Ancient Rome—Decline of Republic

146 to 60 B.C.
Age of Gracchi to Pompey Defeats Pirates

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Decline of Republic

The last century of the Roman Republic is one of the most eventful periods in Roman history and produced many of the best-known Roman statesmen: the Gracchii, Marius, Sulla, Pompey , Cicero, and, of course, Julius Caesar. Unfortunately, many of these events were tragic and regrettable rather then glorious or laudable, as is often the case when a civilization goes from being frugal and industrious to wealthy and luxurious. The crises of the Roman republic were more due to internal corruption and infighting rather than reactions to outside enemies. There were several dangerous enemies that Rome dealt with during this period, including Jugurtha in Africa, Mithridates in the east, and the Cimbri and Teutonic Gauls in northern Italy. It was not these enemies, however, that caused the collapse of the republican government, but rather, Rome's internal conflicts. As a notorious enemy of Rome once said, on the occasion of his bribery-secured acquittal, "Rome is a city for sale, and doomed to perish as soon as it finds a purchaser!"

Marius in Carthage

The final century of the republic saw an increasingly bitter struggle between the aristocratic (or optimate) party, which controlled the senate, and the popular (or Marian) party, which insisted on greater influence for the masses. It is important to note, however, that both parties were lead by wealthy, powerful, and often corrupt individuals, whose own interests lay in elevating themselves to political power. Both parties had the backing of many poor and disenfranchised citizens, who often chose their leaders based on patronage rather than political philosophy, and both parties were plagued by bribery, demagogues, and villainous power-seekers. Likewise, both parties had a defensible political philosophy and a program of reform, but as it became increasingly clear that a strong central government was necessary to hold the provinces together, both embraced dictators and strongmen as leaders. The transition to empire was less a victory of one party over another than the collapse of republican pretenses altogether.

The decline of the republic began with bickering over the distribution of newly acquired land, resulting from Roman conquests in Spain, Africa, and the east. The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius Gracchus, and Gaius Gracchus initiated land reforms that would distribute more territory to landless Romans rather than wealthy barons, but these, naturally, were unpopular with the ruling classes. Both Gracchi were eventually murdered, but only after giving rise to a powerful party dedicated to wealth redistribution and supported by the "Roman Mob", as well as members of the deserving poor.

Two generals arose to take the lead of these two parties, during the subsequent Jugurthine War in Africa and Mithridatic Wars in the east. These were Marius, who lead the popular party and Sulla, who lead the optimates. Both leaders were popular with the army and each led an army to march on the city of Rome and seize power by force, always using the abuses of the other as an excuse for further outrages. Once in power, first Marius and then Sulla ordered proscriptions, or the systematic murder of all their enemies. Needless to say, these proscriptions, which were carried out on a large scale over several years, had a disastrous effect on civil society. Not only were many innocent people killed, but political rivals became deadly enemies, and the confiscation of property of "proscribed" citizens, ruined families and encouraged egregious corruption.

Sulla, who last held sway in Rome, essentially obliterated the Marian party within Rome, but when his murdrous work was done, he returned power to the senate and retire quietly. Marian sympathizers fled to the farthest outreaches of the empire. Sertorius, a well-respected general in exile from Sulla, set up a rival empire in Spain which was a haven for political refugees and other outcasts, and the Roman army was unable to subdue him for over eight years.

Other crises that arose for Rome as a result of these disruptions were a slave rebellion lead by the escaped gladiator Spartacus, a resumption of the Mithridatic war in the east, and the rise of pirates in the Mediterranean. These crises were put down by three new generals who had appeared on the scene after the death of Sulla and Marius. They were Crassus, a wealthy land speculator who put down the rebellion of Spartacus, Lucullus, a capable but notoriously luxuriant general who brought the Mithridatic War to a close, and Pompey , who in less than a year put down the pirates that had been plaguing traders of the Mediterranean for the last decade. Pompey eventually rose to great political power, favoring first the Marian party but later the optimates. However, it was less political philosophy than disgust with the worst of the populist demagogues that drove him into alliance with the aristocrats.

Characters—Decline of Republic

Character/Date Short Biography

Gracchi Land Reforms

Scipio the Younger
185–129 BC
Led the siege of Carthage during the third Punic War.
185–100 BC
Mother of the Gracchi. Highly revered Roman matron.
Tiberius Gracchus
163–132 BC
Promoted Land Reform and fought for people's rights. Murdered by senators.
Gaius Gracchus
154–121 BC
Continued reforms of his brother, but was undermined by the senate.

Marius/Sulla Civil War

d. 91 BC
Commanded troops in Numidia against Jugurtha. Enemy of Marius.
155–86 BC
Renowned general. Modernized legions. Waged a bloody feud with party of Sulla.
d. 84 BC
With Marius, raised an army, and took possession of Rome for populist Party.
138–78 BC
Defeated Mithradates in Greece. Marched on Rome, defeated the party of his enemy Marius.
120–70 BC
Led Rome against Mithradates in third Mithradatic War. Known for extravagant lifestyle.
110–53 BC
Very wealthy general. Fought Spartacus. Formed triumvirate with Pompey and Caesar.
106–48 BC
Very renowned general. Defeated pirates. Led opposition to Caesar in civil war.

Enemy Chieftains

156–104 BC
Numedian king, flagrantly bribed senate to maintain power. Enemy of Rome.
160–104 BC
King of Pontus, enemy of Rome, raised rebellions in Greece and Asia Minor.
122–72 BC
Led rebellion against Rome in Spain; held out for 8 years.
111–71 BC
Gladiator who led a slave revolt. Held out for two years.

Timeline—Decline of Republic

BC YearEvent
143-133 Following the destruction of Carthage, Rome Conquers the Interior of Spain
133 Ten-year Siege of Numantia is concluded by Scipio the Younger
133 Tiberius Gracchus, a proponent of land reform, is elected Tribune, then murdered.
123 Gaius Gracchus is elected Tribune, passes Sempronian Laws, then is murdered.
111-106 Jugurthine War in Africa reveals significant corruption in Roman Senate.
107 Marius is elected consul, for the first of seven times. Begins reform of the Roman army.
105-101> Marius leads Roman against Germanic invaders in the Cimbrian War
102 Teutone tribe defeated at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae.
101 Cimbri tribe defeated at the Battle of Vercelli.
90-89 Roman Social War —Italian allies win rights of Roman citizenship.
90-85 First Mithridatic War—king of Pontus overruns Asia Minor and causes Greece to revolt.
88-83> Civil War of Marius and Sulla between the optimates and populares political parties.
88 Marius attempts to take over the army, but is exiled from Rome by Sulla's party.
87 With Sulla's army in Greece, Marius returns to Rome and takes vengeance on his enemies.
86 Sulla is victorious at Siege of Athens and sets up a government in exile.
83 Sulla returns from Greece, overthrows the Marian party and retaliates against his enemies.
83-72 Sertorius, a former ally of Marius, leads a major Rebellion in Spain
75 Pompey is dispatched to put down Sertorian Rebellion.
72 Spartacus leads a wide-spread Slave Revolt.
67 Pompey conquers the pirates of the Mediterranean.
63 Cicero discovers and puts down the Catiline Conspiracy.

Recommended Reading—Decline of Republic

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Guerber - The Story of the Romans   Roman Amusements to Pompey's Conquests (12)
Macgregor - The Story of Rome   Cornelia, Mother of Gracchi to Pompey Defeats Mithridates (24)

Supplemental Recommendations

Harding - The City of the Seven seven   The Gracchi and their Mother to The Wars of Caius Marius (2)
Tappan - The Story of the Roman People   The Rise of Marius to The Rise of Pompey (3)
Weston - Plutarch's Lives W. H. Weston   The Gracchi to Caius Marius (2)
Morris - Historical Tales: Roman   The Gracchi and their Fall to Revolt of the Gladiators (5)
Church - Lucius. Adventures of a Roman Boy    entire book
Gilman - The Story of Rome   Futile Effort at Reform to Progress of the Pompey (4)
Kaufman - Our Young Folks' Plutarch   Tiberius Gracchus to Pompey (8)

Easy Reading Selections

Haaren - Famous Men of Rome   The Gracchi to Pompey the Great (4)
Dalkeith - Stories from Roman History   Of Tiberius Gracchus to Of Pompey the Great (3)
Gould - Tales of the Romans: The Children's Plutarch   The Noble Brothers to The Conqueror of Pirates (7)
Cowles - Our Little Roman Cousin of Long Ago    entire book