Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Reforms of the Roman Republic

In the wake of Sulla's revolt and the Lepidian Conspiracy, the city of Rome was very much an armed camp in many respects.  Distrust and suspicion ruled the day, and civil order was held together tenuously.  Unpopular politicians were at substantial risk of being attacked by dissident citizens, of all classes.  Many politicians unscrupulously sought power for themselves (not that such opportunism has ever been a stranger to politics).  Populares harnessed the power of the mob, while Optimates harnessed the fear of the mob, but both to the same end, personal power.  However, the same paranoia that gripped the Republic at this time also tended to be the downfall of overly ambitious politicians.

Eventually, many of the more patriotic Romans were able to make progress in stabilizing the state by addressing the many different issues that plagued the Republic at this point in history.  Before elaborating on the specific reforms, it should be mentioned that the key difference between the supposed patriotic reformers and the ambitious selfish reformers was that the former succeeded and the latter did not.  In other words, in an example of history being written by the victors, those politicians who proved to be unable to implement their reforms were cast as would-be autocrats, partially to further highlight the necessity of the successful reforms, and to exaggerate the tranquility they brought.

The first reform of note was the Lex Pompeia, enacted in 683 AUC (71 BC) by the Plebeian Council, under Gneaus Pompeius Syricus (though not yet called Syricus), who was Praetor at the time, and collaborated with both Tribunes to ease its passage.  The Lex Pompeia had two provisions.  The first provision of this law was to effectively abolish the ability of magistrates to disband assemblies by claiming that unfavorable omens had been observed.  In the instability that the Republic faced at this time, this method of blocking legislation had been greatly abused.  Cicero records such examples of politicians disbanding assemblies on trumped up omens: the Tribal Assembly being disbanded after thunder was heard, on a sunny day; on another occasion, it was disbanded on account of a magistrate having an uneasy stomach; the Centuriate Assembly was disbanded one day due to smoke from a fire, suspected to have been started by opponents to the business on the Assembly's agenda.

The second provision of the Lex Pompeia was to declare clubs of a 'semi-political nature' illegal, referring to the various armed gangs that were common in the city at the time.  This provision was unpopular with the plebeians, but was part of a compromise in order to ensure that the higher magistrates did not attempt to block the first provision.  The Lex Pompeia was very successful, and the legislative assemblies were able to conduct business normally once more, while violence greatly subsided in the city.

Though not a law, in 684 AUC (70 BC), the Senate issued a decree that called for the exile of anyone who executed a Romen citizen without trial.  In the political violence of the time, a few high profile instances of individuals being executed on Senatorial authority, particularly during Sulla's revolt, without due process, had occurred, much to the distaste of many Romans.  Unfortunately, one of the individuals so exiled was the famed Lucius Julius Caesar, who had, however, already retired to an estate in Campania, and accepted his punishment stoically, particularly as it had little real bearing on him.

The next reform law worth noting is the Lex Lutatia, enacted in 685 AUC (69 BC), by the Plebeian Council, under Quintus Lutatius Catalus Audax, who was the Plebeian Tribune.  The Lex Lutatia was framed to resolve the fact that the Centuriate Assembly no longer represented the military well at all.  Since Marius, Romans without land comprised the overwhelming majority of the legions.  However, in the Centuriate Assembly, which was supposed to represent the Roman soldiers, they only held one fifth of the vote, as the Proletarian Centuries.  Further, the Centuriate Assembly voted in class order and, like all Roman assemblies, stopped voting once a majority was reached.  This meant that the Proletarian Centuries almost never voted, as a majority was almost certainly reached well before the vote would proceed their ranks.  Thus, the Roman military was almost completely disenfranchised, a fact which they soldiers were well aware of, and proved to be a serious point of friction regarding their loyalty to the state over personal loyalties.

To address this, the Lex Lutatia first set the voting order of the Centuriate Assembly to be random, much as the Tribal Assembly was.  When voting was to commence, a century would be picked at random and their vote would be cast.  Then another century would be picked, at random, and so forth, until a majority had been reached.  By itself, this would have immediately lent more legitimacy to the Proletarian Centuries, but it would not have increased their voice, as they still only held one fifth of the total votes, even though they dominated the military.

Thus, the Lex Lutatia also reformed the organization of voting centuries, from five property classes to six, with two of them being reserved for the Proletarian Centuries.  Though still woefully under-represented, those soldiers now had twice the voice in the Centuriate Assembly, and began to use it to their advantage, at least when not on campaign, since all votes required citizens to be physically present in Rome, a point that would raise later issues.

Another Senatorial decree, issued in 687 AUC (67 BC),  effectively abolished the office of Dictator.  While there had not be an actual Dictator in over a century, the Senate occasionally granted dictatorial authority by means of the Final Decree, or Senatus Consultum Ultimum.  Led by the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was Consul in that year, the Senate determined that such extraordinary powers were unneeded to protect the state.  Not so much in that there were no threats to the Roman Republic, but that it had become clear that the Final Decree itself was a threat, as the power granted proved too problematic.  Sulla had marched on Rome under such authority, as had Fimbria before him.  Caesar had executed Roman citizens, an act for which he accepted punishment, admittedly, under the same authority.  With such examples, the Senate was rightly afraid of what could happen in the future, if a Roman commander were successful in marching on Rome.

In 692 AUC (62 BC), the Tribal Assembly, under Gaius Julius Caesar, Praetor at that time, passed the Lex Julia.  Prior to this, the Tribal Assembly rarely passed legislation, but given the political climate and Caesar's audacious manner, unconventional, but constitutional, methods were the order of the day.  Caesar's rationale was the that Lex Julia directly impacted the Tribal Assembly.  The provision of the law was that the various territories of the Italian and Latin cities be organized into more tribes.

After the Lex Cornelia was passed 26 years earlier, the newly enfranchised cities were divided amongst 8 of the 35 existing tribes, to ensure that their votes would not dominate the assembly.  Caesar sought to make their representation somewhat more equitable, and, thus, the Lex Julia increased their allotment from 8 tribes to 12.  This involved a fair amount of gerrymandering on Caesar's part, but made him very popular with the rest of Italia, a fact which would prove useful for him when he needed recruits for his campaigns.

With the Lex Julia, the rush of reforming legislation waned.  The Republic was generally fairly conservative, by nature, and it would take some time for Rome to adjust to the changes to their system.  The reforms were largely successful in restoring peaceful civil government to the city, as well as the entire Italian peninsula.   Something of a minor golden age occurred, as genuine debate and discourse returned to the halls of Roman government, without the fear of violent reprisals for being part of the wrong faction of the moment.


First, remember that this section is written from the point of view of someone of this timeline.  Thus, though the era may be described as being plagued by political violence, it is nothing compared to the murderous mobs and legalized proscriptions of our history.  Also, the hypothetical writer of this piece is also not an unbiased source, and may attribute more tranquility to these reforms than they deserve.  Popular unrest may also have been abated by military adventures.

Some of these reforms did happen in our history, though at different times and by different sections of the government, such as the provisions of the Lex Pompeia and the Senate decree outlawing executions without trial.  Others were things that struck me as issues that needed to be fixed (particularly the Centuriate Assembly) and I devised the ways that I thought would be most palatable to Romans of the time.

Also, Pompeius Syricus is our Pompey the Great, and Caesar (not Lucius Julius Caesar, the one who gets exiled) and Cicero are the same as in our history.  As a matter of fact, Quintus Lutatius Catalus Audax, the Plebeian Tribune mentioned in this section, is the first invented character so far.  Expect more non-historical figures in upcoming entries.  Lastly, given how convoluted the Roman legislative process was, I do not claim with 100% certainty that I wrote all this correctly.

No comments:

Post a Comment