's Ancient Civilizations of the World/The Roman Republic

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SPQR was an acronym used in the Roman Republic to shorten the official name of the government, Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, the Senate and People of Rome

Foundations[edit | edit source]

According to literature, Rome was founded in 753 BCE by the twins named Romulus and Remus. They built their settlements on the Palatine and Aventine hills respectively. (Rome sits on seven hills.) Remus grew jealous of Romulus and mocked the size of the walls he had built, so Romulus killed him. He then named the city after himself and was crowned king. Whether or not this story is true, it highlights the warlike origins of Rome. Around 753 BCE the foundations of one of the most powerful empires in history were laid - one which would shake the very foundations of the world.

The Romans' own accounts and historical evidence suggests that, for several hundred years after its founding, Rome was ruled by kings and emperors. from the nearby land of Etruria. The Etruscans were very oppressive rulers and the Romans desired to rid themselves of their masters. In 509 BCE, the son of the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, raped a noblewoman named Lucretia, and then Lucretia, out of her own humiliation, killed herself. Outraged, her family instigated a revolt that drove the royal house of the Tarquins out of Rome. Lucretia's husband, Lucius Tarquinius Collantis and one Lucius Junius Brutus became the first two consuls of a new republic which they founded. The office of the consul became the chief executive position in the Republic. The title of "king" became so despised that it remained a career-shattering charge until the rise of Julius Caesar and the end of the Republic.

Social Structure and Citizenship[edit | edit source]

The social structure of the Republic was basically divided between two main groups: the patricians, or the wealthy noble class, and the plebeians, the broad mass of peasant citizens. One's class was hereditary, meaning that even if one was lucky enough to be one of the few plebeians who became wealthy and rich(or at least attained enough wealth to be considered middle class), especially as a merchant, one was still considered a plebian. Likewise, some patricians had become almost poor towards the latter end of the Republic. The plebeians were often at odds with the patricians and the class conflict that was generated often saw the patrician nobles granting certain privileges, rights, and concessions to the plebeians in order to keep them under control. In 494 BCE, the plebeians gained the right to elect two Tribunes, who held large amounts of control in the government of the Republic. Later, this number was expanded to ten. Finally, the plebeians were eventually allowed to elect a Concilium Plebis, or "Council of the Plebians" which gave them greater control in legal affairs. Towards the end of the Republic, a new group known as the equites became a powerful and potent force within the Republic, as the result of the actions of the Consul Tiberius Gracchus (more on him later). Note that only men, no matter what class, were able to have authority or hold a political position in Rome.

The Government of the Republic[edit | edit source]

Roman constitution.png

The chief body of the Republic was the Senate. Contrary to popular belief, it held no law-making power, and consisted of an advisory function to the various assemblies, which actually passed the laws. However, the Senate was the most important body in the Republic and the most influential - political careers were made or broken in the Roman Senate. The Senate appointed governors and generals, directed the use of public funds, and received ambassadors on behalf of the city! The Senate also had the important power of empowering the two Consuls to appoint a Dictator (for a period of six months) in times of emergency. The reason was that the people of the Republic realized that in an emergency, especially that of war, democracies are too slow to act effectively (contrast this to heightened power of the American President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War, for instance). The Senate consisted of around 300 members who could be either patricians or plebeians. Usually all magistrates had been Senators at some time.

The executive power in Roman politics was vested in the cursus honorum, which constituted the order of posts one went through in the Roman hierarchy. It comprised a mixture of political and military posts, each having a particular age requirement for election. The cursus honorum began with a period of around ten years of service in the army, especially the calvary (the "equites"). However, this requirement, because of nepotism, was not rigidly applied. In fact, because of the absence of political parties, political advancement came almost exclusively through family ties and personal influence. The next step (or first) after military service was the office of the quaestor, at the minimum age of thirty (men of patrician descent could subtract two years from all age requirements). Quaestors automatically became Senate members; thus, the executive and legislative branches of the Republic were closely intertwined. In total, there were eight to twelve quaestors who served for a period of one year. They directed the financial affairs of the state, as well as supervising the Roman armies and officers. Former quaestors could be elected to one of the four positions of aedile at the age of thirty-six, subtracting two for patricians. Aediles were administrative positions charged with keeping public order and enforcing the law. Half of the aediles came from the plebeian class and half from the patrician class. This step in the cursus honorum was optional. At the age of thirty-nine, former quaestors and aediles might be elected as one of six praetors, who had several functions. Some held judicial positions; others served as governors of provinces not controlled by the consuls and commanded up to one legion. The chief officers of the Republic were the two consuls, who held the highest powers in the government. They were elected once a year and had to be at least forty-two years of age. No one could be elected consul again except after a ten-year intervening period between consulships. The consuls controlled the city's political agenda, commanded the largest divisions in the army, and were in charge of important provinces. Each had veto power of the actions of the other. In addition to the these offices, there were two censors in the political hierarchy of Rome. These former consuls held incredible power, because they conducted the census of Rome, which gave them power of who belonged to which "tribe" (not ethnic but bureaucratic), and controlled the roll of the Senate, giving them power over its membership. They were elected every five years and served an eighteen month term (the only office not serving a one year term). Another important position in Rome was that of tribune, a position held by aspiring plebeians which allowed them to balance out the power of the patricians.

Most officials in the Roman government held the power of imperium, which meant absolute executive power, except by the veto of one possessing a higher level of imperium. Imperium meant holding the power of life or death over the people. Beginning with the position of aedile, imperium was a great honor that carried with it the privilege of lictors. Lictors were special servants who accompanied magistrates and served them. The number of lictors was symbolic of the power of the office held. Lictors carried with them the faces, a bundle of sticks with an axe within. Inside of the city of Rome itself, the axe was usually removed and the number of lictors reduced, because the power to wield capital punishment towards Roman citizens was reserved for the consuls and the dictator.

Expansion and Conquest[edit | edit source]

753-202 BCE[edit | edit source]

The early centuries of the republic heralded its rise to prominence in the Italian peninsula. The tiny city-state was blessed with adept leadership and brilliant innovation. In the period of 753-275 BCE, most Italians practiced the Greek style of Hoplite warfare with phalanxes. The Romans, who used the style initially, found it unwieldy and hard to manage in the mountainous and broken terrain of Italy. So, they adopted the Legion. The Legion was a band of recruited militia and made up of 6,000 soldiers, brought up in times of war from the middle and rich classes. Since Rome was a military state, these soldiers' battle skills were without question and they often served in the army for 7-10 years, before being disbanded at the end of the conflict. These citizen militias fought hard and received good pay and spoils of war if they succeeded in battle. Through this method, the Romans conquered or allied with all the Italian city states south of the Po river by 275 BCE.

Scipio Africanus the Elder
Coin depicting Hannibal

However, Rome's success attracted the eyes of other powers in the region. Carthage, the Phoenician colony in modern day Tunisia, was already an established trading power and commanded a wealthy realm. Rome and Carthage grew increasingly hostile over the place of Sicily in each other's sphere of influence and in 263 BCE, Carthage and Rome went to war. Rome defeated Carthage and her large fleet, without ever having fought a naval battle before, and conquered Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia. The terms of the peace for Carthage were so extreme, that a young boy named Hannibal, son of one of Carthage's finest generals, felt immense hatred towards Rome. Later on, he became a high ranking Carthaginian general, and after amassing a force in Spain, marched across the Alps to attack Rome in 222 BCE, essentially starting the Second Punic War. After making it through the mountains, Hannibal's army swept through Italy defeating every Roman army it came across, including one with more than twice their numbers at the Battle of Cannae. However, the Romans continued to fight on. A promising Roman general, Publilius Cornelius Scipio "Africanus", came up with the strategy of drawing Hannibal away by invading Carthaginian Spain. The plan worked to a degree, and within a year he had conquered all of Spain, essentially isolating Hannibal. He then took the fight to Carthage itself, and at the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE, Hannibal and Carthage were defeated. This time, the Romans stripped Carthage of everything, and reduced its empire to the area directly around the city. Even her independence wasn't guaranteed by Rome and in the Third Punic War in 146 BCE, the city of Carthage was sacked, its inhabitants enslaved, and the rest burned.

215-133 BCE[edit | edit source]

Roman expansion East started in the Second Punic War when the Carthaginians asked the Antigonid dynasty of Macedonia, one of Alexander's Successor Kingdoms, to assist them in defeating the Powerful Romans. Needing to maintain peace on all fronts to focus on defeating their other Greek rivals, the Macedonians declared war in 215 BCE. This First Macedonian War had little fighting, but it forced the Romans to think of their neighbors to the east with an eye of suspicion. After this war, the cities of Rhodes and Pergamum both sent emissaries to the Romans informing them of a secret plot of invasion by Macedon. Thus sparked the Second Macedonian War 200-196 BCE, saw the Romans attack Macedon to quench any expansionism by the Antigonids. The Romans allied with the Aetolian League, a band of Greek city states who also distrusted Macedon. The war ended quickly and decisively and forced a peace and Macedonian neutrality. When the spoils of territory were assigned the Aetolian League received less territory then they believed they deserved, they invited the other Successor Kingdom, the Seleucid Empire to take over Greece from the Romans. This Seleucid War was finished at the battle of Magnesia where the Romans under Scipio "Africanus" crushed the army of the Seleucid king at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BCE. Thus, Rome gained a foothold in Asia Minor to be expanded upon later, and ensured the decay of the Seleucid Empire. The last bid for Greek independence were the Third and Fourth Macedonian Wars 172-168 150-148 where the Macedonians fought against the Romans in a bid for supremacy. They lost the Battle of Pydna in 148 BCE and were forced to acknowledge Roman domination. After all this destruction in the east, the king of Pergamum attempted to defuse a succession crisis in his nation by bequeathing it to the Romans. After his death in 133 BCE, his entire kingdom was granted to Rome and the wealth it contained would lead to darker times in the Republic.

The Shift from Greek to Roman Dominance[edit | edit source]

The Mediterranean civilizations of Greek and Rome were dominant during the Classical Era. When the Roman Empire began to expand and conquered Greece, it adopted many of its customs, but also changed some parts of Greek society in order to fit the larger empire. The main factors in the change from Greek to Roman dominance were in the political structure, the religion, and the types of intellectual and technological advancements.

Rome inherited some of its political characteristics from the Greeks. In Greece there were various forms of government. In the city-state of Athens, democracy was invented, and a small empire of colonies was created (Stearns 73, 81). However, Sparta, another major city-state, was ruled by a militaristic aristocratic council (Stearns 73). Rome borrowed political structure from both of these forms of government, but also created some new policies of its own. When the Roman Republic began, it was an aristocratic council, but elected public officials to represent the general population (Stearns 73). When Rome became an empire it "allowed political autonomy in many states in order to keep its vast empire intact" (Stearns 80). The shift from Greek to Roman politics included many small changes.

The Greeks and Romans shared the same religion. The Greeks began a polytheistic religion that spread throughout their civilizations but did not extend to other parts of the world (Stearns 76). The Greek religion had "a complex religion of many gods and goddesses who regulated human life" (Stearns 76). These gods controlled natural forces as well as human emotions. Romans had the same religions as the Greeks, but they adapted it to suit their own needs. They used the same gods and goddesses as the Greeks, but they gave the gods different names (Stearns 76). The Romans also propagated the religion throughout the empire allowing it to spread more widely (Stearns 76). Although there were some slight changes in the main religion during the shift from Greek to Roman dominance, the religion remained essentially the same.

The technological and intellectual advancements were very different because of the basic Greek or Roman worldview. The Greeks were hypothetical thinkers who were mainly concerned with natural order (Stearns 77). This meant that Greek advancements were mostly intellectual. Most achievements were in science or mathematics “as a means of ordering nature’s patterns comprehensible” (Stearns 77). Romans were much more practical. They had wonderful engineering achievements including the creation of roads and aqueducts (Stearns 78). The Romans' engineering accomplishments were a vital factor of the Roman Empire. The technological advancements and the intellectual achievements made in the shift of cultural dominance are present in today’s academic theories and structural triumphs.

During the shift from Greek to Roman dominance many changes were made, but some similarities existed between the two cultures. The Romans borrowed many of their features from Greeks. Their political structures, religion, and intellectual and technological achievements united the two civilizations. This shift was also reflected in the languages spoken, the Western half of the empire would become Latinized, while the Eastern half would largely remain Greek speaking.

Julius Caesar[edit | edit source]

Julius Caesar was a powerful Roman politician who lived from 13 July 100 BCE – 15 March 44 BCE. His actions paved the way for his adopted son Octavian (later known as Augustus) Caesar to transform the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.