Chapter 7 The Roman World

Section 3 The Crises and Fall of the Republic (133-27 B.C.)

As Rome grew from a city-state in Italy to a world empire throughout the Mediterranean, the character of Roman society began to change. Under Hellenistic influences from the east, individualism began to replace the old Roman commitment to duty to the state. New wealth also bred growing competition within the ruling classes, as aristocratic Romans competed for the offices and military commands that might bring them even more fame and fortune. Under the pressures of such rapid imperial expansion, Roman society began to crumble, and people looked for a new balance of power within the state. The challenges of finding this new balance would transform Rome once and for all from a city-state to a great world empire, even as it forced the old Roman sense of identity to expand and encompass even people beyond the limits of the city of Rome itself.

Consequences of the Conquests

Rome in the middle of the second century B.C. had no rival in the Mediterranean world and yet she was still basically ruled by the institutions of a small Italian city-state. A few elected magistrates governed the empire without the help of any organized administrative structure. Corruption of governors in the provinces  was a standard feature of Roman rule: competition for offices had become so difficult that politicians were spending fortunes to get elected, both legally and illegally. They had to make up for their losses and they did so either through the booty they captured in war, or the taxes they collected while governing the provinces.

            Meanwhile, others were busy trying to take advantage of the conquests to make their fortunes without feeling the need to participate actively in politics: the equites , or knights, as they were known, were now too many and too rich to ignore the importance of having access to political decision-making. As a result, the wealthy elite in Rome eventually divided into two competing orders, the senators and the knights. As for the common people who filled the legions, the conquests were now becoming a burden. After serving long years away from Italy, many veterans were discharged only to find that their farms had been sold or were in such financial trouble that they must be abandoned. The farmer-citizen-soldiers who had built a world empire increasingly found themselves condemned to join the growing masses of the urban unemployed.

            At the same time, foreign ideologies and religions began to undermine the original fabric of Roman society. The traditional Roman ideals of piety, faithfulness, duty and honor no longer satisfied a growing number of citizens. Influenced by Greek political philosophy, many began to question the selfishness of the Roman oligarchy. As Hellenistic influences grew, individualism also began to conflict with the old Roman emphasis on duty to the state.  

The Roman “Revolution”

As the pressures of world empire grew, during the late 2nd and early 1st century B.C. a revolution occurred in Roman political and social institutions. As had happened earlier in Athens, the heart of this revolution lay in the growing dissatisfaction of the plebs with the rule of the Roman oligarchy, and especially the growing rift between rich and poor in Roman society.

The Gracchi. In 133 B.C., Tiberius Gracchus, the tribune of the Plebs, pointed out to the Roman people the tragic irony with which the old farmer-citizen-soldier had been transformed into the urban unemployed poor.

“The wild beasts that roam over Italy have their dens and holes to lurk in, but the men who fight and die for our country enjoy the common air and light and nothing else... They fight and die to protect the wealth and luxury of others. They are called the masters of the world, but they do not possess a single clod of earth which is truly their own “ (Plutarch, Life of Tiberius Gracchus  9)

Gracchus’s own ambition was to restore the dignity of his unhappy fellow citizens. He presented a bill to limit access to public land and to redistribute the land in the form of small farms to dispossessed farmers.

The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, from

            At first the bill was well received even by the senatorial aristocracy which was also concerned about the growing poverty of the Roman plebeians, a poverty that  not only undermined their morals but also kept a growing number of them out of the draft since they could no longer afford the property qualifications for the army. However, the tribune's motivation was soon questioned by his cavalier attitude toward the traditional Roman political system. Not only did Gracchus bypass the Senate and go directly to the people but he forced the impeachment of a fellow tribune who had vetoed his bill. He also infringed the Senate’s rights in foreign matters, and took the unprecedented step of running for the tribuneship a second time.

            Eventually, fearing that he was planning to establish a tyranny, the senators incited a lynch mob to kill Gracchus along with three hundred of his followers. For the first time in Roman history the blood of citizens was shed in the forum. Tiberius’s “crime” was that he had undermined the traditional political order of Republican Rome by questioning its oligarchic control. In effect, he had broken the social consensus that had so far characterized Roman society, and thus began the so-called Roman revolution. From 133 to 27 B.C., a series of reforms and revolutionary steps led inexorably to the destruction of the republican order. It was a period of disturbances that would end only with the establishment of a new political order—the empire.

            The revolution continued under Gaius Graccchus, Tiberius's younger brother, who was elected tribune in 123 B.C. Gaius went much farther than his brother in trying to reform the state. In addition to accelerating the land law of his brother, he also gave enough political power to the Equites to challenge the senators, thereby dividing the Roman elite into two competing factions. He also took care of the common people by regulating the grain supply of the city, a first step toward what would soon become the distribution of free food to the people. In the end, Gaius and his followers too were murdered by order of the Senate. The oligarchy would not give up its control over Roman society without a fight.  


Marius. In 107 B.C., however, a social outsider named Marius was elected to the consulship. Marius had become popular because of his military talents. He was indeed a good general and had defeated King Jugurtha in Numidia (modern Algeria) and Germanic invaders in southern France and northern Italy. Marius carried the revolution begun by the Gracchi even farther—not by attempting political reform, but by instituting military reforms. Anxious to improve recruitment for the army, Marius dispensed with the property qualifications for military service and accepted in his army all who wanted to join. With these reforms, Marius unintentionally changed the nature of the military from a civic-minded force to a professional army.

            Poor people now joined the army and attached themselves to a general in hopes of sharing the booty of the campaigns and rewards of land at the end of the war. To a large extent, armies became private forces devoted to the general who held their economic future in his hand. Marius had only tried to resolve a crisis in recruitment. His successors, however, soon realized the political potential of such professional armies. As usual, the occasion was a military crisis that threatened Rome’s very survival.

The Social War. In 90 B.C., the Italian allies of Rome rebelled. They had been trying to gain Roman citizenship since the 120s but stubbornly both the Roman Senate and the people’s assemblies had refused to share the privileges of citizenship. The war between Rome and her Italian allies (known as the "Social War", from the Latin socius, meaning 'ally') was one of the bloodiest conflicts in Roman history. Italians had served side by side with the legionaries and were as good soldiers as the Romans. In fact, the Social War resembled a civil war. In the end, the rebels were defeated militarily – but they obtained what they had been asking for: Roman citizenship. This was an important step in the evolution of the Roman identity as well as the Roman empire. With the extension of citizenship, Rome was no longer just one city – it had become all of Italy.  

Sulla. The Social War had revealed the talent of one general in particular, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who as a result rose to the consulship in 88 B.C. Although Sulla had served under Marius, the two eventually quarreled over who should receive the command of a war against Mithridates, the king of Pontus in Asia Minor. Sulla saw the war as a chance to revive the fortunes of his family, which although aristocratic had become poor. As Marius and his faction tried to prevent Sulla from taking command of the campaign against Mithridates (such campaigns were potentially enormously lucrative and would certainly have restored Sulla’s family fortunes), Sulla made the fateful decision to march on Rome itself with his legions. In the civil war that followed, Sulla emerged victorious in both Asia Minor and Italy, and established a dictatorship in Rome.

            Sulla seems to have been genuinely concerned about the growing decay of the old Roman virtues and institutions. As dictator, he implemented a comprehensive program of reform aimed at restoring the old power of the Senate and the traditional oligarchy over the Republic. After implementing these reforms, Sulla then voluntarily retired and died peacefully on his own estate. His reactionary program did not long survive him, however - and with it went the Republic itself.  

The End of the Republic


Within a generation of Sulla’s death, the old republic was practically dead. The changes in Roman social and political life that had begun under the Gracchi and continued throughout the crisis of the Social War had brought "new men" like Marius to power, as well as reactionaries like Sulla. Despite Sulla's efforts to restore the power of the old Roman oligarchy, however, the pressures of ruling an expanding empire proved too great for the old city-state government of the classical Republic. 

Following the revolutionary examples of both Marius and Sulla, in 60 B.C. three particularly ambitious men - Gaius Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. - conspired to manipulate the Roman state for their own advantage through what came to be known as the First Triumvirate, or rule of three men. When Crassus died, however, Pompey and Caesar quarreled and civil war once again wracked the empire. Eventually, Caesar defeated Pompey and made himself master of Rome. In 44 B.C., the Senate declared Caesar perpetual dictator and he was now king in all but name. Nevertheless, in a last attempt to save the Republican constitution, a group of senators led by Brutus and Cassius murdered Caesar in the Senate chamber itself on the Ides of March—March 15— in 44 B.C.

            Caesar's murder did not solve anything, however. In 43 B.C., a second triumvirate composed of Caesar’s heir and adopted son, Octavius, Mark Antony, Caesar’s loyal officer, and Lepidus, the Pontifex Maximus, was empowered by the Senate to take control of the affairs of the Republic. The Roman people had effectively abandoned the Republican principle. But this arrangement worked no better than that of 60 B.C. Soon Lepidus was pushed aside and civil war broke out between Mark Antony and Octavius. Eventually, Octavius defeated Antony and his ally, Cleopatra of Egypt, at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. The common suicide of Antony and Cleopatra the following year marked the end of an epoch. Rome was now under the sole control of Octavius. The Republic was dead and a new period in Roman history was beginning.