Welcome to The Worst Form of Government: a history of democracy from Brutus to the Brexit.
By Matthew White
Command of Roman armies went with the higher constitutional offices, but as the empire continued to expand, the elected magistrates lacked the time to travel and perform any useful fighting in their single year in office. Instead, control of provinces and the armies stationed there went to proxies such as proconsuls, former magistrates who had finished their terms back home and now got to spend a year plundering the frontier. This required political alliances of powerful men rotating in and out of office, leaving some to watch over city politics while others fought on the frontier. Pretty soon, these political alliances became more important than constitutional offices in determining who ran Rome.
Roman armies were originally a militia of citizens who carried whatever arms and equipment they could personally afford, training whenever they found the time. Soldiers were usually assigned to units based on their wealth and the quality of weapons they were expected to own. They fought when needed and went home between wars. The problem was that this limited the pool of available soldiers to men with disposable income. The beginning of each war got bogged down mobilizing and training each army. When one general, Gaius Marius, was sent to fight in North Africa, he couldn’t even scrape up enough soldiers to do any useful conquering. When Marius returned to Rome as consul, he restructured the army to make it more effective. He replaced the citizen-soldiers with professionals recruited from the poor. The new Roman army was trained and equipped with standardized arms at state expense and kept in service for a fixed term. When they retired, they might be rewarded with new farms, perhaps on land seized in the latest conquest, depending on how generous the Senate was feeling toward their general. This made soldiers more loyal to the commander who took care of them, and less to the nation as a whole.
With his new professional army, Marius returned to North Africa and successfully fought a rebellious king into submission (109-108 BCE), which solved an ongoing problem that had overcome many earlier generals. A few years later, Marius headed north to beat back an invasion of Celts who had crossed the Alps into Italy (103-101 BCE). This string of victories made Marius the most popular leader in Rome for a while. His populist faction, the populares, was riding high.
During the War of the Allies from the last chapter, a new general, Lucius Cornelius Sulla of the aristocratic faction, the optimates, came to prominence as a victorious commander. When a new war broke out on the Roman frontier in Asia Minor against King Mithridates of Pontus in 88 BCE, every general in Rome wanted a crack at the looting possibilities that this war opened up. The Senate chose Sulla to command, but the popular assemblies appointed Marius. Riots broke out over which was the legitimate commission, but the commoners got the upper hand in the streets. Sulla fled Rome ahead of the lynch mob, took command of the army on the way to Asia and turned it around to head back to Rome. It was the first time a Roman Army had ever attacked Rome itself. Marius skipped town and hid out in North Africa while Sulla consolidated control in the capital. Any Marians who didn’t scatter in time were rounded up and killed. Then Sulla went east to fight Mithridates.
With Sulla safely gone, Marius returned to Rome with troops he had recruited in North Africa, while the populares swept through the city streets, killing any Sullans they found. When Sulla heard about this, he quickly negotiated a cease fire with Mithridates, conceding many points of contention in order to free up his army for politics back home. Then Sulla returned to Rome with his army to put the commoners back in their place.
Marius died of a stroke before the showdown, leaving the populares without a strong leader. The optimates and populares fought several pitched battles on the road to Rome, but Sulla’s fresh, battle-hardened army knocked aside the gladiators, militia and retired veterans scrounged up by the opposition and took the capital. Appointed dictator by the Senate, Sulla cleared out the Marians and invented a fascinating new tool of oppression: the proscription list. Rather than take direct action himself, he simply posted a list of individuals that he wouldn’t miss if a tragic accident should happen to befall them. They lost all protection under law. If you were responsible for their disappearance, you wouldn’t be prosecuted -- plus you could take their property. 4,700 Romans were killed in the purge.
Sulla then rewrote the constitution to weaken the assemblies, the tribunes and other tools of the commoners, while strengthening the Senate. Sulla was still a Senator at heart, so when it was all done, he returned control of Rome to the Senate in 81 BCE and ruled an additional year as ordinary consul. Then he retired to his villa where he died within a couple of years.
When Sulla abdicated power, the republic got a second chance. For about 30 more years Rome puttered along democratically, but power increasingly clustered into factions lead by powerful men. With the taboo against civil war upended by Marius versus Sulla, ambitious Romans from both factions occasionally rebelled against Senatorial rule during these years. Most failed. Quintus Sertorius, Roman governor in Spain and a former Marian, joined Lusitanian natives in an unsuccessful revolt in 83-73 BCE. Then in 63-62 BCE, several losers in recent elections banded together under the leadership of Lucius Sergius Catilina, a former Sullan, to try to bypass the voters and seize control in Rome. All these troublemakers ended up violently dead, but not before they chipped away at the legitimacy of the Republic.
The Roman Republic would ultimately die at the hands of the First Triumvirate, a backstage cabal of three powerful men which began in 60 BCE. The two senior partners in the triumvirate were Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) and Marcus Licinius Crassus, two old Sullans who had already served a term as co-consuls in 70 BC. They had drifted apart in rivalry, but when the Senate voted down projects that were important to them, they found a common cause again. Pompey, an experienced and proud general with a long victorious career behind him, wanted farmland for his retired veterans. Crassus was a ruthless businessman who had mastered the mysterious ability to turn money into more money -- an occult skill largely unknown to the simple landlords and generals who made up the Roman aristocracy. He had been waiting a long time for the government to pay his tax farmers for their contracts.① When the Senate denied their requests, Pompey and Crassus agreed to finance the political ambitions of a populist up-and-comer, Gaius Julius Caesar, in exchange for his promise to take care of them after he got elected.
Caesar had a foot in each class. He was the well-bred son of the patrician Julius family, but also the nephew of Marius’ wife, which gave him a leg up in popularity among the commoners. Caesar’s native charisma cannot be overstated. The people loved him. He effortlessly mastered the pageantry of being a popular leader. During his term as aedile in charge of public festivals, he outdid all his predecessors with magnificently creative gladiatorial contests staged for the people’s enjoyment and the gods’ favor. Caesar also had a special talent for seducing important wives all over Rome. Caesar had already wasted most of life enjoying himself, and only now, well into middle age, did he decide to get serious and aim for the highest political offices.
In 59 BCE, Caesar had a tough year as consul. When his alliance with Pompey and Crassus became public, their enemies became his enemies. The political forces that had frustrated their plans now turned against Caesar. Caesar’s co-consul Marcus Bibulus tried to assert his lawful veto over all of Caesar’s initiatives, but Caesar stirred up mobs to pelt him with excrement, beat up his entourage and chase him into hiding. Afraid to show his face in the Forum, Bibulus stayed home, scanning the heavens for omens to prove that Caesar was making the gods angry. But until the heavens cooperated, he was effectively neutralized.
Roman years were commonly named after the two consuls in office, but what should have been the year of the consuls Bibulus and Caesar, was instead ridiculed as the year of the consuls Julius and Caesar.
With two powerful men behind him and an iron will of his own, Caesar eventually managed to impose his wishes on the Republic. At the end of his consulship, despite strong opposition to rewarding this would-be dictator in any way, Caesar was given three lucrative provinces to milk in and around Gaul (or France nowadays). His enemies were happy to be rid of him and they hoped the wild barbarians would finish him. Caesar, however, proved to be a natural military genius, so once he found an excuse to attack outward beyond the frontier, he spent the next few years (58-50 BCE) conquering the whole region. When he was done, he had a fortune in slaves and plundered gold, and a veteran army bigger than anything any other Roman could raise.
The Triumvirate fell apart while Caesar was away. As a businessman in a society that only respected warriors, Crassus gambled everything he owned on a chance to win everlasting glory fighting against the Parthians in the East. He called in political favors to get an assignment in Syria, and he used his fortune to finance a new army. In the end, however, Crassus was brutally and humiliatingly defeated in 53 BCE; his army was wiped out and his head was taken to be a stage prop at the Parthian victory party. This left Caesar and Pompey trying to stay friends without a mediator. As long as Caesar stayed in Gaul, no problem, but just in case he didn’t, the Senate started lining up behind Pompey, their old champion in so many previous wars, as the only person left who could stop him.
All this time, political street gangs were a regular part of Roman life. While the proconsuls were off dealing with important matters in far corners of the empire and statesmen orated eloquently in the Senate, streetfighting bruisers made sure citizens in the city’s wards voted the way they were supposed to. The gang leader of the populares was Publius Clodius Pulcher, an aristocrat of the Claudian family who had shifted his allegiance to the commoners. He handled protection and enforcement for the Triumvirate. Against him was Titus Annius Milo, wrangling votes for the optimates. In 53/52 BCE, while Milo was running for consul and Clodius was running for praetor, the two gangs battled repeatedly, until finally Clodius was killed in a riot by Milo’s thugs. Fortunately, Milo had the legendary lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero on his side, so he was exiled to the south of France rather than being strangled, crucified, fed to lions, buried alive with snakes or some other charming Roman punishment.② In any case, with the elections spoiled by murder and mayhem, the Senate appointed Pompey to be emergency sole consul to control the crisis and give the Republic time to catch its breath.
Most commentators, then and now, believed that corruption was eating away at the heart of the Republic. True or not,③ this perception was undermining support for the status quo. The Roman aristocracy had monopolized power without compromise since Sulla had rewritten the rules in their favor, so the commoners finally just gave up on the Republic. They had no reason to defend it when it was in trouble or miss it when it was gone. They were fine with an avenging dictator cleansing the Senate. If that dictator was Caesar, great. They loved him. He took care of his people, and he had proven himself an efficient and fair administrator in every post he held.
Not all Senators were selfish and corrupt. At least two powerful optimates had spotlessly honest reputations right up to the end. Marcus Tullius Cicero had worked his way up from insignificant provincial roots to become the most respected legal scholar in Roman history. Caesar even offered Cicero a place in the triumvirate, but Cicero declined on republican principles. Another staunch republican was Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger, a stern, strict conservative who ostentatiously scorned modern luxuries such as underwear and footwear and attended Senate meetings wearing the black toga of mourning for the impending death of the republic. Both men stood against Caesar, and neither outlived the fall of the republic. After losing the battle of Utica to Caesar in the Civil War, Cato manfully disemboweled himself rather than surrender – even going as far as pulling his guts out again after his friends tried shoving and sewing them back in. Cicero was beheaded by agents of Marcus Antonius during the power struggle after Caesar’s assassination. His severed head and hands were nailed up in the Forum as revenge for speaking and writing against Marcus Antonius, whose wife also jabbed a needle though Cicero’s dead tongue to avenge all the times he insulted her.
Caesar’s term as proconsul of Gaul expired at the end of 50 BCE, and the Senate summoned him back to Rome to disband his army and retire. In January 49 BCE, Caesar and his soldiers approached the Rubicon River, the border between Italy and Caesar’s provinces. Now he faced a choice. By law, he had to leave his command behind when he left his province, which would make him a private citizen at the mercy of the political winds in Rome, most of which were blowing against him. Rather than take that chance, he led his army across the river and into Civil War.
It would take several years for the power struggle to sort itself out, but democracy was dead as soon as the Civil Wars started. Decision-making was now in the hands of the most powerful general in the neighborhood, whoever he may be. Any of you with HBO already knows the outline (or any of you familiar with Shakespeare, if you’d rather be all highbrow about it). In the first round, Caesar beat Pompey; then Caesar was assassinated by die-hard optimates such as Brutus and Cassius in 44 BCE; then Caesar’s heirs, his lieutenant Marcus Antonius and his nephew Octavian, defeated the assassins in yet another civil war; then these two fell out and fought each other in a third civil war, until Octavian emerged as the last man standing in 30 BCE.
The forms of the republic stayed in place throughout all of this. New city magistrates still got chosen annually in Rome and then promoted to the Senate; however, the current dictator usually just picked his own friends for the posts to carry out his wishes, all rubber-stamped by the remaining members of the Senate.
After winning the Civil Wars, Octavian ruled supreme as Caesar Augustus, using a collection of inoffensive republican titles in order to avoid the hated word “king” (rex). Instead he went by the military title Commander, imperator, or First Citizen, princeps civitatus, an honor originally bestowed on the senior senator. Under Augustus and his heirs, these titles came to mean something more sinister and authoritarian, and they survive in English as Emperor and Prince. He also took up any constitutional offices that would give him useful powers. As a censor, he could legally remove Senators he didn’t like. As a tribune of the people, he could veto laws he didn’t like. As a consul, he had command of the armies and the power to enforce legal judgments. In 27 BCE, Augustus pretended to return control of Rome to the Senate, but there was no mystery about who was really calling the shots.
In time, Augustus and each subsequent emperor would groom an experienced relative or colleague to take over these scattered republican titles when he died; the power didn’t pass automatically to his son simply for being the emperor’s son. This era of military dictatorship behind a republican façade is labeled the Principate by historians, and it lasted until 284 CE when the emperors dropped the pretense and became openly monarchial in a new phase of the empire called the Dominate.
① Tax farming was privatized tax collection in which a collection company squeezed the taxpayers on behalf of the government and got to keep a share of the receipts. As much as everyone hated tax farmers, Crassus’s most infamous business was urban real estate speculation. Whenever he spotted a plume of smoke on the Roman skyline, Crassus would speculate that the neighbors were probably getting pretty desperate right about now. He’d descend on the burning building with a team of firefighters and offer to buy the neighboring buildings in the path of the fire. The offer got smaller and smaller the longer the fire raged and the closer it approached. Only after he got a good deal from the owners would Crassus’s men put out the fire.
② As a warrior people, the Romans didn’t care much if you killed a person of equal or lower status in a fair fight. They only pulled out the really nasty punishments for crimes like arson, sacrilege, poisoning and killing someone of higher status because these threatened public safety and the nation as a whole.
③ One thing I’ve learned while researching the history of democracy is that everybody always thinks that their current government is the most corrupt government ever. Was the late Roman Republic especially corrupt? Well, everyone at the time thought so.
Copyright © September 2017 by Matthew White