Social Revolution and Progress

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Social Revolution and Progress


Tiberius Gracchus and the Roman Revolution. Internal domestic politics had remained relatively stable at Rome since the lex Hortensia in 287 had effectively settled the Conflict of the Orders. The end of the Third Punic War and the sack of Carthage in 146 B.C.E. announced the domination of Rome over the Mediterranean region. Internal dissent quickly resurfaced and would eventually engulf the Republic over the next hundred years. This period, referred to as the “Roman Revolution,” traditionally begins with the proposals and fate of one Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. Tiberius was himself a plebeian through his father (also named Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus), but was related to one of the most prestigious patrician families, the Scipios, through his mother, Cornelia. In 133 B.C.E., Tiberius was elected tribune and proposed new legislation governing the distribution of land. No one can be absolutely sure now what Tiberius hoped or planned to effect with his reform, but his proposals affected several problematic issues at the time. Wealthy Romans had illegally been amassing large amounts of land (including territory won in military conquests) and using more slave labor to maintain huge farms. Land ownership was a prerequisite to military service and the basis for much Roman wealth, so farmland gathered in the hands of a few men weakened the military reserves and generally impoverished many citizens. In addition, the dependence on slave labor led to the fear of slave revolt. Tiberius Gracchus proposed restricting land lots to their traditional limit of five hundred Roman acres (roughly three hundred modern acres) with related restrictions and compensations, including a new commission that would ensure the continued fair distribution of parcels of land. Wealthy members of the Senate objected to having their own land holdings restricted or reduced. Tiberius bypassed the Senate on a legal technicality to propose his reforms, which set off a

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series of questionable tactics by both Tiberius and the Senate until the bill was finally enacted. The commission was formed and began its work. Tiberius then sought to be reelected as tribune, an unprecedented action that alienated many of Tiberius’s own supporters. Eventually, a senator named Scipio Nasica led a charge that killed Tiberius and some three hundred of his backers. Unfortunately, this incident would be far from the last to shed blood in the name of controlling the Republic.

Gaius Gracchus Continues the Revolution. The younger brother of Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, served on the land commission, which remained in power even after Tiberius’s murder. Gaius, however, would go much farther than his brother had. When he was elected Tribune in 123 B.C.E., he worked for a series of significant reforms. These reforms included solidifying the land bill of his elder brother, establishing a means for distributing grain to the masses at Rome, providing some relief and public works for the poor and for Italians outside of Rome, and forming a colonization plan for the Romans. Gaius also attempted to extend the right of full citizenship to Italians outside of Rome, who had supported Rome in its wars but still did not have full rights. This measure failed, however, and Gaius’s popularity began to wane, scarcely two years after being elected tribune. When Gaius lost the election to his third term, tensions rose. The new tribune promptly repealed one of Gaius’s reforms, and Gaius chose to take up arms in revolt. The Senate, in turn, declared a state of emergency (which came to be called the senatus consultum ultimum, “final decree of the senate”) and empowered magistrates to take drastic measures to protect the state. In the ensuing conflict, Gaius and some three thousand followers were killed or executed.

Legacy of the Gracchi: Populares and Optimates. Although unsuccessful, the Gracchi permanently changed the nature of political and class struggle in ancient Rome. Judgment of the Gracchi has been mixed. On one side, they were themselves nobles who tried to bring about much needed reform. On another side, they took steps that undermined the very Republic such reforms would protect. They also tragically set the precedent for spilling Roman blood in civil conflict. In spite of their deaths, their legislation and methods had a profound impact. Whereas previously the plebeians had gradually (and through threat of secession) won a series of concessions, the Gracchi demonstrated it was possible to defy the Senate openly while pursuing reform or power. Henceforth, those who pursued their goals backed by support of the people (populus) against the Senate became known as populares, while backers of the aristocracy were the optimates (from Latin optimi, the “best”). This schism led to dire consequences over the next century.

The Power of the Equites and Publicani. Some Gracchan legislation also had long term reverberations. Gaius Gracchus passed legislation to reduce corruption by Roman governors who ruled over provinces in newly conquered territories. These governors became notorious for wrecking their territories and securing wealth for themselves. These activities were illegal, but, because those accused would be tried by their fellow senators, who themselves had or desired to acquire wealth from governorships, they would rarely be punished. Gaius instead made the juries of such trials drawn not from the Senate but from the class of equites (“cavalry,” traditionally the second-wealthiest class in Rome). This move increased the power and influence of the equites. In another reform, Gaius Gracchus raised money to support his proposals by selling taxes in a new Roman province, Asia (corresponding to the southwestern part of modern Turkey). Unlike modern governments, Rome did not collect taxes directly. Gaius set up a system where tax collectors (publicani) bid on the right to collect taxes. The Roman government would award the contract to whichever publican promised to deliver the most money. The publican, meanwhile, would make a profit by extracting as much money as possible in the process of collecting the tax, which inevitably led to abuse. Gaius Gracchus likely did not realize the power he was giving to the publican corporations at Rome, since he generally supported the rights of residents in the provinces.

Marius and the New Military Class. The Gracchi had recognized areas in the Roman Republic where tensions could break out into violence and disaster. Tiberius understood the disparity of land ownership and related weakness in recruits for the Roman military. Gaius tried to extend political franchise to the citizens of Italy. The assassinations of the Gracchi meant that the drastic need for reform went unfulfilled. The Romans had been struggling to recruit forces for their military campaigns, for landowners were reluctant to leave on military service only to have their homes lost or otherwise devalued in their absence. A general named Gaius Marius finally took the necessary step to solve the problem. When he was consul and was put in charge of a campaign in Africa in 108 B.C.E., he recruited vast numbers of poorer citizens who owned no property. Marius’s move solved the problem of providing sufficient manpower for the army, but it also had far-reaching consequences for the relationship between Rome and the soldiers. Previously, soldiers enlisted for a limited number of campaigns and expected to return home to their farms after completing their service. Many of the new recruits, without their own homes, made careers of military service. They needed to be provided for while in the army (not having their own wealth to provide supplies and equipment) and expected to have some land when they finally retired. Moreover, career soldiers devoted their loyalty more to the general who led them and looked out for their interests rather than the Senate or aristocracy back at Rome. Both the standing army and veterans remained a power in politics and economic decisions throughout the history of Rome, although Marius certainly could not have envisioned such long-reaching consequences of his solution to a recruitment problem.

The Social War and the Dictatorships of Marius and Cinna. Marius scored many military successes, including in what is called the “Social War” (socius being Latin for “ally,” so “War with the Allies”), when the peoples of the Italian peninsula revolted. This war concluded when the Senate finally granted citizenship to all of Italy in 89 B.C.E. It is typical of the chaos of the time that the Social War served to delay yet another crisis. The ensuing struggle for supreme power at Rome involved armies loyal to their generals rather than to Rome, to say nothing of to the Senate.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla became the first person to capitalize on the new power derived from troops loyal to himself and he attacked the very city of Rome in order to unseat Marius. Marius, joining his army with that of Cornelius Cinna, drove Sulla out of Rome and initiated a reign of terror against his enemies. Marius died in 87 B.C.E. before actually ruling and Cinna was thus left in charge for the next few years. Throughout these conflicts, the Roman senate ranged from being utterly helpless to trying delicately to negotiate among fierce military rivals, a role far from the absolute dominance the Senate held over financial, military, and political affairs for several centuries.

Sulla the Temporary Dictator. By 83 B.C.E., Sulla was openly mobilizing his troops to recapture the city of Rome by force. By the end of 80 he had thoroughly destroyed all those who opposed him, although he was already legislating as victor in early 81 B.C.E. Sulla’s actions showed the brutal consequences of Marius’s reforms in the army and the reality of the new military power. Sulla had made huge financial promises to his supporters and owed his troops land to settle. He fulfilled these obligations by drawing up long lists of men (conscriptions) to be killed and property confiscated. This move at once demonstrated the dominance of military leaders and also led to long-term changes in the social and cultural makeup of the Italian territories. On the political front, Sulla demanded from the Senate the title of interrex (“Acting King”), which had not been used since the days of the monarchy more than four hundred years earlier. Sulla’s de facto (“in fact”) authority as a military leader and de iure (“in law”) power as dictator enabled him to push through reform on a scale others had been trying to accomplish since the days of the Gracchi. He increased the power of the Senate overall, including adding three hundred new members, notably introducing members of the equestrian order from Italy outside Rome, in order to dilute the old entrenched aristocracy. At the same time, he reduced the office of Tribune, where the plebs had once struggled for power and from where activists such as the Gracchi had attempted reform. He also put the cursus honorum (literally “course of honors,” for example, the sequence of political offices for nobles to attain) in its canonical form to control the later membership of the Senate. Sulla held the dictatorship for three years and then retired, entirely of his own desire, in 79 B.C.E. He had attempted to restore the Republic by reasserting the power of the Senate, which had guided Rome through its glory years, and by reestablishing a ruling class that reflected more broadly the Italian constituents of the empire. Sulla’s accomplishments with his army and through the conscriptions, however, would not fade.

Slave Revolt of Spartacus. Symptomatic of the social and economic instability of the period was the revolt in southern Italy led by the slave gladiator Spartacus. Spartacus had military training in the Roman auxiliaries and in 73 B.C.E. began a slave revolt in Capua in which he crisscrossed Italy over the next few years. At their peak, Spartacus’s troops numbered in the tens of thousands and drew in sympathizers from the oppressed free population as well. His forces defeated several Roman military attempts to stop them. Finally, M. Crassus mustered sufficient forces to defeat Spartacus and subsequently crucified thousands of the participating slaves along the Appian Way. No slave revolts on such a scale are known after that of Spartacus’s. Some thoughtful Romans realized from this revolt, and from their long history of class struggle, that brutal oppression leads to catastrophe; some others simply concluded (on a crude practical level) that forced servility is a waste of human talent. But the suitable treatment of slaves remained a controversial matter for a long time to come, often with deadly results. In the decades following Spartacus’s uprising, as the Republic continued to disintegrate, such bloody chaos would envelope more and more of the Roman population.

The Fall of the Republic. The next several decades found the Roman Republic repeatedly in turmoil. Taking their cue from the military dictatorships of Marius and Sulla, individuals vied with each other for supremacy. Such individuals would make promises of financial reward to their cue from the military dictatorships of Marius and Sulla, individuals vied with each other for supremacy. Such individuals would make promises of financial reward to their followers and attempt to appeal to one class or another (for example, the senate, the equestrians, the soldiery) to gain their support. No individual or situation lasted for long, from the failed conspiracy of Cataline, to Cicero’s hope of a “harmony of the orders” (concordia ordinum), to the First Triumvirate of Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar, with Caesar winning out and then being assassinated, to the Second Triumvirate of Lepidus, Antony, and Octavian, with Octavian finally emerging victorious after the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E. Throughout the decades of civil war, the Roman economy was generally anemic, although it is perhaps amazing under the circumstances that it did not collapse. The agricultural base for the economy did experience some change. The various land reforms meant a great amount of land changed hands, but the large farm estates continued to exist. Slave revolts such as that of Spartacus caused some Romans to rethink their use of slave labor. Free workers known as coloni would rent and work farmland, but the fact that some of these individuals joined Spartacus’s army suggests their standard of living might not have been any better than that of the slave workers. For all the societal upheavals, orchard cultivation seems to have thrived at this time. Trade inevitably suffered with the instability, but there were fortunes to be made for traders who succeeded in this high-risk environment, for competing armies meant high demand for supplies of every kind. Rome itself, ever the heart of political and economic activity, experienced growing pains typical of urban centers. The wealthy few mustered a luxurious lifestyle in the city, although some would feign a preference for a simpler life in a country home (villa). Population growth led to cramped and dangerous slums. Crises would leave the food supply and public safety unreliable. When Octavian had completed his military coup, he had much work to do as the Emperor Augustus.

Augustus and the New Order. Over the course of his forty-year reign (27 B.C.E. to 14 C.E.), Augustus established the political and economic infrastructure that would remain a successful engine of the Roman Empire for more than two hundred years. He reduced the Senate to a fixed membership of six hundred and also asserted some control over who remained and who was purged from the rolls. He set a requirement that a senator must possess property in excess of one million sesterces, and he could thus further manipulate membership by providing the necessary funds to individuals he wanted included in the Senate. It also became easier for a son to inherit his father’s position in the senate, which allowed for greater hereditary stability in the body as a whole. Control over financial and military affairs moved to the emperor, but the Senate retained its prestige as a political organ and social class. Augustus assigned men to administrative posts for permanent or lengthy terms, which gradually allowed for a pool of knowledgeable, professional imperial administrators. The Senate remained the source for the highest of these positions. The equestrian class now had a property requirement of four hundred thousand sesterces and became clearly defined as the professional

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and social class second to the Senate. Augustus generally left the tax structure and administration of the provinces as they were, but with his own accounting officials in charge, he was able to balance out the revenues of the new empire. At times he contributed from his personal wealth (more than a billion sesterces) to ensure solvency. Toward the end of his reign he established a public fund to provide retirement benefits to veterans (the aerarium militare) and so began making the military dependent on, and hence more loyal to, the Roman state rather than to individual commanders. At his death, Augustus left his successor a more sound financial system and clearer class structure than had been in place since before the days of Marius.

Economy during the Early Empire. The first and second centuries C.E. can generally be considered a time of economic prosperity and expansion for the empire. Agriculture was still basic to the economy and remained stable, but trade and commerce exploded during this period. The stability of the empire meant that trade routes could be relied upon and extended. Trade extended north as far as the British isles, south into Africa, and east as far as China; the Roman intellectual Seneca (in the first century C.E.) even predicted a trade route sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean to India. In general, financial administration became centralized in the imperial court, building progressively on the structure established by Augustus. Better emperors in this time were even able to reduce tax rates and to expand public programs. The Roman bent for practicality ensured that in every corner of the empire basic infrastructure needs—food, water, shelter, and public safety— were a priority, and provinces mostly prospered economically under Roman rule. Provisions for the provinces and cities across the empire also included a public dole to relieve the distress of the poor. The famous shows in amphitheaters across the empire became a substantial part of public funding. Political rights also expanded. Provinces gradually acquired the rights of Roman citizenship until 212 C.E., when all free people within the borders of the empire were declared Roman citizens.

Freeing Slaves. Roman slaves could be freed by their masters, at which point they acquired the status of freedman or freedwoman, an intermediate phase between slavery and freeborn. Freedmen could vote, but could not run for public office or enroll in the equestrian or senatorial orders (even if they met the financial requirements for admission to these orders). Freed slaves still had legal obligations to their former masters; for example, the former slave continued to be have a patron-client relationship with his former master. The terms of manumission could also include the freed slaves providing a certain amount of labor or services (operae) per year. The act of manumission itself took the form of a ritual before an official and, after 357 B.C.E., required the payment of a special tax. Romans seemed to have practiced manumission more than other peoples around the Mediterranean, but the extent of it cannot be exactly determined. Motivations, methods, and results varied every bit as much as the whole complex system of slavery. A Roman ideal held that masters freed slaves as a reward for honest, hard work, and such a slave was then supposed to be a valuable client to his patron, the former master. In reality, of course, other motivations prompted manumission, too. Masters had an obligation to provide food, shelter, and medical help for their slaves, but might free an old, sick, or otherwise troubled slave rather than provide for an unproductive worker. Because slaves could legally be tortured to yield official testimony in a court case—in fact a slave’s testimony was not legally valid unless delivered under torture—a master might free slaves to prevent them from providing incriminating testimony. Masters might, of course, have nobler motives as well. A master might fall in love with one of his slaves and free her so they could marry. A common method of manumission was for a master to free slaves in his will. The relationship between a slave and former master could also vary widely. Some freedmen or freedwomen were legally adopted by their former master. Some had extremely warm, close relationships. Some relationships turned bitter. Slaves could hold a wide range of jobs, and the likelihood of manumission probably differed according to their positions. Most surviving evidence about freed slaves refers to wealthier slaves involved in business, who were more likely to leave behind records or monuments of their achievements. Slaves in harsher roles (such as that of farm laborer or mineworker) were probably less likely to be freed when they could simply be sold instead. The children of freed slaves were born free and had all the rights of free citizens.

Freedmen, Provincials, and Patronage. As the Roman Empire expanded and grew more prosperous, social change permeated Roman culture as more individuals from all around the empire participated in political and business life. Some Romans expressed discomfort with the changes in the institutions they had venerated, often expressing it in terms of decline from the glory days of the Republic (although most Romans who expressed this disdain had never experienced the Republic themselves nor the chaos that engulfed it). The system of clients and patrons was one such institution. Whereas during the Republic wealthy patrons needed clients for the purpose of campaigning in elections, under the empire such elections fell away to imperial authority and so the nature of the client-patron relationship changed. Some Romans felt it decayed into a system where clients simply fawned on wealthy patrons in order to garner money, gifts, or a dinner invitation, while the patron simply relished the flattery. At times they would blame “foreigners” for such changes, as Rome became increasingly cosmopolitan with peoples from provinces well beyond Italy. Another type of patronage also increased, or was more noticed, that between master and former slave. Slaves, when freed, automatically and legally became a client of their former master. Talented and skilled freed slaves of a well-connected patron could become rather wealthy and powerful in their own right (and thus, that much more beneficial to their former master). The creation of certain official positions by the Emperor Augustus enhanced the visibility and status of successful freedmen. Certainly compared with the entire slave population, relatively few slaves became wealthy. Other Romans of free status (but perhaps not as well off in finances or authority) stereotyped these wealthy freed slaves as tasteless, crude, and unsuited to their new position. Despite these reactions, the Roman Empire continued to diversify and reflect the broad range of peoples within its borders. Gradually, even prestigious and conservative groups such as the Senate had a majority of members from outside Rome and Italy. Such was the melting pot of Rome.

Crisis in the Third Century. A combination of invasions and problematic emperors promoted radical instability following the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 C.E. and through much of the third century. The military once again became the practical force that determined who would be emperor, but conflicts between different armies meant that, at times, emperors ruled with little or no certain authority. This period also saw the traditional Roman sites of authority lose what power they had left. The Emperor Septimius Severus, for example, openly stripped the Senate of authority and promoted equestrians where he could. The military chaos that dominated much of the century brought on comparable economic chaos, including uncontrolled inflation.

Diocletian and Constantine. The chaos of the third century found some respite under the rules of Diocletian and Constantine. Diocletian hoped to stabilize the empire by dividing the responsibilities, first between two people (himself and Maximian), and then among four rulers (the tetrarchy). He initiated many economic reforms, including a new mechanism for assessing taxes and a failed Price Edict to bring inflation under control and restore some fairness and trust to imperial finances. Diocletian decided it was best to resign after ruling for twenty years, and the problematic succession meant that one of the heirs, Constantine, took nearly another twenty years before reuniting the rule of the Roman Empire. Most famous for his conversion to Christianity and for moving the capital of the empire to Constantinople, Constantine continued to advance the reforms begun by Diocletian and laid the foundations for the prosperity of the Roman Empire, at least in the East. By this time, however, the venerable institutions of the Roman Republic remained in name only. The Senate declined to little more than a prestigious council for the city of Rome. Constantine would revive a title such as “patrician” from the early days of Roman history, but now it became an honorary designation rather than a statement of class or distinction.


M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).

Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim, and Cedric A. Yeo, A History of the Roman People, third edition (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1999).

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Social Revolution and Progress

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