BC 146 - BC 27 Late Republic
The rapid conquests were not without cost, however. Traditional Roman society had been rather austere, conservative, and deeply religious. With expansion came a rush of wealth, resulting in inflation and corruption, which pervaded the whole society. The new provinces were governed by the Senate for the benefit of the senatorial oligarchy that bought up huge tracts of land, forming estates worked by slaves. The yeoman farmers who had been the backbone of the society and the economy were pushed off the land and driven into the city, where they languished in poverty or sank into slavery. By 131 BC popular riots had broken out demanding redistribution of the land, and a reform movement, led by the Gracchi brothers, tried to redirect the empire's benefits to the common people.
The task of governing a world empire and carrying on the great game of diplomacy by which that empire had in large measure been built up, naturally called for a more centralized and rapid exercise of authority than was possible with the cumbrous methods of the popular comitia. The power of the state gradually passed into the hands of the senate. There grew up at the same time a nobility of the robe, consisting of those who had enriched themselves as rulers of the newly conquered provinces which Rome for a long time regarded as subject territories merely and as fruitful sources of revenue.
So wealthy had the state become, indeed, that in the second half of the 2d century BC the citizens of Rome were freed from all burdens of taxation, a measure which attracted to Rome a large population of idlers, which derived its chief sustenance from the largesses of the nobles who found it necessary to court the favor of the mob. Throughout Italy the rich Roman office holders established vast landed estates, which were fast coming to be worked by slaves, and the poor farmers, ruined by this formidable competition, came in great numbers to Rome to swell the ranks of the propertyless.
Between this great mass of poor proletarians and the small class of officials, senators and landlords, strife was in the nature of things bound to come, and it was this strife between the Optimates or the aristocratic party and the Populares or proletarians that, skilfully used by ambitious politicians, brought about the fall of the republic. Nobles of the popular champions were the brothers Tiberius and Caius Gracchus, who wrested from the senatorial party an agrarian law favorable to the homeless masses and regained some of the ancient powers of the popular assemblies, but fell victims both to the hatred of their enemies (133 and 121).
The war against Jugurtha, which revealed the shameless corruption to which the ruling party had sunk, brought forth another popular leader in Marius, whose reputation was increased by the splendid victories over the Cimbri and the Teutones in the years 102-101. Moderate at first in his views, Marius was driven, by the agitations of demagogues, to violence. In 90 B.C. the Italians rose in insurrection to enforce their demand for the rights of Roman citizenship, and though the allies were defeated it was deemed expedient to grant them their demands.
The termination of this struggle, known as the Social War, in 88 BC, was followed by a conflict between Marius and Sulla, an adherent of the senatorial party, for control in the state, in the course of which both factions were guilty of dreadful excesses. In the year 81 BC the Marian party was finally overthrown and Sulla, proclaimed dictator, enthroned himself in power by a bloody proscription of his enemies, and proceeded to revolutionize the constitution of the state so as to place the sole power in the hands of the senate and the aristocratic party.
But neither senate nor people was thenceforth to govern in Rome. The example of aristocratic rule based on military force had been set by Sulla and the struggle between parties now passed into a struggle between individuals for control.
The long wars abroad, the acquisition of provinces, the accumulation of large fortunes, and the development of slavery had driven Italian farmers into bankruptcy, and left the farm laborer and the free artisan without employment. The middle class which in the past had given the social organization its strength and stability was thereby blotted out of existence. The small farmers and free laborers in Italy were being driven into bankruptcy. Tiberius Gracchus sought to relieve them by dividing up the state land among the poor. The senate, which was made up largely of rich men who were occupying this land, opposed and overthrew him. His brother, Gaius, took up the reform and by his legislation united the poor people and the knights against the senate. He, too, was overthrown, but the senate's disgraceful conduct of the war against Jugurtha, gave the democrats an opportunity to advance their leader Marius. The Italians won Roman citizenship in the Social War.
The democrats under Marius and Cinna gained control of Rome, but were driven out by Sulla on his return from the war with Mithridates. Sulla was made dictator, and installed the senate in power again, but his arrangements were overturned by the consuls, Pompey and Crassus, who later joined Caesar in forming the first triumvirate. These three men took the government into their own hands, but the death of Crassus, and the quarrel between Caesar and Pompey led to a struggle between them for supreme power, and civil war followed.
The social changes in Italy which came about in the period preceding the revolution, became still more marked in the years which intervened between the Gracchi and the battle of Actium. The middle class had already disappeared. Now the aristocracy ceased to exist. Few of the old families survived the civil wars and proscription. Society was made up of the very rich and the very poor. The rich men, like Crassus, had made their fortunes by farming the taxes, by loaning money in the provinces, and by trading with them, by speculating in the lands of the proscribed and the bankrupt, and by cultivating their Italian estates with slave labor.
A great chasm yawned between them and the slaves or the needy freemen and freedmen who lived upon the charity of the rich or the largess of the state. To work with the hands was disgraceful for a freeman because, by doing so, he classed himself with the slaves who performed the greater part of the manual labor. This was one of the evils which slavery had brought upon Rome. Even so sensible a man as Cicero says in his Duties: "We are to account as unbecoming and mean the gains of all hired workmen, whose source of profit is not their art but their labor; for their very wages are the consideration of their servitude." The lower classes received free corn and used the money paid them for their votes to buy the other necessaries of life; for their amusement they demanded dramatic festivals, triumphal processions, and gladiatorial shows. The rich found their pleasure in spending money.
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