The Rise and Decline of the Roman Republic

R. Griffin Professor Terry HIST 101 26 May 2010 The Rise and Decline of the Roman Republic To this day, there have been few governmental declines comparable to that of the Roman Republic. Once a thriving republic with an established system of government, Rome was the first society in which any free citizen could have a say, directly or indirectly, in governmental actions and decisions. For years, this stability of the government corresponded to several conquests, and the future of the Republic appeared to be very bright; however, increasing economic, social, and political issues tore apart a government, which appeared to be flawless.
The events that directly led to Rome’s relapse from a thriving republic years ahead of its time, with divided power and stability, to a chaotic system of government consisting of dictators and frequent turmoil provide a clear example of the misuse of power by several individuals. This research will explain the events and circumstances that directly lead to the decline of the Roman republic. By 287 B. C. Rome had created a governmental system years ahead of it’s time. Rome modified this political system several times over the years in order to deal with internal conflicts and managed to establish a complex, yet organized government. The Romans had a clear concept of executive authority, embodied in their word, imperium, or ‘the right to command’” (Spielvogel 117). Atop the chain of command were the two consuls and praetor. These elected officials served one-year terms, with the consuls having a military focus and the praetor having a political focus. As the Roman republic expanded, pro-praetors and pro-consuls, who previously served as consuls and praetors, were also appointed to govern the Roman provinces. Furthermore, Administrators, or officials with specialized duties helped assisting the Consuls and Praetor. Quaestors were in charge of overseeing financial affairs.
Aediles supervised the games. Also, Censors were appointed to gather an assessment of the population. The main purpose of establishing this position was to aid in formulating taxes. A major modification that solidified Rome as a governed republic was the addition of the senate. It consisted of three hundred advising elders who served life-long terms. Since they did not have legislative authority, they could not make laws. Finally, the Centuriate Assembly contained high ranking Roman army officers functioning in a political role. “By any reasonable standards the constitution worked smoothly.

There was no interruption in the annual election of office holders, and not a single Roman is known to have been killed, or even injured, in political violence during the period” (Millar 2). The Roman population consisted of the Patricians and Plebeians, with the plebs being the majority. The Plebeians, who were underprivileged and poor, opposed the aristocratic patricians because they did not have the same rights as them. Moreover, the patricians controlled the entire government, and the hard-working farmers and small landowners of the plebeian group could not hold office and have someone to represent them politically.
When the plebs became tired of the inequality of the government they essentially went on strike and left Rome. “The patricians, realizing that they could not defend Rome by themselves, were forced to compromise. Two new officials known as the tribunes of the plebs were instituted. These tribunes were given the power to protect the plebeians from arrest by patrician magistrates. Moreover, a new popular assembly for plebeians only, called the council of the plebs, was created in 471 B. C. ” (Spievogel 118). This allowed the plebs to make governmental proposals, but they still did not have a true voice in the government.
For the next two hundred seven years, more rights were granted to plebeians, and “by 287 B. C. all Roman citizens were equal under the law, and could strive for political office” (Spievogel 120). By now the republic had adopted the Plebiscite, which were laws created by the plebs. For the next one hundred fifty-four years, the Roman Republic thrived, making several conquests, while also establishing allies. Rome and its neighbors of the Italian peninsula were seemingly in a constant feud, which eventually led to a series of battles and wars and “by 267 B. C. the Romans completed their conquest of southern Italy. After crushing the remaining Etruscan states to the north, Rome had conquered all of Italy, except the extreme north, by 264 B. C. ” (Spievogel 120). Rome also established many allies along the way: “To rule Italy, the Romans devised the Roman confederation in 338 B. C. Under this system, Rome allowed some peoples (especially the Latins) to have full Roman citizenship. Most of the remaining communities were made allies” (Spievogel 120). With the use of these allies and the powerful Roman army, the Romans faced little opposition in conquering Italy. In the course of their expansion throughout Italy, the Romans pursued consistent policies that help explain their success. The Romans excelled at making the correct diplomatic decisions…. Though firm and even cruel when necessary, rebellions were crushed without mercy” (Spievogel 120). Incorporating similar strategy that they used in conquering the Italian peninsula, the Romans success continued in their conquest of the majority vast Mediterranean islands and coastlines. Among these conquests were the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, Spain, Macedonia, Carthage, and Pergamum.
At this point, almost the entire Mediterranean Sea was controlled Roman Republic, while the government and military continued to be run effectively, But things would soon change. According to Spievogel, due to a snowball effect of social, economic and political issues the decline and fall of the Roman Republic began around 133 B. C. As previously stated, the plebeians and patricians were eventually made equal in all aspects of Roman government and livelihood; however “the magistracies and senate were increasingly controlled by a relatively select circle of wealthy and powerful families – both patrician and plebeian – called the nobles.
From 233 – 133 B. C. , eighty percent of the consuls came from twenty-six families” (Spievogel 134). The voice of the public was becoming muted, which is always a gateway to rebellion and uprising. Like most civilizations before them, the Romans were built on agriculture and farming by individual landowners. These farmers made up the majority of the Roman army as well. “In order to win the Punic wars, Rome had to increase the term of military service to six years.
Now when the soldiers returned after many years of service abroad, they found their farms so deteriorated, that they chose to sell out instead of remaining on the land” (Spievogel 136). The aristocrats also began to accumulate this land and hired slaves to produce a variety of crops that the independent farmers couldn’t compete with. Farmers continued to lose money and property. Consequently, the cities became crowded with these ex-farmers, serving as day laborers. “This new class of urban proletariat formed a highly unsustainable mass.
Thus Rome’s economic, social, and political problems were serious and needed attention” (Spievogel 136). Tiberius Gracchus wanted to fix the growing problem of landless farmers in Rome, thinking it would solve many of the issues causing Rome’s decline. When he was elected as one of the tribunes of the plebs, he passed a bill whereby the government would divide the public land, used by large landowners, among the landless farmers. “Many senators, themselves large landowners whose estates included tracts of public land, were furious, and a group of them took the law into their own hands and assassinated Tiberius” (Spievogel 136).
The death of Tiberius marked the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic. For the next one hundred years, the chaotic Roman government saw more assassinations, dictators, and rebellions. An excerpt from “Julius Caesar” reads, “Our first glimpse of Caesar’s Rome shows the tribunes, whose ancient office had been established to protect the people against the nobility’s arrogance, now apparently forced to defend the republic against the people themselves” (Blits 42).
Although Rome revolutionized government with a complex, and effective system that is still used as a basis for many governments, it proved to be vulnerable to increasing economic, social, and political issues, which brought about the republics destruction. These events that directly led to Rome’s relapse from a thriving democracy years ahead of its time, with divided power and stability, to a chaotic system of government consisting of dictators and frequent turmoil provide a clear example of the overzealous quest for and misuse of power by several individuals.
Sources Blits, Jan H. “Caesarism and the End of Republican Rome: Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene I. ” The Journal of Politics 43. 1 (1981): 40-55. JSTOR. Web. 25 May 2010. Millar, Fergus. “The Political Character of the Classical Roman Republic, 200-151 B. C. ” The Journal of Roman Studies 74 (1984): 1-19. JSTOR. Web. 25 May 2010. Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009. Print.

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