From Roman Republic to Roman Empire
From Roman Republic to Roman Empire
The Roman Republic found itself threatened from within and without. Internally, political and social instability gave rise to attempts at reform, which pitted the plebeians against the patricians. Externally, military threats from northern Europe and North Africa distracted Roman leaders from the republic’s domestic problems.
Between 137 and 121 BC, tribunes of the Gracchi family called for social and political reforms, including the expansion of voting rights and a more equitable distribution of land. Naturally, this aroused strong opposition among the patricians, who did not wish to lose any of their benefits and privileges. The murders of the Gracchi brothers did not end the calls for reform.
Rome saw massive slave uprisings between about 135 and 71 BC, particularly in Sicily and southern Italy. The gladiator Spartacus led the last of these rebellions, which ended in a crushing defeat for the slaves. In a gruesome spectacle, the bodies of over six thousand of them were nailed to crosses along the Appian Way (the 560-mile paved Roman road that led from Rome to Brindisi).
Northern European tribes were a constant threat to Rome. Other threats came from North Africa, particularly Numidia. By 101 BC, the gifted general Marius had eliminated these threats at least for the time being. The Romans showed their gratitude by choosing him as First Consul for an unprecedented five-year term.
Marius’s first task as consul was to reform the army. Until he took power, soldiers had always been drafted from the peasantry; under his reorganization, military service became a well-paid job. Naturally, recruitment immediately rose and the army grew both larger and stronger, since men now had a powerful incentive to enlist. This change to military organization showed a significant shift of power in Roman society from the patricians to the military.
Marius also extended Roman citizenship to all Italians. Citizenship was highly prized for various reasons, but one of the most important was that citizens were tax-exempt. Only those living in the provinces had to pay taxes. Marius was persuaded to take this step toward democracy by loud protests from southern Italy; he believed that ceding to the demand for citizenship was necessary to prevent full-scale civil war.
The Roman general Sulla, who had achieved military distinction in the eastern provinces, succeeded Marius; the Senate elected him dictator in 82 BC. His close associate Pompey succeeded him in 79, creating the First Triumvirate (tri means “three,” and vir means “man”) with Crassus and Julius Caesar. Each man chose his own power base within the empire. Crassus ruled over Syria and the eastern Mediterranean but was soon killed in battle against the Parthians. This left Caesar, then in charge of the army in the province of Gaul, as Pompey’s only serious rival for the dictatorship.
Pompey promptly ordered Caesar to return to Rome. A skilled general and a shrewd politician, Caesar knew that he could depend on the loyalty of his troops. With his army behind him, he crossed the Rubicon River that marked the border between Gaul and Rome. This was not only defiance but treason; Roman law expressly forbade a military commander from leading soldiers into Rome. Caesar’s move was therefore the equivalent of a declaration of war. The power struggle that followed took the troops all the way to Egypt. Pompey was assassinated and his forces defeated. Caesar returned to Rome, where the Senate named him dictator for life.
Achieving absolute power did not seem to corrupt Caesar; he was a reformer who quickly won the support of the people. Among his most notable reforms was the establishment of the Julian calendar, with its 365-day year and an extra day in every fourth year. The month of Quintilus was renamed Julius in Caesar’s honor; similarly, Sextilis was renamed Augustus in honor of the next ruler. Most Western nations used the Julian calendar until AD 1582, when it was tweaked slightly to bring it more closely into line with the solar year.
Caesar’s reign was brief. A conspiracy of senators and their supporters, dismayed by the dictator’s exercise of absolute power and wanting a return to the Roman Republic, murdered him in the Senate in March of 44 BC. Since the conspirators had not made a coherent plan to bring about the desired result, civil war broke out among the factions. Caesar’s nephew and heir Octavian led one group, Marc Antony the other. The war spread to Egypt, where Antony allied with and married the pharaoh Cleopatra. Octavian’s forces defeated Antony and Cleopatra’s in 31 BC. Egypt was added to the empire, and Octavian became the first Roman emperor. He ruled under the title Augustus.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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