The story of Rome is one of civilizations greatest epics.
One of humanity’s greatest successes.
And perhaps even greater failures.
And thus, all at once perhaps its most tragic. In just over 500-centuries what began as a humble village, just a salty sea breeze away from the Mediterranean, calcified into a peal, a nucleus upon which blossomed the world’s greatest Empire — the effects of which ripple out to this very day. But how did such an unassuming hamlet rise to remarkable heights? Better yet, how did it fall?
At its pinnacle, the Roman Republic swept across Europe and throughout the channels of Asia Minor, and North Africa. At this time we find this successful machine growing far too large and far too wide for its own good. And before it was too late Rome proper had bitten off more than it could chew. Obese, the state began unraveling, bloated with citizens dependent upon welfare, the poor and the landless, the farmers stripped of their estates. While the countryside saw increasing divisions between classes over which the elites took advantage of great swaths of land straining “the traditional values of moderation and frugality”1 As classes were further divided between rich and poor, the Republic grew ripe for revolution…
And that’s just what happened. Ever the opportunists two tribunes, the Gracchi Brothers, Tiberius, and Gaius, leaped at the opportunity to provide favorable conditions for the landless, vying for the rights of Roman people and combating the Senate’s intentions. Tiberius utilized the Plebeian Assembly “to redistribute public lands to the Landless Romans.2 Likewise, Gaius came into his role as tribune and introduced a number of reforms in addition to establishing a court system led by a jury of equites, to hold senators accountable of corruption. Ultimately the Gracchi Brothers were assassinated. But the damage was done. They sliced a polarizing rift between political ideologies resulting in the Optimates, and the Populares. The Populares positioned themselves in favor of the people, whereby the Optimates aligned themselves to the high class. In the end, with the rising pressures between the poor and the elite, and the ever-shifting power play of the Senate, the Gracchi brothers were assassinated resulting in further chaos.
Among the ranks of the Gracchi’s equestrians came a prominent figure who would forever change the balance of power between the Republic, and its armies. After a succession of productive military campaigns abroad, the military commander Gaius Marius found Rome a city in disarray. By introducing a new class, the proletarians, or “men who had no property and could not afford weapons”3 via revisions of entry requirements for the army — instigating a new kind of soldier with greater ties to their commander than to Rome. The resulting power struggle between these influential generals and the Republic resulted in a military coup by Lucius Sulla, whose support and prestige amongst his troops allowed him to not only march against Rome but take control of the Republic.
Sulla’s legacy is one of greed, hedonism, and self-righteousness. At times brutal, others generous, he seized a number of opportunities gaining popularity amongst the non-Roman Italians and other stateless citizens, whom themselves had little alliance, if any at all, to Rome. Ultimately this shifting of power resulted in a quasi-dictatorship as Sulla positioned himself in such a high position that his authority had little outside flux. Tyrannical and brutally driven, Sulla achieved a massive land grab claiming even greater reaches of Asia Minor and winning great favor amongst his soldiers. Despite his storied and dark history, his is one of the few lives which ended in something of a rambunctious pleasure dome, which is perhaps the foundation of later generations impression of the overweight, grape chugging Roman, enthroned in virgins, guzzling wine, and reclining on a velvet divan.
After Sulla’s retirement, and directly influenced by his legacy of generals vs. Senate, arose another series of military leaders whose power-play sought to take control of the fading Republic. Among the ranks of successful generals striving for control at this time were Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompey, and Marcus Crassus –largely inspired by Sulla’s overhaul of Rome– who, out of great foresight concluded their outward power struggle by forming the First Triumvirate, an attempt to provide a thread of stability. Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus divided their roles across the Republic which ultimately did little to provide these rivals with a solid foundation on which to stand.
As the final legs of Rome began toppling down, and civil war ignited once again between Pompey and Caesar, as their rivalry grew ever hotter when Sulla sought to strip Caesar of his position. Caesar, nonplussed, jumped at the opportunity, risking all to overthrow Pompey’s Rome — a tumultuous struggle which ended with Pompey’s exile to Egypt where he was “treacherously murdered.”3 With control of the Republic, Caesar wedged himself into the role of acting dictator, meanwhile circuitously positioning himself as supreme ruler, “a king in all but name.”4 This act for rulership, however purposeful, and however well the foresight, proved to be the final blow to the Roman Republic.
As Caesar’s grip strangled the Senate, so too the ill sentiments against him. And in one final, grandiose, poetic act, for power, for Senate, for Rome, Caesar was plotted against by his once allies, the optimates, and assassinated. Thus Rome came to a most tragic, and finalizing end on the 15th of March, 44 B.C.E. The void left by these “liberators” created a vacuum of power that sucked the entire Republic into disarray.
For all intents and purposes, the “world” was toppling down.
1Lynn Hunt et al., The Making of the Wes. Value Edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2017.) pg 163.
2Lynn Hunt et al., The Making of the Wes. Value Edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2017.) pg 164.
3Lynn Hunt et al., The Making of the Wes. Value Edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2017.) pg 168.
4Republic of Virtue: Ancient Worlds. 2010. Accessed April 9, 2019. https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=11121&xtid=55138.
Hunt, Lynn, et al. The Making of the West. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2017.
Roman Republic’s fall from Grace. BBC, 2010.