Wednesday, May 15, 2013

In The Ruins of A Republic

In the last post of my series on the Decline of the Roman Republic I ended shortly after Sulla’s dictatorship. The end his dictatorship in 81 B.C marked a transition period for the Roman people. Sulla had assumed the dictatorship due to the machinations of his rival and former superior Marius, and he used his powers to try and purge the Republic of what he saw as the rot of corruption that had festered for far too long. At least this is how Sulla would describe his actions; and I believe it was a real motivation considering that he did voluntarily disband his legions and give up the dictatorship. However, whatever Sulla’s ultimate intentions, the reality is that his proscriptions were a bloody terror that purged the republic of guilty and innocent alike. Most troubling is that the actions of both Marius and Sulla revealed a startling truth that even Sulla's voluntary resignation of dictatorship could not hide. The Republic of Rome was no more.

The statement is a rather bold one considering that most historians do not date the end of the Republic until the ascension of Octavian, who we know as Caesar Augustus, in 32 B.C. I have two reasons for making this claim. Firstly, I believe that at the end of the crisis years of the republic that it was inevitable that someone would like Octavian would come to power, it could have been Brutus, Mark Antony or any other Roman, it doesn't matter and my second reason illustrates why. The second reason why I say the republic is no more is that function of government matters more than form itself. Is the core of the government, in the case of Rome the constitution and the legislative bodies, functional or dysfunctional? A government in a republic, if it is a functional, will govern according to the rule of law.

We must remember that the words republic come from the Latin Res Publica which meant the 'thing of the people'. That thing is the law. A Republic is governed by the rule of law, and once rule of law has been lost there is no republic. The first century B.C after the dictatorship of Sulla saw the collapse of the Roman Assemblies, who could pass laws, and the Senate, who could interpret the law and elect magistrates to execute the law, as the ruling classes turned in on itself. The Senate became far more concerned with balancing the various factions within its body, most notably the Optios and Populares factions, rather than electing the most capable of them to positions that could use their talents.

After Sulla the patricians in the Senate realized that their Republic had been dealt a mortal blow. Some undoubtedly held out hope that they were simply in a moment of crisis and that normalcy would return after a short while; others realized that there was no going back and acted accordingly. The actions of the Gracchi brothers brought to light that populism mattered more to the people than the constitution, and the march on Rome by Marius, and then Sulla, exposed the fact that senatorial authority was dependent on their generals willingness to adhere to it. It was only a matter of time that an ambitious patrician who both possessed legions and extreme charisma would attempt to take control of the greatest civilization on earth. The fact that the Republic was in utter disarray only made this eventuality all too apparent. So yes, the Republic was still technically around, but it was a dead man walking. The numerous civil wars and plots from 88 BC to 32 BC attest to this.

First Sulla Civil War 88 to 87 BC

The civil war was the result of the usurpation of Sulla's Mithridatic command by Marius using unconventional, but technically legal, means. In response Sulla turned his legions around and marched on Rome for the first time. Marius, unable to match Sulla evenly on the field, fled to Africa. Sulla declared Marius an enemy of the state, executed some of his supporters, and put measures in place that, he thought, would strengthen the Senate. He then moved against Mithridates of Pontus leaving his supporters in charge of Rome.

Second Sulla Civil War 83 BC to 82 BC

During Sulla's campaign in Pontus Marius returned to Rome with an army he had raised in North Africa. A hundred or so Roman patricians who had supported Sulla were murdered by Marius' rampaging troops. Marius declared all of Sulla's laws null and void, and forced the Senate to exile Sulla from Rome. Marius died shortly after taking control of the city which left it in the hand of his ally, Cinna, to fend off an assault by Sulla. Cinna was later murdered in a mutiny which left Rome in the hands of Marians that did not posses military ability equal to Sulla. Sulla successfully defeated the remnants of the Marians and then made himself dictator of Rome.

Sertorian War - Hispanic Secession from Rome 80 to 72 BC

The Hispanic provinces rebelled against Roman rule in 83 BC. They were led by Quintus Sertorius, a man who had supported Marius and fled Rome to North Africa during the purges by Sulla. Lusitania's had sent envoys to Sertorius due to his mild governorship in back in 82 BC. Under Sertorius they successfully rebelled against the Roman forces in the region and established their own government, a copy of the one in Rome, however, Sertorius eventually alienated himself from the Hispanians and was assassinated. Shortly after his assassination the Romans subjugated the rebelling provinces.

Lepidus Rebellion of 77 BC

Lepidus had been a supporter of Sulla while he was alive. After he was dead, as consul, he moved against Sulla's reforms. The political environment was so tense that the Senate made Lepidus and his rival Catullus swear that they would not fight each other. After his consulship he was sent to Transalpine Gaul for his governorship. The oath did little good as Lepidus attempted to gather Marian supporters to his banner and raise an army. In response the Senate recalled him from his post but by this time Lepidus had already managed to raise an army. Fortunately for the Senate, Lepidus was defeated by Catullus in battle. Lepidus was exiled to Sardinia as a result where he died shortly thereafter.

Catilinarian Conspiracy 64-63 BC

Senator Catalina plotted the overthrow of Senate in two conspiracies. The first is circumspect, as other than the testimony of Publius Sulla and oratory from Cicero, who was the senator responsible for Publius’ defense, there are conflicting reports on who was actually involved. Catalina inarguably plotted against the Senate in the second Catilinarian Conspiracy. Catalina had secretly raised an army and he was planning on marching on Rome. When Catalina had elicited support from a delegation from the province of Allobroges the delegation in turn informed Cicero of Catalina’s plan. Cicero exposed the plot to the Senate. The other conspirators were executed, without the customary trail, before news could reach Catalina in the field. When news did reach Catalina his army was plagued with desertions and ceased to be an effective fighting force. Catalina was killed in fighting between the remnants of his army and the legions lead by the Senate.

Caesar's Civil War 49 to 45 BC

Caesar's war against Pompey is arguably the most well known civil wars in ancient history. Caesar marched his army across the Rubicon and engages his former triumvirate colleague Pompey in battle. Pompey was defeated in battle and eventually murdered in Egypt, leaving Caesar as the sole leading man in Rome.

Battle of Mutina 44 BC

After the murder of Caesar there was a conflict war between Antony and Octavius, who was supported by the Senate. There was only one battle, the battle of Mutina, were Octavius moved an army raised by the Senate against Antony. Antony had moved his legions against one of the assassins of Caesar without the blessing of the Senate, and the Senate wanted to bring Antony in line. Octavian was able to tactically out maneuver and defeat Antony; however, Antony was able to keep his forces from routing or being completely encircled. Octavian and Antony crafted a truce, much to the dismay of some Senators, and the beginnings of the second Triumvirate were established.

Liberators Civil War 44 to 42 BC

Fought between Caesars assassins, who called themselves Rome's liberators, and the newly formed second triumvirate it was a series of battles that ultimately ended in victory of the triumvirate when both Brutus and Cassius were killed.

Sicilian Revolt 44 BC to 36 BC

After the murder of Pompey his son Sextus Pompey fled to Sicily and stationed his army there. Though not officially allied with the assassins, Sextus had little cause to move against the assassins in the first place, and even less after his name was put on a proscription list. He successfully captured many important cities on the island and his navy pirated the shipments of the senate around the Italian coasts. The triumvirate, the middle of another civil war, offered recognition of his rule over Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia if he promised to stop intercepting the shipments of grain that Rome so desperately needed. Sextus agreed and this agreement was known s the Pact of Misenum. The pact fell apart when Antony refused to cede control of Achaea and hostilities resumed. Sextus was later captured by Antony and executed without trail, which was against Roman law. As 2nd triumvirate began to fall apart Octavian used this, among many other transgressions by Antony, to his advantage.

Perusine Civil War 41 to 40 BC

The son and wife of  Mark Antony, Antonius and Fulvia, so desperately wanted Mark Antony to be the sole ruler of Rome that they raised an eight legions and briefly occupied Rome but later forced retreated to the city of Perusia, where the name of the brief civil war comes from. Octavian was able to starve the city into submission in 40 BC. Neither Antonius nor Fulvia were killed though Fulvia was exiled to Sicyon.

Final Civil War of the Republic 32 to 30 BC

The final war deciding who would rise and restore order to an effectively dead republic was fought between Antony and Octavius. Antony, whose brutish nature had created a lot of enemies within Rome, found himself politically outmaneuvered by Octavius. Octavius used his political guile to have the Senate declare war on Egypt and Antony's paramour Cleopatra. Rather than forsake his love, which would have been the politically wise thing to do, he threw his support behind her. This was a terrible blunder since Cleopatra was not loved by Antony's legions and his support of her was the last straw for many of his men. Antony's army was plagued with desertions throughout the conflict and eventually Antony found himself cornered in the city of Alexandria. The civil wars had finally ended after Antony’s suicide and Octavian, soon to be Caesar Augustus, reigned supreme.

Given the chaos throughout the empire and torrents of blood that were shed as Roman fought Roman, can we really say that republic still lived after the reign of Sulla? I'd argue no, a political order in constant battle with its constituents is the halmark of violent anarchy, not a functioning republic. The rise of Octavius doesn't so much mark the end of the republic, as it does the end of an interregnum. With his rise we see a creation of a new order that, as time went on, increasingly was organized around the Emperor rather than the Senate. The fall of the Roman Republic is a cautionary tale for the citizens of her modern day equivalent, one which I will elaborate on in the next post.


  1. Here is a question for you, do you think they thought 'this is the end'? I think about that alot. Looking back at America it might be easy 'oh the end happened at 2008 or at 1997' or whatever but while living in it, it is far more obscure.

    1. I'm going to try and elaborate in another post but like you said it isn't easy. For all we know this might be a passing storm, however unlikely it seems, or it could be a permanent change in our society. I can't say every Roman thought this was the end, however, after Sulla people did realize something had fundementally changed. I am also pretty confident that some of the major players knew that the republic was beyound saving and that it was time to bring a new order.

  2. Personally I think we're at the end. Public debt is at 100% of GDP, and it will only get much worse as boomers are just now beginning to retire and draw on medicare. The percentage of the population that is working is the lowest in decades, and the real median income has dropped in recent years. That means less tax revenue, and deficits that will skyrocket. At some point treasury bondholders will realize there's no hope of getting repaid so they'll dump the bonds. That will cause interest rates to jump and make it impossible for us to finance the debt, forcing us to default. Who knows what comes after that. Watch Japan for a preview of our future.

    1. I agree that we're going the way of Japan. But that would hardly signal the end of the Republic. It hasn't over there, and I can point to about a hundred places on the planet that are worse.

    2. I'll elaborate in my next post but I do think the American Republic is in dire danger. Ultimately the danger isn't just economic, or even demographic, but one of corruption and leadership. The Roman Republic collapsed inspite of being the most powerful, and economically prosperous, polity in the Mediteranean.


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Seattle resident whose real name is Kevin Daniels. This blog covers the following topics, libertarian philosophy, realpolitik, western culture, history and the pursuit of truth from the perspective of a libertarian traditionalist.