After vanquishing its external foes, the late Roman republic had every reason to be satisfied with its global position; domestically, too, the basic facts were highly favorable: relatively strong economy, unified society, and high esteem for the rule of law had laid the foundation for a political organization that would have passed for a fairly modern democracy. But within a few generations, elite irresponsibility had turned Rome into a corrupt and militaristic dictatorship. Sallust focuses on a key turning point, the years following a burst of military adventurism (under Marius and Sulla) and preceding Julius Caesar’s final overthrow of the Republic:
Never in its history–it seems to me–had the empire of Rome been in such a miserable plight. From east to west all the world had been vanquished by her armies and obeyed her will; at home there was profound peace and abundance of wealth, which moral men esteem the chiefest of blessings. Yet there were Roman citizens obstinately determined to destroy both themselves and their country….A deadly moral contagion had infected all their minds….although all disturbers of the peace in this period put forward specious pretexts, claiming either to be protecting the rights of the people or to be strengthening the authority of the Senate, this was mere pretence: in reality, every one of them was fighting for his personal aggrandizement. –Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline (Penguin Classics), pp.37-39.
Describing the collapse of Roman freedoms in the years leading up to Julius Caesar, Appian noted:
“…neither freedom, nor democracy, nor law, nor reputation, nor office, were of any help any longer to anybody when the holders of the tribunate, which had come into existence for the prevention of injustice and the protection of ordinary people, and was sacred and inviolate, both committed and suffered such wrongs.”–Appian, The Civil Wars (Penguin Classics, 19)
At one point during Julius Caesar’s Gallic campaign, when the Aeduan tribe was allied with Rome, the question of whether or not to break the alliance and join Vercingetorix’s “rebellion”–what today might be called Gaul’s “national liberation movement.” The Aeduan leader had recently been confirmed in his position through the personal intervention of Caesar, who had ruled in accordance with Aeduan laws. The Aeduan leader observed,
It is true that I am under some obligation to Caesar – though the justice of my case was so apparent that he could hardly help deciding in my favor. but the cause of national liberty outweighs any such consideration. Why should we call Caesar in to adjudicate questions involving our rights and the interpretation of our laws? We do not expect him to submit questions of Roman law to our arbitration? (Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul. London: Penguin Classics, pp.173-4.)
With that, the lackey declared his independence and led the Aeduans into revolt.
“Down to the destruction of Carthage, the people and Senate shared the government peaceably and with due restraint, and the citizens did not compete for glory or power; fear of its enemies preserved the good morals of the state. But when the people were relieved of this fear, the favourite vices of prosperity – licence and pride – appeared as a natural consequence. Thus the peace and quiet which they had longed for in time of adversity proved, when they obtained it, to be even more grievous and bitter than the adversity. For the nobles started to use their position, and the people their liberty, to gratify their selfish passions, every man snatching and seizing what he could for himself. So the whole community was split into parties, and the Republic, which hitherto had been the common interest of all, was torn asunder….The people were burdened with military service and poverty, while the spoils of war were snatched by the generals and shared with a handful of friends.” — Sallust, The Jugurthine War/The Conspiracy of Catiline, pp. 77-78 (Tr. S.A.Handford), Penguin Books, 1963.