In the sixteenth year of the Republic - quite soon - something happened which was likely inevitable: the people, freed from the rule of kings, claimed rather more rights for themselves. There was perhaps some justification for this, though often it is in the very nature of a republic to contradict the justifiable." - Cicero, On The Republic (II, 33)
At root, the Republic was the system of government adopted by the Roman state between her time as a monarchy (circa 505 BC) and official adoption of an emperor under Augustus (30 BC). For more than four centuries, as a nominal republic (and despite much disorder and dysfunction) Rome extended important civil, religious and legal rights, both to its own citizens and those under its provinces. It was a vital period in the development of libertarian theory, even while many of us associate Roman history with imperialism. That makes sense; an empire's shadow is no easy spot to step out of. It's not such a shock that this period gets less play in the common imagination. For most enthusiasts, it's all Empire, all the time. This, again, despite the Republic lasting almost half a millennium, from the exile of their last king up until Octavian purged all opposition to his rule.
Casting away the Crown
Putting aside the modern, dim view of empire, we should bear in mind that was not the actual motivation of many figures we associate with Roman history. There was an empire of provinces, granted - and they may have sought wealth, nobility (dignitas), honor and fame (gratia) - but personal power of its own accord (potestas) was to a Roman more a side-effect of public office than aspiration in itself. Seeking recognition was one thing, but blind ambition was seen as barbaric in many ways.1
It took centuries of colonial rule (within Italy and afar) for open talk of Rome's imperial duties to become politically acceptable. The ideals and ambitions of the elite in the first century BC were wholly shaped by the ideal of republicanism. Cato (the Elder) and Scipio, Cicero and Pompey, Caesar and Cato (the Younger) - these figures did not tirade, tangle and thrash for sake of empire. They did so for the glory of the Republic. But what did that even mean? What did the luminaries of Rome believe they were fighting for? And, more importantly, why did it ultimately come to so mean an end?
By almost every account, Rome had its beginnings in very modest squabbles and rather small stakes. City leaders dueled with neighbors over captives, sheep, pastures and river bends. While the Hellenic World of the eastern Mediterranean was caught up in the great sieges and naval battles of the Peloponnesian War, Roman raiders were still quarreling with their southern neighbors over bridal theft. But such were the local concerns of their early kings; of these, we even now know not much more than their names: Numa, Tullius, Ancus, Priscus, Servius and, the last of Roman kings, Tarquin.2
According to Roman mythology (for early Roman history was rarely recorded), the parochial conflicts driven by those men were (by 500 BC) overshadowed by public impatience with the fetters of monarchy; having a warring king got old, in effect. Raiding parties and land disputes seemed self-serving. Talk of tyranny began, as classic a spark for the republican spirit as can arise. The older established families of Rome - whose leading men already assembled in a Senate to advise the king - soon led the charge for a greater stake in government.
The rise of the citizen
While Rome extended her dominions no farther than Italy, the people were governed as confederates, and the laws of each republic were preserved. But when she enlarged her conquests, and the Senate had no longer an immediate inspection over the provinces ... they were obligated to send praetors and proconsuls. Then it was the harmony of the three powers was lost. - Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (XI, ixx)
With the role and rule of kings banished, a path was cleared for the establishment of popular elections, people's representatives (e.g. tribunes), and most importantly, a forum to openly debate and review law. The head officials of the Republic, voted for annually by an elite group (comitia centuriata) were two consuls; these two figures were the main executors of administration for that time. Each consul had reporting to him a financial officer (quaestor) who provided access (but also oversight) to the state treasury. Finally, in 363 BC, a third magistrate was added (praetor urbanus) specifically to assist with the complexities of the growing city administration.
In essence, the Republic meant autonomy in city life (as opposed to a domineering autocracy), through a system everyone could see and understand (even if they might not vote were they not full citizens). It meant public law and due process enacted through an open Forum which anyone could attend. It meant an empowered Senate stocked with the wiles (if not always the wisdom) of Rome's most resourceful men. It meant a system of appeal to power (the voted plebiscite) where common grievances could be aired to those in office. And it meant, with no king as perennial ruler, that citizens could speak their mind and pursue their work as they saw fit. The Republic meant, in a word, liberty.
Compared to other ancient cities, that freedom was materially manifest; it was seen, felt and duly noted by visitors to Rome in the era. The city of seven hills could be wildly chaotic in the midst of a summer market. Citizens themselves complained of getting lost in its twisting, snaking side streets. It was a chaotic, crowded, sprawling shambles of a city - but all roads did seem to lead there.
Yet at the centre of the Republic there was also an absence that gave its air of freedom, for what Rome did not have: she had no police force nor prisons, and Roman law strictly forbade any soldier carrying arms to step inside the city boundary. Written law was a cornerstone of the Republic to be sure; and as all citizens knew The Twelve Tables were harsh. But they were the Law, and all men were subject to them; dura Lex, sed lex. In a world of arbitrary kingdoms and despots, that was a powerful assurance.
The tension of ambition
After the Romans had brought Africa, Asia and Greece in line, they finally felt their liberty assured...this security led the people to choose their consuls not on merit, but by celebrity, and after that, based on who knew how to entertain. - Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy (I, xvii)
But political freedom - for both citizens and compliant clients in the provinces of Rome - did not mean anything like the Greek model of democracy. The concilium plebis gave people a voice to call for reform, and while public life remained healthy and engaged - through war and civil unrest - private wealth and power grew in scope. The aristocratic element in Roman life grew stronger, and with it corruption grew more blatant.
Election fraud, senatorial stonewalling, tax farming, and rank partisanship all exerted an increasingly gravitational pull on the finer principles of the Republic. Votes were bought with jugs of wine, privatized government and foreign ownership brought whole networks of graft; to those whose interests favored the plebeian or philosophical it seemed the Rome had truly swapped out commonweal for commerce and the rule of law for pure lucre.
The other reality - apparent almost from the birth of the Republic - was the critical role the Roman Army would play in controlling the balance of power. Surrounded by invading tribes, raiding pirates, rural bandits and competing powers, it was evident a volunteer army would need proper pay and influence in affairs of state as well as the Roman economy. By the second century BC, it had become clear whoever could win over the loyalty of the legions would soon also sway the Senate. The power of one institution simply amplified the other and that proved to be a fatal flaw for the Republic, one open to exploit.
Reform, revolt and relapse
There was always discord in Rome between the nobles and the common people...the Senate of Rome, which had the unjust, criminal arrogance to refuse to share anything with the plebians knew no other trick for keeping them from government than to busy their ranks endlessly with foreign wars...thus the great flaw in the Roman Republic transformed it; it is because Romans were so discontent at home that they set out to master the world.- Voltaire, Philosophical Letters (VIII)
The beginning of the end came wrapped in good intentions. Incensed by the poor pay of soldiers and disgraceful treatment of veterans, Tiberius Gracchus proposed sweeping reform of how Rome not only manned her legions but also allocated the spoils. It was wildly popular, but the elite families in the Senate immediately discerned a play for power as well as a potential threat to their exploitation of public lands and their profiteering from the slave trade. In 133 BC, when Tiberius succeeded in legislating this effort as tribune (around the backs of the senators) the upper class first blocked funding for the redistribution of farmland, then arranged his assassination. That act of elite retribution put Roman politics on a clear path back towards oligarchy and, ultimately, tyranny.
The next step downwards into despotism came with the return to Rome of the general Sulla. He had managed to engineer for himself (over the names of his better qualified rivals) a massively enriching posting over the Roman provinces in the east. He came back in 83 BC with astounding wealth, and even greater ambitions, but was blocked by the constitutional objections of various senators from taking on the position of consul. So he had himself appointed dictator instead, and made his first act of state the blacklisting (proscription) of forty uncooperative senators along with close to two thousand of their wealthy backers. So civil war resumed: blood ran on the street, political terror was effectively tolerated, and an entire class of partisan opposition was brutally purged.
Those are measures no state that calls itself a free republic can sensibly tolerate. The precedent it set for the next generation of politicians was clear; there were no longer any effective checks and balances. Law was not truly an obstacle. The Senate could be bought or cowed. And thus, when a real estate mogul (Crassus) and two young rival generals (Julius Caesar and Pompey) conspired in 59 BC to form a unconstitutional "first triumvirate", there were few effective voices against such measures. Even if they'd convinced themselves (and many others) their scheme was to defend the Republic, its utter disregard for law only drained the word of any meaning.3
The collapse of the Republic
It would bring some lasting security, it was argued. It would return order to the streets, so they said. It would be better for the economy, many nodded. So it was that political will overshadows public interest (utilitas publica), expediency annuls principle and lawful procedure, and ultimately republics pass away; at least so concluded Rome's most renowned historian, with a few generations of hindsight:
Augustus won over the soldiers with gifts, the populace with cheap corn, and all men with the sweets of repose, and so grew greater by degrees while he concentrated in himself the functions of the Senate, the magistrates and the laws. He was wholly unopposed, for the boldest spirits had fallen in battle, or in the proscription, while the remaining nobles - the readier they were to be slaves - were raised the higher by wealth and promotion." - Tacitus, Annals (I, ii)
It is a staple of post-imperial cultural criticism that the values and actions which a state exports abroad, what it wreaks in its provinces and frontier, will eventually find its way home. It may not be universal truth but it does seem as if the violence the Republic wrought on others she eventually (if not inevitably) brought down on herself. And if the rule of law is a precondition of meaningful liberty (as a theorist like Friedrich Hayek would argue), then Rome had a very dire problem the moment men like Sulla went unpunished.4 Other figures had in a way foreseen this problem: Scipio wept at the razing of Carthage for fear what doom it might signal for Rome.5 Caesar too, in his De Bello Gallico conceded the expansion of Roman influence and conquest would only bring her endless enemies abroad and division at home.
In truth (and in conclusion) others have argued if there was a last gasp of republicanism left in Rome, and so a final ghost of a chance for liberty, it lay with Julius Caesar. This is a controversial view; for how often do dictators veer suddenly back to safeguard rights and freedoms? Still, it has been argued that Caesar had a long-term plan to renovate Roman institutions.6 From the standpoint of either historical evidence or any sort of libertarian bent, this seems rather a stretch. The writing for the Roman Republic had been on the wall since Cicero had served as consul; if a figure as eloquent and inspirational as he could not defend Roman liberty and motivate her towards reform, then time had truly run out.
Charles Alexander Robinson, "The Roman Republic" (p. 435-516) from Ancient History (1967); Antony Kamm, "The Republic" (p. 12-35) from The Romans (2008), "The Early Republic" (p. 77) and "The Republic" (p. 79-80) from The Encyclopedia of World History (2001); "The Roman Republic" (p. 190-204) from The Columbia History of the World (1981); Tom Holland, Rubicon: the triumph and tragedy of the Roman Republic (2003); Jane Gardner, Being a Roman Citizen (1993)
1. For example, Cicero on this point, witnessing the Republic's betrayal, wrote in De Officiis (I, 157): "Virtue lies in the protection of society and the fellowship of the human race ... greatness of soul, if detached from society and the obligations between citizens, is akin to barbarism."
2. We know little conclusively owing to war; according to tradition, few Roman archival records survived from this period. We are informed it all was burned when the Gauls burned the state buildings, after temporarily occupying the city following the Battle of the Allia in 390 BC. This sounds oddly tidy as an explanation; setting that aside though, oral tradition about the period of kings clearly did survive because Cicero's De Re Publica (Book II, 12-44) contains several pages of discussion. It may be apocryphal, but the various institutions and rituals nominally established under each king is outlined generally.
3. Cicero's judgment of the First Triumvirate, in the same work cited above, is pretty grim: "Our native land alone subsumes all the affections we entertain. What good man would hesitate to face death on her behalf if it would be of service to her? So the barbaric conduct of our latest governors who have torn our land asunder with every criminal act, engaged as they are and have been in its utter destruction, is all the more heinous." (I, 57)
4. On this point, Tacitus was even more damning in his Agricola: "We have indeed set a record for subservience. Rome of old explored the limits of freedom; we have plumbed the depth of slavery, robbed even of the exchange of ideas by the Emperor's spies. Even our memory would be gone had it been as easy to forget as to fall silent." (II, 52)
5. His recorded comment, if Polybius was being faithful, was "Is it not a glorious sight, my friend, yet it fills me with dread. For someone may stand on the hills of Rome one day, and it too will burn at their command."
6. Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar: the life of a colossus (2006), 272-273.