Rome’s wars had expanded its power immensely. By the 2nd Century BC, Roman colonial power stretched from the Iberian Atlantic coast to the North of Africa and present day Turkey. However, even as their influence spread, the Senators in Rome found much of their power and popularity leaching away. Increasingly Rome’s leaders- the Consuls elected each year to act as an executive- were generals. The implications of this weren’t apparent at first. Military service was seen as part of the accepted path towards political success. No matter how impressive an orator, or skilled at law or even how rich a candidate may have been they were always likely to be beaten by an opponent who had seen battle. Military commissions were, therefore, valuable commodities. To be given a significant mission almost became an assurance that your path to the top would be smooth. Especially as the quality of the Roman army meant that the chances you would actually lose were almost non-existent. But, although this military service was a long standing tradition, like so much else in Roman society the system was destabilised by the long war with Carthage. An apparently small change made during wartime to the way the system worked unleashed a train of events later which ended up destroying the Republic. To understand how, we’ll need to meet three Generals.
Scipio Africanus was Rome’s hero in the Punic Wars against Carthage. Although it was taking years to harry Hannibal’s army, events were finally going Rome’s way after years of terror punctuated by panic. Everyone agreed that Scipio ought to be made Consul for as long as he fought. There were two problems with this proposal. Firstly, no-one was permitted to be elected Consul in their absence. Scipio would have to return to Rome from the battlefield, to take office. And as no general could lead his army across the Rubicon river into the City’s heartland, he would have to leave his troops leaderless while he was away. Secondly, while being made Consul more than once in a lifetime was considered extraordinary, being elected Consul for successive years was banned outright. This was one of the State’s most important checks, preventing the concentration of too much power in any one person’s hands. But, given the war, the Senate agreed that constitutional niceties couldn’t be observed. Scipio was made Consul while at the front, and was re-elected to that post for years without ever setting foot in Rome. When he finally defeated the Carthaginians, Scipio surrendered his Consulship. He had never personally posed any threat to the Republic- the Senate had been right about that. But within a few years it was clear that the precedents they had set for his convenience would threaten everything he declared to be fighting for.
The Hero of the Republic
Gaius Marius may have done more than any single figure in Rome’s history to simultaneously secure and undermine its future. His parents were undistinguished and he had been brought up far from Rome’s increasingly gilded high society. However, when he came to the city he was sponsored by a rich family, who saw in the young Marius a talent they wanted to harness. After an undistinguished early career, he was sent to put down bandits in the troublesome Spanish colony . His success with this scrappy mission led to his appointment by the Consul of that year, Metellus, to assist in the war against Jugurta.
Reaping the Harvest
The destruction of Carthage had created a power vacuum in Northern Africa. Jugurtha was a Libyan king who used his familiarity with local customs and history to forge alliances against the occupying Roman forces across the Mediterranean’s African coastline. During his commission, Marius took pains to court the loyalty of his troops- sharing their rations and joining in the grunt work of digging trenches when required. At the same time, he worked against his commander Metellus, tricking him into executing a loyal friend on false charges. The PR campaign with the ranks bore fruit as the months of battles and setbacks wore on. His soldiers began writing letters back home, urging the people there to appoint Marius Consul, and let him lead them to victory. It isn’t hard to imagine whose idea those letters may have been. He returned to Rome just in time to be elected Consul for 107BC. And it quickly became clear that the constituency the Gracchi had represented had a new champion. Marius immediately began deriding the aristocratic families, comparing their military failures with his own success. He allied himself decisively with Rome’s common people, and put merit and hard work above money and birth. Ironically, it were these impeccably Republican ideals which destabilised the State’s democracy.
Battle Hymn of the Republic
Marius’ first action as consul was to raise an army and finish off the war in Africa, which Metellus was still fighting. Buoyed by his immense popular support, he broke with tradition on his military recruitment drive by abolishing the property bar to joining his army. His army of the poor would fight for him all the harder because their wages were all they had, he argued. But although hidden by the war fever of the time there had been a good reason for the old restrictions. If your soldiers have property already, they can afford to give their loyalty to the state. But if they are destitute, they will have to rely on their commander to provide for them after they retire. And that gives them a reason to back him, no matter what.
A Two-Party System
Metellus had beaten Jugutha’s armies by the time Marius arrived back in Africa. All that remained to be done was for Marius himself to capture the king and return to Rome for a triumph to celebrate his victory. But Marius’ humiliation of the aristocratic general s, his poisonous smear campaign against Metellus and his snubbing of the Senatorial class had sparked outrage. And somebody decided to do something about it. A young patrician commander under Metellus called Sulla captured Jugurtha, depriving Marius of his prize. It marked him as the leader of the opposition and opened and split in Roman society which wouldn’t close for 100 years.
Marius was voted Consul six times, a feat unheard of, because of his military victories. Such a concentration of political and military power, for such a long time was only made possible by the precedent set by Scipio’s wartime commissions.
Turning Back the Clock
Sulla returned to Rome, and embarked on his own political career. Although younger than Marius he frequently found himself in conflict with the orsupporters. Troublesome Tribunes, emboldened by Marius’ radical undermining of patrician power, were openly discussing subjects taboo ever since Tiberius’ head had vanished under a hail of chairlegs- land distribution and a reform of the justice system which would end the Senator’s control over the juries. Although Jugurtha had been defeated, the Roman hemogeny was now challenged by an even more wiley enemy in the East. Mithridates, a King from Asia Minor (roughly modern Turkey) had begun fighting to drive the Roman’s out of the Eastern Mediterranean. The East was a hugely wealthy region, and promised almost mythical rewards for whoever could tax it. The question of taxation and income was becoming pressing for Rome. Having extended their influence so widely, they needed more people than ever to serve in their army. But as the army grew, so did the wage bill and costs of keeping it fed. In order to hold what lands they had, they had no choice but to keep expanding and find new sources of income. Control in the East would bankroll other, strategically necessary, conquests. So Mithredates’ challenge threatened to undo more than a century of progress. Whoever got the commission to lead the war was assured of a hero’s welcome home and enough influence to silence their critics. Both Sulla and an ageing Marius began lobbying for the command. As the bitter divide between their supporters began erupting into sporadic street violence, it became clear that this was a winner take all fight for the soul of Rome. Sulla was eventually appointed, but by then the political system had been poisoned by the uncompromising escalation in rhetoric both sides had resorted to. While his rival was fighting in the East, Marius took advantage of his absence to make a grab for power, with the troops loyal to him backing him up. Sulla returned, quickly recalled by the frightened Senators, and a bloody Civil War broke out between the competing generals and their personal armies. Sulla emerged from the war the victor, Marius having been killed in the fighting. But just as Hannibal had traumatised the State, so the war had raised the fear of enemies within. Playing on this, Sulla had himself voted to the long moribund position of Dictator by a grateful Senate. This gave him unchecked powers for ten years-intended to restabilise the State and steer it out of its crises. Instead he used his power to instigate a reign of terror.
Purge and Purge Again
At irregular intervals list of names would be posted up in public places throughout the Roman territories. Anyone killing these people could claim a reward and their estates were forfeit to the state. At first they were prominent members of Marius’ party. But although they were systematically purged, the lists just got longer and longer. People would lobby and bribe the Dictator to have their enemies proscribed, only to find themselves listed the following week. It seemed that Sulla had decided to solve the state’s financial difficulties by taxing murder. One wealthy civilian was heard to groan that his country estate was trying to kill him as he read his name. As Dictator, Sulla set about rolling back Marius’ innovations, restoring the patrician Senators to the juries. He also emasculated the role of the Tribunes, who had proved so troublesome in the preceding years. Doing so, he cut off the plebs main avenue of legislative reform. Critics stayed silent for fear of finding their name nailed to a post in the market place, and seeing the greedy look in their neighbour’s eye as they turned to face them, knife in hand. It was the end of the Republican ideal, despite attempts to paint it as a return to a golden age. But after Sulla died (killed not by an enemy, according to Plutarch, but by a corruption of his body so complete that his aged flesh turned to maggots faster than they could be picked out) the future seemed unpredictable. Military success abroad had been accompanied by a breakdown in the domestic political system. With the checks and balances on Consular power removed, each election had become another life or death struggle, with the winner rewarding his supporters and punishing those who had opposed him. This was an inherently unstable state of affairs. It would be a final sequence of wars, betrayals, alliances and dictatorships which would force a political and military genius in his twenties to decisively rescue the State by ending the Republic.
In the final episode of our Ancient Excursion an army of invisible men strike without warning, an Egyptian queen stands on the fulcrum of history and Empire is ushered in on the back of history’s greatest managed propaganda campaign.
Link to Part One: The First Hyperpower