The Collapse of the Republic
By the second century B.C., the Senate had become the real governing body of the Roman state. Members of the Senate were usually wealthy landowners, and they remained Senators for life. The Senate became more and more powerful and was increasingly controlled by a smaller and smaller circle of wealthy and powerful families. Rome’s government had started out as a form of self-rule by the people, a Republic in which citizens elected people to represent them. But the Senate was filled with wealthy aristocrats who were not elected. Rome was slowly turning into an aristocracy, and the majority of middle and lower class citizens began to resent it.
Land was usually at the center of class struggles in Rome. The wealthy owned most of the land while the farmers had found themselves unable to compete financially with the wealthy landowners and had lost most of their lands. As a result, many of these small farmers drifted to the cities, especially Rome, forming a large class of landless poor. Two aristocratic brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, tried to fix the problem of unequal land distribution. They wanted to pass legislation that took land from the rich and gave it to the poor. Many Senators, themselves large landowners whose lands were vulnerable under this legislation, were furious with Tiberius and Gaius. A group of Senators took the law into their own hands in 133 B.C., and killed Tiberius (later Gaius was killed as well). The attempts of the Gracchus brothers to bring reforms had opened the door to more instability and more violence. Changes in the Roman army soon brought even worse problems.
In 107 B.C., a Roman general named Marius became consul and began to recruit his armies in a new way. For a long time, the Roman army had been made up of small farmers who were landowners. Now Marius recruited volunteers from the poor who had fled to the cities because they owned no property. To recruit them, he promised them land. These volunteers swore an oath of loyalty to the general, not to the Roman state. As a result, Marius created a new type of army that was not under government control. In addition, generals were forced to become involved in politics in order to get laws passed that would provide the land they needed for their veterans. This new system of military recruitment placed much power in the hands of the individual generals.
Lucius Cornelius Sulla was the next general to take advantage of the new military system. The Senate had given him command of a war in Asia Minor. The Council of the Plebs tried to transfer command to Marius, and a civil war broke out. Sulla won and seized the city of Rome itself in 82 B.C., wiping out all opposition. Then Sulla restored power to the hands of the Senate. Although he did not keep the power, Sulla had set the example of using an army to seize power that would prove very attractive to ambitious men in the future.
For the next 50 years (82-31 B.C.), Roman history was characterized by civil wars as a number of individuals competed for power. Three men eventually emerged as victors.
The First Triumvirate
In 60 B.C., Caesar joined with Crassus and Pompey to form the First Triumvirate. Crassus was known as the richest man in Rome. Pompey was a general (and also Caesar’s son-in-law) who had returned as a military hero from a successful command in Spain. Julius Caesar also had a military command in Spain. The combined wealth and power of these three men was enormous and allowed them to become very powerful. In 60 B.C., Caesar, Crassus and Pompey joined together to form the First Triumvirate, or a government by three people with equal power. Pompey received command of Spain, Crassus was given command of Syria, and Caesar was given command of Gaul (modern-day France).
When Crassus was killed in battle in 53 B.C., however, only two powerful men were left. Leading senators decided that rule by Pompey alone would be to their benefit. They voted for Caesar to lay down his command.
Caesar refused. During his time in Gaul, he had gained military experience as well as an army of loyal veterans. He chose to keep his army and moved into Italy by illegally crossing the Rubicon, the river that formed the southern boundary of his province (to this day the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” is used to mean being unable to turn back).
Caesar marched on Rome, starting a civil war between his forces and those of Pompey and his allies. Caesar chased Pompey into Egypt where he met Cleopatra and fell in love with her. The eventual defeat of Pompey’s forces left Caesar in control of the Roman government. He was officially made dictator in 45 B.C., but his decisions still had to be approved by the Senate. He enacted many reforms and had plans for many more, but in 44 B.C. he was assassinated by a group of Senators who had become afraid of Caesar’s power.
The Second Triumverate
After Caesar’s death, a new struggle began. Three men- Octavian (Caesar’s heir and grandnephew); Marc Antony, Caesar’s ally and assistant; and Lepidus, who had been a commander of Caesar’s cavalry- joined forces to form the Second Triumverate. Within a few years, however, the power struggle dwindled down to two men who divided the Roman world between them. Octavian took the west; Antony took the east.
Octavian and Antony soon came into conflict. Antony allied himself with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII. Like Caesar before him, Antony had fallen deeply in love with her.
At the Battle of Actium in Greece in 31 B.C., Octavian’s forces smashed the army and the navy of Antony and Cleopatra. Both fled to Egypt, where they eventually committed suicide together.
Octavian, at the age of 32, stood supreme over the Roman world. The civil wars had ended. So had Rome’s Republican form of government. The period beginning in 31 B.C. and lasting until 14 A.D. came to be known as the Age of Augustus.
The Age of Augustus
In 27 B.C., the Roman Senate granted Octavian the name Augustus, meaning “the exalted.” They also gave him the legal power to rule Rome’s religious, civil and military affairs, with the Senate as an advisory body. The Senate gave him the title imperator, or commander in chief. Imperator gave us the word emperor.
Augustus proved to be a very popular ruler, but his continuing control of the army was the chief source of his power.
Rome achieved great glory under Octavian/Augustus. He restored peace after 100 years of civil war; maintained an honest government and a sound currency system; extended the highway system connecting Rome with its far-flung empire; developed an efficient postal service; fostered free trade among the provinces; and built many bridges, aqueducts and buildings adorned with beautiful works of art created in the classical style. Literature flourished with writers including Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Livy all living under the emperor’s patronage.
The empire expanded under Augustus with his generals subduing Spain, Gaul (now France), Panonia and Dalmatia (now parts of Hungary and Croatia). He annexed Egypt and most of southwestern Europe up to the Danube River. Augustus’ attempt to conquer Germany failed, however, when three Roman legions ( a legion was a military unit of 5,000 troops) under commander Varus were massacred by fierce German warriors. These defeats in Germany taught Augustus that Rome’s power was limited, a realization which devastated him. For months, he would beat his head on a door, shouting, “Varus, give me back my legions!” Still, after his death, the people of the Roman Empire worshipped Augustus as a god.
Augustus’s rise to power initiated the end of self-government in Rome. He was a wise ruler, but many of the Roman emperors who came after him were not. Without any limits placed on their power, the Roman people were at an emperor’s mercy.