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Political Revolution in Rome 133 - 78 BC

Developments in Rome

Principal focus
The Senate in this period
The role of the Senate
Consequences of the Gracchan tribunes
Looking further

This tutorial was written by
Elizabeth Kidd
Education consultant, Newcastle


H 1.1 describe and assess the significance of key people, groups, events, institutions, societies and sites within the historical context
H 2.1 explain historical factors and assess their significance in contributing to change and continuity in the ancient world
H 4.1 use historical terms and concepts appropriately
H 3.4 explain and evaluate differing perspectives and interpretations of the past
H 3.3 analyse and evaluate sources for their usefulness and reliability

Principal focus

Through an investigation of the archaeological and written sources for political revolution in Rome 133 – 78 BC, students learn about significant developments, forces and relevant historiographical issues that shaped the historical period.

Students learn about:

Developments in Rome

(Some of the above are dealt with briefly; internet sites listed at the bottom of the tutorial may be accessed for more detail.)

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SPQR-Senatus Populusque Romanus

The Senate of the People of Rome

The Senate in this period

The period of 133 to 78 BC was a period of ever increasing factional strife. It is known as the first half of the Roman Revolution because the Senatorial aristocracy persistently rejected all reforms that endangered its exclusive political and economic advantages. In opposition to the Senate was a group of diverse and often opposing interests; peasants, soldiers, the urban unemployed, traders and equites (knights). Its leaders came from young liberals, idealistic nobles, demagogues (popular leaders), or generals greedy for power.

To view an image of the Senate House click here (external website).

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The role of the Senate

Prior to 133 BC, Coldridge claims the Senate was, in theory, merely an advisory body. However, in practice. ... the Senate gradually drew into its hands the whole administration of the State. He goes on to say With such gigantic powers ... it is easy to see what an influence the Senate could and did exert on the history of the nation.

The Senate was the supreme body of government. It was the legislature, executive and judiciary, all rolled into one. It was a permanent body with ultimate control in Rome and it governed Rome until 133 BC, virtually unchallenged.

The Senate had been able to obtain this enormous power because of the policy of greedy imperialism pursued by Rome, resulting in vast territorial expansion and a consequent shameful exploitation of the provinces.

In 133 BC the powers of the Senate were as follows:

* it controlled the Treasury expenditure and its financial officials

* it directed the activities of the various priest hoods

* it allocated funds to censors (magistrates)

* it assigned duties to and advised magistrates

* it could pass decrees (senatus consulta) BUT could not make laws (this was the responsibility of the Comitia Tributa [1])

* it appointed provincial magistrates (an often lucrative position and one in great demand amongst thenobiles [2])

* it sent and received embassies

* it dealt with all crises that were a potential threat to the state

* it managed and distributed public lands

* it decided on war

* it acted as judge for crimes like treason, conspiracy and assassination

* it appointed judges from its own ranks for major civil trials

* in times of crisis the Senate could issue a decree, the Senatus consultum ultimum where the consuls would see to it that no harm should come to the state, usually by instituting martial law which gave absolute power to the consuls.

The Senate thus had enormous power. The Senate was made up of ex-magistrates with a huge amount of experience in government. They were therefore able to govern effectively during the period of Rome’s Wars of Expansion [3]. Once the precedent had been established, it was easy for it to continue. The Senate had influence over magistrates [4], pro-magistrates [5] and the assemblies. Membership of the Senate was for life.

There were only two limitations to the powers of the Senate. These were:

(i) senators were answerable to the Censors [6] and the rest of the Senate and

(ii) decisions of the Senate were subject to veto [7] by any tribune.


1. What problems did the Senate face from 133 BC to 78 BC?

2. Did the Senate hold its power up to 133 BC constitutionally?

3. How did the Senate gain its power?

4. What was the Senate able to influence?

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Consequences of the Gracchan tribunates

(i) The first challenge to the Senate’s power came in 133 BC. Tiberius Gracchus, tribune for that year and the elder brother of the Gracchi brothers, began a long and bitter war with the Senate for political power. He and his brother, Gaius, created an opposition group; a democratic party known as the Populares. They opposed the Senatorial party, the Optimates. The Populares were men of reform who proposed measures to the people without consulting the Senate first while the Optimates were made up primarily of Senators plus nobles who wanted to maintain the status quo prior to the tribuneship of Tiberius Gracchus.

Two resounding effects of the tribuneships of the Gracchi brothers was that they brought the equestrian order into politics (they depended on their support), and they weakened the power of the Senate. However, they were not able to break it.

Marius: military career and reforms; significance of his political career

(ii) The second challenge to the Senate’s power in this period came in 104 BC. In that year, a young general from the Italian village of Arpinum became consul and held the consulship until 100 BC. His name was Marius. Rome was being threatened with annihilation by the Gauls at this time. He realised that if he completely reorganised the Roman army he could build up the Roman army and defeat the Gauls. This meant that he had to bypass the Roman nobility and depend on the Roman populace to achieve his reforms.

However, his army reforms meant that a soldier’s first loyalty now was to his general. not to the Senate as in the past. This meant that power was now in the hands of any ambitious, energetic general such as Pompey [8], Caesar [9] and Octavian [10] (later Augustus) because political power would follow military power. Also, his successive consulships provided a precedent for future dictators who could gain power over the Senate.

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Sulla: military career; nature and significance of dictatorship and legislation

Attempts to re-establish and strengthen the power of the Senate occurred under Sulla. Sulla was a typical product of the period. He belonged to one of the minor, impoverished, noble families. He possessed boundless ambition and ruthlessly removed all who stood in his way. He was a genius as a general, both tactically and strategically, and was able to inspire loyalty in his armies. Unlike Marius, he was a shrewd diplomat who possessed great powers of organisation and administration.

The fall of Marius had ushered in a period of political violence and decreasing public morality. The equites, who had gained prominence under the Gracchi and Marius, showed their ineptitude in managing the provinces. Thus Sulla found it easy to gain the peoples’ confidence, both in Rome and in the provinces.

Sulla was consul in 88, 81 and 80 BC. He held the dictatorship in 82 BC which meant he had supreme power over the Senate and all other magistrates. In 80 BC he brought in a series of reforms whereby he aimed, in particular, to restore and strengthen the powers of the Senate and restrict the powers of the tribunes. He wanted to return the control of government to the Senate. However, he did not put into practice any safeguards against future military usurpations (ie Pompey, Caesar, Octavian) and was not aware that the needs of the republic were changing. He did not see that the Senate was not capable of governing an empire.

Sulla, himself, set the precedent via the Senate of establishing a dictatorship. This was a precedent that Caesar was only too ready to envelope. Sulla retired in 79 BC and died in 78 BC. By 68 BC his system of government had collapsed and Pompey was fast becoming the First Man in Rome.

Sulla had hoped to increase the powers of the Senate but in actual fact he had been instrumental in decreasing its powers. His acceptance of the dictatorship in 82 BC., his support of Pompey and the exceptions both he and the Senate made concerning Pompey’s inability to follow the cursus honorum [11], undermined the power of the Senate and led the way to the fall of the Senate.


The two Triumvirates [12] which were to follow and the presence of Octavian [10] (Augustus) sounded the death knoll for the Republic, and therefore the rule of the Senate.

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Looking further

All these books are readily available:

Bradley, P Ancient Rome: Using Evidence, pp 228 - 298

Hennessy, D. (ed)Studies in Ancient Rome, pp 1 - 38

Koutsoukis, A.J. History of the Ancient World - Ancient Rome, pp 90 - 120

The following internet sites are excellent sources for a number of aspects relating to this historical period:

The Republic web sites (external website)

Gracchi web sites (external website)

Marius web sites (external website)

Sulla web sites (external website)

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1 Comitia Tributa The assembly of the Roman people sitting and voting in their tribes. The Roman people were divided into 35 tribes but all the urban and population and ex-slaves were in only 4 urban tribes. They elected plebeian aediles, quaestors and minor magistrates. This assembly was the more common way for the consuls and praetors to pass legislation.
2 nobiles This is the plural of nobilis. These were the descendants of consuls.
3 Rome’s wars of expansion: By 146 BC the Roman world included areas that had been added to Rome through involvement in foreign wars. Rome had changed from a continental power an empire. By this time Rome controlled six provinces: Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, Nearer Spain, Further Spain, Macedonia and Africa.
4 magistrates: Magistrates were government officials. The four most important magistrates were quaestors (financial officials), aediles (administrators of public works and entertainment), praetors (judges and army commanders) and consuls (supreme heads of state).
5 pro-magistrates: Pro-magistrates held the same rank as magistrates but only in their assigned areas. (e.g. a proconsul) stood in for a consul in the provinces). They undertook the same duties: passing legislation, officiating in the law courts and most importantly, acting as commander-in-chief. In the provinces they were granted imperium (the right to command an army). Governing a province gave pro-magistrates the opportunities for achieving military glory, increasing their wealth and building up their clientele or supporters.
6 Censors: There were two Censors. They took the census (list of citizens), had the right to take judicial proceedings, controlled public morals (could expel senators for lax morality) and supervised the leasing of public lands and buildings and letting of government contracts.
7 veto: The constitutional right to reject a legislative enactment.
8 Pompey Cnaeus Pompeius (106 BC - 48 BC). Pompey had an extraordinary career. He was a Roman general who distinguished himself in that area which gave him enormous popularity with the Roman people. He was made consul three times and was considered one of the most powerful men in Rome. He joined with Crassus and Julius Caesar in 60 BC to form the First Triumvirate giving the three men unprecedented power. He died fighting Julius Caesar in 48 BC in the Civil War.
9 Caesar: Gaius Julius Caesar (100 BC - 44 BC). Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and sole dictator of Rome after his defeat of his rival Pompey. See HSC Online, Julius Caesar.
10 Octavian: Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus - later Augustus (63 BC - AD 14). Augustus was the title taken by Octavian, great nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar. He formed a Second Triumvirate with Mark Antony and Lepidus falling out later with Antony and defeating him in 31 BC. He was then in sole command in Rome and changed the government of Rome from that of republican government to a monarchy with himself as head. This was known as a Principate - rule by the Princeps or First Man.
11 cursus honorum: This was the race for offices. It refers to the pathway by which a man moved through the senatorial magistracies from quaestor to consul.

Triumvirates: The first consisting of Pompey, Crassus and Caesar formed in 60 BC and the Second consisting of Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus formed in 43 BC.

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