The Roman Republic and the Death of Democracy

Ruins of the Roman Forum
Well, I have previously explored the similarities, and differences, between the world as it is today and France prior to the French Revolution, so now I will go much further back into the past to the Roman Republic so see what we can learn from the tumultuous period between the fall of the republic and the rise of the empire. If you are like me back before I returned to high school you have probably heard of Ancient Rome, Julius Ceaser and his adopted son Augustus, but little beyond that, so like my post on the French Revolution, I will begin by telling you the back story before I finish on with how I see the world today.
Roman Republic
The foundation of the Roman Republic dates back to 509 BC when King Tarquin was overthrown by a group of noblemen led by Lucius Brutus. Like the French Revolution, Tarquin didn’t appreciate being dumped and unsuccessfully attempted to take his old job back. Rome already had a constitution which had been set up by a previous king, Numa Pompilious. Before the revolution the senate had elected the king for life however Brutus changed the terms of the incumancy so that the senate would instead elect two consuls for a fixed term. As the republic developed a number of other positions were also created:
  • Quaestor: similar to members of the Federal Reserve;
  • Praetor: basically Supreme Court judges;
  • Aediles: pretty much the religious heads, but not really that religious;
  • Censor: could consider him to be the chief public servant;
  • Tribunes: There is no real equivalent as they represented the people against the government.
The republic was basically a highly stratified society comprising of the wealthy Patricians and the common Plebains (who in turn sat above the foreigners and the slaves). Much of the history of the republic was a constant struggle between the members of the patrician class and the plebians (now I beginning to sound a but like Karl Marx), and there were times in which various patricians would ally themselves with the plebians for their own political gain.
Sucession of the Plebs

Around 494 BC Rome was facing a crisis where the plebians were strugging under a huge burden of debt burden (private debt, not public debt since there was no such thing as a bond market back them, and Rome didn’t actually trade with her neighbours – she just conquered them). At the time the debt collectors were resorting to some rather harsh methods to get their money back and this quickly morphed into a public protest. A short war managed to relieve some of the pressure, however once the enemy had been beated, the plebs realised that they were back where they started, being beaten up by the debt collectors. The consul of the day, Apulius, sided with the creditors (because, well, if you didn’t want to get into debt, you should have borrowed any money) which further outraged the plebians (because in many cases they had no choice). Fortunately for Apulius, the neighbours began playing up again, which meant another distracting war. Unfortunately, this was also a brief war, which meant that once it was over the debt collectors were back doing what they did best – beating up on the plebians.

Finally getting fed up with this, and knowing that the patricians were more interested in getting their money back (with interest), a group of plebians realised that if they simply renounced their citizenship and went and set up their own country then they could cancel all of the debts. This actually turned out to be a really good idea because when all of the plebians basically downed their tools and walked out of the city the patricians realised that they had lost a bulk of their, well, army (and generals tend to prefer to have others do their fighting for them). Realising that they actually needed the plebians to be on their side, the senate created a new post, that of tribune. The job of the tribunes was to represent the plebians, but they also had teeth because they could veto rulings.

Agricultural reform

We will now jump a few hundred years to 150 BC and where the Republic seemed to be running quite smoothly. However, Rome was still a highly stratified society where movement between the classes was difficult, if not impossible. Due to their wealth and influence the patricians acquired some quite large landholdings making it quite diff


icult for many former soldiers to obtain their own plot of land on the Italian peninsula. A tribune, Giaus Gracchus, arose and used a rather obscure law, the Lex Hortensia, to bypass the senate and to break up these large plantations and parceled them out to the plebians. This, of course, was opposed (people don’t like having their stuff taken from them without consent), not just by the senate, but also by Giaus’ fellow tribune Octavius. The reforms never passed and Giaus ended up discovering the rather pointy end of a sword.

However, land reform was not going to go away (sort of like Pandora’s Box – once it has been opened you ain’t getting that stuff back in again). One of the reasons was not just being able to simply live off the land (and there was actually plenty of land to go around in the conquered territories, it was just that everybody wanted land on the peninsula) but to be able to join the army you actually had to be a landholder. However the general Gaius Marius had a better idea – he got rid of the property qualification. This resulted in a massive influx of volunteers from the landless plebians. Marius, with his enlarged army, then when on a number of very successful campaigns and was elected consul a record six times.
Sulla and the patrician response
Marius took his army to Asia-minor where he went to war against King Mithridantes, but lost. With the rise of the plebians under Marius the patricians were somewhat worried that he might become a little too powerful. An old enemy of Marius’, Sulla, decided to come to the patrician’s aid (and also wanted to show Marius how a war should really be conducted) so he had senate dump Marius as consul and give the position to  him. Of course, nobody likes to be replaced, especially due to a little mistake, so Marius responded by having the tribunes revoke Sulla’s command. This led to no end of trouble because Sulla then took his army, marched on Rome, passed a law to revoke some of the powers of the tribunate, and then returned to fighting Mithridates.
That was a mistake because Marius, who was still in Rome with his army of Plebians, took control of the city and proceeded to flout convention by having himself regularly elected consul (you were supposed to wait ten years before you could be re-elected). Marius also overrode other constitutional requirements by placing his mates in positions of power and passing laws without senatorial consent. Mind you, this wasn’t g


oing to last because Sulla, realising that the republic was in danger, made peace with Mithridates, marched back on Rome and declared himself dictator (as you do). During that period he had all of the leaders of the plebian party executed, revoked Marius edicts, and strengthened the powers of the Senate and the patricians in general. Sulla then retired from politics and died in 78 BC.

Julius Ceaser and the Civil War
The plebian party wasn’t quite defeated, and soon after Sulla’s death they began to rear their ugly head again. There was an uprising in Spain, as well as the famous slave revolt of Sparticus. The army was sent with out to deal with these disturbances. The army that was sent to Spain was led by Pompey, and the army that took out Sparticus was led by Crassus. Upon their return they discovered that the plebian party had taken back control and were progressively undoing Sulla’s reforms. Pompey and Crassus then made an agreement with the plebians that if they were elected consul then they would get rid of some of the harsher reforms


. Agreeable, the plebians elected them, and they then pretty much got rid of the entire lot. However, despite all that not everybody was happy and a patrician named Cataline began to court many of the farmers who had felt left out of Pompey’s reforms (since it was only the plebians in the city that mattered to Pompey). Cataline, with his conspirators, hatched a plot to dispatch the consuls and the senators, take control of the republic, and enact reforms to benefit all of the lower classes. However that didn’t happen because the senators picked up chatter amongst the conspirators and acted against Cataline before he could go any further with his plot.

Pompey, meanwhile, had returned to Asia to claim some more land for the Republic (which included a non-violent annexation of Israel on behalf of Herod the Great – the one who slaughtered all those children trying to get at the baby Jesus) and when he came back to Rome he discovered that Sulla’s reforms had been re-enacted and the Senate refused to get rid of them. So Pompey partnered with Julius Ceaser and some other guy (it is always ‘and some other guy’ when it comes to a triumvirate) to form the first triumvirate where they violently forced through Pompey’s reforms.
However the patricians fought back and Rome descended into anarchy. The relationship between Pompey and Ceaser began to sour and Pompey moved over to support the Patrician party which resulted in the senate making Pompey dictator. In response, Ceaser mobilised his army, crossed the Rubicon, and marched on Rome. Pompey, unprepared for this (because generals were not supposed to bring a mobilised army across the Rubicon) deserted Rome for Greece. Thus begun the civil war, which Ceaser won (he had already Vene, Vidi, Vici‘d Gaul by that stage).
Death of Sparticus

Death of Ceaser and the transition to the Empire

So, Ceaser returned to Rome, declared himself Consul, awarded himself full tribuncian powers, and took the title of dictator. The senate, fearing that he would not relinquish his position like Sulla (and also the fact that he was still supported by the plebians) hatched a conspiracy to kill him, which they did, with Ceaser uttering the famous words ‘et tu brutae‘ as his friend Brutus plunged the last of the 57 daggers into him (Brutus was brought over to the side of the conspirators by appealing to his ancestor Lucius Brutus who, as you may recall, removed King Tarquin). This wasn’t the end of the matter though because, as you can imagine, the plebians were a little upset that their hero had just been murdered in cold blood in the middle of the senate (though little upset is probably an understatement).
Thus another civil war broke out, this time between the forces of the conspirators and a second triumvirate comprising of Augustus Ceaser, Mark Antony, and some other guy (who, in reality, is pretty irrelevant, but they added him because triumvirates were cool). The war ended at the battle of Phillipi where the conspirators met their end. This resulted in Augustus and Antony turning on each other (after dispatching the other guy). Antony fled to Egypt where be bedded down with Cleopatra, and Augustus took his army and pretty much brought and end to Antony’s influence (because you can’t have some guy holed up in Egypt where he could raise another army and march on you). This left Augustus as the sole ruler, who then took the title of Augustus (that actually wasn’t his real name, but I call him Augustus because we all, I hope, know who he is).
The Early Empire

I will finish off my whirl wind tour of the fall of the Roman Republic with a quick discussion of the first three emperors. Of course we have Augustus, who is pretty much seen as the benevolent dictator:iIn fact all of the histories from that period paint him in a pretty good light. Yeah, he supported the plebians, and also went and systematically killed all of his opponents, namely the patricians, and preserved the relics of the Republic in name only. Despite that, they still considered him a pretty good guy (but I guess that had something to do with the histories being written a hundred years after his death. Then again, writing bad things about him was not conducive to a long life). Once Augustus had ascended the throne peace reigned throughout the empire and everybody was happy (unless, of course, you were a Republican). However there was only one problem – Augustus was mortal, which meant he died.

This brings us to the next two emperors, Tiberius and Caligula. These guys were pretty much monsters. Okay, if you read the Christian histories all of the emperors up until Constantine were monsters, but this is not a Christian history, this is a political history of the struggle between the plebians and the patricians. While things were good under Augustus, when Tiberius took the throne things started heading downhill. Having the power of an emperor does get to one’s head, and in times of peace emperor’s become board. Wars are good because it means that rulers can go and fight enemies letting people live their lives (or at least rallying the people towards a common enemy – when it works that is), but when emperor’s stay at home they get up to all sorts of mischief. Tiberius, for example, was a sexual deviant (and you can read about that in Seutonius). He would do things such as borrow other people’s wives for his own pleasure, and you really couldn’t say no. However I won’t go into any further detail than that because, well, it’s all in Seutonius.
Caligula, well, he was nothing short of insane (actually, he was more like a spoilt brat that never grew up). The name actually means ‘Little Boots’ because when he was young he would hang around the army wearing miniature armour which the soldie


rs all though was pretty cute. However, the cuteness wore off pretty quickly when he became emperor because, well, he was emperor and he could do what he liked, and that is what he did. He taxed people (actually tax is probably the wrong word – he simply took what he wanted using the pretext of tax, loans, and winnings – though there are people that still consider tax to be a form of legalised theft), killed people on the simplest pretext, and made sure that people praised him for his greatness. Mind you, you can only push people so far and he reached a point where his praetorian guards said enough was enough and hacked him to death. Oh, and might I also mention Nero, who would wander around the streets of Rome mugging people, and if anybody had the audacity to fight back he would have his guards (who were hiding in the shadows) kill them.


As they say, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Implications for Today

Well, I’m almost finished, and I was going to suggest that one of the implications was that despite a populist figure coming to the fore front and fighting for the common people that first of all this figure is doomed to die and his ancestors are not necessarily going to be that tolerable and it will be much more difficult to get rid of them. Granted, that is the case, but from this latest review of Roman history it almost seems that by the time of the civil wars the whole plebian and patrician conflict had drifted into the background and it was simply a slug fest amongst members of the patrician class (but then again, aren’t all wars a slugfest between the rich and powerful?). Also, those who rise to represent the plebians end up becoming patricians in themselves and eventually the class distinction returns to where it was before the uprising.

However, I am beginning to suspect that we are nowhere near the point where democracy is breaking down in the way it did at the end of the Roman Republic. In a way we are probably back near the era of the first plebian succession where there was a class of creditors (the patricians) and debtors (plebians). Okay, we are seeing elements of the end of the Republic with one party enacting legislation to support the lower classes, and then another party progressively tearing it down. Yet I would not say that this is similar to the events occurring around the time of Sulla. Our leaders are still operating within the bounds of the constitution and the laws are being enacted legally. Yes, there is a concern that there is a lot of money in politics and that lobbyists are able to buy legislation, however I don’t necessarily see it as a breakdown in the democratic system. However, when I consider the plebian succession, I note that there are similarities to our time, such as the extent of private debt, and not debt that has been created simply because people want expensive things now, but debt that is created out of necessity, such as through medical bills and the loss of employment. Like the time of the plebian succession, we are beginning to see a rise in debt slavery and homelessness created through unsustainable private debt. It is also interesting to note that there were also frontier wars which acted to distract the plebians from their immediate problems, though when the wars were concluded they would turn back to their grievances with the system (which is similar to Anonymus now targeting ISIS with its hacking).

If we are to compare ourselves with Rome, I suspect that we are still in the non-violent part of our democracy where peaceful protest and pressure can still work to bring about change as opposed to the violent civil wars during the twilight of the republic. However, we still need to be aware of the problems when a benevolent dictator rises to take control, because even though at first he may reach out to and court the populace, what he (or she) will inevitably do is create a new class structure, and the subsequent rulers may (actually probably won’t) be anywhere as nice as the first.

Creative Commons License

The Roman Republic and the Death of Democracy by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. All images on this post are © and/or ™ their relevant owners. If you are the owner of any of the images used on this website and wish them to be removed then please contact me.

Tiberius photo source: Giovanni Dall’Orto

Caligula photo source: Louis le Grand use permitted under Creative Commons attribution-share alike 3.0 unported

2 thoughts on “The Roman Republic and the Death of Democracy

  1. Good history summary.”… that if they simply renounced their citizenship and went and set up their own country then they could cancel all of the debts.” This is actually a motivation for the American Revolution too.


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