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Comparison between the Crisis in the First Century BCE That Undermined the Republic and the Crisis in the Third Century CE that Undermined the Principate

Since its emergence in 753 B.C., the Roman Empire went though many crises, and it was about to fell apart several times. Two of the most important crises took place in the 1st century BC, and four centuries later, in the 3rd century A.D.  The first crisis began in 133 B.C.E., when tribune Tiberius Gracchus proposed the distribution of state-held land to poor citizen. It ended with the death of Dictator Julius Caesar, and of the republic itself. The second crises began in 235, when Emperor Augustus Severus was killed by his own troops and ended with the evolution of the form of government from principate to dominate, to different stages of the authoritarian monarchy. Though the crises had different causes and developed in different circumstances, there were certain similarities between them. The first similarity was the civil strife that represented one of the forms in which the crisis manifested itself. The second similarity consisted in the repeated killings of political leaders which only added to the instability.  Finally, the crises could only be solved through a complete change of the form of government. These similarities will be discussed in the present paper.

In the 1st century B.C.E., the social problems associated with the Roman poor, particularly in the context of the numerous conquests that increased the wealth of the Republic. The first to address these problems was Tiberius Gracchus, who proposed to distribute state held land to the poor citizens. His proposal was approved, but he was soon killed due to his raising ambitions. The series of social problems continued with successful generals trying to reach greater power, which led to them causing internal fighting and social disturbance. Gaius Marius against Sulla, who became dictator and Julius Caesar against Pompey, they all tried to reach the greatest power in the state and impose their own vision of social reform. After their death, civil war broke out again and could only be extinguished with the rise of the first Roman emperor to power. Social problems were also a main factor in the crisis of the 3rd century A.D. Apart from the problems caused by invaders who attacked Rome’s peripheral provinces the country was fighting increasing poverty and instability. Unable to pay their debts, citizens of Rome left cities to become coloni, a form of servitude that was to characterize the later stage of the empire. The social problems led to civil war and to the fragmentation of the empire in three parts.

Apart for the social problems, the political ambitions of powerful figures in both eras discussed here led them to killings of   the empire’s leaders that occurred more and more often as the crisis deepened. In the 1st century B.C.E, the series of killings began with Tiberius Gracchus, who was killed for his ambition to run for a second tribune mandate. Political adversaries then started to kill each other in an attempt to take power or impose their own doctrines.  The series of killings culminated with Julius Caesar killing his political adversary, Pompey, after which he was also killed. The end of crisis brought forward Emperor Augusts, who would lead the state for 40 years. The 3rd century A.D. crisis was characterized even more by repeated killings of the rulers. After the death of Augustus Severus in 235, emperors were named and murdered by the military at a rapid pace. In the course of 50 years, more than twenty emperors were killed, causing the credibility of the emperor to diminish to a great extent.  However,   some of them, like Gallienus and his father Valerian, who were declared joint emperors, contributed to keeping the empire united. Moreover, in the middle of this internal struggle, and in an attempt to end the chaos, different emperors contributed to the emergence of a new type of government that could suit the new conditions that the empire had to deal with.

In both cases, the crises led to radical change of the government.  In the 1st century B.C.E, the two different political movements, the populist one supported by Julius Caesar, and the conservationist one, led by Pompey, caused a civil war that caused their leaders to proclaim themselves dictators and to assume full authority. With Caesar’s rule being proclaimed blessed by the gods, it was only a step from democracy to totalitarian monarchy. Once the ruler of the country became Emperor Augustus, the state could regain its stability. The first stage of the empire was pincipate, in which continuity from the earlier form of government was attempted. However, by the 3rd century A.D., this form of government was no longer able to assure the stability in the country and therefore, the emperor lost credibility. Reforms in al strata of the society followed, with citizens being tied to the land in order to insure economic stability, and emphasis added to security at local level. This type of government that reflected the passage to the Medieval Age was reflected in the new type of government to which the Empire slowly evolved, namely the dominate.

As the present paper showed, there are three main similarities between the 1st century B.C.E. fall of the Roman republic and the 3rd century crisis of the empire. The first similarity consists in the social issues that characterized these periods of social and political unrest. The second similarity is the series of murders in which political figures were targeted by the senate and the military (in the first case), and by the military (in the second case). The third similarity is the emergence of new forms of government which were able to answer the momentary needs of the empire and o put an end to the crises.