Republican Rome (509-31 BC)

   After the expulsion of the Tarquins (Etruscan kings) Rome became a republic (really an oligarchy).  In the early Republic, religion governed the people, dictated the law, and legitimized the rule of the patricians who regarded themselves as the preservers of sacred traditions.  As time went by, though religion was always an important factor in Roman private and political life, the Romans developed a more rational and secular constitutional system (just as the Greeks had  rationalized and secularized their politics and law).  Eventually, law would be viewed as an expression of the public will, not something received from divinity.

I.  The Latin League: At the beginning of the Republic, Rome was surrounded by enemies, including the Etruscans to the north and the Sabines, Volscians, and Aequi to the east and south.  The Latin communities on the plain of Latium posed an even more immediate threat.  After the expulsion of the Etruscan kings, a league of Latin allies formed to challenge Roman leadership in Latium.   But in 493 BC, the Romans established an alliance with the Latin communities, which provided for a common defense of Latium.  The conquest of the Etruscan city of Veii in 396 B.C. was one of Rome's important victories over its neighbors.  The interesting thing about Rome's conquests, something that would help it build a lasting empire, was that the Romans did not follow the ancient norm and enslave those they conquered.

II. Sack of Rome by the Gauls to the conquest of Italy:  In less than 10 years after the conquest of Veii, Rome faced one of the most serious challenges of its history:  defeat by the Gauls in a battle outside Rome in 387 BC The Gauls then sacked large parts of the city (probably having to be paid off to leave Rome). Though their city was left in shambles, the Roman spirit was not conquered.  They not only rebuilt the city, but also revamped their army by adopting phalanx formation of the Greeks and arranging the army in maniples--units of 120 men armed with javelins and short swords.  Striking new fear in their allies, war broke out between the former Italian allies of Rome and herself in 340 BC.  Rome's victory over the League in 338 made her the power in Italy. 
This worried the Greeks of S. Italy so that they enlisted the Hellenistic Greek king Pyrrhus of Epirus in their defense: Pyrrhic War (281-275 BC).  Although he twice routed the Romans, his victories were so costly to his own troops (Pyrrhus said one more victory would ruin him) that such a victory is even today called a "Pyrrhic victory."
By 264 BC the Romans had overcome the Greek city-states in S. Italy and had become one of the five major powers of the Mediterranean.  

III.  The Struggle of the Orders:   Political structure by early 5th BC:  During the Roman conquest of Italy, there was also conflict within Roman society between the patricians and plebeians called the “struggle of the orders.”  The plebeians had many legitimate complaints about their status in society, including 1) debt enslavement; 2) discrimination in the courts; 3) prevention of intermarriage; 4) lack of political representation; 5) absence of a written code of laws.
As the Republic was formed the structure of the government was changed.  No longer would there be kings.  The chief magistrates of the Roman Republic would be two consuls elected from the nobility by all male citizens for a one-year term, who served as judges, initiated legislation, commanded the army.   Other magistrates, praetors, quaestors, aediles and censors, were also created to help run the state.
The Senate (principle assembly drawn mostly from aristocratic families) remained:  “The Roman senate came to hold an especially important position in the Roman Republic.  The senate or council of elders was a select group of about 300 men who served for life.  The senate was not a legislative body, but could only advise the magistrates.  This advice of the senate (called senatus consultum) was not taken lightly, however, and by the third century BC had virtually the force of law.  No doubt the prestige of the senate's members furthered this development.  But it also helped that the senate met continuously, while the chief magistrates changed annually and the popular assemblies were slow in operation and met only periodically” (Spiel.4th Ed. 119).

The Centuriate Assembly still elected consuls and made laws with Senate approval.  “The government of the Roman Republic, then, consisted of three major elements.  Two consuls and later other elected officials served as magistrates and ran the state.  An assembly of adult males (the centuriate assembly), controlled by the wealthiest citizens, elected these officials while the senate, a small group of large landowners, advised them.  Thus, the Roman state was an aristocratic republic controlled by a relatively small group of privileged people” (Spiel. 4th Ed. 119). But now more assemblies and offices would be changed or added in response to plebeian demands.  As leverage, the plebeians would 1)
refuse to pay taxes; 2) refuse to work; 3) refuse to serve in army.
“The first success of the plebeians came in 494 BC, when they withdrew physically from the state.  The patricians, who by themselves could not defend Rome, were forced to compromise.  Two new officials know as tribunes of the plebs were instituted (later the number was raised to five and then ten); they were given the power to protect plebeians against arrest by patricians” (Spiel. 4th Ed. 120).  The tribunes had
veto power (the Latin veto means "I forbid").  Any act of government could be vetoed.
The second stage of the struggle of the orders is the Law of the Twelve Tables (450 BC).  By the 5th c. BC the plebeian demand that law be written down to eliminate arbitrary decisions in favor of patricians resulted in the law being inscribed on 12 bronze tablets which were set up in the Forum for all to see.  (Forum = meeting place for both Senate and assemblies of the people; large open space at foot of Palatine & Capitoline hills.)  “This publication of the laws produced further agitation from the plebeians between 450 and 445 since they could now see how disadvantaged they were.  In particular, they demanded the right of intermarriage and admission to the chief magistracies, especially the consulship.  In 445 BC the lex canuleia allowed patricians and plebeians to intermarry.  Once this was permitted, the division between the two groups became less important.  The solidarity of the patrician class against plebeian gains began to falter.  But it was not until 367 BC that the consulship was opened to plebeians.  The Licinian-Sextian laws stipulated that one consul could now be a plebeian.  From 366 to 361 BC, however, only two plebeians were elected to the consulship, and from 361 to 340, only three, a clear indication that only the most prominent plebeian families could obtain the office.  In 342 BC, another law stipulated that both consuls could be plebeians, while one had to be.  In 300 BC, all religious offices were opened to the plebeians as well, eliminating the patrician monopoly over the Roman state religion” (Spiel.4th Ed. 120).
The end of Struggle of the Orders is consider to come with the Hortensian Law (lex hortensia, named for dictator Quintus Hortensius) in 287 BC.  This made the decisions of the plebeian assembly binding on the state whether Senate approved or not. (But in actuality the Senate continued to rule as before because wealthy plebeians who became tribunes generally sided with the old nobility.)
            Only their f
ear of foreign powers and the tradition of civic patriotism saved Rome from a patrician-plebeian civil war.  For at the same time as this class struggle, Rome was also extending its power over the Italian peninsula. 

By the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC all Italy (Etruscans in the North, hill tribes in central Italy, and the Greeks in the South) had come under the control of Rome, and it was building an empire abroad.  Now there were five great powers in the Mediterranean:   Seleucid Near East, Ptolemaic Egypt, Macedonia, Carthage and Rome.

IV. Punic Wars:    Roman expansion now led Rome into conflict with Carthage, a large and wealthy city in N. Africa that controlled the W. Mediterranean.  Founded c. 800 BC, Carthage had been  a Phoenician trading post, but broke off and now had a trade monopoly in the western Mediterranean and along western coasts of Africa and Europe.  They preferred diplomacy to war but the Romans would give them no choice.
The First Punic War (Lat. punicus "Phoenician") was fought from 264 to241 BC.  It began when Rome attempted to remove Carthaginians from Sicily (too close to home).  The original Roman excuse for being in Sicily in the first place was that the northern Sicilian city of Messana had appealed to Rome for protection from Hiero of Syracuse.  After a costly victory, the Romans became more arrogant and greedy than ever. Roman tenacity was quite evident in this war, for although the Romans were not sailors and in 253 BC lost 284 out of 364 ships in a storm, within 3 months they  built 220 more!  The normal tactic of naval battle was to ram a ship to sink it.  The Romans developed  a platform to lower on the attacking ship to board it and won a stunning victory at sea in 242 BC! By 241 BC the Romans had won the war.  After gaining Sicily the Romans also took the islands of Corsica and Sardinia from a weakened Carthage.
The Second Punic War (218-201 BC) was inevitable.  The Carthaginians flourished under the leadership of Hamilcar Barca as they turned their commercial interests toward the silver and copper resources of Spain.  Although they had agreed to divide Spain into respective spheres of influence, Roman would violate the agreement and declare war on them when
Hannibal took over from his father and attacked Saguntum, a town Rome claimed as an ally (though it lay in the Carthaginian sphere).
Hannibal was very successful in his campaigns against the Romans.  He marched across the Alps into Italy with 30,000-40,000 men and defeated the Romans at the Trebia River and again at Lake Trasimene in Etruria.  Then in 216 at Cannae the Roman army of 60,000-70,000 soldiers was slaughtered by 40,000–50,000 Carthaginians.  Rome lost the largest force it had ever put into the field.
           Rome now gained control of the sea so that Hannibal was cut off from Carthage (and Carthage's ally Philip of Macedon was prevented from aiding) enough to prevent a total victory over Rome (also, central cities remained loyal to Rome and Romans avoided major engagements).
Then a major turning point came as Publius Cornelius Scipio (who would get the title of Africanus for his victory) invaded Africa and defeated Hannibal
at the Battle of Zama (202 BC).  The harsh treaty imposed on Carthage would weaken her forever.  She:  1) had to turn over all her possessions (incl. Spain) except the capital city and surrounding territory in Africa; 2) had to disarm its forces (give up elephants and navy); 3) had to pay indemnity of 10,000 talents (ca. $600,000,000!)
To Rome’s dismay, by the mid-2nd century Carthage recovered a degree of her former prosperity, which caused the envy and fear of
 the Romans so that a Third Punic War (149-146 BC) broke out.  This time the Romans destroyed Carthage selling into slavery any Carthaginians they didn't kill.  The land was then organized into a Roman province and parceled out as senatorial estates.
In addition, The Romans under Titus Flaminius had defeated an ally of Carthage, Philip of Macedon, in 197 BC at Cynoscephalae in Thessaly; and then Philip's successor Perseus was defeated by Lucius Aemilius Paulus at Pydna in Macedon in 168.  Near the end of the 3rd Punic War the final blow to Greek independence came in 146 BC with the defeat of Corinth (males slaughtered, women and children enslaved) so that all of Greece become part of the Macedonian Province.  Now Rome would be conquered by Greek culture as well-educated Greek slaves were employed as the pedagogues of Roman aristocratic youth.
         Though the Punic Wars brought Rome into conflict with the eastern Mediterranean powers and paved the way for world domination, there would be economic and social consequences:

            1) marked increase in slavery (POW's)craftsmen, servants, plantation workers, and miners were often treated brutally, and this led to revolts:  135-132 BC saw slave revolts in Sicily where enormous gangs of slaves were subjected to horrible working conditions on large landed estates.  Besides being branded and beaten, they were fed inadequately, worked in chains, and housed at night in underground prisons.  The most famous revolt on the Italian peninsula occurred in 73 BC.  “A band of gladiators led by a Thracian named Spartacus broke from their barracks at Capua and began a career of brigandage.  In Lucania they were joined by many of the slaves employed in herding the sheep and cattle of the wealthy ranchers.  Troops hastily raised were sent against them under one of the praetors, but they were routed by Spartacus.  In 72 BC the servile insurrection had grown so menacing that both consuls took the field, only to be defeated.  The rebels now ranged unchecked over Italy, and it was clear that the ordinary machine politicians at the hear of hasty and ill-trained levies were worse than useless.  In panic the senate assigned the charge of the war to Crassus, who was one of the praetors for 72.
“Crassus at once set himself to gather recruits and to restore discipline among the demoralized troops whom the senate handed over to him.  When he took the field, he drove Spartacus into Bruttium and there sought to blockade him.  Spartacus, however, succeeded in breaking the lines, so that Crassus seemed no more successful than his predecessors, and the conscript fathers, more frightened than ever, summoned Pompey with his army to assist in crushing the rebel.  Pompey responded gladly, but he found little to do except to intercept and cut down a number of the fleeing slaves, for Crassus was able to bring on a pitched battle, wherein he won a victory which was rendered decisive by the death of Spartacus” (Marsh, 145).  6,000 slaves were crucified, the traditional form of execution for slaves.

            2) decline of small farmers.  This agricultural crisis is a result of 1) latifundia (plantations) with their slave labor which squeezed out small farmers with the influx of cheap grain from the provinces, and 2) veterans returning from the Punic Wars without money to restore their ravage farmland and losing it. 

            3) the growth of a helpless city mob composed of impoverished farmers & workers displaced by slave labor;

             4) the appearance of a middle class (called Equites or knights, named from the fact that they had once formed Rome's cavalry).  They included prosperous landowners, merchants, moneylenders, and publicans (holders of state contracts: operate mines, build roads, collect taxes, construct buildings, and supply the army.

             5) gulf between rich and poor widened and old-fashioned ideals of discipline and devotion to the service of the state weakened. (Pleasure and wealth became their gods; the rich acquired a taste for luxury--big houses, fine furniture, servants, fine clothes, etc.)

             So, the Republic was fast becoming and empire with the conquest of Italy [509-270 BC], the expansion into the western Mediterranean with the Punic Wars, and the conquest of the Hellenistic kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean.  After 146 BC, in fact, the Republic's main challenges were no longer foreign invasions, but adjusting city-state institutions to the demands of empire and overcoming critical social and political problems at home.  Unfortunately the Republic was not up to it and showed little concern for the welfare of its subjects, especially the provincials who exploited by governors, tax collectors, and soldiers.  The growing poor, whose plight was ignored by the Republic, were no longer committed to the state.

V.  Gracchi brothers:  Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune at in 133 BC at 29 years of age.  He  passed some agrarian reform in which maximum was set to the amount of state-owned land one could use (312 acres) and distributed the confiscated land to the poor in small plots.  Although another tribune vetoed the bill, Tiberius had him deposed and the agrarian bill passed.  When Tiberius sought re-election as tribune (a violation of constitutional tradition), he was murdered along with 300 of his followers.
In 123 BC his brother Gaius Gracchus was elected tribune and re-elected in 122 BC.  Gaius sought to
stabilize the price of grain in Rome by having the government purchase, store and distribute grain cheaply.  This would pass and eventually result in the dole!
He then proposed extension of citizenship to Rome’s allies.  This resulted in class warfare so that the Senate declared martial law and 3,000 of Gaius' followers were executed (he committed suicide).
The significance of this “Gracchan Revolt” was that it demonstrated that the Roman Republic had outgrown its constitution; the popular assembly had grown in power almost equal to the senate and both sides resorted to violence instead of compromise.  This would set a precedent for the use of force by any ambitious politician and paved the way for the destruction of the empire!

The allies then revolted against Rome in the so-called Social War of 90-88 BC because they hadn't gotten citizenship as Gaius Gracchus attempted.  Even though Rome victorious, it was expensive and cost lives, and the allies got citizenship eventually anyway.

VI.  Civil Wars:  the rise of military dictatorships:  

1. The first civil War will be between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla.  Gaius Marius (157-86 BC) was elected to the consulship by the masses in 107 BC and re-elected 6 more times.  He was no statesman and accomplished nothing for his followers beyond demonstrating the ease with which a military leader with an army could override opposition.  He was commissioned to raise an army to deal with foreign danger in Africa by the plebeian assembly, a definite encroachment on the senate's right to conduct wars.  After the successful Jugurthian War against the Numidians in Africa, he was called upon to go against the Gauls who had annihilated a Roman army and threatened an invasion of Italy. 
Marius raises this new army of volunteers from both the urban and rural proletariat (landless).  Up to this time soldiers served at their own expense; only men of substance were conscripted; now Marius sets a dangerous precedent by filling legions with landless citizens for long terms of service.  These professional soldiers identified their interests with their commander's (expecting bonuses and land).  LOYALTY IS NO LONGER TO THE STATE!
Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78) became consul for 88 BC and had been given command by the senate of the war against Mithridates, the rebellious king of Pontus in Asia Minor.  Marius, who had retired from Roman politics and who had been an ally of Sulla in the recent Social War (90-88 BC)], was given command of the war against Mithridates by the Plebian Assembly, an obvious usurpation of tradition Senatorial prerogative.  When Sulla marched on Rome with his army [It was the first time a Roman consul had used his forces against fellow Roman citizens.]  After reestablishing his command, Sulla left again for the east, only to have Marius join forces with the consul Cinna, marched on Rome.  They seized control of the government, outlawed Sulla, and killed many of Sulla's supporters.  Thus civil war had become a fact of life in Roman politics. 
Marius dies in 86 BC, and Sulla returns to Rome in 82 BC after defeating Mithradates.  He has himself appointed dictator for an unlimited term by the Senate to revise the constitution:

    1) Sulla curtails the power of the Tribal assembly and tribunes (now Senate in control of  legislation).  He also reduced the military authority of provincial governors to prevent any march on Rome.

    2) He then settles the score with his surviving opponents:  (1) posted their names on whitened wood tablets in the Forum.  Anyone thus proscribed was an outlaw with a reward for bringing their heads [through this proscription he may have killed 90 senators, 15 consulars, 2600 knights, according to Appian (b.c.i,ch.103)].  (2) probably also trying to destroy democratic party by removing all possible future leaders.  (3) He needed money and land to distribute to his troops.     
  After three years in power, Sulla decided to retire to a life of luxury and ease.  His enemies who wished to believe evil men are punished pictured him as dying of an imaginary disease where the flesh turns to worms.  But he died suddenly at age 60 and had the most splendid funeral Rome had ever witnessed.  He wrote his own epitaph saying that no man had ever done him so much good or evil that he had not repaid it in full. (Does ruthless butchery sometimes pay off?)

A second civil war will occur between Pompey and Caesar.  Several leaders rose to espouse the cause of the people since the Senate failed to use its restored authority effectively to solve remaining problems in the Republic.  The first to rise was Pompey (106-48 BC), popular with the optimates, who was elected consul in 70 BC along with a wealthy banker named Crassus(who was popular with the business community).  They repealed Sulla's laws that had curtailed the power of the Tribal Assembly and the tribunes.  He won fame as the conqueror of Syria and Palestine (incl. Jerusalem).  In 60 BC the politician Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), who was popular with the populares and had come back from seeking military experience in Spain, Crassus, and Pompey formed the first triumvirate
(60-49 BC).   

NOTE:  Caesar was a brilliant orator who, like any upper class Roman who sought a political future, went to college at Athens.  While in the Aegean he was captured by some pirates.  Plutarch says:

   When these men at first demanded of him twenty talents for his ransom, he laughed at them for not understanding the value of their prisoner, and voluntarily engaged to give them fifty.  He presently dispatched those about him to several places to raise the money, till at last he was left among a set of the most bloodthirsty people in the world, the Cilicians, with only one friend and two attendants.  Yet he made so little of them, that when he had a mind to sleep, he would send to them, and order them to make no noise.  For thirty-eight days, with all the freedom in the world, he amused himself with joining in their exercises and games, as if they had not been his keepers, but his guards.  He wrote verses and speeches, and made them his auditors, and those who did not admire them, he called to their faces illiterate and barbarous, and would often, in raillery, threaten to hang them.  They were greatly taken with this, and attributed his free talking to a kind of simplicity and boyish playfulness.  As soon as his ransom was come from Miletus, he paid it, and was discharged, and proceeded at once to man some ships at the port of Miletus, and went in pursuit of the pirates, whom he surprised with their ships still stationed at the island, and took most of them.  Their money he made his prize, and the men he secured in prison at Pergamum, and he made application to Junius, who was then governor of Asia, to whose office it belonged, as praetor, to determine their punishment.  Junius, having his eye upon the money, for the sum was considerable, said he would think at his leisure what to do with the prisoners, upon which Caesar took his leave of him, and went off to Pergamum, where he ordered the pirates to be brought forth and crucified; the punishment he had often threatened them with whilst he was in their hands, and they little dreamt he was in earnest.

    The combined wealth and power of these three men was enabled them to dominate Roman politics.  Caesar was granted a special military command in Gaul for five years and “did so well in Gaul that Crassus and Pompey realized anew the value of military command.  They became consuls again for 55 BC and garnered more benefits for the coalition:  Caesar was given a five-year extension in Gaul; Crassus a command in Syria; and Pompey one in Spain.  When Crassus was killed in battle in 53 BC, it left two powerful men with armies in direct competition.  Caesar had used his time in Gaul to gain fame and military experience….he now had an army of seasoned veterans who were loyal to him” (Spiel.4th Ed. 140).

NOTE:  This Romanization of Gaul would cause France to emerge as the center of medieval civilization.  “Since Gaul eventually became medieval France, the heartland of Western culture in the Middle Ages, it might truthfully be said that Caesar's conquest of Gaul was his most important contribution to history” (Starr, 82).
            While in Gaul Caesar wrote Commentaries on the Gallic War to keep the Romans from forgetting him while he was away from Rome for the ten years (59-49 BC).  The Romans would obviously be pleased to revenge the sack of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BC and their constant threat to the survival of Rome.  Meanwhile the triumvirate fell apart:  Crassus died in a campaign against the Parthians in the East and after Pompey's wife Julia (Caesar's daughter) died in childbirth, Caesar and Pompey grew apart.
While Caesar was away in Gaul Pompey feared his growing power and conspired with the Senate to ruin him by demanding he disband his army.  On January 10, 49 BC Caesar crosses the Rubicon (boundary of Caesar's province), thus declaring war on Pompey and the Senate who both fled to Greece.  By 48 BC Pompey was defeated at Pharsalus and then murdered by agents of the king of Egypt.  46 BC Caesar became dictator for 10 years; 44 BC for life.  He also assumed every other magisterial title to augment his power:  consul, censor and supreme pontiff.  He got full authority from the Senate to make war and peace and to control the revenues of the state!  This led to his assassination March 15, 44 BC (the Ides of March).
Caesar was an Epicurean who believed the gods had no direct role in human life.  He set about with his extremely rational and clear-thinking mind to reform Roman life.  He fought corruption in the provinces by:

   1) lowering taxes
   2) making government responsible to him  
   3) preventing capitalists from exploiting the regions
   4) granting citizenship liberally to non-Italians in the empire in order     to pack the senate with new provincial members.

  He attempted to ease the conditions of the poor:
1) reduced debts
2) inaugurated public works programs (roads, aqueducts, etc. to provide employment and  beautify the city)
    3) established colonies outside Italy (relocated over 100,00 veterans and members of Rome's lower class to provinces--Spain, Gaul, Greece) 
4) he decreed 1/3 of laborers on slave-worked estates in Italy be persons of free birth (reduced the dole from 320,000 to 150,000)  

He, with the help of an Egyptian astronomer that came to Rome with Cleopatra, reformed the calendar to basically the 365 1/4 day year we use today (with the modification by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 that century-years--like 1900 or 2000--are leap years only if they are divisible by 400).  Reasonable as the reform was, and chaotic as the calendar had been in previous years, conservatives like Cicero grumbled bitterly over the change (Starr, 84).

  He began the codification of the law.

3.  After Caesar’s death, there would be a Third Civil War, this time between Antony and Octavian.  Following Caesar's murder Octavian (his 18 year old grandnephew and heir), Mark Antony (Caesar`s chief lieutenant), and Marcus Lepidus (Caesar’s cavalry commander) united against the conspirators (Brutus and Cassius) and the Senate and formed the second triumvirate.  They divided the empire and ruled for 10 years (43-33 BC) until Antony's infatuation with Cleopatra caused him to transfer Roman territories to her dominions.  Antony had been married to Octavia, Octavian's sister, but divorces her for Cleopatra.  By 33 BC Octavian had put Lepidus aside in 36 BC and used Antony's affair with Cleopatra to turn Rome against Antony.  
Octavian’s fleet defeats Antony's off Actium in 31 BC (Antony and Cleopatra commit suicide a year later).  Octavian's victory marked the end of the Roman Republic; for even though he claimed he would restore the Republic, he would rule Rome from 31 BC till his death in 14 AD.  
Thus Octavian inaugurated the third great period in Roman history--the Empire which lasted from 27 BC when he offered to surrender his power and the Senate (purged of opposition) bestowed on him the title of Augustus ("the Revered" --a title reserved for the gods up to this point) to 476 AD when the last Roman emperor was overthrown (Romulus Augustus).




Send comments and questions to Dr. Richard Baldwin, Gulf Coast State College.
This page last updated 3/17/12