The Roman Republic “The best of all worlds – The worst of all worlds”


Students of Roman History may be easily become confused when considering the actual political environment of the Late Roman Republic. It was a turbulent half century, where powerful players such as Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey and ultimately Octavian and Anthony struggled for political ascendancy  – each of them desperately stretching and bending long-established  rules and established procedures until all the traditional safeguards collapsed and their differences led them into open conflict and civil war.



(photo by Steve Coe)  .

The Political environment of the Late Republic

Inevitably the Roman political environment in the late republic will seem very alien to anyone raised in a modern democracy. There are no easy ways to make a simple clarification that can be understood, purely in modern terms. The Roman political system at that time was complex, having  evolved from remote antiquity in a piecemeal fashion as the roman people over the years had struggled to achieve a kind of shaky balance between competing levels of society that would avoid open class struggle and the possible disintegration of their state. It must also be taken into account that the Roman political environment in the late republic, owed more to the innate Roman love of tradition and general conservatism than to any fixed constitution cast somewhere in stone.


Unfortunately we have few authoritative sources for explaining how these Roman political structures actually originated, but it seems that in previous years the checks and balances mostly held and the system worked fairly successfully for several centuries until territorial expansion and increased wealth put severe strain on what was originally an agrarian society, governed by part-time amateurs. By the second decade of the 1st centuryBCE the stresses and strains became too great and began to break down the political structure itself. For the next half century, (until Augustus became Rome’s master in 31BCE) there was continuous circumvention of  lawful precedent with rigged elections and unconstitutional seizures of power by powerful individuals and groups.



In these years of conflict, which were actually the death throes of the RomanRepublic, there were repeated bouts of politically motivated assassinations, extra-judicial executions, rioting in the streets, proscriptions, seizures and all the horrors of recurring outbreaks of civil war. Octavian’s outright victory over Anthony at Actiumfinally brought lasting peace and was therefore much welcomed after virtually two generations of conflict. But what exactly was the actual political system of the defunct republic that Augustus was to replaced in substance (though not in form) by the clever construct of the Principate? Hopefully what follows will give at least some insight to the political environment of the late Roman Republic.



Optimates and Populares

It seems to be a tenet of historical scholarship that in the late Republic there was nothing approaching the modern concept of political parties per se. Moreover the terminology or descriptions used for de facto (loose?) political groupings can be confusing. The terms “Optimates” (Boni) and “Populares” were never political entities as such, as is widely believed by the uninformed. Nor were they were used as appelates to signify specific political agendas or convictions. As far as we can tell they were simply labels, attached to certain groupings of politicians to explain the methods they used to achieve prominence.



The Optimates used the traditional route through the Senate for securing new legislation but the Populares had found a way of working directly through the People’s Assembly to force through their laws. Moreover it is clear that the original distinctions, between those traditionalists who based their power on the authority of the senate and its executive officers and the others who used tribunician methods of forcing through their legislative programmes, under the auspices of the popular assembly (by way of the concillium plebis), became blurred before long. This was because in time all groups used the tribunes of the plebs to achieve their ends, whenever and wherever it suited them. We are not dealing with a democracy here, certainly not in our modern understanding of the concept, but with factions within a governing class or oligarchy that had ruled unchallenged for centuries. The political history of the time is actually the history of recurrent internal factional struggles, within the ruling elite itself.


The Roman Oligarchy

It is the political structures and divisions within this oligarchy that are confusing. Some academics maintain that the politics of the day was the purely the interaction of the individuals, who each entered the political arena in their own right, backed solely by their friends and family members. Inevitably wider, loose associations were formed on a temporary basis to push through legislation on specific issues, in order to gain mutual benefits or settle political scores.


It has often been said that the main motivation for the individual was to improve (or maintain) the prestige of his own family line (witness the prickly “dignitas” of  Marius, Pompey or Caesar). However this simplified argument seems facile and although it has elements of plausibility, it can’t be the whole truth, as it cannot explain all the available evidence. The factions must have been held together with a stronger glue than pure individual ambition. The political dominance of certain aristocratic families, such as the Metteli and Scipios were often of long standing and large portions of the populace of all classes became involved in supporting their political agendas.


The reason for this is that although sovereign power rested with the people, in order to hold high office, one either had to come from one of the old aristocratic patrician families, or exceptionally (on an individual basis), rise up from the next level of society (ie the ordo equiter), with the necessary help of a powerful sponsor (patron), so as to become considered acceptable as a novus homo (new man) as fit for high office and admission to the senate. The classic case is Marius himself, who it is said, initially needed the support of the family Metteli to carve out a political career for himself as a “novus homus”. Sulla, although from an impoverished family, was of old aristocratic stock, and unlike Marius who fought and schemed for everything he got, seemed to have a far smoother rise to power (helped by his famed felissimus no doubt). Of course, both men were exceptionally talented both militarily and politically and the cream will rise in any environment.



However in the general perception of the late Roman Republic, there lingers an association of the Optimates with the more conservative (aristocratic?) element of the governing class and the Populares with the newer element (wealthy equestrians or old aristocratic families seeking renewed prestige after a period of eclipse – such in the case of the Caesars). The unresolved debate of modern scholarship around whether or not there was an actual “factio Metteli” centered around Scaurus and Numaticus adds to the confusion. The strong impression remains that there was – but that it was never an political entity as such, but more of a loose association, as exemplified by several examples of “floor crossing” by opportunists or even bribed turncoats.



A Military Junta ?

It would not be unreasonable to consider that the entire governing oligarchy of the senatorial class acted essentially in the manner of a loose and factitious military junta. The body politic operated (usually) within a set of long established traditions or rules, which controlled (guided) acceptable methodology and ways of governance and also determined the means of attaining office. A legal system (code of conduct) provided some degree of safeguards against abuses and the courts generally enforced compliance, by taking action against transgressors. However as we have seen, in latter part of the Republican period a series of politically motivated changes to established laws undermined the integrity of the system.



We can use the analogy of the ruling senatorial oligarchy as a “military junta” with good reason. All officers of state had to have served a fairly long military and administrative apprenticeship in their youth and the highest officers of state were also primarily military generals with control of the armed forces, whatever other “civilian” functions fell to their specific responsibility. Like all long standing military juntas such as in Peronist Argentina and communistNorth Korea, the upmost ruling families controlled the allocation of offices through patronage and nepotism.



Strategic marriages were the classic way of consolidating power and recruiting new talent to particular groups. Behind all this political manipulation “The People” (populi) were still nominally the sovereign power, but through the allocation of voting rights within an ancient tribal system which governed the way the voting in the assembly took place, the actual expression of its will was by way of the leadership of the tribunes. These powerful officers, nominally represented the people with their power to propose or veto legislation, but were nevertheless still essentially members of the oligarchy (though sometimes putting themselves deliberately on the outer fringe as in the case of the brothers Gracchi). Even the demagogues and violent semi-anarchist such as Saturninus and Glaucus were members of the old families. In essence although their methods may have varied, irrespective of their agenda, the participants in the political intercourse of the state made sure that their power base was not spread too thin by making entry easier for outsiders.



The Role of the Equestrians

Having accepted the above picture as a model for political interaction, there is yet a further complication to our understanding. What role did the Equites or Equestrians play in the political arena? Traditionally the Equestrians (knights) were always reputed to be a commercial class, focused primarily on business and the pursuit of wealth and consequently as a body they were never really considered to be any threat to the senatorial ruling class. It seems that any politically ambitious and talented  equestrians (like Marius) were simply taken up and co-opted into the ruling oligarchy itself, always with the assistance of powerful patrons. This had the effect of removing potential disruptive leadership from the order of knights, before they could become any kind of focus for internal political activity within the order itself – if that ever was a consideration.


It is believed that the equestrian order was not actually very ancient and it is somewhat obscure as to how it sprang up in the first place. As an essentially non-political association of wealthier but non-aristocratic citizens , it may be supposed that its occurrence must have been insidious, and not caused by any single dramatic event, such as in the case of the “Revolt of the Plebs” during the early Republic. However, by the time of the late Republic the order was well established and it is difficult to see why they had not potentially become a decisive factor in the political balance of the state. Many equites had become extremely wealthy, but it seems they continued to be satisfied to play a background role in public affairs – simply using the power of their wealth to influence outcomes in their favour. Senators were notoriously easy to  bribe to secure commercial leverage.


However in one particular respect, the Equites did come to take on an important public role. Since time immemorial, the Senate had been accustomed to to directly further its own members interests either by using its historic control of the courts or through the decrees of the elected magistrates (consuls, praetors etc) . However in AD 133,  the reformer Gaius Gracchus took the unprecedented step of wresting the control of all the judicial process away from the ruling class. Through the legislative power of the Assembly, Gracchus  put  control of the  important law courts exclusively in the hands of the equestrian class. He also enacted a law that forbade the putting to death of any Roman citizen without a trial, thus reducing the power of the magistrates to act arbitrarily to  eliminate political opponents ex-judiciously.


However before long we once more see a senatorial judicial commission sitting, for the drafting of the Lex Lincinia Mucia (95 BCE), which affected the rights and franchise of the Italian allies, a blunder that led directly to the Social War. The concession that the ordo equester had exclusive control of the courts was then reversed for a time by the dictator Sulla, but was returned again in part after his retirement and death. It seems rather odd that the ruling senatorial class did not take stronger steps  to prevent the return of these remarkable concessions to allow some power sharing with non-aristocratic citizens, as they certainly reduced the power of the senate to act autocratically with impunity. For example, after his consulship, Cicero was banished for circumventing the law by executing the co-conspirators of Catiline without trial.


It is clear that there are huge gaps in the information that is available to explain the late republican period and the sources are often unsatisfactory, but it is obvious that this was a time of  unprecedented change with robust political activity that degenerated into violence as an archaic system was not quite able to stand up to the increasing challenges of a rapidly  changing world. The end result of all this turmoil was the death of the traditional political system and the final obsolescence of the oligarchic hierarchy itself, as Rome returned to strong government, but with all power now focused on the rule of one man.

 – © Steve Coe 2012