The Roman Republic experienced its aristeia, its great moment of national glory, after emerging victorious from the Second Punic War, during which it experienced its great katabasis at the skillful hands of Hannibal Barca. But, at this very moment of its greatest triumph, the seeds of dissent and the eventual fall of the Republic were arguably planted.
Rome’s triumph over Carthage instantly made it the most influential power in the Mediterranean, giving it vast tracts of land that it was the de facto ruler of – the Iberian Peninsula and all the islands between it and Italy, Sicily, and North Africa. Although Rome’s rule wasn’t established de jure yet, the western Mediterranean was essentially a Roman lake from 202 B.C. onward.
Immediately afterward, Rome began finding itself embroiled in the affairs of the eastern Mediterranean just as much as it had in the west. As soon as 197 B.C., Rome intervened in the affairs of Greece, defeating the Macedonian King Phillip V at the Battle of Cynoscephalae at the behest of the Greek city-states. Although this intervention was done under the pretext of securing Greek freedom from a belligerent Macedon, it also allowed Rome’s foot in the door of Greek affairs, and within a generation Rome was effectively master of Greece, which became a de jure province later. It also disbanded the Kingdom of Macedon after a second decisive encounter, where the Roman legions again displayed their superiority over the old phalanx tactics, at the Battle of Pydna in 168 B.C.
At the same time, Rome’s influence in the Middle East was expanding too. The Selucid Empire, another of the successor states from Alexander the Great’s empire, was becoming more aggressive, having just crushed Ptolemaic Egypt in a war. Several powers in the region, including the Greek city-states and even Macedon, pleaded with Rome for assistance. The case against the Selucids held a personal animus for Rome as well, as its hated nemesis, Hannibal Barca, was given a senior military advisory role to the Selucid ruler, Antiochus III, as well as command of his navy.
To make the occasion appropriate, Rome, leading a coalition of other states, sent out a massive force under the victor of the Second Punic War, Scipio Africanus. After a full-scale invasion of Greece, the Selucids were thrown back into Asia after suffering a defeat at Thermopylae (yes, that Thermopylae). They then suffered a defeat at sea where Hannibal’s fleet was thrashed (he really wasn’t a very good admiral), and finally were defeated decisively at the Battle of Magnesia by Scipio’s younger brother, Lucius Scipio, who was later known as Scipio Asiaticus due to his victory.
Soon after its triumph over the Selucids, Egypt, long declining under the Ptolemies and their penchant for killing each other, placed itself in a protective alliance with Rome.
Rome was thus the de facto master of the entire Mediterranean Sea. All its protectorates would naturally become de jure provinces, though more wars would need to be fought to cement this.
The results of these successful foreign wars were diametric. They were at once spectacular triumphs, but just underneath the surface, problems lurked.
Wealth and learning poured into Rome. As Rome became the center of the world, learned minds made their way to the Eternal City to teach and publish. Great building works were undertaken. The influx of people into Rome arguably spurred the further development of aqueducts, public baths, and other public health initiatives that were not surpassed until the 19th century. Roman philosophy flourished in this period, culminating with the great works of Cicero (newly re-translated by my friend Quintus Curtius). Art flourished and industry boomed. Trade links were established with the Far East, eventually to result in a globalized trading network that stretched from Rome to Han China. It is even possible that a colony of Roman citizens was established in India, if not in this time, in the centuries afterward.
All of the splendor and glory that we know was Rome was established in this period of globalization. We owe much to it. Rome received the civilization of Greece and infused it with new energies. It bound up the lands around the Mediterranean, brought a common law to Europe that still forms the basis of law in many countries today, and birthed the languages that billions of people speak.
Yet, at the same time, the years following the end of the Second Punic War down to 27 B.C. were very chaotic for Rome’s internal politics and social fabric. Everything was fine for a while, but the equilibrium that was the lifeblood of the Republic was quickly thrown off balance. By the end of the second century B.C., things were serious enough there were riots and even incidents of civil unrest in Italy.
The roots of the problem was that as more foreign wars were fought and won, more wealth, particularly in the form of slaves, was brought into Italy. At the same time, because of the Roman Republic’s system of military organization, freeholding farmers were losing their land.
Originally, the Roman Republic called on all citizens that owned property to serve in the legions. Essentially, the army of the Roman Republic, no matter how well-trained or equipped, was a citizen militia. This institution formed a bond between the soldiers, who might well have been fighting alongside their friends, families, and neighbors. A strong espirit de corps and bond to the Republic was the result.
Yet, while this system worked well in Italy where wars were close to home, Rome’s wars taking place increasingly further afield starting in the Second Punic War was straining this institution and eventually broke it. The extended campaigns overseas meant that freeholding farmers were steadily losing their lands to plutocrats that grew increasingly wealthy as a result of Rome’s foreign conquests. As the soldiers’ property fell into disuse, was purchased, or was seized by creditors (as the owners were often on campaign for many years), the latifundia – very large agricultural estates worked by slaves, came into being.
This often forced the former freeholders to go into the cities and join the growing ranks of the urban poor. At the same time, it also gradually sapped the recruiting base for the legions, as there were less and less men with property who were eligible for military service.
All of these problems threw Rome into great social upheaval, even as the Republic on aggregate grew spectacularly wealthy, far surpassing any civilization before it.
The End of the Republic
The problems in the Roman economy presented the growing desire of the people for reform. The first serious attempt came toward the end of the second century B.C. by the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, who attempted to use the position of Tribune of the Plebs to reverse the process of the dispossession of small farmers and, when that failed, to force through constitutional reforms that strengthened the popular institutions and weakened the Roman Senate. Both brothers would be murdered. And though their reforms largely failed, it was the first great antagonism between classes in Rome in centuries and put the first major dent in the political culture of the Republic, upsetting its traditional constitutional balance. The populare and optimate factions had now taken a definitive form and acted in opposition to each other. National unity was broken.
Shortly thereafter, Rome faced problems of a military nature. A series of wars against the Numidians, and more dangerously, tribes migrating in Northern Europe, revealed the painful state of decay that the military was in. Because of the increasing presence of the latifundia, the Roman Republic had a serious shortage of available manpower for these campaigns. The result was what you might expect. The immensely skilled general Gaius Marius, who came to be a champion of the populares, began recruiting troops to the legions from non-propertied classes. Because of this and his numerous other reforms, Marius is regarded as the founder of the later, professional Roman legions. The soldiers serving in the legions of Rome were highly trained and paid for their labors, but the old espirit de corps was gone. Soldiers in the legions now served for pay and were ultimately loyal to the commanders that paid them, not to Rome or the Republic, or to their fellow legionaries serving elsewhere. This transition didn’t occur overnight, of course, but it was the end result and happened fairly quickly. From that point forward, the political culture of the Roman Republic essentially decayed entirely and various strongmen competed for power in Rome. The one that would eventually emerge victorious after over a century of on and off civil war was Octavian, the grand nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, who later ruled under the title of Augustus in 27 B.C.
Officially, Augustus was merely the Princeps, “first citizen,” of Rome, holding a number of old offices that gave him wide, overlapping authority, but the Roman Republic was gone in fact. The position of Augustus and the title (and offices) of Princeps became hereditary, or at least winnable in civil wars.
Rome would go on to have centuries of glory still. Wealth would continue to pour into the Eternal City. Great works of art, architecture, and science would continue to be created. The greatest work of Latin poetry, Virgil’s Aeneid, was composed in this period. Nero’s spectacular palace, the Domus Aurea, was built not long after, and immediately following it, the Colosseum. Galen would write the definitive work on medicine for the next 1,400 years. Road construction continued and expanded, binding the Mediterranean world further together still, allowing for the transmission of law, ideas, and people that made the Empire prosperous. Rome showed a remarkable degree of religious and cultural toleration, allowing the best ideas to flourish. Ultimately, this glue provided the bedrock for the preservation, however imperfectly, of Classical civilization by the Christian church when Rome weakened. Once again, we owe much to it.
And yet, the ethos that had overthrown the kings of Rome and won the great struggles of the Republic in Italy and against the Carthaginians in the Punic wars was gone. The old culture of devotion to the Republic and fellow countrymen, as seen so colorfully in the Second Punic War, was replaced by one more familiar to us today. The pursuit of worldly pleasure and wealth above considerations of the good of Rome, what Quintus Curtius calls “the engrossed,” became more prominent, especially among the wealthy. Meanwhile, as the Roman Republic transitioned into the Roman Empire, military service increasingly became constricted to the poorer classes, and as the centuries progressed, increasingly non-Italian, and thus people who had only more remote connections to Rome.
As a result, a solid class stratification took place (which became permanent when Diocletian passed laws binding sons to their father’s professions), as poorer soldiers fought for the wealthy commanders that could pay them, above considerations of the good of Rome. The legions became what were essentially private armies, and the result were the endless civil wars and even outright secessions of the third century. The ultimate result was the increasing “barbarization” of the military and the giving away of imperial lands as payment. This would eventually lead to the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. The East would last a millennium longer as a result of a better position and more money in its coffers, where reforms could take place, but any connection with the character of the old Roman Republic was long gone at that point.
The tone of this post may sound like it laments the passing of the Roman Republic. This is certainly what the Founding Fathers had in mind (it’s made very obvious in the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers of the time). But in truth, a monarchy was probably the only thing capable of restoring public order to Rome after almost 150 years of civil unrest and war. The old Republican constitution simply wasn’t prepared to meet the challenges that came as a result of Rome’s expansion, which turned the Republic into an Empire in all but name fairly quickly after the end of the Second Punic War. Fortunately for Rome, Augustus was very clever and created a new, imperial order that would last for another 250 years, but even he couldn’t restore the old Republican ethos, much as he may have tried with his numerous regulations to encourage moral virtue. More crucially, though he introduced new regulations to the military, he couldn’t contain the forces which the period of globalization after the victory of the Second Punic War unleashed, and this would become the biggest factor in bringing about the end of the Empire that he founded.
If you’re inclined to the cyclical theory of history, the time of Rome’s globalization is worth focusing on to see if we too, are in the midst of such a process. Analogies shouldn’t pass for reason, of course, but human psychology doesn’t change. It’s doubtful that in the history of the United States, we’re at the beginning of the process of our civilization.
Indeed, this election, through the candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, has made it abundantly clear that in the history of our own republic, we are experiencing something at least resembling the splitting of Roman politics into populare and optimate factions. The Wikileaks email dumps certainly add much tar to that perception, and in terms of persuasion (and therefore, human action), this is all that matters. This comes after multiple decades of globalization in which the wealthy have gotten wealthier as a result of what can be faintly described as a worldwide latifundia network, while the middle class shrinks and flees to a few winner take all cities like New York in the hope of making it. At the same time, the national ethos of the type that won World War II certainly at least appears to be gutted in favor of “the engrossed.”
Even the military has become professionalized in a way the Founding Fathers were deathly afraid of. Ceasing to be a citizen militia (which it essentially was until the end of the Vietnam War), most recruits are now from the poorer classes, and disproportionately Southern, adding that degree of regionalism that came to dominate after the first century A.D. in Rome.
Of course, the United States has a Constitution far more defined than the Roman Republic ever did. Soldiers must swear an oath of loyalty to it, and the pay structure doesn’t incentivize the type of activity that gave rise to the de facto private armies of Rome. But we should also stop to consider the increasing privatization of military matters in the form of military contractors, which are now crucial in greasing the American military machine. (The presence of contractors in the military is a major theme that I explore in my upcoming epic novel, The Red War.) May it be possible that a new type of latifundia class can hire such contractors for extended durations in the future?
It is also becoming increasingly apparent, it seems, that as it was in the Roman Republic, the populare and optimate factions are growing increasingly disrespectful of the Constitution. This has been going on for some time, but now, as in the latter days of the Roman Republic, some are showing an increasing propensity for violence to get their way. These factions (mostly composed of the “social justice” left) have been egged on, as they were in Rome, by optimate sponsors.
Many call Donald Trump a strongman and a dangerous demagogue. Many in Rome called Tiberius Gracchus the same thing. But the forces that gave rise to Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were ignored by the optimates of the Roman Republic, only for far more potent and dangerous strongmen to come behind them – Marius, Sulla, Catiline, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Antony, Octavian. These men would violently compete with one another for a century, ending the Roman Republic in their wake because its constitution and character were too broken to go on and adapt to the realities of the globalized world (or at least, globalized Mediterranean) that victory and good fortune bestowed on Rome.
Ultimately, the lesson we may seek to learn from the Rome of this period (the late Republic that transitioned into the Roman Empire) is that the results of globalization and the stratification of wealth that follows (as almost all of it flows into the coffers of the wealthy due to economies of scale) require serious constitutional adaptations and a renewal of civil commitment toward national unity, with appropriate institutions. If other identities supersede the national identity, social cohesion tends to break down, as it did when people identified more with their social class or their commander than they did with Rome itself. The civil wars of the late Roman Republic may have been avoided if measured constitutional reforms and new balances of power were struck between the people and the aristocracy, as it had in the early republic.
In our own time too, we may need to succeed where the Romans failed. If history is cyclical and we are in the age of decadence as a result of the victories of past generations, which in turn bring new wealth into the country and consequently increases social stratification, we may need to pass serious constitutional reforms of our own. This seems particularly so in regards to money in elections, the structure of elections and the political parties themselves which have become ossified, the opaque federal bureaucracy, possible term limits for congress and the Supreme Court (this would be a major breakthrough), more restrictive rules on lobbying, and more. Immigration, trade, and foreign policy orthodoxies ought to be critically examined. Serious criminal justice reform that simultaneously emphasizes punishment and redemption (to prevent recidivism) is a must, as is the need for the winners of globalization to more fairly compensate the losers. This can be done through new institutions of national unifying energies, such as job programs through public-private partnerships, and an emphasis on national commonalities in hiring, with a view toward a wider good rather than only narrow profit-taking.
All of these are things Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have tapped into in some form or another. While both were lambasted by the ivory tower apparatus of government, the media, academia, and big Hollywood, and the elite network that stratifies them, both revealed serious flaws in our current political-economic order, however sloppily.
If we are truly in the age of decadence (with its accompanying globalization), the age before strongmen take over in the power vacuum of a fall, some of the reforms they proposed would be well worth seriously addressing. Otherwise, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders may just be the Gracchi to the Caesars and Sullas to come, as the only possible way to address the issues that normal constitutional governance cannot.
For more information on how the Roman Republic gradually needed to reform its military as a result of globalization, I recommend In the Name of Rome, by Adrian Goldsworthy.
For a more in-depth analysis on the factionalism of our present political discourse and how globalization is affecting politics, especially in this election, read Stumped, as it’s the major theme of the latter chapters.