Written by Titus, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Karl Marx said that humanity has been in a constant class struggle. According to him, the rich and poor have been in a perpetual war throughout history. His philosophy gave birth to modern communism which went on to add another dimension in the social and international divide between people and governments since the twentieth century. Marx gave what seemed to be valuable solutions to ending this struggle and achieve societal equality.
Roughly after a century, we have come to realize it was not as potent as it seemed to be. It was also not as groundbreaking or original. Ancient Roman society had successfully acknowledged and integrated the class struggle into their ruling apparatus thousands of years ago.
Roman society was much more successful than the modern communist and capitalist regimes as it incorporated both of these philosophies that often clashed with each other politically. It was a healthier inclusion of the working class into the government. It also made it infinitely more complex.
As Rome continued to steamroll much of the known ancient world, its ruling class became increasingly richer. With more conquests, they got their hands on more assets and slaves. Slowly, it began to threaten the societal balance of Rome in a way never seen before in antiquity. The rich would buy off the land from the peasant and employ their slaves to work on it.
As a result, the peasants not only gradually lost their land; they also lost the prospects of jobs to the slaves. It strained the economic condition of the Roman State as it would be forced to feed the unemployed mass of people. Also, it posed a serious threat to military recruitment for the Republic as the individuals serving in its legions were supposed to own property.
The first attempt to correct this dynamic was made by the Gracchi brothers who were ultimately assassinated by the conservative faction of the Senate, called the Optimates. The Gracchi brothers tried to redistribute the land and the rich, unsurprisingly, were not happy to hear the possibility of relinquishing their wealth.
It is worth noting that Roman society did have checks-and-balances, as the Plebeians or the low-income citizens had their say in State affairs through the Tribune of Plebs office. It was an important power check on the wealthy class of Rome or the Roman Senate. As time progressed, the social divide became wider and ultimately resulted in the downfall of the Republic itself and the creation of the Roman Empire.
The social divide resulted in the emergence of military commanders as the key political players. As the soldiers were recruited from the low-income class of the Republic, they started to heavily rely on their generals for securing land for them after their retirement. This meant that their loyalty would be to their generals instead of the Senate. This made them willing to fight for their generals even against the other Roman armies.
The first civil war of the Roman Republic between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla saw how one general was able to march on Rome with his army. However, the victor Sulla was still from the Optimates faction and believed in the supremacy of the Senate. Things went back to the status quo after Sulla. However, the second civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus resulted in the irreversible chain of events that ensured the downfall of the Roman Republic.
After the fall of the Republic, the office of the Tribune of Plebs continued to exert a great power even under the shadow of the all-powerful Roman emperors; most often, it would be the emperors themselves who held the position of tribune. It ensured the goodwill of common people and helped them get their concerns heard by the highest level of leadership.
The events that led to the fall of the Republic shed an interesting light into how Roman society worked and how complex it was as compared to modern times. The low-income class didn’t rise against their wealthy counterparts in a revolution; instead, they aligned themselves to individual generals who helped them secure what they needed.
This led to the clash of Optimates and Populares throughout the late Republic period, which in turn led to the end of Senatorial dominance in Roman politics and the emergence of powerful emperors. These emperors would work for the middle-class to increase their popularity much more than they would for the senate, even though the latter continued to function as a political organ of the State.