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Roman Domestic Politics in the Late Republic - 100-44 B.C.
by James McKeown
The final decades of the Roman Republic were a time of upheaval for the wider Mediterranean as well as the republic itself. Since the establishment of hegemony over the other peoples of the Italian peninsula and the Punic Wars against Carthage (fifth to third centuries B.C.), the city state of Rome had gradually aquired ever more territory overseas. Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, parts of North Africa and Greece had all become Roman provincia, governed by one of Rome's yearly magistrates (thus, a consul or praetor after his year in office set out to govern a province as a proconsul or propraetor). The state therefore needed larger armies that had to spend more time away from their homeland, which in turn led to a situation where these citizen farmer/soldiers could not hold on to the land they worked, and rich senators or equites (the census class just below that of senator, often richer and not subject to the senatorial ban on engaging in trade) bought up large tracts of land and had the land worked by slaves.
This in turn caused the further disintegration of the traditional citizen farming structure. The attempt to address this situation by Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus in 133 and his brother Gaius ten years later led to political violence on a previosly unprecedented scale, where vested interests of some of the richer landowners in the senate ensured their deaths.
These were the first examples of political rivalry between the so-called optimates and populares.
By 100 B.C. the great general Gaius Marius had removed the ban on the use of the lowest census class - the so-called capite censi or head count - in the legions, and had inadvertently created a situation where a successful general and politician could award his veterans with parcels of land owned by the state (ager publicus) and thus ensure their loyalty to himself rather than the state. (Note that there was no separation of civil and military spheres of interest : a good general also had to be a good politician.) Although Marius may not have realised the potential himself, his rival in the civil war of the 80's, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, did and had soon marched his veterans of the First Mithridatic War against Rome itself.
Sulla then became dictator, an elected post for times of crisis usually lasting around six months, and proceeded to strengthen the power of the senate and the optimates against popularis politicians who wanted to use the people's assemblies as their own political platform. The holders of the office of tribune of the plebs, the ten magistrates who safeguarded the interests of the non-patrician population of Rome, were barred from further office and had their right to veto legislation removed. The equites were removed from juries and the cursus honorum, the traditional path of magistracies (quaestor, aedile, praetor then consul) was reinforced with a set age limit for each. Thus, Sulla hoped to stop anyone from gaining the sort of power he himself held.
Cite this work
McKeown, J., "Roman Domestic Politics in the Late Republic - 100-44 B.C.," http:// romans.etrusia.co.uk
/roman_politics_p1.php, 21 October 2004.