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Blood in the Forum

There was a certain level of low-level violence in Roman politics. This consisted of physically excluding opponents from assemblies and general disorder. The conduct of Roman politics transformed in the last century of the Republic.

In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus campaigned for land distribution. He had a large popular following, but was opposed by elements of the senate. When his measures were threatened he attempted to extend his office as tribune of the people by standing for election for the following year. There were fears that Tiberius was aiming at tyranny and he and his supporters were attacked. Many of them were killed.

Rather than regarding these events as a catastrophic breakdown of the political system, the victors seem to have seen the events as an assertion of order that saved Rome from an existential threat. A decade later, Tiberius’s brother, Gaius Gracchus, followed a similar path of conflict. He made offers of land to the poorer citizens. He clashed with elements of the political elite. He was also killed in a riot.

The violent suppression of dissent remained a feature of Roman political life. Notable instances included the suppression of Saturninus by legionaries under the command of Marius; Livius Drusus, who tried to get a better deal for the Italian allies, reform the corruption courts, and was assassinated; the violent career of Sulpicius, who opposed Sulla, and later the tribune Clodius, who clashed violently with Cicero and Milo, and was also murdered.

In many of these instances, the fall of these tribunes led to the exile of their supporters. It is clear also that the violent suppression of these individuals involved the deaths of many Roman citizens.

The violence of street politics turned into civil wars. These were led by generals who were competing for military and political honour. Rome and Italy saw outbreaks of civil war in:

  • The Social War (91-88).
  • Sulla’s March on Rome (88).
  • Marius’s March on Rome (87).
  • Sulla’s Second Civil War (83-82) [Continuing in Spain until 70].
  • Uprising of Lepidus (78).
  • War of Catiline (63).
  • Civil War between Caesar and Pompey (49-46).
  • Civil War between Antony and the Senate (44-43)
  • Civil War between Triumvirs and Caesar’s assassins (42).
  • War with Sextus Pompeius (intermittently 46-36)
  • War between Antony and Octavian (32-30)


Although the more optimistic of Romans may have seen the violent outbreaks as episodes of crisis successfully overcome, by the last cycle of civil wars, it was obvious that there something dramatically wrong with Roman politics.

But what? And how could the problems be solved?

  • A Greek political theorist would focus on constitutional matters. They might also appoint a law-giver. The focus would be on restoring a sense of membership of the state and ensuring social justice for the various elements of the society (excluding women, slaves, and foreigners, obviously).
  • An early-twentieth-century thinker might decided that a strong man was needed to drive the people forward through the crisis by force of will and personality.
  • Medievalists might look to re-establishing a good relationship with the divine.
  • A Marxist might think in terms of underlying class conflict and focus particularly on the relationship between the elite and the poorer groups in society (plebs and soldiers).
  • The Romans saw their problems as resulting from moral decline.


  • Which of these approaches is more realistic?
  • How might you solve the problems of Rome? 
  • What factors would you need to consider? 



One fundamental difference between ourselves and Rome is how we conceive of morality. We live in a culture which sees morality as something personal and related fundamentally to set of individual to a set of beliefs and to interpersonal relations. Morality for us has public implications, but is fundamentally private.

Morality for Romans related to how one behaved in public life.

  • Did one serve the city or did one serve oneself?
  • Did one obey political injunctions?
  • Did one support one’s fellow-citizens?
  • Did one honour traditions?

This was not a simplistic view: the Roman historians who talk most about this, notably, Livy (see especially the Preface) and Sallust (especially the War with Catiline), recognised that morality did not change by chance. They related the decline in political behaviour to the acquisition of wealth through empire. They saw that competition for wealth and status divided the aristocracy and led to the breakdown of political consensus. They understood that those enjoying vast wealth could treat their fellow poorer citizens without respect. They knew that the benefits of political and social success were so vast that even poorer citizens would seek their own benefit in any given political situation.

The Romans then saw morality as embedded within a political and economic system.

But if morality was an embedded system, was reform possible? If reform was not possible, was Rome facing inevitable decline, repeated civil conflict and destruction?

For these historians, the paradox was that the successes of the Roman state had upset the fragile political order. It had allowed some to become more powerful and wealthy and had meant that leading figures competed violently against each other. The basic rules of political behaviour which had ensured Roman political and military success, had decayed. The traditions on which Roman political culture and Roman identity were built were in decline.

Could they be restored? Would restoration mean a return to the old days, that is a loss of Empire?

The decline in morals was not a simple matter. It had deep economic and political causes. It was not just a case of getting everyone to behave better, which Augustus was to try.

There is, of course, no reason to believe in the diagnosis of the Roman historians. It is an attractive story and one which modern historians can use to develop an idea that the ‘fall of Rome’ was due to personal immorality. Nero can be become the logical result of Rome’s sin. But there is no way we can measure morality. And surely, in a truly immoral society, no one would worry about and certainly they would not write about moral issues?

However the Romans behaved, they remained ideologically conservative. Behind the emphasis on morality is a longer and more difficult story about social and economic change and inequality and how a society which is essentially conservative, always looking to the past for guidance for the future, coped with change.

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