This week we looked at how the Roman Republic declined after their victory in the 2nd Punic War, starting around 200 B.C. and ending around 80 B.C. How did this happen? Rome by this time had conquered most of the Mediterranean and had undisputed dominance. This would seem to be the time to celebrate and enjoy the fruits of your labor, not internal dissension. Why did it happen? We can advance a variety of theories. . .
1. Rome Wins the Lottery
Who would refuse a winning lottery ticket? In conquering so much territory and vastly increasing their wealth, Rome in a sense, won the lottery when they won the 2nd Punic War. And yet, most who win the lottery report being less happy overall. Perhaps because. . .
- Lottery winners have increased responsibilities which they are not used to having
- More possibility of tension exists between family and friends. Suppose I threw a dime in the middle of class and said that whoever got it could keep it. How hard would the students work to get it, and how disappointed would they be if they lost? Now imagine I throw $1 million into the room. How many friendships would fray and break over who got that much money?
2. The Fighting Ethic
Rome defined themselves largely through their victories in war, their fighting prowess. Now that no external enemy threatens them, they might turn that ethic on each other.
3. Wealth and Laziness
Wealth can curse us in other ways. With great wealth one can avoid responsibility and buy yourself out of difficulties rather than face them head on. Great wealth could hypothetically exempt you from accountability.
We see this “escape from accountability in Rome’s new tax laws. No one likes to pay taxes. With all of their conquests, Rome transferred the tax burden to the provinces and exempted themselves.
But in theory at least, paying taxes helps keep our government officials accountable to us. Ultimately we answer to who pays us. By eliminating taxes they greatly reduced government’s need to answer to the people, and so naturally Rome’s republic declined.
4. Roman Tradition
As we discussed earlier, Rome guided itself heavily with tradition. But acquiring vast amounts of territory (indicated by the map below) over such a short time brought big changes to how Rome functioned. Being a Mediterranean empire meant
- A sharp, quick rise of a new merchant class in financial and political power
- The need for a professional paid army that deployed for long periods
- The need to decide what to do with the thousands of landless refugees in part created through Roman conquests.
Unfortunately, the structure of the Republic made it very difficult to change things, and almost ensured that the status quo remained in effect (a byproduct of Rome’s love for tradition). As the political process stagnated, Rome fell back on what they did best — violence.
The conflict between the Patrician Class (Rome’s oldest aristocratic families) and the Plebians (those who at least in theory supported “the people”) flared up during this time. As we touched on, outside enemies could unite these two groups, but without that, the chances that the old divisions between them would flare up increased. They did, and certain plebian leaders began to attempt to break down Rome’s venerable political system to make it more equitable, at least in their eyes. The patrician class reacted by murdering plebian leaders like the Graachi brothers.
Violence by itself rarely solves any problem. Usually it only raises the stakes by provoking an equal counter-reaction (this is not to say that force can never be part of the solution, but it can’t be the only solution). The plebians pushed harder against Tradition, and the Senate responded in kind. Soon both sides violated tradition willy-nilly and power seemed to be the only cause. This will not bode well for Rome’s future, and we look look at the disintegration of Rome’s Republic next week.