Why was the last century of the Roman Republic filled with turmoil and civil discord? Was the violence a cause or a symptom of political dysfunction? Explain.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The last century of the Roman Republic was so marked by discord that historians loosely refer to it as the "Crisis of the Roman Republic." The causes of this period are hotly debated, as the target of blame ranges from all classes and conflicts both internal and external. Forms of slavery, attacks from brigands, wars, and land reform have all come under blame. Historians even debate the nature of the crisis itself, whether it was one of the people or the government.

Many agree, however, that the starting point of this discord concerned Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. The two had sought to redistribute land to the poorest of Romans by circumventing the senate. Because of this, Tiberius was murdered by the senate. Instead of atoning and seeking a goodwill standpoint, the senate doubled down on the righteousness of their standpoint. This created a divide in the Roman Republic that could never be healed.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Republic had proved to be a workable system of government for a small city-state, but was less viable for what would become a vast empire, larger than any that had been seen before. During this period of rapid territorial expansion, the center of political gravity shifted decisively towards powerful generals such as Julius Caesar. However, the Republican system and its institutions were unable to accommodate this development. In formal terms, nothing much had changed; yet in substantive terms, everything had changed. This gap between the outward form of Roman government and its reality plunged Rome into a constitutional crisis, which led to the decline and subsequent fall of the Republic.

Using their increased political and financial clout, powerful military leaders like Julius Caesar and Pompey were able to subvert the existing institutions of the Republican government to serve their own ends. Despite enduring for centuries, these institutions were incapable of withstanding the sustained application of power and influence by the leading personalities of the Roman state. In summary, Rome became an imperial autocracy long before the Republic formally ended.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In order to answer this question, we need to go back to 133 B.C. This was when Tiberius Gracchus was murdered for seeking to redistribute land by circumventing the senate as a tribune of the plebs. Simply put, Tiberius and his brother wanted to redistribute wealth to help landless Romans. This was a watershed moment that divided Roman politics. 

Some people sided with the Gracchi and others sided with the senate. Of course, this is a simplified version, but this framework offers a lot of milage. After the Gracchi Roman politics was fractured and many civil wars took place: Marius (of the people)  vs. Sulla (of the senate) and Caesar (of the people) vs. Pompey (of the senate). 

So, by the time of Octavian violence in Rome was rampant. In fact, Andrew Lintott, a very good scholar, wrote a book on this very topic. His appendix is filled with instances of violence in the streets of Rome. 

What also compounded this atmosphere is that soldiers became more loyal to certain generals than to the state. So, people like Caesar and Pompey could wield very loyal and powerful armies. Finally, men began to take many offices all at once. For example, Caesar was simultaneously Pontifex Maximus, consul, and dictator in perpetuity. 

In light of all of these events, civil discord followed. 

Finally, as for whether there was political dysfunction, I would say yes. The Republic got too big not to change. The Roman people outgrew the political constitution of Rome. An empire needed an emperor and his staff. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial