In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus, scion of a prominent aristocratic family, veteran of the military campaigns in Carthage and Spain, won election as Tribune. In an effort to address worsening imbalances in land distribution, and to increase the number of propertied citizens qualified for military service, Tiberius proposed legislation to divide land confiscated from Rome’s foreign conquests, and distribute it among the poor and military veterans. But much of this land had already been consolidated into the massive estates of the aristocracy. When the Senate refused to approve the legislation, Gracchus took the matter to the Assembly, where it was vetoed by a fellow Tribune. Gracchus then organized a vote and deposed his opposing Tribune, an act without legal basis. In the Senate, fears arose that the proposed land reform would be so popular among the poor and military veterans that it would provide Tiberius overwhelming political influence, which he might use to assume power as a virtual monarch. As this public dispute escalated, Tiberius ran for a second term as Tribune, a breach of established law. At the annual election, Gracchus and his supporters were run out of the Assembly by a group of Senators, and were killed, their bodies thrown into the Tiber River.
A decade later, in 123 BC, Tiberius’ younger brother, Caius Gracchus, was elected Tribune, and proposed even more aggressive reforms to share the empire’s spoils, including extension of his brother’s land distribution proposals; trial of Senators for corruption by a jury of Equestrians, representing a lower social caste; colonization of Carthage with land grants to Roman soldiers and poor citizens; controlled cost of wheat regardless of market price; and expanded citizenship for the Italian provinces. All of these proposed reforms threatened the wealth and power of the aristocracy, whose interests were protected through their representation in the Roman Senate. In response to Caius’ employment of threats and intimidation against his political opponents, the Senate granted emergency powers to the sitting Roman Consul, Opimius, who used them to assault Caius and his supporters in a temple in the Forum, where the second Gracchus brother was killed, and then beheaded.
Over the next decade, the Kingdom of Numidia (modern coastal Algeria), which had aligned with Rome against Carthage a century before, became increasingly inundated with Roman settlers, merchants and traders, along with competing goods from Rome and other provinces. Growing resentment ultimately led to massacre of thousands of these Romans and their families in the public market at Cirta. Rome sent an army to crush the revolt, but it was was defeated in 110 BC, a major setback that resulted in a loss of faith in the Senate’s aging, corrupt and increasingly incompetent aristocrats. In 107 BC, Caius Marius, a young, accomplished military leader, who had risen through the military and political ranks from childhood poverty, ran and was elected Consul, and proposed a new campaign in Numidia. The Senate granted Marius military command of the conflict in Numidia, but when they failed to allocate troops to support it, allowing only volunteers, Marius raised volunteers from the poorest classes, promising to share the spoils of war with his legions, including land grants in the province once it was re-conquered. Marius won the war with Numidia in 105 BC, was again elected Consul, and in 103 BC Rome instituted a land grant program there for his veteran soldiers, providing them a livelihood when they were discharged. This event was important, as Rome had begun the transition to a professional army raised from the ranks of the poor, to be rewarded with land grants. This evolution in military conscription would become another fracture in Rome’s republican political system.
In the last years of the second century BC, when Rome became threatened after losing major battles to Germanic tribes in southern Gaul, the Senate named Marius as Consul for four additional consecutive terms, during which he campaigned against and eventually defeated the Germanic tribes. While these five terms as Consul, 104 BC – 100 BC, allowed Marius to defeat the Cimbri tribes, and to conquer the region of Gaul south of the Alps, they represented an even greater breach with traditional Consul term limits, and a critical constraint of the republican political design had been violated.
In 91 BC, the Tribune Drusus proposed legislation to extend Roman citizenship more broadly to the Italian provinces, but was stabbed to death at his home, presumably by his political opponents. His supporters, noblemen from the provinces, recruited dispossessed members of the legions and rebelled, leading to a series of confrontations in the “Social War”, a civil war which was ultimately concluded based on compromise of graduated citizenship rights for Italian provinces, and a successful military campaign by a Roman commander, Lucius Sulla. When the insurrection was defeated, Sulla returned to Rome and was elected Consul in 89 BC. Next, the Senate granted Sulla’s request for designation to command a campaign to put down an invasion of Greece from the east, but his appointment was vetoed by an opposing Tribune, who proposed appointing Marius to the command instead. Sulla responded by calling on his own legions, who marched on Rome, an unprecedented act that violated traditional norms. After Sulla assaulted the city, Rome surrendered, and Marius was exiled to Numibia. Sulla restored order to the city and government, then left to command the campaign in Greece. Marius returned to Rome with his army in 87 BC, aligned himself with one sitting Consul Cinna, killed the other sitting Consul, Octavia, who opposed him, mounting his head on a pike for public display in the Forum, soon joined by the heads of several supporting Senators. Sulla’s house was burned and his family escaped, joining him in Greece. Marius and Cinna were elected Consuls in 87 BC; Marius died soon after; and Cinna became the most powerful person in Rome, serving four terms as Consul through 84 BC.
Efforts to negotiate with Sulla, on extended military campaign in Greece, were unsuccessful, and Cinna prepared his legions for the inevitable confrontation. The Senate divided, some supporting Cinna, some remaining neutral, and some supporting and joining Sulla in Greece. Cinna attempted to take his army to Greece, was turned back by storms, and in 83 BC Sulla invaded Italy, won several encounters with Cinna’s legions, and marched to Rome in 82 BC, where his revenge was savage. Marius’ son, sitting Consul, was either killed or committed suicide; the Pontifex Maximus (High Priest) was executed; and Cinna’s captured soldiers and supporters in the Senate were killed. Further “proscriptions” were posted in the Forum, offering rewards for killing of those named as Cinna’s supporters, including many Senators, aristocrats and large estate owners, and in many cases their families. The revenge killings continued until 81 BC, when Sulla was named permanent Consul with powers to reorganize the government. The Senate was expanded to 300 members and packed with Sulla’s supporters; the Tribunes were stripped of the power to initiate legislation; and proscribed families were barred from public office for two generations. Sulla surrendered the Consul’s office in 80 BC, became well known for the extravagant parties at his rural retirement estate, and died in 78 BC.
In 66 BC, the winning candidates for Consul, Autronius Pietas and Cornelius Sulla (nephew of the former dictator), were prosecuted for bribery based on complaints of the losers, Aurelias Cotta and Manlius Torquatus, and, despite using soldiers to intimidate and disrupt the proceedings, were convicted, stripped of their positions, barred from public office. Rioting following the election result was met with more rioting after its reversal by trial; Cotta and Torquatas, the election’s losers, took their place as co-Consuls. Credible stories persisted for years in the Senate of a foiled plot by the accused winners of the election to seize power through assassination of their accusers, further poisoning the environment of the Senate over time between both parties’ political allies.
In 64 BC, Catiline, a Senator famous for his zealous participation in Sulla’s proscriptions, and known for his gambling, debts and womanizing, faced bankruptcy, and ran his second campaign for Consul against Cicero, the great orator, using extensive bribery in the task. Catiline spoke powerfully in the Senate of his intent to lead the vast Plebeian majority of Romans against the minority aristocracy in major reform of Rome’s government, including expansion of citizenship, reform of its social caste system, and distribution of land. When he lost the election, in a replay of the “Social War”, Catiline aligned with a military commander in the northern Italian provinces, and plotted against the winners. Cicero won the election and took his seat as Consul, and through his extensive network of spies, uncovered the plot. Cicero publicly confronted Catiline at the famous debate in the Senate, who then fled to his northern army, where he was defeated and killed by a force sent after him, and his supporters in Rome executed for treason.
With the Consular elections becoming characterized by massive bribery, the Senate appointed Pompey to oversee the election of 53 BC. Clodius campaigned on a reform agenda against his opponent, Milo; both sides used such levels of intimidation and force that the election was disrupted altogether; their rival gangs confronted each other outside the city wall and Clodius, wounded, hiding in a tavern, was hauled out by Milo’s supporters and killed; his remains were carried back to the Forum, where his funeral pyre in the Senate House burned the building down. Milo was tried, convicted, and exiled.
Despite design of a representative government based on diffusion of political power and the achievement of great wealth through military conquest and trade; campaigns for executive control of the government had devolved, in stages, from corruption of purpose; to bribery, manipulation, intimidation, mob violence, political assassination, common murder and scale military conflict. The Republic’s governance had descended into a new norm – civil warfare as a means to achieve political power.