The class struggle in the Roman Republic

The different classes in society, the urban “proletariat”, the propertied classes, divided between capitalists and aristocrats, were not capable of providing any way out of the impasse Roman society faced. The result was a long and inglorious agony of the Republic that led inexorably to Caesarism and the Empire.

The Republic was dying on its feet because its social basis had ceased to exist. This fact expressed itself in continuous political crises and convulsions in the capital, party strife, revolutions and counterrevolutions. Paradoxically, the peasants were not the only ones affected by debt. Behind their outward splendour and overbearing pride, many Roman senators were in debt. The rise of a money economy served to disintegrate the old social relations and the political power that rested upon them.

The old system was dead but there was nothing viable to put in its place. This produced a deadlock between the classes. The masses in Rome were capable of staging periodic riots and upheavals that provided the opportunity for demagogues to seize the reins of political power. But, as we have seen, the Roman proletariat – unlike the modern proletariat – was an unproductive and parasitic class. It lived off the backs of the slaves and the oppressed provinces just as much as the capitalists and aristocracy that they hated. They could never provide a viable alternative to the existing system. On the other hand, the propertied classes, divided between capitalists and aristocrats, were also not capable of providing the necessary stability. The result was a long and inglorious agony of the Republic that led inexorably to Caesarism and the Empire.

The class struggle at Rome in this period assumes a particularly feverish and convulsive character. One party succeeds another without offering a definitive solution. The freedmen were given votes in order to make their patrons masters of the streets. Politicians appeared in the streets and the Forum at the head of private armies of freedmen numbering hundreds or even thousands to intimidate the senate into passing certain laws. The political struggle had reached the point where only armed force could restore some kind of order and equilibrium. The stage was set for the eruption of the army into politics.

Proletarians and slaves

The crisis of Roman society necessarily affected the slaves. There was ferment among the slave population everywhere, and a whole series of revolts and uprisings, which culminated in the great slave rebellion led by Spartacus. The slave miners in the Attic silver mines in Greece rose up, occupying the promontory of Sunion near Athens and pillaging the surrounding country, before being suppressed. Sicily, as we have seen, was the scene of one uprising after another, even inflicting some defeats on the Roman army.

In the first Sicilian revolt there were cases where the free proletarians joined the insurgent slaves, who came within a hair’s breadth of conquering Messana. It is probable that the reason Spartacus tried to lead his army into Sicily was to spark off a new slave revolt there and possibly establish an independent state. But the uprising failed, and after its suppression the slave-owners took their revenge by selling large numbers of proletarians into slavery.

Since the conditions of the free proletarians were not much better than those of the slaves, the logical result should have been the linking up of both classes in a common revolt against the oligarchy. The big question is: why did this not take place? The conditions of the mass of peasants in the countryside were no better than those of the urban poor in Rome. Yet there is no record of rural uprisings, and only in a few cases did the poor Romans join in the uprisings of the slaves.

The reason for this apparent contradiction is that neither the urban plebs nor the free peasants were the productive base of society. Although they were underprivileged and oppressed, in the last analysis they had more in common with the slave owners than with the slaves who were the real exploited class and the producers of social wealth. It was their labour that provided the dole of the unemployed citizens of Rome, their sweat, blood and tears that paid for the bread and circuses of the masses as well as the luxurious life-style of the slave-owners.

If one wants an historical analogy to the outlook of the free Roman peasants (or the remnant that still survived by the end of the Republic), it can be found in the psychology of the “poor whites” of the southern states of America at the time of the Civil War. This social layer had absolutely nothing in common with the wealthy slave-owning aristocracy which treated it with contempt. For the wealthy slave owners they were merely “white trash”. Although they lived in conditions of poverty which were not that much better that those of the black families that frequently lived alongside them, they nevertheless always combined with the white slave owners against the blacks, and fought obstinately for the cause of the South in the Civil War.

The poor whites, despite their degrading conditions, always felt themselves to be superior to the blacks. It is an established fact that the lowest and most degraded layers of society like to feel that there are people on a lower level than themselves. A similar psychology must have existed among the poor layers of Roman societies in both town and countryside. At every decisive moment, they united with the senate to defeat the slaves.

In his article The North American Civil War Marx made this specific comparison: “Finally, the number of actual slaveholders in the South of the Union does not amount to more than three hundred thousand, a narrow oligarchy that is confronted with many millions of so-called poor whites, whose numbers have been constantly growing through concentration of landed property and whose condition is only to be compared with that of the Roman plebeians in the period of Rome's extreme decline.” (Marx, The North American Civil War, October 20, 1861).

Marius’ army reforms

The defeat of the slave revolts and the crushing of the Gracchan movement meant that there was no longer any possibility of a genuinely revolutionary reconstruction of society. Henceforth, the political struggle in Rome resolved itself into a struggle between rival wings of the propertied classes, a section of which leaned on the city poor for support. But if ever it seemed that the city mob was getting out of control, the propertied classes would always close ranks to put them in their place.

As we have seen in earlier parts of this article, the simmering hostility between the senate and the Roman capitalists (equites) came to a head in 123 BC, when Gaius Gracchus passed the Lex Judicaria, which prescribed that the jurors (judices) should be chosen from the equites, and not the Senate. From this time on the gulf between the senate and the equestrian order widened every year. Hitherto the jurors were chosen from the ranks of the nobles, who therefore had control of the courts, and made unscrupulous use of their power.

This was especially the case in the courts which were established to try governors for extortion in the provinces. The voracious Roman tax-gatherers who plundered the provinces were mainly drawn from the equites. Usually the governors connived with them in this thievery in exchange for bribes. But occasionally, an honest governor would clash with them, and then could be threatened with prosecution, fines or exile. The question of who controlled the courts therefore affected the fundamental interests of the capitalists.

In a situation where the contending classes have fought themselves to a standstill, and where neither side is able to win a decisive victory, the state apparatus, in the form of the army, begins to raise itself above society and acquire a certain degree of independence. In the Roman Republic this process was assisted by the fact that the army had an increasingly mercenary character, reflecting the destruction of the free peasantry that had been the backbone of the old citizens’ militia.

After the crushing of the Gracchan movement, the class struggle resolved itself into mere party strife in which ambitious politicians and generals representing one or other clique of the possessing classes struggled to get control of the state. There now appears a whole series of rival generals, each manoeuvring for power. The constant wars against the Cimbri, the Teutones and other tribes, confers increasing power and prestige to these generals, who support now one party, now another.

The first of these generals with political ambitions was Gaius Marius, the son of a poor day-labourer who got rich as the result of lucky speculation and married into the ancient patrician gens of the Julii. His military victories over the Africans, Germans, Cimbri and Teutones further increased his prestige. “Marius stood aloof from parties not much less than from society,” Mommsen informs us (Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 186.). This adventurer had one foot in each class and intrigued and manoeuvred between all of them. But his main base was the army, which he reorganised to suit his own purposes. Prior to this, the army was open only to citizens with property.

The different branches of the army (cavalry etc.) were likewise determined by the amount of property one possessed. But the changes in the class composition of Roman society rendered these distinctions irrelevant. In any case, the propertied classes were no longer enthusiastic about military service and avoided it when they could. On the other hand the poor citizens wanted to join the army where at least they would have the prospect of pay and plunder. For the Roman peasant, there was only one way of escaping from poverty: by joining the army. This they frequently did, either voluntarily or under compulsion in the later Roman Republic. Once in the army, the peasant soldier (as later in the armies of Napoleon) felt an overriding loyalty to his commanding general.

The reforms of Marius were a big step towards transforming the army from a citizens’ militia into a professional standing army, separate and apart from society, with its own identity and interests and where the soldiers’ first loyalty was not to the senate and the people of Rome but to their own commander – the man who would guarantee them their pay, plunder and glory. It was also a step towards a dilution of the rank of Roman citizen, since the army was open to Latins and other non-Romans, and Marius even gave Roman citizenship away on the battlefield – which he had no constitutional right to do.

From now on, the army was open to the non-propertied classes and what part of the army one served in was determined not by property but only by duration of service. All distinctions of armour were abolished, all wore the same uniform and all recruits were uniformly trained. The result was a general improvement in the fighting qualities and discipline of the troops, who had a new sense of identity – a new esprit de corps. The Roman army became a formidable and disciplined fighting force. But the reforms had another, more sinister import.

“The republican constitution”, observes Mommsen, “was essentially based on the view that the citizen was also a soldier, and that the soldier was above all a citizen; it was at an end, so soon as a soldier-class was formed. To this issue the new system of drill, with its routine borrowed from the professional gladiator, necessarily led; the military service became gradually a profession. Far more rapid was the effect of the admission – though but limited – of the proletariat to participate in military service; especially in connection with the primitive maxims, which conceded to the general an arbitrary right of rewarding his soldiers compatible only with the very solid republican institutions, and gave to the able and successful soldier a sort of title to demand from the general a share in the movable spoil and then from the state a portion of the soil that had been won.” (Mommsen, vol. 3, pp. 190-1.)

The little detail that the training of the soldiers was copied from that of gladiators is significant of a profound change in the nature of the army. Gladiatorial combat, which played such a significant role in the national psychology of Rome in the later Republic and Empire, was probably invented by the Etruscans as a religious ritual involving human sacrifice. But it is possible that the Romans copied this bloody practice from the Samnites. Indeed, they used the words “gladiator” and “Samnites” synonymously. The gladiator was more often than not a slave, and although some of them acquired the status of pop stars (as long as they stayed alive), the profession in general was looked down upon as unworthy of free men.

The Roman soldier was now a professional killer, just like the gladiator, part of a professional killing machine, held together by military discipline and a common interest in conquest and plunder: “His only home was the camp, his only science war, his only hope the general,” writes Mommsen (ibid., p. 191) The Roman legionary was now completely severed from civil society, and, although it carried on its banners the proud title SPQR (The Senate and the Roman People), in practice ambitious Roman generals could, and did, use it as a weapon against both the Senate and the Roman People.

Thus, the basis for Caesarism had been laid. “They had now the standing army, the soldier-class, the body-guard; as in the civil constitution, so also in the military, all the pillars of the future monarchy were already in existence; the monarch alone was wanting.” (ibid.)

The very existence of a standing professional army is a threat to democracy. A standing army that is cut off from society is always a potential instrument for a coup d’etat. This is demonstrated by the experience of the Roman Republic. That is why many centuries later the Paris Commune inscribed in its programme the demand for the abolition of the standing army and its replacement by the armed people – a citizens’ militia. And this demand is at the very heart of the programme of workers’ democracy as explained by Lenin in State and Revolution and included in the Bolshevik Party Programme of 1919. The history of the Roman Republic is a salutary warning in this respect.


The republic was being torn apart by the class struggle. A series of demagogues arose, always willing to rouse the city poor at Rome to riots and disorders. Such men were the street orator Gaius Servilius Glaucia, known as the Roman Hyperbous, his more able colleague, Lucius Appuleius Saturnius, whom even his enemies recognised as a fiery public speaker. Marius flirted with the People’s Party, and its leaders were not averse to a deal with the victorious general with the power of the legions at his back.

Here we have one of the elements of what we now call Bonapartism, and what was known in the ancient world as Caesarism: a tendency to balance between the classes, to lean on the lumpenproletariat to strike blows against the ruling class, while manoeuvring to seize power, using the army. The leaders of the Popular Party struck a deal with Marius to carve up public offices between them. It is said that Marius himself was not above soliciting votes or even buying them. He certainly used the services of discharged soldiers to help his campaign with a little physical force. By a combination of bribery and assassination, Marius succeeded in getting himself elected consul, while Glaucia was made praetor and Saturninus a tribune of the people.

Marius obtained the loyalty of his men by promising them land. This could only be done through conquests. Partly it consisted of confiscated Carthaginian lands. Other land was taken from the Gaulish territory in northern Italy. But soon all the legally available land was divided up. This fact was an important impulse to future Roman expansion, as was the resources to bribe the population of the capital with free grain. Together with the constant need to replenish the stock of cheap slaves, it became a self-enforcing process, propelling Rome to new wars of conquest.

In Rome itself the struggle between the senate and the Popular Party continued. The latter demanded subsidies for the poor that would have bankrupted the treasury. The aristocracy resisted, but the senate was under the pressure of the masses, who regularly rioted in the streets. Saturninus demanded that the Senate act, “or else thunder will be followed by hail”. But behind the scenes the aristocratic party was preparing a counterstroke. Arms were distributed to the sons of the rich, and they began to attack supporters of the Popular Party.

As on previous occasions, the populares were superior in numbers, but they were not properly armed or trained. They were therefore unprepared for such an onslaught. They broke open the doors of the prisons and even appealed to the slaves to fight for their freedom. But it was too late. As we have seen so many times in history, small, well-organized armed groups with good captains can defeat an unarmed and disorganized mass without too much difficulty. And in the moment of truth, they found that they could not rely on “friendly” generals to save them.

Marius, who had leaned upon the populares to gain power for himself, now abandoned them and sided with the aristocracy to put down the masses. A fierce battle was fought in the great market place. The supporters of the Popular Party were defeated and took refuge in the Capitol, where fighting was seen for the first time in history. But they were forced to capitulate when the water supply was cut off. Probably Marius would have preferred to spare the lives of his former allies, who could be useful to him in future intrigues, but matters were no longer in his hands. Without waiting for orders, the gilded youth of Rome climbed the rooftops of the courtyard where the populares were effectively imprisoned and, tearing the tiles from the roofs, stoned their helpless victims to death.

The victory of the reactionaries was complete and devastating. Overnight, the populares were utterly crushed, their leaders butchered. There followed a reign of terror, in which the ruling class took revenge for its humiliation at the hands of the masses: trials, executions, bans and proscriptions decimated the Popular Party. In the past, the equites had supported the Gracchi, but now, terrified of the threat from the masses, they rallied to the banner of reaction that always unites the propertied classes against the poor and dispossessed.

The state rises above society

In the end the conflict had solved nothing. Roman society was now split into two bitterly antagonistic camps of rich and poor. On the one hand, the slave owners, the Roman capitalists or equites, formed a single reactionary bloc with the aristocracy, on the other side stood the mass of dispossessed Roman citizens, the proletarians. But the peculiarity of the situation was this: that neither side could win a final and decisive victory over the other. Under such circumstances, the state – armed bodies of men - tends to rise above society and acquire a large degree of independence. Engels explained the role of the state thus:

“The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without; just as little is it 'the reality of the ethical idea', 'the image and reality of reason', as Hegel maintains. Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of 'order'; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state." (Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, Moscow, 1973, pp. 326-27, my emphasis)

We see this in Roman history in the phenomenon of Caesarism, which is rule by the sword. There followed a long night of reaction in which the rights of the proletariat were abolished or restricted, laws were changed, progressive reforms liquidated. However, the class struggle was not abolished, only driven underground. The discontent of the masses festered. Some of the Popular Party resorted to individual terrorism. They succeeded in assassinating the hated Quintus Metellus by poisoning him. Others took refuge with foreign enemies of Rome, such as king Mithredates, who was preparing war against Rome.

Reaction was firmly in control but contradictions were breaking out in the camp of the victors. Having utilised the services of the Roman capitalists (the equites) to crush the proletariat, the aristocratic party in the Senate now proceeded to turn on its erstwhile allies. The confidence of the aristocrats had grown, their old overweening pride reasserted itself. Freed of the fear of the masses, they asserted their right to rule the roost without consideration for the Roman capitalists, whom they saw as upstart nouveaux riches.

The class lines did not completely comply with the lines of party affiliation. There were those in the senate who supported the capitalists. Men like Lucius Marcius Philippus defended the rights of the equestrian order. The conflict between the senatorial and capitalist parties boiled down to who would plunder the provinces. Some of the senatorial party were prepared to share the plunder with the equestrian order. Others were greedier or else blinded by the class hatred of the old Roman aristocracy for the new class of moneyed upstarts. The leaders of the intransigent aristocrats were Drusus and Scaurus.

While squabbling among themselves, the ruling class always kept a wary eye on the masses, whom they attempted to keep happy with free handouts of grain (plundered from the unfortunate Italian provinces) and promises of land (likewise taken from the provinces). Slowly the provinces were being crushed by the burdens imposed by the capital. The class of small peasants was already extinct in Umbria and Etruria, although it maintained a precarious foothold in areas like the Abruzzi valley. Italy was being bled by Rome and denied of its rights.