Toward the end of the 2nd century B.C., the Roman republic had reached a crossroads. The threat of rival superpower Carthage had been extinguished forever. Via extensive conquest, Rome now had to govern lands not just in its own peninsula, but from modern Spain through North Africa, Greece, and beyond. It was this expansion that brought new geopolitical regions to control with military might, economic and cultural conditions to consider as populations of a vast variety entered the Roman world, and internal political division and strife that an abundance of success brought.
If this sounds strikingly similar to the modern American condition to the reader, it should. It was this historical crossroads that led to the fall of the Republic and sent Rome into a dictatorship from which inevitable decay and collapse followed. A study of these events may shed crucial light on how America may avoid the same fate.
In the year 116 B.C., Rome had on its hands an odd military conundrum: the great nation that defeated the Carthaginians and Greeks and was stuck in a military quagmire with the…Numidians in Africa. The guerrilla tactics of their leader Jugurtha caused what should have been a mop-up military operation to become a war that dragged on for years. At the same time, Roman citizens began to become restless not only with this, but also with the state of operations altogether. Rome had beforehand always used the citizen-solider as the core of its military. These property-owning farmers, whose interests tied directly to that of Rome itself, could no longer soldier in the far stretches of the Roman world and maintain their own estates. Many in fact lost their property to the more wealthy while serving abroad. This meant that the foundation of the military could no longer be the citizen-farmer who went on seasonal campaigns. It was Gaius Marius who offered a solution to this dilemma.
Marius, elected to consul in 107 B.C., resolved this manpower problem “by the simple but bold expedient of enrolling the propertyless into the legions” and quickly defeated the Numidians (Nagle, p. 331). It was at that moment that a Germanic threat emerged from the north and threatened invasion of Italy itself. Marius, re-elected as consul despite it being illegal, took his newly formed legions to meet the challenge and decisively won, making him a hero of Rome. He was to the Romans a man who got things done. Further, land was to be granted to all veterans after a fierce political fight in an attempt to unify various structures of the Roman population. But this was not to be. The new power of the military became a potent political tool, and the temptation to use it became too great.
It was the economic and cultural conditions of the time that led to the so-called Social War. Complaints over citizenship and its rights, wealth disparities, and vast feelings of being disenfranchised perpetuated among the people. Perhaps sensing weakness, the King of Pontus, Mithridates VI, invaded the Roman province of Asia in 88 B.C. and massacred 80,000 Romans (333). Something had to be done. The ultra-popular Marius and the current elected consul, L. Cornelius Sulla, both vied to command the army to confront these issues domestic and abroad. To resolve the issue, Sulla did the unthinkable for the Roman world. He marched on Rome; drove out Marius by force; and initiated a reign of terror to remove, or kill, political opponents; redistribute wealth; and most importantly “stack” the Senate after killing 200 of its members and then adding an additional 400 of his choosing to its ranks (334). No more free elections, no checks and balances, and a dictator from 82 to 79 B.C. had emerged in the blink of an eye. The civil wars of Rome would follow, with Caesar emerging as victor until his assassination. From there, Caesar Augustus would take full control and officially transform the once illustrious Roman Republic into an empire that never truly regained its majesty.
The problem for Rome, like America, was never one of the military or its prowess. It was its socio-political conditions. Rome was in the mid-2nd century what America was as the 21st century A.D. began: the economic and military superpower of the world. Should Rome, like America, have been able to deal properly with its new challenges, it’s hard to believe that any other global power could have ever seriously challenged it. Further, it’s hard to believe that Rome’s fall in later centuries would have ever ushered in the Dark Ages. But Rome was not able to deal with its internal struggles effectively.
America should take note. What are the lessons to be learned?
First, many readers may note how eerily similar the Roman expeditions into Numidia sound to 21st-century American intervention into the Middle East, or even Vietnam in the 1960s. In the Roman world, this called into question the competency, and even judgment, of the ruling class. Citizens wondered, how can the mighty Roman forces devastate Carthage but struggle so badly with little Numidia? Similar concerns have been raised about America’s ability to defeat the German and Japanese war machine but struggle with its own “backwater” countries. It’s worth considering the socio-economic effects these wars can have, especially when utilizing resources for domestic use may be more strategically paramount. Should thought, effort, and money have been spent at home for the Romans, it’s probable that a lot of its internal strife could have been dealt with satisfactorily and its national debt held in check.
Second, divisiveness creates populism and centralized control that can later be turned on the citizenry itself. The primary goal of the Roman governing world had long been to “Romanize” new populations and to protect its citizens’ rights, property, and lives from foreign “barbarians.” When that goal began to shift into redistribution of wealth, power politics, and a weakened middle class as wealth disparities grew, populist politics emerged that resulted in an internal us-vs.-them scenario. This reached its first (but not last) pinnacle in the Marius-Sulla contest that nearly ended the Republic then and there. It was this divisiveness that led to the stacking of the Senate, much like current threats of stacking the Supreme Court, which dealt a critical blow to the freedom of Rome. Later factions with Julius Caesar, Pompey, etc. would eventually finish the job of eliminating the vestiges of the Republic.
Simply put, the house divided cannot stand. Not for the Romans. Not for the Americans.