This post is not supposed to offer a formal and authoritative or complete account, description or thesis of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic. Instead, it rather quickly and incompletely summarises what small and insignificant information I gathered in a relatively informal manner for the simple purpose of explaining it to myself. The degree of complexity is completely arbitrary and set to satisfy my heterogenous and idiosyncratic intellectual criteria. This post does not claim to be a rigorous work of history, geography, economics, politics or any other mix thereof of a standard to be published. However, it does make use of all of them, if only as sources and as a buffer between what strikes me as relevant and that which does not.
The success of the Roman Republic, as I understand it, was the result of a number of features that made that polity more adaptable than many of its neighbours and opponents, be it politically, legally or militarily. Checks and balances created competition for leadership that was not necessarily adversarial. Conquest and a degree of economic flexibility created the necessary income inequality to eliminate collective action problems, the abuses from which were at least partially mitigated by increasing legal equality of opportunity that extended the political franchise. Supported by what strikes me as a fortuitous order of conquest, which allowed it to build momentum at a manageable pace, these facts seem to have been the driving impetus for Rome’s success. However, the burden of conquest eventually became too much to bear and led to the Marian reforms, which although successful at guaranteeing military success undermined the Republic’s checks and balances, exacerbated the agency of the few against the collective action problems of the many, and facilitated its eventual capture and reform into the Roman Empire.
The post is divided into four sections. The first focuses on the Republic’s military adaptability. The second considers some secondary features of the Roman state, beyond military adaptability, that also helped its expansion, what I term loyal competition, adaptability of legal franchise and the location, timing and sequencing of conquest. The third part considers the self-reinforcing effect of military conquest as a fuel of economic inequality, the evidence of this fact, both statistical and some telling testimonies. It argues that this economic inequality funded the military agency introduced by the Marian reforms to facilitate the capture of government by the few in a manner that institutionally crystallized political autocracy as the defining feature of the Roman Empire.
The Expansion of the Roman Republic: Distinct Military Adaptability
As the animation below shows, the Roman Republic slowly grew from a small city state on the border between Latins and Etruscans at the centre of the Italic peninsula to progressively dominate the very peninsula by the end of the third century BCE, at which point its expansion exploded into the Mediterranean Sea, encompassing Iberia, North Africa, the Balkans, Greece, Asia Minor, the Levant and eventually Egypt.
The figure below (data here) attempts to clarify the pace of this expansion and to guide the reader through its main stages and drivers. It shows the population, surface and body citizen of the Roman state, through its various institutional configurations, while pointing out the main (military) tribulations (defeats) experienced by the Romans and the reforms enacted as a solution to these crises.
The story seems simple enough. Facing defeat at the hands of more flexible military formations of the Samnites, Rome shifted from its phalanx army of hoplites to the more adaptable and ultimately successful Manipular configuration in 315BCE. However it retained a non-professional citizen army, which limited the number of soldiers it could levy at any given moment to the number of citizens that qualified for military service. In Rome’s particular case, this had the interesting feature that because soldiers had to equip themselves, military service had a property requirement. As Rome came to dominate the Italic peninsula, it eventually clashed with larger regional powers, of the western Mediterranean: Pyrrhus of Epirus and Carthage. The latter in particular came to dominate Roman foreign and military policy for 118 years during the three Punic Wars that took place between 264BCE and 146BCE. This rise in the geopolitical stakes came with an increased need for military manpower, which ultimately stretched Rome beyond its ability to cope, forcing it to engage slaves into the army and to progressively decrease the property requirements necessary for enrolment in the army in those intervening years (see section 3 below). Following these creative and piecemeal solutions, and faced with the responsibility of war with Jugurtha in Numidia without qualified soldiers to fight it with, the Consul Gaius Marius eventually introduced a number of revolutionary reforms:
- Citizenship: Citizenship was offered to allies of the Roman Republic, such as Etruria and Piceneum, etc.
- Recruitment: a general could recruit soldiers on behalf of the state and pay for their training and equipment out of his own pocket.
- Professionalisation: legionares were paid a salary and offered retirement benefits, in coin or in kind (animal stock or land).
- Tactical: the shift from manipular formations to centuries proved very successful.
Intent on liberalising and professionalising the Roman, by shifting the cost of funding from each soldier to the general who was responsible for recruiting, arming, training and paying his army. This freed the army from the rules that stopped it from recruiting the masses of unemployed and destitute citizens roaming the city of Rome, the capite censi. These were those citizens whose property was so low they were counted on their head (literally what “capite censi” means) rather than on their property.
The reforms worked. Together with the increases in efficiency associated with a professional army and other tactical aspects, Rome’s military ability exploded and its conquests became more or less unstoppable. This is patent in the parallel movements of the surface (first figure) and army size (second figure) following the Marian reforms. However, while the Marian reforms endowed the Rome Republic with the resources necessary to succeed externally, they also sewed the seeds of its internal institutional demise.
The Expansion of the Roman Republic: Ancillary Factors
Aside from the military adaptability of the Roman republic’s military, there are also a number of other factors that I suspect would have assisted Rome in its successes:
Loyal Competition – The oligarchic system of the republic created an aristocracy of wealth, whose prosperity depended on the security of its property, as protected by Roman law. This limited the extent of treason within Rome. Internally bred rebellion against Rome seems to have mostly been pursued as a struggle for internal power. Thus, asides from (the perhaps fictitious) Coriolanus, I cannot think of other parallels to the treasons of Pausanias, Themistocles and Alcibiades in ancient Greece. Clearly, power was worth fighting for, but success was within the Roman legal-political structure, not outside of it.
Adaptability of Legal Franchise – Roman citizenship was a layered affair, both for those who possessed it and for those hoping to claim it. Initially, the security of the law seems to not have extended very far. Indeed prior to the 12 tables, it seems to have been mostly exercised as a right of might, the abuses of which could be considered to have been the cause of those tables and the Lex Licinia Sextia (376BCE), Lex Ogulnia (300BCE), Lex Hortensia (287BCE) and Lex Aquilia (286BCE) that emerged during the conflict of the orders. Thus by the threat of secession at times of crisis the non-privileged plebeians were able to gain a semblance of legal and political equality of opportunities, in principle. Roman citizenship grew into a large body of law, mostly concerned with specific rights (to vote, to run for office, to property, to trade, to appeal court decisions to higher instances, etc). These could then be incorporated and mixed into different clusters or classes of citizenship which could then be extended to others. It is important to not exaggerate the importance of this tool, but clearly Roman citizenship, because it was layered, was more easy to share in part than say Athenian or Spartan citizenship, which had to be conceded in absolute. In most cases citizenship was based on jus sanguinis, although Rome had spread it abundantly. This can be attested by the Latin right (338 BCE), the aforementioned extension of Roman citizenship to Etruria and Piceneum as part of Marius’ reform, the Lex Julia (90BCE) and the attribution of Roman citizenship to auxiliaries discharged with honour at the end of their 25 year commission.
It strikes me that the important fact was that Roman Republic seldomly ever forced its legal system onto the provinces it conquered. Instead, it left them to their designs and focused on taxation and military administration. As I shall mention in the upcoming review of the economy of the Late Roman Empire legal centralization took place slowly from the Nerva-Antonine dynasty onwards, first asserting the primacy of Roman legal procedure, then extending franchise universally with the edict Caracalla in 212 and culminating in the Diocletian and Constantinian reforms of the late third-early fourth centuries, at which point rejection and revolt was unlikely to succeed given the integration or replacement of provicials into Roman society. Thus, unlike Alexander’s politically and philosophically heterogenous Hellenism, Roman hegemony was supported by a well codified and established, albeit fluid, body of law.
Location, Sequencing and Timing – Rome’s path to hegemony was progressive and benefited from the fact that the city was located on the far less developped western side of the Mediterranean sea. In its progressive expansion, Rome never faced a technologically, organisationally or tactically superior foe. Indeed, following the manipular reforms and the professionalisation of Marius, it mostly dealt with inferior antagonists. Finally, the sequence of conquests gave it a home base in Italy, quickly expanded to Sicily, before gaining the extremely rich revenues of North Africa, which may have been a crucial source of revenues and manpower fundamental to its success in the East. Clearly, I raise this hypothesis because I began my queries on the fate of Rome by investigating its end. While I have found this argument nowhere else, if the loss of the region (and here) was a prime contributor to the collapse of Rome, it may be that its acquisition was fundamental for its rise.
Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic: Underlying Income Inequality
Ultimately, I am convinced that the fall of the Roman Republic was the result of its success and of how this led to rising income inequality, which forced the government to reform its military, in a way that ensured its survival, albeit at the detriment of republican institutions and checks and balances
The society of the Roman Republic acquired during 5 centuries a relatively flexible and mobile structure, based mostly on wealth rather than exclusively on birth. These rich and often entrepreneurial aristocratic elites captured government, often at the detriment of their peers (see Catiline Conspiracy), and were able to preserve and acquire vast amounts of conquered land, exploit them through slavery on the wide scale of latifundia and outcompete other proprietors.
Unfortunately, there is very little in the way of time series of income inequality in the Roman Empire. The best proxy for this is provided by estimations of income inequality for the year 14AD, by Milanovic, Lindert and Williamson (2007) and by Scheidel and Friesen (2009) for the period immediately prior to the Antonine Plague (165-186), from both of which unfortunately correspond to the empire, not republic. Nevertheless, the underlying economic environment that brought the Gracchi brothers with their agenda of agrarian reforms to power and so violently brought them down as well as the distress of Pliny the Elder at the latifundi of Magna Graecia in 79BCE, testify to this rising level of inequality.
One of the main issues of contention was the conquered land (ager publicus) was sold to a few farmers reinforcing the concentration of land ownership. Several laws were passed to impose a limit on the amount of property any Roman could own, but these were eventually ignored. In 367 BCE two Plebeian Tribunes, Gaius Licinius Stolo and Lucius Sextius Sextinus Lateranus promulgated a law which limited the amount of the ager publicus to be held by any individual to 500 iugera, roughly 325 acres (1.32 km2). Since the Battle of Telamon (225 BCE), the Romans fully absorbed Cisalpine Gaul, adding huge swathes of land to the ager publicus, land which was more often than not given to new Latin colonies or to small freeholders. In the south of Italy, huge tracts of newly re-incorporated lands remained ager publicus, but tended to be leased out to wealthy citizens in return for rents. However, these rents were usually not collected, ignoring the Laws of 367. Other ager publicus remained with the Italian allies from whom it had been confiscated. The efforts of the Gracchi brothers can be basically summarised as attempting to enforce these limites on the distribution of the ager publicus. In 111 BC, a new law was passed which allowed individual smallholders to assume ownership of their part of the ager publicus. This would have crystallised income inequality within the Roman Empire.
As noted by Temin (2013:143) and by Tainter (1988) (see here also), the conquests of the city of Rome had a redistributive effect on wealth. Rich generals were able to acquire booty (in the form of land, money/bullion and slaves) with which they were able to accumulate directly or indirectly more land. Rich landowners, more often than not of senatorial or equites rank, grew their properties into latifundi (very large farms) and had their land worked by slaves, which were increasingly available due to military conquest. Meanwhile, the ability of small/medium farmers to compete with larger landowners, to fend off buying requests or to demand higher wages was undermined by wars, military service, sabotage, labour competitiveness from the slaves coming out of the newly conquered territories, economies of scale and the increased money supply skewed in favour of generals. This reinforced even further the concentration of property. Either through default or sale, it drove empoverished, unemployed and unlanded masses (the capite censi) towards the city of Rome, where their lack of wealth would have driven them to poverty and away from their military service. Livy describes the interesting story of one such impoverished farmer that is supposed to have triggered the Conflict of the Orders in the 490s BCE. The account is from Book 2, chapter 23 of “Ab urbe condita“ which I first heard about in the fascinating documentary series “Rome: The World’s First Superpower” (Episode 1, minute 31), narrated by Larry Lamb.
But not only was war with the Volsci imminent; the citizens were at loggerheads among themselves, and internal dissensions between the Fathers and the plebs had burst into a blaze of hatred, chiefly on account of those who had been bound over to service for their debts. These men complained loudly that while they were abroad fighting for liberty and dominion they had been enslaved and oppressed at home by fellow-citizens, and that the freedom of the plebeians was more secure in war than in peace, amongst enemies than amongst citizens. This bitter feeling, which was growing spontaneously, the notable calamity of one man fanned into a flame. Old, and bearing the marks of all his misfortunes, the man rushed into the Forum. His dress was covered with filth, and the condition of his body was even worse, for he was pale and half dead with emaciation. Besides this, his straggling beard and hair had given a savage look to his countenance. He was recognized nevertheless, despite the hideousness of his appearance, and the word went round that he had commanded companies; yet other military honours were openly ascribed to him by the compassionate bystanders, and the man himself displayed the scars on his breast which bore testimony to his honourable service in various battles. When they asked the reason of his condition and his squalor, he replied, while the crowd gathered about him much as though it were an assembly, that during his service in the Sabine war not only had the enemy’s depredations deprived him of his crops, but his cottage had been burnt, all his belongings plundered, and his flocks driven off. Then the taxes had been levied, in an untoward moment for him, and he had contracted debts. When these had been swelled by usury, they had first stripped him of the farm which had been his father’s and his grandfather’s, then of the remnants of his property, and finally like an infection they had attacked his person, and he had been carried off by his creditor, not to slavery, but to the prison and the torturechamber. He then showed them his back, disfigured with the wales of recent scourging. The sight of these things and the man’s recital produced a mighty uproar.
Regardless of the problematic historicity of this and other accounts of the Conflict of the Orders, it is interesting as a source detailing the process through which Roman wars and conquests impoverished the poorer classes. Livy may have
Despite considerable efforts, most prominently and dramatically from the Gracchi brothers between 133BCE and 123BCE, this rising inequality proved unstoppable. This last feature was particularly problematic because it undermined the ability of Rome to defend itself, given that army only drafted as soldiers those citizens that were able to afford the cost of arming themselves. Inevitably, as Rome became richer and more unequal, it became more difficult to maintain the armies responsible for these conquests under the same rules as before. Change was necessary…
The Marian reforms, as far as military recruitment is concerned, adapted the military to this new income distribution reality and allowed the military to expand and continue its conquests at a critical time. However, the potential for the concentration of military power in a single pair of hands and the consequent erosion of checks and balances made the transition to Empire inevitable. Following the Marian Reforms the personal loyalty of soldiers to their general made wars between different factions possible in a manner previously impossible while still facilitating territorial expansion. Thus despite internal instability Sulla’s and Pompey’s were able to annex Greece and the Levant, Caesar famously conquered Gaul and Octavian’s conquered Egypt.
The Marian Reforms meant that power, which had been relatively controlled and widely spread by the Senate, became concentrated in the hands of a few who had, or could borrow, the resources to support the military service of the large majority that was no longer able to cater for itself and for whom the army offered a good prospect for financial improvement.
Inevitably the system of checks and balances that had permeated the republican oligarchies was completely undermined. The first civil war of the Roman Republic saw Marius fight Sulla, and set the tone for the brutal proscriptions of the civil wars that were to last for another half century, until the rise of Octavian. Sulla’s constitutional reforms were repealled. Pompey, Crassus and Caesar dominated Rome through the first triumvirate, from whence Caesar emerged victorious, only to be assassinated, followed by the second triumvirate which avenged him and from whence his great nephew emerged as the first emperor of the Roman Empire.
The drive of apparently rising income inequality provide guides the continuity of events that led to the fall of the Roman republic as the last step in a progressive reform movement that made the most but also needed to adapt military structures to this new reality. Although the empire in its geographical reach may be traced to the aftermath of the Punic Wars, as a political system it could well have emerged earlier much earlier than 27BCE, when , were it not for the inability or unwillingness of earlier contenders. Marius was unable to hold on to his power ( the brutality of his 7th consulship as described by Plutarch, appears to me to hint at paranoid psychosis), Sulla dominated but deferred to the Senate, both of the Triumvirates were inherently unstable and the dictatorship of Julius Caesar was cut short by overconfidence. Indeed, only Octavian was able to coalesce the right balance of personal ambition, clemency and cunning to rise and remain in power as the holder of all Roman magistratures we have so simply and emblematically come to know as the Emperor. The fact that this was originally a military title should serve as a reminder of the Marian origin of the Roman Empire.