Written by Mohammad Hasib Emran

The ancient Romans stopped being a monarchy in 509 BCE when Lucius Tarquinius Superbus was deposed. Resistance against tyrannos became their culture. Yet this virtue would not be able to sustain itself as we will see how Roman imperialism would make it impossible for Republicans to have any power. This essay will chronologically analyze the major events starting from the Gallic invasions to the Battle of Actium in the political, cultural, and economic dimensions that caused the fall of the Roman Republic.

Before that, we must discuss the social structure and the class struggle (in this case class struggle will be an anachronistic term). Society was divided into plebeians (people who don’t own land) and patricians (wealthy people who could attain high posts in the government). Various conflicts over the years (such as the Secession of Plebs in 494 BCE when Manius was made dictator to quell the rebellion) between the two classes led to reformations that gave rise to the ‘People’s Assembly’ and ‘Tribunes of the Plebs.’ The government had four main institutions: Senate, Consul, Assembly, and Tribunes. The Senate was a group of three-hundred patricians that would have power in the government. From the Senate, two people would be elected to serve as Consuls and they could veto each other (Romans feared dictatorship). The Assembly was responsible for voting the Consuls from the Senate. The Tribunes was like a team of presidents who could raise concerns regarding issues of plebeians. Equality between plebeians and patricians would only be established in 287 BCE after a long political struggle against the patricians called the Conflict of the Orders. 

Rome had some luck (Tignor et al., 2018, p. 262) when the Gauls sacked Rome and Etruscan city-states. Romans paid the Gauls to go away, but Etruscans received heavy damage. Etruscans were the first obstacle to Rome’s glory, and so Rome took the opportunity and crushed Etruscans in 264 BCE. They conquered them and then went for Greek city-states in Magna Gracia after fighting the Samnites. All these military expeditions would not have been possible without Roman war ethos (Tignor et al., 2018, p. 264) where there was honor in never admitting defeat. Marcus Sergius – a war hero was considered the ideal soldier who fought with only one hand against Carthaginians. On top of that, Romans had state-of-the-art artillery  such as the Ballista, Onager, and Scorpio.

          Then came a series of brutal battles against Carthage in the Punic wars, where Rome finally conquered Sicily in The First Punic War (from 264 to 241 BCE). Rome led a ‘total war’ against Carthage in the Second Punic War from 218 to 201 BCE, killing every male and enslaving every female and child. They also spread salt over fertile lands so that the enemies could not grow food. The ‘will to power’ as Nietzsche says with no presence of morality is evident here. This brutal mindset similar to Neo-Assyrian warfare helped them conquer lands.

Suddenly there was a lot of land, cheap labor due to a larger population, and lots of slaves for the patricians. People who did not own land could not serve in the army and 10% of Rome was involved in slavery and so important jobs in the society were not being done. This issue caused the rise of the Gracchi Brothers and Gaius Marius. Gracchi Brothers (Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus) were populares (in modern times they can be considered progressives) as opposed to optimates (who were conservatives for that time) and they wanted to give surplus land to the poorer people of society. But they were murdered in 133 BCE (Tiberius) and 121 BCE (Gaius) by optimates. This set a dangerous precedent in Rome – that everything can be solved by violence, and this would inspire Sulla and Caesar. 

Later on, we have Gaius Marius (104-100 BCE in office), a Roman statesman, who would transform the army. Rome was not able to keep up with its expansion by providing enough soldiers because slaves could not be in the army and people who did own enough property could not fight in the army as well. Marian reform abolished the need to own property to join the army and made the state buy gear for the common soldier. Being a soldier became a permanent career, generals would give land and pension to them, and retired soldiers would be able to settle in conquered provinces. This would “Romanize” the lands and prevent civil unrest from conquered people. Roman Patronage System had already evolved to such a state where the generals would be the patrons of the soldiers. Generals would cut taxes or give gifts to soldiers.

This way, generals started consolidating power for themselves using their charisma and threatened the central authority of the Senate because the plebeians would be more loyal to their generals. This shows how deep the divide was between the plebeians and the patricians that the plebeians would support another patrician to fight the Senatorial patricians. As power was not central, Rome, as a separate ‘organism’ had to do something to have complete control over oneself as Nietzsche explained ‘will to power.’ The dictators that will come after will make sure that Rome has complete control over itself under one man.

Moving forward, Lucius Cornelius Sulla would fight against the Marians (those loyal to Gaius Marius). He would win decisively against the Marians in the Sulla’s Civil War (83-81 BCE) and call himself dictator for life. Sulla saw Julius Caesar as an enemy (and as we move on, we will see he would be correct about Caesar’s ambitions) and warned the public against him (Tranquillus, n.d.) and wanted him killed, but Caesar fled. Caesar would then be inspired by Sulla to take over Rome. Sulla eventually resigned from the dictatorship and installed a consular government again.

Later on, two generals: Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus are fighting for increasing territories. According to Black (2016, p. 198), Pompey campaigned in Asia Minor and Syria-Palestine (66-63 BCE) and Caesar campaigned in Gaul (58-49 BCE). The two, along with Marcus Licinius Crassus formed a pact to cause a revolution in the Roman Republic. The Roman public was too much against tyrannos and the Senate disliked the trio’s power. I believe the public response to any sort of change was always negative. Social progress came to a standstill, and so the generals had to do something secretly to impose their wills. They formed the First Triumvirate, but it would soon break down due to issues between Pompey and Caesar.

Pompey married Caesar’s daughter to form an alliance, but she died, and The Triumvirate began to fade. Pompey joined the optimates and convinced the Senate that Caesar is dangerous as he was trying to become a dictator. The Senate declared Caesar ‘enemy of the state’. Caesar decided to march to Rome and cross the Rubicon without disbanding his command. Caesar’s Civil War (49-45 BCE) started, and Caesar was victorious. Caesar declared himself dictator in 44 BCE permanently. His allies began to fear that he is going to be a tyrant. Marcus Brutus and Cassius Longinus were the first conspirators against Caesar. They wanted to kill him because they thought it would be the right thing to do. On 15 March 44 BCE, he would be assassinated. Mark Antony would order his men to find the assassins and the Liberator’s Civil War (43-42 BCE) would start against the conspirator forces.

Antony, Gaius Octavius, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus were the Second Triumvirate. But it would not last. Lepidus was ousted by Octavian, and Antony would fall in love with Cleopatra of Egypt despite being married to Octavian’s sister. This would spark a war between the two, where Octavius would come out victorious in the Battle of Actium (31 BCE) and so Octavian would be the sole person having supreme power. But Octavian was smart, and he did not want to call himself emperor but wanted to essentially act like one so that people would not call him a tyrant. He called himself ‘princeps’ (first man), ‘imperator’ (commander-in-chief), and Augustus (The revered one).

He portrayed himself as the People’s Emperor as propaganda. He kept the republic on paper, not practice. Another method of keeping tensions low among the poor was promoting entertainment mostly formed during the last years of the Republic such as the Colosseum, amphitheater, and Circus Maximus. Circus Maximus had chariot races and Colosseum and amphitheater had gladiator battles. These had to be free and scattered around the empire for the masses to be enjoyed because otherwise the poor would not be able to afford them. Augustus finally brought two centuries of peace, even after his death, and this period would be known as ‘Pax Romana’ despite the fact Rome was still expanding, fighting, and absorbing neighbors. 

Cicero believed that the Roman Republic fell because of imperialistic greed and the decay of Roman virtues (straying away from Mos Maiorum). The Mos Maiorum consisted of virtues such as faith, duty, religiosity, discipline, self-control, knowing good and bad, and finally preserving honor. Cicero believed that Roman generals and patricians who benefited from imperialism let go of all these virtues and thus the republic was replaced by a dictatorship. But I believe that it was rather a weakness of the Senate that may have caused the downfall, similar to the First Intermediate Period of Egypt when provincial monarchs began to increase their power. The contraction and expansion of China due to a weak central government can also be an example. All of those virtues were intact because otherwise, it would have been impossible for any general to mobilize his army against enemies without virtues like discipline and duty.

Thus, the excessive greed of patricians when the economy grew and the lust for power exertion over others would finally lead to the fall of the Roman Republic. The class struggle in politics, the expansion of Rome’s economy due to conquests, and the general feeling of loyalty of plebeians towards generals collectively would mean that Republican values could not be sustained. Ironically, it gave rise to a form of dictatorship that Romans always fought to keep down. The change was inevitable. (1692 words)


Black, A. (2016). A world history of ancient political thought: A world history of ancient political thought: Its significance and consequences. Oxford University Press. 

Tignor, R., Adelman, A., & Aron, S. (2018). Worlds together, worlds apart: A history of the world from the beginnings of humankind to the present (3rd ed.). W.W. Norton & Company.

Tranquillus, G. S. (n.d.). The Life of Julius Caesar. Retrieved November 5, 2022, from https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Julius*.html#1

Featured image – By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69422926

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