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Ancient Rome - Index

Roman Index / Timeline Italy before the Romans Romulus and Remus Birth and Rise of Rome Early Roman Republic
The Twelve Tables Punic Wars Late Roman Republic Consuls of the Republic Trouble in the Republic
Julius Caesar Julius Caesar Play and Brutus Trial Antony and Cleopatra Octavian Late Republic Poetry
Early Roman Empire Caesar Augustus Basics of Christianity Pontius Pilate The New Testament
Bishops of Rome / Popes Late Roman Empire Attack of the Barbarians Roman Emperors Roman Emperors List

Trouble in the Republic

The Problems of Expansion

While Rome was fighting the Punic Wars in the west, its forces were also engaged in the east. Between 230 BC and 130 BC, Rome brought the entire eastern Mediterranean area under its influence. As a result of this conquest, Romans began referring to the Mediterranean as mare nostrum— "our sea." Because Rome now controlled a vast area, the republic and its government had to change. It remained a republic, but the Senate gained almost complete control over the army and foreign policy. The nobles gained even more power.

The Romans loosely governed the new territories, called provinces. They did not allow the people of the provinces to become citizens, nor did they make them allies. Instead, the Romans simply made the people of each province subjects of Rome . Each province was administered by a governor who was backed by the power of the Roman army. Some provincial governors took bribes and paid little, if any, attention to the needs of the people. In addition, tax collectors tried to squeeze as much money as they could from the provinces.

Rich, Poor, and Slavery

The Romans also had problems at home. The Roman farmer-soldiers who returned from the Punic Wars were sickened to find their livestock killed, their homes in ruins, and their olive groves or vineyards uprooted. The farmers did not have enough money to restore their farms and thus had little choice but to sell the land to wealthy aristocrats.

Many of the farmers who lost their land moved to the cities. Not all of them could find jobs there, however, and they depended on the government for food. In contrast, trade within Rome 's vast empire had created a class of business people and landowners called equites (EK-wuh-teez). They had great wealth and political influence. Within the republic, the gap between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, continued to grow.

As time passed, Rome became dependent on the provinces for grain, its chief food. Turning agriculture into a profitable business, the aristocrats created large estates called latifundia (LA-tuh-FUHN-dee-uh) that provided grain, sheep, olives, and fruits for urban markets. Labor for the latifundia was cheap because Rome 's conquests brought thousands of captives and prisoners of war to work as slaves. By 100 BC, slaves formed about 30 percent of Rome 's people.

As slave labor replaced paid labor, thousands of small farmers and rural workers poured into the cities seeking employment. Jobs, however, were not readily available, and the new arrivals gradually formed into a class of urban, landless poor. Angry and without hope, the urban poor eked out a meager living and supported any politician who promised "bread and circuses," cheap food and free amusements.

The Gracchi

It became increasingly obvious that the Roman Republic was unable to meet these enormous challenges. Brave leaders attempted to reform the government, but the days of the republic were numbered.

Two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius (GAY-uhs) Gracchus (GRAK-uhs), saw the need for reform. Together the brothers were known as the Gracchi (GRAK-ee) . They were the sons of a famous patrician father, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, twice consul and censor, and a patrician mother, Cornelia, the daughter of the legendary war hero Scipio Africanus the Elder who had defeated Hannibal during the Second Punic War. 

Together the Gracchus brothers ruled Rome during the period of roughly 133 to 121 BC, a time just after Rome had endured nearly a century of repeated wars of conquest.  The Roman machinery of government, directed by the patrician Senate, had become increasingly ineffective in dealing with its overseas dominion and in dealing with the problems that gaining a territorial empire had caused at home.

Tiberius was elected tribune in 133 BC. He was deeply troubled by the fate of the farmer-soldiers who lost their land. He proposed limiting the size of the latifundia and distributing land to the poor. Although these suggested land reforms made him popular with the common people, they angered and frightened many senators. The Senate, made up of the wealthiest Roman patricians, opposed the reforms of Tiberius. A mob of senators and their supporters clubbed Tiberius and hundreds of his followers to death.

Gaius was elected tribune in 123 BC and again in 122 BC. He used public funds to buy grain, which was then sold to the poor at low prices. This and other acts outraged the senators, who sought to cancel some of the laws Gaius had passed. Ten years after the murder of Tiberius, Gaius and many of his supporters were killed in a riot. The deaths of the Gracchi marked a turning point in Roman history. From this point on, violence replaced respect for the law as the primary tool of politics. Army leaders came to power in Rome . The period of violence that was introduced by the combination of the Gracchi followers and the power-hungry senators and aristocrats helped to bring an end to the Roman Republican system of government.

The Social War

During this period, Rome 's relationship with its allies throughout the Italian Peninsula entered a crisis. Citizens of the Italian cities had served in the Roman army and had endured much hardship in defense of Rome during the Punic Wars. The ruling groups of these cities wanted to share in the benefits of Rome 's growing power. Above all, they wanted the right to hold public offices in the Roman government, and they called for Roman citizenship. The Senate, however, sought to maintain its hold on power and stubbornly resisted the allies’ demands.

Finally, in 91 BC, the allies rebelled. The war that followed was called the Social War, from the Latin word socius, meaning "ally.” Many of the allied cities' troops had served with the legions and were as well trained and disciplined as the Romans themselves. Thus, the war that followed was one of the bloodiest in Rome 's history. Ultimately, Rome won. The Senate, however, finally agreed to the allies' calls for citizenship and political participation. With this decision, people throughout Italy began to view themselves as Romans, and the Roman state grew to include the entire peninsula.

Generals and Rebels

Gaius Marius, a Roman general who was elected consul in 107 BC, brought major changes to the Roman political scene. Marius became a consul after saving Rome from attack by Germanic tribes. Because the dwindling number of small farmers had made a citizen army (made up of landowners) obsolete, Marius turned to the unemployed urban poor to build a new army. Unlike the citizen soldiers, Marius's recruits were paid, given uniforms and equipment, and were promised land when they had finished their military obligation. As a result of Marius's action, Rome for the first time had a professional army in which soldiers owed allegiance to their commander, not to the Republic.

To advance their political ambitions, rival military and political leaders formed their own separate armies and used them against each other. From 88 BC to 82 BC, Marius and a rival general named Sulla fought for control of Rome .

In 88 BC Lucius Cornelius Sulla was elected consul. After his term expired, he wanted to take a military command that promised to gain him great fame and fortune. His enemies in Rome , led by Marius, tried to prevent him from doing so. Sulla responded by marching on Rome , an action that led to civil war. Sulla finally drove Marius into exile, and from 82 BC to 79 BC Sulla ruled as dictator. Sulla tried to restore power to the Senate, enlarging it by 300 members and giving it complete control over the government.

Uprisings lead to Stronger Leaders

As the gap between rich and poor steadily widened, upper-class Romans lived with the constant danger of revolts. To quell mounting unrest, Rome stationed legions in most provinces. Even Italy was not safe from uprisings. From 73 BC to 71 BC, an army of 70,000 slaves led by the slave Spartacus plundered the Italian countryside in an effort to win freedom. With great difficulty, the Roman legion of a general named Pompey finally crushed the uprising and killed about 6,000 of Spartacus's followers, crucifying them along the Appian Way (Rome’s most famous road).

Putting down the many revolts cost Rome troops and money and placed a strain on its resources. It also led people to allow military leaders to become increasingly powerful in hopes that peace and order could be achieved. More and more, however, any army commander with loyal troops could force the Senate to do his bidding. This practice of using the army to gain political power was copied by a rising young politician named Julius Caesar.



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