Speak to any serious historian or sociologist and they’ll tell you the ancient world has much to teach us, about society, about power, about the rise and fall of civilizations. Let them go on, and at some point they’ll almost certainly draw a parallel between the modern West and Ancient Rome. As much of a cliché as it seems, I don’t think they’re wrong to do so. After all, many of our institutional and legal principles come direct from our Greco-Roman cultural ancestry. Like the West, Rome was not just one of the world’s greatest economic and military powers, it had a complex and sophisticated society and government. And like the West, Rome was influenced by the unique philosophy of Ancient Greece. These ideas have shaped our laws and our public institutions. They also shaped Rome’s system of democracy, which though flawed and quite exclusive by modern standards, was an indescribably rare achievement in the Ancient World. But Rome’s Republic, including its Senate and People’s Assembly, was destined to fall, replaced by the Roman Empire between 29BC and 49BC. Whatever we might make of the Empire, its hard not to lament the loss of the Republic and the ideals it held aloft.
Now while its fashionable to talk about the later decline of the Empire due to decadence or economics or barbarians or the simple march of time (“what goes up must come down”), I feel there is actually much more to be learned from the earlier fall of Republic. The Empire was an impressive power, but sociologically no more interesting than many other hierarchical civilizations. No, it is the Republic with whom we share our philosophy and system of government. The Republic is our ancestor. And so, it is the fall of the Republic that gives us the stories whose voices ring true for us even today.
So why did the Republic fall? I imagine if we were flies upon the wall of the Roman Senate, we might be more than a little tempted to point the finger at politic failure. Political factionalism in the years leading up to the Fall have a curious similarity to the dismal bickering of our own left and right wings. However, most explanations I’ve seen don’t regard this as a central cause. Unproductive political tribalism might be on the increase today, but it isn’t new in the West, and it was no stranger in Rome. In fact, the plebeians and the patricians had been in periodic conflict for centuries, ever since the kings of Rome had first been overthrown. While it didn’t help the cause, politics weren’t the heart of the Republic’s decline.
Politics is just one of many factors that probably facilitated the fall. If we were flies in the Roman forum or markets, we might have just as easily blamed decadence. But most historians generally agree there was a key event preceding the fall that simply cannot be overlooked – the professionalization of the Roman Legions, known as the Marian Reforms. This decision to fundamentally restructure Rome’s legions is an event worth knowing about, because its probably close to the most pivotal turning points in Roman history.
But before we get to story of Marius and how the Republic was set on a doomed path, let’s go back just a little further.
Rome was heavily influenced by the sophisticated civilization of Ancient Greece that dominated the region in the centuries before Rome’s rise. Unlike the single powerful state of Rome, the Greek world consisted of a myriad of city-states, sometimes vying for power, sometimes engaged in trade, sometimes forming great alliances. In between it all they managed to develop the basics ideas of Western philosophy that are still reverberating through the ages today. The unique feature of the Greek city state, or “polis”, was the direct democracy in which citizens (well some, usually males holding property) had a right to vote on the collective decisions, laws and policies of the polis. However the Ancient Greek citizens weren’t just voters. When the polis became involved in military conflict, the same citizens would become warriors, each holding to their duty for their polis, defending it with force where necessary. Ancient Greek citizens had a special dual status, as warriors, but also as farmers and labourers and craftspeople and traders.
Armed with shield and spear, these citizen-warriors had things to fight for – a community, status, wealth, settled families. On the other hand, they also had good reason to make sure the society they defended was worth living in. A military dictatorship might be quite effective at defending the borders and bludgeoning enemies into submission, but for most of the Greeks, it wasn’t the kind of place you’d want to live or raise a family in. The citizen-warriors of Ancient Greece had a stake in both community and military, and so they had a vested interest in making sure everyone both contributed and received their fair share in both spheres. They also had an interest in making sure one sphere of affairs didn’t dominate or undermine the other.
The early Roman warrior not only inherited the Greek fighting equipment and style, they emulated the Greek citizen-warrior in spirit too. This early Roman military was levied from duty-bound citizens called to answer the call in times of need. Like the Greeks hoplites before them, the Republic fielded warriors drawn from their own population, armed with what weapons their social class could afford, and ready to defend and advance the interests of their home – Rome. The Romans, through alliances and well-organised ferocity, managed to advance themselves within the Italian peninsula, rising to be the dominant force amongst the many tribes and cities.
Yet sometimes success brings problems almost as bad a failure – or so it was for the Republic. From around 200BC onwards the Roman territory of control began to exceed the borders of Italian peninsula and extend to far-away lands such as Iberia and Northern Africa. The further the Romans went from Rome, the more alien the cultures and the more difficult the task of political integration became. Instead of defeat bringing tribute and pledges of military and economic cooperation, it increasingly brought resentment, resistance and rebellion requiring the ongoing maintenance of force. When new powers threatened Rome’s distant territories, Rome couldn’t rely on these resentful foreign cultures to simply field an army of citizen-warriors on Rome’s behalf. The only other option was Roman muscle. Now further and further away from home, Roman warriors were no longer required to just spend the summer in brief raids. Instead they needed to spend years on campaign and in occupation, away from their families and homes, defending far-flung frontier lands. The citizen-warrior was no longer enough. To maintain and spread its influence, Rome needed something new.
The apparent solution came in the form of Gaius Marius. Marius was a cunning general and politician with enough military and political clout to drive real structural change in Rome’s armies. In essence, Marius responded to the deep problem by professionalising the Roman military. He loosened the entry requirements for the heavy infantry core of the Roman legions, which had previously been limited to the middle and upper Roman classes. Now both the poorest citizens and people from allied Italian nations could join. Instead of requiring them to provide their own equipment, he provided standardized equipment designed around the needs of large-scale warfare and paid for by the state. In return the soldier would have to serve for an extended period of many years, after which they were promised land, some basic wealth, and if they weren’t yet Roman, citizenship. For the first time, being a soldier was no longer just a citizen’s duty, it was a career.
Given that Rome’s unemployment was increasing thanks to a plentiful supply of foreign slave labour, Marius’ solution was a certain kind of genius. He was killing two birds with one stone. He solved the issue of the increasingly unruly lower classes and the supply of military muscle in a single swift act.
Unfortunately this reform would have profound consequences, sowing the seeds for the Republic’s downfall. Now there was a class of soldiers apart from the populus, more loyal to the ever-present general than to a homeland they hadn’t seen in years. In time, they developed independent interests and a culture all of their own. For someone seeking personal power, they were also a brilliant political tool just waiting to be leveraged. Meanwhile, in Rome, the poor were falling into dependence, while the rich were falling to corruption, and the greater good of the polis began to drown in decadence and apathy. Rome wasn’t the homeland any more, it was simply a stage on which one made their bid for fame or fortune, no matter the cost.
Now the civilians and the soldiers stood apart from each-other. Rome’s democracy, society and civilization was effectively cleaved in two.
Rome didn’t need to wait long for the inevitable conclusion to this festering conflict. One of Marius’ subordinates, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, became disgusted with the ineffectual political machinations in Rome in response to King Mithridates VI of Pontus, who was threatening parts of Rome’s eastern territories (in modern day Turkey). So Sulla marched his troops on Rome itself, forcing the reversal of the policies of the Senate (and ironically his old boss Marius, whose schemes appear to have been thwarting what Sulla felt was a decisive defence). For the first time the Roman military became political leverage over the civilian apparatus of government. Whereas the military and the people were previously one-in-the-same, now the military held its own separate interests and leaders, for whom an increasingly alien (for them) civilian system of government would be seen as a barrier to the effective defence of the nation.
Ironically, Sulla was a conservative member of the upper classes, and almost certainly wasn’t out to destroy Rome’s democracy, which was most dearly loved by its old, wealthy and powerful families. He attempted to put in place his own reforms to stabilise democratic rule and limit the possibility of others using similar tactics for less (in his eyes) noble purposes. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of his methods turned a lot more heads than the nobility of his intentions. Only a generation later Julius Caesar marched his own disgruntled legions into Rome, fatally undermining the Senate. And when Caesar was assassinated by alarmed conservatives, his great-nephew Octavian used the chaos that followed to eventually install himself as Emperor. Only decades after Marius’ reforms, the centuries-old Republic, including both the Senate and the People’s Assembly, was effectively dead.
I want to really avoid putting the blame for the Fall on individuals. Marius was apparently quite a shady character, but his reforms were strategically sensible given the problems of the time. Sulla appears to have honestly been attempting to address a serious threat to Rome and the poison of an ineffectual political system. And if we’re generous, perhaps even Caeser and Octavian could be seen as trying to save Rome from its own disfunction. What really matters here is that the structural changes and forces would have probably pushed Rome in the same direction even if these larger-than-life characters had never existed. The fact is that the obvious response to the logistic reality split the republic in two, not physically, but culturally. By becoming ends-in-themselves, the two halves had lost what gave their worth and legitimacy. From that point onwards, it was unavoidable that Rome would declare war upon itself. The Empire still had the momentum of Rome’s economic and military power, but try as the Emperors might, they couldn’t address the decadence and corruption that would now eat away at the civilization from within. Most of all, the civilians of Rome lost their democracy, and the soldiers, to some minds at least, lost something worth defending and coming home to.
The modern West isn’t Rome, and history doesn’t literally repeat itself, but I think there’s enough curious similarities to make the Republic’s fall worth paying attention to.
Like Rome, we certainly have a disfunctional divide between left and right wings of politics. There’s always been differences of opinion of this kind, in Rome or the modern West, but our current divide seems to have widened far enough to have facilitate a deep descent into manipulative rhetoric, tribalism and opportunism – a mirror to the problems of the late Republic. While we’re singing a cynical song, we might also note Rome’s economy became increasingly intertwined with military overreach, importation of slave labour, and unjustifiably centralised estates in the hands of the wealthy (who were interestingly on the “left” of politics when it came to war in the late Republic, and who fared poorly in the chaotic downfall of Roman democracy). Rome also had the enormous challenge of integrating a massive number of new citizens and culturally diverse populations under its control. When integration fails, coercive rule becomes far more tempting as a way to deal with the hostile population in your midst. Today, we have a whole political spectrum of intellectual failures to choose from – neither cultural relativism, political correctness, economic opportunism and malignant racism will save us if we can’t achieve intelligent cultural integration.
But all this is a sideshow compared to the central threat to the democratic ideal, of meritocracy, freedom of thought, of the rule of law – the cleaving of democracy. Where the military resents civil ideals and freedoms, or where civilians neglect threats to the nation and the seriousness of the world, our fundamental values are undermined. When these two failures become conflicting cultural forces, the resolution will ultimately be internal despotism or external destruction.
I don’t know what the solution is. But I do think that the ancient world has some quiet advice for us. This is the advice I hear as I read through the stories of history: the Republic fell because citizenship became split between civilian decadence and military belligerence. So, it is our duty to learn from this and try to avoid the same fate. We must try to prevent the emergence of the two divided, broken cultures that beset the Roman Republic in its last days. We cannot reasonably expect part-time soldiers to be as effective as a nation’s needs demands, and civilians ridiculously carrying around spears certainly doesn’t address the problem. We must address the problems in our hearts and minds instead.
So, let the soldier and civilian alike elevate the ideal of citizenship. Whatever role we take in life, let us try to assume the citizen’s mantle of responsibility. Like the citizens of a polis in Ancient Greece, let us try to bring the temperance of the civilian and the strength of the warrior to our work, our views, our contributions, to the economy, to the environment, and to our way of life. If our work demands more of one, let our mind focus more on the other. In vigilance we understand the fundamentally serious and dangerous nature of the world, but in compassion we uphold the duty to make that world worth living in. In citizenship we throw off the childish demands that it is others who must set the world right, or the expectation that our fellows ought to bend to our will because we hold ourselves to be mighty. The citizen, free of such things, forges a better future not with the fires of coercion or shame or outrage, but by the virtuous hands of knowledge, hard work, study and leadership by example. It is the citizen that stands at the heart of all civilization, and it is the citizen who must awaken for a worthy Republic to rise again in our future.
-Note: I’ve done my best to be very accurate, but I’m not a historian, so please feel free to correct me on any minor errors I may have made.