Reading the Roman Republic in Early Modern England

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It was no accident that those great revolutionary heroes of modern times, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, took the name of Spartacus as the emblem of the revolutionary German proletariat. Like the hero whose example they followed so bravely, they fell victim to the forces of a brutal counterrevolution. Today, the names of their murderers are forgotten, but the names of Spartacus, Liebknecht and Luxembourg will forever be remembered by every class-conscious worker and revolutionary youth fighting for a better future.

In its heyday, the Roman Empire presented an impressive sight. But it must never be forgotten that Roman power was based upon violence, mass murder, robbery and deceit. The Roman Empire was, like every subsequent empire, a massive exercise in oppression, slavery and common theft. The Romans utilized brute force to subjugate other peoples, sold entire cities into slavery and slaughtered thousands of prisoners of war for amusement in the public circus.

Ancient Rome

Yet the Roman Empire began its existence as a tiny, almost insignificant state that found itself at the mercy not only of its Latin neighbours, but of the far more powerful Etruscans and even, at one point, by the Celtic barbarians that defeated and humiliated the Romans. In the beginning it did not even possess a standing army. Its armed forces consisted of a militia based upon a free peasantry. Its cultural life was as poor as the peasants themselves.

Yet within a few centuries, Rome succeeded in dominating not only Italy, but the whole of the Mediterranean and what was then known as the civilized world. How was this remarkable transformation brought about? The answer to this question is still a closed book for some modern historians. From this point of view, its conquests were a foregone conclusion. At this point we leave science behind and enter into the realm of fantasy and fairy tales. By what magical process the secret of greatness was implanted into the genes of early Romans is a mystery known only to those who believe it.

It calls to mind the lines of the English poet Coleridge when he ridiculed the philosophical mysticism of a fellow poet:. Using the Marxist method of historical materialism in my articles I have tried to explain the process whereby Rome was transformed from a humble city state — one might almost say an outsized village — into a powerful and aggressive imperialist power. I might add that this case is by no means unique in history.

History shows the proof of the dialectical law that things can change into their opposite. It is generally forgotten today that the most powerful imperialist nation on earth, the United States of America, started out as an oppressed colony of Great Britain. Likewise, Rome spent its early life under the dominion of its Etruscan neighbours. Forced by circumstances into an interminable series of wars, Roman society was compelled to develop a powerful military machine, which eventually drove all before it into submission. But these continuous wars — which were initially wars of defence — turned into wars of offence, aimed at conquering territory and subjugating other peoples.

This changed the very character of Roman society and the nature of its army. In turn, it undermined the very existence of the factor that had given early Roman society its coherence, stability and strength — the free Roman peasantry. The conquest of foreign states provided the basis for a transformation of productive relationships through the introduction of slavery on a massive scale. Like all forms of class oppression, slavery contains an inner contradiction that led to its destruction. Although the labour of the individual slave was not very productive slaves must be compelled to work , the aggregate of large numbers of slaves, as in the mines and latifundia large scale agricultural units in Rome in the last period of the Republic and the Empire, produced a considerable surplus.

At the height of the Empire, slaves were plentiful and cheap and the wars of Rome were basically slave hunts on a massive scale. But at a certain stage this system reached its limits and then entered into a lengthy period of decline. Since slave labour is only productive when it is employed on massive scale, the prior condition for its success is an ample supply of slaves at a low cost. But slaves breed very slowly in captivity and so the only way a sufficient supply of slaves can be guaranteed is through continuous warfare.

Once the Empire had reached the limits of its expansion under Hadrian, this became increasingly difficult. However, the beginnings of a crisis in Rome can already be observed in the latter period of the Republic, a period characterized by acute social and political upheavals and class war. From the earliest beginnings there was a violent struggle between rich and poor in Rome. There are detailed accounts in the writings of Livy and others of the struggles between Plebeians and Patricians, which ended in an uneasy compromise. At a later period, when Rome had already made herself mistress of the Mediterranean by the defeat of her most powerful rival Carthage, we saw what was, in actual fact, a struggle for the division of the spoils.

Tiberius Gracchus demanded that the wealth of Rome be divided up among its free citizens. His aim was to make Italy a republic of small farmers and not slaves, but he was defeated by the nobles and slave-holders. This was a disaster for Rome in the long run. The ruined peasantry — the backbone of the Republic and its army — drifted to Rome where they constituted a non-productive class, living off dole from the state. Although resentful of the rich, they nevertheless shared a common interest in the exploitation of the slaves — the only really productive class in the period of the Republic and the Empire.

The great slave rising under Spartacus was a glorious episode in the history of antiquity.

The spectacle of these most downtrodden people rising up with arms in hand and inflicting defeat after defeat on the armies of the world's greatest power is one of the most incredible events in history. Had they succeeded in overthrowing the Roman state, the course of history would have been significantly altered. The basic reason why Spartacus failed in the end was the fact that the slaves did not link up with the proletariat in the towns. So long as the latter continued to support the state, the victory of the slaves was impossible.

But the Roman proletariat, unlike the modern proletariat, was not a productive but a purely parasitical class, living off the labour of the slaves and dependent on their masters. The failure of the Roman revolution is rooted in this fact. The defeat of the slaves led straight to the ruin of the Roman state. In the absence of a free peasantry, the state was obliged to rely on a mercenary army to fight its wars. Eventually the deadlock in the class struggle produced a situation similar to the more modern phenomenon of Bonapartism. The Roman equivalent is what we call Caesarism.


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Spartacus failed because the slaves did not link up with the proletariat in the towns. The Roman legionnaire was no longer loyal to the Republic but to his commander — the man who guaranteed his pay, his loot and a plot of land when he retired. The last period of the Republic is characterised by an intensification of the struggle between the classes, in which neither side was able to win a decisive victory. A whole series of military adventurers come onto the scene: Marius, Crassus, Pompey, and lastly Julius Caesar — a general of brilliance, a clever politician and a shrewd businessman, who in effect put an end to the Republic whilst paying lip service to it.

His prestige boosted by his military triumphs in Gaul, Spain and Britain, he began to concentrate all power in his hands. Although he was assassinated by a conservative faction who wished to preserve the Republic, the old regime was doomed.


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After Brutus and the others were defeated by the triumvirate, the Republic was formally recognized, and this pretence was kept up by the first Emperor, Augustus. But a king he was, in all but name. The forms of the old Republic survived for a long time after that. But they were just that — hollow forms with no real content, empty husks that in the end could be blown away by the wind. The Senate was devoid of all real power and authority.

Julius Caesar had shocked respectable public opinion by making a Gaul a member of the senate. I think he is one of the all-time great historians. But I decided against that because my next two choices are very infused with the spirit of Tacitus. And it really had a crucial sense of shaping our understanding of Imperial Rome as a place of vice and savagery and sexual depravity and violent, brutal, bawdy splendour.

I think that what would leap out would be the shenanigans of Caligula, who indulged in incest, forced prostitution — lunacies that would put…. And that is simply because he has exerted such a magnetic appeal on future generations. His influence is so clearly massive and he is seen by many people as a very attractive figure.

Ancient Rome

My own feeling is that he is actually much darker, verging on psychopathic, but it is that tension between the man who in his correspondence is witty and charming set against the record of someone who brought unbelievable slaughter and mayhem to Gaul and then to his own people. And it is that combination of creativity and destruction within him that I think makes him one of the all-time magnetic figures in world history. Next up is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, which is considered a classic by many, but also somewhat of a heavy read.

I think it is regarded as a heavy read simply because it is physically heavy. The most accessible version is the Penguin one which comes in three large volumes. But the truth is that it remains incredibly readable.

Origins of Rome

As I said before, it takes Tacitus as its model, who was famous for his waspish style, and a careful balancing and modulating of the sentences so that irony would be generated. This is what Gibbon does as well, and it means that not only is it an incredible work of scholarship but it is also compulsively entertaining. I really think that anyone who is prepared to give it a chance will find themselves smiling at the very least throughout it.

It was written in the 18th century, but do you really think it still has an enduring appeal? Yes, and what is interesting about Gibbon is that his work is not only a masterpiece of 18th-century prose but it shapes the terms of historical debate now. Instead it continues right the way up until the fall of Constantinople in and even beyond.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter. What that does is to give us a sense of how when civilisations fall they are inevitably clearing the decks for other civilisations to rise. That is the sort of understanding that has taken historians quite a long time to catch on to and it means that Gibbon is now coming back into focus as someone who really has something to teach. This again is an absolute classic which is completely informed by Tacitus. It has that very mordant take on the way that power works and operates.

One of the reasons for that is that it was written not in the heyday of the British Empire — a time when British historians were rather keen on the workings of the Roman Empire and identified themselves strongly with the Caesars and all their works — but in the s, and published just as World War II was starting.

Yes, but also the power of it is that it is a dispatch from the frontline of dictatorship. So any notion that this is just ancient history, and therefore for that reason somehow removed from how politics function and work now, is absolutely impossible to sustain when you read this and hear the details about how the Romans are coming to terms with Augustus and his regime.

BBC - History - The Fall of the Roman Republic

And the henchmen of Augustus are very recognisable figures. I have chosen this because a lot of books on Ancient Rome, my own included, generally like to tell stories that take fragments of evidence and piece them together to make a coherent narrative. But there is also a deep pleasure in looking at some of the things that we think we know about Rome, or the myths that we know are not actually true, taking the mystery to pieces and examining the works and seeing what is there.

I think that what would leap out would be the shenanigans of Caligula, who indulged in incest, forced prostitution — lunacies that would put….


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  6. And that is simply because he has exerted such a magnetic appeal on future generations. His influence is so clearly massive and he is seen by many people as a very attractive figure.