Saturday, November 01, 2008

Ropi, Nowhere Can You Escape History

Ropi [the 18 year old Budapest high school student blogger) left a comment today on my very first or second post more than two years ago. He wrote:

Hmm, I have too much time on my hands despite the history contest so I was curious about your 1st post.

So I decided that, in case he was still bored and avoiding prepping for this history contest by checking out other blogs, I would put up some Roman history. This is, of course, risky since he is the expert in this area. So I went looking. The first part below is mostly interpretive discussion - a little difficult to find 'facts' for Ropi, but the more I read, the more familiar the story sounded. But I did take a snippet that had some hard data in it to test Ropi. OK now, Ropi, here are your questions:

1. In 151 BC, [Roman] citizens went as far as refusing the call up for another levy [of soldiers] to be sent to what country?

2. In 153 BC, who was the young tribune, who staked his reputation on a treaty with the [Country in Question 1] in order to save the trapped army of Mancinus from certain destruction?

The answers are in the section at the end. But I think people will find reading the first part rather eerie in the similarities with . . . well, I don't want to prejudice you.

From the Roman Empire Net:

The story of the late Roman republic is essentially a tragic one.
Yet the various causes for the demise of the republic are far from clear cut. One can not point to one single person or act which led to the fall.

Looking back one feels that most of all the Roman constitution was never designed with the conquest of wealthy overseas territories in mind. With the addition of ever more provinces, especially that of Asia (Pergamene), the delicately balanced Roman political constitution began to collapse from within.

For individual politicians, especially for those with a talent for military command, the prize of power became ever more extraordinary as the empire expanded. Meanwhile, on the streets of Rome the will of the Roman electorate was of ever greater consequence, as their favour granted a politician ever greater powers.

In turn the electorate was flagrantly bribed and cajoled by populists and demagogues who knew that, on achieving power, they could recoup any costs simply by exploiting their offices overseas.

Had in the earlier days of Cincinnatus high office been sought for status and fame within Roman society, then the latter days of the Roman republic saw commanders win vast fortunes in loot and governors make millions in perks and bribes in the provinces.

The key to such riches was the Roman electorate and the city of Rome. Therefore who controlled the Roman mob and who held the pivotal positions of tribunes of the people was now of immense importance.

The fate of the ancient world was now decided in the miniature world of one city. Her town councillors and magistrates suddenly were of importance to Greek trade, Egyptian grain, or wars in Spain.

What had once been a political system developed to deal with a regional city state in central Italy now bore the weight of the world.

The very virtue of Roman unchanging stoicism now became Rome’s undoing. For without change a catastrophe was inevitable. Yet adaptable as the Roman mind was to matters of warfare, it was resistant to any sudden change in political rule.

So, as the Roman elite did, what it was bred to do, as they competed ruthlessly with one another for the highest positions and honours, they unwittingly tore apart the very structure they were sworn to protect.

More so, those who possessed extraordinary talents and succeeded only reaped the suspicion of their contemporaries who at once suspected their seeking the powers of tyranny. Had previously Rome handed extraordinary commands to great talents when a crisis required it, then towards the end of the republic the senate was loath to grant anyone commissions, no matter how urgent the situation became.

Soon it therefore became a contest between those of genius and those of mediocrity, of aspiration and vested interests, between men of action and men of intransigence.

The descent was gradual, unperceivable at times. Its final acts, however, proved truly spectacular. It is little wonder that this period of Roman history has proved a rich source of material for dramatic fiction.


Much more material has survived regarding this period of Roman history. Hence we are provided with much greater insight of the events of this era. Thus, this text can elaborate on the problems in much greater detail.

The Brothers Gracchus

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus

Tiberius Gracchus
Tiberius Gracchus

The first fatal steps in the eventual demise of the republic can most likely be traced back to the disgraceful behaviour of Rome in the Spanish wars.

Not merely did the lengthy campaigns lead to an ever greater alienation between the citizens who supplied the soldiery for lengthy campaigns overseas and the leadership back in Rome. – It must be noted that in 151 BC citizens went as far as refusing the call up for another levy to be sent to Spain. So far had the resistance toward serving in Spain grown.

But more so, the scandalous Roman conduct in Spain most likely directly contributed to the eventual break with the nobility by the brothers Gracchus.
For it was at Numantia (153 BC) that a young tribune, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, staked his reputation on a treaty with the Spaniards in order to save the trapped army of Mancinus from certain destruction. [for the rest]


  1. Oh question 2 was quite simple because it was a long question. You could have made that question much more difficult. If you used magistrate instead of plebeian it would cause me hard times because there are many magistrates in Rome and there are 2 very famous popular tribunes (Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus) who lived in that time period so now I have 50% chance to guess well but fortunately I know that Gaius Gracchus was born in the 150s BC (154BC as far as I remember) so he was a bit young to do anything.

    To be honest the 1st question tricked me. I would correct the text a bit. In Rome there were provinces and not countries and Spain was Hispania. It is not really correct to use France, Spain etc when you talk about Ancient Rome. It is slightly better if you say something like " Lugdunum (Lyon) is in the area of present days France".

  2. Ropi, I had no idea if these questions were hard or easy. Obviously, pretty easy. You show the importance of memorizing dates by how you deduced it could not be Gaius because you knew when he was born and he would have been too young. On your history contests, is there more than just facts? Is there interpretation? What were the implications of events? Or what can we learn about today from the situation in 150BC?

    For other readers, Ropi posted on modern history today offering insight into what it means for his family that Hungary has just declared bankruptcy.

  3. Well, my situation is not unique in Hungary. Every family has the same problem if at least one of their parents works for the state. And my mother deals with taxation.

    Well, what can we learn today from the past? That's an interesting question Steve. Well, I think it would be better if we read more antique dramas or thesises because they could teach a lot for us. I know very few as well unfortunately.

    Well in 150BC Rome was heading to a crisis. They couldn't see but rebellions, civil wars will be frequent in the upcoming 100 years. The Senate was not able to control the Empire which was growing quickly. Economic situation wasn't the brightest either, I think. Poor people became even poorer due to the third punic war and they could do nothing. Marius and Sulla were quite cruel with their opponents but they reformed economy. More precisely taxation was checked more seriously so it became more efficient. On the other hand they gained money form campaigns. To be honest it is not the best time to learn from history. However Sarah "Pitbull" Palin would feel really convenient in those times.


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