Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Praecipitia in Ruinam: The Decline of the Small Roman Farmer and the Fall of the Roman Republic

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Praecipitia in Ruinam: The Decline of the Small Roman Farmer and the Fall of the Roman Republic

Article excerpt

Praecipitia in Ruinam: The Decline of the Small Roman Farmer and the Fall of the Roman Republic

War and fraternal bloodshed dominated the late Roman Republic. From the tribunate of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus in 133 to the beginning of the Augustan Principate in 27, Rome was wracked by internal dissention and political anarchy. (1) The chaos was the product of the unbounded personal ambitions of Rome's leading men--ambitions that were encouraged by a militaristic culture that impelled individual aristocrats to pursue fame and glory for themselves at all cost. Powerful Roman commanders made war with each other and sacked the city of Rome with their personal armies. "Violence," according to Appian, "prevailed almost constantly, together with shameful contempt for law and justice." (2) This traumatic episode witnessed the dismantling of the oligarchic Republic and its replacement with a government ruled by the despotic authority of one man. Personal ambition tells only part of the story. The Republic was, in many ways, a victim of its own success. By 133 the Romans found themselves in command of a far-flung empire extending from Spain in the west to Asia Minor in the east, but they were forced to administer it with the government structure of a city-state. Rapid imperial expansion during the middle Republic strained nearly every aspect of the Roman system but none more so than the very foundation of Roman military strength--the small farmer. Spoils of war were channeled into agriculture by the landed elite, resulting in economic polarization and the displacement of independent labor in the countryside. This inquiry traces the socio-economic developments that led to the decline of independent farming in Rome, developments that culminated in political turmoil and civil war during the first century.

The question of what caused the decline of the Roman Republic is a complex one. In answering it, many ancient and modern writers have held that the problems of the late Republic were caused by the steady deterioration of aristocratic morals throughout the second century. Sallust, a contemporary of G. Julius Caesar and Catiline, complained of the "shamelessness, bribery and rapacity" prevalent in the political life of his time, the "corruption of the public morals," and the "two great evils of... extravagance and avarice." (3) Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing towards the end of the first century, reflected on the virtuous days of the early Republic when Roman leaders "worked with their own hands, led frugal lives, did not chafe under honourable poverty, and, far from aiming at positions of royal power, actually refused them." (4) The first century historian Velleius Patercullus complained of the "private luxury" and the "public extravagance" of Rome's leading citizens. (5)

This view continues to attract its defenders. Historian R. E. Smith, for example, argues that the senatorial class was handling Rome's problems just fine up until the end of the Third Punic War and that it was the "fundamentally irresponsible" behavior of the Gracchi that disrupted the traditional political system and set in motion the decline in aristocratic morals. (6) Historian David Shotter blamed the corrupting influence of imperial wealth for the gradual loss of the "old-fashioned corporateness" of Roman society and the rise in individualism among the Roman aristocracy. (7) Historian Monte Pearson attributed the degeneration of aristocratic morals to imperial growth, the corruption of the political process, and the breakdown of collectivist norms that had once imposed an unshakeable restraining influence on the behavior of individual magistrates. (8) Historian Pamela Marin drew attention to the erosion of long-held Roman ideals of patriotism and selfless service to the state and their replacement with "competition, desire, and greed" on the part of the Roman elite. (9) Historian Ronald Syme focused on the incessant squabbling of the Roman nobility and their corrupt, sinister, and fraudulent behavior in his discussion of the Republic's end. …

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