Rome became an empire long before it had an emperor.
Over the course of the Republic’s history, Rome went from a minor power on the fringe of the civilized world to the master of the entire Mediterranean basin, but that very success made the Roman system unsustainable and paved the way for strongmen like Gaius Julius Caesar to violently seize power.
The Roman Soldier
The Roman Republic did not have a professional army when it was founded — like many other city-states in the region, it had a part-time, citizen army, where soldiers were expected to field their own equipment at their own expense. For several centuries, this model was perfectly adequate — Rome’s enemies were close by and her campaigns were short. Warfare in the region bent around agriculture — Rome’s rivals also had crops to tend and people to feed, so traditionally warfare would stop around planting and harvesting season, when manpower was most desperately needed, and armies would go on campaigns when they weren’t needed in the fields.
But as Rome grew and subdued its neighbors, its battles were increasingly fought overseas, in Spain, Greece, Gaul, North Africa, and Anatolia. These wars were often fought against major powers in their own right, not local tribes or city-states, and rather than lasting a single season campaigns could drag on for months or years.
This put an immense strain on the common soldiers, who would have to leave their farms unattended while they performed their civic duty — their fields fallow and their property falling into disrepair.
However, conquest was also an immense driver of wealth — and that wealth disproportionately was going to Rome’s political elite. Foreign booty and foreign slaves were brought back to Rome, and the cash-rich elites could buy up neglected plots of land at discount prices, consolidating them into massive plantations. Slavery was extremely common in the ancient world , especially for prisoners of war. Historians estimated that between 10-20% of the Roman population was held in bondage. The citizen soldiers who had subdued these foreign enemies had a very difficult time competing with cheap imported labor.
Some contemporary conservatives among the Roman elite decried the embrace of luxury and decadence by many members of the Senatorial class, but this “‘moral decay”’ was confined to a very small segment of the population — Rome’s foreign expansion made the majority of its citizens poorer.
For a martial society, where property qualifications were a prerequisite for military service, this led to a massive manpower shortage for the Roman army, which was the backbone of the Roman state. Soldiers who had won fortunes for their city often had to sell everything they owned to avoid bankruptcy, and once they lost their property they and their children were no longer eligible for public service — they simply couldn’t afford it.
The irony was not lost on the Romans.
“The wild beasts of Italy have their caves to retire to,” Tiberius Gracchus, perhaps the most influential Tribune of the Plebs to ever live, noted, “ but the brave men who spill their blood in her cause have nothing left but air and light. Without houses, without settled habitations, they wander from place to place with their wives and children. … The private soldiers fight and die to advance the wealth and luxury of the great, and they are called masters of the world without having a sod to call their own.”
Property requirements for military service were lowered further and further over the years to enable more men to serve, but as fewer and fewer citizens held any property this was a short- term solution at best, and as the disgruntled urban poor became a larger share of the population a powerful and destabilizing political bloc was being forged.
Luckily, some Romans believed they had a silver bullet to fix the problem permanently. Rome had a strong tradition of private property. The Roman state, however, owned large tracts of farmland taken from Rome’s enemies during the previous centuries of war. This ager publicus (public land) was leased out to Roman citizens and brought in considerable revenue for the state. There were legal limits on how much ager publicus one family could lease, but in practice, the families who went over the limit were also the most influential families in Rome so this limit was rarely enforced.
Reformers proposed enforcing the law as written: any public land held in violation of the legal limit of about 330 acres per family would be repossessed and redistributed. Thousands of dispossessed families, particularly veterans of the Roman army with large families, would receive a plot of land, thereby transforming public charges into badly needed citizen-soldiers, all without having to touch a single acre of private property.
There were two primary obstacles to that plan.
For one thing, while ager publicus was technically public property, the families who leased it treated it like private property — they held it for generations, bequeathed it to their heirs, used it as collateral in loans and business dealings.
The populist reformers, many of whom also came from elite backgrounds, were not acting on purely altruistic motives either. Roman society and Roman politics were built on a series of patron-client relationships. Rome had always been a highly stratified society, but poor citizens still had valuable votes. Wealthier citizens, therefore, would often offer food, cash, favors, and even legal representation. In exchange for this generosity, clients were expected to support their patron’s political agenda.
Landless, desperate citizens made for poor soldiers, but fine clients. If, however, a certain politician granted their families land, those clients would immediately shift their personal loyalties to his family and his agenda, drastically shifting the balance of power.
For its advocates, land reform offered a permanent solution to the decline of the small landowner, the backbone of the citizen-army which was itself the backbone of the Roman state. For its detractors, land reform was a naked power grab where a handful of prominent families could steal the de facto property of their rivals and use it as a bribe to poach thousands of valuable political supporters.
Land reform would be the perennial political issue in Rome for the better part of a century, and the debate would turn violent.
Tiberius Gracchus, a gifted public speaker from a wealthy plebeian family, tried to tackle the issue in 133 BC, when he was elected Tribune of the Plebs with the backing of some of the most powerful men in Rome. Ultimately, however, Tiberius and his supporters were unable to get their land reform proposal through the Senate.
But he moved to pass it anyway.
Technically, this was allowed. The Senate, for all its ancient grandeur, was an advisory body, and the Public Assemblies could pass whatever laws they liked, with or without their approval, should a sitting magistrate lawfully propose it. But while disregarding the Senate was legal it simply wasn’t done.
Naturally, one of Tiberius’s colleagues, a Tribune named Octavius, vetoed the Assembly’s vote on the bill. Again, this was legal, but it broke with centuries of civic norms. Tiberius had followed the letter of the law when proposing the bill, which, for all its controversy among the Roman elite, was wildly popular with the citizens voting on it. While Octavius was allowed to veto the bill, as another Tribune of the Plebs he was supposed to protect the common Romans from the political elite. Many of his constituents in the crowd felt he was doing the exact opposite.
So Tiberius held an impromptu vote in the Assembly to remove Octavius from office.
That move was also unprecedented — and it succeeded. With Octavius now a private citizen, his veto was null and void, and Tiberius’s bill passed, but the Senate was horrified by his violations of republican procedure: ignoring the will of the Senate and removing a political opponent from power was unheard of. Some began to whisper that Tiberius intended to make himself a king, a grave insult in Roman politics, and one with potentially deadly consequences.
Those consequences would be made manifest when Tiberius broke another precedent and ran for a second term as tribune. Magistrates were limited to one year in office to prevent any one man from gaining too much power — consecutive terms were not tolerated.
But the Senate was slow-walking Tiberius’s bill — it had passed but organizing the land commission and allocating the budget for the project took time, and as far as the Senate was concerned it could take a little more time. Once Tiberius was out of office his bill could be tabled or at the very least watered down.
If Tiberius stayed in power, however, he could oversee the process and prevent any more Senatorial shenanigans. But shenanigans beget shenanigans, and, supposedly, some senators began to whisper that this would-be tyrant ought to be dealt with before he could do any more damage.
On the day of the election, as the story goes, a senator in the crowd interrupted the proceedings to warn Tiberius that his enemies in the Senate were attempting to declare him an enemy of the state and have him killed. In a crowd of thousands of people, only those close by could hear him, so, from the podium, Tiberius gestured to his head to indicate his life was in danger.
But, in a crude game of telephone, some of his opponents in the crowd interpreted “they want my head” as Tiberius demanding a crown, and ran back to the Senate with the news. The Senate was, in fact, holding an emergency meeting to figure out what to do about the upstart Tiberius Gracchus, and for his most hardline opponents, this news was the last nail in his coffin.
When the sitting consul refused to authorize executing a Roman citizen without trial, the pontifex maximus, one Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, raised a mob of senators and supporters on his own and marched into the forum, killing Tiberius and hundreds of his supporters.
For context, Tribunes of the Plebs were considered sacrosanct — under Roman law touching one with any intent to harm them was by itself a capital offense. The pontifex maximus was the highest ranking religious official in Rome. The high priest of Rome had just butchered a political rival in broad daylight in direct violation of the city’s most sacred laws. His reforms survived, but many of his surviving supporters were banished from the city without trial.
Politics in the Republic could be rough and tumble, but before this point, political violence had been remarkably rare. After Tiberius Gracchus, mob violence and political purges became distressingly common, and Rome’s most sacred traditions became more like guidelines than actual rules.
Civic norms were discarded and as traditional institutions weakened, riots and political violence were normalized.
Ten years later, Tiberius’ younger brother Gaius Gracchus would follow in his brother’s footsteps. By most accounts, he was even more radical than his elder brother and pursued similar reforms on an even grander scale. He also established a public grain dole where the state offered subsidized food to Rome’s poorest citizens, a highly expensive program that would become a mainstay of Roman politics for most of its remaining history.
Like his brother, Gaius Gracchus would meet a violent end after serving an unprecedented 2nd term as Tribune and seeking an unprecedented 3rd term in 121 BC.
Roman civic culture took body blow after body blow over the subsequent decades: the Social War from 91-87 BC, where its Italian allies rose up in revolt, the civil wars of Marius and Sulla, where the city’s greatest generals turned on one another throughout the 80s BC, the Catiline Conspiracy in 63 BC, when a disgruntled populist politician attempted to assassinate a sitting Consul and overthrow the government and the conspirators were executed without trial to head the rebellion off at its outset.
This is an abbreviated list.
Throw in a smattering of riots and rebellions and the occasional existential threat from the outside, and the Republic was already on its last legs when another ambitious general named Julius Caesar finally finished it off.
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