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The Republic of Rome

Updated on May 23, 2024

Rome Under The Republic

In 509 B.C., the Romans took advantage of the decay of Etruscan power to expel Tarquinius Superbus. Led by Junius Brutus, they set up a republic. Two consuls of equal status were elected from among the city's patricians, or aristocrats, to serve for one year only.

As a republic, ancient Rome conquered and dominated Italy, then embarked on foreign conquests that made it the heart of the Roman Empire.

The history of the Roman Republic can be divided into two main periods. The first is from the foundation of the republic (traditional date 509 B.C.) to the start of the First Punic War (265 B.C.). The two main features of this period are the gradual conquest of Italy by Rome, and internal constitutional struggles.

The second period, from 265 B.C. to the Empire (27 B.C.), is marked by the victory over Carthage and Roman penetration into the East, Greece, and Asia.

The Early Republic

After the kings were overthrown, Rome was ruled by magistrates, usually two in number, called consuls. They came from the patrician class and were elected by the assembly for one-year terms. Each consul could veto an act of his colleague. In the republic the number of senate members increased from 100 to 300. Senators were enrolled by the consuls or censors from among men who had been elected to the higher offices. In times of crisis a dictator, or sole ruler, of Rome was named and was given absolute power until the emergency had passed.

The comitia curiata gradually disappeared and was replaced by the comitia centuriata, an assembly whose membership was based on wealth rather than on noble birth.

Rise of the Plebeians

In the early republic the plebeians made up the bulk of Rome's armies, and the class became more important when Rome began its conquests. In 493 B.C. the plebeians revolted in Rome and gained the right to have officials called tribunes elected annually from the ranks of the plebeians as their spokesmen in the government. Later, the plebeians were permitted to have an assembly composed of all citizens, of which the tribunes were presidents. Originally, the assembly had little power, and the tribunes could veto only such laws passed by the senate that threatened the rights of the people. However, in 451 B.C. the patricians granted an important concession to the plebeians by decreeing that Rome's customary laws were to be codified. The laws were written down on 12 tablets and placed in the Forum for all to read. The Law of the Twelve Tables was the basis for educating schoolboys in early Rome.

Conquest of Italy

With the founding of the republic, Rome embarked on 300 years of war and conquest that eventually united it with all the nations in the area of the Mediterranean Sea. In 496 B.C. the Romans fought an inconclusive battle with other cities in Latium that had formed an alliance called the Latin League. A few years later, the Romans and the Latin League agreed on a treaty that provided for a common army of defense.

Enemies beyond Latium threatened Rome. The Aequi, who lived to the south of the Sabines, were defeated by the Romans in about 430 B.C. The capture by the Romans of the Etruscan stronghold of Veil in 396 B.C. was an important step toward Rome's domination of Italy. However, in 390 B.C. the Gauls, fierce Celtic tribes from north of the Alps, burned and sacked Rome, besieged Capitoline Hill, and withdrew only when they were paid ransom.

Rome defeated the Volscians in campaigns from 389 B.C. to 380 B.C. It extended its hegemony over

Latium by destroying the Latin League in a war from 340 to 338 B.C., and it defeated the Samnites, tribes of shepherds and peasants from the southern Apennines, in wars lasting from about 328 B.C. to 290 B.C.

Rome had now conquered the whole of Italy except Cisalpine Gaul. Her triumph had been achieved not only by force of arms, but also by her policy of colonisation and the building of roads. Much of the peninsula now enjoyed Roman citizenship, and those areas which did not were bound to Rome by alliances of various grades.

Beginnings of Expansion

A turning point in Roman history came in the first half of the 4th century BC. In 390 BC, the Gauls, the dominant tribe in France, invaded Italy from the north and burned the entire city of Rome except for the capital, a temple dedicated to Jupiter.

Under the leadership of Camillus, the Romans rebuilt their city and settled their own differences. From 367 BC, a plebeian, or commoner, could hold one of the two consulships; plebeians later acquired the right to hold most of the public offices in the state.

The newly invigorated republic was now able to embark on its long career of conquest. Between 340 and 338 B.C., the Romans defeated the Latins who surrounded them; by 264 BC they had won mastery of the whole peninsula.

This brought the Romans face to face with another Mediterranean power, the great commercial and maritime empire of Carthage in North Africa. The Carthaginians regarded Sicily as part of their own sphere of influence and felt threatened by the southward expansion of Rome. The three wars which followed, known as the Punic Wars, lasted, on and off, for more than a century.

The Punic Wars

In the second period, Rome extended her dominion beyond the borders of Italy. Power in the western Mediterranean was shared by Rome, a land power, and the great commercial empire of the Phoenicians. The Phoenician, or as the Romans called it, the Punic, Empire extended along the coast of the western Mediterranean Sea. Its capital, Carthage which had been founded by Dido circa 878 B.C., in northern Africa, controlled the trade of Africa, Spain, and of the islands of Sardinia, Corsica, and part of Sicily.

In 264 B.C., Rome came into conflict with Carthage. The First Punic War began with a Roman invasion of Sicily and an unsuccessful attempt to gain a foothold in Africa. The long struggle ended in 241 B.C. with the defeat of the Punic fleet.

Carthage responded to its defeat by establishing itself in Spain. Seeing that this was bound to arouse Roman antagonism, Hannibal, the Carthaginian viceroy in Spain, decided to take the initiative.

In 218 BC the second Punic War broke out when he led an army of 25,000 through southern France and across the Alps into Italy. The Romans were utterly crushed at Lake Transimene and at Cannae, but they recovered the initiative, expanded their army and developed their navy. In 203 BC Hannibal was forced to abandon Italy. He was pursued to North Africa by Scipio and defeated at Zama the following year.

Although the Punic armies had been beaten, Carthage was still a potential danger to Rome. This theme was reiterated by Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, a Roman senator who closed every speech to the senate with the words, "Carthage must be destroyed!" The period of uneasy peace ended when the third Punic War started in 149 B.C.

In 146 B.C., Roman troops under Scipio Africanus the Younger invaded and destroyed Carthage and massacred most of the population.

By 133 B.C. all of the Mediterranean world was either in Roman hands or submissive to Roman influence. Provinces in the western Mediterranean area, such as those in northern Africa, Spain, Sardinia, and Corsica, adapted themselves to the Roman way of life. However, lands in the East maintained the traditions of their own, far older civilizations, which profoundly influenced Roman culture.

The Late Republic

Rome's brilliant conquests ultimately weakened its political and social structure. The ideals of piety, self-discipline, and duty, which had governed the conduct of Romans in the past, gave way to a love of money, power, and pleasure. Access to the riches of the Mediterranean area widened the gap between prosperous and poor Roman citizens. Most of the new wealth was controlled by members of the senatorial class and by wealthy businessmen.

The small landholders had been the backbone of the early republic and the main source of Rome's armed forces. However, they became impoverished when there was less demand for their agricultural produce because of imports from the new provinces. The damage caused in Italy by Hannibal's armies during the Second Punic War had ruined many small farmers, on whom military service had pressed heavily. Large estates run by slave labor replaced small farms, whose former owners crowded into Rome to seek employment.

Traditionally, the authority of the republic rested with the Roman people, but portions were becoming an idle and often ungovernable mob that would soon be dependent on public doles, swayed by political factions, and ruled by demagogues. Supporters of the wealthy senatorial class were called the optimates, and those claiming to defend the rights of the people were called the populares.

Leadership of the popular and aristocratic factions in Rome passed to the commanders of powerful armies engaged in defending Roman territories. Gaius Marius, a plebeian, rose to prominence as a general in the war against Jugurtha, the king of Numidia. Marius served as consul seven times, in 107 B.C., between 104 B.C. and 100 B.C., and in 86 B.C. The reiteration and continuity of consulships, although legal, was against tradition. Marius made major changes in the army. Property qualification for service in the legions was abolished, and from this time, Roman armies were largely made up of volunteers instead of conscripted soldiers. Reenlistment and longer periods of service became common. In consequence, the soldiers tended to become loyal to an able general and the army was no longer easily controlled by civil authority. The legions could be used by a powerful general in revolt against the state. Marius also made important changes in the tactical structure and equipment of the troops.

The Social War

Under Marius, a popular military leader, the conflict continued, and became linked up with the demands of Italian cities for Roman citizenship. These demands led to the "Social War" (91-88), in which many Italian cities were leagued against Rome. A liberal franchise policy weakened the revolutionaries, and they were defeated.

In 89 B.C. the Consul Sulla marched to Rome at the head of his legions, and defeated the popular party. From now until the Empire, the economic and political problems became no more than weapons used by military leaders for furthering their private ambitions. Sulla was overshadowed by Pompey, whose interest in politics was in winning popular favor in order to obtain lucrative commands. After his departure from Rome in 67 B.C. for the East, there seemed a possibility that the republic might be re-established in something like its old form.

Marius and Sulla

In 105 B.C. a Germanic tribe, the Cimbri, dealt Rome its greatest defeat since the Battle of Cannae in the Second Punic War by destroying ten Roman legions at Arausio in the Rhone river valley. Marius established himself as a national hero in 102 and 101 B.C., when, as consul, he led armies that almost annihilated the Cimbri and another Germanic tribe, the Teutons. However, although he was a remarkable general, Marius was not a statesman and his domestic policies were inept.

In 91 B.C. the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus tried to reward Rome's allies in Italy for their allegiance by granting them Roman citizenship. He was denounced in the senate and assassinated for his efforts. Many Italian cities revolted and formed a confederation. Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a Roman general who had served under Marius in the Jugurthine war and who aided in defeating the rebels in 88 B.C., became the leader of the senatorial aristocrats in civil wars against Marius for political control of Rome.

In his first struggle with Marius, Sulla won command of the Roman legions needed for a campaign against King Mithridates VI of Pontus, in Asia Minor. During Sulla's absence, the Marian, or popular, forces regained power. Marius marched on Rome but died early in his seventh consulship, in 86 B.C. His successor, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, was consul and virtual dictator until 84 B.C. In the next year, Sulla returned to Rome after a successful campaign against Mithridates, and the civil strife continued until 82 B.C., when Sulla had himself proclaimed dictator.

Sulla proceeded with reforms in the government that strengthened the senate and diminished the power of magistrates elected by the people, such as the tribunes and censors. Before he retired from public life in 79 B.C., Sulla ordered thousands of his political enemies put to death, and he seized their property, with which he rewarded his soldiers.

Pompey the Great

Pompey, one of Sulla's supporters, rose to prominence through his successes against Marian forces in Spain. Between 73 and 71 B.C. the wealthy and ambitious Marcus Licinius Crassus crushed a slave revolt in Italy led by the gladiator Spartacus.

Pompey and Crassus became consuls in 70 B.C. and restored the powers of the tribunes that had been taken away by Sulla. The law courts were taken out of the control of the senate and the balance of power swung again to the popular party, on which Pompey counted for support. Pompey refused other offices after his term as consul expired because they did not provide enough scope for his ambition. From 67 B.C. to 62 B.C. he used the extraordinary powers granted him by the popular leaders to clear the Mediterranean Sea of pirates who were threatening Rome's grain supply and to campaign in the East.

While Pompey was gaining prestige through his military exploits, Julius Caesar won support in Rome as leader of the popular party by furnishing games and lavish spectacles for the public. Caesar paid for the entertainments with money that he borrowed from Crassus. It seemed inevitable that Caesar and Pompey would clash, but in 60 B.C. an unofficial coalition called the First Triumvirate was formed by Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus. In the next year, Caesar was elected consul with the help of his partners, forced through measures that benefited Crassus and Pompey, and secured for himself the command of four legions and the proconsulship of Illyri-cum, Cisalpine Gaul, and Transalpine Gaul. In 58 B.C., Caesar left the other triumvirs in Rome and began his conquest of Gaul, where he forged a loyal army and proved to be a brilliant and successful general.

In 55 B.C., Pompey and Crassus served as consuls. After their term of office expired, Crassus took regular proconsular command in Syria and Pompey became proconsul of Spain. Crassus, eager to gain a brilliant military reputation, began a campaign against the Parthians in Mesopotamia and was killed there in 53 B.C.

Caesar and Pompey

Cicero, who was consul (63 B.C.), was neither a supporter of the popular party nor a fanatical upholder of vested interests. A member of the middle class, full of common sense and hatred of corruption and injustice, a scholar and a lawyer, he tried to bring peace to Rome. Though successful in defeating the Catiline conspiracy, he fell before the combined power of the Triumvirate - Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus. The three proceeded to divide the Roman dominions between them, Pompey taking the East, Caesar Gaul, where he became involved in the Gallic Wars, and Crassus taking Syria.

Pompey remained in Rome and governed Spain with legates, or staff officers. He gradually accumulated the power that brought him into a final conflict with Caesar, who by 51 B.C. had launched a short-lived but successful invasion of Britain and had pacified all of Gaul. In 50 B.C. the senate refused Caesar permission to run for the consulship while away from Rome. The senators, to whom Pompey had turned for support, also insisted that Caesar disband his legions. Instead, in 49 B.C., Caesar crossed the Rubicon, a stream that divided Cisalpine Gaul from Italy, and advanced down the peninsula. He marched triumphantly into Rome, granted a general amnesty to Pompey's followers, and had himself elected consul. Pompey was reluctant to stake his chances on an open battle in Italy with Caesar's well-trained forces. He retired to Greece to regroup his army. Caesar followed and in 48 B.C. defeated Pompey on the plain of Pharsalia, or Pharsala, in Thessaly. Pompey fled to Alexandria, where he was killed by order of the Egyptian king Ptolemy XII, who sought Caesar's favor.

When Caesar reached Egypt he secured the Egyptian throne for Cleopatra, Ptolemy's sister and wife. In 47 B.C., Caesar crossed into Asia Minor and invaded Pontus, where he quickly put down a rebellion by Pharnaces II, the son of Mithridates VI. Caesar summed up the speed of the campaign with the terse statement, "Veni, vidi, vici" ("I came, I saw, I conquered"). In Africa and Spain Caesar defeated the remainder of Pompey's forces.

Caesar as Dictator

Caesar received many extraordinary powers, culminating in his becoming dictator perpetuus ("dictator for life"). In the brief periods between battles he rapidly set up an extensive program for reforming the republic. He increased the senate to a total of 900 members, but he also weakened its powers. He inaugurated an extensive program of public works and tried to mitigate the conditions of the impoverished masses, who were packed Into the city's miserable insulae, or tenements. He gave them allotments of land and set up colonies in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean area for them and for his veterans. Among Caesar's many other contributions was the calendar he developed, which, with one alteration, has lasted to the present day.

The senate feared that Caesar intended to abolish the republic and set up a monarchy. Conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus assassinated Caesar in the Senate on the Ides of March (March 15) in 44 B.C.

Second Triumvirate

Mark Antony, Caesar's friend and deputy, inflamed the Roman mob by a funeral oration stressing the benefits Caesar had given them, and the conspirators were forced to flee the city. However, the senate soon began to distrust Antony's ambitions, and the great orator, philosopher, and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero denounced him publicly.

Caesar had nominated as his heir his grandnephew and adopted son Octavian, who was 18 at the time of the assassination. Octavian tried to claim his legacy, and when he was refused it by Antony he illegally levied forces among Caesar's retired veterans in Campania and in 43 B.C. forced the senate to make him consul.

To destroy Caesar's assassins, Octavian joined forces with Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus in the Second Triumvirate. Unlike its predecessor, the coalition was given formal authority to regulate the state for five years. It began with a proscription, in which Cicero was executed in revenge for having opposed Antony. In a reign of terror, 300 senators and about 2,000 prominent citizens of Rome were killed and their assets confiscated. The armies of Antony and Octavian pursued the remaining conspirators. Brutus and Cassius committed suicide after they were defeated in 42 B.C. at the Battle of Philippi, in Macedonia.

It was agreed that Octavian would govern Gaul, Spain, and Illyricum, Antony the East, and Lepidus, Africa. However, the Second Triumvirate soon weakened. Antony lingered in Egypt under Cleopatra's influence while his estranged wife Fulvia and his brother fought Octavian at home in a civil war. Fulvia died in about 40 B.C., when Antony returned to Italy, and Antony married Octavian's sister Octavia. The renewed partnership between Antony and Octavian was made formal by the Treaty of Brundisium, which was signed in 40 B.C.

In 36 B.C., Lepidus came into conflict with Octavian over control of Sicily and was removed from his post. Octavian and Antony remained on good terms for a time, but Antony rejoined Cleopatra and married her, repudiating Octavia and ignoring the growing ill feeling toward him in Rome. Antony made the Egyptian queen and her children heirs to the Eastern provinces. The senate deprived Antony of his command and declared war on Cleopatra. In 31 B.C., Octavian defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium. Antony and Cleopatra fled to Egypt, where they committed suicide. Octavian followed, made Egypt a Roman province, and returned to Rome in triumph in 29 B.C.

With his greatest rival defeated and the power he had gathered in the pursuit of his goals the stage was set for Octavian to become proclaimed Rome's first emperor and named Augustus.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Glen


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