The class struggle in the Roman Republic

All attempts to revive a corpse that is already beginning to smell bad are doomed to failure. The Roman Republic was by now dead because the old economic and class relations that created it had disappeared long since. Caesar only gave it a shove and it collapsed. All that was left was an empty husk, which was blown away by the first puff of wind.

Caesar balanced between the classes, now appealing to the poor against the rich, now leaning on the rich to suppress the poor. He used the Popular Party to defeat the aristocracy, and then lined up with the Party of Order to suppress his erstwhile supporters. But all the time he was concentrating power into his own hands. Caesar kept up the appearance of maintaining the Republic, and the senate thanked him for it by licking his boots.

When he had first entered Rome after crossing the Rubicon the senate granted him dictatorial powers but only for eleven days (just enough time to rig the consular elections). Later it made him dictator for four months, one year, ten years and finally for life. His triumphant return from Egypt gave this august body an excellent opportunity to display its utter servility before the military jackboot. It heaped honours upon him. It even voted to erect in the heart of Rome a statue of Caesar on a chariot with a globe in his hand and an inscription designating him a semi-god.

A rebellion in Spain led by Pompey’s sons was quickly put down and when the news of Caesar’s victory reached Rome the senate once again lost no time in grovelling before their new Master, upon whom they bestowed the title (replete with unconscious irony) “the Liberator”, and even consecrating a temple to Liberty in his honour. Later he was granted unprecedented honours: sacrifices on his birthday (something reserved for kings in Greek mythology), annual prayers for his health and well-being and so the list goes on and on. And while the Senate heaped honours and praises on Caesar, with every passing day he was strengthening his power and forging new chains for the Republic.

Caesar’s Party was now the Party of Order, with its boots placed firmly on the neck of the Senate and the Roman People. It was also the war party. Partly, this was to add to Caesar’s greatness. But it had a more immediate and practical aim: it was the only way to fill the state’s coffers. The economic crisis at Rome was unprecedented. After years of revolutions, upheavals and civil war, the treasury was bankrupt. Yet Caesar distributed land to his veterans and ordered the construction of lavish public works – libraries, canals, even a harbour. To pay for all this, there had to be new wars every year, like the war against Parthia.

Pursuing his internal revolution, Caesar increased the number of senators to reward his own Party and undermine the old aristocracy. In order to reward his supporters, Caesar doubled the number of senators. But far from increasing the Senate’s weight and power, this was merely another way of expressing its irrelevance. All the real decisions were now taken by Caesar and his entourage. From his point of view it made sense to pack this talking-shop with loyal supporters and thus weaken still further the specific gravity of the old aristocratic Party. What was the composition of Caesar’s party and the character of those adherents with whom he stuffed the Senate? Syme writes:

“Many of Caesar’s partisans were frank adventurers, avid for gain and advancement, some for revolution. (…) Caesar’s following was heterogeneous in composition – at its kernel a small group of men paramount in social distinction, not merely nobiles but patrician; on the outer fringe, many excellent Roman knights, ‘the flower of Italy’.” (Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution, p.51.)

These “excellent knights” (equites) were Roman capitalists, as Michael Grant points out:

“Bankers, industrialists and farmers […] represented Caesar’s personal backing: and this broadening of the senate proved one of his most permanent achievements.

“And if he arranged, as he did, that the senators should be the men he wanted he also found ways to mould the leading offices of state to his own pattern. Under his direction as dictator, the annual elections to the consulships and other offices still continued. But he secured the passage of a law allowing him to ‘recommend’ quite openly to a large proportion of the more important posts – and indeed to fix who their holders should be, for a number of years ahead. In the old days the consuls had been rulers of the state. Now, they were convenient henchmen for Caesar: and their posts were appropriate ones to hand to loyal supporters as a recompense for their services.” (Michael Grant, Caesar, p. 185.)

The huge increase in the numbers of senators was therefore not just a means of diluting the senatorial power and increasing that of Caesar: it was also very good for business. Naturally, those promoted to senatorial rank (many of whom were provincials from Gaul and Spain with no connection with the old senatorial aristocracy) would not only be grateful to their benefactor but would also be anxious to express their gratitude by paying important sums of money into his coffers

The assassination of Caesar

Caesar announced a reform of the calendar with 365 days – the basis of our modern calendar. Behind this was a definite idea. The old calendar was in a mess, and he wished to introduce order out of chaos at all levels. The Party of Order decided even what day of the week it was! Naturally, one of the months was named after him (July). He appeared in a purple toga – this being the colour traditionally associated with royalty. He had himself declared dictator for life – although it was supposed to be a temporary office. Finally, he consorted with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, though still married to Calpurnia, his third wife. In other words, he was behaving like an Oriental despot.

Inevitably, the question was raised of making Caesar king. It is likely that these rumours were spread by his enemies as a provocation. The title of king was hated in Rome ever since the distant days when the Tarquins were expelled from the city. Caesar, who in practice enjoyed almost all of the attributes of a monarch, understood very well the risks entailed in accepting such a title. On one occasion, his faithful supporter and friend Marc Anthony publicly offered him a golden crown, which he made a great show of rejecting, hurling it away from his person with great force.

It is obvious that the whole thing was a prearranged show designed to prove to the people that he had no ambitions to wear a crown. And why should he? A man who holds real power in his hands is not interested in possessing the outward signs and insignia of power. On the contrary, Caesar was quite content that an impotent senate should carry such meaningless insignia, as long as it was he, and not they, who actually ruled. Caesar did not overthrow the Republic, but only its empty shadow of a thing that already lacked all real substance. Hegel understood the situation every well:

“His position was indeed hostile to the republic, but, properly speaking, only to its shadow; for all that remained of that republic was entirely powerless. Pompey, and all those who were on the side of the senate, exalted their dignitas auctoritas – their individual rule – as the power of the republic; and the mediocrity which needed protection took refuge under this title. Caesar put an end to the empty formalism of this title, made himself master, and held together the Roman world by force, in opposition to isolated factions.” (Hegel, op. cit., p. 313)

The diehard republicans could only curse under their breath as they witnessed the inexorable decline of the senatorial power. Conservative republicans like Cicero had to be content with whispering in corners or writing sarcastic letters like the following:

“At one o’clock Caesar announced the election of a consul to serve until 1 January – which was the next morning. So I can inform you that in Caninius’ consulship no one had lunch. Still, nothing untoward occurred while he was consul: such was his vigilance that throughout his consulship he did not sleep a wink.

“Yes, you may laugh, but you aren’t here. If you were, you could not help weeping. What if I told you everything? There are countless similar instances.” (Cicero, Letters to Friends, VII, 30.)

In this way, Rome, and all its world-wide sovereignty became the property of a single man. The extreme republican wing of the aristocratic party was implacable in its opposition to Caesar, whose connections with Cleopatra and the kings and despots of the East made his intentions even more suspect. The aristocrats stifled their indignation when Caesar sent a Gaul into the Senate but could do nothing about it except complain furtively for fear of Caesar’s spies, who were everywhere. The enemies of Caesar, however, were now on the defensive.

While the majority of the senate acted in a cowardly fashion in surrendering power to a man they hated and despised as much as they feared, the extreme republican faction, feeling the last vestiges of power slipping inexorably from their hands, resorted to desperate measures; they decided to get rid of Caesar. A decisive step was taken in the summer of the year 44 BC, when the senate finally voted to make Caesar dictator for life. This was the final act of self-abasement of this miserable and spineless group of men. But for some this was the last straw.

A conspiracy was organized by a small group of senators headed by Brutus and Cassius, who hit on a plan childish in its simplicity: the problem was Caesar, and therefore his removal was the solution. Once Caesar was assassinated the Republic would be restored and everything would be as it was before. Cicero, Brutus and Cassius imagined that Caesar’s rule to be a mere accident, and that the entire position of affairs to be dependent on his individuality.

The chief organizer of the conspiracy was Gaius Cassius Longinus, a man with great practical energy who had come over to Caesar’s side after the battle of Pharsalus, but who evidently thought he had not been sufficiently rewarded for his services. He won over his brother-in-law, Marcus Brutus, who had a special place in Caesar’s affections (some thought he was Caesar’s natural son). Brutus is generally held to be a man of noble character (“This was the noblest Roman of them all”, wrote Shakespeare). But he defended the same class interests as the others: the interests of the old aristocratic senatorial class.

The conspirators believed that if this one individual were out of the way, the Republic would be ipso facto restored. Possessed by this delusion, they plotted the assassination of the individual who, in their mind, was responsible for all their ills. The outcome of all this is well known. On the 15th March, only days before he was due to leave for a military campaign in the East, Caesar was murdered on his way to the senate. One of the great mysteries is why he had no real protection. He had even dismissed his personal bodyguard of Spaniards. Was this an excess of confidence? Or was it the result of his fatalistic Stoic philosophy, as Shakespeare implies:

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.” (Julius Caesar, 2.2.34)

Whatever the reason, the conspirators had it easy. They surrounded Caesar, who, having been stabbed 23 times, finally covered his face in his cloak and collapsed. According to Suetonius, when Brutus struck his blow, Caesar said: “You too, my son.” The conspiracy succeeded in its immediate objective. But his murder could not save the Republic. It immediately became clear that the Roman State had been transformed, and it was impossible to put the clock back.

The conspirators imagined that by eliminating one man they could save the system. But the results of their actions were diametrically opposed to their intentions. Instead of restoring the Republic, they only succeeded in ushering in the Empire. The problem of this analysis is that its basic assumption was false. All attempts to revive a corpse that is already beginning to smell bad are doomed to failure. The Republic was dead because the old economic and class relations that created it had disappeared long since. Caesar only gave it a shove and it collapsed. All that was left was an empty husk, which was blown away by the first puff of wind.

Even the tactics adopted by the conspirators revealed a fatal weakness. Individual terrorism is always an expression of weakness. The assassins believed that one bold stroke for “liberty” would galvanise the old aristocratic party to fight in its own defence. But that Party was already in ruins, split and demoralised. It was not even prepared to fight in its own defence. As Michael Grant says:

“Curiously blinkered by their own traditions, the Roman nobility just did not realize that they could not simply pick up the threads where it had dropped them at the beginning of the Civil War. For the power was no longer theirs to recapture: it had passed forever into the hands of the general who could marshal the most formidable armed forces.” (M. Grant, Caesar, p. 198)

The Second Triumvirate

In the moment of truth Brutus and the other conspirators found themselves isolated and rapidly crushed. By their actions, far from saving the Republic, they accelerated its destruction. The leader of the Caesarist Party was at first Marc Anthony, who took advantage of the outrage of the mob at Caesar’s murder to consolidate his position. In the confused and turbulent situation that followed, he was forced to manoeuvre and arrive at an uneasy compromise with Brutus and Cassius, who were allowed to leave Rome and establish a base in the East.

Anthony was greedy for power and lost no opportunity to fill his pockets, as Syme points out: “Invective asserts, and history repeats, that the consul Antonius embezzled the sum of seven hundred million sesterces deposited in Rome at the Temple of Ops.” (Ronald Syme, The Roman revolution, p.131.)

But Anthony’s position was still insecure, and he had an important rival for the leadership of the Caesarist Party: a clever, cold and calculating young man called Gaius Octavius, who was Caesar’s great-nephew. Since Caesar had no children by Calpurnia, and they had adopted Octavian, he was also Caesar’s legal heir. At first, they were on a direct collision course. But in November 43 BC they patched up their differences and formed the Second Triumvirate together with Lepidus.

In 42 BC, they went onto the offensive, defeating Brutus and Cassius at Philippi. In September 40 BC, the Triumvirs agreed to divide the Republic into spheres of influence. Octavian took control of the West, while Antony took over the East, and Lepidus was left with Spain and Africa. This pact was known as the Brundisium Agreement. It could not last. Octavian, who had boundless ambition, started calling himself "Divi filius" ("son of the God"). This was a direct imitation of Caesar, who had been deified as Divus Iulius ("the Divine Julius"). Later he simply styled himself "Imperator Caesar". Imperator, a military term for a victorious general, is the origin of our word Emperor.

The methods of the Caesarists are described by Ronald Syme:

“Nor would Antonius and his associates have behaved as they did, could security and power be won in any other way. The consequences of compelling a general to appeal to his army in defence of life or honour were now apparent – the generals themselves were helpless in the hands of the legions. The proletariat of Italy, long exploited and thwarted, seized what they regarded as their just portion. A social revolution was now carried out, in two stages, the first to provide money for the war, the second to reward the Caesarian legions after victory.

“War and the threat of taxation or confiscation drives money underground. It must be lured out again. Capital could only be tempted by a good investment. The Caesarian leaders therefore seized houses and estates and put them on the market. Their own partisans, astute neutrals and freedmen of the commercial class got value for their money in the solid form of landed property. Freedmen, as usual, battened upon the blood of citizens.

“The proscriptions may not unfairly be regarded as in purpose and essence a peculiar levy upon capital. As in Sulla’s proscription, nobiles and political adversaries might head the list: the bulk is made up by the names of obscure senators or Roman knights. The nobiles were not necessarily the wealthiest of the citizens: men of property, whatever their station, were the real enemies of the Triumvirs. In concord, senators and business men upheld the existing order and prevented a reconstitution of the old Roman People through a more equitable division of landed property in Italy; now they were companions in adversity. The beneficiaries of Sulla suffered at last. The Triumvirs declared a regular vendetta against the rich, whether dim, inactive senators or pacific knights, anxiously abstaining from Roman politics. That was no defence.” (Ronald Syme, The Roman revolution, pp.194-5.)

The real class basis of Octavian was the same as that of Caesar: the big bankers and capitalists of Rome. Octavian not only had the opportunity of robbing the State Treasury. He also had behind him the richest men in Rome:

“The diversion of public funds was not enough. Octavianus also won the support of private investors, among them some of the wealthiest bankers of Rome. Atticus, who refused to finance the war-chest of the Liberators, would not have looked at this venture. No matter: Caesar’s heir secured almost at once the financial secretaries and political agents of the Dictator. Among the first Caesarians to be approached in April was the millionaire Balbus. Balbus could keep his counsel, and time has respected his secrets. No record survives of his services to Caesar’s heir. After November he slips out of history for four years: the manner of his return shows that he had not been inactive. The Caesarian Rabirius Postumus also shows up, as would be expected, benevolent and alert in any shady transactions. Along with Matius and Saserna he advanced money for the celebration of the games in July.” (Ronald Syme, The Roman revolution, p.131.)

Sooner or later Octavian was bound to come into a head-on collision with Marc Anthony for possession of the immense wealth of Egypt and the East. First Octavian got rid of Lepidus, the weakest link in the Triumvirate, who leaned towards Marc Anthony. Then he manoeuvred to turn public opinion in Rome against Marc Anthony, using his relations with Queen Cleopatra to discredit him. He illegally obtained Anthony’s will in July 32 BC, and exposed it to the Roman public: it promised substantial legacies to Anthony’s children by Cleopatra, and instructed that his body should be shipped to Alexandria for burial.

These shocking revelations caused outrage in Rome, and the ground was psychologically prepared for war. At the Battle of Actium in Greece (September, 31 BC), Octavian's forces decisively defeated those of Antony and Cleopatra, although by all accounts the battle itself was a bit of a farce, ending in Octavian’s fleet chasing the enemy back to Egypt, where Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. All power was now concentrated in the hands of one man – Octavian, who is known to history as Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome.

The natural result of Caesarism was the Empire, where all traces of the old Republic vanished without trace. The hypocritical Augustus kept up the pretence of respect for the Senate and the Republican forms, but everybody knew that it was just pretence. His followers did not even pretend. Caesar scandalised people by sending a Gaul into the Senate. When the emperor Caligula made his favourite horse a senator, everybody knew that this action expressed very well the real situation.