How the Roman Republic Transformed Into the Roman Empire
There are four prevailing arguments among historians about what to call the roughly one hundred year period (133 BC when Tiberius Gracchus was assassinated to 27 BC when the Senate gave Octavian the title Augustus) before the Roman Empire began:
Sir Ronald Syme believes this was a time of revolution, Eric Gruen counters that, in fact, it was consistent with the rest of Roman history, Harriet Flower says Rome was adapting to new circumstances, and Josiah Osgood asserts that this was when Rome transformed into a world state.
In this essay, I will use evidence from the Gracchi’s riots and Caesar’s civil war to argue in favor of a combination of Gruen, Flower, and Osgood’s positions, and argue against Syme’s stance that revolution is what converted the Republic into the Empire because it fails to consider the broader implications and relevance of what at first glance may seem like revolutionary events.
Roman history is filled with men doing great deeds to cement their legacy. A sense of the Mos Maiorum, the way of the ancestors, drove these men to compete with their ancestors for honors and accomplishments, to try and outdo the achievements of their fathers.
The Mos Maiorum was a tradition since the beginning of the Republic and it continued through to the Empire; it’s consistent with Gruen’s Consistency Thesis, and the Gracchi are perfect examples of its influence.
The father of the Gracchi brothers “had been censor at Rome, twice consul, and had celebrated two triumphs” and their mother was “Scipio’s daughter” (Plutarch, The Life of Tiberius Gracchus, 1), daughter of the man who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War.
The expectations on these men to live up to their family legacy were immense, so it’s little surprise that their actions can be seen to have caused “all the consequences of empire — social, economic and political — [to break] loose in the Roman State, inaugurating a century of revolution” (Syme, The Roman Revolution, 16); but, in reality, their actions are no more than a continuation of the push back against the extension of Senatorial authority in the Second Punic War and class division that stemmed from the very beginnings of Rome.
Focusing on Tiberius, as his brother’s story is similar, he, as a Tribune, worked to deliver a bill that would restore public land to the poor and protect them from exploitation by the rich. Plutarch describes how the Senatorial elites’ (Optimates’) reaction to this law was to “[allege] that Tiberius was introducing a re-distribution of land for the confusion of the body politic, and was stirring up a general revolution” (Plutarch, TLTG, 4).
The idea of revolution was first introduced as propaganda to discredit Tiberius by the “the men of wealth and substance” (Plutarch, TLTG, 4) who didn’t want to give up any of that wealth; this fact is further evidenced later by the Senate’s interpretation of Tiberius’ gesture to his followers that he was in danger of getting murdered by the Senate as instead asking for a crown, giving them justification for their intent to kill him in the first place.
The fact that the land in this bill was originally meant to be public land allocated to the poor and the fact that Tiberius’ uses of Tribunate power were the result of the Senate’s objection to the bill proves that Tiberius’ wasn’t revolutionary.
A far more likely explanation of Tiberius’ intentions is that he wanted to build on the support of the common people he had originally gained by saving “the lives of twenty thousand Roman citizens” (Plutarch, TLTG, 2) by making a treaty with the Numantines, an act that also received some disapproval by the Optimates.
And after Gaius Gracchus was assassinated like his brother, the Senate imposed Senatus Consultum Ultimum, martial law where the Senate has full control of the government without legal processes, revealing their own class-driven intentions.
Three common themes in the histories of the men discussed in this essay are their family’s legacy they must live up to, their support of and by the common people, and the accusations of revolutionary against them by the Optimates. Looking at Roman history from this broader perspective, Gruen is right that “What appears to be novelties often turn out, upon reflection, to have roots in a deeper past” (Gruen, The Last Generation of the Roman Republic, 5).
Class division continued through Roman history and the Gracchi’s riots were just another, albeit significant, instance in that conflict. Julius Caesar, on the opposite end of this supposedly revolutionary period, proves Flower and Osgood right along with Gruen.
Before Caesar though, there was another important example of class division: the civil war between Marius, backed by the Populares, and Sulla, backed by the Optimates. This period was still consistent with the division seen throughout Roman history; however, it is also a smaller example of the adaptation and transformation that lead to the civil war between Caesar and Pompey.
Notably, it is in this period that the Roman army became a professional force, an adaptation to fit the needs of an expanding empire with more enemies, and it is in this period that the armies became loyal to generals over the state, a consequence of Roman expansion and transformation into a world state. These changes and their implications are what allow the Caesarian civil war to ultimately have the largest impact on Rome’s development into an Empire.
Julius Caesar, like the Gracchi, came from a patrician family with his father’s lineage going back to the founders of Rome and his mother’s lineage going back to the kings of Rome. However, his family hadn’t been in positions of power for some time, so Caesar took it upon himself to restore power to his name.
Again, like the Gracchi, Caesar’s motivations weren’t revolutionary, just driven by Mos Maiorum and Dignitas, and he also looked to the plebians to gain that prestige. While Caesar was plagued by conflict with the Optimates throughout his life, what’s interesting is that his greatest rival, Pompey, was not a member of the Optimates, and this is where Flower’s adaptation thesis and Osgood’s transformation thesis prove themselves.
Pompey rose to power without going through the Cursus Honorum, partially because of the support of the people, but also because of how Marius’ military reforms gave him a loyal private army; the power balance between classes had been broken by the interjection of this new way to gain power.
As Flower believes, “There was…no single ancient Republic that became fossilized and outlived its usefulness or its historical mission. Rather a series of republics, some more stable and successful than others, reflected the intense political culture after the end of the monarchy” (Flower, Roman Republics, 22).
There was the pre-Punic War republic of the Consuls, the post-Punic War republic of the Senate, and, in this period, the republic of oligarchies; While they still ended up adhering to the consistent class divide, the way Pompey and Caesar came into power was the result of adaptation.
Caesar also was a result of and a contributor to the Roman world state. Osgood argues that “We need to recognize that it was during the long “fall of the Roman Republic” that a more ambitious provincial administration was being developed, along with a more coherent vision of empire that promised lasting peace in exchange for loyalty to Rome and the payment of taxes” (Josiah Osgood, Rome and the Making of the World State:150BCE-20 CE, 3), and Caesar won his prestige and his army because of his provincial administration of Gaul and then proceeded to bring Gaul, Egypt, Spain, and parts of Asia and Africa deeper into Roman control.
Caesar wasn’t revolutionary because he didn’t conquer these nations, but he did expand the imperialistic policy that was already ongoing; he expediated Rome’s transformation into the Empire it was already becoming.
There was no revolution that caused the Roman Republic to become the Roman Empire; rather, it was when Rome was forced to adapt to circumstances such as foreign threats that their policy transformed from reactionary to imperialistic.
Neither of these changes, adaption or transformation, ended the consistent traditions of Roman virtues and class conflict; they were additions to those traditions whereas revolution requires replacement.
The Gracchi prove this synthesized thesis by demonstrating the consistency of Roman traditions and Julius Caesar proves it by illustrating how the adaptations to imperialism allowed him to complete Rome’s transformation into an Empire.
- Flower, Harriet I. Roman Republics. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
- Gruen, Erich Stephen. The Last Generation of the Roman Republic. Univ. of California Press, 2007.
- Osgood, Josiah. Rome and the Making of a World State, 150 BCE-20 CE. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
- Plutarch, and Ian Scott-Kilvert. Makers of Rome, Nine Lives: Coriolanus, Fabius Maximus, Marcellus, Cato the Elder, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Sertorius, Brutus, Mark Antony. Penguin Books, 1965.
- Syme, Ronald. The Roman Revolution. Important Books, 2013.