How Rome Destroyed Its Own Republic
Augustus told Romans he was the only one who could save Rome. And they believed him.
Imagine a world in which political norms have broken down. Senators use bad faith arguments to block the government from getting anything done. An autocrat rigs elections and gives himself complete control over the government. Even stranger, many voters subscribe to the autocrat’s personality cult and agree that he should have absolute control.
Welcome to Rome in the first century B.C.E. The republic that had existed for over 400 years had finally hit a crisis it couldn’t overcome. Rome itself wouldn’t fall, but during this period it lost its republic forever.
The man who played the biggest role in disrupting Rome’s republic was Augustus Caesar, who made himself the first emperor of Rome in 27 B.C.E. By that point, the republic’s political norms had been breaking down for about a century, and Augustus was in a position to take advantage of that.
Before that century, “there had been a really long period where the republic functioned,” says Edward J. Watts, author of the new book Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny. Political norms were heeded; and when the government ran into a new problem, it would amend itself to keep working. For over 300 years, the republic operated this way. There was no political violence, land theft or capital punishment, because those went against the political norms Rome had established.
Then, in 133 B.C.E., Rome experienced its first political murder in the history of the republic. Senators were angry that Tiberius Gracchus, an elected official who had tried to redistribute land to the poor, was seeking a second term as tribune of the plebs. During a fight that broke out between Tiberius’s followers and opponents, senators beat him to death with wooden chairs and helped murder nearly 300 of his followers.