Democratic elements of Roman Republic

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Contents

History

Early years

The traditional founding of Rome was in 753 BC. The Etruscans, early Italian settlers of city-states throughout central Italy, ruled Rome for over a century; the traditional dates are 616 BC for the accession of the first Etruscan King, Tarquinius Priscus, and 510 BC for the expulsion of the last king, Tarquinius Superbus.

Roman kings were elected from each of Rome's major tribes in turn.[1] The exact nature of the king's power is uncertain. He may have held near-absolute power, or may also have merely been the chief executive of the Senate and the people. At least in military matters, the king's authority (Imperium) was likely absolute. He was also the head of the state religion. In addition to the authority of the king, there were three administrative assemblies: the Senate, which acted as an advisory body for the King the Comitia Curiata, which could endorse and ratify laws suggested by the King; and the Comitia Calata, which was an assembly of the priestly college which could assemble the people in order to bear witness to certain acts, hear proclamations, and declare the feast and holiday schedule for the next month.

The last king was expelled by a group of aristocrats led by Lucius Junius Brutus. The Tarquins expelled from Rome, and a constitution devised, whereby power rested in the hands of the Roman senate (the assembly of leading citizens), who delegated executive power in a pair of consuls who were elected from among their number to serve for one year.

The founding of the Republic did not mark the end for Roman troubles, since the new constitution was not flawless and there remained powerful external enemies. Internally, one serious threat was internecine feuding of the leading families. Another was the struggle between the leading families (patricians) as a whole and the rest of the population, especially the plebeians. After years of conflicts, the plebs forced the senate to pass a written series of laws (the Twelve Tables) which recognized certain rights and gave the plebs their own representatives, the tribunes. By the 4th Century BC, the plebs were given the right to stand for consulship and other major offices of the state.

The class struggles of the Roman Republic resulted in an unusual mixture of democracy and oligarchy. The word republic comes from the Latin res publica which literally translates to public business. Roman laws traditionally could only be passed by a vote of the Popular assembly (Comitia Tributa). Likewise, candidates for public positions had to run for election by the people. However, the Roman Senate represented an oligarchic institution, which acted as an advisory body. In the Republic, the Senate held great authority (auctoritas), but no actual legislative power; it was technically only an advisory council. However, as the Senators were individually very influential, it was difficult to accomplish anything against the collective will of the Senate. New Senators were chosen from among the most accomplished patricians by Censors (Censura), who could also remove a Senator from his office if he was found "morally corrupt"; a charge that could include bribery or, as under Cato the Elder, embracing one's wife in public. Later, under the reforms of the dictator Sulla, Quaestors were made automatic members of the Senate, though most of his reforms did not survive.

The Republic had no fixed bureaucracy, and collected taxes through the practice of tax farming. Government positions such as quaestor, aedile, or praefect were funded from the office-holder's private finances. In order to prevent any citizen from gaining too much power, new magistrates were elected annually and had to share power with a colleague. For example, under normal conditions, the highest authority was held by two consuls. In an emergency, a temporary dictator could be appointed. Throughout the Republic, the administrative system was revised several times to comply with new demands. In the end, it proved inefficient for controlling the ever-expanding dominion of Rome, contributing to the establishment of the Roman Empire.

Rome became the ruler of a great empire. In the early days, the pretense of a republican form of government was maintained. The Roman Emperor was portrayed as only a princeps, or "first citizen", and the Senate gained legislative power and all legal authority previously held by the popular assemblies. However, the rule of the emperors became increasingly autocratic over time, and the Senate was reduced to an advisory body appointed by the emperor. The Empire did not inherit a set bureaucracy from the Republic, since the Republic did not have any permanent governmental structures apart from the Senate. The Emperor appointed assistants and advisers, but the state lacked many institutions, such as a centrally planned budget. Some historians have cited this as a significant reason for the decline of the Roman Empire.

New provinces brought wealth to Italy, and fortunes were made through mineral concessions and enormous slave run estates. Slaves were imported to Italy and wealthy landowners soon began to buy up and displace the original peasant farmers. By the late 2nd Century this led to renewed conflict between the rich and poor and demands from the latter for reform of constitution. The background of social unease and the inability of the traditional republican constitutions to adapt to the needs of the growing empire led to the rise of a series of over-mighty generals, championing the cause of either the rich or the poor, in the last century BC.

Fall of the Republic

The beginning of the end of the Republic came when the brothers Gracchis challenged the traditional constitutional order in the 130s and 120s BC. Though members of the aristocracy themselves, they sought to parcel out public land to the dispossessed Italian peasant farmers. Other measures followed, but many senators feared the Gracchises' policy and both brothers met violent deaths. The next champion of the people was the great general Gaius Marius; he departed from established practice by recruiting his soldiers not only from landed citizens but from landless citizens, including the growing urban proletariat. These were people who when the wars were overlooked to their commander for a more permanent reward in the shape of land of their own. Thus the situation developed where commanders and their armies banded together in pursuit of political objectives, the commanders seeking power and the soldiers rewards.

The temporary ascendancy achieved by Marius was eclipsed by that of Sulla in the 80s BC. Sulla marched on Rome after his command of the Roman invasion force that was to invade Pontus was transferred to Sulla's rival Marius. Leaving Rome damaged and terrorized, Sulla retook command of the Eastern army and after placing loyal puppets to the consul he marched for the conquest of Pontus. When Sulla returned to Rome, there was opposition to his rule by those loyal to Marius and his followers. Sulla, with the aid of a young Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) and Marcus Licinius Crassus, quelled the political opposition and had himself made dictator of Rome. Sulla was a staunch proponent of aristocratic privilege, and his short-lived monarchy saw the repeal of pro-popular legislation and condemnation, usually without trial, of thousands of his enemies to violent deaths and exile.

After Sulla's death, republican rule was more or less restored under Pompey the Great. Despite his popularity, he was faced with two astute political opponents: the immensely wealthy Crassus and Julius Caesar. Rather than coming to blows, the three men reached a political accommodation now known as the First Triumvirate. Caesar was awarded governor of two Gallic provinces (what is now modern day France). He embarked on a campaign of conquest, the Gallic War, which resulted in a huge accession of new territory and vast wealth not to mention an extremely battle hardened army after eight years of fighting the Gauls. Crassus, jealous of Caesar's successes, embarked on a campaign in Parthia, where he was defeated and killed in the Battle of Carrhae. In 50 BC Caesar was recalled to Rome to disband his legions and was put on trial for his war crimes. Caesar, not able to accept this insult after his fantastic conquest, crossed the Rubicon with his loyal Roman legions in 49 BC. Caesar was considered an enemy and traitor of Rome, and he was now matched against the Senate, led by Pompey the Great. This led to a violent Civil War between Caesar and the Republic. The senators and Pompey were no match for Caesar and his veteran legions and this culminated in the Battle of Pharsalus, where Caesar, although outnumbered, destroyed Pompey's legions. Pompey, who had fled to Egypt, was murdered and beheaded.

Finally, Caesar took supreme power and was appointed Dictator for life over the Roman Republic. Caesar's career was cut short by his assassination at Rome in 44 BC by a group of Senators including Marcus Junius Brutus, the descendant of the Brutus who expelled the Etruscan King four and half centuries before.

After Caesar's assassination, his friend and chief lieutenant, Marcus Antonius, seized the last will of Caesar and using it in an inflammatory speech against the murderers, incited the mob against them. The murderers panicked and fled to Greece. In Caesar's will, his grandnephew Octavianus, who also was the adopted son of Caesar, was named as his political heir. Octavian returned from Apollonia (where he and his friends Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Gaius Maecenas had been studying and helping in the gathering of the Macedonian legions for the planned invasion of Parthia) and raised a small army from among Caesar's veterans. After some initial disagreements, Antony, Octavian, and Antony's ally Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, formed the Second Triumvirate. Their combined strength gave the triumvirs absolute power. In 42 BC, they followed the assassins into Greece, and mostly because of the generalship of Antony, defeated them at the Battle of Philippi on 23 October. To pay for about forty legions that were engaged by the triumvirate for this purpose, proscriptions were declared against about 300 senators and 2000 equites, including Cicero, who was killed at his villa. After the victory, about 22 of the largest Italian cities suffered confiscations to provide land for the veterans.

In 40 BC, Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus negotiated the Pact of Brundisium. Antony received all the richer provinces in the east, namely Achaea, Macedonia and Epirus (roughly modern Greece), Bithynia, Pontus and Asia (roughly modern Turkey), Syria, Cyprus and Cyrenaica and he was very close to Ptolemaic Egypt, then the richest state of all. Octavian on the other hand received the Roman provinces of the west: Italia (modern Italy), Gaul (modern France), Gallia Belgica (parts of modern Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), and Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal), these territories were poorer but traditionally the better recruiting grounds; and Lepidus was given the minor province of Africa (modern Tunisia) to govern. Henceforth, the contest for supreme power would be between Antony and Octavian.

In the west, Octavian and Lepidus had first to deal with Sextus Pompeius, the surviving son of Pompey, who had taken control of Sicily and was running pirate operations in the whole of the Mediterranean, endangering the flow of the crucial Egyptian grain to Rome. In 36 BC, Lepidus, while besieging Sextus's forces in Sicily, ignored Octavian's orders that no surrender would be allowed. Octavian then bribed the legions of Lepidus, and they deserted to him. This stripped Lepidus of all his remaining military and political power.

Antony, in the east, was waging war against the Parthians. His campaign was not as successful as he would have hoped, though far more successful than Crassus. He took up an amorous relationship with Cleopatra, who gave birth to three children by him. In 34 BC, at the Donations of Alexandria, Antony "gave away" much of the eastern half of the empire to his children by Cleopatra. In Rome, this donation, the divorce of Octavia Minor and the affair with Cleopatra, and the seized testament of Antony (in which he famously asked to be buried in his beloved Alexandria) was used by Octavian in a vicious propaganda war accusing Antony of "going native", of being completely in the thrall of Cleopatra and of deserting the cause of Rome. He was careful not to attack Antony directly, for Antony was still quite popular in Rome; instead, the entire blame was placed on Cleopatra.

In 31 BC war finally broke out. Approximately 200 senators, one-third of the Senate, abandoned Octavian to support Antony and Cleopatra. The final confrontation of the Roman Republic occurred on 2 September 31 BC, at the naval Battle of Actium, where the fleet of Octavian under the command of Agrippa routed the combined fleet of Antony and Cleopatra; the two lovers fled to Egypt. After his victory, Octavian skillfully used propaganda, negotiation, and bribery to bring Antony's legions in Greece, Asia Minor, and Cyrenaica to his side.

Bronze statue of Octavian, Archaeological Museum, Athens

Octavian continued on his march around the Mediterranean towards Egypt, receiving the submission of local kings and Roman governors along the way. He finally reached Egypt in 30 BC, but before Octavian could capture him, Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra did the same within a few days. The period of civil wars was finally over. Thereafter, there was no one left in the Roman Republic who wanted, or could stand against Octavian, as the adopted son of Caesar moved to take absolute control. He designated governors loyal to him to the half dozen "frontier" provinces, where the majority of the legions were situated, thus, at a stroke, giving him command of enough legions to ensure that no single governor could try to overthrow him. He also reorganized the Senate, purging it of unreliable or dangerous members, and "refilled it" with his supporters from the provinces and outside the Roman aristocracy, men who could be counted on to follow his lead. However, he left the majority of Republican institutions apparently intact, albeit feeble. Consuls continued to be elected, tribunes of the plebeians continued to offer legislation, and debate still resounded through the Roman Curia. However it was Octavian who influenced everything and ultimately controlled the final decisions, and had the legions to back it up, if necessary.

The Roman Senate and the Roman citizens, tired of the never-ending civil wars and unrest, were willing to toss aside the incompetent and unstable rule of the Senate and the popular assemblies in exchange for the iron will of one man who might set Rome back in order. By 27 BC the transition,[2] though subtle and disguised, was made complete. In that year, Octavian offered back all his extraordinary powers to the Senate, and in a carefully staged way, the Senate refused and in fact titled Octavian Augustus — "the revered one". He was always careful to avoid the title of rex – "king", and instead took on the titles of princeps – "first citizen" and imperator, a title given by Roman troops to their victorious commanders. All these titles, alongside the name of "Caesar", were used by all Roman Emperors and still survive slightly changed to this date. Prince derives from "Princeps" and Emperor from "Imperator", Caesar became "Kaiser" (German) and "Czar" (Russian). The Roman Empire had been born. Once Octavian named Tiberius as his heir, it was clear to everyone that even the hope of a restored Republic was dead. Most likely, by the time Augustus died, no one was old enough to know a time before a dictator ruled Rome. The Roman Republic had been changed into a despotic régime, which, underneath a competent and strong Emperor, could achieve military supremacy, economic prosperity, and a genuine peace, but under a weak or incompetent one saw its glory tarnished by cruelty, military defeats, revolts, and civil war.

A final assessment must necessarily be ambivalent.[citation needed] On the one hand, for the Roman state, the restoration of the monarchy led to apogee followed by a series of stabilizations resulting in a slow decline in the Greek East where it survived until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD, nearly 1500 years later. On the other, the preservation of Roman republican culture and "virtues" was a paramount goal for Octavian, so it is ironic that his restoration of monarchy led to their complete corruption and decay and ultimately that of Latin culture in the West (Sack of Rome). Again, had this death process of classical European civilization and the Roman republican form of "democracy" had the same stability as similar imperial institutions established in China at roughly the same time, today's preeminence of Western culture might not exist.[citation needed]

References