“Corruption, the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty” – Edward Gibbons
The Republic’s politics and governing institutions evolved over time, reflecting the increasing wealth from its growing empire; increasing diversity of its population; and increasing diversion of interests among its social castes. High public office in Rome was much sought after, rewarded with wealth and power, and increasingly administered toward that end. While Senators were banned from commerce to avoid conflicts with their public duties, they often invested in the Equestrians’ trading and provincial administrative enterprises, and so benefited financially from provincial conquest. Competition for office was fierce, and substantial sums were spent on campaigns, so the stakes were great for those, like Caesar, who did not have substantial family wealth, and who often became seriously indebted, sometimes bankrupted, by their ambitions. Personal and family wealth, strategic marriage, nepotism, favor-granting, and military reputation became increasingly important traits for those pursuing high public office.
A high level of ambition was a prerequisite for those undertaking this great gamble, and those seeking election often became desperate, prone to use of, and influence from, bribes, intimidation, threats and even violence. Rural and provincial voting participation was limited, so campaign activity was primarily in Rome itself, concentrated in the Forum and surrounding neighborhoods. Campaigns became increasingly characterized by conspiracy, both real and imagined, and by intimidation by mobs and veteran soldiers circulating in the Forum at elections. Efforts to legitimize the election process through a series of laws in the early first century BC proved ineffective.
After 400 years of warfare, fought in great part over trade, the Republic had brought the entire Mediterranean under Roman control, and with it, great wealth. But the dynamics of trade, and the system of provincial conquest, fueled a perpetual, self-reinforcing economic and political cycle that benefited the aristocracy at the expense of the working class and poor. The associated political tensions would persist, and intensify, for generations. And the gains in the Republic’s wealth, when integrated with Rome’s rigid social castes and political systems, were beginning to erode the foundation of its representative governing institutions. The interests of the aristocracy were protected by the Senate, whose control over Rome’s Treasury and administration of the provinces gave it increasing influence over the government. The poor, working and military classes represented the vast majority of Rome’s population, producing increasing pressure on the Tribunes, as their representatives. to protect their increasingly desperate economic position. All of this led to demands for greater sharing in the spoils of war; division of the rural estates and re-distribution of land to veterans and the poor; and subsidized wheat for the working class.
Added to this, the prominent role of the military, fully integrated into the leadership of Rome’s governing bodies; the allure of great wealth from military commands and high public office; the increasing predominance of the aristocracy in the governing structure; and the increasing corruption of the election system; all provided a toxic mix with the potential for civil war lurking just beneath the surface.
The Republic had designed a representative government; had achieved great wealth through military conquest and trade; had concentrated that wealth in its aristocracy at the expense of its lower classes; and now had corrupted its political house in a way that served to preserve those economic and social divisions.