The Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic: Part 3 of 4: The Final Hammer-Blows

By Newdealdemocrat. Originally published at Angry Bear

“The Republic is nothing, a mere name without body or form.” – Julius Caesar

This is part 3 of my four part look at why the Roman Republic, which was successful and stable for nearly 4 centuries, ultimately fell into tyranny. In part 1 I described the structure of the Republic and the underlying reasons for its fall. In part 2 I described the first 4 episodes of civil war that left the Republic dead on its feet in 78 BC. This part describes the final hammerblows.

5. Pompey and CaesarThe final blows were administered by the “first triumvirate” of Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar, after one last “Indian summer” for the Republic between the death of Sulla in 78 BC and 50 BC. Among other things, much of the power of the Tribunes and the plebeians was restored by 62 BC. But successful generals with privately raised armies whose loyalty was to them personally, together with the lack of a permanent defensive force near the city of Rome loyal to the Republic finally did it in.

While the Sulla and Marius civil war was playing out, Rome continued military campaigns in North Africa, Spain, Gaul, and Asia Minor. Pompey the Great emerged as an excellent military leader even though he was only in his young 20s during these campaigns. Meanwhile Crassus, who became fabulously wealthy as one who used Sulla’s proscriptions to expropriate land, had his own legions. By 70 BC, the tension between the two was so intense that either an ordinary Roman, or several soothsayers, leapt onto the stage of the Forum between them, and begged them for the good of the Republic not to make war on each other, saying that the god Jupiter had so commanded in a dream. Surprisingly, the public shaming worked.

Later, in 62 BC, after leading more successful military campaigns in the eastern Mediterranean, Pompey was feted by a succession of Greek cities as he and his legions made their way back to Italy. Fear that Pompey would march on the city, as Sulla had, gripped the Senate and city of Rome. Fatefully, in a show of good faith, Pompey disbanded his troops and sent them home as soon as they landed in southern Italy. For this good deed, the Senate in effect punished him by refusing to award his veterans any land or money bonuses; and further refused to ratify the political settlements that Pompey had made with the eastern Mediterranean states.

Julius Caesar was the nephew of Marius’s wife, and he was married to the daughter of Cinna. Needless to say, he was identified with the populare cause. As a quaestor in 69 BC, he began the rehabilitation of Marius’s memory as part of the funerals of both his aunt and his first wife, who both died during that year.  As aedile in 65 BC, he erected statues in tribute to Marius’s military victories.

Julius Caesar was an adept general, but he was a remarkably deft politician. The best modern model for his character would probably be that of corporate CEO’s who are described as “high-functioning sociopaths.” He had the ability to maneuver between opposing forces, and anticipate his opponents’ moves in such a way that they made themselves unpopular while making him more popular. Further, he almost always used the carrot instead of this stick. Where other generals or politicians might have executed a wrongdoer, he offered magnanimous public forgiveness, which had the effect of making the opponent indebted to him for their very lives.

For example, when Cicero demanded executions without trial of some of the Catilinian conspirators, Caesar opposed the move, which violated Roman norms, based on the precedent it would set – and indeed the move proved very unpopular while Caesar gained support.  Meanwhile he used his own private wealth to wine and dine clients and potential supporters. In 61 BC, as praetor assigned to Spain, he provoked a rebellion so that he could crush it and use the ensuing Triumph in Rome to launch a campaign for consulship. When Cato blocked this, Caesar proposed that Pompey, Crassus, and himself aid one another’s careers against those blocking them individually.

Note that this was simply a political alliance. But it also ensured that no one of the three alone could overcome the other two combined. This ensured that Caesar became consul in 59 BC. During his year in office, he had a land law passed to reward Pompey’s veterans with land purchased with the treasure obtained from his conquests. He also had a law passed to help tax collectors who were allies of Crassus, who, because the eastern provinces were close to destitute after Pompey’s wars, did not have enough wealth to pay in taxes, a share of which was kept by the collectors. He also passed a law to ratify Pompey’s land and tribute settlements in the east, bringing further tribute into Rome’s treasury. When some of their opponents threatened violence, Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus made counter-threats, causing the opponents to go into hiding. Pompey and Crassus, in turn, made sure Caesar was rewarded with a generalship in Gaul that was likely to and did prove both glorious and lucrative.

The coalition worked well, until 53 BC when Crassus, who was not a shrewd military leader, was lured into an ambush and executed while on a campaign in Asia. In 62 BC, once more serving as consul, Pompey had a law passed making it easier to prosecute “brownshirt” type of political mobs, and he also supported a law, ultimately passed by the Senate, to end Caesar’s command in Gaul in 50 BC.

The Senate tried to head off yet another civil war, by asking both Pompey and Caesar to disband their legions simultaneously. Pompey refused, and after finishing his business in Gaul, Caesar, who was again the paymaster of his own legionnaires, famously crossed the Rubicon. This should have meant his command ceased, but his legionnaires agreed to remain loyal to him.

Once again Rome was marched upon and occupied. Pompey fled, and died in the ensuing civil war. With no military force left to oppose him, Julius Caesar had himself declared “dictator for life” — a capital offense under the law of the Republic, but the only way to ensure that he remained in power and thus could not be executed by political opponents had he allowed Republican government to return. He had himself appointed consul for every year, and in 45 BC took away from the Senate and gave to himself complete control of the empire’s finances.

And as we know from our high school drama classes, on the Ides of March in 44 BC, he was assassinated in the Senate. After his assassination, his grand-nephew Octavian won the ensuing second civil war and had the Senate declare him both consul and Tribune for life, and “First Citizen.” The Republic was officially gone and the Empire had begun.

(concluded in part 4)
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  1. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    The Crassus led Asian misadventure being the event of the first Parthian shot, later followed by Anthony’s effort complete with a disaster in a Grand Armee retreat from Moscow style. Roman hawks at least had all of their skin in the game, perhaps except for the likes of Varus, that is why they were for the most part very good at their jobs.

  2. Science Officer Smirnoff

    Antony’s funeral oration has always struck me as a standard lesson in demagoguery*. Literary critic Harold Goddard has this to say:

    Antony’s speech for all its playing on the passions of the people, and for all its lies, is at bottom an honest speech, because Antony loved Caesar. . . A sincere harangue by a demagogue is better than the most “classic” oration from a man who speaks only with his lips.

    *Is there a record for Shakespeare’s version?

  3. The Rev Kev

    And this post shows why political expediency is not such a crash hot idea after all as well as playing fast and loose with the rules. As an example, in 62 BC “Pompey disbanded his troops and sent them home as soon as they landed in southern Italy. For this good deed, the Senate in effect punished him by refusing to award his veterans any land or money bonuses; and further refused to ratify the political settlements that Pompey had made with the eastern Mediterranean states.” It was only his massive popularity at the time that stopped any attempt on his life.
    I am sure that the Senate was patting themselves on the back about this one but see what happens not that long after. In 50 BC Pompey and the Senate try to revoke Caesars command of his Legions. The Senate demands that Pompey and Caesar disband their legions but Caesar has seen how this movie plays out and says “Not this little black duck!” When Caesar went to Rome, he again refused to obey the Senate to disband his Legions and return to Rome by himself as he had Pompey’s unfortunate choice in mind.
    There is a reason that laws and customs exist and dismissing them can lead you into all sorts of bad situations. That is why when George W. Bush was pushing for the worser provisions of the Patriot Act, that it was a big deal when he said: “‘Stop throwing the Constitution in my face,’ Bush screamed. ‘It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!'”

    1. 1 Kings

      That, and his looking up his ass for the WMD photo would been a great 1-2 punch of questions from Ellen, the ‘can’t we all get along’ ‘liberal’.

  4. Barbara

    Cicero has only a mention here and not a good one. But I have a soft heart for him. In high school we had a choice of taking 2 or 3 years of Latin. I don’t know why I chose 3 years, but I’m glad I did. With 2 years, you ended with Caesar’s Gaelic Wars – and I hated CGW. If I had ended that year I would have hated Latin, too (very adolescent of me). The only good thing that year was Brenda Oneal translating the opening of CGW: All Gaul is divided in parts of trees.

    But in year 3 we read Cicero’s Speeches to the Senate. How modern he sounded. How just like our politicians he sounded – but with real wit. What a relief and a pleasure to enjoy.

    I read the first two volumes of Robert Harris’s biographical novels about Cicero and experienced with real sadness how corruption seeps into the brain hidden by righteousness. I couldn’t read the third because the foreboding of his final downfall came at the end of the second book. I couldn’t stand to experience the actual end. Harris is too good a writer.

  5. shinola

    A big thank-you to Newdealdemocrat for composing these articles & Yves for re-posting them here. Much finer detail than the broad stroke overview presented in history classes I took. (And thanks to the commenters who took the time to fill in a little more).

    Looking forward to part 4.

  6. Susan the Other

    I prefer almost any history to military history. Yet most of “history” is just that. Military. That is an enormous statement on the mindset of us humans. It is also why I find this writing so accessible. Like describing Ceasar as a modern CEO, as a “high functioning sociopath.” A very interesting book would be to take these military histories paragraph by paragraph and juxtapose them with paragraphs on the opposing page of everything that occurred which advanced civilization – science, good social relations, art, engineering, etc. It would at least become glaringly apparent that civilization survived in spite of all the military sociopathy. That civilization has been both ingenious and diverse. And gone somehow completely unrecognized.

    1. Synoia

      And Roman rule continued for another 1300 years after Octavian (Augustus). That decline and fall was a decline and fall for a very long time. /s

      I’m glad you prefer nonmilitary History, but it seems the fashion is different.

      Yet, Here’s one book to read:

      The Diary of a Country Parson, The Diary of James Woodforde: 1758-1802

      Note his description of Meals.

      It’s a huge difference from: XYZ became the next English King, and fought with the Barons and/or The French.

      One could argue that James Herriot’s books are a more contemporary version of History.

  7. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    I did not have time to comment on the Zuckerburg / Octavian haircut thing & perhaps i will be repeating somebody else, but that haircut in sculptural form is used for all of the male Julio – Claudian line, including those like Germanicus who never made it to the top. I read a description once from some Roman poet or commentator who revealed that Octavian didn’t match the portraits in the hair or physique department, but as the sculptures were shipped off to be displayed in forums all over the empire I suppose that they had to look the part. The best example of ludicrous flattery is a surviving statue of Claudius featuring his head plonked onto a body of a young athlete.

    The fashion changed after the death of Nero & it is noticeable I believe that the quality of Roman portrait sculpture diminished at the same rate as the empire.

      1. Eustache de Saint Pierre

        Thanks…funnily enough I just checked Caligula for a resemblance to ” Z “, & IMO he is a much better match than ” Augustus “. ” Little Boot ” of course just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  8. Tomonthebeach

    This revisiting of ancient history is timely.

    I could not help but chuckle at the final few paragraphs about the treachery and assassinations/murders of annoying leaders as Caesar’s death ended the Respublica (amo, amas, amat). Roger Stone, of all Respublican political scumbags, told fellow scumbag (rogue consul) and full-time charlatan, Alex Jones, that he thinks the Senate will, in the end, impeach Trump. That should rattle the godfather of the Mafia Aurum Latrinum.

    Stone’s remarks seem to echo the bygone fate of another over-reaching dictator; Julius Caesar. Another high-functioning sociopathic dictator wannabe, Donald Trump, has bitten off more than even he can chew. He foolishly has fired and pilloried most of his generals. Although Trump may have the blind support of the MAGA Plebem, when your legions turn on you, and only Pompey-o and a flippy-floppy suck-up senator Lindsius Gramus are your only defenders – some Brutus or other is bound to put a blade into the back of your tyranny.

  9. Bugs Bunny

    Isn’t there a statue of Claudius with an athletic body in the British Museum? I seem to remember it from the last time I was there.

  10. Anon32

    Does anyone know more about the dispossessions from soldier/farmers in the early republic? It seems that even the uneducated or naive couldn’t have helped but notice the terrible unfairness of their getting poorer while the powers that be they were risking their lives for were getting richer at their expense.

    I would have thought that the comraderie forged in war would have prompted them to take collective action of some sort to prevent that but for several hundred years they didn’t and even when they eventually did it was only at the prompting of rabble rousers.

  11. RBHoughton

    The comparison of Julius Caesar with high functioning sociopathic CEOs is strained. Why not Napoleon? That presses every button except for his grievous crime of not being Anglo-Saxon.

    1. Jim

      I don’t think it’s strained but I’m puzzled by leaving it at CEOs. What’s wrong with calling the current and last several Presidents “high functioning sociopaths”?

      And why are we so intent on giving these kinds of people our allegiance, anyway? (“Because otherwise they would not be ‘high-functioning’…”)

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