The Roman Republic was birthed after the legendary rape of Lucretia, as told by Roman historian Livy. The subsequent overthrow by Lucius Junius Brutus of King Tarquin the Proud’s monarchy led to the creation of the Roman Republic in 509 B. C. E. The focal-point of the new order was to emphasize the sharing of power, which contributed to its fast-paced success. However, the Republic also decayed and collapsed as quickly as it had grown. The main factors that attributed to its decline were the political reforms proposed by the Gracchi, its rapid expansion and conquests, and the consuls Marius and Sulla.
These three factors all played significant roles in the decay of the Roman Republic and its transition into the Roman Empire. Tiberius and Gaius Sempronius Graccchus were two upper-class brothers who served as tribunes. As tribunes, they pushed for measures to help small farmers, which angered many politicians at the time. Tiberius Gracchus was first elected as tribune in 133 B. C. E. , where he made his first attempts at reform. After having his attempts blocked by his opposition, he bypassed the Senate and had the Plebian assembly pass his measures which aimed at redistributing public lands to those Romans who had none.
To further fund his new reforms, he bypassed the Senate once again in the decision to accept the king of Pergamum’s gifts. These actions angered the Senate because he was breaking the common tradition. However, this anger turned into hostility after Tiberius announced his run for reelection as a tribune, which also violated tradition. After this announcement, Tiberius’ cousin, Scipio Nasica, then led a mob of senators and beat him to death. After Tiberius’ death, murder in politics became a well-known political tactic and showed the ruthlessness of politics at the time and contributed to the decline of the society as a whole.
A similar situation occurred with Tiberius’ brother, Gaius, who was elected as tribune in 123 B. C. E. He also served as tribune for two years, which violated the norms at the time. And he pushed for reform that benefited farmers and the poor. In 121 B. C. E. , he proposed the idea of the equites, who were wealthy businessmen who served as a jury in Senate corruption cases. This measure was blocked by the Senate, which resulted in Gaius arming a group and preparing for a confrontation. Ultimately, the Senators responded and slaughtered Gaius and his supporters.
After these events caused by the Gracchi, factions became a dividing line in Roman politics. Factions were special interest groups who were aggressive and sometimes used force in order to prove their point. The elites in Rome classified themselves into two groups, the populares who supported the people, and the optimates who supported the elites. These divisions helped contribute to decay of the Republic and helped unravel it as well. Gaius had gained a majority of his support from the common people by reforming the military entrance requirements.
By opening the military enrollment to the proletarians, they were able to gain wealth through riches they plundered through their conquests. However, this support and loyalty also hindered the Republic. By having a military that was more loyal to its leader rather than the people it served, Gaius and his military quickly transformed into a patron-client system. Gaius had full support from the military in whatever his decisions were, good or bad. By setting a precedent for future Roman commanders, he helped accelerate the rate of the Republic’s demise.
The Roman Republic grew to cover most of the western world at the time. This growth brought enormous wealth, as well as instability. Sulla, a noble who had gained support of Italy and Asia Minor quickly, became easily capable to manipulate the government. However, many of the Italian upper-class at the time were unhappy with the distribution of the riches from the conquests and proposed that they should receive a larger percentage. Romans disagreed, thinking that sharing their riches now would lead to sharing of economical and political power in the future.
This controversy sparked the Social Wars, which resulted in the Italians defeat and the death of 300,000 people. These wars supported the Roman policy of constant expansion and growth to support itself. By growing larger and larger, the Roman Republic began to buckle under its own sheer size. After the Social Wars, Sulla marched his client army into Rome and killed or exiled his opponents and allowed his men to plunder the city. After defeating Marius and his supporters, Sulla obtained full control of the city.
He then began to exterminate anyone who opposed his beliefs. He quickly did this through a procedure called proscription, which were hit-lists of those who the terrified Senate proved guilty of treason and allowed the killer to receive their victims wealth. The Senate also then gave the title of dictator to Sulla, which gave him total control of political offices and promoted the optimates party. Sulla’s actions tarnished the legacy of the Roman Republic. He helped promote going to war purely to gain wealth and the client armies.
He also manifested the ruthlessness of Roman politics at the time, gaining office to flex his power on the Republic. His success in controlling the Senate and the government was one of the last major events that cripple the Republic and led to its downfall. In summary, the outcome of all these events throughout the period of the Republic helped contribute to it turning into the Roman Empire. Without a solid foundation, coupled with the greed of the Gracchi brothers, its rapid growth, and the consuls Marius and Sulla, the Republic quickly deteriorated into the Roman Empire.
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