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The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic

Rome was dealt a psychological blow by an attack on its very heart.

In the fall of 68 BCE, the main port at Ostia was set on fire.  In the attack, the consular war fleet was destroyed.  Two prominent senators, including staff and bodygurards, were kidnapped.

The response was a first century B.C. version of homeland security. The Constitution of ancient Rome had developed a system of checks and balances to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of any single individual. The consulship was jointly held by two men who were elected annually. Military commands were limited in length and subject to regular renewal by the Senate. Ordinary citizens were accustomed to a remarkable degree of civilian oversight via their Senators.  “Civis Romanus sum” (“I am a Roman citizen”) brought a guarantee of safety throughout the known world.

But panic was rife after the Ostia attack.  The people were now willing to compromise their rights for safety. Rome’s greatest military man, Pompey arranged for a lieutenant of his, the tribune Aulus Gabinius, to rise in the Roman Forum and propose a new law in early 67 BCE.

“Pompey was to be given not only the supreme naval command but what amounted in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone,” the Greek historian Plutarch wrote. “There were not many places in the Roman world that were not included within these limits.”

Pompey eventually received almost the entire contents of the Roman Treasury to pay for his “war on terror,” which included building a fleet of 500 ships and raising an army of 120,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry.

Such an accumulation of power was unprecedented, and there was a riot in the Senate when the bill was debated.  In the end Pompey’s opponents were cowed and the Lex Gabinia passed. 

It took less than three months to sweep the pirates from the entire Mediterranean. An easy victory? But it was too late to raise questions. Pompey stayed in the Middle East for six years, establishing one puppet regime after another.

The Lex Gabinia was the beginning of the end of the Roman republic. It set a precedent. Less than a decade later, Julius Caesar was awarded similar, extended military sovereignty in Gaul. Previously, the state, through the Senatatorial fiat, largely controlled the direction of its armed forces.  Now the Army began to assume direction of the state.

In 49 B.C., the system collapsed completely, Caesar crossed the Rubicon, sealing the end of the Republic once and for all.  It is Pompey’s legacy that set up not only the fall of the Roman Republic, but also of the Jewish Commonweath, as we shall later see.