Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

 Origins of the Roman Revolution

Steve Muhlberger

In the last lecture we looked at the cycle of war and social displacement that characterized the two centuries following the end of the Second Punic War.  (Those two centuries, conveniently enough, are the years 200 B.C. to 1 B.C.)

In those years, as we've seen, Rome continued to expand.  Foreign warfare was constant.  Roman armies were always being raised and shipped overseas to take new provinces, defend existing ones, or put down revolts.

One of the main results of this war was growing divisions between rich and poor in the Roman citizenry and in the Roman Confederacy of Italy; divisions between those who profited and those who felt that they were excluded from the profits.   These divisions endangered Roman power itself.  Not only was the pool of potential military recruits significantly reduced, but social relations that in the past had been very stable became embittered.

This cycle of conquest, looting, displacement of the peasantry and widening social disparities within the Roman state did not end until the beginning of our own era (A.D. or "Common Era", C.E.), when the Roman Republic became a monarchy under Augustus Caesar, and when Roman expansion came to an end, Britain and a few border provinces apart.  During most of the two centuries when the conquest cycle operated, it was overlaid by another one:  a cycle of civil strife.

The cycle of civil strife went through several phases.  Today we will look at the earliest part of it, during the years 133 to 78 B.C.  During these years, the need for reform became urgent and reform was first proposed.  These reforms were violently rejected, leading to a breakdown of civil peace.  Into this uncertain situation stepped a military strongman, who claimed to promote the cause of the people against an ineffective aristocracy.  The resulting popular agitation sparked another violent
conservative reaction.  At the end of the period, in 78 B.C., it seemed that the senate and the established families were once more in control; but in actual fact, political life was so embittered that further conflict was inevitable.  That is the outline of today's story.

In the 130s B.C.,  the harmful effects of continued imperial success and constant warfare on
Italian society were becoming apparent to thoughtful aristocrats.  For one thing, peasant displacement was reducing the number of recruits available for the army.  For another, this decade saw the first great slave revolt, which took place in Sicily beginning in 135 B.C.  Sicily was not part of
Italy then, it was a province.  But it was a favorite place for rich Romans to invest in agriculture, and conditions there were similar to conditions farther north.

Against this background, one young aristocrat, Tiberius Gracchus, a grandson of Scipio Africanus, began to worry and to wonder what could be done about existing bad conditions.  His inspiration was a trip through Etruria, just north of Rome, in which he saw how the peasants had been cleared off and replaced by slaves.

The cure for this problem, it seemed to Gracchus, was land reform.  It had to be possible for ordinary citizens to own their own farms.  Otherwise Rome, or at least the thing that made Rome great, rural self-sufficiency, would disappear.  With this on his mind, Gracchus entered a political career.

In 133 Gracchus became tribune of the people.  In the far past, this office had been the defender of ordinary citizens against the established families.  At this period, it was usually just a stepping stone to higher office; it was usually held by young aristos like Gracchus himself, who generally had no desire to rock the boat.  Gracchus, of course, was different.  In 133 he went before the popular assemblies and proposed a sweeping program.  There was public land all over Italy, land owned by the Roman people, but leased out at peppercorn rents, mostly to rich men.  In theory no one was to have more than 500 jugera, about 333 acres (135 hectares).  This limit was not enforced, and rents, low as they were, were seldom collected.

Gracchus proposed a land commission that would enforce the 500 jugera limit and redistribute the excess to landless citizens in parcels of 30 jugera.  The current holders would be compensated by getting full title to the 500 jugera they were allowed to keep.

Gracchus must have anticipated resistance, because he did not take his plan to the senate first, but went straight to the people.  Despite opposition in the assembly from another tribune, his land
commission was set up, and a windfall treasure, a bequest to Rome from a foreign king, was alloted to start-up money for the new colonists.

The senate of course was enraged.  It was a matter of both money and principle.  The money matters are fairly obvious.  The matter of principle was that Gracchus had broken aristocratic solidarity, and trespassed on areas that were traditionally within the responsibility of the senate.  To the senate, Gracchus looked like a dangerous demagogue, aiming at one man rule.  When he ran for a second tribunate for the year 132, a group of armed senators attacked him at the assembly meeting and killed him and 300 supporters.

This, according to Roman tradition,  were the first political killings since the Republic had been set up in 509 B.C.  Savage as the Romans had been to their neighbors, they had generally talked out their own problems.  But the killing of Gracchus set a new pattern that was soon repeated.

The immediate consequences of this incident were not obvious.  The land commission stayed in being and continued its work.  But the tensions that had produced the trouble still existed, and were complicated by new hostilities.  Ten years after Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune, his
younger brother Gaius Gracchus attained the same post.  He was motivated by two desires:  vengeance on his brother's killers, and the completion of his   brother's work.  Gracchus also used the popular assemblies to pass reform legislation:  his legislation, however, was more sweeping.  He not only put new energy into the workings of the land commission, he planned new
colonies in Italy.  It had been years since new colonies were set up, and of course doing so meant depriving other people of the use of the public land they were now using.

Gaius Gracchus also tried to limit the power of the senate overseas by requiring the jurors who tried ex-governors (all of them senators) for abuse of power to be drawn from the equestrian class,
not from the senate.  Gaius also was in favor of granting the Italians, or at least some of them citizenship.  Gaius's most ambitious project was to found a Roman colony on the site of Carthage.  These last two projects never took place:  after two years as tribune, the conservative senators
attacked and killed Gaius.  This time the death toll reached not 300, but 3000.

This was the end of the Gracchi.  Over the centuries they have attracted enormous interest.  There has been debate about whether they were high-minded idealists or over-ambitious demagogues.  People have also wondered if the Gracchan program would have saved the Republic.  One thing
that should be noted is that there is no certainty that the Gracchi understood the situation of the Republic well enough to devise an effective rescue attempt.  As a recent historian, P.A. Brunt, has put it:

There was an inherent contradiction in the Gracchan objective of increasing the
number of Rome's peasant soldiers, when it was soldiering that did so much
to destroy the peasantry {quoted in Cornell and Matthews, p. 61}.
After the death of Gaius Gracchus, the senatorial oligarchy was, to all appearances, back in control.  But their hold on power proved to be uncertain.  One wonders if many of the best members of the senatorial class had been purged or killed in the Gracchan troubles.  Whatever the reason, the senate began fumbling the basics:  the basics being war and foreign relations.

There were two big issues at Rome in the years after 115.  The first was the German threat.  Two previously unheard of peoples, the Cimbri and the Teutones, were wandering about north of the Alps, attacking anyone who got in their way.  As Italy was the richest prize around, the Romans were naturally worried -- these people could not help but remind them of earlier Gallic attacks on Rome, including the famous sack of Rome in 390 B.C.

Senatorial armies were unable to defeat the Teutones and Cimbri; it was only luck that Italy was not attacked.

Around the same time, the king of Numidia in North Africa, a man named Jugurtha, was creating a fuss.  In the course of a Numidian civil war, Jugurtha had plundered and murdered Roman citizens.  As a minor ally of Rome he was called to account for himself at Rome.  He got off without punishment, and people were sure that he had bribed key senators to let him off.  There were calls to do something about Jugurtha.

These two situations added up to a crisis of confidence in senatorial leadership.  A man named Gaius Marius, a man from out of town with no family background, ran for consul on the program that the state needed a nobody like him to lead an army against Jugurtha (an old acquaintance of Marius!).
To everyone's astonishment, he won -- a very rare feat for someone with no consuls in his family tree.

The senate refused to cooperate with him, and would give him no army to take to Numidia.  Marius then appealed to the citizenry, asking for volunteers to accompany him to Africa.  He got volunteers in droves.  Many of them were proletarians:  proletarians were the lowest property classification, and were not subject to military service.  These disenfranchised people, largely residents of the city who
had lost their land in the past, were willing to fight for Marius.

This incident, which took place in 107 B.C., was very important for the Roman state.  In the past, the army had been made up of free peasants, minor property holders.  Service in the army had eakened
this class to the point that the war machine was threatened.  Army recruiting had to change, had probably been changing.  But Marius's appeal and the response dramatically spotlighted the change.  The army was now becoming a full-time occupation for the landless poor created by earlier
cycles of military activity.  It soon became a professional army in the full sense of the word, with a standard enlistment period of 20 years, standard pay, the works.

The professionalization of the army solved some of the earlier contradictions of the Roman system.  But it did so by speeding up the military activity, by shifting more Italians into the army and into foreign wars.  The century after 107 B.C. saw more military activity, which resulted in the conquest of most of the eastern Mediterranean, Gaul, and parts of Africa.  In other words, it was not really a solution at all.

This new army also became a political factor.  The men who joined Marius in 107 and their successors were in no sense citizen soldiers.  They were men who joined to follow a high-profile general in the hopes that he would lead them to victory and the fruits of victory.  In particular, they
hoped that they would get land from him once the war was over.  And, in fact, Marius's regime saw the beginning of a new wave of Roman colonization.  Marius's men were as much his clients as his soldiers, and Marius was at a stroke the most powerful single patron in the state.

Marius had turned Roman politics upside down.  For a long time now, men of old families, nobles whose position in the state an expression of hereditary influence, had dominated the Republic.  Such men had been able in the previous three decades been able to fight off various challenges to
their oligarchy.  But Marius in a very short time had become the dominant figure.  His domination grew out two factors:   his influence over the Roman electorate, whom he rallied against the senate, and, once he had his army, his possession of an armed clientele of great strength.

Marius's election to the consulate, the raising of his army, might have been a fluke, but it wasn't.  He beat both Jugurtha and the Cimbri and Teutones and became a great hero.  Against all law and precedent, he was elected consul again and again.   Before his time only men of great distinction had been consul twice in their lives.  Marius was consul six times in eight years, holding the same office five times in a row.  In other words, he was a virtual dictator.

Under Marius's regime, there was much agitation for more radical reform in the state.  Marius himself was not particularly interested in most of these reforms, or deeply involved, but he had allies who had big plans..  In the year 100, during his sixth consulate, his popular allies got out of hand, passing land bills in an obviously illegal way.  Violence resulted, and the senate commanded the consuls to preserve the state by whatever means necessary.  Marius found himself obeying the command -- showing a basic conservative streak.  This temporarily destroyed his political influence.

But Roman politics continued to be overheated.  The question that most agitated the state was the matter of Italian citizenship.  Italian allies had once again shown their value in Marius's wars, and were angry about their continued exclusion from full equality.  Among the citizens, some were in favor of extending the franchise, but many others, and not just the rich, wanted to keep the franchise as restricted as possible.

In 91, a tribune named Livius Drusus proposed Italian enfranchisement.  But the bill was blocked and Drusus murdered.  The result was a huge revolt of the allies, generally known as the Social War (socii = allies), that was only settled when citizenship was granted to all rebel communities that laid down their arms.

The Social War was very important because it marked the final Romanization of all Italy.  All free people south of the Po were now citizens.  It also marked a new stage in social strife.  The military hero of the Social War, a man named Sulla, now rose to be first man in the state.

Sulla was an old Marian general, but no great friend of Marius now.  The two men had been jealous for a long time about who should get credit for Marius's early wars.  Now that he was a certified hero, Sulla rode his prestige for all it was worth.  He angled for a prestigious command in the East, where he hoped to win, and succeeded in winning, glory and loot.

Marius, who was old but still kicking, took advantage of Sulla's absence from the city to reassert his influence.  He and a man named Cinna took control of the state.  For a few days, Marius was consul for the seventh time.  Then he died, leaving Cinna to run the show.  Cinna did his best to undermine Sulla.  He even sent an army East to fight both Rome's enemies and Sulla himself.

Sulla, however, was able to keep his command, and in 83, he returned to Italy with his army to take care of his enemies.  After a struggle, he took control of the state, and was named dictator.  This was the first time absolute power had been granted for a very long time.  In the past, it had
been used to save the state from foreign enemies.  But Sulla used it in an entirely different way.

Sulla had two goals.

The first was to smash his enemies and enrich his friends.  At this he was extremely successful.  Forty senators and 1600 knights were put on a list of public enemies, and a reward offered to anyone who would kill them.  Then the property of the murdered men was redistributed to Sulla's supporters.  Huge fortunes were made and ancient families were ruined in a matter of months, and enough land was confiscated to create several colonies for Sulla's veterans.  It was the
most thorough and bloody revolution that Rome had ever seen; it put the troubles of the Gracchan period in the shade.

Sulla's second goal was an odd contrast to the first one.  He wanted to restore stability to the Roman Republic by crushing the popular agitation of the past two decades.  What this meant was taking power away from tribunes, who had caused so much trouble since Tiberius Gracchus, and
away from the popular assemblies, and even away from the equestrian-dominated criminal courts, and giving it back to the Senate and the old families who controlled it.  In this way, Sulla hoped, he would turn the clock back to the days before the Gracchi, Marius, and the Social War.

In the short term, Sulla was a great success.  He died in bed in 78 B.C., with his new/old constitution apparently well established.  But there was a problem.  Sulla and his settlement were two faced and contradictory.

On one hand, Sulla had said that the good old days and the good old ways were best.  On the other hand, Sulla had been a bloodthirsty, greedy, and extremely successful revolutionary, a man who had imposed his will by military force.

Some people truly hoped that the conservative constitution would work, and worked very hard to re-establish electoral politics under aristocratic domination.  Yet many people were more inclined to follow Sulla's example than his prescriptions.  People who had lost in the last round of civil war, people who hoped to make good out of the next round, would be sure to remember that Sulla, like Marius, had based his power on control of an army personally devoted to him.  His success was bound to inspire imitation; and there were still many people willing to join armies in hope of gain.  The era of civil war and revolution was just beginning.


Lily Ross Taylor,  Party Politics in the Age of Caesar.

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.