When in Rome….

Excellent post by Dr. Bernard Finel:

The Fall of the Roman Republic: Lessons for David Petraeus and America

The problems facing the Roman Republic in the 1st Century BC were obvious for several generations before they resulted in the final crisis that lead to imperial rule.  There were a large number of proposed solutions, some more fanciful than others, but it was precisely the apparent inability of the state to address problems that everyone recognized existed that destroyed the existing institutions. At the core, the Roman Republic faced two problems.

First, the growth of Roman power and the acquisition of an empire stressed the existing structure for managing provinces.  The lack of a well developed colonial bureaucracy combined with the practice of annually appointing new provincial governors from the ranks of recent senior magistrates created massive instability.  Significant elements of provincial administration – notably tax collection – were outsourced to private companies, and provincial governors saw their postings as an opportunity for self-enrichment, which was both a cause and consequence of the increasing cost of running for political office.  The result was endemic corruption in Rome, and frequent instability in provinces as a consequence of the rapacious practices of tax farmers and governors.  Particularly in the more recently acquired provinces in and around Anatolia and the Levant, this instability led to revolts and opportunities for external actors to weaken Roman control.

Second, for a variety of reasons that economic historians continue to debate, there was increasing income inequality in Rome, and worse, the gradual impoverishment and ultimately virtual elimination of small-hold farmers that had traditionally formed the backbone of both the Roman citizenry and military.  The result was the rise of an urban poor, increasingly dependent on the largess of the state, more prone to violence, and ultimately more loyal to patrons than to the state as a whole.  Part of this was also a consequence of empire.  Military victories brought slaves to Rome, which were increasingly used to farm the large estates of aristocrats, raising land prices and lowering food costs in a way that made small farming unsustainable.

These problems were recognized early.  In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus sought to implement land reform from his position as Tribune in order to address the twin issues of the disappearing free rural peasantry and the resultant lack of citizens eligible for military service.  His efforts threatened the position of the aristocratic elites, and in the end he was murdered.  Ten year later his younger brother suffered the same fate under similar circumstances.  At the time of the Cimbrian War (113-101 BC), the threat of foreign invasion by Germanic tribes forced Gaius Marius to replace the traditional Roman Army soldiered by land-owning citizens with one built around landless volunteers for whom military service was a career and who owed loyalty primarily to the general paying the bills rather than the state.  Marius’ legions defeated the Germans, but a new instability had been introduced into the Roman state due to the tendency of these new volunteer forces to be loyal to personal patrons rather than state institutions.  This instability manifested itself in the increasing role of popular generals in Roman politics, including several willing to implicitly or explicitly threaten civil war to get what they wanted.  Marius himself marched on Rome, as did Lucius Cornelius Sulla twice, and Lucius Cornelius Cinna.  Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) took over this father’s client army on his death and became a key power broker in his twenties and without having held elected office. By the time the of the First Triumvirate in 59BC, the Roman state had been grappling with these basic, interlocking economic, political, military challenges for 70 years without any systematic solution.

Finel sees 21st century AD America as having some analogous political and structural difficulties to 1st century BC Rome:

….The Roman system had, in short, even more veto points than the current American system, and they were even more arbitrary – though the U.S. Senate practice of anonymous holds comes close.

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