Julius Caesar - Ada Russell

Roman Institutions and Empire

The struggle of the people for personal and political rights is the chief fact in the domestic history of Rome from the fall of the monarchy, four centuries before Caesar's birth, until the fall of the republic in his manhood. His childhood and youth were passed amid the most terrible struggles of the orders.

When Tarquinius Superbus, the last Roman king, was expelled with all his house in 509 B.C., the chief command in the State was given to two colleagues, 'consuls,' appointed for one year and given power to veto each other's actions, so that neither of them could make himself a tyrant. The consuls had a good deal of the power of the old kings in theory, but in practice, by Caesar's time, inferior magistrates—praetors, quaestors and aediles—did most of the work of the State. They were often, indeed, little more than the chairmen of the Senate, a body of men composed of a certain patrician element and of the higher magistrates and ex-magistrates. The consuls entered on their year of office on the first of January and retired on the thirty-first of December, but their military command (imperium)  was not given them until the first of March, and it continued until the following March. By Caesar's time it had become the rule for consuls and praetors to serve a year in the city and then go out to govern the provinces as 'proconsuls and 'propraetors.' Consuls, praetors, and 'curule' aediles had an ivory 'curule' chair and a purple-edged robe, and were attended by lictors. The consul had twelve lictors, who accompanied him everywhere, bearing bundles of rods (fasces)  to symbolize his judicial powers, and when he left Rome an axe was bound up with the fasces. He had no axe when in Rome, because the people alone had power of life and death over Roman citizens. As divided rule would be dangerous in some crises, one of the consuls might, in an emergency, name a dictator, who might exercise absolute power. Other magistrates were appointed by the vote of the people. There was nothing corresponding to the British House of Commons in the ancient world, and no principle of representation of the people, and we must remember, when we find the people attempting to legislate independently of the Senate, that it is the whole body of untrained voters that makes this claim.

From 509 to 286 B.C. the plebeians (the common citizens) won their way to political equality with the patricians, only to find that the eternal difference between rich and poor remained. The richer members of the plebs  formed a new middle class, nearer to the aristocracy than to their own order; many of them obtained magistracies and entered the Senate, and henceforth it was a war between Senate and people, not between patrician and plebeian. The new middle class was called the Equestrian Order, being composed of men who, on account of their incomes, had the rank of knights (equites).

It was while the early struggles between the orders were going on that Rome ceased to be a mere city-state on the Tiber; and by 270 B.C. she had become mistress of Italy from the Rubicon to the Straits of Messina. In the third century B.C. began the fatal Punic Wars, which destroyed Carthage and did Italy an economic damage from which she never recovered, but ended in the establishment of a Roman navy and he foundation of the Roman Empire. In these wars Italy was pillaged again and again, and for years Rome was in danger from the great Carthaginian general Hannibal. Scipio, Rome's general, at last transferred the war to the enemy's country. In 202 B.C. Hannibal was defeated by Scipio at Zama, in Africa, and the great power of Carthage became practically a Roman dependency. She was forced to surrender Spain to Rome, and that country was formed into two Roman provinces. After the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C. the Roman province of Africa—composed of a very small portion of that vast continent—was formed. Cisalpine Gaul, as North Italy was called, had been annexed in 191 B.C., during the Punic Wars, for fear of its aiding the Carthaginians as they descended on Italy from Spain; and now the Romans, having acquired the habit of foreign conquest, turned their attention to Macedonia. Three Macedonian wars ended in the defeat of the last Macedonian army at Pydna in 168 B.C. and in the establishment of a Roman protectorate over Greece. This was the most important of all Roman conquests, as now the ordinary educated Romans began to absorb Greek culture, of which they were to be the protectors and preservers. The subjugation of the old Macedonian empire as far as the Euphrates followed naturally. Asia Minor became the Roman province of 'Asia' by the bequest of the last king of Pergamum in 133 B.C.

The enormous plunder obtained from these provinces made the Roman Senate a body of millionaires as well as a 'race of kings,' and the 'publicans' of Scripture—tax-collectors belonging to the Roman middle class, the highly respectable Roman knights—came into being. In 149 B.C. a permanent commission was established at Rome to inquire into cases of extortion in the provinces, so loud had the outcry of the provincials become.

In Italy war and pestilence had thinned the population; the great capitalist farmers of the senatorial class worked their estates by means of slaves, and thus the yeoman class threatened to die out. That there was still excellent material in rustic Italy, nevertheless, was shown by the Italian contingent in the Roman army, and when the Roman people had become a demoralized mob salvation came to Rome from unspoiled Italy. There remained a great evil and a great danger in this slave labour, quite apart from the hardships endured by the slaves, who were often free-born and noble prisoners of war or travellers captured by pirates. Those unable to pay a ransom, were sold to recompense the captor for his trouble. Slave-risings became common, and sometimes developed into lengthy and arduous wars.

[Illustration] from Julius Caesar by Ada Russell


After Macedonia became a Roman province Rome had no longer a State to fear, and the evil days foretold by Cato the Censor soon began, the Roman austerity and virtue, of which Cato was one of the last representatives, passing away. The energetic young Roman of the upper classes looked forward to government office as his birthright, and the attraction became, not so much the year of regal power in Rome as the rich provinces that fell in his way as a Roman magistrate. The art of public speaking became the chief point in his education, and he also learned the less reputable arts of bribery and corruption, to remedy which voting by ballot was introduced in the second century B.C. The lower orders began to care for nothing but a life of idleness and pastimes, and the upper classes discovered that if they kept them in material comfort they would abstain from interference in politics. Many Romans were considering how all these tendencies were to be arrested and dreaming of a better Rome when the standard of reform and at the same time of revolution was raised by the Gracchi.

Early in the history of the republic the plebeians had secured the right to appoint magistrates of their own, tribunes of the plebs, who were not under the control of the consuls, although their authority did not hold good against a dictator when a dictator chanced to be appointed. Their laws were binding on all the citizens; they could even order the arrest of a consul; there was no appeal from their sentences but to the assembly of plebeians; and their persons were sacred. In 134 B.C. Tiberius Gracchus, a patrician, got himself elected tribune of the plebs  and endeavoured to restore the yeoman class by an agrarian law. The aristocratic occupants of more than a fixed amount of State lands were to be evicted, with compensation, and the land thus set free was to be leased out in small farms to poor Roman citizens and Latin allies. This law was passed by the people, but Gracchus neglected to submit it, as was customary, to the Senate. The Senate, which had for long 'managed' the popular assemblies and practically ruled the State, was furious, but easily persuaded another tribune to veto the decree, as the tribunes, like the consuls, had a right of veto over each other's actions. In this right of veto Rome had long thought herself safe from the evil deeds of any one magistrate, and it had worked well while the State was healthy, but in the breakdown which was coming on the State the magisterial veto was to prove not only a futile but almost a comical device. Tiberius answered his colleague's veto by stopping all other public business, even that of the law-courts, and then introduced his bill again. It was again vetoed, and he then committed the first act of revolution by causing the people to declare his colleague deposed; and his bill became law. Thereupon a band of patricians seized what clubs and sticks they could find and slew Tiberius and three hundred of his followers. The Senate sanctioned the deed, and even his brother-in-law, the noble Scipio Aemilianus, exclaimed: "So perish all who do the like!"

The law survived the tribune, and when, a few years later, Scipio caused the distribution of land to cease, he was found murdered. Caius Gracchus, brother of Tiberius, now came forward as democratic leader and was elected tribune of the plebs  for 123 B.C. He sought to alter the constitution so that reform should be possible without revolution. His brother had gone in fear of impeachment when his year of office and 'sacrosanctity' were over; and Caius seems to have carried a law by which the tribune might be re-elected for another year's service and so act with more confidence. He himself was returned again for the year 122 B.C., and, among other reforms, began to plant colonies in Italy and the provinces to drain off the surplus population of the capital. Colonization came naturally to the Greeks, but never to the Romans. To remedy poverty, he ordered that corn should be sold at a nominal rate in the capital to all Roman citizens on application, and thus started a policy which was found to degrade the populace and was afterward adopted by the Senate with this idea.

Perhaps his most important work was his judicial reform, especially the establishment of commissions to try capital cases; and he transferred the right of sitting on juries from the senators to the Roman knights. The Senate had controlled provincial taxation, but Gracchus took it out of its hands, altered the assessment, and offered the farming of the taxes to the highest bidder in Rome, whereby it also fell to the knights. He even planned to add three hundred knights to the Senate, and, as his brother had done, he submitted his bills, not to the Senate, but to the people. Caius Gracchus had no army, only the mob at his back, and he fell from the mob's favour.

He had at heart the welfare of all Italians and even of the provincials, and in this he had few sympathizers among one of the hardest peoples the world has ever known. Both Senate and people refused his proposal for admitting the Latins to the full Roman franchise, and the Senate followed up its advantage by bribing the people to desert him. He was not re-elected to the tribunate, and when his term expired he went about the streets with three thousand armed followers in vain: the Senate and knights went forth and hunted him down, capturing and strangling his bodyguard.

The Senate then annulled most of the Gracchan legislation, but continued the corn doles and saw that the people were kept amused with free public entertainments. The provinces, reduced to penury, were in no condition to revolt, and if it had not been for the slaves, the pirates, and the attacks of foreign Powers the Roman Senate might have remained lord in Rome for many a long day.

The Jugurthine War, in which it was public knowledge that the government had taken bribes from Jugurtha, culminated in 109 B.C. With the passing of the Roman army under the yoke, a disgrace which stirred the Roman people to frenzy; and when the war was at last ended, in 106, it was by the plebeian general Caius Marius. Marius was in some ways, as the Gracchi had been, the forerunner of Caesar. He started the bloody revolutions which Caesar was to continue, and, like Caesar, he won and kept power by means of a great professional army. He married the patrician lady Julia, aunt of the great Caesar, and at the time of Caesar's birth he was the hero of Rome.