This paper discusses the statement, “The Roman Republic was brought down not by luxury or corruption but by fundamental flaws in the structure of its political system”. As will be argued, a statement such as this can only be discussed in relative, not absolute, terms, as no one cause for the demise of the Roman Republic can ever, realistically, be said to have been the factor that caused it’s fall. Under this framework, then, the first section of the paper discusses the various theories that have been posited to explain the fall of the Roman Republic, with the second section looking, in detail, at the political structure of the Roman Republic and how this could potentially have contributed to its ultimate demise.
Gibbon’s great tome The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire essentially concludes that the Roman Empire was brought down through moral decadence. Other authors have argued for different reasons behind the fall of the Roman Republic, with recent scholars (for example Hunt et al., 2001) arguing that the Republic did not fall, rather that it was subject to a highly complex transformation, with additional confusion amongst scholars as to when the Republic actually fell: some argue that the Republic fell in 476 with the deposition of Romulus Augustus; others argue that the Republic continued until as late as 1453, and that it fell only when Constantinople was lost.
This next section will present some of the most prevalent theories about the fall of the Roman Republic. Ferrill (1998) has argued that the Roman Republic fell due to it’s barbarization, that the influx of German mercenaries in to the Roman military led to lack of loyalty and complacency amongst the Roman ranks, leading to a surge in decadence amongst the Roman soldiers and citizenry. This somewhat supports Gibbon’s (1983) assertion that decadence was responsible for the fall of the Roman Republic. Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire essentially concludes that the Roman Empire was brought down through moral decadence, as he argues, through the loss of what he terms ‘the loss of civic virtue’. The influx of barbarian mercenaries, coupled with the rising popularity of Christianity, Gibbon argues, led the Roman populace to come to believe more in the afterlife, leading to the loss of social structures, and, ultimately, leading to the fall of the Roman Republic.
Other historians contradict this theory of Gibbons (1983) and Ferrill (1998), arguing that the Roman Republic continued to be strong right up until the Muslim conquests in the seventh century, at which point these conquests, amongst other things, disrupted trade routes, leading to a general economic downturn in Western Europe. It is argued that this economic downturn led, ultimately, to the disbandment of the Roman way of life, leading to the ultimate fall of the Roman Republic. This theory has, however, been recently rebutted by a number of historians who have argued that trade routes would not have been so badly affected, that trade must have entered Western Europe by some other route as the discovery, and therefore existence, of Islamic currency in Roman areas is suggestive of a two-way trade. Economic explanation for the fall of the Roman Republic are popular, however, and will be looked at in further detail later in the paper.
Bury’s 1923 History of the Later Roman Empire presents in-depth research in to the issue of the fall of the Roman Republic and concludes with a complex theory to explain it’s fall. Essentially, Bury (1923) argues that the Roman Republic fell due to many simultaneously occurring factors, such as a general economic decline in the region, the influence of German (Barbarian) troops on Roman soldiers, and the dependence of Roman military leaders on Barbarian manpower, the depopulation of Italy, various murders and treasons that occurred within the top ranks of Roman politics, and the absence of any convincing leader following the murder of Aetius. As Bury clearly states in his concluding sections, Roman power gradually collapsed, and “….was the consequence of a series of contingent events.”. As he argues, no general causes can be assigned, and nothing suggested to him, through his research, that the fall of the Roman republic was by any means inevitable.
Bark (1958) argues that it was the massive effort that was involved in keeping the Roman Republic together that, ultimately, led to its fall. Around this time, feudalism was developing, yet the Roman ruling classes were not well organized in terms of having a system in place to collect taxes from their people, such that it became the responsibility of the middle classes to undertake the massive task of collecting grain taxes. As such, only a small proportion of these taxes actually arrived back to the Imperial government, leading to massive losses in revenues for the Roman rulers, having massive side-effects, such as decreased investment in the Roman military, for example. In addition, currency inflation, through a reduced supply of gold in to the Republic (see Jones, 1974) led to the government leaking money, with their stock of cash being reduced, leading, ultimately, to massive cash flow problems for the Republic, with obvious implications, in terms of funding the military and funding public building projects, for example. These two factors, occurring in conjunction, argues Bark (1958) led to the ultimate demise of the Roman Republic.
Toynbee (1939) preceded Bark’s (1958) logic that the Roman Republic was an economically poor force, with his detailed research showing that Roman leaders had no budgeting system in place, leading to obvious problems with controlling cash flow, leading, ultimately, to a dwindling of whatever cash resources were available and to a lack of cash availability for providing for military expenditure, or public works, for example. This method of budgeting had proved successful as long as the Romans continued to expand into other areas, from which they could loot existing resources, but as soon as the Roman Republic stopped expanding, this source of revenue also stopped. At this point, the Romans, without an adequate budgeting system, coupled with loss of tax money through an inadequate collection system, coupled with currency inflation (see, also, Jones, 1974), faced massive economic problems, causing, it is argued, the ultimate demise of the Roman Republic (Toynbee, 1939).
Building on this theory, Tainter (1990) argues that the fall of the Republic was due to marginal returns on investments, again contributing to cash flow problems for the Republic as a whole, ultimately contributing to its decline; unlike many authors who study the collapse of the Roman Republic, Tainter (1990) argues strongly that the fall of the Roman Republic may have been a good thing for many Roman subjects, in terms of benefits arising from not having to invest in maintaining such a complex society (i.e., no taxes to pay etc.) and indeed, archeological evidence, through studies of human bones pre- and immediately post- the fall of the Roman Republic, post-fall, humans were better nourished.
Rostovtzeff (1957) also subscribes to this economic theory of the fall of the Roman Republic, arguing that the free trade market economy developed by the Roman Republic worked up until the debasement of the currency in the third century, at which point inflation began to hurt citizens, who then began to move away from urban areas, to move to the country in order to undertake subsistence farming as a way of surviving i.e., they could grow their own crops for food, and in this way not have to rely on failing monetary sources to keep them alive. Bartlett (1994) continues the work of Toynbee (1939) arguing that by the third century monetary taxation had been replaced with direct requisitioning, where food and cattle, instead of money, were collected directly from farmers. This pathway, argues Bartlett (1994) led directly to the development of feudalism, with estates formed around the cultivation of crops and cattle, and not, as such, dependent on any form of trade whatsoever. This, on a grand scale, Republic-wide, is then argued to have led to a massive downturn in the economic fortune of the Republic, and to a decrease in its military capability, for example, with, again, obvious consequences for maintaining control over the entire Roman territory.
The research of Heather (2005) leads to conclusions about the fall of the Roman Republic which differ from previous theories: he argues that the emergence of the Persian Empire led to the Roman Republic stripping tax collection from its Eastern edge, leading to a decline in economic revenues, a decline in governance in these areas, and a mass influx of peoples to the empire, for example, by the Barbarians, leading to massive levels of immigration to the Roman Republic, leading to obvious social problems. Through his exhaustive research, Heather explicitly rejects Gibbon’s ‘moral decadence’ theory for the decline of the Roman Republic. Neither does he see any validity in the arguments of those who support political infighting as the major reason for the fall of the Roman Republic. Heather supports the arguments of Bury (1923) who argues that the fall of the Roman Republic was not inevitable but that it occurred as a result of a series of events which, unfortunately, came together at the same time, and which, ultimately, led to the fall of the Republic.
Heather’s viewpoint is argued against by Ward-Perkins in his 2005 book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation which argues, in a similar manner to previous historians assessments of the situation, that the fall of the Republic occurred as a result of political instability, foreign invasions and economic instability due to reduced tax revenues. The massive, and sustained, immigrations of foreigners, such as the barbarians, Ward-Perkins (2005) argues, led to a weakening of the tax base, leading to an inability to equip the Roman army, with obvious deleterious consequences. Ward-Perkins, ultimately, however, argues, as do Bury (1923) and Heather (2005) that the fall of the Roman Republic was due to a complex mixture of processes and events which came together at the same time to lead to a definite fall in the Roman Republic.
Levick (1982) looks at the morals and political system of the Roman Republic, and their relation to its fall. She argues that ‘ambitio’ – ambition – led to major political difficulties during the last century of the Roman Republic, with a thirst for ultimate power leading to in-fighting and political problems. As Levick (1982) argues, however, it is difficult to infer the Roman political structure from contemporary documentation, as much is contradictory, but it can be inferred that the Roman constitution and community was a self-regulating device, kept in perpetuity and in check by a series of checks and balances that prevented disintegration from within and also made the community better able to cope with threats from outside. To Romans, however, as Levick (1982) argues, this political system was seen explicitly as a moral obligation, with anything that upset the political balances being seen as something undesirable and immoral. Levick argues that, ultimately, the political system had a built-in tension between the group and the individual, and that, ultimately it was this in-built tension that led to the death of the Roman Republic, through squabbles for individual power which led to the breakdown of Roman society.
As we have seen in this paper, therefore, there are many different explanations for the fall of the Roman Republic, with the main theories being economic demise, immigration and overtaking by Barbarians and other groups, and political infighting which, it is argued, led to the ultimate demise of the Roman Republic through a disintergration of the moral fibre of Roman society. As to which theory of the fall of the Roman Republic one subscribes to, this depends on the literature that has been studied, and the quality of the sources used within that literature. Heather (2005) and Gibbons (1983), for example, both use quality primary sources, and yet arrive at different conclusions for the reasons behind the fall of the Roman Republic. It is perhaps most prudent, at this stage, therefore, to argue that a statement such as “The Roman Republic was brought down not by luxury or corruption but by fundamental flaws in the structure of its political system” can only be discussed in relative, not absolute, terms, as no one cause for the demise of the Roman Republic can ever, realistically, be said to have been the factor that caused it’s fall. The present paper has thus presented the various theories for the fall of the Roman Republic in this framework, in terms of offering a holistic view of the situation on the ground around the time of the fall; fundamental flaws in the Roman political system were, as we have seen, just one part of a complex situation which, together, led to the fall of the Roman Republic.
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