At almost 500 years old, the Romans had the longest-lasting republic the world has ever known. As such, it had a violent death. When the Republic ceased to function because of corruption, the ensuing violence and instability led the people to choose an absolute ruler who took their freedoms but promised them stability. This Empire lasted for hundreds of years, and many historians are unsettled by the longevity of the Roman state as an Empire after the Republic completely collapsed. ‘It could have been and probably should have been much, much worse for the Romans than it actually was to lose their republic,’ says Edward Watts, a historian of ancient Rome. However, this isn’t an unsolvable puzzle. Why did the tyranny last so long after such a violent end of the republic? Simply because the Caesars followed the number one rule for tyrants: keep the people afraid, but comfortable.

The structure of the Roman Republic was very different from other governmental structures at the time. There were three main governmental structures: Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy, and their degenerate counterparts. In order to have more checks and balances, the Republic used a part of each of these in what was called a ‘mixed government’. The following is a brief overview of its structure:

The patricians were the ‘first’ wealthiest families in Rome. The plebeians—everyone else—also won power in the government over time. There were three main aspects of the government: the Senate, the Assemblies, and the Consuls. The Senate was made of patricians and advised the consuls and other magistrates as the ultimate repository for executive power. The two consuls presided over the Senate and commanded the military during their term of one year.

The assemblies were mainly made up of plebeians: The Comitia Centuriata made decisions about war, passed laws, elected rulers, and made decisions about foreign matters. The Concilium Plebis elected its own officials and made decrees for the plebeian class, eventually having the power to make all decrees binding for the entire Roman community. The third assembly, the Comitia Tributa, consisted of the tribal assemblies, which were open to all citizens. In this assembly, the citizens elected minor officials, approved local legislative decisions, and wielded judicial powers (but could only levy fines).

The Republic, though it went through many changes throughout the centuries, lasted for almost 500 years. Near the end, however, it seems to have been a Republic in name only. The Senate made power grabs and turned fatally violent. The introduction of secret ballots meant that Senators couldn’t bribe specific individuals, campaigning to the lower and middle classes instead, and trying to meet the whims of the populace. Many senators raised their own private armies that were more loyal to themselves than to the republic, sparking all sorts of contentions and civil war. 

For example, Tiberius Gracchus, an elected tribune of the people, proposed a land reform bill that would take excess land from the rich senators and divide it among the poor. Instead of getting the approval of the Senate, however, he brought it straight to the Plebeian Assembly, manipulating rules to get rid of people who disagreed with him, and whipping the people up with his fiery language. People mobbed about him, and the Senate feared he was trying to become a king (a big no-no in Rome). When he ran for another term as Tribune, a group of Senators beat him and 300 of his supporters to death with wooden chairs. 

His brother, Gaius Gracchus, came into a similar conflict with the Senate over more populist laws. After one of his opponents was killed, Senatus consultum ultimum (the ultimate decree of the Senate) was passed for the first time. This law gave the Senate power to declare anyone an enemy of the state. Those so-called ‘enemies’ could be executed without a trial by jury. Gaius committed suicide and 3000 of his supporters were arrested and put to death through this ultimate decree. This started a trend of political violence in the Roman Senate as more and more political leaders ended their terms with their deaths. Over the next century, Roman troops would fight one another as political leaders settled their disagreements with their own private armies. Julius Caesar, who was granted a 10-year dictatorship to ‘fix the republic’, sought a life-long position as Tribune, and after much fighting was eventually killed by the Senate.

What was to be done? The people were traumatized, the Republic was corrupt, and the economy was chaotic. Rome needed trust, stability, comfort, and pleasure again, and someone offered to bring these back. His name was Octavian, the great grand-nephew of Julius, and he became Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of the long-lasting Roman Empire. He claimed he was the only one who could restore peace. His deal: he assumed supreme control, became an emperor, and ‘won’ the position of consul every year. Citizens could still vote for other officials, but no one could really run for office if not approved of by Augustus. In return, he promised peace and an end to violence, the return of the rule of law, and the continuance of benefits including subsidized grain and entertainment.

The term “Bread and Circuses” originates from the pen of Juvenal, a satirist who lived at about this time. His poetic satires scathingly describe the fall of the people:

. . . But what of the Roman

Mob? They follow Fortune, as always, and hate whoever she

Condemns. If Nortia, as the Etruscans called her, had favoured

Etruscan Sejanus; if the old Emperor had been surreptitiously

Smothered; that same crowd in a moment would have hailed

Their new Augustus. They shed their sense of responsibility

Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob

That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything,

Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only,

Bread and circuses.

The distribution of free grain (and eventually baked bread and free oil in the 3rd century) in Rome continued until the end of the Empire. As for free ‘circuses’, the entertainment of the Romans included spectacles such as the infamous blood sports and gladiator fights, as well as parades, religious festivals, and chariot races. These were provided as free entertainment for the increasingly decadent society. Montesquieu writes the following as an example of the love of entertainment:

. . . [Dio] informs us that the Romans were exasperated against Augustus for making certain laws which were too severe; but as soon as he had recalled Pylades the comedian, whom the jarring of different factions had driven out of the city, the discontent ceased. A people of this stamp have a more lively sense of tyranny when a player is banished than when they are deprived of their laws.

According to the same Montesquieu, the spring of a republic (what makes it function) is virtue. When people forget virtue for stability, comfort, and pleasure, the republic is lost. The Roman Republic is a perfect example of that. But why, when it evolved into a tyrannical empire, did it last so long?

The answer is simple, and it comes from a book written hundreds of years later by an Italian. After a period of political violence and instability, corruption, and greed, the Roman people just wanted stability, comfort, and pleasure. The biggest mistake that tyrants make—all the time—is to make themselves hated by their people. Niccolo Machiavelli, the author of a book that is commonly seen as a handbook for tyrants, wrote the following:

. . . [as a tyrant,] it would be desirable to be both [feared and loved]; but as it is difficult to be both at the same time, it is much more safe to be feared than to be loved, when you have to choose between the two…A prince, however, should make himself feared in such a manner that, if he has not won the affection of his people, he shall at least not incur their hatred.”

Machiavelli says that in order for a tyrant to stay in power, he must demand respect and fear and be able to make his own arbitrary choices, but he has to be a comfortable tyrant. In other words, it has to be easier to stay under him than to revolt. He cannot afford for the people to hate him. Just like the easiest road to Hell is the slow and gradual one, the easiest road to tyranny is the comfortable one. The best way to run a tyranny is to make it feel almost imperceptible to the people. Though they are aware their freedoms are being taken, there are enough benefits to make it worth it. They have stability, comfort, and pleasure—what more is necessary?

The best tyrant will not do terrible things that cause the people to hold him in contempt. He will give ‘benefits’ in return for taking freedoms little by little. The benefits seem so comfortable, and the disappearing freedoms so insignificant, especially when the promised stability starts to result.

This is why the Roman Empire lasted so long. The promised benefits of stability and pleasure were renewed to keep the people happy, and all other allegiance followed. Augustus and his successors unknowingly followed Machiavelli’s number one rule for tyrants: keep the people afraid, but comfortable. If the people are comfortable in tyranny, it can last for a very long time.


baron de Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat. The spirit of the laws. Translated by Thomas Nugent, Batoche Books, 2001. 

Daley, Jason. “Lessons in the Decline of Democracy From the Ruined Roman Republic.” Smithsonian Magazine, 6 November 2018, Accessed 8 December 2022.

Fife, Steven, and Chris Ludwig. “The Brothers Gracchi: The Tribunates of Tiberius & Gaius Gracchus.” World History Encyclopedia, 18 January 2012,–g. Accessed 8 December 2022.

Juvenal, “Juvenal (55–140) – The Satires.” Poetry In Translation, Translated by A.S. Kline, 18 February 2011, Accessed 8 December 2022.

Little, Becky. “How Rome Destroyed Its Own Republic.” History, 5 November 2018, Accessed 8 December 2022.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. New York, Washington Square Press, 1963.