The empire created the emperors, not the other way round.
Mary Beard, SPQR
In popular mythology, the fall of the Roman Republic is credited to Julius Caesar; an ambitious man who leveraged the mob to build a lasting dictatorship. Perhaps, by focusing on the wrong drama we’re missing a more powerful message beneath that familiar tale.
The genius of the Roman Republic was its talent for channeling popular will into policy. In the centuries between the kings and the emperors, Rome was not formally a democracy, but its complex, ever evolving matrix of representative institutions constantly expanded the scope of public participation in government. By basing its legitimacy on representative institutions, the Republic encouraged citizens to consider the interests of the nation as an extension of their own interests.
For the first few centuries of the Republic, each new internal challenge to the authority of the Republic was resolved by expanding the circle of representation. As it grew from a city, to a people, to a nation, its institutions came to incorporate the will of a wider and wider swath of the governed.
By the second century BC Rome was a city, governing a nation, governing an empire. With borders stretching from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, the institutions that had for centuries allowed the Republic to incorporate the opinions of the citizenry were badly strained.
There were simple logistical aspects to this challenge. How could a citizen in North Africa participate in elections? By what means could an illiterate pleb working on the docks make intelligent political decisions on the basis of any factor more sophisticated than a bribe?
These technical challenges may have been daunting, but they could have been resolved. When America embarked on its republican experiment it possessed far worse communications infrastructure than the Romans, a much larger land area surrounded by hostile forces, and a population no better informed. It succeeded and thrived.
People who built roads, aqueducts and temples that function today could have overcome a mere logistical challenge. The real danger to their institutions was the growing concentration of power among a narrow elite. That concentration would dangerously unbalance the complex machinery of the Republic.
Victories in war brought vast new territory and piles of stolen wealth into the hands of the city’s tiny patrician class. With wealth so wildly out of balance to the citizens around them, they could buy political outcomes, challenged only by the competing interests of other wealthy families. They skirted the law to keep captured land for themselves, developed private security forces, and slowly ground away the republic’s power to protect its citizens.
Matters came to a head in 133 BC when Tiberius Gracchus was elected Tribune. As a military commander, for years he had watched legionaries detained on long deployments losing their farms in bankruptcy. Conquered land, which legally belonged to the state, was falling into the hands of a few well-connected rich in Rome who worked their estates with slaves. Displaced peasants and discharged soldiers with nowhere to go and no means to survive flowed into Rome.
Tiberius and his brother Gaius launched a campaign of reforms aimed at curbing the worst abuses of the patrician class and expanding representation. For his efforts, Tiberius was murdered by the Senate along with hundreds of his supporters, the first major outbreak of civil violence in the Republican era. Gaius, continuing his dead brother’s campaign, was driven from Rome by the Senate in another spasm of mass violence. He took his own life in 121 BC.
Why did the Gracchan brothers fail to expand the representative institutions of the Republic where so many others had succeeded? The Republic succumbed to simple political physics.
Fueled by vast new wealth from conquests a privileged minority could thwart reforms and reverse the steady expansion of public power that had marked the republic for centuries. By the late second century BC, they were strong enough to bend Rome’s traditional institutions away from their previously inclusive character and leverage them instead to close off threats to their own interests. Instead of expanding the government’s base of legitimacy, they were able to replace Republican institutions with raw force. Once the Republic ceased to be a credible avenue for popular representation, it was little more than an empty slogan. Julius Caesar didn’t destroy the Republic, he unmasked it. In the decades after the Gracchans, the average Roman understood that the game was fixed.
When Caesar used his military command to turn the tables on the patricians, they appealed to the people to protect liberty. The people shrugged. For ordinary Romans the rise of a dictator claiming absolute power just meant that their oppressors now had a rival.
Power, from that time on, was based on violence rather than popular will. For the remainder of Roman history, the mantle of authority belonged to whoever could control the legions. Almost every transfer of power required civil war and murder. Legitimacy, as a pillar of representative order that maintained civic values and respect for law, could not survive a massive concentration of wealth.
It is hard to build a dictatorship in a healthy society. Where public institutions are open, strong, supportive of fact-based debate, and flexible enough to evolve with social changes, there is little fuel for a tyrant. When wealth and power are highly concentrated and political institutions can be perverted into fear-based, winner-take-all arrangements, liberty shrivels.
The Caesars of the world only arrive when the ground has been prepared for them.