“A republic, if you can keep it” – Benjamin Franklin
“Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.” – Robert Heinlein
The Roman Republic began to come to an end when time honored government traditions and boundaries were discarded in the service of a worthy objective.
About four hundred years after the founding of the Roman Republic, in 133 BC, Tiberius Graccus was elected to the office of tribune. He saw that large numbers of Roman citizens had no land and no place to live. Slaves and money flooded into the Republic following the victory over Carthage. The slaves displaced free men, who could no longer find work, and the money drove up the price of land and increased taxes. These poor people were forced off their land and had to work as sharecroppers for the rich. They had no way to improve their status. This was also a problem for the state because only landed citizens could be drafted to serve in the legions.
A group of Senators sympathetic to the plight of these poor citizens proposed splitting up public lands and giving workable plots to worthy people. The citizens so gifted would be required to work the land and would be prohibited from selling it. The Senators wrote a bill, the Lex Agrera, to enact this idea, and they chose Tiberius Graccus to present it directly to the Assembly thereby doing an end run around the Senate. This bill was strongly opposed by the rich patricians of the Senate because many of them were leasing big plots of the public land and would be required by the proposed law to give those lands back to the state for redistribution.
Tiberius tried to have the proposed law read to the plebian Assembly in preparation for a vote, but another tribune, Marcus Octavius, vetoed the reading of the bill, as was his right as a tribune. Traditionally, a tribune would rescind his veto after making a speech explaining his opposition to the measure, but Octavius did not. He made it clear that he’d make the veto permanent and prevent the bill from ever becoming law, openly flouting the clear will of the people of the Assembly. Thus, one of the oldest traditions of Rome was violated.
Tiberius responded by putting a bill before the Assembly to have Octavius deposed as tribune. There was no law against doing this, but it had never been done before and crossed another traditional boundary. With this move, Tiberius alienated even his supporters in the Senate, the ones who had proposed the Lex Agrera in the first place.
After Marcus Octavius was removed from office the Lex Agrera became law, but then the Senate, which was in charge of Rome’s budget, refused to fund the effort to re-distribute the land.
Tiberius was again stymied, but he came up with a new strategy. It so happened that a large area of land in what is now Western Turkey fell into the hands of the Roman people at the death of the king there, who was a client of Rome. Following Tiberius’ lead, the Assembly seized control of the land and the king’s treasury for the purpose of funding the redistribution of Roman land. This again flouted tradition since the Senate was supposed to control the money and foreign affairs.
Then Tiberius, nearing the end of his one year term as tribune, proposed that he be re-elected as tribune so as to continue the land re-distribution plan. This was yet another audacious and unprecedented move, and it alarmed the Senate, who thought that Tiberius was trying to make himself king. Indeed, he had usurped much, egging the plebian Assembly on to take more and more of the Senate’s prerogatives. The Assembly now controlled foreign policy and the money, and Tiberius seemingly controlled the Assembly. With repeated re-election, he would be king in every way but name.
The vote to enable Tiberius’ re-election was to be put before the Assembly, but a mob of patricians and their clients lead by one of the Senators pounced on Tiberius’s supporters just as the vote to re-elect was to take place and beat them down with clubs, killing 300 of the plebians along with Tiberius.
So, things escalated in a contest of brinksmanship, smashing one unspoken traditional rule after another, until the issue was settled with violence. From that point on the Republic was often ruled by violence since people had learned that violence settles disputes in a way that civil discourse and proceedings no longer could. Partisan politics of the conservative Senators trying to keep power with the elite class, while the tactics of the Populares, who looked to the lower classes for support, divided the people and classes into warring factions. For nearly 100 years things were unpredictable at best and brutally bloody at worst. Finally, the stage was set for a tyrant to take power.