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 and Sulla, Cinna and Sertorius, Cicero and Catiline, Pompey and Crassus, 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 prosperous and decadent, the crises of the Roman republic in its final years were due more to corruption, treachery, and civil war, than to outside enemies.

Marian Reforms of the Army—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. In previous years, external threats were met with a patriotic, unified resistance. In the final years of the republic, Rome's enemies did not pose an existential threat, and the wars against them became occasions of political aggrandizement and maneuvering rather than patriotic service. To a large degree this was do to the "Reforms of Marius" (107 B.C.) which fundamentally transformed Rome's army from a citizen militia to a corps of professional soldiers. Once can lament the loss of traditional Roman patriotism and the corruption of those who sought to seize political power by nefarious means, but once the Roman army changed from citizen soldiers to salaried professionals and the purpose of military service changed from home defense to foreign wars, the essential basis of a military dictatorship was in place.

Marius in Carthage
Populares vs Optimates—The final century of the republic saw an increasingly bitter struggle between the traditional aristocratic party based in the city of Rome (or optimates), and the Marian party (or populares) party, which is usually represented as promoting the interests of the commons, but in reality, served the interests of certain merchant and moneyed interests outside of Rome. The basis of authority and power of the optimates was the senate and consulship, whereas the populares depended on the tribune and tribal assemblies. It is true that the populares often put forth legislation that appeared to benefit plebeians and the lower classes, but this was invariably done as a cynical attempt to gain political power. Once the traditional aristocracy was removed from power, the new oligarchy—which was even wealthier and more exclusive than the Roman Senatorial class—was prepared to step in.

In other words, the civil disturbances that plagued Rome during the first century B.C. were not so much 'elites' vs. 'commons' as the attempt of wealthy families outside of Rome take over the levers of power. As long as Rome was merely the dominant city in Italy and allowed its allied cities a great deal of self-rule, a republican governement that enforced strict limits on individul power could be maintained. Once Rome established a full-time, professional army, dedicated to expanding Roman influence, the opportunity for political graft and exploitation was too great to resist.

Treason—Unfortunately, many of the political shenanigans that characterized the first century B.C. cannot be explained by mere ambition. From the time of the Social War (91-87 B.C.) to the rise of the Caesars (49-45 B.C.) a network of treason and subversion not seen since the age of Tarquin is too apparent. It is easier to understand the 'politics' of the period if one assumes perfidy and bad faith among most of the prominent populares statesmen of the age rather than genuine desire for reform. The clear goal of the populares was always to overthrow the republic and establish a military dictatorship and all of their actions are best understood with that outcome in mind. The following quote, sometimes attributed to Cicero, sums up the situation.

A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and he carries his banners openly against the city. But the traitor moves among those within the gates freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears no traitor; he speaks in the accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their garments, and he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation; he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of a city; he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to be feared.

The Social War and Sulpician Laws—The civil war that ended the Roman Republic really began in 91 B.C. when a proposition to grant full Roman citizenship to all Italians was defeated. This provoked the Roman Social War , a rebellion of some of the 'Italian Allies' against Rome. Although Rome was victorious, most of the rights of Roman citizenship were granted to all towns in Italy, but in such a way that native Romans would still control the senate, and therefore, the foreign policy of Italy. This was not, however, good enough for those who had fomented the war, and as soon as Sulla, Rome's greatest military commander, was no longer consul, key Roman politicians, most notably Marius, Sulpicius, and Cinna, began to advance the interests of the Italian allies over that of Roman citizens. The first effort to pass laws granting full, unrestricted Roman citizenship (and thus control of the government) to the Italian allies was put forth by the tribune Sulpicius, with the help of Marius, while Sulla was with the army in the east. However, when Sulla heard of these developments he returned to Rome, drove Sulpicius and Marius into exile, and oversaw the election of Octavius and Cinna as Consuls before returning to the front.

Cinna and the Marian Massacre—Although Cinna had previously shown no proclivity to support the cause of the Italian allies, once consul he proceeded to use his influence to resurrect the Sulpician laws, and raised a band of armed supporters. When the laws were brought before the senate for a vote, a great riot occurred, and Cinna was driven into exile. It was Cinna and his supporters, more so than Marius, who raised a vast army from certain Italian cities to threaten Rome, but the two commanders were in contact and their forces were coordinated. During this critical period Sulla and his legions were far in the east, and Octavius, the remaining consul, did not have the resources to defend the city. On the promise from Cinna that there would be no bloodshed, he permitted the exiles to enter the city. But Marius had made no such promise, and his slave soldiers massacred many of the Senate leaders without mercy. At first Cinna did nothing to stop these outrageous but he eventually brought them to an end. Soon after, he and Marius were elected consul without opposition. Marius died shortly thereafter and Cinna reigned supreme for three years. It would appear that Cinna, rather than Marius was the primary architect of the rebellion and it is no coincidence that Julius Caesar, though a young man during this time, was married to Cinna's daughter.

Sulla Restores the Roman Senate—During the following years, many Roman leaders who had survived the massacre of Marius fled the city for Sulla's camp in the east. Cinna recognized that Sulla was a threat, and sent a legion to attempt to negotiate peace with Mithridates, in order to isolate Sulla. This effort failed, and many of Cinna's troops deserted or joined Sulla. Cinna tried to raise a new army to meet Sulla in the east, but his officers mutinied and killed him. The remaining populares leaders were unable to prevent Sulla's return, and had to depend mainly on their Italian allies, especially the Samnites (the historic enemies of Rome), to defend the city. Just outside the gates of Rome, Sulla's forces met with the Samnite army and after a brutal battle, the Samnite army was destroyed. By Sulla's orders, Roman prisoners of war were spared but all foriegn prisoners were brutally executed. By the savage destruction of the Samnite army, Sulla made it known that interference by the "Italian Allies" in the affairs of Rome would not be tolerated, a necessary condition for restoring power to the Senate class.

Once he assumed power in Rome Sulla dealt with his political enemies by 'proscribing' them. In this way he declared them 'public enemies', withdrew civic protections, confiscated their property, and provided rewards for their execuion. This caused many of his enemies to be murdered by their own slaves, or forced them into suicide or exile. Sulla's proscriptions targeted not only citizens of Rome, but known conspirators throughout Italy. The "Equestrian" class of wealthy merchants and tax-farmers (publicans) was hit the hardest since they were assumed to be allied with the populares program. Sulla made himself dictator, and in this position made changes to the Roman government that decreased the influence of the tribunes and equestrians, and increased the number of Senators and magistrates. He then resigned his dictatorship, released his body guards and retired to his villa to write his memoirs. However, he died unexpectedly soon after, and his history of the period has been lost. Sulla's "reforms" had put the government squarely in the hands of the citizens of Rome, and for over twenty years following, Rome was again governed according to Republican principles.

Populares in Exile—What happened to the populares who survived Sulla's proscriptions? Many escaped to Hispania and Africa. Sertorius, one of Cinna's closest advisors, established a safe haven in Hispania that remained independent from Rome until 73 B.C. Others laid low in Italy waiting for new leadership to arise. In the mean time there was enough conflict in Italy and abroad to keep the legions occupied. No sooner had the Romans put down the Sertorian rebellion in Spain, than a slave rebellion lead by the escaped gladiator Spartacus, broke out in Italy. In the east, Mithridates again made trouble, and a network of well-connected pirates roamed the Mediterranean with impunity. These crises were put down by a new generation of generals who rose to leadership positions after the death of Sulla and Marius. They were Crassus, a speculator who made a great deal of money as a result of Sulla's proscriptions, Lucullus, who brought the Mithridatic War in the east to a close, and Pompey , who put down the pirates who had been plaguing the Mediterranean for decades.

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
125 Romans begin conquest of southern Gaul.
133 Tiberius Gracchus, proponent of land reform, elected Tribune, then murdered.
123 Gaius Gracchus elected Tribune, passes Sempronian Laws, then murdered.
111-106 Jugurthine War in Africa reveals corruption in Roman senate and military.
107 Marius is elected consul for the first time. Begins re-forming 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 fight for rights of Roman citizenship.
90-85 First Mithridatic War—king of Pontus overruns Greece and Asia Minor.
88-83 Civil War of Marius and Sulla fought over control of the Roman government.
88 Marius attempts to take over the army, but is exiled from Rome by Sulla's party.
87 Marius, Cinna raise armies, march on Rome, take vengeance on enemies.
86-84 Cinna elected consul. Rules as dictator for three years.
86 Sulla is victorious at siege of Athens and sets up a government in exile.
84 Cinna attempts to raise an army to meet Sulla, but is killed in a mutiny.
83 Sulla returns, overthrows the populares party and "proscribes" his enemies.
83-72 Sertorius, a former ally of Marius, leads a major Rebellion in Spain
77 Lepidus, a populares general, leads an army against Rome but is defeated.

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