Saturday, December 14, 2013

How a mighty Republic became a dictatorship

Here is a paper I wrote for my Early Western History class about the fall of the Roman Republic and how and why it gave way to the Empire and the subsequent loss of political and eventually economic freedom. This lesson from history is instructive for anyone who is interested in maintaining liberty in a democratic society.  So here it is:

From Freedom to slavery

            The Roman Empire stands out to a modern person looking back. The sheer size of the empire compared to modern countries in Europe, as well as the treasure trove of monuments and other architectural marvels that remain even today make quite the impression. The imagery, pageantry, and drama of the empire have appeared in countless plays, movies, and books over the years. Impressive as this all is, the Empire, ruled by an autocratic “Tribune” built itself upon the foundation laid by the relatively free Republic of Rome. It is true that the republic had problems governing, especially outside of the Italian peninsula;[1] but despite these issues the Republic gave representation to every Roman citizen and had a legal system set up to create checks and balances in a shadow of the much later American system of government. [2] During the early Roman Empire, the people lost their voice in government; as a result personal freedom was considerably curtailed.  
            In the Roman Republic, control of the government was divided between the tribal assembly, which was composed of members of each “tribe” (tribe in this sense denoting a political division similar to how modern cities and states are broken up into “districts) and elected the lower magistrates; the Centuriate assembly, which was composed of Patricians (noblemen) dealt with military matters and elected the upper magistrates; and the Plebian Assembly, which was composed entirely of Plebeians, could pass legislation binding on the whole state; and then their was the senate, made up of wealthy patricians and some plebeians, it was technically an advisory body only, but practically it was the most powerful part of the government.[3]  The Roman republican system was far from perfect, the rich were heavily favored for advancement, slaves, women and those not of Roman birth had no chance at attaining the franchise. However, it was a government of the people; and even the poorest farm boy legally had a voice in the running of government.
In the Roman empire, control of the government was vested entirely with the emperor. Of course this was not done directly in the sense of the position of “emperor” being created. Instead, Octavian, renamed Augustus, referred to himself only as Princeps meaning “first citizen.” He was given the power of a Tribune for life. A Tribune was normally a temporary position and it made the bearer immune to prosecution, able to conduct business in the senate, and gave him the ability to legally interfere with and control legal and military affairs.[4] Essentially Augustus became a permanent dictator, even if it was cloaked in Republican terminology.
The Roman republic was a government controlled by the people. The Roman Empire was a government ultimately controlled by one man. How did the people of Rome feel about the loss of their freedom? It is a complicated question; Augustus achieved his position essentially by being popular with the military. Control of the military in ancient Rome meant control of the state as soldiers increasingly felt more connected to their general than to the government. [5] Caesar, and his heir Augustus, appealed to popular sentiment, especially among soldiers.  They sought to curtail the extravagance of the rich and banned many luxury items.[6] This was popular among the lower classes who did not care to see patricians riding in the streets on litters carried by slaves for example. At the same time, this moralizing, paternal kind of government helped to reinforce the emperor’s divine status. Tacitus remarks on the death of Augustus and ascension of Tiberius:

“Meanwhile at Rome people plunged into slavery- consuls, senators, knights. The higher a man’s rank, the more eager his hypocrisy, and his looks the more carefully studied, so as neither to betray joy at the decease of one emperor nor sorrow at the rise of another…” (Tacitus, “The Annals”)

            It was not just political freedom that fell by the wayside in imperial Rome. As mentioned above, the emperor held complete control over everything that happened in the empire. He controlled the army, he controlled the government, and he did everything he could to control people’s daily lives too. This caused the perspective of people to shift: in the Republic, every man had some say in government, some vague control over his own destiny and the destiny of his country. Now it was the decision of the emperor that guided the hand of Rome. Any Roman citizen was now subject to the emperor and he had no real rights despite the pretense kept up by the first few Roman Emperors. [7] Now anyone who wanted to participate did so by befriending the emperor; the rich and noble had to be careful, as illustrated in the quote from Tacitus above, not to seem disloyal to the emperor in any way. A man who did not have the emperor’s favor could easily see his career cut short; and if he was unfortunate enough to displease the aspiring demi-god he could see his life cut short as well.
               The worst part about the new Roman Empire was imperial succession.  The empire came about in the first place because the military decided it wanted a popular general in charge. This pattern did not diminish, and the next emperor was often selected by the military, especially the Praetorian Guard. “The soldiery of the capital, who were imbued with the spirit of an old allegiance to the Caesars, and who  had been led to desert Nero by intrigues and influences from without rather than by their own feelings, were inclined for change” (Tacitus, “The Histories”) This manner of succession led to numerous civil wars and tore the Roman empire apart.
               It could fairly be said that the greatest failing of the Roman Republic was that it gave far too much power to its generals. This is what caused the fall of the republic after all; the soldiers were willing to use force to make their favored general the head of government. This problem persisted into the Roman Empire and only got worse and worse. This social trend first caused the world’s foremost republic to fall into dictatorship, and eventually caused it to rip itself apart. The Empire only made this problem worse by turning itself into practically a police state which tried to regulate everything from foreign policy to what sort of dinner plate people were allowed to use. [8] This sort of absolute power that belonged to the emperor meant that the people were no beholden to one man instead of a government of their peers. This loss of personal and political freedom caused people to pander to the emperor and his agents to retain whatever freedom they could; causing a fundamental shift in the dynamics of Roman culture. The loss of the Roman Republic meant the loss of political, and then personal freedom for the bulk of the populace.


Ando, Clifford. "Was Rome a Polis?" Classical Antiquity 18.1 (1999): 5-34. Print.

Cornell, TJ. “The Beginnings of Rome”. London: Routeledge, 1995. N. pag. Print.

Favro, Diane. ""Pater urbis": Augustus as City Father of Rome." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 51.1 (1992): 61-84. Print.

Freeman, Philip. “Julius Caesar”. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008. N. pag. Print.

Goodenough, Simon. “Citizens of Rome”. London: Berkley Publishes LTD., 1979. N. pag. Print.

Herodian, . “History of the Roman Empire.” Trans. Edward C. Echols. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961. N. pag. Print.

Kalyvas, Andreas. "The Tyranny of Dictatorship: When the Greek Tyrant Met the Roman Dictator." Vol. 35. Political Theory. 4th ed. N.p.: Sage Publications, 2007. 412-42. JSTOR. Web. 26 Sept. 2013.

Levack, Brian, Edward Muir, and Meredith Veldman. “The West: Encounters & Transformations.” 3rd ed. Vol. 1. Boston: Longman, 2011. 108-135. Print.

Livy, . “The History of Rome”. Vol. 1. Trans. Rev. Canon Roberts. Ed. Ernest Rhys. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1912. 6 vols. Web. 26 Sept. 2013. <>.

Mattingly, Harold. “The Man in the Roman Street”. Toronto: George J Mcleod Limited, 1966. N. pag. Print.

Patterson, John R. "The City of Rome: From Republic to Empire." The Journal of Roman Studies 82 (1992): 186-215. Print.

Rose, Charles B. "The Parthians in Augustan Rome." American Journal of Archaeology 109.1 (2005): 21-75. Print.

Thompson, Lloyd a. “Romans and Blacks”. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989. Print.

Tacitus, . "Agricolae." Western Michigan University. Ed. James McCandless. Western Michigan University, 18 June 2012. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.

Tacitus, . "The Annals." Western Michigan University. Ed. James McCandless. Western Michigan University, 18 June 2012. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.

Tacitus, . "Boudicca." Western Michigan University. Ed. James McCandless. Western Michigan University, 18 June 2012. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.

Tacitus, . "Germania." Western Michigan University. Ed. James McCandless. Western Michigan University, 18 June 2012. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.

Tacitus, . “The Histories”. Trans. Alfred J Church and William J. Brodribb. Boston: MIT, n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2013. <>.

[1] Freeman pg. 35
[2] abid. pg. 361
[3] abid pg. 45-46
[4] Levack et al. pg. 170
[5] Freeman pg. 361
[6] abid. Pg. 337
[7] Tacitus “The Annals”
[8] Freeman pg. 337

No comments:

Post a Comment