The Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic: Part 4 of 4: The Empire as Hegemonic “Banana Republic” Ruled by Caudillos

Yves here. Wrapping up a high-level history of the Roman Republic.

By Newdealdemocrat. Originally published at Angry Bear

As we have seen, the Roman Republic was brought down by an escalating series of acts of political violence, from murders to organized political mobs, to private legions, to four military marches over a period of 40 years on a Rome which had no permanent  defense force whose loyalty was to the Republic. The violence and military takeovers occurred in part because senior magistrates were also expected to be generals in command of legions.

The underlying causes were the festering inequality between Romans and their Italian allies, and between the landed oligarchs and the urban and rural plebeians. Over the long term, rather than compromise their power, the oligarchs in the Senate in particular were willing to play “constitutional hardball” and do away with the limitations on power set by the Republic. In this way the downfall of the Roman Republic is very similar to the process described in Levitsky and Ziblatt’s “How Democracies Die.”

This brings us to Barry Strauss’s “Ten Caesars.” It is not so much a history of the Roman Empire, but rather brief biographies of ten Emperors from Augustus to Constantine, with Augustus, as the founder, being the longest. What I ultimately learned was that the Empire was an ancient, hegemonic version of what we would call today a “banana republic,” where there is rule by caudillo. Forms of succession varied: sometimes a dynastic succession worked, sometimes there was a succession chosen by the Senate, sometimes the most powerful general of the legions simply took over, and sometimes there was a palace coup by the Praetorian Guard acquiesced to by the armies and ratified by the Senate

The book’s largest section is devoted to the first Emperor, Octavian, Julius Caesar’s nephew, who took for himself the name Augustus Caesar and ruled for 41 years, bequeathing stability to Rome after the convulsions of the late Republic, and deserving despite his tyranny to be recognized as a historical great man.

Leaving the details to the book, let me state that Octavian was both a shrewd general and a masterful politician, sort of like a Michael Corleone among Michael Corleones. He was only a teenager when his uncle Julius was assassinated, and made a cunning asset of his youth, as his adversaries underestimated his abilities. As the named heir in Julius’s will, he swiftly obtained the loyalty of Jullius’s legions. He engaged in the last civil wars of the era, first in league with Marc Antony against Brutus and Cassius, and then defeating Antony and Cleopatra to gain dictatorial power.

Like Michael Corleone, he settled all the accounts of the Caesar family quickly, engaging in a purge that did away with all his enemies.  But thereafter, his governing hand was stable but more relaxed, encouraging acceptance. The subsidized bread dole for the plebeians continued — in fact it continued through the course of the Western empire. To solve the problem of potential rivals marching on a defenseless city of Rome, Augstus established the Praetorian Guard of roughly 30,000 troops stationed just outside the city gates, whose loyalty was directly to the emperor. Finally, he established a system of professional administration of the far-flung provinces of the Empire, frequently making use of local magistrates, but in any event whose loyalties were directly to him rather than patronage doled out by the Senate as had been the case during the late Republic.

And many of the forms of the Republic continued, most notably, the Senate and the offices of consul and tribune, although they were appointed by the Emperor and were empty shells of authority. As you might imagine, what did totally disappear were the democratic “assemblies.” Also, determined not to repeat his uncle’s fatal mistake, Augustus never had himself decreed “dictator for life,” but rather took the more modest euphemism of “First Citizen,” a title that also survived for centuries.The form of succession also had similarities to the militarism of the late Republic, and is best likened to rule by a succession of caudillos in Latin American “banana republics.” Almost all emperors wanted to continue dynasties, but many never had children who survived into adulthood. So it was not uncommon for the emperor to adopt a nephew or even a loyal and successful general as their “son,” thus preparing for an orderly succession. For example, Augustus adopted his step-grandchild Tiberius as his son, and upon his deathbed went so far as to cold-bloodedly have his actual grandson, Agrippa Postumus, executed in order to remove a potential rival.

Similarly, the emperor Nerva adopted Trajan, who in turn adopted Hadrian (said Trajan’s wife Florian, and Hadrian himself at least), who in turn adopted Marcus Aurelius. Usually, these adoptions were of more distant relatives by blood or marriage, and in each case the existing emperor tried to select the most worthy successor among their relatives (but not in the case of Nerva’s adoption of Trajan. Nerva had been appointed by the Senate, and the army was not happy. The Praetorian Guard executed the assassins of Nerva’s predecessor, Domitian. Nerva avoided abdication – or worse – by adopting Trajan, who commanded several legions, and explicitly appointing him his successor). This system meant that no civil war for succession occurred until the death of Nero in 88 AD, and not again for 100 years until the 190s AD.

But sometimes there was civil war, and even in the case where a succession may have been anticipated, the “adopted” son would have been a successful general, who had the loyalty of his legions, and usually the loyalty of several other generals and their legions as well. In that case a march on Rome was always an option. Usually the loyalty of the troops was cemented by bonuses paid upon the general being acclaimed as emperor. For example, Hadrian paid a double bonus to Trajan’s legions upon his accession, as to which he did not wait for Senatorial benediction. In a few cases, as with the assassination of Caligula, the praetorian guard decided who they wanted the next emperor to be and had the Senate coerced into acclaiming him emperor, as with Claudius (alas, for those of us who remember the famous TV series, not one of the twelve emperors profiled, although Strauss does not indicate that Claudius was in any manner a closet Republican).

Strauss’s account of the twelve Emperors lends some support to the thesis of Paul Kennedy‘s book “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers,” which is that, since at least 1500, economic power (and decline) has preceded military power (and decline).  During the Republic and the early Empire, conquest brought land, slaves, and the vanquished state’s treasury (in the form of gold, silver, and precious jewels) which would be redistributed to the victors.

But the Roman Empire reached its military zenith under Trajan. His successor, Hadrian, explicitly established boundaries beyond which the Empire had no intention of further conquest. (As an aside, both Emperors were of Spanish, not Italian, descent. Subsequently other Emperors were frequently also not ethnic Italians).

Two economic factors gradually bled of the Empire’s wealth. First, it ran a chronic trade deficit with the East. Importation of silk from China and spices from the equatorial East cost money, and Rome imported so much of it that silk ultimately stopped being a luxury item. Second, because no new land was being conquered, the continual requirement of buying off the loyalty of the legions with each new imperial succession meant that more and more silver and gold had to be paid, which in turn meant either more taxes to raise the money necessary for bribing the military, or for debasement of the coinage so that more of it existed.

At any one time, the debasement of the coinage was not significant. But over time, the chronic debasement meant an economic decline of the Empire. At least partly as a result, the Empire had less means to resist the repeated pressure on its borders from Germanic tribes.

While Strauss stops his narrative with Constantine and the establishment of Constantinople as the new capital of the Eastern Empire, he notes in his brief epilogue that the Western part of the Empire continued to suffer a decline in the resources available to it in order to maintain its power. Finally, in 475 AD, the last, teenage Emperor Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate, and the Senate, which survived as an advisory body for the Germanic kings until 600 AD, sent the symbols of imperial power – the mace, diadem, and royal cloak – to Constantinople.

Thus endeth my book reports. I wrote this as a way of recalling the essence of what I learned about the causes of the fall of the Roman Republic in particular. I hope you’ve enjoyed them as well!

Now back to my current reading about the 1200 year history of the Republic of Venice….

Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic Part 1: Structure and Background

Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic Part 2: The First Hammer Blows

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


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  1. Lars

    Very interesting and enjoyable. I would only quibble with the trade imbalance with the East. The Romans controlled a great portion of the trade routes by land and sea so the goods were heavily taxed, and the revenues went into the Roman coffers.

  2. lyman alpha blob

    I believe there is a timeline error or a typo, or both, here regarding the succession of emperors. Nero dies well before 88 AD and that paragraph makes it seem that Nerva came before him which is incorrect.

  3. David J.

    This was a nice, descriptive series. Just in case it hasn’t been mentioned yet, for those who like to read fiction, I’d suggest these:

    –Colleen McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series which covers Marius through the rise of Augustus; and

    –Robert Graves’ masterful “I, Claudius” which was also turned into a fine BBC series, too.

    Looking forward to Hudson’s book, too, when it comes out.

    1. The Rev Kev

      Both excellent books. I can also thoroughly recommend “The History of Rome (podcast)” series by Mike Duncan. Augustus killed off the last remnants of the Roman Republic and left only the window dressing in place but there was a fatal flaw left in place and that was the matter of who was going to run the joint. It was painfully obvious in Duncan’s podcast that the Empire was torn apart again and again as ambitious men fought to be made Emperor.
      Each time the Empire got weaker and weaker as Roman fought Roman so that some ambitious man could have his own term on Rome’s version of the Iron Throne. If they had ever found a way to solve that problem then Rome may have lasted for centuries more but in the end the Forum – the place where monumental decisions were made altering the history of the world – ended up in only a few centuries more a place where herdsmen grazed their goats.

      1. Joe Well

        “Only” a few more centuries? What will become of the National Mall in 300 years, if it isn’t underwater?

        So many histories make the point that we shouldn’t ask why Rome in the west fell but why it lasted so long. In fact, the city of Rome remained either the largest or second largest city in Western Europe, and second or third in Europe over all after Constantinople, until well past the year 1000 (source: Chris Wickham’s magnum opus “The Inheritance of Rome”), and is, in fact, still a bustling city today, where the Pontifex Maximus rules as the world’s most powerful religious authority.

        Going by Mike Duncan’s podcast, the Antonine plagues, and related to that, some ill-advised wars with Persia, were bigger problems for Rome. Wickham also says that the proximate cause of the “fall of Rome” was the unbelievably bad decisions taken by otherwise strong emperors in the 5th century, especially Basiliscus’s disastrous invasion of Carthage.

    1. Synoia

      Two economic factors gradually bled of the Empire’s wealth.
      1. Chronic trade deficit with the East.
      2. No new land to buying off the loyalty of the legions (military) more and more silver and gold had to be paid, which in turn meant either increased taxes or for debasement (adding lead to silver and gold).
      3. Pressure on its borders from Germanic tribes – Endless Foreign Wars.

      That’s a familiar topic, See US circa 2000 AD.

      Sent the symbols of imperial power …to Constantinople…

      Constantinople is (was) on the Western End of the Silk road. Taxing trade became the revenue source.

      Constantine was fiscally intelligent.

  4. Goyo Marquez

    I’m curious about this statement:
    “ At any one time, the debasement of the coinage was not significant. But over time, the chronic debasement meant an economic decline of the Empire.”

    Was there, in your reading, any further explanation as to how debasement led to economic decline?

    1. chubbzy

      A reference to coin clipping:
      The Emperor, governor, Caesar, or whoever controlled the money, would “clip” a bit off of each coin as it passed through his hands. The “clippings” would be melted down, and made into new coins, thereby increasing the supply of money without having to mine more silver. In those days, it also became common practice to gradually, microscopically, reduce the size of the coins, and declare they had the same value.

      1. Wukchumni

        No, it wasn’t clipping so much, as ‘test cuts’ to make sure the Denarius offered was made of silver and not copper. (see story down @ bottom)

        On some coins you’ll see 5-10 small pizza slice sized cuts, as its obvious that people didn’t trust the money. Usually one test cut would suffice for future transactions involving the same.

        Coins with test cuts are valued at much less in the numismatic marketplace, than intact Denarii, although I like the former as every coin tells a story, don’t it?

    2. eg

      I think that this assessment reveals a misunderstanding of the origins, purpose and operations of sovereign currency.

      Which is not to say that the populace of the empire itself would have been any better informed — they likely were themselves in thrall of a “commodity money” understanding.

  5. shinola

    I found this series interesting & enjoyable. Thanks for re-posting it here – probably would have missed otherwise.

  6. dutch

    Just a couple of quibbles with the imperial succession: Tiberius was Augustus’ adopted step-son, not adopted grandson. And Hadrian did not adopt Marcus Aurelius, but rather he adopted Antoninus Pius who then adopted Marcus.

  7. Wukchumni

    At any one time, the debasement of the coinage was not significant. But over time, the chronic debasement meant an economic decline of the Empire. At least partly as a result, the Empire had less means to resist the repeated pressure on its borders from Germanic tribes.

    During the Roman Republic and through to the 10 Caesars in the salad days, the money was never suspect, for if you minted the Denarius with too much copper, it would look more like copper, so the silver content never went below around 80%, that is until some genius came up with a method to ‘silver wash’ copper coins to make them look like the real thing, and then it was off to the races, a shitlode of new debased Denarii show up after around 200 AD, but they couldn’t fake gold, so the ratio went from 25 silver Denarii equaling 1 gold Aureus, to more like 3,000 Denarii equals 1 Aureus.

    If you’re playing along at home here in the USA, it used to be that $20 equaled 1 troy ounce of gold more or less. Presently you need 75x as much to procure that same ounce.

    We’re not yet to the 120x as much as the Roman economic woes went, but we’re getting there.


    Gross omission with regards to the fall of the Western Roman Empire to not mention the Vandal’s invasion of North Africa. It both deprived the Roman Empire of a vital tax source, and cut off Rome from its main breadbasket.

    The ethnicity of the emperors is interesting, because as the article notes, there were many that were not Italian/Roman, but they did come from Mediterranean lands. But then Odoacer comes along, and even though he comes to power in a manner similar to many Roman Emperors and immediately pledges fealty to Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire (anachronistically the Byzantine Empire) and the real power in the Mediterranean at the time, the fact of him being “barbarian,” which is to say German Goth, means he’s not counted as continuing the lineage and ergo the WRE has “fallen.” Which makes me think that the fall of the WRE, as we understand it today, has less to do with the status of the Roman state and more to do with the cultural shift in Western European leadership from Mediterranean groups to Germanic groups.

    1. Synoia

      Constantine abandoned Rome with good cause. It was a good city to build an ever expanding empire by conquest. Rome was badly placed to tax Silk Road trade, the major trade route of the world.

      Follow the money.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Excellent point that. Hadn’t thought of it that way. Centrally located for trade in the Mediterranean during the Republican era, as trade opened up with the east, it got bypassed then. Probably explains why Rome had become a run-down, backwater long before it fell.

        1. PKMKII

          Rome wasn’t even the capital of the WRE when it fell. It had been moved to the Northern Italian city of Ravenna.

        2. Jessica

          Apparently, the capital was moved from Rome primarily because the main business of emperors came to be fighting off ‘barbarians’. When the capital was moved to Ravenna, that was for ease of defense.

    2. Jessica

      I read that the claim that the western Roman Empire had fallen was only first articulated by Justinian when he went to reconquer the west for the (Eastern) Roman Empire in the 530s (or so).
      The Romans seem to have looked at ‘barbarians” with what in a modern context would be considered extreme racist contempt.
      You are correct that the fall of North Africa (modern Tunisia) to the Vandals was the crucial blow. Without African taxes and grains, the central authority just could not hold.

  9. a different chris

    Agrippa Postumus makes way more fun reading than he was allotted. Wikipedia:

    Postumus was known for being brutish, insolent, stubborn, and potentially violent. He possessed great physical strength and showed little interest in anything other than fishing.

    Doesn’t sound like he was killed because he wanted to be Caesar. Seems more like he was just overwhelmingly tiresome.

  10. RBHoughton

    Michael Hudson said he might have something to say once the last episode had been published. Michael????

  11. Jessica

    If you haven’t read Roman history in a while, there has been remarkable progress thanks to technology such as dendrochronology and DNA analysis.
    The Western Roman Empire had much higher levels of inequality than the Eastern Roman Empire, which outlasted it in full glory for 150-200 years, depending on when you count the West to have fallen. And the rump empire left after the Arab invasions of the early 600s lasted another 8 centuries beyond that.
    From the newer books, three theories for the fall:
    1) Internal fighting (though that does beg the question of why there was so much internal fighting)
    2) Multiple massive epidemics
    3) Increased sophistication of social organization and weaponry among the “barbarians” due to centuries of contact with Rome.
    I found this last one the most convincing.
    Perhaps it is just a problem of what leaves behind traces that we can find over 1500 years later, but in the various new books and in Mike Duncan’s wonderful The History of Rome (podcast), I didn’t get much of a sense of too many people giving too many f***ks about Rome as it fell. It had become more like Carthage, which was a merchant state with a mercenary army, than like the Rome of the Punic Wars, which had a citizen army.
    And oddly, no one seems to have referred to the western Empire as having fallen until over half a century after the latest reasonable date for the fall of Rome when Justinian attempted to reconquer the West.
    Poor boyfriend has had to endure all my Roman history metaphors replacing my previous LOTR ones.
    The way that the Punic Wars took the citizen soldiers away from the farms for year after year, ruining the ordinary farmer, but showered unimaginable wealth and huge numbers of slaves on the aristocracy makes me think of the impact in the US of moving manufacturing to China for ultra-cheap wages.

  12. Cojo

    One thing that seems to be lost in the above series is that the Roman empire did not fall as much as it just shifted over to Constantinople. This has been alluded to several times in the comments section as a result of the favorable geography and proximity to trading routes. The populace and leaders of Constantinople considered themselves Romans as can be attested by the label of Caesar by many of the early Eastern Emperors. Even with the cultural shifts of the Hellenization of the Eastern Empire along with its religious change from pagan to Christian, the populace continued to refer themselves as Romans. Robin Pierson has an excellent podcast that follows Mike Duncan’s History of Rome format about the History of Byzantium. The early episodes give a good narrative of the transition of capitols from the city of Rome to the city of Byzantium. History of Byzantium

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