Rome - was its problem its own army?

‘The Roman army was the Republic’s major problem: All else was subsidiary’. Discuss this assessment of political instability in Rome in the late second century.
In the late second century BC Rome had been transformed from a small agrarian city-state to the centre of a thriving empire. However her political structure had not evolved to cope with these dramatic changes; leading to many political, economic, social and military problems. These problems lead indirectly to the collapse of the republic and its replacement by a military regime. It is therefore important to trace exactly what effects these problems had on the stability of the republic.

Because of the expansion of the Roman empire, Rome was fighting more enemies than it had ever had to face, fighting further away from Rome and for longer periods. In this situation the traditional system of army recruitment was insufficient to deal with the new demands put upon it. There were many other contentious questions at this time, besides the modernisation of the army. The granting of citizenship to Italians and the role that the equestrians were to play in the government of the Republic were important. The question of settling Roman civilians and veterans was also a difficult issue. To make matters worse all of these issues were cynically used by Roman politicians for their own advantage. To answer this question we must examine whether the instability in the Late Republic was caused by any one problem, particularly the military problem, or whether it was due to the Roman politicians’ cynical manipulation of these issues.

One of the major problems in the Roman Empire was that military and civilian command were not separate - they were invested in the same men, albeit usually at different stages in their career. This created problems with the growth of Empire, as political leaders at Rome were also in control of large armies which could be fighting for months, even years, before returning to Rome. After a long and successful campaign the army and especially its leader would be received into Rome as heroes - and a commander could use this popularity combined with the loyalty of his men to dominate the government in Rome. This is a problem because it was a major factor in changing the character of the Roman system of government, which for so long had provided stable government as a successful Oligarchy. Stability had been assured by the dominance of the Senate - which had a "corporate" identity, where no individual was allowed to rise to a high position. Once politicians started to be elevated to hero-status this situation was destabilised. Political violence became increasingly common, leading to an escalating circle of revenge and bitter divisions. Perhaps command in the provinces or on campaign for a number of years instilled a different character into politicians - they became used to having their orders obeyed and enjoying almost regal power.

This problem, which was seen several times, most notably with men such as Marius and Sulla, came because the same man could be left in command for years at a time, building a rapport with his troops, increasing his fame and reputation - and growing rich on corrupt exploitation and war booty. It was a simple fact that the Republic did not seem to produce enough competent Generals - and on several occasions was forced to rely on a brilliant - but ambitious - man to save the republic. Marius did this against Jugurtha in Africa, when the war had been going so badly - and so dominated the consulship for several years. His political career was to end in the midst of civil war and extreme political violence - a conflict between ambitious politicians. Sulla as well dominated Rome through violence and after fierce fighting and bloodshed, having gained the loyalty of his army on campaigns against the Italians in the Social War and the war against Mithridates. It was only a matter of time before the periodic bouts of civil war, political domination through force and escalating circles of violence led to a man being able to defeat his opponents and retain all the levers of government - and this is exactly what the first Emperor Augustus did after his defeat of Antonius. Put simply, the possible wealth and power to be gained by an individual from Empire and the new type to large scale warfare turned men’s minds from serving the state and honouring their families to more personal advancement and ambition - and the nature of the command of armies combined with the length and seriousness of the campaigns gave them the means to serve their own interests. From this point the vestige of political and military power in the same men made disorder inevitable- and so endangered the Republic.

This situation was made worse when army reforms changed the ancient methods of recruiting men from the land to fight. This system was no longer able to supply the numbers of men needed for the wars - and the use of these men was putting a great strain on the farming community. Because the army recruitment would take the best men from a rural family the farm was often left mismanaged or abandoned altogether, reducing food production and leaving the soldiers little to return to. Many families were deserting the land for the city, fleeing poverty and military service and making the problem of army recruitment worse. Their land would be absorbed by the larger Roman landowners or occupied by "squatters" - people with no title to the land, usually Italian rather than Roman. This led to the lowering of the amount of land needed to be owned to make a man eligible for service - meaning more would be available - and then the ending of the property qualification altogether. The armies were then no longer recruited from the countryside but increasingly from the city. This was a necessary reform - in a stroke it solved both the crisis of recruitment the army was facing and the growing agrarian crisis. Poor men in the city of Rome would be quite enthusiastic to join a career that offered the chance of war booty, a wage and land at the end of the campaign.

However, the army recruitment reforms, made necessary because of the increasingly dire military situation Rome was facing, caused a problem which was to run until the end of the Republic as a destabilising influence. Because the men no longer had any land of their own to return to after the war - no income or means of support in many cases - their Commander was bound to provide for their needs. They were left after the war forced to obey their old commander, including supporting political ambitions he may have, in order to receive the land that would be made available for them. This not only increased the personal force and authority of the men who led campaigns but added an unstable element to the society of Italy and its land - large groups of men regularly had to be provided for. As events in the case of Pompey in the late 60’s BC were to show, the necessary legislation could be delayed indefinitely because of factional infighting in Rome - leaving the unsettled veteran soldiers a dangerous force in Rome.

Perhaps the reason for the increasing problems that Rome was facing because of its army - problems such as over-powerful commanders, land for veterans, problems of recruitment - was that there was no really comprehensive attempt to change the system to provide for the needs of the Republic without causing instability. The reforms of the recruitment, command structure (reformed later by Sulla), demobilisation - were all effectively ad hoc decisions taken by politicians at different times and in different situations - and for political reasons. Tiberius Graccus, for instance, brought a land distribution bill before the people which would give land held without right by Roman landowners and Italians to Roman citizens - increasing those available for service. Yet he seems to have done this mainly to win the support of those people who would normally support his enemies, the Scipiones. That the politicians of the time were more interested in factional fighting and manoeuvring can be seen by the head of the Scipionic faction, Aemilianus, bitterly opposed the bill - despite the fact he had proposed a very similar measure only ten years before and obviously saw its merits. Perhaps it was the growth in factionalism and personal ambition for dominance in Rome, clearly growing by the end of the second century BC, which caused this treatment of what were after all very important issues.

This can be seen in other issues than those concerning the armed forces. Italians were increasingly becoming more important in Roman politics - they had been agitating to be given the vote, especially since Tiberius’ "land reform" showed them how little Roman concern for their interests really was. From then on it was an issue and became used by politicians as a weapon to attack each other. Many wanted to be the one to give the Italians the vote as it would ensure their clientage - others didn’t want this because they feared their opponents could capture the Italian votes and they feared the effect this could have on the profoundly corrupt Roman political system. That this issue took so long to resolve - eventually only being solved after a war broke out (which demanded the services of another Hero General to save Rome) over the issue shows perhaps the fundamental flaw in the Roman system - the nature of decision making, the way issues were used as political weapons rather than carefully considered.

Another example of this was the issue of the role that the Equestrian class was to play in Roman political life. This class is sometimes characterised as the "capitalists" of Roman society. They were businessmen, engaged in such activities as mining and - very importantly - tax collection. They had never had a great role to play in Roman politics, but the opportunities of Empire had served the class well, and some Equestrian families had risen to wealth rivalling that of the greatest of the Patrician families which dominated the Senate. The presence of such large fortunes which could so easily be put to uses in politics, an area where money really could buy an election in the corrupt electoral atmosphere of Rome, was a destabilising influence. Equestrians must have felt increasing frustration at being allowed only a small role in administration when their economic power was so great - and they had the resources to change this. Gaius Graccus used the Equestrian issue in an attempt to gain clientage in Rome - he gave them control of some of the judicial system, using them in trials for extortion. This factional device was not enough however and some Equestrians tried to influence politics more directly. Again our best example for this comes from Marius - he came from an extremely successful Equestrian family which had made its fortune mining in Spain. He won the election to the Consulship by appealing to the Equestrians and Plebs on a pledge to win the war in Africa (which he did by ending the property qualification for legionary recruitment). Yet he was never really accepted by the established ruling class in Rome, something that would lead to great bloodshed by the end of his career as he took his "revenge". The equestrians were therefore undoubtedly an influence in the increasing factionalism and violence of the late republic. This was because they had grown important due to the growth of the empire - and just like the army they were used by ambitious politicians as a political football.

Of course there is no monocausal explanation to the factionalism, violence, division - and failure of the Republic. The growth of Empire can perhaps be seen as at the "root of all evil" in the later years of the Republic - it changed the character of the ruling class and their ambitions, it changed the way that the army fought and was managed, it created new powerbases of wealth in society outside the system of bribery and outside the ruling class. It is true that most of the problems of the Republic in these years are linked very strongly to the army - it helped to destabilise populations in the Italian peninsula and provided ambitious politicians with the ultimate political weapon which was to be used to their advantage but against the interests of the Republic. Yet this can be seen as being more the symptom of a wider problem in the Republic - the nature of its decision making process. Important issues, especially army and land reform and the position of the Equestrians and the Italians, were not considered and solved in a rational manner - issues were dealt with on priorities more in keeping with the ambitions of the politician in question than the provision of stable government. Attempts to overhaul the system in general to cope with the new demands placed upon it were few and unsuccessful - Sulla’s attempt after the civil war being the most notable and comprehensive - yet within years the character of the system shone through once again as the dismantling of Sulla’s reforms became just another issue for politicians to use for their own ends.

The factionalism which was so destructive and prevented the successful resolution of such issues as army reform was perhaps caused by the political structure which the struggles operated within. The system had begun in a small city-state with few interests even in Italy, let alone beyond the peninsula. There it was seen as completely appropriate that a small group should rule the state because they contributed so much to the state in their wealth. Institutions evolved to guarantee fair government - especially the Tribunate of the Plebs. Yet times had changed, and the vast Empire the city-state of Rome held sway over caused just as large problems. Problems such as over-powerful commanders and the constantly unsettled questions of Equestrians and Italians came about because the intense factionalism and ambition of Roman politics prevented intelligent and planned solutions to the problems. The army therefore, though a very important consideration in the instability in late second century BC Rome, was not the cause of the crisis - this was rather the outdated system of government, no longer able to cope with the demands placed upon it. This perhaps makes an Autocratic ruler something of an inevitability - because the situation was getting worse as factional fighting and civil war became more and more serious and the Empire - and the problems it brought - continued to expand. Solutions would be needed for ever larger and more intractable problems, and this would lead to the end of the Roman oligarchic Republic.

No comments:

Post a comment