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Disputes of the Late Republic

So what did they fight about in the many conflicts of the Republic?

Each conflict had its own dynamic and its own immediate causes. Here, we think about patterns. Such an extended period of repeated civil conflicts would seem to require there to be fundamental flaw in the Roman political and cultural system. Can we identify that flaw?

One option, drawing on modern parallels, is to think about different social and economic interest groups. Roughly speaking, can we discern political divisions between rich and poor?

Some form of class conflict is represented in Sallust’s account of the War with Jugurtha. He explains why:

I propose to write of the war which the people of Rome waged with Jugurtha, king of the Numidians: first, because it was long, sanguinary and of varying fortune; and secondly, because then for the first time resistance was offered to the insolence of the nobles — the beginning of a struggle which threw everything, human and divine, into confusion, and rose to such a pitch of frenzy that civil discord ended in war and the devastation of Italy.

Sallust, Bellum Jugurthinum 5

Sallust identifies a very class of Romans, the nobiles.  Civil conflict is brought to Rome and Italy by resistance to the ‘arrogance’ of the nobiles. The nobiles were members of the leading families of Rome, who tended to dominate the seniors magisterial positions. But the division in Sallust is between this very, very small group at the top of the political system and the rest.

Yet, the narrative that Sallust provides in the rest of the work does suggest broader divisions in Roman society. The very powerful came into conflict with the soldiers, with members of the equestrian class, and with other members of the aristocracy.

The political differences in Roman society were never institutionalised. Sometimes, there was discussion of the optimates (which we might translate as the aristocratic) and populares (which we might translate as popular) tendencies in Roman politics. But these were words which were used of tendencies or the direction of particular measures, but not of parties. It was possible for an individual to take a more aristocratic stance on one issue and a more populist stance on another. Yet, the very fact that such labels existed suggest a division in Roman political thinking.

The issues over which there was division were:


Rome had a tradition by which conquered land was distributed to the people which went back all the way to Romulus. This tended to be in relative small amounts, but enough to establish a new community of small farmers. The main beneficiaries of these distributions were the poor of Rome for whom relocation onto a small farm was attractive and former soldiers.

The land distributions of Tiberius Gracchus exhausting the remaining supplies of public land in Italy. For subsequent plans for colonies, the Romans could either use land confiscated in civil violence or land acquired outside Italy. Colonisation after civil conflict was a means of ensuring that one’s enemies never returned, veterans remained loyal to those who guaranteed their land holdings, and of rewarding troops. We see major colonisation programmes after civil conflict conducted by Sulla, Caesar, Antony and Octavian. There were other major programmes for the veterans of Marius and Pompey.

Such programmes were deeply unpopular with the traditional aristocracy, most of whose wealth was invested in land.


By the end of the second century, Rome had grown to be one of the great cities of the ancient world. Feeding the city was an enormous logistical problem. Everything had to be brought in by barge up the Tiber or by cart. Although grain could be stored in the city, the logistical infrastructure was fragile. The poor of Rome depended largely on buying their food in markets or shops.They were vulnerable to fluctuations in price. Poor harvests or difficulties in transportation might see prices rocket. To protect the poor, grain distributions were introduced, either at fixed prices or, later, for free.

Such distributions were unpopular with the rich. In part, their opposition was moral: why should people get something for nothing? In part, it was political: providing grain from the city treasury was a sure way of winning votes. In part, it was fiscal: why should the state pay for the food of the poor? Were the not better ways for the poor to be employed? One also suspects self interest: the wealthy landowners were the likely beneficiaries if prices rose.


There were certain campaigns and certain wars in the late Republic which brought enormous wealth and power and glory. With the increase in the size of Roman imperial territory, Rome came into conflict with larger, wealthier states. The rewards of war were often greater and were also predictable.

There also seems to have been a growing sense that not all Roman political leaders were as a capable as each other. Some generals were regarded as more proficient and perhaps just more lucky than others. This was a tendency we can see developing from the late third century BC, but it became more apparent towards the end of the second century. Scipio Aemelianus was brought in to end the war of Numantia in Spain where so many others had failed. But it was with Marius that the political game changed. Commanders were traditionally appointed by the senate, but the people wanted Marius to lead the war against Jugurtha.

The victory over Jugurtha made Marius’ reputation. Prestigious commands were now the reward for political success and the path to wealth and greatness. There was major conflict between Marius and Sulla over a command in the East. Pompey and Crassus used their political authority to secure major military expeditions. Julius Caesar was rewarded for his support of Pompey with an extended command in Gaul by the end of which he was in a position to rival his former ally.

Political Power and the Constitution

Who should rule Rome? This is, of course, a basic political question. Rome had a complex political system with several locations of power: the magistrates, the senators, and the people. Day-to-day responsibility for the management of the city lay with the magistrates, but the magistrates were members of the senate and advised by the senate. In theory at least, the senators provide the wise counsel that checked the power of the magistrates. The power of the people was manifested through their representatives, the tribunes, and through their votes in assembly. The people passed laws and elected magistrates. It was thus not clear who actually ruled Rome, or to put it another way, which group was sovereign.

The senators defended their traditional authority and the powers of the magistrates. They identified that authority with the proper functioning of the Republic. Anyone who threatened that authority was seen as a danger to the Republic. The defence of the Republic (identified with the power of the senators and magistrates) was used to justified violent actions as tribunes such as Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Saturninus and Sulpicius. Later, it was used as an excuse to put down Lepidus and Catiline.

The threat was at least in part a threat that one individual might emerge as tyrant and overthrow the Republic. A potential tyrant was not just a tribune who organised popular discontent against the senators, but could also be a person so great that he threatened the senate by his very existence. Arguably, it was the fear of the pre-eminence of Pompey that animated opposition to him 62 – 60 BC. It was certainly fear of the power of Caesar that drove the senators to war in 49 BC. And in 44 BC, the possibility that Mark Antony might use an extended command to build up his position in the same way that Caesar had done made peace impossible in at least some senatorial eyes.

The Augustan Solution

If we look at the grounds for conflict above, it is notable that many of them simply disappeared under Augustus. Augustus provided land and money for the troops. He may also have resettled significant number of the poor of Rome. Augustus fed the people. He ensured the supply of food to the city. Augustus or members of his family led the most important campaigns. They rewarded the troops. The only question was who ruled. The senators were retained and laid claim to authority, but it would be naive to believe by the end of his reign that power rested elsewhere than in the imperial court.

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