The Fall of the Roman Republic: A Narrative and Analytical Comparison with the Contemporary Conditions of the United States of America – (Part 3 of a Series)
Derek Suszko is an associate editor for The St. Croix Review.
III. Analysis of the Roman and American Republics
In the Introduction to this essay, we outlined the four primary reasons for the collapse of the Roman republic. A careful reading of the preceding historical narrative (see Part 2 in previous issue) will yield the evidence of these causes. The effect of these combined causes was the transformation of the Roman state from a representative republic to a military dictatorship. The causes were 1) the pollution of the legislative function; 2) the criminality of the aristocratic elite; 3) the oppression of a necessary faction (the Roman soldiership); and 4) the causal sequence of escalation initiated by the deployment of arbitrary power. The first of these three causes describe symptoms of the collapse; the fourth cause emerged as a natural aftermath of republican obsolescence. Each of the causes may be taken in abstract to be a general principle applicable to the crisis of any republican government, and the incidence of any signifies a state in which the maintenance of the republican principle of representative government is precarious. All four causes are applicable (to varying degrees of severity and discrepancy) to the present condition of the American republic. It is the subject of our investigation to determine how the American situation compares and contrasts with the Roman, and to forecast the political course that might result for the future history of the United States. The plan for Part III is to examine each of the four causes in sequence. We begin each section by outlining each cause in general terms as it relates to fundamental considerations of political theory. We then proceed to apply the cause as a specific factor in the Roman and American political situations, respectively, and note the similarities and differences between them. Finally, we present a forecast of the political course of the American republic should each factor persist, and the consequences for the fragile maintenance of American national unity.
Cause 1: The Pollution of the Legislative Function
The Conditions for Legislative Obsolescence
In any operable representative government there must exist a great interdependence between the citizens and the legislative capacity. The other capacities of government (executive, judicial, bureaucratic) remain by necessity more opaque from the direct remedial concerns of the citizens; but so long as the legislative mechanisms, which in all republican systems are most directly influenced by the people, remain a legitimate and effective recourse for political grievances, the representative nature of the government is intact and the republican principle of government abides. A citizen majority which seeks legitimate (an assessment of which factional claims count as legitimate will follow in Part 4) remediation for systemic grievances will only find permanent solutions in the alterations, additions or negations of laws, and the integrity of a republican system is dependent on whether the system allows for appropriate legislative action to ensue. A pollution of the legislative function is present in a putatively representative republic in which any of the following conditions is true:
The first condition describes a government akin to a banana republic with a deficiently empowered legislature under a national constitution (the “People’s Congress” of North Korea is an obvious example). The second condition describes a legislative function which appears to be representative, but which by its mechanisms so dilutes and obscures the interests of the citizens that it is incapable of remedial action. The third condition describes a republic in which a constitutional framework exists but is illegally ignored by those with a de facto license to override constitutional law. It is important to note that the exercisers of the arbitrary powers of the third condition will nearly always claim a veneer of legality. This is dubious in all events, but especially so if the exercisers are not constitutionally prescribed authorities. The distinction between the first and third condition is essential: in the first condition, the legislature is essentially ceremonial and does not possess statutory authority; thus, the executive or bureaucratic powers which override the considerations of a cipher legislature are not, strictly speaking, acting in violation of law. But in the third condition, the legislature is invested with statutory authority, and therefore any circumscriptions of its prescribed powers do represent violations of law. The incidence of any of these three conditions indicates that a legislature has entered a stage of dissipation and that recourse to legislative action is no longer a feasible course for political remediation.
The history of both the Roman and American republics demonstrates a long decline in the power of the respective legislative functions; this observation indicates that a decline in legislative power is natural in the life of a long standing republic. It is no accident that in both nations, the decline in legislative power accompanied a vast expanse in the bureaucratic and administrative functions of the state. This observation furnishes a crucial insight: the gradual dissipation of the integrity of a legislative function of a long standing republic is not necessarily attributable to an abrupt or overt instance of tyrannical interference but rather to a natural erosion of legislative power brought about by the limitations of its constitutionally sanctioned authority. This point demands considerable clarification. The difference is between that of a willful, conscious repudiation of the legislative function and a passive, unconscious erosion of legislative capability. To put the question in other terms: Is a curtailment in the power of a legislature necessarily due to the willful corruption of a constitutional system or is a loss of legislative power a natural consequence of the constitutional mechanisms themselves? If the constitution is to blame, then the pollution of the legislative function emerges not from a direct imposition of tyranny but from the very nature of its composition.
To answer this, we must consider the degree of independence and specialization of the legislative capacity. It is observable throughout history that a government founded (as is the American) on the principle of a separation of the legislative, executive, judicial, and bureaucratic powers, will follow a common alteration in the share of power each constituent retains over the course of its history. In the early phases in the life of such a republic, when legislation is scant,1 the proportion of political power possessed by the legislature is at its apex because the institutions and traditions which facilitate executive and bureaucratic power have not been consecrated. But as the republic continues through time, and the body of statutes and laws increases, the power of the legislature diminishes. Thus, a republic founded on the specialization of the legislative function cannot maintain equilibrium in the measure of political power the legislature possesses, because the proportion of this power is relative to the amount already expended. This phenomenon, whereby a legislature decays in power over the life of a representative republic, is due to the observable truth that the legislative capacity of a large republic is generally incapable of revocation of previously passed legislation. We may consider this phenomenon to be a largely inadvertent course to the legislative obsolescence of a republican government.2
Thus, it may be that a long standing republic lapses not from a bald instance of tyranny but rather from a passive and gradual tyranny of accumulation. The body of statutes and the proliferation of administration accumulates to the point of corroding the constitutional processes of legislative remediation. Though a specialized legislative capacity is well able to address remedial concerns pertaining to a grievance against an independent citizen faction or a subordinate administration (such as a state government), it is wholly unable to address concerns pertaining to a grievance against policies emanating from the federal apparatus of which it is a part. The issue can be made vivid by considering the institution of a hypothetical federal bureaucracy: The bureaucracy is consecrated into law on the basis of administering a need among the citizen body. Should the bureaucracy swell beyond the initial intention and gain autonomy in its operations, it may begin exercising authority beyond its legal scope; in doing so, it may become the cause of a citizen grievance, and the appropriate legislative remediation would involve diminishing its authority. In such an instance, it is incumbent on the legislative capacity to curtail the power of the bureaucracy in the interest of remediation. If the legislature is unable (or unwilling) to do this, then the republican principle of government no longer abides.
But why should legislatures necessarily be more adept at invocation than revocation? Since republican constitutions inevitably grant the legislatures legal precedence over administrative functions and functionaries, there is theoretically no reason why legislators should not repeal laws and functions as easily as they consecrate them. But in practice, there are considerable obstacles to legislatures tasked with repealing laws and diminishing the autonomy of administrations. There is a greater threat of judicial interference because the establishment of an administration produces a cogent litigant. There are greater political costs to a legislator associated with the elimination of a statute or authority (which is, naturally, associated with the negative) than to one associated with implementation (which is associated with the positive). It is far safer for single legislators (who have minimal individual power) to demonstrate a risk-averse pattern of political advocacy, and thereby avoid discriminating attention. The legislature may retain the authority of oversight, but this power is meaningless if it cannot be bolstered by significant legislative action. There are many additional reasons for the impotence of legislators in the face of administrative accumulation that are beyond the scope of this essay. We might be content to observe an oft-encountered phenomenon in nature: That a meaningful reversal in the course of a system may come about only by a disruption of that system.3
To sum up our contentions: a legislature that is not empowered with direct administrative functions will decline in power with the enlargement of administration in a natural process of legislative obsolescence. A situation of a de facto tyranny by accumulation may emerge due to the eclipse of a legislature that has become incapable of remedial authority. If we return to the three conditions prescribed for legislative pollution above we find that each may come about from this natural course of legislative obsolescence. Since all three conditions are variously applicable to both the Roman and American republics, we must consider whether a given instance has arisen from an open breakdown of constitutional processes, or whether it is due to the natural course of legislative obsolescence. The distinction is important because it determines to a large degree the difficulty of assembling a political movement to remedy the pollution. The occurrence of a blatant tyrannical power play that openly defies the constitution will more readily generate an opposition movement than a tyranny that has seeped gradually into the governmental organism and has quietly marginalized the curative capabilities of the legislature. A republic beset by a tyranny of the second kind will have a lengthier and thornier pathway to political resolution.
Legislative Pollution in the Roman and American Republics
Though the history of the Roman republic was characterized by blatant lapses in the integrity of the Roman legislative function, these episodes were always short-lived until the republican crisis of the 2nd century BC. The initial Roman constitution of 509 BC prescribed a plebeian congress with nominal advisory authority that retained no power of enforcement and could not override the decrees of patrician magistrates. This cipher “legislature” is an obvious instance of the first condition listed above, and the founding Roman constitution should be considered more oligarchic than republican.4 It was only with the institution of the tribunate in 490 BC that the Roman plebeians attained a legislator with real statutory power. In 454 BC the Roman senate (initially with the support of the tribunes) appointed a 10-man council known as the Decemvirs to establish a law code for the state. This council was granted indefinite authority to fulfill its task and refused to step down from power even after the law code known as the Twelve Tables had been ratified. This refusal instigated a plebeian revolt that ousted the Decemvirs from power.5 The episode provides an instance of the third condition: The Decemvirs were constitutionally subordinate to the tribunes and only remained in power by the arbitrary use of force. The crisis was brief and the republic returned to constitutional government shortly thereafter. As the republic grew in territory and administration, however, the sustained integrity of the republican system began to falter. By the mid-2nd century BC the tribunate was increasingly dominated by lackeys of patricians who corrupted the elections of the concilium plebis and installed inauthentic “representatives” in the office of tribune. This practice was a clear demonstration of the second condition: the concilium plebis represented a corrupt intermediary body that prevented the plebeians from nominating authentic representatives. By the time the plebeians overcame the interferences and began to proactively elect reformist tribunes like Tiberius Gracchus, the administrative and bureaucratic armory of the state was so vast that the power of the tribunate had been fatally weakened. The desecration of the office of tribune in the late republic represented the permanent pollution of the Roman republican legislative function.
The Roman legislative procedures clearly differed from contemporary American practices, but in many crucial aspects they are alike. The government of the Roman republic did not have so clear a “separation of powers” as the American government. The “legislative capacity” of the Roman republic was invested diffusely, since each serving magistrate could propose legislation. But under the constitutional constraints of the late republic, only the tribunes could veto proposed legislation. In effect, this meant that the two Roman tribunes (provided they agreed) had total legislative autonomy since they could block the proposed legislation of the magistrates while no constitutional authority could block legislation proposed by them. Thus, in many ways the two tribunes (as single legislators) may be likened to the bicameral legislative bodies (the House of Representatives and the Senate) of the American Congress. The Congress is exclusively empowered with the legislative functions of the American government, but it is a large body of divided membership. The tribunes needed only the unity of two, but they were pure legislators because they were shut out from executive or military authority. American senators and representatives are similarly barred from administrative functions. The tribunes should not be thought of as prime ministers (since they retained no administrative functions) but rather as “absolute legislators”; deprived of direct executive control of the state, allied tribunes nonetheless had absolute statutory authority. The American system has no single legislator with the individual power of the Roman tribune, though the Speaker of the House (provided he has a cooperative caucus) comes closest. The cumulative power of Congress has, at various points in American history, proved formidable, but the instances of surplus Congressional power are almost exclusively reserved to the first half of the history of the American republic, and have only been possible during periods of presidential ineptitude.6 Despite its apparent crudity, there is no validity in claiming that the Roman legislative capacity was uniquely flawed. Indeed, it was arguably superior to the American Congress because it centered on a singular figure of influence rather than a diffusion across a large body of individually weak members, as with the American House of Representatives. Nonetheless, the specialization of legislative power in the tribunate caused the position to succumb to the gradual process of legislative obsolescence.
Given the eclipse of the legislative capacity, the failure of the Gracchan reform movement to remedy the social fissures of the Roman state was due to its confinement in legislative procedures. The whole period 133 BC to 91 BC, from the tribunate and murder of Tiberius Gracchus to the tribunate and murder of Livius Drusus, evinces the total inadequacy of the Roman legislative function for remedying the political grievances of the middle plebeians. The entrenched administration was dominated by the Roman aristocrats, and they retained de facto discretion in the matter of enforcing the undesirable populist legislation passed in turn by the Gracchi, Saturninus, and Drusus. The tribunate failed in the reform of the Roman state because it had suffered from legislative obsolescence. Though the laws passed by the tribunes were constitutionally binding, they remained at the mercy of the enforcing administrators who did not desire them. The reform legislation was met with myriad instances of the third condition, and signified the end of the tribunate as a viable conduit for remediation. The true legacy of the Gracchi was not in the legislative reforms themselves (most of which were later repealed by lackey tribunes in blatant instances of the second condition), but rather in the movement’s essential clarification of the Roman political landscape. Before the ascension of the Gracchi the politics of plebeian advocacy was muddled and confused (due, in no small part, to the deployment of senate-approved propaganda), and could make no headway amidst the contradictions of aims and factional prerogatives. But after the consolidation of the landholding faction with the landless urbanites by Tiberius, and the inducement of the equites by Gaius, the populist coalition was clear in its factional composition and definite in its aims. This consolidation was to prove most consequential for winning over the bulk of the legionnaires. Many of the soldiers suffered from a dual duty: As plebeians they certainly sympathized with the small land-holding coalition (and many were victimized by the aristocrats themselves), but they relied for wages on the oligarchs and could jeopardize their offices and lives by showing open opposition to their commanders. After the Gracchi however, the soldiers could measure their generals by the degree to which they were partial to the clarified causes of the reform movement, and men like Gaius Marius recognized the power to be had by pledging themselves to reform. Thus, it was not the legislation proper which brought about reformist administrators (and, by extension, the reform of the administration), but rather the factional clarification provoked by the movement.
We turn now to the present condition of the American republic. Is the legislative function of the American Congress polluted? Increasingly, it is so. The conditions for pollution have come about both from the natural legislative obsolescence and a willful vacating of constitutional prerogatives. It is obvious that the second condition is readily applicable to much of Congress. The “establishment” wings of both parties disdain grassroots movements that seek to promote more “authentic” representatives. Once in office, only the most incorruptible representatives avoid being lured by the monetary promises of lobbyists and special interest groups. The establishment wings of both parties represent “corrupting intermediaries” between the people and authentic representation, but even if these intermediaries were to be surmounted it is likely that the Congress would remain enfeebled. This is because of the monstrous bloating of the bureaucratic and administrative state. The bureaucracies are increasingly operating autonomously and ideologically, and many are no longer subject to compliance in a de facto sense.7 The seesaw proviso of the principle of a natural legislative obsolescence suggests that the American Congress should be at its lowest point of authority in its history, and this is difficult to dispute when looking at the distribution of federal power as a whole. The primary power of the Congress is to stall and withhold progress on a political agenda, but it appears to be incapable of revoking the institutions that at present contribute to the erosion of authentically representative government. The major power that Congress definitively retains over the administration is budgetary authority, but this too is increasingly illusory. The legislative procedure established whereby the majority of the federal budget is settled wholesale in a grotesque omnibus bill has functionally deprived Congress of the nuanced ability to isolate and reduce funding without shuttering a good portion of government operations. The procedure established for budgetary legislation has effectively immunized the administration from reform. It is apparent that the Congress no longer represents the chief avenue for remedial possibilities. It is the offices with executive authorities (governors, presidents) which are more likely to produce forceful advocates of the constituencies and stand a chance of instigating legislative (and ultimately administrative) reform.
The similarities between the current condition of the American federal legislature and the Roman tribunate should be evident. Both functions represent inadequate pathways for remedial possibilities of a reformist populism. But we ought to back up and consider the question of whether any American “populism” of the present time ought to be compared to the Gracchan movement. This question will be further explored in the detailed consideration of factions (see Part 4), but for now it will suffice to say that there is a strong parallelism in general terms between the Gracchan movement of the late Roman republic and the emergent conservative populism of the American right-wing. The crucial similarities are as follows: 1) each represents an uprising of the “middle” economic classes; 2) each is culturally traditional; and 3) the main grievances emanate from the oppression of government and the consequences of government policy. The issue of the land redistribution championed by the Gracchi and the subsequent tribunes may confuse matters, for to some modern perspectives this will seem reminiscent of contemporary leftism. But this is to fail to understand the context that pressed the Gracchi to venture on such a policy. The accumulation of land on the part of aristocrats from free citizens due to corrupt judicial machinations and predatory economic policy is a demonstration of government oppression of the rights to property, and it was entirely just for the Gracchi to insist that land be restored to middle-class landowners.8 American conservative populism of the present-day is in its infancy and has produced only one figure remotely comparable to the Gracchi in Donald Trump.
The Prospects for a Conservative Populist Movement in American Politics
Trump’s potential status as an American Gracchus is not yet settled, for no aspect of his influence is at all clear. Whether Trumpism represents a permanent insurgency of the Republican Party or an aberration will not be known for some years and this, along with many other considerations, will depend on whether he serves another presidential term. No matter his long-term legacy, some external parallels with the Gracchi are obvious. Though Trump was legitimately elected to the presidency, the arbitrary powers of the American political establishment sought (and presently seek) to illegally marginalize his eligibility for office. Similarly, the Roman senate attempted to illegally block the candidacies of the Gracchi for the tribunate. The Gracchi were politically persecuted by the Roman senate, threatened with arrest, and finally murdered outright. Trump was impeached in office on dubious grounds, fraudulently “investigated” for collusion, and subject to a myriad of lawsuits and an FBI raid in his time out of office. The American administrative state regards Trump as a grave threat to its de facto power, and hopes that a deprecation of Trump the man will lead to a deprecation of the conservative populist ideas that he sponsors. In all these respects, Trump shares similarities with the upstart Gracchi. But it should be noted that Trump, unlike the Gracchi, has thus far been unsuccessful in the passage of conservative populist policy, even with a Republican federal legislature. The major legislation that the Trump administration did pass was not populist in orientation. If Trump is to be the American Gracchus, he is behind the pace at which the Gracchi managed to reorient the politics of the Roman state. To the true conservative populist, the legislative advances of the Trump administration represented a failure relative to the evolution of the political rhetoric of his candidacy. The major legislation of the first two years of the Trump administration (that is, when overt Republican legislation was possible) was mainly to the benefit of establishment interests. It may be that the Trump movement is too premature to bring about consequential reform to the American state; but it should be poised to bring about a factional clarification of the right-wing populist movement, and it is on this basis that a comparison to the Gracchi is warranted. In the long perspective of the Roman republic, the reforms offered by the Gracchi were modest compared to the eventual legislation of Julius Caesar and Augustus. The policies offered by Trump, the first representative of a populist right-wing, will likely seem quaint to the ultimate ambitions of the coalition. But in order to initiate such a legacy, the Trump movement will have to mimic the achievement of the Gracchi and produce the necessary factional clarification of the American Right.9
The tepid progress of the first Trump administration from the standpoint of conservative populism is caveated by the necessary admission that the Republican Party (as currently factionally constructed) is politically dubious. The reason for acute Republican impotence is owing to the fact that the party has for many decades contained factional contradictions. The “elite” interests represented by the party high-donor class have long been at odds with the interests of the rank-and-file membership and voting ranks. The “conservative coalition” that had its heyday under Reagan in the 1980s and dominated the electorate in four elections between 1968 and 1992 was (and remains) an unsteady factional alliance between “cultural” conservatives and corporate financial priorities. To illustrate the conflict of interests, we might examine the spheres of the most prominent factional disjunctions on the issues of health care and immigration. There has never been a coherent Republican platform on the broad issue of health care because the interests of the Republican voting base (low coverage costs) is at odds with the interests of the donor elite (the maintenance of a federally backed insurance “industry” and a medical bureaucratic administration).10 The hideous American medical collective (composed of insurance companies, federal and state regulators, pharmaceutical firms, practitioners, and administrators public and private) is a most lucrative gobbler of federal expenditure, and deploys an army of lobbyists to prevent unwanted reform of the industry. Many prominent Republicans are beholden to this leviathan, and the divide prevents the party from presenting a clear platform of health care reform. On the issue of immigration (illegal or otherwise) the desires of the Republican voting base (strong borders and protected jobs) are directly at odds with the financial desires of the party corporate elite (cheap labor and free trade). Trump himself was elected largely on the basis of his immigration stance, but was unable in his first administration to bring forth any meaningful federal immigration legislation. A comprehensive immigration bill failed to pass the House in 2018 due partly to lockstep Democrat opposition, but more so to the hesitations of Republicans who did not share the general perspectives of their voters. The decades-long failure of federal immigration policy has led to such a severe inundation of illegal immigrants into the country that a completely satisfactory reversal may no longer be possible. An authentic conservative populism would not only strongly enforce the border but would call further for a moratorium on all immigration until the economic damage to the citizens of the rampant migration has been sufficiently remedied. On a slate of other issues, such as foreign aid and tax policy, the Republican establishment dissents from the widespread views of their voters. Since there is no national alternative, the Republican establishment has found (at least until Trump) that a strong advocacy for overt cultural issues such as gun ownership and abortion is sufficient to retain the voting loyalties of the base. But even on the culture front, the Republican Party has proven woefully inept, ceding ground over the last 40 years on every issue except for abortion.11 It is demonstrable that the current Republican Party is not a viable opposition party to establishment power. It is, however, the only edifice on which a conservative populism can be built. The promotion of a third party is a totally ineffectual and self-destructive course given the winner-take-all nature of American electoral politics. The populist movement must succeed as a kind of insurgency of the Republican Party and provoke an upheaval of its factions. The remnant “elite” that remain in the Republican Party must be driven into the Democratic Party of established power (where they really belong and most have already gone) and the Republican Party must become a true champion of the “middle Americans” who embrace traditional culture. Such a coalition would be capable of authentic reform because of the proper alignment of its factions, and would rescue conservatism from its long impotence. Trump has the chance to cement this achievement in political realignment as his permanent legacy.
The most important lesson of the Gracchi is that no reform movement can make any progress until it undergoes the necessary clarification of its motives. For this to happen, it must shed the constituent factions that undermine the coherence of its agenda. The current Republican obsession with “enlarging” the base by appealing to factions hostile to basic assumptions of a conservative platform is purposeless, for even if it helps the party win elections in the short term, it only ensures wasted time, alienated voters, and a further entrenchment of established power. American politics amply demonstrates incidences of both the second and third conditions for legislative pollution, but instances of the second condition are less endangering to established power. A tyrannical power will always prefer to exercise the second condition and deprive citizens of the appropriate representatives by underhanded means than the third condition; for an exercise of the third condition is much more difficult to sustain since it must openly violate constitutional law. The present Republican Party as a whole can really be considered a perverse instance of the second condition, for its factional misalignment determines the deprivation of authentic conservative representation. A clarification of the conservative coalition would remove the Republican ineffectiveness, and thus the routine imposition of the second condition; should such a modified party prove electorally successful, it would force the established power to exercise the third condition and deploy arbitrary powers in escalating measures and (if the course of Roman events can attest to our future) thereby work to doom itself.
This essay will be continued in the next issue.
The Fall of the Roman Republic: A Narrative and Analytical Comparison with the Contemporary Conditions of the United States of America — (Part 2)
Derek Suszko is an associate editor for The St. Croix Review.
Summary of Previous Installment:
The Roman Republic, founded in 509 BC, emerged from numerous struggles after 300 years to become the pre-eminent power of the Western world. By 146 BC, Rome had total political control of the Mediterranean, but was wracked by internal strife. The Roman patricians, represented by the senate, dominated the politics of the state and frequently disenfranchised the Roman middle and lower classes. These classes sought a solution to their political grievances by electing the radical brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus as tribunes. When the Gracchi attempted to reform the state, the senate reacted with aggression and both brothers died violently for their opposition to the patrician oligarchy. In the wake of their deaths, the divisions of Roman society remained stark and unresolved.
The Crisis Deepens
The suicide of Gaius Gracchus in 121 BC produced a momentary lull in the frenzied political conditions of the Roman republic. Without a charismatic champion to shepherd their cause, the Gracchan coalition fizzled as the senatorial faction began the process of rolling back the reforms passed by the Gracchi. Deploying a series of compliant (and bribed) tribunes, the stringency of the Gracchan land legislation against patricians was eased and the tentative privileges awarded to the “allies” were entirely reversed. But many of the most crucial aspects of the Gracchan agenda remained intact. The senate did not dare reverse Tiberius’ restrictions on encroachments into the ager publicus (public land), and Gaius’ judicial reforms elevating the equites to domination of the courts remained. This judicial reform was to prove resoundingly consequential. Many of the cases brought before these courts related to accusations of corruption or misappropriation of funds in the provinces, since direct oversight was not often possible for magistrates exercising power far from the city of Rome. In the days when the senators composed these courts, patrician magistrates could expect easy acquittal for any dubious conduct. But with the equites as jurists, the magistrates functioning as pro-consuls or pro-praetors had to either keep themselves strictly within the compass of the law, or (more likely) cultivate the support of the equites, so that they would turn a blind eye to violations. This led to the phenomenon whereby formerly doggedly patrician consuls and praetors became far more populist in their provincial assignments. This in turn led to the weakening of the senatorial grip on executive control outside the city of Rome. It was only a matter of time before ambitious pro-magistrates would recognize the immense power to be had by wholeheartedly throwing themselves in with the populist cause.
The last two decades of the 2nd century BC produced a series of political crises that further exacerbated the political tensions between optimate — a supporter of the aristocratic faction — and popularis — a supporter of the populist faction. A demonstration of the corruption and incompetence of the patrician magistrates was furnished by the notorious Jugurthine War, so named after the Numidian king Jugurtha. Jugurtha was a client king authorized by the Romans to rule over the province of Numidia and quickly became infamous for the extent of his bribing of Roman officials for autonomy. Ostensibly tasked (and lavishly funded) by the Romans to subdue the independent tribes of the area, Jugurtha did nothing of the sort, and plundered his kingdom under the indifferent auspices of the placated Roman governors. When popular resentment finally pushed the senate in 107 BC into taking action against him (Jugurtha’s antics were raising the price of grain in the city), Jugurtha dealt a series of embarrassing defeats to Roman forces led by bumbling patrician generals. The war exposed the vast extent (and success) of Jugurtha’s bribery, and numerous senators and former consuls and praetors were implicated in having accepted his bribes. Jugurtha was finally defeated in 104 BC by Gaius Marius (a pivotal figure in our narrative, see below), and paraded through Rome, and ritually strangled, but the stain left by the entire episode further poisoned the patrician establishment in the minds of the broader population. Marius was hailed as a hero, not only as the victor over Jugurtha, but as an antidote to the intentional ineptitude of the Roman aristocracy, a position in the popular mind that he was determined to exploit.
The antipathy to the aristocracy produced by the Jugurthine War produced a tribune with a fanatical hatred of the aristocracy whose advocacy for radical reform went well beyond that of the Gracchi a generation before. Lucius Appuleius Saturninus (138-100 BC) rose to fame as a quaestor tasked with importing grain to Rome. This function, coupled with political savvy, could yield great popularity, and Saturninus was elected tribune in 103 as the people’s champion. As tribune, he had two objectives, each deemed radical at the time: he wanted to 1) award land from the ager publicus to the landless veterans of the Jugurthine War and the wars against the German tribes (see below), and 2) colonize non-citizens in conquered territories, and reward cultivation of the land for ownership. The senators were staunchly opposed to these measures, ostensibly on patriotic grounds, but more likely because the value of their commerce, and the potential for the enlargement of their estates, was diminished. Both reforms were far-reaching and the second of them might have even curbed the Social War (see below), but the character of Saturninus did not lend itself to easy political success. The land grants to veterans actually outraged certain contingents of the plebeians because some of the veterans were freed slaves or foreign non-citizens. Unable to corral a clean majority, Saturninus opted for intimidation, and orchestrated it so that armed veterans were present at the passing of the measure. When he stood for reelection in 101 BC Saturninus dispensed with a strong opponent by setting the mob to him, and he was promptly stabbed to death. During his third tribunate in 100 BC, Saturninus unleashed the mob to eliminate an undesirable candidate for consul. When the candidate was beaten to death, the senate authorized the Senatus Consultum Ultimum, and ordered the standing consuls to arrest Saturninus. Promised safety pending a trial, Saturninus surrendered to the senate only to be locked in the senate house and stoned to death by the young, fanatic sons of the nobility. As with the Gracchi, a purge of prominent supporters followed, along with efforts to repeal the reforms. It is easy to disparage Saturninus for his clumsy, brutish political tactics and ignominious behavior, especially when compared with the dignity of the Gracchi. But nobility did not save the Gracchi, and Saturninus was among the first to recognize that the societal divisions were too great to be patched and that any truly permanent political resolution would only come with blood.
The Flawed Populism of Marius
The seminal figure in the story of the fall of the Roman republic is, alongside Julius Caesar, Gaius Marius (157-86 BC). Had Marius lived a generation earlier, his career would have been entirely impossible. But the populist movement initiated by the Gracchi would reach its first culmination in the actions of Marius, who was the first to understand (if imperfectly) both the depths of popular resentment and the obstinacy of the aristocracy. This is not to say that Marius was animated by selfless motives. His volatile career bears out that his only consistent desire was for personal greatness, and he was willing to harness whatever faction or movement might optimally secure it for him. After Marius, the republic was unsalvageable, though his portion of the blame has been consistently overstated. Marius should be understood as a product of the conditions of the time, and not as a controlling agent. If Marius demonstrated by his actions a dogged commitment to escalation, and the exercise of extra-legal authority, it is because the sieve opened by the patricians for the denial of republican process and the deployment of political terror demanded a populist counterstroke. And if Marius is to be deemed a moral failure, this is not sufficient to condemn the causes of the factions he championed. As a novus homo, Marius began his political career in inauspicious circumstances, and his significance was slow to gestate. He served without fanfare as tribune in 119 BC, and consul in 107 BC, typifying himself as a plodding and opportunistic powerbroker, unwilling to stand strongly for or against either the patrician or populist factions. In truth, Marius had negligible talent for administration and politicking. His real talents lay in generalship and demagoguery, and he would have likely died a footnote had he not been assigned as lieutenant to the proconsul Numidicus in North Africa in 111 BC. The venerable (and ultra-patrician) Numidicus was no general, and shrewdly surrendered the command of his North African legionaries to the consul Marius in 107 BC, with the outbreak of the Jugurthine War. As commander and pro-consul, Marius ventured on a policy that was to have a far-reaching effect on the course of the next century: instead of recruiting his legionaries from the body of landholding citizens, Marius conscripted from the capite censi — the masses of non-citizens, landless urbanites and freed slaves — with the implicit promise that they would be awarded for their service in land compensation. When Marius won a speedy victory in the Jugurthine War, a feat much enhanced by the contrasts with the bumbling ineptitude of his predecessor generals in the area, he had unwittingly foisted a grave policy crisis on the republic.
The veterans of the army of Marius, politically sophisticated and lethally trained, were quite willing to deploy intimidation tactics to secure favorable policy outcomes, and were not keen to compromise on the question of land compensation. Elected consul in 104 BC, Marius served an unprecedented four consecutive terms. Before settling the question of the Jugurthine veterans, however, the Roman state was suddenly confronted by a new threat from the north. Two Germanic tribes, the Cimbri and the Teutones, had for some years been plundering into Roman-held Hispania and had annihilated a Roman force sent to subdue them in 105 BC at the height of the Jugurthine War. The fear of a Germanic invasion of Italy somewhat marred the triumph of the North African victory, but the immediacy of the threat also covered for the rather unsavory manner in which Marius had secured the consulship. Allying himself with the tribune Saturninus (see above), Marius wanted to guarantee his continuation as consul before leading a campaign against the Germans. Winning reelection in 102 BC to the great consternation of the senate (which now thoroughly loathed him for his advocacy of the Jugurthine veterans and his alliance with Saturninus), Marius finally marched his army north. Despite a cautious beginning, Marius was able to corner the Germans on optimal terrain in Aquae Sextae (modern Aix en Provence). He won a crushing victory against the vastly under-armored Germans, inflicting nearly 100,000 casualties. During this campaign the Germans had actually managed to slip a smaller force to plunder an undefended northern Italy, but Marius (consul again in 101 BC) won another victory at Campi Raudii, annihilating the entire cohort of Germans in Italy. The tribes had suffered such a bludgeoning in these two losses that the remnant of them fled into Germany. The threat to the republic had totally subsided. Marius was duly awarded a hero’s welcome, and held a lavish triumph in Rome.1 But the patrician class was thoroughly uneasy with Marius and the problem of his landless legionaries. Marius himself did not disband the veteran legionaries of the Germanic War, fearing that to do so would unleash a chaos even he would be unable to control. After the assassination of Saturninus, Marius was forced to make a partial peace with the senate and, though he remained popular with the masses, he declined to stand for censor, realizing that the patricians would prevail against his candidacy. For nearly a decade he remained on the outskirts of power, awaiting an opportunity to harness the abundant political capital he possessed.
The political questions of the past fifty years were now reaching a denouement. Due to the forceful efforts of Saturninus, the senate had placated the landless veterans with lands, not from the ager publicus, but from newly acquired territories in southern Gaul, Asia Minor, and North Africa. Despite the uncultivated nature of this land, compared to the ager publicus, this proved temporarily satisfactory to the veterans. However, the senate’s refusal to countenance any acquiescence to the demands of the Italian allies had led to a situation of incontrovertible hostility and the likelihood of violence if no settlement was found. In 91 BC, with Marius still in political no-man’s land, Livius Drusus (128-91 BC) of arch-patrician stock was elected tribune. Drusus sought to solve all the lingering impasses of the factional disputes in one swoop. In a hugely ambitious program, Drusus proposed the following: 1) the control of the courts would be given back to the senate, thus reversing the law of Gaius Gracchus; in exchange, the senate would be expanded by 300 to include the wealthiest equites in its ranks; 2) grain prices would become fixed for the city of Rome, and veterans were to be given land from the ager publicus; 3) the Italian allies were to be enfranchised, with all the rights of Roman citizenship. In proposing all this, Drusus was attempting to appease all factions, each of which would lose at the gains of the other. His legislation was challenged by the sitting consul Marcus Philippus on the basis of a law which stated that differing policy items could not appear on the same legislative proposal. Drusus nonetheless prevailed, but just as he was beginning to administer the new conditions he was assassinated. The assassin escaped and was never identified. Most likely the senatorial faction, which stood most firmly against the enfranchisement of the Italian, was responsible; if so, then Drusus was the fourth tribune killed by the machinations of the patricians of the last 40 years. However, it has been suggested that Drusus was actually killed by a conspiracy of his Italian allies who deplored a political settlement and desired open conflict with Rome to assert their claims. The truth will never be known for certain. At the death of Drusus, the Italians rose up in revolt, thus instigating the Social War (91-88 BC).
The Italian allies comprised a large number of peoples, the most prominent among them being the Marsi, Ferentini, Picentines, Samnites, Apulians and Umbrians. Though they are all footnotes now, for the entire republican period each of these peoples represented a language and cultural tradition distinct from the Romans. The Roman subjugation of the Italian peninsula had been achieved over the long period 350 -164 BC, and this only infrequently took the form of outright conquest. Initially, the Romans required only tribute from the Italian cities, but as their territories expanded the city population became woefully inadequate to supply the number of soldiers necessary for a standing army. The Romans then began conscripting the Italians as auxilia to bolster the legions. During the period of the Punic Wars, when the state was fighting for its very survival, the Romans could not afford mutinous Italians, so they endowed Italian veterans with full citizenship and sometimes land. But in 170 BC, when Rome was the preeminent Mediterranean power, the senate felt secure enough to repeal these favors, though the conscription policy continued unabated. This produced enormous feelings of resentment and forward-thinking tribunes, such as Gaius Gracchus and Saturninus, recognized that it would lead to hostilities if it was not reversed. But the senate could not bear to enfranchise a group of people they rightly viewed as political adversaries. To enfranchise the Italians would double the voting power of the populist faction in Roman elections. The Romans crucially underestimated both the extent of the hatred for them among the Italians and the potency of the Italian soldiers who, after all, had received elite training in Roman legions. The Social War began bloodily, and the Romans quickly recognized that a political solution was necessary if they were to retain a hold on the peninsula. They sought to break the Italian confederacy by offering citizenship to all tribes that reneged on their pact and took up arms against the separatists. A significant number of tribes accepted this offer, but many of the larger tribes refused and insisted they would never be subject to Rome again. Marius was given command of the northern front and tasked with subduing the dangerous Marsi. A former subordinate of his, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BC), was given a proportional command closer to the city of Rome, much to Marius’ jealousy. Sulla had distinguished himself as a junior officer in the Jugurthine War, and then as a pro-praetor in campaigns in Asia Minor. His ambitions matched those of Marius, though his personality was far less frenzied and sensitive. During the campaigns of 90 BC, Marius achieved costly successes against the Marsi, but his victories were overshadowed by the resounding triumphs of Sulla in the south.
By 88 BC, the worst of the crisis had passed, thanks largely to defections from the Italians who accepted the senate’s offer of citizenship in exchange for military participation. Marius wanted to secure the command of the Roman army for the forthcoming campaign against the kingdom of Pontus in Asia Minor. Conspiring with the sitting tribune, Marius pressed his claim in the Roman forum and his armed supporters killed one of the opposing consul’s sons. He received the command but soon realized that the bulk of the army was loyal to Sulla, who was one of the consuls of 88 BC. Sulla had learned from Marius; his recruits were all taken from among the capite censi and the Italian defectors, and Sulla had been instrumental in protecting his Italian ranks from punishment by the Roman senate. When Marius sent two military tribunes to relay the news to the legions that he was their new commander, the legionaries lynched them, fearing rightly that Marius intended to replace them with soldiers more loyal to him. Fleeing Rome in fear of his life, Sulla returned to his army and, declaring the city to be under mob rule, marched in the legions to “restore order.” This was a shocking escalation. Never before had a Roman army marched on the city. When told that Sulla was on his way, Marius at first refused to believe it was possible. The senate dispatched two praetors to reason with Sulla, but he spurned them. Arriving in Rome, he found that Marius and his supporters had vacated the city and that his provocation in entering with an army had made him exceedingly unpopular with the people. In the election of 86 BC, the people elected one Cinna to the consulship on the promise that he would prosecute Sulla for his rash actions. But as long as Sulla had the loyalty of the legions he was untouchable. In defiance of a jury summons, he embarked on the conquest of Pontus and led the army into Anatolia.
Meanwhile Marius, who had escaped near assassination when the German soldier assigned to do the deed had balked on beholding the former consul’s face, had escaped to North Africa. When the consul Cinna quarreled with his colleague Octavius on empowering the patricians, Octavius, with the complicity of the senate, illegally banished Cinna from Rome. Marius spied his opportunity and offered an alliance with Cinna: if Cinna could secure Marius his seventh consulship, he would use his influence to purge Cinna’s enemies, and together they would dominate Roman politics. Though Sulla was away in Asia Minor, he had attempted to retain his influence in Rome by courting the senatorial faction; by 86 BC, most of the patricians could be called Sullans. Sulla declared his support for repealing the radical land legislation that had been passed by Saturninus, and though the senate could not now go back on the offer of citizenship to the Italians, Sulla endorsed a provision that would require all voting in elections of magistrates to take place on a single day, and exclusively in the city of Rome. This would require the Italians to travel, many arduously, in order to exercise their rights of citizenship. Sulla had left a competent deputy in Metellus Pius (130-64 BC) to lead his faction in Rome while he was campaigning. But Metellus could not withstand the threat from Marius and Cinna, and fled Rome with some prominent senators, so the city once again changed hands by military force. Marius, fat, old, embittered, unappreciated, and envious, determined on bloody retribution. He commanded a purge of all the senators and Sullan supporters who had defied his political ambitions. A grisly gang of Marius’ ex-slaves was given license to plunder, rape and murder throughout the wealthy areas of the city. Marius merely declared himself consul for a seventh time in 86 BC, alongside Cinna without the formality of elections. But he only enjoyed absolute power for three weeks before succumbing to a stroke. The death of the “people’s champion” went relatively unmourned in the city, for the long presence of Marius in politics had eroded much of the popular adulation for him. His political intrigues had become far too blatant, and his personal sensitivities much too pronounced, for the people to retain him in their affections. Though it would not fully manifest for another few decades, the purges of Marius had effectively ended the independent influence of the senate in political matters. After Marius, the interests of the senate were permanently subordinated to the personal ambitions of the figure selected to champion them.
Upon receiving word of the death of Marius, Sulla resolved to re-enter Rome. The city had not fared well since Marius’ death, as both Cinna and Marius’ son and Cinna continued bloody purges of patricians as the administrative business of the city went totally neglected. The campaign in Pontus was inconclusive, and Sulla’s legions were outraged that their general was seeking terms of peace. Sulla assuaged them by insisting that the halt in fighting was only temporary, but in order to convey the sincerity of this he was forced to leave the majority of his army in Pontus. Taking only a token force, Sulla would be outnumbered in any battle with the Marians. Arriving in the city of Brundisium on the Italian heel in 83 BC, he was greeted by a cabal of allied patricians, among them Marcus Licinius Crassus (115-53 BC) and Gnaeus Pompey (106-48 BC), each of whom would be most pivotal in the generation ahead. He also received word of the death of Cinna. Sulla fought his way north, largely against contingents of Italian allies worried that he would strip them of their new-won privileges (and some of whom had supported him in 88 BC), and was nearly defeated on the outskirts of the city at the Colline Gate by a legion of Samnites. But these, too, were overcome, and Sulla captured the city after a year of fighting in Italy. His revenges proved as punitive as those of Marius. He ordered captives to be massacred for public amusement in the Circus Maximus amphitheater and, after banning residents from leaving the city, he produced a list of individuals to be purged. The compliant senate awarded him the title of dictator, the first time such a title had been granted in 120 years.2 Having the support of the army in the city, Sulla was free to establish a personal tyranny, but he made a pretense of restoring the old patrician domination of the republic. The senate ranks had been considerably depleted by the purges of Marius, so Sulla not only filled the vacant spots (with his devoted supporters, naturally), but actually expanded the senate to 600 members. This act was the first sign of the senate’s obsolescence, since most of the new members were not drawn from the patrician class, but rather from Sulla’s army, and were generally plebeians. But Sulla satisfied the patricians by instituting a law requiring that all legislation brought forth by the tribunes be ratified by the senate. He also banned former tribunes from running for magistrate positions, a policy undoubtedly concocted with the career of Marius in mind. Sulla made great airs of stepping down from the dictatorship in 80 BC, declaring that he had restored the republic. Only the densest of his proponents could have believed this. The senate was unrecognizable from what it had been, and though the patricians hoped that Sulla’s reactionary policies would restore their privileges, they were surely unsettled by the unassailability of his singular authority. In endorsing the arbitrary power of Sulla, the senatorial faction had exposed its vacuity and unwittingly assured its collapse. Though Sulla might claim to be a traditionalist, he owed his power not to the patricians, but to his legions, and his willingness to deploy them to achieve political ends. It was only a matter of time before another general, far more sympathetic to the populists, would rise by the same methods. Sulla potuit, ego non potero? (Sulla did it, why can’t I?) became a colloquial saying in the final phase of the Roman republic, and many individuals would try to make good on the implication.
The Road to Caesar
Sulla spent a two-year retirement and died in 78 BC “at the height of his happiness,” as a soothsayer had allegedly predicted (hence the appellation Felix, Latin for happy, was appended to his name). A number of ambitious generals immediately attempted to fill his void. The first of these was the bumbling Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (father of the future triumvir, see below), who marched on Rome with some scattered legions in 77 BC to enforce his claim on the consulship but was routed by the consul Lutatius Catulus and pursued in Sardinia by Pompey, where he died in confused circumstances. A rather contrasting effort at power was attempted by Quintus Sertorius (126-73 BC), who took advantage of the widespread hatred of the Romans among the natives of the province of Hispania and led them in revolt. His guerilla tactics proved considerably successful, and by the time the senate dispatched Pompey to deal with him in 77 BC, he had control over much of the province. Pompey had only mixed success, and even with the help of Metellus Pius he was unable to decisively defeat Sertorius. Luckily for the Romans, the talented Sertorius was assassinated by his lieutenant Perpenna in 73 BC. Perpenna attempted to negotiate with Pompey for his life by offering Pompey letters that incriminated a number of senators in collusion with Sertorius, but Pompey had Perpenna executed and allegedly burned the letters. However, there is some suspicion that he retained them for blackmail purposes, as his relationship with the senate improved markedly after the Spanish command. These rather reckless attempts hardly exemplified the blueprint for the acquisition of sustaining power, and many of the shrewder commanders recognized the obvious, that they must keep up the pretense of republican loyalty while accumulating accolades and popular renown. The year 70 BC saw the election of Crassus and Pompey as consuls, both with appreciable patrician support. Each had ambitions for dictatorial power, but lacked what the other had. Crassus had been a trusted subordinate of Sulla and was a formidable businessman. By the time of the triumvirate in 60 BC, Crassus was said to have personally owned half the real estate of the city of Rome. He used his vast wealth to garner political influence and promote allies, but his true ambition was for a military command. Pompey was, in 70 BC, the most illustrious general in Rome, but he needed an alliance with Crassus to fund his pursuit of higher political office. There was lingering animosity between the two from the suppression of the slave revolt of Spartacus in 72 BC. Crassus had defeated the slave army in pitched battle, but Pompey appeared on the field just in time to corral vast numbers of prisoners, and the public associated the victory with Pompey. Crassus was nonetheless willing to compromise his personal vendettas in the interest of securing a command. To curry favor with the populace, the two consuls repealed the limits imposed on the tribunes by Sulla only 10 years before. Though this seemed highly significant at the time, it would become increasingly apparent that the tribunate was an obsolete office. The Roman people were now far more likely to identify with, and politically invest in, heroic magistrates with legions at their disposal. The upheaval of the last six decades had furnished ample evidence of the impotence of singular tribunes, and the most ambitious Romans no longer sought the tribunate, but rather competed for the lucrative governorships of provinces as pro-magistrates or other specialized commands authorized by the senate. Pompey was given another such command after his consulship, tasked with eradicating sea pirates preying on Roman grain shipments from the Mediterranean. Awarded by the senate with extraordinary powers to deal with the threat, he proved markedly successful and returned to Rome basking in the adulation of the commons. He was promptly awarded with the most coveted command of all: that of bringing to a close the campaigns against Mithridates and his kingdom of Pontus. This effort had continued sporadically in the years since Sulla had withdrawn, but the kingdom remained tenuously independent. Pompey annexed the province of Syria (bringing Palestine under direct authority of Rome) in 66 BC, and prosecuted his campaign for three years, at last achieving the total occupation of Pontus in 63 BC. Pompey once again received individual glory for a cumulative achievement, and he returned to Rome in 62 BC to hold a lavish triumph.
The political landscape had decidedly altered. In 63 BC, a former praetor, Lucius Sergius Catiline, attempted to seize the consulship by coup. Initially standing for the office legitimately, Catiline offered a radical platform that included the abolition of all debts and extensive land distribution. The debt crisis in the city was a genuine problem, but Catiline’s blunt insistence on total abolition was only an impracticable ruse to incite the plebeians to revolt. To augment his forces, Catiline began treasonously courting Gallic tribes for reinforcements to take the city. Standing staunchly in opposition to Catiline was the venerable novus homo senator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC). Voluminous writings by Cicero have survived, and his influence on our perspective of the last decades of the republic has been so prominent (notably with a pro-senate stance) that the period is sometimes called “the age of Cicero.” In a stirring series of denunciations, Cicero castigated Catiline as an egocentric profligate and delinquent intent on entirely upturning Roman social order. His Catilinarian Orations have survived intact, and represent the best-known examples of classical Roman rhetoric. Due in large part to Cicero’s efforts, Catiline’s popular support began to falter, and he sought refuge in Gaul, hoping to raise up an army to march into Italy. He was pursued by the sitting consuls and killed in battle, and Cicero instigated a purge of the conspirators remaining in Rome, proclaiming that he had saved the republic. It was perhaps the last significant moment in the history of the Roman senate. The failure of Catiline once again exposed a truth: popular acclaim was insufficient to attain personal power if it was without reliable backing of an army. A number of Catiline backers who had promised to endorse his attempted coup abandoned him when he began to make irreversible actions towards revolt. In the narrow stakes of power in the fading republic, it was becoming clear that personal loyalties and seemingly strong fealties were illusory. Among Catiline’s tentative supporters was Julius Caesar, who was to reap the benefits of these crucial realizations.
The Rise of Caesar
By the time of his murder, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) could rightfully claim to have been the most consequential European since Alexander the Great. As one of the great fork-roads of history, Caesar set the Western world on a determinative course, a course which would have been utterly impossible without him. Appropriately for such a titanic figure, no consensus on his conduct and its consequences is possible. To the senatorial class in the generations that followed him, Caesar was the final menace to the republic and its great destroyer while, to much of the Roman populace and the army, he was the savior of the state. In modern times, assessments of Caesar have been generally negative. The American Founders identified with the patrician defenders of the Roman republic, and deplored the possibility of an American Caesar. In our own time there is among general historians a great uneasiness about Caesar, stemming perhaps from our association of him with 20th-century dictators. In truth, Caesar deserves a more generous assessment. That Caesar was vain, ruthless, and intermittently unscrupulous is indisputable. But in destroying the remnants of a corrupt and oppressive oligarchy, Caesar effectively dissolved the social fissures that had impaired the Roman state for the previous century. As dictator, Caesar never oppressed the Roman people, and his actions made a fine contrast with the “republicans,” who hid behind their supposed ideals to promote avaricious policies predatory to the Roman middle and lower classes. The generosity of Caesar’s will, endowing all his personal wealth to the people, is famous, and established a precedent for subsequent emperors. It was no accident that under the imperial period, Roman standard of living across all economic classes was to soar. The dictatorship of Caesar was not inevitable. Had the oligarchs respected the republican mechanisms that generated reform, they might have avoided Caesar. But they resorted to arbitrary power to stall or prevent them, leaving the people little choice but to entrust their grievances to military populists, a paradigm of which Caesar proved an enduring architect.
Caesar began his political career after compulsory military service by serving as quaestor in 69 BC. He made no secret of courting the disaffected coalition of Marius against the reigning Sullan faction, despite the fact that his first wife was Sulla’s granddaughter. His populism made him considerable enemies, but he was fortunate to obtain the funding of Crassus, and was elected aedile in 65 BC. He became Pontifex Maximus (chief priest)3 in 63 BC, and praetor in 62 BC, and became embroiled in the Catiline conspiracy, an entanglement from which he extricated himself by securing a pro-praetorship in Hispania. It was here that the greatness of Caesar the general was first manifested. Thanks to the pillage from his Hispanic campaigns, Caesar was wealthy enough to stand for the consulship in 60 BC. The senate thoroughly hated Caesar, chief among them Marcus Porcius Cato (95-46), and Caesar realized the need for allies if he were to attain a command as pro-consul. Thus was the idea of the first triumvirate between Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus concocted, and it proved lucrative for each member. Pompey was seeking consular support for a land settlement for his veterans of the Pontus campaign, and Crassus desired legislation related to his financial interests. To solidify the alliance, Pompey married Caesar’s daughter Julia. With the support of his fellow triumvirs, Caesar won the consulship and dutifully passed the wished-for laws. In return, Pompey and Crassus used their influence with the senate to grant Caesar a five-year pro-consulship in Gaul. In 59 BC, Caesar ventured on the total conquest and assimilation of the area into the Roman state.
Caesar has been accused of crimes of war (and even of genocide) in his militarily brilliant conduct of the Gallic War, but these claims are somewhat dubious. The war was indeed brutal, and was the first Roman war to inflict over a million casualties. But these figures have more to do with the sheer scope of the campaign than with any excess savagery on Caesar’s part, which was standard for Roman military campaigns of the republican era. Routine massacres of civilians, sacrificial torture, and treachery in negotiation were all hallmarks of Roman conquest (as they often were of Roman adversaries), and Caesar’s war was not unique in this regard. While Caesar personally profited greatly from the loot of the war, he made sure to distribute liberally to his soldiers, and also spent the funds on popular entertainment such as gladiatorial games in the Roman amphitheaters, to the great delight of the Roman citizenry. This was a refreshing contrast for a people long accustomed to patrician greed with spoils of conquests. In 55 BC with Caesar in Gaul, Pompey and Crassus were elected consuls once again. Caesar was given assurances that his pro-consular assignment in Gaul would be renewed for another five years, and in return he endorsed a pro-consular assignment for Crassus in the province of Syria, for the purposes of launching a conquest of the Parthian empire to the east. But the next two years saw the collapse of the triumvirate. In 54 BC Pompey’s wife, Julia, died unexpectedly, thus severing the familial ties between Pompey and Caesar. Crassus commenced his Parthian campaign in 53 BC with disastrous consequences. The Arab guides tasked with leading Crassus’ legions through the desert to the Parthian capital proved traitorous, and instead led them to where they were ambushed by the Parthians at the desert oasis of Carrhae. The Parthians, famed for their proficiency with the bow, rained down arrows on Crassus’ thirsty and exhausted legions. Crassus attempted to rally his soldiers even after the death of his own son, but they had no heart for the fight and forced him to attempt to seek terms. Upon meeting the Parthians, Crassus was swiftly beheaded and his head was delivered to the Parthian king, who had it used as a prop in a theatrical production. Virtually none of his legionaries escaped the massacre that followed.
In Rome, the shock of the disaster at Carrhae, coupled with the continued successes of Caesar in Gaul, caused the senate to insist on drastic measures for the defense of the state. Crassus had often acted as an intermediary between Caesar and Pompey and prevented each from attaining too much influence, but in the wake of his death it was suspected that both men would seek unbridled power. Though the senate was generally wary of Pompey, they could not bear the thought of a triumphant Caesar, and so Pompey was elected to a sole consulship in 52 BC, and essentially given indefinite authority in the city of Rome. The frightened senate pushed him into proclaiming Caesar a traitor in 50 BC, and publicized a warning that Caesar would be arrested should he set foot again in Italy. The senators likely hoped that Caesar’s soldiers would mutiny on hearing this, or that Caesar would be deterred from seeking power in Rome and simply remain in Gaul, perhaps opting to rule the territory as a rogue king. But the senate underestimated the fanaticism of the loyalty of Caesar’s soldiers to their general, and also crucially misassessed the degree of Caesar’s popularity in the city of Rome itself. Declaring that Alea iacta est (The die is cast), Caesar in 49 BC famously crossed the Rubicon stream that marked his entrance into the Italian peninsula with his legions. When the pro-Caesar tribune Mark Antony (83-30 BC) tried to nominate Caesar for consul in 48 BC, the oligarchs banished him from Rome. But the speed with which Caesar descended into the city caught his opponents by surprise, and they scattered to the provinces to raise their armies, fearing that the city would riot against them. Pompey fled to Greece, where he instituted a mass levy and raised an army over two times the size of Caesar’s. Caesar recognized that delay would only strengthen Pompey, so he decided to pursue him into Greece before he had a secure supply source from Italy. This recklessness almost undid him, as Pompey had numerous opportunities to rout Caesar’s unprepared legions but declined to seize the initiative. Pompey’s unwillingness to engage Caesar was astonishing, and his baffled subordinates finally forced him into action. From the beginning of his military career, Pompey’s abilities as a commander had been exaggerated. In the Battle of Pharsalus that followed, he inexplicably folded, allowing Caesar’s legions the better ground and refusing to press at advantage points. Caesar’s forces annihilated Pompey’s, and Pompey embarked for the tributary state of Ptolemaic Egypt. The reigning ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy XIII (Cleopatra’s brother and co-ruler, whom she later poisoned), was less than happy to see him, and knowing that Caesar was in pursuit he had Pompey beheaded before he could unload his ships. Caesar arrived to find his old colleague dead, and spent a few months in Egypt having an affair with Cleopatra, with whom he fathered a son called Caesarion. With Pompey gone the senatorial cause was hopeless, and Caesar easily dispensed with the remaining opposition across the empire. His fiercest enemy, Cato the Stoic, stabbed himself in North Africa after Caesar defeated his meager legionary force. Interestingly, when Caesar returned triumphantly to Rome, he announced a general amnesty of the patricians and senators who had opposed him, a gracious and unexpected gesture that was to contribute to his death.
The Last Stand of the Oligarchs
With absolute mastery of Rome, Caesar declared himself “perpetual dictator of the commonwealth”; unlike Sulla, he had no intention of retiring and returning power to the patricians. He abolished the tribunate, declaring that he himself was the people’s permanent advocate. Though this sounds presumptuous in the extreme, it is certainly true that had Caesar stood for election he would have won overwhelmingly any position he chose. He requited this popularity by liberally awarding land in the provinces (often confiscated from opposing senators) to his veterans and supporters, and re-established the colonization program of Gaius Gracchus whereby landless plebeians were rewarded with property ownership if they agreed to cultivate land in undeveloped areas of the empire. He also swelled the ranks of the senate with his military associates,\ and accepted the numerous honors the now entirely ceremonial body heaped on him. When the senate offered to make him king, Caesar made a show of declining the offer. Intending to avenge the death of Crassus by invading Parthia, Caesar in 44 BC began to make preparations for a lengthy military campaign. He was not to see this come to fruition. A cabal of senatorial conspirators led by Marcus Brutus (85-42 BC) and Caius Cassius (86-42 BC) planned to lure Caesar to the senate house on the pretext of new honors and there assassinate him. The motives of these conspirators varied widely; many were merely envious, and hardly opposed Caesar on the grounds of republican principle, since they desired for themselves the power that Caesar had attained. In the instance of Brutus, a man who had been a protégé of Caesar in the years prior to the civil war, it is generally thought that he was motivated by a genuine aspiration to restore the old ways of the republic.4 The conspirators rather blindly thought that with Caesar gone his political coalition would dissipate and that the senators would be free to reassert some degree of power in the resulting chaos. Despite forewarnings by soothsayers not to enter the capitol where the senate held session, Caesar accepted the senate summons on the Ides of March — March 15, 44 BC. The conspirators surrounded him and stabbed him to death beneath a statue of his old rival Pompey.5 On the advice of Brutus, the conspirators blundered enormously by allowing Mark Antony (who Cassius had desired to assassinate alongside Caesar) to give a funeral oration commemorating the death of Caesar. Antony incited the people to vengeful frenzy, and the conspirators were forced to flee Rome for their lives.
Brutus and Cassius fled to Greece to raise levies like Pompey had four years before and, in the confused aftermath of the assassination, Mark Antony attempted to take supreme power in Rome. But many of the pro-Caesar senators were disinclined to support Antony, who had a well-earned reputation for dissolute living, as Caesar’s successor. Instead they invited Caesar’s very young great-nephew and adopted heir, Octavian (63 BC-14 AD), to take power under the guardianship of the senate. Cicero, who had not been privy to the conspiracy and yet was uneasily close to many of the conspirators, was a personal enemy of Antony and believed that Octavian could be cultivated as a compliant pawn of the patricians. The senate declared Antony an outlaw and sent an army under Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (90-13 BC, son of the Lepidus of the ill-fated coup of 77 BC) to capture him. But in a shocking turn of events, Lepidus offered a partnership with Antony and Octavian in a move of incredible shrewdness for such a young statesman, abandoned his senatorial promoters and joined the two to form the second triumvirate. Octavian had correctly calculated that the people would not stand for even a brief return of senatorial rule, and that only a united front of Caesar’s associates would defeat the army of the conspirators. With Antony ascendant, a great number of senators paid the price for having opposed him, among them Cicero, who was killed in his home on orders of the triumvirs. With the alliance compacted, the triumvirate was free to pursue Brutus and Cassius into Greece. Lepidus was left to govern Rome while Antony and Octavian confronted the conspirators at the Battle of Philippi in 43 BC. The first day of the battle was a stalemate: Brutus defeated Octavian’s legions, and Antony defeated those of Cassius. Cassius, beholding messengers from Brutus across the field, mistook them for the enemy and ordered one of his slaves to stab him to death. This premature suicide shook the spirits of Brutus’ soldiers, and they were routed in the next day’s fight. To avoid capture Brutus, followed his colleague in death and fell on his sword. The triumvirate established a three-headed dictatorship and divided the regions of the empire among them. Antony was awarded the eastern provinces, Octavian the western, and Lepidus, far the feeblest of the three, was allotted North Africa.
The cooperation of the triumvirate hinged entirely on whether they had common enemies, and for some years they did. Pompey’s son Sextus (67-36 BC) had lived as a fugitive in various provinces of the empire since his father’s death, but he took his opportunity against the distracted triumvirs in 42 BC by building up a navy and seizing the island of Sicily. Pompey had notable naval successes against Octavian’s forces and for a time the triumvirs were forced to come to terms with him. Antony, meanwhile, had taken up a legendary affair with Cleopatra in Egypt, and as his attachment for her grew so did his alienation from Rome. When his fearsomely aggressive wife, Fulvia, revolted against Octavian, Antony was forced to leave Egypt and patch up the fomenting distrust between him and Octavian. As Antony was en route, Fulvia conveniently died, so the alliance was solidified by the marriage of Antony with Octavian’s sister Octavia. This was a disastrous prospect, given Antony’s continuing love for Cleopatra, and at the first opportunity he abandoned her and returned to Egypt. With this insult to a much-respected Roman woman, Antony’s political capital in Rome was totally depleted, and Octavian was in a position to follow his adoptive father and attempt to seize a sole dictatorship. He reneged on the agreement with Pompey and destroyed his Sicilian fleet (much thanks to his skilled lieutenant Marcus Agrippa) in 36 BC. Lepidus, who had always been the afterthought of the triumvirate, tried to assert his claims on Sicily by force, but his army defected to Octavian. Octavian arrested and imprisoned Lepidus and seized his territories without consulting Antony in the East. Octavian had only to remove Antony, and he would be master of the empire. He cleverly declared war not on Antony, but on Cleopatra’s client state of Egypt, knowing full well that Antony would take up her cause as his own. Antony, who had given up so much politically because of his love for Cleopatra, also proved incapable of conducting military operations with her by his side. Cleopatra insisted on commanding the Egyptian fleet herself, but this force was assembled of conscripts of dubious ability and loyalty. Antony was constantly terrified by the thought that Cleopatra would make a separate peace with Octavian, a fear that was far more emotional than it was political. At the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC off the western coast of Greece, Antony’s forces had the advantage over Octavian’s, but all was marred when the Cleopatra-led Egyptian contingent, in a burst of cowardice, fled from the fighting. Antony followed after his love, and the forces remaining in battle panicked without their commander. Octavian dismembered Antony’s fleet, and Antony had no choice but to scurry to Egypt. His un-Roman behavior had provoked numerous of his subordinates to defect to Octavian, and back in Alexandria he found that he had no army. When told that Cleopatra was dead, Antony attempted suicide by falling on his sword but succeeded only in mangling himself. Cleopatra was, in fact, not dead, and the expiring Antony was carried to her place of refuge to die in her arms.6 Octavian annexed the province of Egypt and consecrated it as the Roman province of Aegyptia, putting an end to a 3,000-year tradition of the pharaohs.7 He greatly desired to hold a triumph and parade the hated Cleopatra through Rome, but she outwitted his guard and smuggled venomous asps hidden in figs into her holding place, where she poisoned herself by applying one to her breast. An angered Octavian had her son by Caesar, Caesarion, put to death.
The Imperial Consolidation
The triumph of Octavian quelled the last vestiges of the old republic. Upon his return to Rome, Octavian declared himself perpetual dictator, tribune and censor, and the sycophantic ranks of the senate granted him numerous accolades. In his own words, Octavian was princeps, or first citizen, and he took on the permanent title of Imperator (victor). Having already adopted the name Caesar from his great-uncle, he shed his given name, Octavian, and had the senate bequeath him the name Augustus (the illustrious one).8 Thenceforward, all emperors would take the name Augustus Caesar upon assumption of the office of princeps. Having spent a lifetime mired in civil wars, Augustus sought to make certain that the government he founded would continue after his death, and he was aided in this by his ample administrative abilities. Augustus expanded the land settlement policies of Julius Caesar, and centralized tax collection across the empire.9 He reorganized the legions geographically and concentrated them on the frontiers, where they were equipped to act swiftly in the event of invasions. The army commanders now swore personal allegiance to the emperor, and Augustus created an elite force of them to protect the emperor and his family which came to be known as the Praetorian Guard. On economic matters, Augustus stabilized the currency at a fixed silver weight after a century of oscillating monetary policy and instituted a price ceiling on the price of grain (much to the relief of the common people who had faced poverty and sometimes outright starvation in the chaotic years of civil war). He induced the senate to adopt a measure declaring his stepson, Tiberius, to be his successor, and late in his reign he elevated Tiberius to the status of co-Caesar.
The success of the imperial system was only equivocal in its first century, for while the empire prospered economically, in the 1st century AD it hardly demonstrated an adequate level of political stability. Tiberius succeeded Augustus as mandated in 14 AD, but promptly neglected his office to live in luxuriant lechery on the island of Capri. Of the first eleven emperors, eight died by violent means, either by suicide or murder. Two of them, Caligula and Nero, are notorious to this day for their depravities. Though the emperor was all-powerful, he could not afford to alienate the army or the Praetorian Guard. These institutions had essentially replaced the senate of the republic as the determinative influencing body of the state, and naturally were more populist in outlook than the patrician senate had been. Since our source chroniclers for the early empire (Suetonius and Tacitus) were of the marginalized old patrician class, they naturally had little good to say about any emperor. Thus, we are rather shocked to find that Nero, for instance, who is known today as a matricidal megalomaniac and a prototype of the Antichrist for his persecution of the early Christians, was profusely mourned upon his suicide in 68 AD by the common people and the army. There must have been some compelling reason for this. When in 96 BC the senate finally secured the position of princeps for one of their own — Marcus Nerva — it ushered in the so-called Age of the Five Good Emperors: Nerva ruled 96-98, Trajan 98-117, Hadrian 117-138, Antoninus Pius 138-161, and the famed Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius 161-180. It was during this period that the empire reached its greatest extent and of which Edward Gibbon, author of the magisterial The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote:
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian (96) to the accession of Commodus (180).”
It is hopeless to dispute Gibbon’s (and many have tried to) that, especially by the standards of the ancient world, the era witnessed unprecedented degrees of peace and prosperity. It is staggering to note that the estimated GDP of Europe in the 2nd century was not matched until the onset of the Industrial Revolution 1,600 years later. Such a period is surely a partial vindication of the imperial system established by Augustus, even if we grant the special perspicacities demonstrated in turn by each of the five emperors. It was in these five that Plato’s ideal of the “philosopher-king,” outlined in his Republic, was most persuasively manifested.10 Any analysis of the later collapse of the Western empire is beyond the subject of this paper, but to blame the imperial system itself as a cause is certainly erroneous, since it survived almost as long as the republic did, and with greater prosperity.11 Our chronicle of the descent of the republic is at an end; it now remains for us to glean from it what is applicable to our own.
This essay will be continued in the next issue.
Defining the Mission of The St. Croix Review
Derek Suszko – Editorial
Derek Suszko is an associate editor for The St. Croix Review.
This last month Rasmussen reported that the percentage of Americans who were pessimistic about the future of the United States stood at 71 percent. Reuters and Politico reported figures not much better at 70 percent and 69 percent. Monmouth produced a staggering 80 percent of respondents who claimed that they were pessimistic or very pessimistic with only 16 percent declaring they were not. These figures are approaching all-time lows. They speak to a malaise which has descended on the citizens of this country. There is a feeling, felt at times by myself and by almost everyone I’ve spoken to, that the best days of the United States lie in the past; that America is in an inescapable decline; that patriotism and love of country are dying among the younger generations; that the glories and heroes of American history have been forgotten and demonized; that something grand and beautiful — the American experience — is withering away. None of this is surprising. A terrible fact is evident in every news story, every longstanding institution, and every political debate: America is full of powerful people who despise America and wish to destroy it. They despise what it stands for and for what it has stood for in the past. They dismiss its virtues and magnify its apparent faults. They wish to uproot the foundations of God, family, and country and replace them with slavish devotion to hideous ideologies. They seek the elimination of everything that has produced American prosperity: free markets, freedom of speech, freedom of self-defense, traditional marriage and family, a robust and independent middle class, patriotism, and property ownership. This radicalism is unprecedented, and it is clear that days of quaint debate are over. America is in a life-and-death struggle and, if it falls, the world will follow. For the sake of the world, for the sake of future generations, for the sake of the idea of human freedom — it must prevail.
The present goal of The St. Croix Review is clear: to end the destruction of America. There is nothing more important for the world and for our time than the success of this objective. The destruction of America is occurring on two main fronts: economic degradation and cultural upheaval. The destroyers of America wish to reduce the economy to two classes: an elite ruling class with all the wealth and political power, and a vast dependent class of the rest who, reliant on their rulers for welfare and survival, will not threaten the authority of their self-appointed masters. In order for the destroyers to achieve this, they must eradicate the middle class in the United States. And they are doing so by means of over-regulation, inflation, outsourcing of jobs overseas, and insourcing of jobs to illegal immigrants. On the culture front, the destroyers of America have adopted the deadly ideologies of the academic Left. These ideologies — such as critical race theory and gender ideology — are blatant evil, fostering widespread misery and devastation and instilling in vulnerable minds nothing but a confusion in the self and a hatred of others. The destroyers seek to overthrow biological fact, mutilate vulnerable and healthy adolescents, propagate perversion (especially toward children), encourage racial violence and anarchy, and normalize all manner of ghastly behaviors for the ends of chaos. It is in light of these two fundamental threats — economic and cultural — that we here unveil our mission statement:
The mission of the St. Croix Review is to end the destruction of America by re-establishing the family as the center of American life, restoring economic prosperity to an independent middle class, and reviving a culture of tradition.
I shall briefly comment on each of these aspirations:
The two-parent family — one husband, one wife — is the essential cornerstone of any prosperous society, and its sanctity is paramount. The St. Croix Review mission condemns abortion and advocates for policies aimed at remediating fatherlessness and single-parent homes. We believe that the federal government has a duty to incentivize fidelity to the traditional family through subsidies for bearing children and maintaining marriages.
The American middle and working classes have taken brutal hits in the past decade, and much of their wealth has been pillaged by predatory government policy. The St. Croix Review’s mission believes that the guarantees of liberty are only possible if a nation retains a middle class free from reliance on a central government for its prosperity. We advocate for all economic policies that will restore the middle class to its former prominence, especially those that target the issue of reducing consumer prices.
The cultural rot emanating from America in the past few decades is obvious for all to see. It has produced a society of nihilism, selfishness, and misery. But traditional American culture — centered on God, family, and nation — produced American greatness and it can do so again. In the battle for American institutions, the mission advocates for an aggressive insistence on the primacy of traditional culture. If the institution is too far corrupted (as, perhaps, with public education), we advocate for the founding of alternatives. We will never accept the penetration of destructive ideologies into daily life.
In advocating for the reversal of the causes of America’s decline, we at The St. Croix Review intend to be its saviors. As conservatives, we have generally taken too little care of this and have watched the slow erosion of American greatness with complacency for far too long. We have no time for docile debates with “well-meaning” adversaries. Now is the time for forceful advocacy and an unwavering devotion to our mission. I know I join with all of you when I declare my love for this country. As a boy playing outside in my yard, I remember how I would charge Bunker Hill and storm the beaches of Normandy. I remember standing in awe at the views of Grand Teton and being overwhelmed at the solemnity of Arlington National Cemetery. The images of America are seared into my soul, and I cherish them as though they were my own. And I know this is how all of you feel. Many of you have seen more of America than I have. You have lived through more, and you know better than I do what America was — and what it might be again. I exalt the greatness of the generations before mine, and yet I fear for my own. My duty is clear to me, and I take it up with all determination as an editor of the St. Croix Review: to end the destruction of America and to restore to the rising generations its former greatness. Because you have loved America and have felt the gifts of previous generations in your hearts, you already recognize what an extraordinary lineage you comprise. We are honored by your support. The St. Croix Review intends to be a dominant voice for the future. We are rapidly expanding on social media and entering new channels to promote our mission. We believe that we are taking up nothing less than the salvation of America. Despite the magnitude of the task before us, we are confident that, God willing, we will prove equal to the times. *