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Downfall of the Roman Republic and the Rise of the Roman Empire:
Civil War in Rome
As Rome conquered more and more people, many political, economic,
and social problems developed. Ultimately these troubles led to a civil war.
One of the major consequences of this civil war was the transformation of
Rome from a Republic to an Empire, but this change took over a century to
be resolved. What were these various trials? Basically there were five
major areas that Rome needed to deal with. First, because of the numerous
deaths of men from the various wars, there was a decline in the number of
Roman farmers, considered the backbone of the Republic. It is estimated
that 300,000 died in the Punic Wars alone. This led to the rise of large
estates or latifundia that were worked with slave labor. As free workers
were displaced by slaves, the second reason was the severe rise of
unemployment. These jobless people drifted into Rome and other cities.
This led to the decline of political and republican morality. Wealthy
patricians had risen in numbers, and their love for luxurious items from
other regions had grown. With Roman conquest of the East, new ideas had
come into Rome. In tandem a nouveau riche class developed, the equites or
knightly class, which were businessmen grown wealthy from war
profiteering. Leaders emerged on both sides like Cato, who wanted to
maintain the old virtues of the Republic. Scipio Africanus, the victorious
general of the Punic Wars, was the leader of those wanting to continue their
new life styles. The fourth major problem for Rome was that the
government designed to rule the Republic was not appropriate for an
empire. The Roman system of the Senate, etc. was ill-equipped to govern
the far-flung empire. Advantages were increasingly available to those who
combined political skills with superior military force, i.e. powerful generals.
Some of these major politicians during the late Republic were Marius, Sulla,
and Pompey. Marius (circa 155-86 B.C.E.) was the first of a group of men
who secured fidelity of their legions with military reforms. Sulla (138-78
B.C.E.) instituted martial law in Rome, had himself proclaimed dictator, and
began a reign of terror where both political and personal opponents were put
to death without a trial. Pompey (106-48 B.C.E.) became popular when he
suppressed piracy in the Mediterranean Sea. These three men ruled as
dictator-generals similar to modern-day regimes in some countries.
Julius Caesar and his contributions
The new order which emerged from the civil war was chiefly the
handiwork of two men, Julius Caesar and his adopted grandnephew Octavian
(later Caesar Augustus). A man of many talents, Julius Caesar (100-44
B.C.E.), was a superb general, brilliant politician, and a distinguished man of
letters. After military service in Asia he came back to Rome to form a
triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus to agitate for the reform of the
government. Leaving Italy in the hands of his two colleagues, Caesar spent
most of the 50’s conquering Gaul. Caesar’s last Celtic nemesis was
Vercingetorix, King of the Arverni, who travelled throughout Gaul convincing
the various Celtic tribes that they must be free again. Most of the tribes
responded favorably, and there were deadly attacks and counter-attacks on
both sides, but eventually Vercingetorix surrendered to Caesar. Caesar’s
journal entitled Gallic Wars has contributed to our knowledge of the Celts or
Gauls in the area now called France and Belgium. His conquest of this area
held immense historical significance for in the centuries that followed Europe
was romanized, and the Latin language contributed to what we call the
Romance languages, Portuguese, French, Spanish, Italian, and Romanian.
Romans established cities that served originally as administrative and
military forts, but now became major metropolises of Paris, Rheims, Lyons,
Bordeaux, Cologne, Trier, Vienna, Milan, Budapest, Seville, and Lisbon.
These conquests provided Western Europe with an enduring Greco-Roman
cultural heritage of literature, law, language, and education. Caesar’s
successes against the Gauls enhanced his prestige and he became a military
hero and champion of the people. Fear of his power led to his being
declared a public enemy, and he was ordered to disband his army. As his
career was at stake, he crossed the Rubicon River, and brought his army
illegally into Italy. This was an act of treason. Today, “crossing the
Rubicon” means that there is no turning back once a fateful decision is
made. Caesar then took control of Rome, and no ruler before him had held
such sweeping control over every branch of the Roman state. To ensure
against future opposition, the Senate passed a measure giving approval to
all Caesar’s future acts, but his disregard for republican institutions was too
cavalier. A group of conspirators motivated by envy, revenge or a sincere
alarm at Caesar’s personal power assassinated him on the Ides of March, 44
B.C.E. Shakespeare had Caesar say the immortal lines “et tu Brutus.”
Fourteen more years of civil strife followed, and some of the most famous
figures of ancient history played out their roles: Mark Antony, Cleopatra, and
Cicero. All took their own lives except Cicero who was murdered for his
hostility to Antony.
Death of Julius Caesar, Civil War, and the Rise of Caesar Augustus
Octavian, surfaced as the ultimate victor of the Civil War, but it took
him seventeen years of military force to succeed. Young Octavian’s initial
program had been simply vengeance for the murder of his great uncle Julius
Caesar. It is estimated that Octavian killed or had murdered more senators
and equestrians than did all his successors in the succeeding two centuries.
When Octavian discovered that ruthlessness was not a good enough base for
lasting power, he shifted his stance to appear to support the old Roman
Republic ways. Eventually Octavian turned against his partner Mark Antony,
and in an unparalleled propaganda campaign assailed his opponent as falling
away from things Roman for the fleshpots of the Orient, embodied in the
siren Cleopatra. In the famous naval battle at Actium in 31 B.C.E., Antony
and Cleopatra were defeated. By 27 B.C.E. in a carefully staged meeting,
Octavian entered the Senate and announced “The Republic has been
restored,” and that he was returning control of the provinces Rome ruled to
the Senate’s jurisdiction. Then, in a show of humility he offered to resign.
Instead of accepting his offer, the Senate, knowing it could not really oppose
him as Octavian had the support of Rome’s legions, made him Princeps or
First Citizen, and bestowed upon him various offices of the state. Octavian
took or the Senate gave him the title Augustus or revered one. Beneath the
surface Augustus was the absolute master and emperor. The Roman Empire
was now formally established. Like Julius Caesar (July) he named the month
of August after himself. His reign inaugurated the Pax Romana or Roman
Peace that lasted two hundred years and extended from Scotland to the vast
Sahara Desert, and from Portugal to the borders of Persia. If an area
wanted to rebel there existed no military power that could seriously
challenge Rome. To the Roman people, occasional assassinations in the
imperial palace, sporadic uprisings in Britain, Gaul or Africa, and revolts of
the Jews were little more than ripples on the Mediterranean Sea. Ringing its
shores were Roman temples, theaters, and trading centers. Roman
merchants brought silk from China, spices from India, perfume from Arabia,
marble from Greece, tin from Spain and Britain, and grain from Egypt and
other places in North Africa. The Roman Empire was very much a
multicultural or global world, but not all provinces were treated equally.
There is evidence that rich Roman merchants profiteered by raising the price
of grain, similar to what happens today to oil prices. Many cities like
Alexandria, Antioch, and Carthage (Rome rebuilt it) together with Rome
were all great metropolises. Many Roman cities can still be explored in
places such as Africa and Turkey.
Problems with the Structure of the Roman Empire and Some of the
Most Notorious and Capable Emperors
When Augustus died there was no constitutional formula for a
successor. This was a major problem Rome had until the end of its empire.
Augustus’ solution was to designate his stepson Tiberius as his successor.
After Tiberius came crazy Caligula. Rome went through a series of good and
bad emperors, and a new ruler could gain the emperorship with deeply
flawed personality problems. All rulers of the first century were flattered
during their lifetime and then damned as tyrannical or mad once dead. Out
of the first twelve Caesars or emperors, seven died violently. Rome’s political
system deteriorated and it soon seemed that murder was the only check on
the reign of incapable rulers. By the second century a dramatic
improvement in quality of the imperial leadership occurred, and this
timeframe was called the “Five Good Emperors” 96-180 C.E. Nerva, Trajan,
Hadrian, Antonius, and Marcus Aurelius were these hard-working competent
servants of the state. These men were the new aristocracy as the old
aristocratic families had largely died out. Marcus Aurelius could boast of
having been taught: state had one law for all based upon individual
equality, freedom of speech, and individual freedom. This was almost
democracy, but definitely not the Athenian system. An increased expansion
of bureaucracy was now necessary and these bureaucrats were paid. The
imperial court grew more elaborate and expansive. As long as the empire
was prosperous the costs of the government was bearable, but eventually
cities started having trouble balancing their budgets. This led the imperial
government to interfere more and more with the local autonomy.
Consequently, tax increases were necessary to meet the expenses of the
Army and Bureaucracy.
Hadrian’s Wall and the Revolt led by Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni
Of all the emperors of the second century, Hadrian (117-138) was
probably the most remarkable ruler. He traveled more widely over the
empire than any ruler since Augustus, and the Roman Empire was at its
largest size under Hadrian. He built up his defensive walls basically along
the Danube River, and then an actual wall in Northern England, called
Hadrian’s Wall. It was located at the narrowest point in England, spanning
about eighty miles, to keep the Picts and other tribes out. Roman rule of
Britain is a good example to demonstrate the way Rome controlled its vast
territories. England was divided into two districts, the Northern, and
Southern England. At certain strategic fortifications, legions were stationed,
and able to move quickly along the five thousand plus miles of roads that
the Romans built. The Celtic tribes were gradually conquered, and Roman
institutions were imposed on them, including Roman law. Farming was the
major occupation with both small family farms and Roman villas
interspersing the landscape. London was the foremost city of Roman Britain,
and a significant center of trade. It was built on the Thames River at a
crucial point where the river was broad enough for ocean-going ships, and
narrow enough to be bridged.
In 60 C.E. there was a major uprising of
several Celtic tries led by Queen Boudicca of the Iceni. This occurred when
Boudicca’s husband died, and the Romans refused to recognize Boudicca as
the new ruler of the Iceni. The Romans then flogged her and raped her two
daughters. Boudicca was then able to get several tribes to assist her in a
revolt against the Romans. The Celts destroyed Colchester, London, and St.
Albans, but when the superior legionnaires finally showed up, the tide
turned. Boudicca took poison and died rather than be captured and taken to
Rome. She almost achieved success against the Roman legions. There is a
famous statue of her on the Bank of the Thames River right never the
Parliament Buildings in London.
The Beginnings of the Decline of the Roman Empire
After the death of the emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 C.E., there was
a definite decline in the caliber of rulers. Dio Cassius, a third century C.E.
historian wrote of the Roman Empire at this time: “[Rome] declined from a
kingdom of gold into one of iron and rust.” The third century C.E. was
especially decadent, and there was a period known as “Barrack Emperors”,
where the Praetorian Guard or the Army named the emperors. At times the
position went to the highest bidder. By now the expense of military
campaigns was a major problem plaguing Rome, and half of Rome’s annual
expenses went to the military budget. Frontier provinces paid no more than
20% or less of their defense. During the Republic period war had more than
paid for itself, especially when the richest areas of the Mediterranean Sea
were conquered. In Imperial times places such as Britain and the Rhineland
did not pay for their conquest or defense. Under the Emperor Diocletian
(284-305 C.E.) the tax system was reorganized to support the huge
government structure. His reforms temporarily revived the Roman Empire,
and allowed it to maintain unity of the Mediterranean world into the fourth
century, but overall the Roman Empire in the West was on a downward
spiral that could not be stopped.