The Men Who Changed Rome: 6 of the Roman Republic’s Most Important Figures

The Men Who Changed Rome: 6 of the Roman Republic’s Most Important Figures

Patrick Lynch - December 22, 2016

The Roman Republic lasted for almost 500 years and produced some of the most famous people in world history. From its humble beginnings, Rome created one of the globe’s greatest empires, and the men below were among the most important in the Republic. As Rome only began to impose its will and expand in the later years of the republic, the list starts with people born towards the end of the third century BC.

The Men Who Changed Rome: 6 of the Roman Republic’s Most Important Figures (Scipio Africanus)

1 – Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236 – 183 BC)

Scipio Africanus is widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman generals of all time. His biggest achievement was unquestionably his defeat of Hannibal in the Second Punic War; his exploits in Africa earned him the nickname ‘Africanus.’ He was born in Rome in 236 BC, and the Scipio were part of the Cornelli, one of the six major patrician families in the city. Scipio’s great-grandfather and grandfather were consuls and censors while his father was a consul.

His military career began in the early part of the Second Punic War, and he quickly showed his bravery by saving his father’s life in a skirmish at Ticinus. Scipio was a survivor of the disaster at Cannae in 216 BC and back in Rome, he won the curule aedileship despite not being of legal age to hold the office. His resilience was tested in 211 BC when his father and uncle were killed by the Carthaginians. Scipio took command of the Roman armies in Spain and enjoyed his first significant victory in 209 BC when he took New Carthage after a siege.

He became known for his fair treatment of prisoners and hostages; these actions reduced the level of local resistance to the Romans who became seen as liberators rather than invaders. Indeed, some local chieftains pledged their support to Scipio after seeing how he treated others. Scipio found success in his first pitch battle against Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, at Baecula in 209 BC. Three years later, victory at Ilipa forced the Carthaginians to leave Spain.

In 205 BC, Scipio received a consulship but was compelled to cobble together an army from his supporters in Rome after the Senate refused to give him any extra troops beyond a Sicilian garrison. He launched his African invasion in 204 BC and won a significant victory at Utica in 203 BC. Scipio outmaneuvered the brilliant general Hannibal at Zama in 202 BC and won a decisive victory that ended the Second Punic War. Unlike other generals of the age, Scipio decided not to plunder his fallen rivals.

Despite never losing a battle in his career, the great Roman military hero could never fully enjoy retirement. Cato the Elder and other political enemies tried to tarnish his name. After surviving numerous allegations of corruption, Scipio settled in Literum and died there in 183 BC. While he may have died of a fever, some historians claim he took his own life. To his credit, Scipio tried to prevent the ruin of his one-time rival Hannibal. However, he failed as the former Carthaginian general was harassed and pursued by the Romans and committed suicide in 183 BC.

The Men Who Changed Rome: 6 of the Roman Republic’s Most Important Figures
Intellectual Takeout (Cato the Elder)

2 – Cato the Elder (234 – 149 BC)

Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Censor, was one of the most prominent politicians and historians of the Roman Republic. He was given the name ‘Elder’ to distinguish him from Cato the Younger, his great-grandson. Cato was born in Tusculum in 234 BC and had a tough upbringing on a farm. He entered the military aged just 17 and distinguished himself during the Second Punic War.

Cato was elected quaestor in 204 BC, and it was one in a long line of political positions he held during his great career. As junior consul (he was elected with Flaccus in 195 BC), he was successful in quelling the Spanish rebellion and celebrated a triumph upon his return to Rome in 194 BC. In 191 BC, Cato chose to retire from the military and focused on the senatorial debate.

He hated Scipio Africanus and tried to bring the hero of Zama down. Cato despised Scipio’s decadent lifestyle and even took the commander to trial; he won the trial, but it damaged his reputation. In 184 BC, Cato was elected censor which, given his quest for morality within the Republic, was his ideal position. In this role, he issued taxes on luxuries and revised the equestrian order and Senate enrollment. As you might expect in an era of corruption, the moral crusader built up an impressive stable of enemies and was forced to defend himself in court on over 40 occasions during his life!

In 150 BC, Cato was part of a Roman commission of inquiry which was supposed to act as an adjudicator between Carthage and Numidia. Cato had a lifelong hatred of the Carthaginians and is quoted as saying “Carthage must be destroyed” at the end of his Senate speeches. The Romans found in favor of the Numidians and in 149 BC, the Third Punic War began. Cato was to have his wish fulfilled as Carthage ceased to exist as an independent state at the end of the war in 146 BC. Alas, Cato had died three years previously, but his name was to become synonymous with morality in Rome for centuries to come.

The Men Who Changed Rome: 6 of the Roman Republic’s Most Important Figures
Wikimedia Commons (Eugene Guillaume The Gracchi)

3 – The Gracchus Brothers – Tiberius (168 – 133 BC) & Gaius (154? – 121 BC)

Also known as the Gracchi, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were tribunes who tried to introduce populist legislation such as land reform into ancient Rome; they have been described as ‘the founding fathers of socialism and populism’ by historians.

Tiberius was the elder brother and served as an officer in the Third Punic War. When a Roman army was surrounded in Numantia, Tiberius’ negotiating skills helped saved the lives of up to 20,000 men even though the Roman Senate were not pleased with what it called a ‘dishonorable treaty.’ He was elected tribune in 133 BC and became famous for his proposal to ensure no Roman citizen could possess more than 500 iugera of land. The extra land would be taken by the state and given to needy families in 30 iugera sections.

Since most members of the Senate owned more than 500 iugera of land, they were bitterly opposed to this reform. King Attalus III of Pergamum died when Tiberius was Tribune and left his fortune to Rome. Tiberius wanted to use the wealth to fund his reform. This was seen as a direct attack on Senatorial power and only increased the opposition against Tiberius. He attempted to seek re-election as tribune for the following year in a move that was considered dictatorial by his enemies. During the election, violence broke out, and Tiberius was beaten to death with wooden chairs. Approximately 300 of his supporters also died that day.

Gaius was around 21-22 years old at the time of his brother’s death, but instead of being frightened off politics, he threw himself into the arena and began by joining in the outcry against Scipio Nasica, the man accused of instigating the violence that resulted in Tiberius’s death. After lengthy military service, Gaius became quaestor in 126 BC, and three years later, he was elected as a tribune for the plebeians, the same office as his brother held.

The Senate saw him as a bigger danger than his brother as he was more practical and his reforms were more complex. As well as renewing his brother’s land law, Gaius founded new colonies in Carthage and Italy. He introduced a law that forbade the conscription of Romans under the age of 17 and also ensured the state would pay for essential military equipment. Other reforms included state subsidized grain and the death penalty for judges found guilty of accepting a bribe to convict another Roman.

Unfortunately for Gaius, he lost popular support by 121 BC as his enemies in the Senate conspired against him. When one of his opponents was murdered on Capitoline Hill, the ‘ultimate decree of the Senate’ was passed. It stated that the Senate could declare any person as an ‘enemy of the state’ and have him executed without trial. Gaius was possibly the first victim of this new rule when a mob formed with the goal of assassinating him. Rather than wait for the inevitable, Gaius committed suicide on Aventine Hill in 121 BC. The Gracchi were important figures in Roman history even if their reforms failed. The role of Tribune was to become a poisoned chalice, and numerous men died violently while in office in the decades to come.

The Men Who Changed Rome: 6 of the Roman Republic’s Most Important Figures
Alchetron (Gaius Marius)

4 – Gaius Marius (157 – 86 BC)

Gaius Marius was one of the greatest Roman generals and is responsible for organizing the Roman army into one of the world’s most efficient fighting machines. He was also a noted statesman and held the office of consul on seven separate occasions. Marius was born in Arpinum in 157 BC and was solely a military man for the first half of his life. He was an excellent soldier and fought bravely in Numantia in 134 BC, but Marius was a poor public speaker and showed no flair for politics.

He became Praetor in 115 BC after offering heavy bribes and was almost condemned in court for this action. Throughout his career, Marius was a breaker of tradition. When he was elected consul in 108 BC, he tried to use his standing to take command of the army in Africa. This was an unlawful action because, at that time, only the Senate had this power.

Marius once again broke tradition when it came to recruiting new forces for the fight in Africa, and by doing so, he helped created an excellent fighting unit. Typically, soldiers were enlisted from the landowning classes, but Marius chose to offer the job to Rome’s poorer residents. It was a brilliant decision as these hungry men jumped at the chance of employment and the promise of adventure, glory, and plunder. Incidentally, it was also Marius’ idea to reward veterans with plots of land.

Finally, he introduced new training methods and created an enormous professional army; Marius’ achievement was to lay the foundation for Roman dominance in the next few centuries. In 105 BC, the new look Roman army ended the war in Numidia, but Marius was needed to handle the marauding Germanic tribes. Although Roman manpower had increased, it was the improved discipline that helped them defeat the Teutones in 102 BC and the Cimbri in 101 BC.

In 100 BC, Marius brought the army into Rome to quell an outbreak of violence. It was a historic move as it showed that no one could rule Rome without the support of its army. Marius was then involved in a mess with the Tribune Saturninus who passed some agrarian laws to provide land for soldiers. These reforms had Marius’ support, but Saturninus’ proposals were opposed, so Marius jumped on the bandwagon and had the Tribune arrested. In 99 BC, Saturninus was murdered by a mob despite Marius assuring him that he would not be harmed.

Marius left Rome after this debacle but returned during the Social War of 91 BC. He was angry when Sulla was given command of the Roman force in Numidia and tried to have the army transferred to him. Sulla returned to Rome with an army and declared Marius a public enemy. Marius fled Rome but raised more troops while in Africa and returned to march on the city with the aid of Cinna. When Cinna took Rome in Sulla’s absence, Marius was re-elected as a consul in 86 BC but died just 17 days after taking office.

The Men Who Changed Rome: 6 of the Roman Republic’s Most Important Figures
Slideplayer (Sulla)

5 – Lucius Cornelius Sulla (139-38? – 78 BC)

Sulla is a highly controversial figure in Roman history. For centuries, he was portrayed as a bloodthirsty tyrant, but some modern historians hold a different view. He was born in 139 or 138 BC and lived in relative poverty until his mistress and stepmother both died and left him a substantial amount of wealth. As a result, he was able to campaign for the position of quaestor which he did successfully in 107 BC.

Sulla led an army against the Numidians and forced them to surrender in 105 BC. He took credit for ending the war, something that must have irritated Gaius Marius no end. However, Marius recognized Sulla’s ability as commander and requested his help against the Germanic tribes; once again, Sulla distinguished himself on the battlefield and Rome defeated the tribes by 101 BC.

He looked to further his political aims and became governor of Sicilia in 96 BC. The First Civil War (also known as the First Social War) in 91 BC curtailed his political career as he was asked once again to fight. Sulla briefly fought alongside Marius and defeated numerous enemies. His performance in the war led to his election as consul when the war ended in 88 BC. Sulla was given command of the army against Mithridates VI of Pontus; Marius opposed the decision, but Sulla responded with force and caused Marius to flee Rome.

Sulla’s enemies in Rome continued to conspire against him, so he swiftly ended the war with Mithridates and returned home to handle his foes. His enemies died one by one; Marius in 86 BC (probably of pleurisy) and Cinna in 84 BC (killed by his own men). In 83 BC, Sulla marched on Rome in a bid to seize power and eliminate his enemies once and for all. The following year, Sulla became dictator, a role that had not been used for over 120 years. In Roman law, a dictator could only rule with supreme power for six months, but Sulla did so indefinitely.

In his new role, Sulla showed no mercy to his perceived enemies and had thousands of them executed through ‘proscription.’ The purge lasted several months, and as many as 9,000 people died; most of them belonged to the ruling classes. Sons and grandsons of the proscribed could not run for office and Sulla instituted many reforms to mold Rome in his image. He ‘resigned’ as dictator in 81 BC but served as consul in 80 BC.

Sulla retired to his country villa and wrote his memoirs. In 78 BC, he died from either a ruptured gastric ulcer or liver failure while reportedly screaming for the strangulation of a corrupt official. His death was probably not a surprise since he was a chronic alcoholic and prone to fits of anger. While Sulla could be portrayed as a guardian of the Republic, the proscriptions and his seeming delight in murdering enemies places him in an extremely negative light.

The Men Who Changed Rome: 6 of the Roman Republic’s Most Important Figures
Daily Stormer (The Ides of March)

6 – Gaius Julius Caesar (100 – 44 BC)

Julius Caesar is arguably the ‘greatest’ Roman of them all and is certainly the most famous. He was born in Rome in 100 BC into the prominent Julian patrician family. He began his brilliant military career in 85 BC upon the death of his father and received the Civic Crown for service at a young age. Caesar fled from Rome during Sulla’s purges and contracted a fever that almost killed him. He only returned upon the death of the one-time dictator in 78 BC and quickly became popular with the public for staging elaborate gladiatorial games.

During his successful campaigns in Spain, he reportedly found a statue of Alexander the Great and wept because he realized the Macedonian had conquered half the world by the time he was Caesar’s age. His military record, popularity, and penchant for bribery enabled him to become a high priest; he was then elected consul in 59 BC. By forming the First Triumvirate with Crassus and Pompey in around 60 BC, Caesar positioned himself as one of Rome’s most powerful and influential men.

Caesar began his conquest of Gaul in 58 BC and remained as governor of the province until 51 BC. He kept a detailed account of his campaign; and while we must take his writings with a pinch of salt since he exaggerated some of his deeds, it does appear as if his campaign in Gaul was one of the finest by any Roman general. An example of his brilliance was the Siege of Alesia in 52 BC where he walled the walled city and then created another wall to prevent Gallic reinforcements from lifting the siege! In the meantime, he launched a couple of expeditions to Britain. Meanwhile, Crassus had died at Carrhae (53 BC) and in 50 BC, the Senate, backed by his jealous rival Pompey, ordered Caesar to disband his army and return home as his spell as governor had finished.

Caesar believed he would be prosecuted upon his return, so he crossed the Rubicon River in 49 BC and started a civil war. He beat Pompey in a decisive battle at Pharsalus in 48 BC and became dictator upon his return to Rome with Mark Antony as his second in command. Caesar chased Pompey to Egypt and received his enemy’s severed head. He reportedly had Pompey’s assassins executed. While in Egypt, Caesar became embroiled in another civil war and took the side of Cleopatra. After victory at the Battle of the Nile in 47 BC, he took the new Queen in a procession down the famous river. The duo never married although she probably bore him a son they called Caesarion.

In late 48 BC, Caesar once again became dictator and the following year; he easily defeated the king of Pontus. Back in Rome, his enemies plotted against them; they were led by Cato the Younger who committed suicide in 46 BC once Caesar had gained victory. Caesar was appointed dictator for ten years after this win but was not yet done with his foes. He chased Pompey’s sons to Africa and defeated them at the Battle of Munda in 45 BC.

During his later years, Caesar established a new constitution as a means of strengthening central government and retaining control of the provinces. One of his longer lasting changes was the reform of the calendar; the Julian calendar is almost identical to the one used today as he set the length of the year at 365.25 days and added an extra day every four years. Other changes included the establishment of a police force, land reforms and the rebuilding of Corinth and Carthage.

Caesar’s life came to a predictably brutal end as several senators plotted an assassination attempt on the Ides of March, March 15, 44 BC. Mark Antony learned of the plot but couldn’t reach Caesar in time. At the Senate, a group of men including Brutus and Casca stabbed Caesar to death. Up to 60 people were involved, and Caesar was stabbed 23 times; amazingly, only one of the wounds was lethal.