Rome, which eventually would become the greatest power of the ancient world, originated as a small city-state. In the wake of the Second Punic War, however, tremendous inequities in land and wealth developed, creating substantial tensions. What Sir Ronald Syme dubbed the “Roman Revolution” began in earnest in 133 B.C., as Tiberius Gracchus, who had been elected a Tribune of the Assembly, proposed a reform that would limit land ownership to no more than 640 acres, any excess to be distributed by the state to the poor. Riots were accompanied by the assassination of Tiberius and his reform failed, but a new style of politics had been born: appealing directly to the interests of the people for popular support (the populares, as against the optimates or “best” who continued to appeal to traditional structures).
(BTW, I named my daughter Emily for one of the patrician clans that was related to the Grachi, the Aemilii.)
This was followed by tensions between Marius, a novus homo (“new man”) and Sulla, who came from an old, established patrician family. (The aristocracy bitterly resented, these new, selfmade men rising to the consulship.) In a civil war Sulla defeated Marius, and then, for fear of the people, Sulla was appointed dictator, with all imperium resting in his hands. This was a constitutional office, meant to be a temporary measure during emergencies, but once Pandora’s Box was opened, it wasn’t so easy to close it again. Sulla set a dangerous precedent by using his army to kill his opponents.
in 70 BC, the highly ambitious Pompey and Crassus were elected consuls. Crassus feared Pompey and allied himself with successful generals, including one Julius Caesar. When Caesar returned from Spain he demanded a triumph (a victory parade through Rome), which the Senate denied him for fear of his popularity with the people. Caesar managed to reconcile Pompey and Crassus, and together they formed the first Triumvirate (rule of three men) in 59 BC when Caesar was elected consul, which would be the beginning of the end for the Roman Republic.
Caesar’s power derived from military conquest, which gave him a loyal army, wealth and prestige at home in Rome. The Triumvirate disssolved, and Pompey turned against Caesar and allied with the Senate. In 49 BC Caesar famously crossed the Rubicon River in an act of Civil War, saying iacta alea est “the die is cast.” Caesar defeated Pompey, and in 46 had the Senate appoint him dictator for ten years. Two years later he was appointed dictator for life, and having the imperium for life (with the title imperator, whence we get English “emperor”). This put him above the law and looked suspiciously like a monarchy, which was an abhorrent form of rule among traditional Romans. So on the Ides of March (March 15) in 44 BC, a conspiracy led by Brutus and Cassius assassinated Caesar as he entered the Senate. They believed the Republic could be saved, but such was not the case. Rather, these events led to a brutal 13-year civil war, at the conclusion of which an Empire would emerge from the ashes of the Republic.
As viewers of HBO’s wonderful series Rome know, it was Caesar’s nephew Octavian (Augustus), who would emerge victorious from this war. Augustus sought to restore order and equity to Rome; he reformed the government to curb corruption and ambition; he extended citizenship to all Italians. He allowed elections to occur, but rigged them so that the best candidates would win, allowing many members of the lower classes to finally enter government. He put a halt to aggressive militarist expansion beyond existing borders, and he resettled his soldiers on farmland, leading to the agricultural equity that had been sought by the Grachi in the first place two generations before. This control of Rome, both military and political, led to a time of peace, known as the Age of Augustus, a sort of golden age in which Roman language and culture swept through Europe.
The Age of Augustus was the earnest of what historian Edward Gibbon, in his classic The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, would dub the Pax Romana, a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity that would last 200 years, from the accession of Augustus to the death of Aurelius. This was a sort of secular version of the 200 years of peace following the appearance of Christ among the Nephites, as recounted in 4 Nephi. The peace wasn’t perfect by any means, but by the standards of the ancient world it was remarkable.
Approximately halfway into the amazing 40-year rule of Augustus, a babe was born under mean circumstances in Bethlehem of Judea, wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger. At the conclusion of his short life, executed for treason, a movement would start to grow based on his teachings, at first but a Jewish sect but quickly emerging into a religion in its own right. Despite its reputation, Rome was actually very tolerant of foreign religions. Christianity was birthed in a place and a time of world peace and prosperity, a world in which it actually had the chance to bud and flower and grow and eventually prosper. It almost seems as if cosmic forces set the stage for the first Christmas.
It almost seems as if the whole drama of world events over the preceding century was placed in motion to establish the conditions that would lead to the birth of Jesus Christ, which we will celebrate one week from today. Augustus syled himself salvator mundi “the savior of the world,” princeps (“first” among equals). But it would be the Christ child, born at the midpoint of his reign, who would be the true Savior of the World (John 4:42) and Prince of Peace. And the peace of Jesus Christ is a peace that exists within us, even when the world is embroiled in war and political intrigues on a par with those of first century BC Rome. We, all of us, have the opportunity to live in the age of the Pax Christiana and be the recipients of the peace he leaves with us, the peace he gives unto us.