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The Roman Republic (Latin: Res Publica Romanorum) was the representative government of Rome and its territories from 510 BC until the establishment of the Roman Empire, sometimes placed at 44 BC (the year of Caesar's appointment as perpetual dictator) or, more commonly, 27 BC (the year that the Roman Senate granted Octavianus the title "Augustus").
The city of Rome stands on the Tiber River very near the west coast of Italy. It marked the northernmost border of the territory in which the Latin language was spoken and the southern edge of Etruria, the territory in which the Etruscan language was spoken.
- Government institutions:
The Romans observed two principles for their officials: annuality or the observation of a one-year term and collegiality or the holding of the same office by at least two men at the same time. The supreme office of consul, for instance, was always held by two men together, each of whom exercised a power of mutual veto over any actions by the other consul. If the Roman army took the field under the command of the two consuls they alternated days of command. Most other offices were held by more than two men — in the late Republic there were 8 praetors a year and 20 quaestors.
The dictators were an exception to annuality and collegiality, and the censors to annuality. In times of emergency (always military) a single dictator was elected for a term of 6 months to have sole command of the state. On a regular but not annual basis two censors were elected: every five years for a term of 18 months.
The legion formed the backbone of Roman military power.
History of the Republic
The legendary founding of Rome — 753 BC
The Roman monarchy was often seen as the time when Rome rose from its founding on the Tiber to becoming one of the foremost cities in all of Italy. The twins Romulus and Remus, sons of the god Mars himself, are said to have been the legendary founders of Rome, set as April 21, 753 B.C. Through a period of 243 years, the Roman state grew in population with the annexations of the Sabines and the Alba Longans, founded by Aeneas's son Iulus, by military aggression. The last three kings of Rome were of Etruscan origin, whose influence could greatly be seen on Roman architecture and art. The expulsion of the last king in 510 B.C. set up the Roman Republic, with the Roman leaders Brutus and Collatinus as the republic's first consuls.
The foundation of the Republic — 509 BC
Livy's version of the establishment of the Republic states that the last of the Kings of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus ("Tarquin the proud") had a thoroughly unpleasant son, Sextus Tarquinius, who raped a Roman noblewoman named Lucretia. Lucretia compelled her family to take action by gathering the men, telling them what happened, and killing herself. They then were compelled to avenge her, and led an uprising that drove the royal house, the Tarquins, out of Rome to take refuge in Etruria.
Lucretia's husband Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus and Lucius Junius Brutus gained election as the first two consuls, the chief officers of the new Republic. (The Marcus Junius Brutus who assassinated Julius Caesar claimed descent from this first Brutus).
The early consuls took over the roles of the king with the exception of his high priesthood in the worship of Jupiter Optimus Maximus at the huge temple on the Capitoline Hill. For that duty the Romans elected a Rex sacrorum or "king of holy things." Until the end of the Republic the accusation that a powerful man wanted to make himself king remained a career-shaking charge. (Julius Caesar's assassins claimed after they acted that they were preserving Rome from the re-establishment of an explicit monarchy.)
Patricians and plebeians
The people of Rome were divided into patricians and plebeians. The two classes were ancestral and inherited. One's class was fixed by birth rather than by wealth, and though patricians had in the early Republic monopolized all political offices and probably most of the wealth, there are always signs of wealthy plebeians in the historical record, and many patrician families had lost both wealth and any political influence by the later Republic. By the 2nd century BC the classifications had meaning predominantly in religious functions — many priesthoods remained restricted to patricians.
The relationship between the plebeians and the patricians sometimes came under such a strain that the plebeians would secede from the city — they literally left the city, took their families and movable possessions, and set up camp on a hill outside the walls. Their refusal to co-operate any longer with the patricians led to social changes on each occasion. In 494 BC, only about 15 years after the establishment of the Republic, the plebeians for the first time elected two leaders, to whom they gave the title Tribunes. The "plebs" took an oath that they would hold their leaders 'sacrosanct' or inviolate during their terms of office, and that the united plebs would kill anyone who harmed a tribune. The second secession led to further legal definition of their rights and duties and increased the number of tribunes to 10. The final secession gave the vote of the Concilium Plebis or "Council of the Plebeians" the force of law. It is important to note that this force of law was binding for both patricians and plebians, and in fact made the Council of the Plebians the leading body for approving Roman laws.
The Building of the Republic
Throughout the 4th century B.C. the Romans fought a series of wars with their neighbors, most notably the Sabines, who became their principle enemies on the Italian mainland. Eventually they came to head the Latin League, a coalition of city-states in the area of Latium, the region of which Rome is now the heart. Serious set-backs did occur to Rome during this time. In 390 B.C. the Gauls from the Po Valley sacked and burnt the city, requiring a huge ransom from the Romans to avoid completely destroying it (the phrase "Woe to the vanquished" arises from when a Roman senator protested to a Gallic chief that the weights used to measure the ransom of gold were innaccurate, at which point the chief threw his sword onto the weights and uttered the famous words).
In 283 Pyrrhus of Epirus arrived to help the Greek colony of Tarentum against the Romans. Pyrrhus was widely considered the greatest military mind since Alexander the Great, but in a series of three battles was unable to break the Roman Republic, winning each one but taking irreplacable losses as he did so. The term "Pyrrhic victory" comes from these battles when Pyrrhus was supposed to have uttered the phrase "Another such victory and we are lost." When Pyrrhus withdrew to fight wars in Sicily and Greece, the Romans won an important international victory and started to gain the attention of the Hellenistic superpowers in the East.
By 268 BC the Romans were dominant in Italy through a network of allies, conquered states, colonies, and strategic garrisons. At that time Rome started to look outwards from Italy and towards the islands of the Meditteranean.
The Punic Wars
(See main article: Punic War)
As soon as Rome had consolidated control of Italy, it had to face down the serious threat from Carthage in a series of three wars (264-241 BC, 218-202 BC, and 149-146 BC) that resulted in Rome becoming the most powerful state in Europe, a status it would retain until its fall in the 5th century AD.
Carthage, a Phoenician colony on the coast of what is now Tunisia (near modern Tunis), was a powerful city-state with a large empire in 264 BC, and, with the exception of Rome, the strongest country in that area of the Meditteranean. Its navy was, east of Athens, without competition, and easily bested any naval force they went up against. But its army was sorely lacking. Its citizens rarely fought directly against their enemies on land, but rather used the huge wealth they gained from trade to hire mercenaries to fight their wars for them. As a result, they had no professional army and were at a severe disadvantage whenever they went up against someone who did.
In Sicily the first war broke out between Rome and Carthage, resulting in, at first, a series of victories for Carthage until Rome refitted its navy using a captured Carthaginian vessel as a model. The war ended when the two signed a treaty giving Rome control of Sicily, but in 238 BC the mercenary troops of Carthage revolted and Rome took the opportunity to capture Corsica away from Carthage.
Carthage spent the following years rebuilding, especially its empire in Spain, under the Baracas family, the most famous member being Hannibal, who supposedly swore an oath on an altar never to give the Romans a moment's peace. In 221 BC Hannibal attacked a Roman ally in Spain, Saguntum, and the second Punic War began after Carthage refused to dismiss Hannibal from service. Hannibal then led a large force of Gauls, mercenaries, and Spanish troops into Italy, resulting in sixteen years of back-and-forth fighting between Rome and Hannibal. At the Battle of Cannae, widely seen as the most perfect battle ever fought, Hannibal destroyed an entire Roman army with little loss to himself, but could not turn the Italian allies against Rome or break through Rome's walls.
Scipio Africanus, a young Roman commander, took control of the war in Spain, captured the Carthaginian Spanish cities, and then invaded Africa itself. Hannibal returned to face down the invaders, and at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC the Romans finally defeated Hannibal in open battle. Carthage sued for peace and Rome isolated the city by reducing it only to Africa and forcing it to pay a huge indemity. Hannibal took a leadership role in yet again rebuilding Carthage, and succeeded so well that Rome forced him to flee to Asia Minor, where he committed suicide years later trying to avoid Roman agents.
Carthage was by no means finished, however. It managed to pay off the debt owed to the Romans quickly. Soon it showed alarming signs of strength again, and it was Cato the Elder who, years after the Second Punic War had been won, ended his speeches by saying "I also think that Carthage must be destroyed!" (Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.). In 149 BC, Rome, fearful that Carthage might become a serious threat again, demanded Carthage demolish the city walls and the city itself and move inland into Africa. The Carthaginians refused and Rome declared war, placing command to Scipio Aemilianus, who besieged the city for three long years before breaching the walls and sacking Carthage, even, according to legend, going so far as to sow salt into the earth so that nothing might ever grown again in Carthage. Afterwards, the survivors were sold into slavery, and Carthage as an independent power was no more.
Rome's military and diplomatic successes around the Mediterranean resulted in new and unaccustomed pressures on the structures of the old city-state. While factional strife had become a traditional part of Roman life, the stakes were now far higher; a corrupt provincial governor could enrich himself far beyond anything his ancestors imagined possible, and a successful military commander needed only the support of his legions in order to rule vast territories. In addition, small landowners were displaced in favor of large slave-run estates, resulting in large numbers of unemployed urbanites.
Beginning with the agrarian reform of Tiberius Gracchus in 133, the political convulsions became more and more severe, resulting in a series of dictatorships, civil wars, and temporary armed truces during the next century. Much of the political record of this period has survived, and we are able to understand it in some depth.
Gracchus' reform was simply to put more land in the hands of veterans, but ominously, his Senatorial opponents responded to his political machinations by killing him in the street. His younger brother Gaius Gracchus continued the reform efforts, promoted the extension of the franchise to all the cities of Italy, and established the equites as a new force in Roman politics.
A conservative reaction brought power back to the Senate, but they prosecuted the Jugurthine War of 112-105 so poorly, on top of a slave war in Sicily, and losses at the hands of Germanic tribes, of whom the Cimbri destroyed consular armies at the Battle of Arausio in 105. Rome was saved by Marius, who held multiple consulships 103-101 while defeating the Teutones at Aquae Sextiae (102) and the Cimbri near Vercellae in the following year. But Marius' military reforms had resulted in an army of proletarian volunteers with no special love for the Senate, and Marius' political allies used the army to threaten the Senate into passing laws reducing the Senate's power. Marius curbed his own allies, and took himself into lesser positions.
Again the Senate proved itself unequal to its role, and failed to deal with the growing discontent of the allies in Italy. After the reformer Livius Drusus was assassinated in 91, almost all of the Italian allies of Rome rebelled in what the Romans called the Social War (allies = Socii, related to the English "associates"). The Romans were only able to end the war in 88 by granting citizenship to all Italians living south of the Po River.
At the same time, Mithridates VI of Pontus overran Bithynia, the latest of several provocations which, this time, forced Rome to act. But Marius and Sulla contended over the command of the army, ending with Sulla marching on Rome with several legions, outlawing his opponents and passing laws favoring the Senate. Sulla then went to Greece, defeated Mithridates at Chaeronea in 86, then returned in 83 to overthrow Marius' ally Cinna. In the following year, Sulla secured appointment as dictator and used the post to reduce the power of the tribunes and the army, although the changes did not long survive his voluntary retirement in 79.
Large-scale agriculture in the Italian peninsula came to depend on slavery in the latifundia system, and was rocked by a severe slave revolt (the Third Servile War) led by Spartacus that lasted from 73 BC to 71 BC.
Spartacus was a deserter from the Roman legions, and was trained as a Thracian gladiator. In 73 BC he and some of his comrades rebelled at Capua and fled towards mount Vesuvius. The rebel numbers quickly grew to about 70,000, comprising mainly Thracian, Gaul and Germanic slaves.
Initially, Spartacus and his second in command Crixus succeeded in defeating several legions sent against them piecemeal. Once a unified command was established under Licinius Crassus who had six legions, the rebellion was crushed in 71 BC. About 10,000 slaves fled the battlefield.
The fleeing slaves were intercepted by Pompey who was returning from Spain, and 6000 were crucified along Via Appia from Capua to Rome. Although Crassus did most of the fighting against the rebels, Pompey claimed the victory. This was a source of tension between the two men.
In the final analysis, once the Romans found the right leadership the rebels were quickly defeated. This does not subtract from the achievement of Spartacus, who was able to unite a band of slaves into a fighting force capable of defeating several legions. The whole incident showed the weakness of the Senate and the regime of the late Roman Republic.
The end of the Republic
In the end, the Roman world became too large and complicated for the structures of the republic to cope, and after a period of civil war, which ended at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Augustus Caesar established the form of government that would later be regarded as the Roman Empire; with himself as its first Emperor of Rome. The transition from Republic to Empire was swift, yet subtle; rather than making a direct grab for power after the civil wars, Augustus' first political move was to support the return of power to the Senate in 27 BC. Augustus was granted the Consulship. Seeking more power, and with the aid of a Senate planted with Senators who sided with him, Augustus was granted the power of the tribune and also imperium proconsulare maius, or supreme authority. 23 BC is the year that Augustus became the first of what historians now call an Emperor of Rome; the title that was used for him in his time was "First Citizen". A brilliant propagandist, he was very careful to cloak his takeovers in republican disguises. Augustus led Rome to great prosperity and four decades of civic peace. A generation of Romans were born and died in the course of his forty-five years as First Citizen, and this was now all that the people knew rather than the old days of the Republic. As such, the way was clear for Augustus to appoint a successor to his powers and the Republic was then lost.
If there is a point after which the Roman Republic was doomed to Empire, it was the killing of the Gracchi. Both killings were probably illegal by the laws of the time. The murders showed that disputes about power in Rome would be settled by force and only in the interests of those who could use force; not by principles nor in the interests of the whole population. Marius, Sulla, Julius Caesar and Octavian (later known as Augustus) learned this lesson and applied it more effectively than the Senators.
But the killing of the Gracchi was a symptom of a more fundamental problem - the optimates, the aristocratic faction which had always dominated the Senate, had never completely accepted that plebeians (commoners) had rights. For example, Gaius Gracchus' reforms were motivated by his observation that military service had ruined many small farmers, so that their farms were taken over by the large landowners and the impoverished veterans became part of the unstable urban mob. This was not a new problem, in fact it was one of the triggers for the First Secession of the Plebs (what we would call a 'general strike') in 494BC. For centuries the Senators ignored this and other issues which might lead to a reduction in their privileges - for example they allowed to fall into disuse the Licinian-Sextian Laws (367BC), which limited the amount of public land one family could use for its own benefit. Gaius Gracchus' proposals were largely a rather moderate way of re-applying the Licinian-Sextian Laws.
The Senate faced two severe problems which even modern governments find very difficult; structural unemployment and a rapid change in the distribution of wealth. After the Second Punic War (218-201BC) Rome's campaigns in Greece and Asia Minor brought into the city large numbers of educated slaves. Rome's wealthiest men bought these slaves and used them as craftsmen and administrators, which destroyed a lot of small businesses and forced their bankrupt proprietors to become part of the urban mob. But the arrogance and greed of the aristocratic Senators made it impossible for them to solve these problems, or even to face them.
In the end, the only people in Rome who had any stake in the Republic were the aristocrats, and the lack of wider support left the Republic at the mercy of any competent general with loyal troops.
Political bodies of the Republic
Political institutions of the Republic
- Pontifex Maximus
- Princeps senatus
- Cursus honorum
Figures of the Republic
- Punic wars
- Macedonian wars
- Hannibal — see Carthage
- Scipio Africanus Major
- Scipio Aemilianus
- Cato the Censor
- Ahenobarbus family
- Julius Caesar
- Gracchi (Tiberius)
- Gracchi (Gaius)
- C. Marius
- Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus
- Marcus Licinius Crassus
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
Latin literature of the Republic
- Julius Caesar
- Fabius Pictor
- Livius Andronicus
Tourist resorts in the Republic
- Grout, James: Encyclopaedia Romana (http://itsa.ucsf.edu/~snlrc/encyclopaedia_romana/index.html)
- Sinnigen, William G.; Boak, Arthur E. R.: A History of Rome to 565 A.D., Macmillan.bs:Rimska Republika
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