Julius Caesar and the death agony of the republic

Chris Gray continues his series on the class battles in ancient Rome

In the last century before the christian era all the major contradictions in the Roman social formation came to a head, with cumulatively devastating consequences. Slave-owners versus slaves, latifundists versus peasants, senators versus equestrians, citizens versus Italiots, optimates versus populares and, above all, the Senate versus victorious generals in command of armies - all these conflicts exploded one after another to such an effect that the social fabric was torn apart and a new set of political arrangements became imperative.

The result was the emergence of the Roman empire, a form of autocratic rule which was nevertheless obliged in the initial stages to disguise itself as merely an exceptional array of powers having individual constitutional precedents.


The Roman politician who revealed the secret of how it was possible to subvert senatorial government and force through changes running counter to the oligarchic spirit of the constitution was a man called Gaius Marius (157-86BCE). Marius came from near Arpinum in Latium, to the south-east of Rome; his family was “probably of recent equestrian standing … but with good Roman connections”.1

His greatest claim to fame is that he was the creator of the Roman army in its classical late republican form. The army was a formidable fighting force already before Marius came on the scene, but what Marius did, apart from introducing a number of tactical innovations, was to transform it from a citizen-peasant militia into a professional army - still composed of citizens in its core, but drawn from a much wider spread of income groups.

By popular vote Marius was given command against Rome’s north African enemy, Jugurtha; the Senate voted him additional forces, but either for military or political reasons, or a combination of both, he decided to raise more soldiers on his own initiative, recalling known veterans and enlisting men who did not possess the requisite property qualifications for enrolment - the proletarii, those who served the state not with their property (having none to speak of) but with their offspring (proles). John Carter, editor and translator of Appian’s The civil wars, gives an excellent summary of what this innovation meant:

“Such near-destitutes saw military service as at worst a dangerous and uncomfortable way of getting meals, clothes and a bed, and at best a means of becoming rich. A Roman ex-peasant’s idea of riches was his own smallholding, and the Roman state had in the past rewarded its citizen-soldiery by making grants of land at the conclusion of successful campaigns. There is no evidence that Marius actually promised his recruits land when he enlisted them, but by means of his alliance with Saturninus … he set about providing it.

“Thus, although it is unlikely to have been obvious at the time, the foundations of the Roman ‘professional’ army were laid. It was now worth a man’s while to serve for long periods in the expectation that when he was finally discharged he would receive a reasonable reward. The state provided no pension, gratuity or compensation other than a miserable level of pay to its troops, and it was up to a commander to reward them - out of booty or, from Marius onwards, with the hope or reality of land settlements. Under these circumstances the loyalty of an army became transferred from the state to its general, who alone was in a position to see that the necessary legislation was put through.

“Because soldiers were also citizens, and therefore voters when they could get to Rome, they constituted a formidable political weapon even before being persuaded to unsheathe their swords in defence of their commander’s interests or dignity.”2


As the above quotation indicates, Marius’s indispensable partner in this project was the tribune, L Appuleius Saturninus. This politician has been somewhat neglected by historians, standing, as he does, in the shadow of the charismatic Gracchus brothers, but in a sense he was as important a figure as they were.

Saturninus did Marius a favour in 103BCE by guiding through the legislative assembly a proposal to provide land in Africa for his veterans. Following Marius’s successes with his new model Roman army against the Cimbri and Teutones, Saturninus was in a position to repeat the favour in 100BCE. The Senate, if it had had some political savvy, would have made sure that it was through them that Marius’s demands at this point were accommodated, gaining his support in the process - not difficult, since Marius craved above all acceptance and recognition by the leaders of the republic; but they made no such move. Marius was driven, as a result, into Saturninus’s camp.

Saturninus, however, was thoroughly unscrupulous: his method of dealing with the Roman constitution was to try to drive a coach and horses through it, and his preferred method of dealing with prominent political opponents was their physical removal, either via exile or assassination. Hence the passing of the law apportioning land in Africa for Marius’s veterans was accompanied by violence against Saturninus’s fellow tribune, Baebius.3 In 102 Metellus Numidicus, as censor, attempted to exclude Saturninus and his associate, Glaucia, from the Senate; this was unwise: a riot ensued and Metellus was forced to seek refuge on the Capitol. Saturninus and Glaucia were duly enrolled in the Senate.

Next year the pattern was repeated: “In 101 he insulted an embassy from Mithridates, king of Pontus, and was in consequence prosecuted on a capital charge, but he secured acquittal by calling on the mob to break up proceedings. Then after the murder of a competitor he gained a second tribunate for 100, and his friend Glaucia was elected praetor.”4

It was at this juncture that Marius returned to Rome, having successfully dealt with the threat from the Cimbri and Teutones. He had a great opportunity here to reform the Roman constitution, enhancing the power of the popular assemblies, strengthening the powers of the tribunes and perhaps even going so far as to abolish the Senate, the strongpoint of the oligarchy, but he passed it up:

“… he might have achieved a great measure of social reform, but there is little to suggest that his mind ever moved on such lines except in so far as the interests of his veterans were involved. They needed land and they should have it, but of statesmanship to match his generalship he showed not a spark. So far from taking any personal lead, he merely used Saturninus for his immediate purpose.”5

At this point Saturninus’s political project began to disintegrate. The urban plebs was not particularly keen on colonial settlements for the benefit of Italians, which Saturninus had included in his programme, despite the fact that these people had earned the proposed benefits by fighting for Rome; Marius and the equestrians clearly recoiled from any further radical measures. The result was a narrowing of Saturninus’s base of support. This was a pity, as there are indications that Saturninus was aiming at a much greater degree of supervision and control of magisterial decisions by the tribunes: this is shown by his insistence that senators must swear an oath to abide by his agrarian legislation6 and by his piracy law of 100, which attempted to control Asiatic affairs in detail.7

However, we have no means of knowing how Saturninus would have put through this programme in practice, because Saturninus and Glaucia overreached themselves:

“At the elections for 99 Saturninus secured a third tribunate. Glaucia, however, though holding a praetorship, illegally stood for the consulship: his chief rival, C Memmius (tribune in 111) was murdered or killed in a riot. This was too much for Marius, who had a strong sense of law and order and must have been increasingly uncomfortable about the wisdom of his political alliance with these demagogues and perhaps about their ultimate political aims.

“When the Senate passed the senatus consultum ultimum [calling on the senior magistrates to defend the republic, the equivalent of declaring a state of emergency] and summoned him to see to the safety of the state, he deserted his allies, who with their followers had seized the Capitol. By cutting off their water supply he soon compelled them to surrender, and in order to save them from lynching at the hands of the mob he shut them in the Senate house, but the crowd broke through the roof and pelted them to death with tiles.”8

Drusus and the Italians

The suppression of the movement led by Saturninus and Glaucia left behind a power vacuum of sorts. Into this vacuum stepped one M Livius Drusus, son of the Drusus who played such a prominent role in the undermining of Gaius Gracchus some years previously. His object was to overturn Gracchus’s jury legislation, which had handed the courts over to the equestrian order, and replace such juries with ones drawn equally from senatorial and equestrian ranks. In order to win the citizens round to this he was obliged to bring forward legislative proposals appealing to other social groups, which led him inter alia to take up the cause of Rome’s Italian allies, who sought Roman citizenship.9

In 91BCE Drusus was mysteriously murdered, and this event was followed immediately by an armed revolt of the allies in a war variously known as ‘the social war’ (a rather inept translation of bellum sociale, from the word for allies - socii), the Marsian war - the Marsi were among the most intransigent rebels - and ‘the war of/with the allies’. Basically what the Italians wanted was citizenship as a means of attaining equality and protection against arbitrary ill-treatment.10

It is clear from Appian’s description of the course of events that the Italians gave a very good account of themselves.11 They also took steps to declare political independence, establishing a capital at Corfinium, which was renamed Italica. This pressurised the Senate into conceding the principle that they were entitled to Roman citizenship, which was enshrined in the Lex Julia of 90BCE. This gesture was enough to defuse the revolt, but with its end in 88 the details of Italian enfranchisement still had to be worked out. When the censors appointed in 89 got busy, they refused to distribute the Italians among all the existing 35 tribes, confining them in a minority of not more than 10.

As Herbert Hill observes, “It was the old reactionary policy, which had been applied also to freedmen, designed to ensure that the new citizens should not have a decisive voice in politics. It could not be acceptable to the Italians.” 12

The tribune, P Sulpicius Rufus, stepped forward as the Italians’ champion, “drawing upon himself a storm of calumny which has coloured the whole ancient tradition about his career … he therefore made himself the rallying point for all those who were willing to resist the Senate.

“To gain popular support he allied himself with Marius and proposed to transfer to him the command against Mithridates [king of Pontus, who was threatening Rome’s positions in Asia Minor] which had already been allotted to Sulla [a staunch supporter of the Senate]. This move would also please the equestrian middle class, who were naturally deeply interested in the recovery of Asia [where they had extensive economic interests] and had great faith in Marius but none at all in Sulla …

“Finally, having secured a sufficient backing in the assembly [not without using certain strong-arm tactics], he proposed to right the wrong done to the Italians by a law which provided the enrolment of them and of the freedmen in all 35 tribes.”13

Unfortunately for the Italians, and also Marius, Sulpicius Rufus and their supporters, L Cornelius Sulla refused to give up the command against Mithridates. Sulla was the Roman equivalent of Mrs Thatcher and general Pinochet of Chile rolled into one. He marched on Rome with six legions, brushed aside the opposition, which had only limited forces at its disposal, and pushed through two laws stipulating that all legislative proposals should, as per constitutional precedent, be laid first of all before the Senate and that the assembly should vote by centuries and not by tribes. With these reactionary laws in place he then left with his legions to fight Mithridates. The Marian forces regrouped and reoccupied Rome, and Marius engaged in a programme of revenge. This only postponed the final reckoning, since Sulla, having patched up a shaky peace with Mithridates, returned with his army and once more imposed his will.

Sulla proceeded to institute a counter-terror, publishing prescription lists which announced the liquidation of those regarded as supporting the Marian faction, and put in place a series of counter-reforms. The depleted senatorial ranks were filled by the promotion of some 300 equestrians; a strict sequence of offices was laid down - quaestor, aedile, praetor, consul - under the so-called Lex Annalis; quaestors were given automatic entry into the Senate and their numbers were increased from 12 to 20; the number of praetors increased to eight; membership of court juries was reserved for senators. Above all, measures were introduced to restrict the power of the people’s representatives, the tribunes: they could no longer propose laws to the comitia unless with prior approval of the Senate; they were deprived of judicial powers; their right of veto was restricted, and they were made ineligible for election to any other office.

Essentially the effect of all this was to restrict the powers of the tribunes to intervening in cases of possible abuse of powers by magistrates against individuals. In order to enforce his programme Sulla assumed dictatorial powers - the first person to hold this office since the Second Punic War - but he was only dictator from 82 to 79BCE. He then resigned and went back to being a private citizen, retiring to his estate in Campania, where he died the following year.

Julius Caesar is reported to have said: “Sullam nescisse litteras, qui dictaturam deposuerit” - “Sulla did not know his political ABC, because he laid down the dictatorship.”14 Whatever the merits of this criticism, Caesar was here expressing in his usual forceful way his determination not to follow the example put forward by Sulla. Sulla, however, was not aiming at dictatorship pure and simple: his assumption of this power was but a means to an end, a necessary move in an attempt to set the clock back, to restore the status quo ante in which the Senate ruled and the various other component parts of the republic knew their place. “I have put the Senate in the saddle,” he is reported to have said. “Let us see if it can ride.”15

The subsequent history of the Roman republic demonstrates incontrovertibly that the Senate was incapable of handling the situation. Sulla’s settlement began unravelling almost immediately when M Aemilius Lepidus, one of Sulla’s prominent supporters who had been elected consul for the year 78, attempted to put together a coalition of interests and individuals opposed to it and, having obtained Gaul as his province in 77, marched on Rome.

His attempt to seize power was defeated, but in the process the Senate gave the young Pompeius (Pompey) a special command against Lepidus, even though by the provisions of Sulla’s Lex Annalis he was not constitutionally entitled to hold it. Survivors of the Marian faction were still holding out in Spain under Sertorius, and Pompeius persuaded the Senate to send him there with an army to destroy their power. Meanwhile trade in the eastern Mediterranean was being disrupted by pirates, and Mithridates still posed a threat.


Just at this point a major slave revolt erupted on the Italian mainland. This was the famous uprising associated with the name of Spartacus. Spartacus was a Thracian, captured in war and forced to fight as a gladiator: escaping with a number of his fellow gladiators, and attracting numerous runaway slaves, he proved himself a talented general. He seems also to have deserved the place he occupies in the affections of revolutionary socialists, since, if Appian’s report is to be believed, he divided any spoils won in equal shares.16 Max Beer also credits him with the aim of introducing a state in southern Italy on the model of Lycurgus’s Sparta,17 but Frank Ridley, when writing his excellent little monograph Spartacus, leader of the Roman slaves, failed to find any evidence to support this.18

It is, of course, quite possible that he envisaged the creation of some such regime if victorious, but, as Ridley points out, if the regime had wanted to survive permanently it would likely have been forced to base itself on a reconstituted slave mode of production in some form: “Had Spartacus won, probably all that would have transpired would have been that the Romans would have become slaves, and the slaves Romans! Spartacus and Caesar would have changed places!”19

It took some eight regular Roman legions under Marcus Licinius Crassus, plus additional help from Pompeius, who returned to Italy after having defeated the Marian forces in Spain, to crush the slave insurrection. Crassus and Pompeius were not on especially friendly terms, but they used the threat posed by their legions to browbeat the Senate into accepting them as joint consuls for the year 70BCE. With evidence in existence of bribery and partisanship in the senate-controlled courts, Pompeius campaigned on a programme of law-court reform and restoration of all former powers to the tribunes: thus, as Hill observes of Pompeius and Crassus, “these two former supporters of Sulla proceeded to complete the overthrow of Sulla’s constitution”.20

In addition, censors were elected: “The census lists compiled by Gellius and Cornelius contained the names of 900,000 citizens, as compared with the 463,000 in the lists of 85BC. The great increase shows that the newly enfranchised Italians were enrolled for the first time. Though it is evident that by no means all those eligible claimed enrolment, it is probable that most Italians who wanted their citizenship to be effective were admitted to the citizen body at this census.”21

There are some political lessons in all this. In addition to safeguarding one’s political reputation, there is another requirement in such circumstances: to use modern terminology, as soon as the gun begins to be effective, it is necessary to command the gun.

Cicero, Catilina and the triumvirs

Meanwhile the demands for land redistribution and cancellation of debts continued to resonate. With the power of Mithridates not yet extinguished, interest rates were high at Rome and many people, including some aristocrats, were suffering in the throes of debt. In these circumstances it was logical for the tribune, P Servilius Rullus, to propose a new agrarian law for the redistribution of public land and the establishment of colonies in what had become the traditional pattern.

Cicero famously spoke against the measure and the Senate threw it out. They were rewarded with the so-called ‘Catalinarian conspiracy’, whose ostensible leader was the impoverished aristocrat, L Sergius Catilina (Catiline), who favoured debt cancellation (novae tabulae - ‘new slates’). Catilina fell fighting against regular Roman forces, in company with discontented Etruscan peasants led by L Manlius.22 Cicero claimed the credit for the suppression of this movement and celebrated it in possibly the worst line of Latin poetry: O fortunatam natam me consule Romam! (‘Happy Rome, born in my consulship!’).

Outwardly order was restored, but Cicero had only succeeded in placing his hand on the lid of a boiling kettle. Crassus, one of Rome’s richest men, wanted better terms for tax-collectors in Asia, Pompeius wanted ratification by the Senate of his eastern settlement after defeating Mithridates and Julius Caesar, who had recently given evidence of a dangerous populist tendency, wanted to be consul. By setting its face against all three, the Senate majority caused them to come together in a political agreement known to history as the first triumvirate; this combination succeeded in getting Caesar elected consul for 59 BCE, albeit with a conservative colleague, Bibulus.

Brushing aside in characteristic fashion all attempts by the optimates to stop him, Caesar put an agrarian bill for land for Pompeius’s veterans through the comitia, the Senate having previously blocked it. He then obtained Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum as his province, to which Transalpine Gaul was subsequently added. Caesar went off to conquer the latter territory, which, as almost everyone knows, he found divided into three parts (as described in the opening of his Gallic war).

The first triumvirate and Clodius

Meanwhile in Rome the power struggle was intensifying. Major players were the senatorials, led by Cato, Pompeius, Crassus, Caesar (even in his absence) and P Clodius Pulcher, a somewhat disreputable aristocrat who succeeded in getting elected as tribune in 58. By this stage outbreaks of political violence were a frequent occurrence at Rome.

Andrew Lintott gives a list in his book showing that between 287 and 100BCE there were 16 incidents, whereas between 100 and 44 there were 46 - roughly half in the period 59-44. Lintott includes three examples of tribunes using their constitutional powers of arrest, on the grounds that such actions were “formalised violence”,23 but even discounting these the picture is accurate:

According to Michael Crawford, “The incidence of violence may itself be taken as a mark of the desperation of the poor. The Roman mob perhaps included men of the middling sort, and the resentment which found expression in violence perhaps included resentment at the operation of the client economy. But the men who hired themselves out surely did so because they were deprived of any other means of livelihood.”24

Crawford instances as a parallel the political gangs fuelled by unemployment in Spain prior to 1936. It appears that Clodius had begun to build up urban mob support for himself even before becoming tribune, and that the triumvirs hoped to use him as one of their agents or allies on this basis.25 He subsequently managed to arrange things so that Cicero and Cato, his chief rivals for control of the urban voters, were removed from the capital for a period. Unfortunately for the triumvirs, however, Clodius was his own man and was quite prepared to target anyone, however powerful, including Pompeius himself.26 Pompeius began to suspect the hand of Crassus behind these attacks27 and in retaliation managed to secure Cicero’s recall from exile, having first organised a rival gang under T Annius Milo.28

The triumvirs met again at Luca in 56 and renewed their agreement, giving Caesar more time to conquer Gaul, but Pompeius arranged to govern Spain in absentia by means of legates, enabling him to remain at Rome. He was married to Caesar’s daughter, Julia, but when she died he contracted a new marriage with an aristocrat, signalling a possible move back into the optimate camp. Next Crassus was killed fighting the Parthians. Plutarch suggests that Pompeius began to mistrust Caesar at this point.29

Anarchy and violence at Rome showed no sign of abating, and certain people proposed that Pompeius should be made dictator. The suggestion was not adopted, but when Clodius was killed in a brawl with members of Milo’s gang the Senate voted to make Pompeius sole consul (as a way of getting round the opprobrium acquired by the word ‘dictator’ following Sulla’s occupancy of this office) and authorised him to use military force to restore order. At the same time he got his Spanish command renewed without effecting any similar benefit for Caesar.

Caesar’s replacement agent as tribune, C Scribonius Curio, persuaded the Senate to pass a motion calling on both Pompeius and Caesar to disarm in 50, by 370 votes to 22, but the diehard senatorial minority got a tribune to veto it. With Caesar hovering at Ravenna, on the threshold of Italy proper, the Senate voted its notorious consultum ultimum, the state of emergency decree; Caesar then crossed the Rubicon, the river of the Italian frontier, with his forces, uttering the famous sentence Alea iacta esto (‘Let the die be cast’). True to form, he struck first in the civil war, using lightning speed.

Caesar’s regime

Once Caesar got the upper hand, it was widely expected that he would embark on a ruthless programme of debt cancellation and agrarian reform. He did proceed with an extensive list of colonies, but on debts he allowed cancellation only up to 25% of the principal, under assessors charged with establishing the true pre-civil-war value of any relevant property, which could then be used in settlement of debt.

There was a Caesarian left, so to speak, which considered this inadequate: Caelius as praetor promulgated a law imposing a six-year moratorium on debt payments, with no interest accruing, but that was opposed; his subsequent proposals met the same fate, and he was driven from office. The most Caesar would countenance was a proposal by Dolabella for a one-year cancellation of all debts amounting to less than 20,000 sesterces.30

The reason for this was Caesar’s overall desire to develop the Roman economy on the basis of the existing social formation, which necessarily involved conciliation of propertied interests, although he did insist on safeguarding the interests of the Roman fisc (treasury) in the process. Tenney Frank rightly emphasises his many imaginative proposals for the establishment of commercial colonies and engineering projects (a Corinthian canal, a Tiber ship canal, draining the Fucine lake and the Pontine marshes etc), which, if they had all been carried out, would have led to perceptible economic benefits.31 Michael Parenti says that “without too much over-reaching, we might say that his reign might be called a dictatorship of the proletarii”.32

But this revives undesirably the old idea that proletarian dictatorship can be exercised in some way other than by the direct rule of the proletariat. Caesar’s policies were in the best interests of the population of the empire as a whole, but they were not primarily in the direct interest of any particular class, and Caesar did not rule as the direct representative of any particular class to the exclusion of the others. Furthermore, his whole political trajectory from 49 was only made possible by his conquest and plunder of Gaul.

Even so, Caesar possessed a grasp of the needs of all the various component classes of Roman society that was streets ahead of any of his contemporaries, which makes his senseless murder in 44BCE all the more reprehensible. Many senators and equestrians were not reconciled to the lowered status that he inflicted on them, but the action of the conspirators on the Ides of March in 44 only succeeded in prolonging the agony by unleashing a final power struggle which only ended in 31 with the battle of Actium and the defeat of Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra.

The contradictions within the Roman social formation were so severe that the constitutional fabric could not hold. Competition within the oligarchy, keen at the best of times, became uncontrollable, as ambitious politicians exploited popular grievances to build a power base against the Senate, and the Senate failed to maintain its prestige by granting the necessary concessions.

The Roman constitution lacked mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of these conflicts: it was necessary to resolve them, in the words used by Bismarck in a later context, by “blood and iron”. In the process power fell to the successful general, who stood above the contending classes.


1. E Badian in The Oxford companion to classical civilisation Oxford 2004, p444.
2. Appian The civil wars London 1966, appendix E, p409.
3. See AW Lintott Violence in republican Rome Oxford 1968, p110.
4. HH Scullard From the Gracchi to Nero London 1982, p55.
5. Ibid p58.
6. See ibid p59.
7. See AN Sherwin-White in R Seager (ed) The crisis of the Roman republic Cambridge 1969, p154.
8. HH Scullard From the Gracchi to Nero London 1982, p59.
9. Gaius Gracchus had previously expressed a wish to support this demand, and Marius and Saturninus both became known as favouring the Italians: see E Badian in R Seager (ed) The crisis of the Roman republic Cambridge 1969, pp30-31.
10. E Badian, as above; see also T Frank An economic history of Rome New York 1927, p169.
11. See Appian The civil wars I, pp37-52.
12. H Hill The Roman middle class Oxford 1952, p141.
13. Ibid p142.
14. Suetonius Life of Caesar Loeb edition, Vol I, p77.
15. All my attempts to locate this quotation have so far been unsuccessful, but it neatly sums up Sulla’s project.
16. Appian The civil wars I, p116.
17. M Beer Social struggles in antiquity London 1922, p164.
18. F Ridley Spartacus, leader of the Roman slaves Kenardington 1961.
19. Ibid p76.
20. H Hill The Roman middle class Oxford 1952, p153.
21. Ibid pp153-54.
22. HH Scullard From the Gracchi to Nero London 1982, pp108-09.
23. AW Lintott Violence in republican Rome Oxford 1968, pp209-16.
24. M Crawford The Roman republic second edition, London 1992, p165.
25. AW Lintott Violence in republican Rome Oxford 1968, p190.
26. Plutarch Pompeius XLVIII, 6-7.
27. See M Crawford The Roman republic second edition, London 1992, p164.
28. HH Scullard From the Gracchi to Nero London 1982, p117.
29. Pompeius LIV, 1.
30. H Hill The Roman middle class Oxford 1952, pp188-89, 192.
31. See T Frank An economic history of Rome New York 1927, pp348-53.
32. M Parenti The assassination of Julius Caesar New York 2003, p160.