What led to the end of Roman Republic? 146 BC was a triumphant year for the Roman Republic – and a year which sent shockwaves around the Mediterranean. A century earlier, Rome had been a regional power confined to central Italy, at a time when the Mediterranean was dominated by four other powers – Carthage in north Africa and Iberia, Macedon in Greece, the Seleucid Empire in Asia and the Levant, and Ptolemaic Egypt. A century later, Egypt was the only one of these powers that remained, albeit reduced to a Roman vassal, the rest having been crushed by the bulldozer of the Roman legions.
In 146 BC Rome destroyed both Corinth and Carthage, adding to its overseas provinces with it firmly established in Greece and Africa. Its remarkable expansion took the legions in every direction, with Scipio himself bringing an end to the decade-long Iberian siege of Numantia, while control of Greece made expansion across the Aegean impossible to resist. Despite this dominance, the cracks in the Roman system were already becoming clear.
The Gracchi brothers were widely regarded as some of the republic’s first demagogues. They identified clear and obvious problems that would – and did – destroy the republic, though the Senators at the time refused to address these problems, and murdered the brothers as they buried their heads in the sand instead. Rome was facing a manpower crisis. Its legions had excelled by using smallholder citizen farmers, who could afford their own equipment, and thus had a stake in the republic which they fought for.
Being farmers, this was a suitable model for a city state, when they could return home for the harvest (as the Saxon fjord armies of England a millennia later would do). As Rome began moving abroad to Greece, Africa, Iberia and beyond, these seasonal campaigns became years, even decades long. Not only were huge amounts of men needed, but far more were required as the campaigns expanded, and far more were dying too. Aside from the human toll, their absence from the farms often saw these farms reduced to ruin.
This problem came at the same time as huge amounts of wealth flowing into the Roman upper classes.
Rome quickly went from being a regional agrarian power to being an economic behemoth that dominated the Mediterranean.
Unsurprisingly, wealth was not evenly distributed as it filtered back, and instead was hoarded by the Senators of the oligarchy. As smallholder farmers faced problems with their lands, so these Senators bought up the Italian estates, reducing the number of men eligible to serve in the legions.
Not only was the land bought. But the huge number of slaves flooding into Italia meant that these farms were tended by slaves, not Roman citizens. Rome faced an employment crisis as the rich grew richer. This land was also used for luxuries like figs, olives and wine, rather than grain. Which was now being imported from the breadbaskets of Sicily, Sardinia and Africa.
Rome had a growing population in poverty, which could not feed itself.
Rome’s management of its provinces only compounded these problems, as tax collection was essentially subcontracted out. Tax collectors would bid for a contract, pay the Senate an upfront fee, then largely be at liberty to collect what they wanted – which, inevitably, was a profit. People had no recourse against this greed, and in an age of slavery their very person was the guarantee of debt payment – to not pay meant enslavement. Thus when Rome called on allies for auxiliary troops, often they just did not have the manpower to make these troops, for so many had been enslaved. When King Mithridates of Pontus expanded into Asia Minor and Greece, many people welcomed him as driving out aggressive Roman tax collectors.
The reforms of the Gracchi brothers included subsidised grain for the masses (so it would maintain a stable price and not be affected by fluctuations caused by things like drought and storms), distribution of land to the masses to ensure more landed citizens who could be legionaries (Rome had masses of “public land” following these conquests), and rolling out citizenship more widely throughout Italia.
All these reforms were blocked by the Senators, who grew rich from these problems at the expense of the state – and yet these reforms proved to be strangely prophetic. By the end of the republic, grain would be distributed free to the masses, and become a welfare system so entrenched no emperor dared to interfere with it, land would be allocated for veteran soldiers after each term of service, and the general enfranchisement of Italians became the only way to end the Social War that threatened to destroy Rome.
In the late Second Century BC, when the commander Gaius Marius faced the same manpower shortages in needing to raise legions, he made the obvious decision – to abolish the land requirements. An influx of landless poor now flooded into the legions, and while this solved Rome’s immediate problem (the invasion of the Germanic Cimbri coalition), it ensured that legionaries now had no “stake” in the republic. Their loyalty thus switched from the state to their commander, and legions became the personal playthings of generals. They demanded huge bonuses and land allocations, and generals would wield them against each other. First Sulla and then Marius marched on Rome, making Caesar just the latest to do so when he crossed the Rubicon to begin the war that would end the republic. Augustus made the legions a standing army, and in so doing ensured their loyalty to the emperor, not the republic.
The republic was also shaken by an influx of wealth and goods from abroad, eroding the values of those like Cato who took pride in traditional Roman stoicism. With fine silks and gold pouring into Italia, it was inevitable that as the wealthy became wealthier, so the generations that followed them knew nothing of the poverty their ancestors struggled with. Just as how the Mongols changed completely following the wealth of their conquests, so did the Romans.
The generation of Genghis Khan had worn clothes made from the sown together hides of mice, while two generations later Kublai Khan led a generation that ruled over the riches of China and the Islamic Caliphates. How can such generations hold on to the values of their ancestors when their lives are so different? Scipio Africanus would come to be mythologised as the last of the great virtuous Romans, Carthage as the last true enemy to threaten Rome.
All of these factors expedited the malaise of the republic, yet Rome persevered. From the ashes of the decaying republic arose the empire, which would continue dominating the Mediterranean for another 500 years. Carthage was the last external state that posed a threat to the existence of Rome. There would be many more enemies, and many more wars. There would be many defeats, though Rome’s primary enemy from the Punic Wars onwards would always be itself. Disasters like Arausio, Carrhae, Teutoburg and Adrianople would never shape Rome as much as battles like Pharsalus, Phillipi and Milvian Bridge. As with all large empires, Rome eventually turned inward, with these victorious generals fighting amongst themselves.
The fall of Rome was due as much to infighting as the great migrations from Germania. Rome’s victory in the Punic Wars laid the path for it to dominate the Mediterranean, but also laid the seeds of its destruction. Despite the empire reaching a greater territorial zenith, many – especially contemporaries – considered the Punic Wars to be the pinnacle of Rome’s cultural and military achievements. With the rest of the existence of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire being a long litany of civil wars, Carthage was arguably Rome’s greatest enemy.