, his adoptive father. He sought to gain recognition and popularity, and to lead Rome’s populist faction, fittingly known as the populares. Octavius also set out to woo Caesar’s veteran soldiers to his side.
He succeeded beyond anybody’s expectations. With a military force at Octavius’ command, Cicero’s faction sought his aid. They bent the rules to appoint him a senator despite his being legally below the minimum age, and sent him against Mark Antony, who was forced to retreat from Italy to Gaul. The consuls in official command of the forces arrayed against Mark Antony were exterminated. Octavius got the Senate to appoint him to a vacant consulship, once again despite the fact that he was legally too young for the position.
Once he got the Senate to make him consul, Octavius promptly double-crossed the senators who had bent the rules to get him the position. He reached an agreement with Mark Antony to share power in a joint dictatorship. A generation earlier, after his victory in the first Roman civil war, the dictator Sulla, head of the conservative patrician optimates faction, had gone after the populares faction that had stood for the Roman commoners. Sulla murdered the populares by the thousands in terrifying proscriptions. The conservative victory was not permanent, however.
Once Octavius secured power at the head of the populares, he paid back the optimates in full, and with interest. A generation after the Sulla at the head of the patrician optimates devastated the populares faction, the pendulum swung. Octavius and Mark Antony, now leading the populares, went after the optimates in even bloodier and more thorough proscriptions than those of Sulla against the populares. The duo launched a massive purge that executed thousands of Rome’s conservative optimates. They also ended other suspected opponents, including Cicero, who had tried to follow a centrist path but only ended up offending both sides.
3. The Consolidation of the Roman World Under Augustus’ Rule
After they slaughtered the Roman conservative faction and broke its back for good, Octavius and Mark Antony next went to war against Julius Caesar’s assassins. They defeated them, and exacted revenge. In subsequent generations, in the Roman Empire, what remained of the patrician class was gradually exterminated. Patricians were caught up in or were falsely accused of conspiracies against various emperors, until they became virtually extinct. After they defeated their enemies, Octavius and Mark Antony swore friendship. To seal their agreement to share power, Antony married Octavius’ sister.
The duo then divided the Roman world. Antony was given the east, while Octavius stayed in Rome and ruled the west. However, they fell out when Antony fell in love with Cleopatra in Egypt, married her, and abandoned Octavius’ sister. The future emperor used that family insult as a pretext to attack Antony. He defeated his former partner in 31 BC, and became Rome’s sole ruler. He then seized Egypt and the eastern provinces, which finally brought the entire Roman world under his control.
2. The Death of the Roman Republic, and Birth of the Roman Empire
After he defeated Mark Antony, Octavius reorganized the state. He ended the Roman Republic, whose political structure, created for a city-state, had proved impractical for the governance of a vast empire. The Republic’s fraying institutions had led to a century of chaos and bloodshed, until the reins of power were taken in hand by Octavius. Because he had ended generations of chaos and restored stability, the Roman Senate granted Octavius the honorific title “Augustus”, by which he is known to history. In the Republic’s place, Augustus established the Roman Empire, with himself as its de facto dictator.
Rome’s elites had hated Octavius’ uncle Julius Caesar because of the perception that he wanted to be king – a title and position that the Romans loathed. The Roman Republic had a legal office of dictator, who had nearly absolute and semi-monarchical powers, but only for a maximum term of six months. In 82 BC Sulla had himself appointed dictator with no time limit set on his office, but he resigned the following year. By contrast, Julius Caesar had first gotten himself appointed dictator for ten years, then extended it to dictator for life. That made him king in all but name, so Rome’s traditionalists did away with him. Augustus would not repeat his uncle’s mistake.
After Caesar’s assassination, the office of dictator was formally abolished. In 23 BC, the Senate offered to revive the office and make Augustus dictator. Augustus was well aware of his uncle’s fate and wanted to avoid it, so he declined. However, he accepted the executive powers of a consul for life, as well as those of a tribune – whose person was theoretically inviolate. Thus, Augustus effectively assumed the powers of a dictator for life, without the title. That setup was passed on to his successors. The Roman Empire ushered in by Augustus as dictator in fact but not in name, replaced the Roman Republic.
The new state was a stable, autocratic, and centralized de-facto monarchy, whose founding kicked off a period known as the Pax Romana. It brought the Roman world two centuries of peace and prosperity. Augustus held power from 43 BC, first in conjunction with Mark Antony until 31 BC, and thereafter alone, until his death in 14 AD. As he lay on his deathbed, Augustus compared the role he had played as emperor to that of an actor on a stage. His last words to those gathered around his deathbed were: “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.”
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading