- 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.
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.
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.
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.
. 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.
Death of Ceaser and the transition to the 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.
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.
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.
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”
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.