In What Ways Did The Growth Of The Roman Empire Disturb The Stability Of The Roman Empire?
By Suzanne Francis
The growth of the Empire had a great effect on the stability of the republic, mainly because the government of Rome was designed to serve a small city state. As government officers were elected every year, it was hard to formulate increasingly complicated long term domestic and foreign policy, though a partially separate command structure was developed. Competition for posts, especially of Consul, increased and politics became more bitter and violent. Men who had ruled provinces as almost kings for years on end had to return to Rome with no post and the supervision of the Senate. Corruption in the provinces was also rife and many returned to Rome with enormous wealth, widening the gap between rich and poor and creating resentment which could be harnessed. As factionalism grew this wealth could also be used to capture clientage.
The growth of Empire caused two problems for the Empire - slaves and money. The wars with Sardinia and Epirus in the second century BC resulted in POWs being returned to Rome as slaves, and this process was increased by the slave trade being developed in the 140s and by the intermittent slave wars of 135-70 BC. The introduction of the slaves into Roman society had a profound social and political effects. Slaves were used as cultural advisers or domestic servants in houses, or they worked on the land. Competition and hostility in the governing classes increased with the use of educated Greek slaves as cultural advisers, as temples and other status symbols were used.
Slaves were also used to perform domestic duties within the home. This had the effect of undermining Roman family values and the parents were no longer in direct control of their children’s education, and by being freed from this were exposed to more influence and knowledge. Men became usually involved in politics, but women were left with no useful role and the tradition nuclear family broke down. Marriage became replaced by simply living together.
However, most slaves were put to work on the land and here they had the most impact, As senators returned from abroad they looked for profitable enterprise for their massive wealth. Rome was largely agricultural and so the largest source of investment was land. Roman officials bought large blocks of land gained from the expansion of Empire, land which no-one else could afford. These became hugely profitable and massive estates worked by slaves. Great profits were gained, increasing the gaps between the classes and within the aristocracy, and increasing the competition for office. Small peasant farmers were the biggest sufferers - they could not compete with the big estates and they were often abroad fighting - the empire that class won sowed their own destruction.
The plight of the peasants was made worse by imports of corn that flowed in from the provinces, where a tax was levied, usually at 10% and paid in produce. This mainly affected the coastal areas, especially ports of entry, and between 167-147 this mostly went to the army. Many peasants flooded into the towns and cities to find jobs, but there was a preponderance of slaves and so chances of employment were limited, except on occasional basis (e.g. building work). Therefore there was an unemployed mass of people who were to provide the support for men such as Tiberius Gracchus, who were to mount a serious challenge to the republic, and especially the Senate, its central institution.
Tiberius Gracchus was apprenticed to Scipio Aemilianus in the Numantine war in 137bc. A personal rivalry developed between the two men there over the release of a captured army. Aemilianus was unable to accept the achievement made by Tiberius in getting the men released and the Senate refused to acknowledge the treaty he made, causing a bitter Tiberius to seek vengeance on the Scipionic faction. He did this with a land bill he introduced as a Tribune in 13 bc. On travelling through Spain and Etruria he saw the lack of small farmers and the large amount of land owned by the big estates or left derelict. He drew up a bill to divide up illegally held land into small plots of 300 acres and distribute them to farmers who had lost their land as a result of foreign conquest.
He built himself up as a reformer, wanting to help the impoverished peasants and won great support form the plebian assemblies. The land bill would also help the problem of a lack of recruits for the army. However, it is more likely that Tiberius simply wanted to win over clientage from the Scipionic faction (many of whom would be affected by the bill) and so marginalise their support.
Tiberius bypassed the Senate - may have feared it would not pass the bill, but most Senators would not have been effected by the measure. He took the bill instead to the popular assemblies where his vocal urban supporters were. This was not strictly illegal but upset the balance essential to pass legislation (although he did act illegally to his fellow tribune). He then set up a commission to oversee its enactment into law, using money bequeathed to Rome by the King Attalus, which he claimed because of family ties in the area. He stood for re-election for 132 but his factional opponents in the Senate saw his actions as coming from a dangerous personal ambition and had him killed.
Tiberius Gracchus’ actions threatened the stability of the Roman Republic as they were contrary to the operation of Roman government. He put important matters of domestic and foreign policy in the hands of the urban mob, rejected the Senate’s usually accepted advise in dealing with matters of this sort. He changed the Tribunes from being representatives of the Plebian assemblies and made them "agents of the people’s will". His actions led to a series of civil wars which undermined and divided the Republic, such as the demonstrations of the Italians who were adversely affected by the bill, in Rome. Some have seen Tiberius as an "overzealous reformer", but others see him as an unprincipled politician.
The brother of Tiberius, Gaius Gracchus, continued his brother’s work towards the Republic. He was elected tribune in 123 and 122, his most important achievement being the politicisation of the equestrian class. The Equites were a group of rich plebians who had benefited from Roman expansion and so invested money in land and other ventures, as the senators had done. The were coherent as a group because of their new oversees commercial connections, but they had played no direct role in Roman politics. Gaius’ firstly tried to put about 300 of them in the Senate, but this failed, and he took a more indirect route. He gave them sole rights to levy taxation in Asia, a very lucrative province, and made them the jurors on the extortion court which was responsible for trying Senatorial politicians for misconduct. His motives were purely self-interest, as he wanted more reliable support in the popular assemblies, as the urban poor were open to bribery from other politicians. Therefore his position was strengthened in the popular assemblies and that of the Senate was weakened.
Another policy with which Gaius Gracchus was associated was the granting of citizenship to Italians. He was clearly trying to attract the support of the Italians as Rome expanded and became more and more Italy. However, he was foiled by the other tribune, Drusus, who proposed a more radical measure, which alienated support from Gaius, and caused a reaction against reform because it was so extreme. Drusus then withdrew the bill, as he had always intended.
The Gracchans’ actions had a number of consequences which were important. It prompted the Senate to issue the Ultimate Decree (itself illegal, something no-one seemed to mind at the time) which enabled the murdering of elements which were dangerous to the Senate, helping to divide the Senate into factions, instead of the harmony which had been previously. Scullard believes the Gracchan actions precipitated the revolution which overthrew the government.
Another significant individual in the history of the Republic was Gaius Marius, He was from an equestrian family who had won Senatorial status under the patronage of the Metelli family. He was a preator and tribune and was aiming to be a consul, but during the war of 107 he was fighting the Jugurthan war with Metellus Numiniuc. Metellus refused to let Marius return for the election, but he returned anyway and won the consulship. He was then votes by the Plebian assembly to replace Metellus in the Jugurthan war (which was not going well), despite a Senatorial decision to the contrary. Relations between the classes of Rome because more strained. Marius was very successful in the war and solved the conscription problem by removing the land qualification for service. He improved army tactics and Rome won the war. Marius was then elected for 6 successive consulships. This could have proved very dangerous for the Roman republic, as Marius’ recruitment of landless peasants concentrated a lot of power in his hands. Generals were made personally responsible for the resettlement of troops after demobilisation, and therefore landless soldiers were left dependant on their generals, even well after the campaign was over. When this was combined with the lack of a separate civilian and military leadership, there were created significant problems for the Republic. When Caesar used this power he virtually set up a military dictatorship which led to the final breakdown of stability in the Republic and its eventual collapse.
Therefore the expansion of the Roman Empire had very serious consequences for the Roman republic. The government structure of the Republic was unable to cope with the demands of running the whole of Italy and its provinces abroad. The importation of wealth and slaves from these provinces created profound economic instability, and widened the social gap, thus alienating the poorer members of society creating intense rivalry in the governing classes. Therefore when this scene of political and social instability met with individuals willing to harm the Republic for their own interests and take advantage of the wide range of new opportunities which was opened up to them by the expansion then the Republic was set on a collision course with disaster.