Background: Recently I've been reading about the Roman Republic, specifically about its last century of civil war and disorder, and I've noticed that some historians say that the Republic fell because its institutions were prepared to handle only a small territory, not the big empire that the Romans conquered throughout the centuries. The most recent book where I found this line of thought was Mary Beard's SPQR, but I've seen it in other places before.

The problem is that when these books talk about the end of the Republic, they in general just list events concerning the Gracchus brothers' fight for redistribution of land, Marius' and Sulla's civil wars, and events concerning the First Triumvirate — they never tackle the issues of obsolete institutions directly. Even the article in The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic pertaining to the topic only mentions this obsolescence and says the idea is correct, but doesn't elaborate on it. From these works I've gathered that Roman institutions were obsolete precisely because they permitted the existence of this kind of conflict, but I still don't understand why that's the case, which institutions were obsolete and why.

Question: What institutions were so obsolete as to cause the fall of the Republic, and why did they function properly only with a small territory?

  • 3
    There are more theories than authors.
    – MCW
    Nov 19, 2017 at 16:20
  • 2
    There might be, but in this specific argument, which seems to be recurring in the specialized literature, to which institutions might these authors be referring to?
    – James Cook
    Nov 19, 2017 at 16:27
  • 3
    You might want to re-phrase slightly (especially the title), otherwise you risk having the question closed for being too broad. Nov 19, 2017 at 18:44
  • 2
    Done. It is interesting that this was a necessary thing, considering that you were able to answer my question without problems, although I didn't accept it yet because I'm waiting for other answers and for your promised additional sources. I guess asking for people to read two extra paragraphs of text, as you clearly did and was able to answer them, is too much, as it is easier to judge the question solely by its title.
    – James Cook
    Nov 19, 2017 at 18:48
  • 1
    @JamesCook On this occasion you're preaching to the choir! ;-) lol Nov 19, 2017 at 18:55

2 Answers 2


The main institutions were the Senate and the military. The personal wealth and power of the members of the Senate, and the rivalries that ensued, threatened to tear the state apart.

The creation, and expansion, of a permanent military force, spread across the empire and with each part loyal its own general, who was appointed by the Senate, added a military wing to those senatorial factions.

As the empire grew, so did the status of the senators, who gained most from the profits of war and conquest. This exacerbated rivalries between individuals, who also had more resources available to them. Members of the senatorial class were generally arrogant and unaccountable for their actions. Eventually, this would lead to the First Triumvirate 59-53 BC.

The acquisition of an empire required that Rome maintain a permanent military establishment in its provinces to cope with rebellions. These were often loyal to their commanders, rather than to the Senate in Rome, as in the cases of Marius (consul in 106 BC & 104-100 BC) and Sulla (consul in 88 BC, & dictator from 82-79 BC).

It is interesting to note that during Sulla's two year term as dictator, he was supposed to have had well over a thousand of his political opponents put to death. This resolved the problem of factions within the senate (discussed above), and Sulla was able to retire from office, eventually dying peacefully in his bed.

The legions were increasingly being recruited from the provinces, rather than consisting of men from Rome. Even by the 2nd century BC, many of these provinces were beginning to demand full Roman political status commensurate with their role in maintaining the empire. This would result in the the Social War in 91-88 BC.

At the same time, the expansion of citizenship was also substantial in the late Republic. In 129 BC the Roman census recorded some 294,000 (male) citizens. This number jumped to about half-a-million in the census of 84 BC (following the settlement of the Social War).

By the time of the census conducted by Augustus in 27 BC, that number had reached 5 million!

The senate had debated reforms, but these were too little too late.


  • I'll try to add some additional sources &c later when I get home. Nov 19, 2017 at 17:14
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    Mike Duncan's Storm before the Storm is very relevant here. It describes the period from the Grachi to Sula and shows the cultural institutions that kept the Republic stable as being fatally damaged by infighting and political violence. Nov 20, 2017 at 2:00
  • @StevenBurnap I'm not familiar with that one. I'll have to get hold of a copy. :) Nov 20, 2017 at 12:21

The answer of sempaiscuba is great, but I have found some other institutions that were obsolete:

Magistarial annuality

All republican magistrates (except the censors) held their mandate for a single year. At the creation of the republic, the duties of the consuls (only executive office by then) were rather simple: If war broke out with some adjacent city-state, they had to conscript legions and lead them into battle. One such case could be resolved in mere months.

By the end of the republic roman life, diplomacy and economy grew extremely complicated.

The complex legal, economic-regulatory, civil-engineering, etc. processes magistrates like aediles, praetors and questors had to oversee demanded professionals. Not some young senator seeing the office as a possibility to get popular, but someone willing to spend decades in it. The areas of knowledge needed to run the city were simple too diverse to be learned through a single cursus honorum. It is also noteworthy how emperors split up the former republican lower magistracies, appointing for example special officials for corn supply, aquaducts, street maintenance, etc.

It was similar by the military commands. If some chieftain in Gaul or Hispania, or petty king in Asia agreed to become a client/ally of Rome, he essentially made a deal: He had given up the profit he could have gained by raiding in roman territory, and allowed roman knights to take trade advantage, while in return he got the protection of SPQR and had not fear war with Rome.

For such a deal to be profitable, the chieftain had to be sure the the next governor arriving in the next year would not bring permission with him to increase his wealth by sacking his petty state. (due to some political change in Rome the chieftain knew nothing about) A single emperor -- and his legates and procurators responsible top him -- allowed stability in diplomatic relations.

Direct democracy via assemblies

The Roman Republic had a number of voting assemblies capable of making important decisions (like electing magistrates and tribunes, passing laws and plebistices) that convened in the City, and worked only by personal attendance. This gave an unjust benefit to citizens living in Rome over the ever-increasing citizenry of the colonies. Even if they had obtained citizenry, they could only use the private part (marriage, business, legal protection) of it, but were unable to excercise their political rights and the benefits it brought (ie.: bribes and public banquets)

  • Some lessons here, perhaps, for modern liberal democracies. Jun 20, 2018 at 17:51

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