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Cycles of Death and Renewal: Stabilizing and Destabilizing Forces in the Republican Senate

Cary Barber

University of Oregon

This paper uncovers a ‘Lost Generation’ of Roman senators who were killed in the Hannibalic War, and it examines the impact of their deaths on the Middle Republican Senate. Approximately half of the Senate’s 300 members perished while serving as officers and soldiers in the war against Carthage between 218 and 216 BCE. That the Republic recovered from such a blow is astounding. Indeed, my paper argues that these deaths amounted to a ‘Lost Generation’ of Roman elites. Though no ancient author mentions this ‘Lost Generation’ explicitly, an analysis of the ancient sources combined with modern demographic modelling techniques is revealing. Through this approach, my paper argues that Livy’s figure for senatorial losses (177 dead from 220 – 216 BCE) matches a realistic approximation of the number of iuniores in the Senate combined with the number of seniores who likely perished from natural attrition between 220 and 216 BCE. This ‘Lost Generation’ provides new evidence for the disruptive impact of elite involvement in warfare, and it highlights the extent of Roman losses in the opening years of the Hannibalic War.

The eradication of this ‘Lost Generation’ left behind an enormous political vacuum. The inability of the group of ‘Replacement’ senators to fill this vacuum disrupted normal aristocratic competition for a generation and threatened to destabilize the Republic as elites returned to a pattern of extreme iteration of the consulship not seen since the late fourth century BCE. Against the narratives provided by the ancient sources, my paper argues that this monopolization of office was accomplished not through elite cooperation, but through coercion, particularly in the early stages of Rome’s recovery in the years after Cannae. Additionally, the paper introduces both a new explanation for the longevity of the Republican aristocracy and a central cause of its demise. Under normal conditions, natural demographic factors whittled away at the elder ranks of the Senate while a regular five-year interval between enrollments brought in a steady supply of new senators. As a result, the Senate’s elders had enough authority to suppress young upstarts but not enough to monopolize political power. War-time casualties among the young, however, upended this system by eroding the collective authority of rising aristocrats while sparing older leaders who were able to take power for themselves and their families. This model thus helps to account for centuries of Republican stability but also for its aberrant decades of dynastic rule in the midst of demographic crises.

Both the crisis caused by the decimation of the Senate and the Senate’s response to this political crisis are indispensable to any account of Rome’s eventual triumph over Carthage. Still, despite the decisive role of these events in determining the outcome of the war, there have been few attempts to reconstruct the particulars of Rome’s elite casualties in these years or to underline the significance of what was essentially a ‘Lost Generation’ of Roman leaders. The result has been a diminished appreciation of the Roman experience of war as well as an incomplete understanding of Rome’s development during the third and second centuries BCE. My paper aims to remedy these shortcomings in part by unlocking the explanatory potential of demographic modeling. As this paper will show, applying these techniques yields a more nuanced understanding of the Republic’s most important institution – the Senate – in the periods before, during, and after the struggle against Hannibal.

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Hannibal's Legacy

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