The Question of the Inevitability of the Fall of the Roman Republic
By Amanda Ross
Tiresias, Vol.1 (2012)
Introduction: It is tempting for the modern historiographer, looking back at completed actions, to see the events of the past as having been able to unfold in only one way. According to this view, major episodes in history, such as the fall of the Roman Republic, seem unavoidable or inevitable. However, this view is flawed in that it tends to simplify very complex issues by ignoring other possible courses of action available to the people of the time. One can challenge the legitimacy of such a claim by studying the fall of the Roman Republic. By determining what events comprise the fall of the Republic, one can begin to ascertain the factors that led to these events. By questioning whether these factors led inexorably to one conclusion, I shall demonstrate that although the fall of the Republic seems inescapable, it was by no means inevitable.
The fall of the Republic refers to the failure of the existing political system in the first century BCE, and the changeover to the autocratic government that characterized the period of the Empire. The republican government, because its collaborative nature often gave rise to disputes, “had been built upon the settlement of disputes by legal means in a system of jury courts, through mediation and political debate, and [...] with the help of elaborate mechanisms and public rituals of voting.” In this way the political system was meant to allow effective management of the state by keeping the conflicts between individual politicians in check; but in the first century BCE, this system was no longer sufficient to restrain the competing ambitions of powerful individuals, and civil war ensued. This civil war thus “demonstrated that a republican system of government had ceased to function and that the rules had been broken.” However, there was not one civil war to clearly demarcate the fall of the Republic, but rather a series of successive civil wars in the first century BCE, each pointing to a failure of the republican system, suggesting that the fall was a long, complex process.