Lecture 7: the Roman Republic

This lecture and the next trace the history of Rome from its origins as a republic through its rise and supposed fall. However, before we get into the details, we need to consider Roman history broadly. What did Rome do to, or for the Mediterranean? What did it mean for the world’s history? To start, we must note that Rome brought systematic government and cultural unity to the entire Mediterranean world, and in doing so it provided a framework for a vigorous commercial and intellectual life. How did it do this? First, Rome was law. (Keep this emphasis in mind throughout this lecture.) Although a multinational empire, Rome was united in a common legal code that was valid in every part of the empire. Seen from the perspective of earlier-empires, which usually comprised a patchwork of laws, this Roman universality was completely new, since all citizens, regardless of place of residence, were subject to the same law. Second, Rome’s legal centralization went together with the expectation that the many citizens would submit to the few that governed. This expectation was enshrined in two key concepts, Imperium and Auctoritas, power and legitimacy. Hence, from the Roman perspective, the central political problem was to guarantee that power was legitimate. Power without legitimacy was abuse of power. But legitimacy also authorized the sometimes brutal use of power. This basic attitude toward power was the foundation on which the Roman world was built.
Before continuing, we also need to consider who the Romans were. First, Romans based their world on the family. Unlike the Greeks, who deliberately shunned private life in order to live in public, the Romans concentrated on domestic concerns. The family and the individual were both defined through Roman law, but the individual was defined through his or her family. Under Roman law the father, or pater familias, had absolute control over his wife and children until the moment of his own death. This socio-legal arrangement was deeply enmeshed with the Roman attitude toward law, for the Roman family was based on hierarchy and patriarchal authority. Although some Roman women wielded great political influence in both the Republic and Empire, their influence was based on the influence of their husbands or fathers. This suggests some further reflections on the Roman character: Romans were not interested in the abstractions that so delighted the Greeks. Neither poets nor philosophers, the Romans were organizers. They built bridges, codified laws, raised armies and created hierarchies. The Romans emphasized structure and cherished such practical values as gravitas, pietas, and fides.
Now let us turn to Rome’s history. According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BC. This date is meaningless. Archeological evidence indicates that people had lived in the area since the 12th century BC. Some time during the sixth century, a group of villages surrounding the area that became the Roman forum united to form a city. This new city borrowed heavily from other peoples. Roman building practices came from Greek cities. Roman writing came from the Etruscans, as did divination. In fact, Rome was originally ruled by Etruscan kings, the last of whom was overthrown in 509 BC, the year that Rome became a republic.
The Roman Republic was based on a conservative political and social structure. Its society was divided into two groups the patricians and the plebeians. Only 5-10% of the population was ever patrician. Patricians dominated public offices, especially the religious ones. But this changed gradually over time. After the last king was overthrown, the Romans set up a governmental system that included an oligarchic Senate and the annual election of two consuls who reported to it. Voting was done by patricians. Consuls were usually members of great families, who had served in a variety of lower offices, before standing for election. They oversaw the daily business of government, while the big issues were decided in the Senate. The Senate, for its part, was never large—by the end of the Republic it comprised only 300 men—and one gained election to it by moving through many inferior posts. Priding itself on being a place of orderly debate, the Senate only allowed its oldest members to speak, and deference to greater experience was expected in the actual voting.
This conservative structure was put to the test, during the fifth century, as Roman society underwent gradual changes that impelled political liberalization. Originally, patricians and plebeians had been forbidden to intermarry. In 445, however, the Senate passed a law, the Lex Camuleia, which allowed intermarriages. Too many plebeians had become rich for this separation to persist. The next step in this slow process was the appearance of the Tribunate, as Rome’s plebeians gained the right to vote two Tribunes into office, each of whom had the power to veto any legislation passed by the Senate. By 367 BC it even became possible for one of the consuls to come from plebeian stock. What I want you to understand is that Rome’s conservatism brought political stability at a time when the city could easily have been rent asunder. Tribunes had to tread carefully lest they offend the Senate. And the Senate had to take note of the plebeians’ concerns, lest their legislation be vetoed. Add to this the growing trend of intermarriage, and we see that early Rome had achieved a basic social consensus.
Political and social stability allowed Rome to grow and prosper. As it became stronger it took over its neighbors, though this process brought new problems. The Romans stemmed from Latium, which was where one spoke Latin. Latin was, however, only one language in a family of related languages call Italic, and as Rome grew it had to absorb many peoples whose language and culture differed from its own. In addition, Rome also confronted non-Italic speakers, such as the Etruscans in the north and Greek speakers in the south.
In 396 BC, Roman armies took the Etruscan capital of Veii, whereupon followed a series of attacks on another people called the Volscians. Originally, these new regions were ruled as subject provinces, but in 338 a broad uprising among the newly subject peoples broke out and was put down by force. In order to prevent any further uprisings, Rome extended citizenship to its subject peoples. This is an important moment in Roman history, one that was fraught with consequences for the future of the entire Mediterranean. From this point on, Rome became an aggressive power, and its interests constantly pulled its armies beyond Rome’s existing borders—a process that extended through the Republic and into the Empire. Rome was, however, also an integrating power, often giving subject peoples opportunities that previous regimes had not provided.
By the early third century, Rome had expanded into the region that was southeast of the city and is now known as the Campania. This was another important moment, for the Campania was a Greek-speaking region, and by invading it Rome entered into a long process that we call Hellenization. This is, for example, when Greek gods entered the Roman pantheon. For example, the Greek god Heracles became Hercules in Rome and was central to Rome’s war ideology. More importantly, this was also the time when Romans encountered the glories of Greek drama, poetry, and philosophy. The resulting cultural efflorescence produced in Latin was every bit as significant and varied as what had been produced in Greek.
In its early stages, Roman expansion and aggression was confined to Italy. The period and the place are important, for it was in Italy that Rome developed standard practices it would use all around the Mediterranean. First, after invading a neighboring territory Rome founded colonies there to ensure that the land would become loyal. Second, unlike past empires, it demanded troops, rather than money from its newly acquired territories. Thus, there appeared the true source of the Roman Republic’s strength: an almost inexhaustible supply of recruits. Over the next few centuries, no matter how bad things looked, Rome always called up more men to fight its increasing list of enemies. By 295 BC Rome controlled almost the entire Italian peninsula. The final glimmer of domestic resistance came in the south in 280 BC, as Tarentum, a Greek city, refused to submit to Rome and called on the Greek King Pyrrhus of Epirus to defend its independence. Pyrrhus answered the call and defeated the Romans in battle, but at such a terrible cost that he was forced to leave Italy. We commemorate Pyrrhus’ ultimate failure in English with the concept “Pyrrhic victory.” By 265, Rome controlled all of Italy.
Rome’s growing power guaranteed that further conflicts arose with the Mediterranean’s other powers. The city’s first great test came with the Punic Wars, a conflict between Rome and Carthage for commercial supremacy in the Mediterranean. The first Punic War broke out in 264 and lasted until 241. The end result was that Rome took the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. We must note this particular acquisition, because with it Rome became a naval power, and this change led in turn to further difficulties. In 218 BC, rising commercial tensions between Rome and Carthage led to another war, the Second Punic War. Two great figures emerged from this conflict, the Carthaginian general Hannibal and the Roman general Scipio Africanus. We will talk more about their conflict in a moment. First, however, as you will recall from the lecture on the Phoenicians, we must note that Carthage had already acquired an empire in Spain, which was important in two respects. First, Spain provided money and iron. Second, it was a staging point for an invasion of Italy.
Hannibal gathered an army in Spain, which included some hundred odd war elephants, and marched it around the Mediterranean coast and across the Alps, before descending on Italy. In 216, he annihilated a Roman army at the Battle of Cannae, and later even made it to the gates of Rome itself. Unfortunately for Hannibal, Rome was so rich that it could allow Hannibal to ravage Italy all he wanted, while the Senators sent armies against Carthage itself. The Carthaginians, for their part, panicked and recalled Hannibal to mount a defense against the man who would be his nemesis, Scipio Africanus. The result was a Carthaginian defeat at the battle of Zama (202 BC). With this defeat, Carthage’s bid for supremacy in the Mediterranean was over. There was a final war against Carthage that lasted from 146 to 142 BC, but it was a purely vindictive campaign incited by the Roman senator Cato the Elder. Cato was extremely suspicious of Carthage’s commercial and naval power, and although the Carthaginians had done nothing to provoke Rome, he still ended every one of his Senate speeches with the phrase Carthago delenda est. (Carthage must be destroyed.) Thanks to Cato’s incitement, Rome attacked Carthage and razed the city to the ground. The last outpost of Phoenician civilization saw its power broken forever.
The Punic Wars are significant for having changed Rome’s social structures dramatically. First, the constant years of warfare changed the face of the Roman army. Whereas, the Roman army had always been manned by the yeoman farmer who fought only during the summer months, the army that emerged from the Punic Wars was a professional mercenary force. Farmers who returned from the Punic wars often found their land had gone fallow or simply been sold, which meant that their economic livelihoods were now tied to the military. Second, the war booty that returned to Rome was unequally distributed. The rich got the largest share and used this money to buy out the remaining farmers. Then they imported captured slaves to work the land. Enormous profits for a select group were the result, and this had an enormous effect on Rome’s social foundations, as yeoman farmers moved to the city, where they became an unruly element in public life.
The social changes took political effect in the rise of two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, to the Tribunate. In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus was elected Tribune, in part, because he supported policies that would reverse this trend. He called for land reform and for a more equitable distribution of war spoils. Each attempt was, however, foiled by the Senate. Then Tiberius made a big mistake, as he interfered in foreign policy, which the Senate had always claimed as its exclusive realm. This interference was too much for Rome’s elite and in 132 some of them had him murdered along with 300 of his supporters. Tiberius Gracchus’ assassination did not, however, resolve Rome’s political dilemma. In 123-22, Tiberius’ brother Gaius was elected Tribune and proposed another reform plan that would have shifted the balance of power from the patricians to the people. He was murdered, too.
The political stalemate resulted, however, in the entrance of a new force into politics, the army. In 103 BC and 100 BC another politician named L. Appuleius Saturninus allied with the Roman general C. Marius in order to provide for landless veterans. This alliance was fraught with consequences for the future, as now Roman generals aligned themselves with large masses of people to become both social reformers and political arbiters. The end result was that Rome’s many soldiers began to owe their allegiance to their generals over the republic.
By 91 BC, the social situation in Rome had reached the boiling point as the Social War began. This was essentially an uprising in Rome that was based on calls for land reform and a broader distribution of war spoils. Rome essentially bought off the rioters by extending citizenship to everyone. By 83 BC the Senate had granted citizenship to everyone on the Italian peninsula.
The injection of mass citizenship into a decaying social structure set the stage for the arrival of Rome’s warlords. Having achieved glory for Rome in combat, the warlords used their power and money to gain influence over Rome’s masses. The two most important were C. Marius and L. Cornelius Sulla. Marius had become famous by winning important victories against Germanic tribes in the north. He then used his power to influence Roman politics, though he did not use force directly. Sulla took that next step. Not a subtle man--it was he who had destroyed Athens in 86 BC--he marched his armies on Rome and assumed the title of dictator, which he kept for two years, rather than the traditional six months. Sulla tried to reorganize Rome on a traditional conservative foundation. He updated the management of the provinces and the army, adding the principle of rotation, so that no governor or general could develop a local powerbase. Then he returned power to the Senate, hoping that it could maintain control. It did not work out that way. The Senate could not prevent the rise of future warlords, and Sulla’s use of violence became the model rather than an exception never to be repeated.
Already by 70BC, the situation had changed dramatically. A Roman general named Pompey, who had grown rich by pacifying Spain was elected consul and promptly agreed to share political power with another general named Marcus Crassus. Pompey’s military successes and a talent for stealing the limelight made him famous, but also inspired powerful enemies. By 62 BC, Cato the Elder was actively thwarting Pompey’s military career in order to save the republic. For his part, Crassus had also grown rich through conquests in the East, and Cato’s machinations against Pompey alienated him. Thus, in 59 BC, he and Pompey joined forces with another powerful general who had just been elected consul, Julius Caesar. This was the start of the First Triumvirate, which was a power-sharing deal that allowed each man to gain lucrative posts as governor or general. The triumvirate ended in 54, when Crassus was killed fighting the Parthians in the east. It was now only a matter of time until Rome descended into civil war.
War broke out in 49 BC, as Caesar, who had been given the lucrative command in Gaul tried to run for consul in absentia, which was forbidden. Claiming that his honor had been wounded, he left his province without the Senate’s permission, already a gross violation of the law, and crossed the Rubicon River with his troops. As Shakespeare said, the die had been cast. Caesar easily defeated Pompey, who then fled to Egypt, where he was captured and executed. Caesar then instituted a series of legal reforms that included the management of colonies, an increase in the grain dole, and a revision of the Roman calendar, all of which centralized power in his hands. A few republican partisans, however, feared Caesar’s accumulation of power and murdered him on March 15, 44 BC.
Caesar’s death did not, however, resolve the problem of civil war and disorder. What little resistance there was to the idea of a strongman rapidly disappeared, as people wished for peace at any cost. In 43 BC, a second triumvirate appeared which consisted of the generals Marc Antony, M. A. Lepidus, and a relative of Caesar’s named Octavian. This triumvirate brought order by killing all its political enemies, including 300 senators and some 2000 equites, or knights. The most famous victim in this purge was the great republican statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero. The triumvirate then divided up the Republic’s provinces into three spheres of influence, each one controlled by one member. Lepidus took Africa. Marc Antony got Egypt and the East. Octavian took Gaul. Lepidus left the triumvirate, when his troops rebelled against him. He then threw his support over to Octavian, leaving only two contenders. It was only a matter of time before another civil war broke out.
The final civil war for control over the republic began with a very unwise move by Marc Antony. Marc Antony was married to Octavian’s sister Octavia. However, in 31 BC, Marc Antony sent a pregnant Octavia back to Rome and publicly announced his relationship with the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. Octavian was able to exploit these moves by portraying them as a break with the Republic’s traditional virtues of family and honor. He garnered public support and mobilized his forces against Marc Antony, defeating him at the battle of Actium in 31 BC. Antony fled to Egypt, leaving his army to fend for itself. He then committed suicide after hearing a false rumor that Cleopatra was dead. Cleopatra was captured, but rather than suffer the indignity of being paraded through Rome she allowed an asp to bite her arm and died. With these two deaths we see the end of two worlds. First, Cleopatra was a direct descendant of Alexander’s general Ptolemy and, as such, was a final remnant of the Hellenistic world. Second, with the civil war’s end the lat remnants of the Roman Republic were also swept away. Rome could only be governed as an empire.