By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) March 15th, 2016

The following is a small excerpt from a graduate school paper of mine from late 2010 (revised mid-2011 and mid-2012) that is also part of an ongoing scholarly book project.  For a PDF of the full graduate paper on which this piece is based and more background, including full footnote citations and works cited, click here

…the pattern of routine partisanship and factionalism, and, as a result, of all other vicious practices had arisen in Rome… every man acted on his own behalf, stealing, robbing, plundering. In this way all political life was torn apart between two parties, and the Republic, which had been our common ground, was mutilated.”—Sallust, The Jurgurthine War41.1-10

Dramatis Personae and rough political alignment 

Populares (liberals)

Tiberius Sempronius GRACCHUS- tribune; elder of the two reforming Gracchi brothers

Gaius Sempronius GRACCHUS- tribune; younger brother of Tiberius

(together, the Gracchi)

Gaius MARIUS- Roman general and statesman; plebian champion; uncle of Julius Caesar

Lucius Cornelius CINNA- consul; ally and successor to Marius; father-in-law of Julius Caesar

Marcus Aemilius LEPIDUS- consul

Quintus SERTORIUS- Roman general and rebel for the Marian cause

Publius CLAUDIUS Pulcher, later Publius CLODIUS- tribune;populares champion; rival of Cicero

Lucius Sergius CATILINE- populares champion

Gaius Julius CAESAR- yes, THAT Caesar; Roman general and statesman

Titus Annius MILO- tribune; ally of Pompeius; rival of Clodius

Marcus ANTONIUS (Mark Antony)- tribune; Caesar’s deputy and ally


Optimates (conservatives)

Lucius Cornelius SULLA- Roman general and statesman; patrician champion

Lucius Licinius LUCULLUS- Roman general; deputy of Sulla

Marcus Porcius CATO- an uncompromising leader of the optimates; paragon of traditional values

Quintus Caecilius METELLUS Celler- leading optimate

Marcus Calpurnius BIBULUS- co-consul and great rival with Caesar; Cato’s son-in-law

Gaius CASSIUS Longinus- one of Caesar’s assassins; main ally of Brutus

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius SCIPIO Nasica- leading optimate and ally of Cato

Marcus Junius BRUTUS- friend (later leader  assassin) of Caesar ; descendant of Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic who overthrew the last Roman king; fought against Octavian and Antonius



Gnaeus POMPEIUS “Magnus” (Pompey)- Roman general and statesman; plebian

Marcus Licinius CRASSUS- Roman financier and statesman; richest man in Rome

Marcus Tullius CICERO- lawyer; orator; moderate; one of the great Roman statesmen

Gaius OCTAVIAN Thurinus- Caesar’s great-nephew/adopted heir; later Augustus, Rome’s first emperor


The Rest

MITHRIDATES VI Eupator- King of Pontus; one of Rome’s great nemeses

SPARTACUS- Thracian slave gladiator who led largest slave rebellion in Roman history

CLEOPATRA VII Philopater- last of the Egyptian Pharaohs; ally of Caesar and Antonius

Why the Republic Fell, and Who and What Is to Blame

In December, 50. B.C.E., the Roman Senate passed a motion that Caesar should step down, failed to pass the same for Pompeius, and voted yes on a tribune’s proposal that both step down.  No further action was taken, but on January 1, 49, a letter of Caesar’s, severe in tone, was read to the Senate.  In response, Scipio proposed that Caesar dismiss his armies or be named an enemy of the state, but this was vetoed by two tribunes, including Antonius.  After this, the Senate passed its senatus consultum ultimum against Caesar, warning Antonius not to interfere; he and other agents of Caesar’s fled the city in disguise.  In response, on January 10, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River—the border of the province of Cisalpine Gaul with Rome/Italy proper—with his legions.  Republican government in any meaningful way for the people of ancient Rome, after nearly five centuries, would never operate again.  It is likely that there were many misunderstandings between Pompeius, in Rome, and Caesar, far away in Gaul.  Neither seemed to seek conflict directly, yet at the same time, the optimates were clearly trying to use Pompeius to destroy Caesar, which Pompeius may or may not have realized, so eager was he to be on their good side.  That the Senate was willing to call a man with active veteran armies an enemy of the state, in the confidence that Pompeius would defeat Caesar in a civil war, rather than allow such a powerful man to avoid prosecution and disgrace, and find some way to come together peacefully to deal with the problems of the Republic, is very troubling indeed.  The way events developed, it seems that it would be fair to say that the Senate pushed Caesar into marching on Rome, while he anticipated they would leave him the choice of war or disgrace and prosecution.  The Senate and Pompeius did not anticipate how much Caesar had prepared for this possibility before they called him a traitor and left him no desirable options other than war.  Short of being a sacrificial lamb, Caesar’s only option was war then, while Pompeius might likely have been manipulated by the Senate into thinking Caesar was trying to ruin his career and overthrow the Republic.  Caesar, as opposed to Crassus and even Pompeius, was always the peacemaker among the triumvirate, and his career suggested he that usually sought moderate and conciliatory measures first, so it is an argument with little evidence that claims he was always out to destroy the state and republican government for his personal gain.  Perhaps if Julia had not died, or the two great men had been able to meet in person, the final falling out, and civil war, could have been avoided.  The world may never know. Conversely, there was little action on the part of Cato, the Senate, and the optimates that indicated they would have behaved in any kind of moderate, conciliatory, or non-obstructionist way.  As opposed to the civil war between Marius and Sulla, then, the civil war between Pompeius and the Senate on one side and Caesar on the other seems, relatively, to have been driven and caused not so much by the individuals themselves but by a Senate which intentionally drove a wedge between Caesar and Pompeius and then felt powerful enough, with Cato in the lead and in many ways driven by a long-standing opposition to all of Caesar’s actions, to isolate and destroy Caesar,  through civil war, if necessary, this being their preferred course of action above all else.[1]

Years of war would follow: Caesar against Pompeius with Cato, Scipio, and theoptimates, then Caesar’s nephew and adopted heir, Octavian, against Antonius, then Antonius with Octavian against Brutus and Cassius, and finally Octavian against Antonius and Cleopatra.  Throughout all the years up to 49 B.C.E., there was a functioning republic, even if it was rotten on the inside; yet after 49, the Republic was only a farce, and competing generals controlled virtually everything until, after nearly twenty years of war, Octavian reigned alone as “first citizen,” laying the foundation of the emperorship as he would soon become Augustus.  Caesar had famously remarked that “The Republic is nothing—just a name, without substance or form” (Seutonius Lives of the Caesars The Deified Julius Caesar 77), but his actions, like Cato’s, Pompeius’s, and many others before, contributed heavily to this fact.  It was the majority of the ruling elite, the Senate,populares, and optimates together since the days of the Gracchi, who had brought Rome to where it was in 49.  Things might have turned out differently.  Had Brutus and Cassius prevailed, a republic might have been restored (though one likely to embody the optimates’ obstinacy and unable to function well without severe change).  If Caesar had not been assassinated, he might have restored the Republic in time, after much reform; it is impossible to know such things, and those who succeeded Caesar did not restore republican government.  Before Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.E., Pompeius, Cato, Bibulus, Scipio, Domitius, and Milo would be casualties of war.  The wars that brought Octavian to power would see the deaths of Cicero, Brutus, Cassius, Antonius, and Cleopatra.  Only Octavian among the major players would remain.

“Caesar was born into a Republic already prone to sudden outbreaks of savage political violence,” notes Goldsworthy.[2]  With the mass civil violence in Rome in the years before the civil war of 49, the final clash of armies against armies was simply the next step in a natural progression and escalation of violence which began in 133.  From 133 on the political violence steadily increased until it peaked when Marius and later Cinna fought with Sulla and his followers and had a high plateau for years through Lepidus and Sertorius and Spartacus, receded and then spiked again with Catiline, immediately after went down to a low level of relatively bloodless controlled violence until Clodius targeted Cicero and others with the collegia, became even greater when Milo finally responded, and then escalated out of control, disrupting basic and vital functions of the state from commerce to elections to court proceedings, until Clodius was finally killed; but then his supporters burned down the Senate house and it was only after this in 52 when a breakthrough occurred, when the feuding parties agreed to have Pompeius restore order. Pompeius was then able to implement meaningful electoral reforms and harsher measures against violence and bribery, but this as sole consul and with his own troops in the city; that was not how the Republic was supposed to function, with only one consul and uniformed soldiers keeping the peace in the city of Rome itself.  One can easily speculate that under “normal” circumstances, the optimates would have tried to block such reforms of Pompeius as they had blocked most of his agenda, and most major reforms, in the past.  While calling on Pompeius to restore order during the civil war which started between Marius and Sulla and ended with Pompeius’ defeat of the Sertorian rebels in Spain, against the pirates and against Mithridates, the elites consistently blocked his political agenda, preferring to let his veterans languish and the political situation in the new eastern acquisitions remain up in the air. From 133 onward, only twice before 52 had the optimates even grudgingly compromised on major domestic reform (unless one counts awarding Pompeius the position of a unified grain administrator, then it is thrice): first by having some of their own officials propose establishing colonies for veterans during the tribunate of Gaius Gracchus, if mostly seemingly to counter Gaius’s similar proposals, and at the end of the Social War in extending citizenship and Latin status to allies when faced with the disintegration of Roman Italy. The social war ended and three-and-a-half decades would pass before had the factions came together in such a meaningful way as in 52, but it literally took near anarchy and the destruction of the Senate house to bring this about. Not even three full years of tense calm followed before Caesar crossed the Rubicon.  And while all this was going on, Rome was fighting wars against foreign peoples, from Germanic and Gallic tribes, to Jurgurtha and Mithridates, from the deserts of North Africa to the shores of Britain, from Armenia to even the walls of Jerusalem.  Considering both the domestic and foreign conflicts, Rome was involved in non-stop violent conflict for the vast majority of the history of the Late Republic covered in this paper. One should not doubt that at least indirectly, and quite likely directly, this contributed to the increasing level of violence in Roman society as a whole.  Rather than soldiers being a part of normal civic life while out of uniform when Rome was at peace, as they had for much of the Early and Middle Republic, now soldiers were quite outside of normal life; the maintenance of a large overseas empire and the economic changes of the later Punic Wars discussed early in this paper, left unaddressed by the Senate, meant there was little for the solider to be able to come back to in civilian life.  As Goldsworthy notes:

the Senate…refused to take responsibility for these men and provide them with some sort of livelihood.  This encouraged a trend whereby legionaires became more loyal to popular commanders than they were to the State itself.  The Roman Army had ceased to be the entire State under arms, each class serving in accordance with its wealth so that men fought to preserve a community from which they benefited, and became something outside normal society.  This was the change which allowed successive Roman generals to lead their armies against each other and Rome itself.  Scipio Africanus [hero of the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.E.) and one of Rome’s greatest generals] could not even have dreamed of turning to the men who had served under him to bring armed force to bear against his [domestic political] opponents in the 180s. [3]

For von Ungern-Sternberg, “[t]hrough its refusal to produce a solution to these problems [i.e., the plight of the urban poor and land and farming issues including settlement of veterans], the Senate created serious doubts about its own legitimacy as the ultimate governing body, which in turn caused the soldiers to stage repeated “marches on Rome.”[4]

It is tellingly ironic that the optimates were the first to bring political violence into the forum, against the Gracchi, and that it was violence that would undo them.  Most of the reforms the Gracchi were calling for were sensible, even essential; but their tactics, their challenge to the status and power of the old-school of Rome’s elite, was more than that elite was willing to tolerate.  In general this was the pattern the optimates would follow from 133 to 49: nearly a century of near total obstruction.  They rarely put the interests of the people or Rome as a whole above their own.  The tribunes’ physical bodies were made religiously sacrosanct when they held that office, which existed as the people’s constitutional mechanism for influencing the higher mechanisms of the state, so the Roman elites’ willingness to use violence against the tribunes who did put Rome’s people first is very revealing, for it shows that they fought to preserve tradition as long as such traditions were beneficial to themselves, but the tradition of the tribune being sacrosanct, going back almost to the founding of the Republic, was repeatedly ignored by the optimates and the Senate. Such actions by theoptimates furthermore meant that anyone who wanted to succeed in such matters had to counter the optimates with violence, or they would end up dead like the Gracchi and their political heirs if they seriously tried to push reforms through.  This repeated initiation of targeted political violence by the optimates meant that anyone serious about reform or addressing the Republic’s most serious problems had to be prepared to meet violence with violence or likely would only meet with failure and death.   Even up until Caesar, these optimates continued the same tactic; the fanatically stubborn Cato, seen in later years as a martyr for the Republic, left his opponent, Caesar, with no choice but of that between prosecution and disgrace or a fight, between an unacceptable and dangerous status quo and political violence.  After Caesar had defeated Pompeius’s and theoptimates’s forces decisively at Pharsalus, Suetonius quotes a source who fought with him there and throughout the conflict that has Caesar looking out over the battlefield filled with dead enemies and saying “It was they who wanted this, for I, Gaius Caesar, would have been found guilty, despite all my achievements, if I had not turned to my army for aid” (Lives of the Caesars The Deified Julius Caesar 30).