Progress: The Influential Roman Reform
If conservatism means maintaining the status quo and resisting change, then progress stands in opposition to that; revolution is extreme change demanded through a popular uprising; reform is to respond to the demand for change. When the lower classes have limits to the extent of which they will be exploited, there is bound to be an uprising agitating for change. This is evidenced in transition of Rome from Republic to empire through the ideas of the Gracchi Brothers and Populares movement. The Gracchi brothers recognized the disparities and fought for progressive change. Many legendary historical figures, from Julius Caesar to Albert Einstein, from Plato to Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged progressive thinking and ideas. Like a phoenix from the ashes of the fallen Republic, the great Roman Empire arose. There are clear attributes that led to the downfall of the Republic and reform into an empire.
From the start of the Republic in 509 BC, there was never any possibility for change because of the Optimate stranglehold on political control. For 400 years, the Republic did not see much change. With no real opposition, alterations to laws and traditions were only made when there was dire need for them. The Senate preferred to preserve traditions and rules to prevent any significant change. This allowed them to exploit workers and resources for political gain. The Republic struggled with poverty. The streets were full of landless poor but the Republic itself had lots of unused and excess land. The push for excess land distribution was proposed in 133 BCE but was met with violent opposition by the Optimates in the Senate. This unwillingness to listen to the calls of the people and fellow politicians created great upheavals around the Republic. The Senate, compelled to do the bare minimum to keep peace, called on the Roman legions to suppress the rebellions. But because of the Senate’s broken promises of loot and land to landless recruits and mistreatment toward soldiers made the army turn on them as well.
The Roman Republic itself was fairly progressive for the time. The first public aqueduct was built in 312 BCE and provided water to everyone, including the poor. There was cheap and free healthcare for all with the first public hospital built as early as 293 BCE. In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus was elected to the office of Tribune of the Plebs after founding the Populares, a progressive political opposition to the Optimates. Tiberius enacted the Tribal Assembly legislation which limited the amount of land individuals could own to 500 jugers (about 330 acres) and allowed the government to repossess any land in excess of this to redistribute to the poor at subsidized prices. It was not until the 123 BCE when Tiberius’s younger brother, Gaius Gracchus, was elected to the same position and passed a bill that would subsidize grain prices to help combat famine and politicized distribution of grain from politicians. Gracchus also resumed the distribution of land and expansion of colonies to strengthen borders, bring in new wealth and citizens; he implemented measures to fight corruption in the courts and senate, introduced regulations to army service, and provided for public works to relieve poverty and exploitation. This marked the start of the development of revolution in Rome; the ideas of which would lead to the election of Julius Caesar to consul in 59 BC.
The reform of the Republic into an empire resulted from the coalescence of individual interests and inspirations by three leaders. The First Triumvirate was formed by Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompey, and Marcus Crassus in 60 BCE. Each leader had their own reasons for wanting to be a part of the triumvirate: Pompey wanted justice and reform for his veterans who had been duped out of land they were promised; Crassus wanted to regain money he had lost during food shortages in the east; Caesar wanted power. Together they were able to take control and start implementing changes that would benefit the people and help them gain popularity. Regardless of personal intentions, the trio was able to accomplish a lot for the citizens of Rome. There were more benefits for veterans of the Roman legions. There was more expansion, which brought in lots of wealth, new citizens, and established many new trade connections. These actions assuaged the Roman people’s desires for change and justice. Even though Caesar was seen by the Senate as an evil dictator king, the Roman population liked it. The assassination of Julius Caesar had the opposite affect on the public than the Senate had hoped. There was outrage and a consequent series of civil wars with the emergence of the first real emperor, Octavian “Augustus Caesar”.
The Roman Republic proved unsteady in the face of opposition. For hundreds of years the conservative philosophy of the Senate played only reactionary rolls in law making and governance. At the first sign of pushback and desire for progress, they crumbled and eventually fell. The people were frustrated with the stagnation of the Republic and wanted change. The public wanted to be represented accurately with their best interests in mind. This came in the form of the Gracchi Brothers leading a rebellion that may have failed in the short term but initiated the shift in attitude of the population. These shifts in attitude, along with the formation of the Populares party, led to the successful campaign and election to consul of Julius Gaius Caesar in 59 BCE. In the twenty-first century, lots of these issues seem very familiar. There is a lot to take from history and society could certainly learn a lot by looking at the past and recognizing that disparity in wealth distribution and exploitation of the working class eventually leads to demands for better or for more. Though the Ancient Roman politics can not be compared directly to modern day politics, there are many similarities between the issues. The Optimates were more conservative and the Populares were more progressive. Today, conservatism has sustained systems that have led to an egregious disparity in the distribution of wealth and a growing discontent among the working class. Young leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib may be playing the role of the Gracchi brothers in agitating for reform. Reflecting on history is an integral part of learning and growing. Being able to recognize past successes and failures is important but being able to understand the causes of those successes and failures leads to a greater understanding.
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