The End of the Roman Republic: Yielding Freedom to Autocracy



Augustus framed his autocratic takeover and control of the Roman state as a sort of democratic act.


By Dr. Edward J. Watts
Professor of History
University of California, San Diego


In 22 BC a series of political and economic crises buffeted the regime of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. Augustus had won control of Rome’s Mediterranean empire in 30 BC after nearly two decades of civil conflicts, but his hold on power now seemed like it might be slipping. The emperor had only recently recovered from a severe illness that he himself feared would kill him when a series of other misfortunes beset the imperial capital. Plagues and floods hit Rome late in 23, and both returned in early 22. Theseh natural disasters contributed to a food shortage and to such severe rioting that a mob imprisoned the Roman Senate in the senate house and threatened to burn them alive. Augustus could call the unrest only when he used his own funds to pay for grain to be delivered to the city. It looked like Augustus’s empire might quickly come apart.

Things did not improve as the year continued. Augustus felt compelled to appear at the trial of a Roman commander who had attacked a Thracian tribe without legal authority, and, at the hearing, the emperor found himself subjected to an aggressive cross-examination by the advocates of the accused. An assassination plot against him was detected and, although the plotters were executed, the jury embarrassed the emperor by not returning a unanimous verdict against them.

Problems worsened after Augustus left the capital to attend to matters in the empire’s eastern provinces. The next year, 21 BC, brought rioting about the selection of Roman magistrates, violence that would recur nearly every year until the emperor returned at the end of 19. Rome, whose population of one million people made it the world’s largest city, perpetually sat on the edge of anarchy while its imperial frontiers demanded constant attention. An objective observer might wonder whether one man, even one as skilled as Augustus, could really run so complicated a state. With its seemingly endless problems, Rome’s empire under Augustus might by rights look like a failed political experiment in autocracy. Surely, a citizen of a modern republic might assume, Romans would quickly abandon autocracy and return to the representative republic under which Roman elites had shared power with one another for nearly five hundred years. This is how we, who have lived all of our lives under younger representative democracies, have been trained to think about freedom.

But the traumas of those years did not, in fact, push Romans back toward the familiar political structures of the republic. Instead, most Romans seem to have craved the power and authority of Augustus even more. In 22 BC, the Roman mob that threatened to burn the senate house also sought to force Augustus to accept the title of dictator although he already possessed supreme power in the empire. The third- century Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote that the electoral violence of 21 BC showed “clearly that it was impossible for a democratic government to be maintained” among Romans. And, when Augustus returned to the city in 19 BC, the same author wrote: “There was no similarity between the conduct of the people during his absence, when they quarreled and when he was present.” Augustus’s presence alone calmed the chaos of Rome and its empire. But Dio added a caveat. Augustus placated Romans only “because they were afraid.” Order came to chaos only when freedom was exchanged for fear.

Augustus himself explained the transition from republic to empire very differently. Although Romans had long held that political domination by one individual represented the opposite of liberty, Augustus framed his autocratic control of the Roman state as a sort of democratic act. In Augustus’s conception, he had restored liberty (libertas) to Rome by first delivering the Roman world from the senators who had seized power by murdering Julius Caesar and by later eliminating the threat of foreign control posed by Cleopatra and her lover Marc Antony. Liberty, as Augustus and his supporters saw it, meant the freedom from domestic unrest and foreign interference that came only with the security and political stability that Augustus provided. Augustus’s liberty meant that Roman property rights remained valid. It opened economic opportunities to new segments of the Roman population. And it took control of the city and its empire away from an increasingly corrupt senatorial elite whose mismanagement had led to civil war. In the 20s BC, many Romans agreed with Augustus that liberty could not exist if insecurity persisted. They came to believe that freedom from oppression could only exist in a polity controlled by one man.

Rome, still one of the longest-lived republics in world history, traded the liberty of political autonomy for the security of autocracy. It is written at a moment when modern readers need to be particularly aware of both the nature of republics and the consequences of their failure. We live in a time of political crisis, when the structures of republics as diverse as the United States, Venezuela, France, and Turkey are threatened. Many of these republics are the constitutional descendants of Rome and, as such, they have inherited both the tremendous structural strengths that allowed the Roman Republic to thrive for so long and some of the same structural weaknesses that led eventually to its demise.

No republic is eternal. It lives only as long as its citizens want it. And, in both the twenty-first century AD and the first century BC, when a republic fails to work as intended, its citizens are capable of choosing the stability of autocratic rule over the chaos of a broken republic. When freedom leads to disorder and autocracy promises a functional and responsive government, even citizens of an established republic can become willing to set aside long-standing, principled objections to the rule of one man and embrace its practical benefits. Rome offers a lesson about how citizens and leaders of a republic might avoid forcing their fellow citizens to make such a tortured choice.

Rome shows that the basic, most important function of a republic is to create a political space that is governed by laws, fosters compromise, shares governing responsibility among a group of representatives, and rewards good stewardship. Politics in such a republic should not be a zero-sum game. The politician who wins a political struggle may be honored, but one who loses should not be punished. The Roman Republic did not encourage its leaders to seek complete and total political victory. It was not designed to force one side to accept everything the other wanted.

Rome shows that the basic, most important function of a republic is to create a political space that is governed by laws, fosters compromise, shares governing responsibility among a group of representatives, and rewards good stewardship. Politics in such a republic should not be a zero-sum game. The politician who wins a political struggle may be honored, but one who loses should not be punished. The Roman Republic did not encourage its leaders to seek complete and total political victory. It was not designed to force one side to accept everything the other wanted.

If the early and middle centuries of Rome’s republic show how effective this system could be, the last century of the Roman Republic reveals the tremendous dangers that result when political leaders cynically misuse these consensus- building mechanisms to obstruct a republic’s functions. Like politicians in modern republics, Romans could use vetoes to block votes on laws, they could claim the presence of unfavorable religious conditions to annul votes they disliked, and they could deploy other parliamentary tools to slow down or shut down the political process if it seemed to be moving too quickly toward an outcome they disliked. When used as intended, these tools helped promote negotiations and political compromises by preventing majorities from imposing solutions on minorities. But, in Rome as in our world, politicians could also employ such devices to prevent the Republic from doing what its citizens needed. The widespread misuse of these tools offered the first signs of sickness in Rome’s republic.

Within a generation of the first political assassination in Rome, politicians had begun to arm their supporters and use the threat of violence to influence the votes of assemblies and the election of magistrates. Within two generations, Rome fell into civil war. And, two generations later, Augustus ruled as Roman emperor. When the Republic lost the ability to regulate the rewards given to political victors and the punishments inflicted on the losers of political conflicts, Roman politics became a zero-sum game in which the winner reaped massive rewards and the losers often paid with their lives.


Edited excerpt from Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny, by Edward J. Watts, published under fair use for educational, non-commercial purposes.

Comments

comments

%d bloggers like this: