Social and Economic Factors Leading to the End of the Roman Republic

  1. The severe erosion of the small landholding class during the second century B,C. These small farmers were the bulwark of the Roman Republic. This led to a movement, led by Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus to redistribute public lands (ager publica) to the many landless who had been kicked off their land by wealthy people buying up farmland. Although Gracchus succeeded in promulgating this law, he and his followers were slaughtered by rioting Senators whose economic interests were threatened by the law. This was the first time in Roman history that blood was spilled in civil conflict, but it would not be the last.
  2. One of the reasons that Tiberius Gracchus felt compelled to propose land reform was that under Roman law, only property owners could join the legions. The erosion of the small landholding class severely depressed the numbers of Roman citizens who were eligible to join the military. In 105 B.C. the Roman Republic saw its worse defeat in its history (Worse even than the Battles of Cannae, Carrhae and the Teutoburg Forest.) Eighty thousand legionaries perished at the Battle of Arausio against the Germanic Teutons and Cimbri. As a result of this desperate situation the Romans elected a competent general named Gaius Marius Consul and he made a number of reforms of the legions including eliminating the property requirement. Three years later, Marius destroyed the forces of the Teutons and Cimbri at the Battle of Aquae Sextae.
  3. But the Marian reforms came at a price. The legionaries now owed their fealty not to Rome, but to the general who recruited and paid them. Marius and his lieutenant Lucius Cornelius Sulla had a falling out and a civil war broke out. This was the first of several that took place during the first century B.C. The Sullan faction prevailed and Sulla became dictator, instituting a number of anti-democratic reforms. He did not end the Republic, however, resigning after a few years as dictator, possibly due to ill health.
  4. The Roman Republic remained on shaky ground. In 62 B.C. Lucius Sergius Catalina made an attempt take power and abolish the Republic. He was thwarted by Marcus Tullius Cicero who was then Consul. Then, in 49 B.C., Julius Caesar, who had been conquering Gall for ten years, crossed the Rubican. This set off another civil war, in which Caesar prevailed against the forces of Gneius Pompey Magnus, Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger, and Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio. Having eliminated most of the opposition, Caesar arranged for himself to be elected Dictator for Life.
  5. But not all of the Senatorial opposition had been eliminated. Caesar had made the fatal mistake of pardoning a number of prominent people after the Battle of Pharsalus, including Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. In 44 B.C. Brutus and Cassius led a conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar. We don’t know exactly how many Senators were involved in the conspiracy, but twenty-three actually took part in the murder, while one detained Caesar’s Master of Horse, Marc Antony.
  6. Marc Antony made a deal with the leaders of the conspiracy and they were sent away to govern provinces. In the meantime Caesar’s great nephew, Gaius Octavius returned to Rome to claim his inheritance from Caesar. A power struggle followed, ending in an agreement between Antony and Octavius to form a triumvirate which included an general named Lepidus. Together they defeated Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Phillipi. Antony married Octavia, the sister of Octavius, but the alliance fell apart after Antony took up with the ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra. Octavius declared war on Antony and Cleopatra, and his Admiral, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, defeated them at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. They both subsequently committed suicide, and Octavian took control of Egypt and made it a Roman province. By this time there was no credible republican opposition to monarchical rule, and the republic was at an end. The Roman Republic had been a plutocratic oligarchy and ordinary Romans did not have a great stake in it. Once the patrician class had been largely eliminated through civil wars and proscriptions, the people were receptive to the peace that the Emperor Augustus offered. They were content with their bread and circuses.

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