The class struggle in the Roman Republic

With a mass of impoverished people in Rome, the wealthy felt constantly under pressure. They started to think in terms of a strong government, stability and order. This meant the rule of a “strong man” – a general. The only question was who would take on this role.

The first Triumvirate

The Catiline conspiracy must have come as a shock to the wealthy classes in Rome. Living in close contact with a mass of impoverished people, must at times have felt like living on the brink of a volcano. There was no police force to keep order in such circumstances, and so the army was the only resort. Among the army officers the idea was growing that Rome now needed a monarchy, although nobody was bold enough to pronounce that dreaded word. Rather they spoke in terms of a strong government, stability and order. This meant the rule of a “strong man” – a general. The only question was which one.

Pompey, who had made his name crushing the revolt in Spain and massacring the last remnants of Spartacus’s forces, was in a strong position as the supreme arbiter of Rome’s destiny. He had recently returned from a victorious campaign in the East with an army of 40,000 veterans at his back. Cicero’s rash conduct in the Catiline affair was probably due more to his fear of Pompey than his fear of Catiline, whose conspiracy seems to have been badly planned and executed. He wanted to avoid giving Pompey any excuse to intervene. Cicero needed to act quickly to suffocate the conspiracy before he arrived at the gates of Rome with his soldiers, ready to make himself master of the city.

For the senate Cicero was, at least for a time, the hero of the hour, considered as “the saviour of the Fatherland.” This was not going to last. Later on Cicero was made to pay a heavy price for his part in the execution of the rebel senators. On the other hand, the Catiline affair damaged Caesar’s position, His enemies had triumphed, and he now found himself compromised by his past links with Catiline and his opposition to the executions. He needed to consolidate alliances with powerful men who could protect him. This determined his line of action.

Pompey had returned from the wars not only with a greatly enhanced prestige but also with a considerable fortune. Some said he was now even richer than Crassus, who was considered the richest man in Rome. His campaign in the East was successful, and finally crushed Rome’s most dangerous enemy, Mithridates. Before he left for Rome, Pompey made the whole of the Near East secure, with a number of new client kingdoms. Fifty cities were founded or restored. And Rome’s revenues from Asia were increased by seventy percent.

Caesar drew the conclusion that the quickest way to make money was by fighting wars. In addition, the suspicions that he was somehow involved in the Catiline affair made it sensible to absent himself from the Capital for a while. He therefore got appointed governor of Spain, where he once more distinguished himself by his abilities as a military commander. Like almost every other Roman governor, he plundered the natives (this was regarded as quite acceptable). But as governors went, he was by no means the worst. Like everybody else, the Spaniards were subject to the ruthless laws on debt, by which creditors were allowed to take all the possessions from a debtor. Caesar amended the law to restrict the amount that a creditor could seize to two-thirds. This may seem quite a lot to us, but in those days it was a very generous concession indeed.

Caesar returned to Rome, where he resumed his intrigues, an art at which he was extremely skilful. In the streets of Rome rival gangs loyal to one politician or other fought it out, while their masters manoeuvred to strengthen their positions. Bribery and intimidation were the normal tools of the trade. Chief of the city lumpenproletariat was another aristocrat turned tribune, Publius Clodius. This demagogue, now in his mid-thirties, made a profitable political career out of his influence with the city mob and the gangsters whose headquarters were the slum districts. Caesar had already established his popularity with the plebs at the same time as he made use of the existing machinery to get possession of one office after another. He had close connections with Clodius and the populares. But in his present delicate situation, Caesar needed more: he needed to reach agreement with elements from the Establishment.

While posing as the people’s champion, Caesar also attempted to get contacts with the rich and build an alliance with the “respectable classes”. Therefore, after the death of Cornelia he married Pompeia, who was the granddaughter of Sulla, the former dictator and leader of the aristocratic party. During Pompey’s absence, Crassus was trying to increase his own political power and influence in Rome. He was aided in this by Caesar, who in return borrowed large amounts of money to advance his own career.

Crassus was a firm defender of the rights of the equites, the Roman capitalists, of which he was one. He proposed the annexation of Egypt, probably with the idea of sending Caesar there to organise the plunder of that wealthy province on his behalf. But this was defeated by Cicero, with Pompey and the aristocracy behind him. One of the main sources of wealth for the Roman capitalists was the plunder of the provinces by the practice of tax-farming. Most governors did not interfere with the activities of the publicani (tax-farmers) as they usually got a share of the loot. However, Pompey, in search of popularity, annoyed the equites by relieving the debts of people in Asia. All this did nothing to improve Crassus’ opinion of Pompey.

But Pompey had his own differences with the senate, which had refused his request for a grant of land for his veterans. Although Pompey was supposed to be on their side, the senators obviously were afraid that he might be tempted to use his military muscle to take power. Now Crassus had another clash with the senate on the issue of tax farming. Sometimes the tax-farmers would overestimate their profits and lose money. He had asked the senate to grant a rebate to the publicani who had done this. This was clearly unreasonable and the senate refused. Crassus was furious at what he saw as this new insult from the senate.

This was Caesar’s chance. Both Pompey and Crassus now had grievances against the senate. This gave him the possibility of acting as a mediator between them. Cicero understood the danger and, although he knew Crassus’ demand to be outrageous, he was bitterly critical of the senate’s decision. He now began to see in Caesar an even more dangerous enemy than Pompey, saying “[I fear him] as one might fear the smiling face of the sea.”

Cicero’s fears were well grounded. Caesar now entered into contact with Pompey. He arranged a marriage between Pompey and his only daughter Julia, which was one of the usual ways of establishing a political alliance. Caesar also wanted to include Crassus in the alliance. But there was a problem. The relations between Pompey and Crassus were chilly. Crassus had not forgotten that Pompey had stolen the credit for defeating Spartacus, which was really his work. Nor had he forgotten the fact that the senate had awarded his rival a triumph, but refused one to him. In addition, Pompey had stepped on the toes of the tax-farmers, Crassus’ friends.

In order to win Pompey’s support, it appears that Caesar used his agents to spread rumours that prominent members of the ruling party were planning to assassinate Pompey. Cicero for one was in no doubt that Caesar was behind this intrigue, the purpose of which was to frighten Pompey and push him into the arms of Caesar (59 BC). These were preliminary steps towards a definite goal. Although Caesar did not have the money or influence of his two colleagues, he was able to play a pivotal role in bringing Pompey and Crassus together in an alliance, which is known as the first Triumvirate - Caesar, Pompey and Crassus – as a rival power centre to the senate. The formation of this formidable alliance was a warning sign that the end of the Republic was in sight.

The consulship of Julius and Caesar

Caesar planned his rise to power with typical single-mindedness and ruthlessness. The candidates for consulship had to be at least 40 years old. Caesar was only 30, but that did not stop him. In 59 BC he became consul, along with the conservative Bibulus. There always had to be two consuls at Rome. This was an irritation for Caesar, but he soon hit on an effective solution. With the help of Clodius, he paid ruffians from the slum districts to insult and assault the unfortunate Bibulus every time he appeared in public. A clash with the conservatives was inevitable, and it soon came.

One of the first acts of Caesar as consul was to introduce legislation to distribute to Pompey’s veterans whatever public lands remained in Italy. This was obviously part of a deal that Caesar had struck with Pompey as a condition for his support for his election. But Caesar was also following his own interests when he added a clause giving part of the land to the poor people of Rome. This action provoked the hostility of the conservatives, for whom it recalled unpleasant memories of the Gracchi.

Cato, Caesar’s bitter enemy, opposed the measure violently, and Caesar had him arrested. He was later released, but the two sides were now on a collision course. The conservatives prepared to block the law in the senate, whereupon Caesar decided to bypass the senate and take the law directly to the popular assembly. This again brought back frightening memories of the times of the Gracchi. The Assembly met in chaotic conditions. To the general surprise both Pompey and Crassus spoke in favour of the reform, thus revealing the existence of their alliance with Caesar.

Bibulus, the conservative, opposed the law, but when he spoke against it, he got a very rough reception, during which a bucket of excrement was poured over his head. After this, Bibulus decided to withdraw from public life, alleging that he had read unfavourable omens in the sky (although it seems nobody else saw them). As a result he spent most of his time indoors, avoiding both the unfavourable omens and the buckets of foul-smelling organic matter. The local comedians joked that this was the “consulship of Julius and Caesar”.

All the time the heightened tension between the classes was becoming ever more violent. In January 52 BC Clodius was murdered in the Via Appia by the supporters of his conservative rival Milon. Clodius was a popular figure, who had passed a law authorising the distribution of grain to the people of Rome free of charge. The body of the murdered tribune was put on public display – a sight that, together with the lamentations of his widow, excited the passions of the populace. This led to a riot that turned into a virtual insurrection. The Curia was set ablaze and mobs of enraged citizens rampaged through the streets smashing property and assaulting anyone who looked wealthy. This reaction was not surprising when one considers the abysm that separated the conditions of the masses from those of the rich.

The Gallic campaign

Caesar approached politics (and everything else) as a kind of shady business deal. As we know, in order to continue his upwards progress he needed to secure a constant flow of cash. He had spent colossal amounts on buying votes and bribing high officials - and the money was constantly running out. Now Caesar had a problem. In order to succeed in his political intrigues, he needed more money. The only way he could get this was by borrowing and incurring in huge debts.

The problem with debts is that they have to be repaid, and the only way to pay these debts off was by securing an appointment to a profitable position in the provinces or by a military command that would enable him to obtain a large amount of booty. Caesar’s enemies in the Senate were well aware of his predicament and therefore offered him a minor position in rural Italy – a position that held out no prospects of enrichment whatsoever.

By means of intrigues and bribery he succeeded in getting this decision overturned and instead was given control of the northern part of Italy, then known as Cisalpine Gaul, and Illyria, now Albania. This was a much better proposition for enrichment. But Caesar had an even greater stroke of luck when the man who had been assigned control of Transalpine Gaul (modern southern France, Switzerland and Belgium) died unexpectedly. The rebellious state of that province caused panic in the Senate and therefore compelled them, against their wishes, to grant control of this province to Caesar.

This was just what he required. What he really needed, he decided, was a nice little war. As we have seen, Pompey made his fortune through conquests in Asia. In order to defeat his rivals, Caesar had to win even more spectacular victories. If he could kill a few thousand foreigners he would qualify for a triumph at Rome, and the money would start flowing again. Then, in 55 BC, he had another sudden stroke of luck. A Gallic tribe called the Helvetii invaded Italy. This was just the opportunity he had been waiting for.

In reality, the Helvetian incident posed no great threat to Rome. The tribe was apparently migrating to the Atlantic coast of Gaul where they intended to settle. But the Romans were undoubtedly very sensitive on the issue of invading Gauls. They still shuddered at the memory of the time when, in 387 BC, a Gaulish army sacked Rome. This dreadful event was deeply rooted in the collective consciousness, and any suggestion that history might be repeated was certain to provoke a powerful response. Caesar therefore got what he so ardently desired: the command of a Roman army.

Caesar’s famous account of his Gallic campaign (De Bello Gallico) has acquired the status of a literary classic and an important historical document. In reality, however, it is not a work of history at all but a brilliant example of self-promotion. The celebrated War Commentaries, written in the third person singular, are documents of immense value to historians, but they are not strictly historical. Written in a clear, concise Latin style, they are not devoid of literary merits, but they are not strictly literature. Above all they are masterpieces of political propaganda, which one might say, Caesar invented. They are designed to glorify Caesar’s achievements and magnify his victories. In De Bello Gallico the word “Caesar” is repeated no fewer than 775 times.

There are many exaggerations and some downright lies in Caesar’s accounts of the war. In the campaign against the Helvetii, Caesar claims to have confronted an army of 368,000. But modern historians like Furger-Gunti consider the actual numbers to have been around 40,000 warriors out of a total of 160,000 emigrants. Delbrück suggests an even lower number of 100,000 people, out of which only 16,000 were fighters, which would make the Celtic force about half the size of the Roman body of about 30,000 men. Many of them were old people, women and children.

The battle itself seems far less glorious a victory than Caesar presented it to be. The main body of the Helvetii withdrew from the battle at nightfall, abandoning, as it seemed, most of their wagons; they retreated northwards in a forced night march and reached the territory of the Lingones four days after the battle. Thus, what Caesar presents as a desperate flight without stopping could actually have been an orderly retreat at moderate speed, covering less than 40 km a day. Caesar himself does not appear as a triumphant victor in turn, being unable to pursue the Helvetii for three days, “both on account of the wounds of the soldiers and the burial of the slain”.

There is no way of verifying these figures, of course. But there can be no doubt that these wars were accompanied by slaughter on a massive scale. According to Plutarch's Lives, out of three million Gallic soldiers engaged in the wars, one million were killed and another million captured. It is possible that these figures are exaggerated (the Romans did not react to war casualties in the same way people do today. Their slogan was: the more deaths, the better!). But it is clear that vast numbers were killed and enslaved. This was seen in Rome as a strong point in Caesar’s favour. This was an age when imperialist aggression saw no need to disguise its true nature under the hypocritical cloak of “humanitarian missions”.

There is no doubt at all that Caesar was a very able general, but he was also an extremely ruthless man prepared to use the utmost cruelty and deception in order to obtain his ends. His campaigns in Gaul were characterised by extreme brutality. Caesar himself confirms Plutarch’s estimate of over a million enemy soldiers killed on the battlefields of Gaul – without including the civilian victims. Here was the real ugly face of Roman imperialist expansionism. If a tribe in Gaul rebelled against Roman rule, every man, woman and child would be slaughtered without mercy. The intention was to terrorise the rest into submission.

The final aim was to obtain a huge number of slaves to feed the insatiable appetite of the Roman economy for slave labour. Like in previous wars, in essence these were gigantic slave hunts. Despite the sheer savagery of these campaigns, it cannot be denied that Caesar was a brilliant commander and diplomat. He had flair and ability. He was also a talented writer, as his Commentaries show, though, as we have seen, this literary skill had a practical purpose – to boost his own image and further his political aims. Like most adventurers, Caesar was not short of personal bravery. He had a gambler’s instincts and was prepared to risk everything on a desperate throw. We see this tendency continually throughout his life.

Pompey versus Caesar

From Caesar’s point of view, the campaign in Gaul was a spectacular success. He crushed the resistance of the Gauls, which culminated in the famous (or notorious) siege of Alesia, in which Vercingetorix led a last desperate struggle against the Roman legions. Between the years 58 and 50 BC, Caesar had conquered a vast expanse of territory in what is now called France. Not satisfied with this, in the year 55 BC he crossed the Channel and led the first invasion of Britain, an island shrouded in mystery, and situated “beyond the furthest bounds of ocean”. Although the conquest of Britain did not succeed, his reputation as a successful general was now made. It was time to return to Rome and capitalise on his success.

The upper classes once again saw Pompey as their deliverer. They fawned upon the man who Cicero now called “the divine consul”. But while the “divine” Pompey, the darling of the upper classes, rested on his laurels in Rome, Caesar was always on the offensive, followed by a troop of loyal soldiers in search of loot and officers in search of glory, promotion and a promising political career in the future. And there were plenty of ambitious young men prepared to follow Caesar abroad to win fame and wealth in the wars. These provided the shock troops of the Caesarean party.

In the end Caesar proved to be the more skilful politician, balancing between the classes to build up a power base inside Rome while earning a reputation as a successful general abroad. The final battle between two generals would settle the fate of the Republic.