Given recent events here in the US, there have been a lot of statements made about our political future, often with implicit or explicit comparisons to one of the most famous societies in antiquity: the Roman Republic. Often the narrative is, once a democratic norm has been shattered, it puts us on an irreversible course to ruin. I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from history, but it pays to be familiar with the actual history.
The first thing to realize about the Roman Republic is that, although we do get the word “republic” from the Romans, their version of it was different in some important respects from the modern ones. The Republic’s government had three institutions: the senate, the magistrates, and the popular assemblies.
But the main power was always in the Senate. Although there were mechanisms to allow new blood to enter it, it was largely an aristocratic institution. The magistrates were the executive branch, and while they were elected, it was by the nobility, and they were expected to follow the advice of the Senate. The exceptions were the tribunes, who were, at least in theory, elected by the populace, and were charged with protecting the people from unjust actions by the Senate or magistrates. The last, and seemingly most democratic, were the popular assemblies.
Although these popular assemblies had theoretical sovereign power, in reality they too followed the guidance of the Senate. The magistrates who summoned the assemblies only brought before them issues that had been debated already by the Senate, and the assemblies almost invariably endorsed the Senate’s decision. It was a sophisticated system that acknowledged the right of all citizens to have a say in government while in practice keeping control in the hands of the nobility. The Republic was governed by the Senate and People of Rome, very much in that order.
Gwynn, David M.. The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (pp. 23-24). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
All of which has long inclined me to think of the Roman Republic as more an oligarchy with some democratic protections. But those protections were forged in the context of a small city state. As Rome’s territory increased, they became increasingly ill suited for their original purpose. For instance, tribunes had protection from persecution by senators or magistrates, but only within the city of Rome itself.
With each new major conquest, the Roman economy saw an influx of new slaves from the conquered territory. This meant that for many land owning aristocrats, it was cheaper to have their lands farmed by slaves than by free tenants. Those same aristocrats also used their new wealth and power for buy up land from free farmers, often with coercion. The result was those farmers were increasingly pushed off the land and into the cities, where they joined an ever increasing and discontented urban mob.
This was the situation that led to rise of the Gracchi brothers, two tribunes who, in separate tenures a decade apart in the late 100s BCE, attempted to use their position to constrain the aristocracy in their use of public land, and distribute that public land to the populace. However, they encountered fierce resistance from the elites, and responded by pushing the customary boundaries of the law. The Senate responded by arranging for their murder.
The Gracchi are often seen as the beginning of the end for the Republic. But it’s important to recognize that they were a symptom of a deeper problem, the suffering of much of the populace, suffering that was being ignored by the ruling class. In essence, the Republic wasn’t working for much of the free population, a fact that would have consequences.
One consequence was that the Roman army, which had always been composed of citizen soldiers, was having recruiting problems. To join the army, you had to own a certain amount of property and provide your own equipment. But with the dwindling of free farmers, that was becoming increasingly infeasible. This led to the property requirement being lowered, and then temporarily suspended in military emergencies.
A couple of decades after the Gracchi, a Roman consul, Marius, reformed the army, permanently doing away with the property requirement, paying soldiers, and equipping them in a standard way.
The Marian reforms forged a tough professional infantry army. They also marked the abandonment of the old ideal of a Roman citizen militia. Marius’ landless volunteers were promised a farm at the end of their service as an inducement to recruits. Responsibility for fulfilling that promise lay with the general to whom the new soldiers took their oath of loyalty. Thus the armies became personal, loyal to their general not to the Senate or the Roman state.
Gwynn, David M.. The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (p. 81). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
When we think of the powerful Roman strongmen in the final decades of the Republic, such as Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar, they have to be understood as arising on the foundations of this change. It’s what led to the endless civil wars that only ended when one strongman managed to destroy all the others and reign supreme.
Interestingly enough, Augustus, usually recognized as the first Roman emperor after 27 BCE by most historians, mindful of what had happened to Julius Caesar, was very careful never to claim such a role. He carefully maintained the appearance and fiction of a functioning republic. Many of his successors did the same. The Senate even stayed around throughout the history of the empire, continuing late into the Byzantine period, but it’s role as the supreme authority was over.
So, what lessons are there for us in this history? It’s tempting to see some similarity between the influx of slaves and the rise of automation and globalization in modern times. And many in our modern society do often feel like the elites are ignoring their concerns. (Although who “the elites” are varies depending on your political views.)
But the comparisons have issues. The Roman Republic was a pre-industrial agrarian society that was, again, mostly oligarchical in nature. It never provided, nor claimed to provide universal suffrage to its population. This meant that the incentive structures, as compared to a modern representative democracy with a consumer based economy, were pretty different.
Maybe the real lesson is that a society only works as long as most of the people in that society see it working for them. When it comes to a democracy, that often means compromise. This led historian Brett Devereaux to recently make this observation:
In stark contrast, the effort by conservative (in the general sense, not in the American sense) elements of the Roman senate to ‘hold the line’ and permit no compromise on questions of land reform and citizenship in the Late Republic led quite directly to the outbreak of civil war in 91 (with the Italian allies) and in 88 (between Romans) and consequently to the collapse of the Republic. Initially, the influence and raw power of the elite was sufficient to squash efforts at reform (including the murder of some prominent reformers), but in the long run the discontent those crackdowns created laid the fertile ground for the rise of demagogic military leaders to supplant the Republic entirely, culminating in first Caesar and then Octavian doing just that. In an effort to compromise on nothing, the Roman elite lost everything.
In these bitterly divided times, that’s a lesson hard to remember. Unity means compromise, something that’s difficult at the best of times. But history shows us what the alternative is, and it’s far worse.