The rise of ambition

At the moment when it seemed the Republic of Rome was poised at the apex of greatness, it all fell apart. Her highly successful foreign policy – at least from Rome’s point of view – was balanced by growing domestic disorder that veered towards anarchy.

There are as many theories behind the fall
of the Roman Republic as there are
historians to put them forward. However,
certain assumptions can be made. By the
mid-first century BC Rome had become a
victim of its own success. Conquests to the
west in Spain, to the east beyond Macedonia
into Asia Minor and across the Mediterranean
in North Africa had made the senatorial
governing system unsustainable. Even this
may have worked for some longer time,
were it not for the fact that the Senate had
grown both complacent and fractious. For
several decades it had been riven with
factional conflicts that often centred on the
ambitions of the ancient patrician families on
the one hand and those of the ‘new men’, politicians arising from the rural Italian provinces, on the other.

These two social groups broadly, but not exclusively, divided themselves between the Optimates party, conservatives who put the rule of the Senate first, and the Populares, reformers who worked through the people rather than the Senate. The division of opinion was almost exclusively concerned with the benefits of the city of Rome and its immediate hinterland, not really with the greater matter of
empire. Put simply, the Roman state had become too large and encompassed too many different peoples with varying needs for
the existing government by senatorial and public committees to
cope. Rome might have been the centre of the world, but its
oligarcic plutocrats acted more like parochial land-owners than
the governors of an empire.

Rome itself had also swelled to bursting point, filled with
indolent citizens, most pushed off their farms by land-grabbing artistocrats. The mob, which paid no taxes, thanks to recent
conquests, constantly demanded free food and public entertainment. The mob was bored and happily exchanged yesterday’s allegiance for today’s, swayed by the next clever orator to come along. Street violence and open rioting was symptomatic of the factional crises facing the Republic, and in so many aspects it was writ large that Rome needed a strong man to guide the empire’s fortunes.

First of these was the ‘new man’ Gaius Marius, born in 157 BC in Arpinum in southern Latium. In every respect, Marius was a country bumpkin in the eyes of the Roman aristocrats. Arpinum had only gained full citizenship in some 30 years before his birth. He distinguished himself in his early military service and after struggling to make his way in Rome’s politics, gained the patronage of the Metelli, a plebeian family but one of the most powerful dynasties in the city. The debacle of Optimate consular failures against the Numidian king Jugurtha after 112 BC and the loss of legions fighting the marauding Germanic tribes that won battles in 109, 107 and 105, provided Marius with the fuel he needed to win a popular election as consul in 108 BC. He was elected again in 104 and then every year – first warring against Jugurtha, and then against the Germans, annihilating them at Aquae Sextiae in Transalpine Gaul in 102 – until his sixth consulship in 100. This was contrary to all law and precedent.

However, Marius, having reformed the Republican army, and having achieved his aims of passing laws that settled his veterans on parcels of the ager publicus (thus making his proletariat army property-owning citizens), retired in 99 BC. His return to public life as a legate during the Social War brought him back in contact with his erstwhile lieutenant, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138–78 BC). If Marius – a jumped-up country man – had been ambitious, the aristocratic but impoverished Sulla was about to redefine the word.

Sulla’s record during the Social War elevated his stature with the Roman nobility, and he was elected consul in 88 to deal with Mithradates, who by this year had overrun all the Aegean and Greece. Marius, who felt he should have been elected, was furious and the distrust between the two that had developed after a squabble in Africa over Sulla’s handling of a campaign increased. Marius used the tribune Publius Sulpicius to enact a law giving him command of the legions, which was passed amid much mob violence. Sulla’s strength lay in the loyalty of the soldiers who served alongside him. He promptly left for Nola, where they were still encamped after the Social War, and persuaded them to march with him on Rome.

The late Republic, 113—101 BC
Click map for larger, downloadable image


Rome's streets were teeming with the proletariat, many thrown off their family lands, all seeking free food hand-outs and ready listeners to any entertaining politician.

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