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Republican Rome
Build-up to empire
     Civil unrest
     The Gracchi
     Gaius Marius
     The Social War
     The Spartacist revolt
     Pompey and Caesar
     Mark Antony and Octavian
     Augustus Caesar

Christian Rome
Papal Rome
Cultural Rome
Political Rome

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Civil unrest and tribunes of the people: 2nd century BC

Success on the frontiers of the expanding empire is accompanied by increasing unrest at the centre. In 133 BC there is a scene of horrific violence in Rome. A party of reactionary senators and their supporters club to death a tribune of the people and 300 others. This event, unprecedented in the previous four centuries of Rome's history, ushers in 100 years of intermittent civil war.

The underlying friction is between the senate, whose members are intent on preserving their wealth and privilege, and the champions of the broader population of Roman citizens whose grievances seem to go unheeded.


The champions of the people have a wide range of motives, some of them good. Real concern can be felt for uprooted peasant families who have lost their ancestral smallholdings (many are forced into this category by rich investors forming large agricultural estates). Military considerations reinforce this concern, for Roman soldiers must own at least a minimum amount of property. The spread of poverty threatens recruitment.

On the debit side, demagogues have their own reasons for pleasing the plebs. Rome is not a working democracy in the sense of Athenian democracy. But by a system of block votes, organized by tribe and district, citizens can influence the major decisions of various important assemblies.


The Gracchi: 133-121 BC

Tiberius Gracchus, the tribune murdered in 133 by the mob of senators, is concerned mainly to reinforce the army. He puts forward a programme of land reform. Territories owned by the state, but largely rented and farmed by the rich, are to be distributed as allotments to the urban poor, returning them to the status of a property-owning peasantry.

Gracchus himself is from an influential patrician family and his proposals enjoy considerable support. Less welcome is his unscrupulous use of the popular vote to override opposition. The prospect of his being elected tribune for a second consecutive year, contrary to precedent, provokes the violence in which he is killed.


The land reforms of Tiberius Gracchus are nevertheless enacted by a commission which includes his brother Gaius. In 123 Gaius Gracchus himself becomes tribune. He puts into effect many policies of reform, including the provision of a subsidized grain allowance for all Roman households. But again, in what emerges as a new pattern, opposition to his policies leads to extreme violence.

Rioting breaks out in 121 during a debate on one of his measures. The senate declares a state of emergency, the first in Rome's history. An armed party, led by a consul, attempts to seize Gracchus. In the fighting he is killed. Subsequently 3000 of his supporters are executed.


Gaius Marius: 107-99 BC

Unlike the aristocratic Gracchi, the next in the line of people's heroes is the son of a farmer who has made himself wealthy - mainly through tax-collecting in Rome's eastern provinces. He is Gaius Marius. Elected consul in 107, on a vote of the popular assembly and against the wishes of the senate, he immediately solves the army's recruitment problem by the simple device of abolishing the property qualification. The poorest Romans eagerly join up.

Marius's army is of a new kind, made up of professional volunteers rather than conscripted amateurs. They develop a special loyalty to him personally, and their trust is well placed. He proves to be a brilliant general.


In the years 107 to 105 Marius wages a successful campaign in north Africa. His next task is to tackle aggressors who are causing extreme alarm in the north of Italy. Two German tribes, the Teutones and Cimbri, have defeated several Roman armies sent to deter them, culminating in the destruction in 105 of a force led in person by the two Roman consuls. Marius overwhelms both tribes in decisive victories, in southern France and northern Italy, in 102 and 101.

But Marius's success as a general and the changed nature of his army bring new problems. His soldiers expect favours from him. And their support puts him in a powerful position to deliver.


Soldiers retiring from the army at the end of a campaign want somewhere to settle, for most of them are no longer farmers with their own place to return to. Many of his African veterans have already been found places in Africa. After the successful northern campaign proposals are put before the senate to grant land in southern France and other regions.

The senators are reluctant to assent to what is undoubtedly a new policy, bringing with it the peril of private armies, but they are persuaded by another dangerous innovation. Marius's political allies use gangs of thugs to organize violence at meetings. They even assassinate a rival who seems likely to be elected consul.


When a state of emergency is again declared by the senate, in 99 BC, Marius disowns his riotous colleagues and helps to restore order. On this occasion he pulls back from the brink. But a pattern has been set which will prevail through much of the century. Events have made it clear that the senate is powerless if confronted by an unscrupulous general who has the support of an army.

The point is soon rammed home. In the next fifteen years three Roman armies march against Rome.


Sulla: 88-82 BC

The first occasion is in 88 BC. One of the consuls, Sulla, is appointed to lead a campaign to the Black Sea. Just after his departure a tribune uses a populist vote to have the command transferred to Marius, now a neglected veteran of sixty-nine. Sulla's response is unprecedented. He marches on Rome, captures the city and kills the hostile tribune.

Marius escapes to Africa. There he too assembles an army. In 86, when Sulla is far away in the east, Marius returns to take Rome. The stakes are steadily being raised. This time the old general organizes a gruesome massacre of his opponents before declaring himself consul. He dies, of natural causes, after only thirteen days in office.


Sulla has considerable military success in Anatolia, but the followers of Marius in Rome declare him a public enemy. His return in 83 BC, with an army of 40,000 men and much treasure, leads to a brief but full-scale civil war. It is won by Sulla in 82 BC at the battle of the Colline Gate, just outside the walls of Rome.

This time the butchery surpasses all previous excesses. It begins with the slaughter of some 3000 prisoners. Then rewards are offered for the murder of anyone who can be shown to have assisted Marius and his colleagues. To guide would-be assassins, a 'proscription' list is published of 4700 suitable names. In the orgy of killing these are unlikely to be the only victims.


The land of those who die is declared to be forfeit, and Sulla uses it to settle colonies of his soldiers. Some 10,000 young male slaves of the dead men are given their freedom, becoming a significant group with a special debt of gratitude to Sulla.

By now neither the popular assemblies of Rome nor the senate are in a mood to disagree with anything which Sulla might suggest. They vote that he should become dictator - but not, as the constitution declares, for a maximum of six months. He must be dictator for life.


The Social War: 90-87 BC

The bloodthirsty struggle between contenders for power in Rome has been matched by continuing disorder within Italy. One restless group is very close to home. The people of the central mountain range are known as the Italians, by contrast with the Latins who occupy the regions directly south of the capital city. The Italians have long had the status of socii (allies), but without the benefit of Roman citizenship.

For some years there has been political pressure in Rome to grant citizen status to the allies, but in 91 BC the proposal is rejected by the senate. A short while later the tribune who has championed the legislation is assassinated. The response of the Italian allies is to declare independence.


A confederacy of Italian tribes sets up a government and strikes coins bearing the name Italia. Soon they have 100,000 soldiers in the field - soldiers of high quality, for these men have fought in the armies of Rome.

The ensuing war (known confusingly as the Social War, because it is between Rome and the socii) lasts three years (90-87), costs a great many lives, and ends with the concession which would have prevented it. Rome restores order by granting citizenship even more widely than it has been demanded. The process is launched which leads, by 42 BC, to everyone in the whole Italian peninusula becoming a Roman citizen. The war of the Italians creates, within half a century, the first united Italy.


Spartacist revolt and Mediterranean pirates: from 73 BC

Soon after the Social War another violent uprising within Italy shakes Roman confidence. This time the rebels are slaves.

In 73 BC certain slaves, being trained as gladiators at Capua, break free and take refuge on the slopes of Vesuvius. As word of their rebellion spreads, other runaway slaves join them. Under the brilliant leadership of one of their number, Spartacus, the slaves maraud through southern Italy and defeat a succession of Roman armies. They are not finally overcome until 71 BC. The end is grisly, like so much in Roman history of this period. Crosses are erected along the Appian Way, the main road south from Rome, and 6000 slaves are crucified.


Rome suffers from disorder at sea as well as on land. Piracy is endemic in the Mediterranean, with its rich merchant traffic and broken coastline, but until recently the sea has been well policed by a leading maritime power, the island of Rhodes - whose wealth, from its network of trade, is symbolized by the giant statue, or colossus, which dominates the harbour.

Rome has taken deliberate steps to reduce the prosperity of Rhodes, but the result has been increasingly dangerous seas. Like other Roman problems, this seems to require a ruthless solution. And Rome is now not short of ruthless men. The task is given to Pompey.


Pompey and Caesar: 81-44 BC

The public life of Rome, in the middle years of the 1st century BC, is dominated by two men. Both are outstanding examples of a relatively new trend in Roman history - that of the individual career pursued with unflinching single-mindedness. The faces of these new men can be seen in the equally new and hard-headed tradition of Roman sculpture.

The tradition goes back to Marius and Sulla. Their natural successors are Pompey and Caesar.


Pompey, six years older than Caesar, is the first to make his mark. In his twenties he conducts successful military campaigns in Sicily and Africa. In his thirties he is given a large fleet and army to rid the Mediterranean of piracy within three years (he achieves it in three months). He then goes on to a triumphant four-year campaign (66-62) in the Middle East.

For Caesar the equivalently important campaign abroad is his eight years (58-50) in Gaul. For much of this time he and Pompey are allies, manipulating the political life of Rome for the benefit of themselves and a third member of their 'triumvirate', Crassus. But by the end of the period they are bitter enemies.


The senate in Rome supports Pompey, relying on him to defend the state against Caesar - whose move south with his army, in 49 BC, triggers another civil war. It ends with the death of Pompey in the following year and the appointment of Caesar as dictator in 47. In February 44 the dictatorship is extended to Caesar's lifetime. The situation in Rome seems more stable than it has been for many years.

A month later the dictator is assassinated. Another considerably longer civil war begins. It will last fourteen years and will bring to an end, after nearly five centuries, the Roman republic.


Mark Antony and Octavian: 44-27 BC

This time there are again two main contenders for power, both closely linked with Caesar. One is Mark Antony, who calms Rome with his funeral oration for Caesar. The other is Octavian, a great-nephew who is named in Caesar's will as his heir.

For some years the two men are in alliance (forming in 43, with Lepidus, a second 'triumvirate'), but from about 35 BC they are open adversarsies. Victory in the Battle of Actium, in 31, makes Octavian the undisputed ruler of the Roman world. In 27 BC the senate gives Octavian a title for life, Augustus Caesar. It is the moment at which, historians subsequently agree, he becomes the first Roman emperor. A new chapter begins in the story of Rome.


The empire: 27 BC - AD 14

By a coincidence of history the Roman empire, at its start, has recently achieved a new geographical completeness. The campaigns of Pompey have led to the annexation of Syria in 64 BC and the capture of Jerusalem in 63. With Octavian's defeat of Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC, Egypt too becomes a province. Just in time for the start of the empire, the eastern pieces of the jigsaw are in place.

The Mediterranean, centre of the known world (as its name states), has become what it will remain for the next four centuries - a Roman sea. And during the same period, until Constantine gives the city a new Christian role, the story of Rome itself becomes submerged in that of the wider Roman empire.


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