Royal Period and Republic




by Christian Schaller

Royal Period and Republic




by Christian Schaller

Royal Period and Republic




by Christian Schaller

Introduction to Roman History.
Part 1: Royal Period and Republic (753-27 BC)

Every mighty river once begins as a small spring. So before all roads were to lead to Rome, the eternal city on the Tiber experienced a chequered history. More than once, the destruction of Rome was imminent in those early centuries. For a long time, there was nothing to indicate that the small farming settlement would one day be the mistress of dozens of provinces and peoples. The development from a city-state to a world empire took almost seven centuries and went through several fundamental reforms and political systems. In the beginning, of course, there was the legendary founding of the city by the twins Romulus and Remus, who were abandoned as children and fed by a she-wolf. Romulus was followed by two hundred years of kingship. The history of the city of Rome only became concrete after the expulsion of the last king and the beginning of the Roman Republic in 509 BC. For more than 100 years, the battles between the estates, i.e. between the upper class and the commoners, dominated daily life. This was followed by the attainment of hegemony in Italy and the subsequent conquest of the Mediterranean region. The greatest adversary here was the Phoenician city of Carthage in North Africa. The last century before Christ, the time of the late republic, was then marked by civil wars, dictators and the decline of the republican constitution. The famous dictator Gaius Julius Caesar was eventually succeeded by his nephew Octavian. He ended the civil wars and became the first emperor of the Roman Empire. In 27 BC, Octavian was given the honorary title of Augustus (Latin for “the exalted”) by the Senate of Rome. Although he formally restores the Republic, the actual power remains with him and then with his successors. The Roman Republic is replaced by the Principate, i.e. imperial rule.

Archaic Rome and the Royal Period (753-510 BC)

Shortly before the turn of the century, the Roman poet Virgil, quasi court scribe to the first emperor Augustus, wrote his work “Aeneid” – a kind of national epic for the Romans. The main character is the hero Aeneas, who has to flee from his burning hometown of Troy and arrives in Italy after a long odyssey. Centuries later, his descendant, the king’s daughter Rhea Silvia, gives birth to the twins Romulus and Remus. Their father is the Roman god of war Mars. Rhea Silvia’s father, King Numitor, however, had been dethroned by his brother Amulius. Fearing disputes over the throne, the two were abandoned by him, but were nurtured by a she-wolf at her breast and subsequently raised by the royal swineherd. When they learned of their true origins, they killed the reigning king Amulius and reinstated their dethroned grandfather Numitor. As a reward, they were granted the right to found a city. By a flight of birds, it was decided that Romulus would be allowed to choose the name of the new settlement. The eternal city of Rome was born.

The day of the city’s foundation is said to have been 21 April 753 BC. The next six kings are described as great rulers, all of whom contributed significantly to the development of the young empire – for example, promoting religion, reorganising the army or enacting laws. The last king, Tarquinius Superbus, however, was a tyrant who was forcibly expelled from Rome in 510 BC by a popular uprising. Now began the long epoch of the Roman Republic, which was to last until Augustus.

Romulus und Remus; Pixabay Licence, © Matthias_Lemm

These are, of course, only founding myths and legends. Archaeological findings now paint a clearer picture of the origins of the world empire. Around 1000 BC, the Latine and Sabine tribes settled in the area of the Tiber River. The soil was fertile and trade could be conducted across the river. Small farming settlements sprang up on the legendary seven hills, which were better able to defend themselves thanks to their strategic elevation. The Tiber also formed a border to the sphere of influence of the Etruscans in the north. This highly developed people shaped the culture of the Romans – for example, through their belief in gods or their feasts. They then extended their influence in the seventh century. From around 600 BC, Etruscan petty kings probably ruled over the growing Rome. They built walls, sewers, temples and a marketplace. The city grew into a regional centre by the end of this early royal period. The end of kingship is also likely to be a euphemistic lie: In fact, a tyranny was also overthrown in Athens in 510, which is probably why this date was artificially constructed in later times to align with Athens’ history. The actual beginning of the Roman Republic is dated by historians to around 474 BC.

The Struggles of the Estates and the Society of the Early Roman Republic

The Senate, a body that had previously only advised the Roman king, now assumed responsibility for government after the ruler’s expulsion. The senators were patricians and thus all belonged to the aristocratic upper class. All political and economic power was theirs alone. Similar to archaic-classical Greece, however, this quickly led to tensions with the commoners, craftsmen and peasants, who always made up the absolute majority of Roman society. As plebeians, they formed the antithesis to the patricians. From as early as 500 BC, Rome was increasingly at war with its neighbours. The conscripted plebeian foot soldiers always formed the backbone of the army. This was increasingly used by the common people to gain more rights. Conscientious objection remained a good means of exerting pressure on the nobility for almost two hundred years. Around 450 BC, the Twelve Table Law was created and displayed in twelve bronze tablets on the Roman Forum. They were the first public laws and applied to both patricians and plebeians. A few years later, marriages between the two estates were also permitted for the first time.

Forum Romanum; Pixabay Licence, © SCAPIN

The plebeians founded their own popular assembly and elected tribunes of the people to represent and protect their rights. Their decisions were also recognised as valid laws from 287 BC. The humiliating debt bondage had been abolished and all offices of the republic could now also be held by plebeians. The upper class was now supplemented by wealthy plebeians.

Rome now had a kind of constitution, even if women, slaves and foreigners were excluded from it, similar to Greece. Once a year, the people’s assembly elected the Roman magistrates. The career of office was hierarchical – first one became quaestor, then aedile, then praetor and in the best case consul. In times of need, the consuls could appoint a dictator for six months, who had unlimited power and command over all troops. These magistrates could then propose laws. In parallel, there was still a plebeian assembly, which also elected ten tribunes of the people annually. These could not only propose laws, but also had the right to veto the magistrates and the senate. The latter in turn consisted of 300 former magistrates and wealthy patricians. One was a senator for life – the Latin word senex, from which senate is derived, even means “old man”. In the republic, they determined policy, prepared laws, watched over the state treasury and could declare a state of emergency.

The conquest of Italy and the Mediterranean region

The economic and political concessions put an end to the struggles between the estates and brought stability to the state. In the period that followed, Rome was able to flourish and – above all – expand. As early as the fifth century BC, the Romans successively conquered the cities and landscapes of central Italy. They were not always superior and victorious – the development of the city-state into a world empire was anything but secure and self-evident. The Etruscans still ruled in the north, Celts settled in the Po river plain and southern Italy was littered with powerful Greek cities. The Battle of the Allia in 387 BC was a particularly severe blow, which even went down in Rome’s history as a “black day”. At that time, the Celts advanced as far as central Italy, devastating the Romans and besieging the Capitol in Rome for seven months. They pillaged and plundered the city and left a psychological mark that was to last for a long time. The Romans then reformed their army and built a new city wall. Rome was never to be besieged or destroyed again – and indeed the Eternal City was spared until late antiquity. Ultimately, even the later conquest of Gaul under Caesar and the foothills of the Alps under Augustus can be interpreted as a late effect of this collective trauma to protect the Roman heartland and eradicate the old enemies.

Rome established itself as a tight, functioning state with a well-trained army that constantly updated and adapted its equipment, tactics and strategy. Rome quickly understood how to learn from its dwindling defeats and, through a mixture of diplomacy and force, sooner or later emerged victorious. From 280 to 275, the so-called Pyrrhic War represented a high point in Roman history. The Romans were able to annex the Greek city states in southern Italy. Large parts of Italy were now under Rome’s control and the first step towards becoming a great power had been taken. With this, however, a far greater and more dangerous competitor emerged. The Phoenician city of Carthage in North Africa held supremacy in the western Mediterranean. Sardinia, Corsica and Sicily belonged to the sphere of influence of the powerful trading metropolis and now quickly became a bone of contention. In the three Punic Wars (264-241 BC, 218-201 BC and 149-146 BC), Carthage’s power was pushed back further and further and the city was finally destroyed. At the same time, Rome interfered more and more in the politics of the other empires and nations around the Mediterranean from 200 BC at the latest. Macedonia’s dominance over Greece was broken, the Seleucid Empire had to cede large parts of Asia Minor after the Roman-Syrian War, and Ptolemaic Egypt also became increasingly dependent on the Romans. After the Second Punic War, during which the famous military leader Hannibal inflicted heavy defeats on Rome, large parts of Spain also fell to Rome. The entire Mediterranean region thus gradually came under the unchallenged hegemony of Rome in the second and at the latest the first century BC Through the conquest of this vast, multicultural area, Roman society also found itself increasingly exposed to foreign – above all Hellenistic – cultural influences. The Roman patricians mainly copied the fashion and customs of the Greeks. The first conservative voices were raised, chiding the decline in morals and the over-foreignisation. Roman culture was, of course, at no time firmly closed. It was always a mirror of the current political situation. While simplicity still prevailed in the early Republic, the late Republic was already producing cultural highlights – monumental architecture was built, refined festive and culinary culture was celebrated and noble clothing and fabrics were worn for show. The more the empire expanded, the more exotic and luxurious everyday life became. Of course, this was by no means true for all classes of the population – the vast majority was and remained poor. Simple food such as puls, a cereal porridge made from spelt, still ended up on the tables of the peasants and craftsmen. Just as culture and everyday life changed, so did the military and the economy of the empire. The army was repeatedly reformed, the arsenal of weapons expanded and adapted.

The Romans were incredibly good at copying and adopting everything they liked or found practical. This included not only luxury goods or military equipment, but even gods. For example, in many provinces – even north of the Alps and in German-speaking countries – Roman temples to Isis, the mother of the gods, which was actually ancient Egyptian, can be found. The Roman Republic had expanded excessively and was now showing its first cracks after centuries. The time of the crisis-ridden late Republic and the Roman Civil Wars (133-30 BC) began.

Mausoleum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence; Pixabay Licence, © guy_dugas

The Late Republic – Civil Wars and Dictators

In the last century before Christ, Rome was without doubt already a world empire. External enemies continued to exist throughout this period, but a major problem was now increasingly lurking within: Roman society was seething and dissatisfied. More and more powerful men were reaching for power, thereby willingly destroying old structures and political stability. The many wars had changed Rome. While the conscripted men fought all over the Mediterranean, the women had to cultivate the fields and farms. More and more impoverished people flocked to the glittering capital. It is estimated that Rome became the first city in human history to be home to a million people. The rural refugees hired themselves out by doing odd jobs, but increasingly they also sold their votes in the popular assembly to rich politicians. Beneath the surface, Rome slowly began to become a place of misery and corruption. Vast areas of Italy were devastated by the ongoing battles and, at the same time, growing crops was no longer worthwhile anyway, as more and more slaves – and thus free labour – were integrated into the Roman economy.

The tribune of the people, Tiberius Gracchus, wanted to accommodate the dispossessed proletariat in 133 BC and planned to distribute the numerous conquered territories around the Mediterranean to the poor peasants. The majority of the senate – many of them large landowners and owners of these very lands – were against this land reform.

Julius Cäsar; Pixabay Licence, © Skitterphoto

Here the typical conflict of the late republic revealed itself: the conservative, rich patricians were mostly so-called optimates, while the so-called populars relied on the popular assembly and, for example, also advocated the Gracchian reforms in the name of the people. Optimates and Populares, however, were not political parties in the modern sense. The terms rather denoted a certain type of politics – for or against the old-established power of the Senate. The land reform failed, Gracchus and also later his brother were murdered and the division of society continued.

Not only did the republic’s agriculture and economy face profound problems, only a few decades later, deficiencies in the military and politics were also revealed. In the north, the Cimbrian Wars (113-101 BC) flared up and Germanic tribes once again threatened the empire. Gaius Marius was re-elected consul because of his military achievements – actually such a re-election was not legally possible.

The Roman constitutional order was already showing the first signs of softening here. With the support of the Populares, Marius reformed the army. It was now also possible for proletarians to become soldiers, since the necessary equipment no longer had to be paid for by themselves. The already close loyalty of the soldiers to their commander was further strengthened. Not only Germanic tribes were possible targets, but increasingly also Roman political enemies. A period of civil war and dictatorships followed. First, Marius seized power in 86 BC and decimated the optimistic opposition. A few years after his death, Marius’ old enemy Sulla appointed himself dictator in 83 BC. He too had political opponents persecuted and outlawed. He had former supporters of Marius declared outlaws by means of proscription lists – in fact, a young man named Gaius Julius Caesar was also on these lists, but was later pardoned. Sulla restored the old power of the Senate and curtailed the influence of the tribunes of the people. In 79 B.C. Sulla resigned from the dictatorship before the Roman People’s Assembly, probably because he considered his task – the restoration of the Roman constitution – to have been fulfilled. However, the crisis of the Republic was not only revealed in the consuls and dictators, but also at lower levels. The famous trial brought by the Roman politician Cicero in 70 BC against Verres, the governor of Sicily, is vivid proof of this. Verres had exploited the province and appropriated numerous works of art. Also closely associated with Cicero is the Catilinaric conspiracy in 63 BC. At the time, the Roman politician Catilina was planning a violent coup attempt by raising troops and subsequently rising to the position of autocrat. Cicero put an end to these plans and thought that the Republic was safe. But exactly the opposite was the case. The era of Caesar began and the Republic was inevitably heading for its absolute end.

After Caesar failed to be elected consul, he formed the First Triumvirate (Latin meaning “three men”) with Pompey and Crassus in 60 BC. These had become the defining figures of the Republic after Sulla’s death. Pompey was the leading general of Rome, Crassus was the richest man in the Republic and Caesar brought his political skills to the table. The informal and, at first, even relatively secret alliance held de facto sole rule of Rome. All laws and political processes in Rome were determined by the three men. The Senate was disempowered. However, Crassus died in the war against the Persians and Pompey again approached the Senate, while Caesar was busy conquering Gaul (modern France). In 49 BC, the triumvirate thus broke apart and another civil war began. Caesar crossed the Rubicon River with his loyal troops – a declaration of war against Rome. However, he was finally able to defeat his main opponent Pompey after four more years of war and on battlefields around the Mediterranean. Now Caesar appointed himself dictator – initially for ten years, but soon for life. Resistance arose among the remaining old Roman conservative senators. On 15 March 44 BC, Caesar was assassinated at a senate meeting in an attempt to restore the old order of the Republic. But even this last desperate attempt was soon to be brutally crushed.

Soon after Caesar’s death, a Second Triumvirate was formed in 43 BC. It consisted of two high-ranking followers of the dead man, Marcus Lepidus and Marcus Antonius. The third in the alliance was the young Octavian, a nephew of Caesar and his testamentary heir. This alliance was based on troop numbers and military clout, and it was also public. Two years later, Caesar’s murderers were defeated in Greece – the republic was at an end. Lepidus was deprived of power in 36 BC, so that Octavian ruled the west of the empire and Marcus Antonius the east.

The naval battle of Actium in 31 BC was the decisive moment. Octavian was victorious and a year later Marcus Antonius and his wife, the Egyptian-Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra, took their own lives. Octavian had now reached his goal. His adversaries were dead, the long civil war over, power in his hands. He reshaped the dead republic during his long, almost forty-year reign. As the first princeps (Latin for “the first (among equals)”) of the Roman Empire, he is still known to us today mainly by his honorary title Augustus (Latin for “the exalted one”). The era of the Roman Empire began.

Caesar Augustus; Pixabay Licence, © ysy1104

Literature used
  • Bringmann, Klaus: Römische Geschichte. Von den Anfängen bis zur Spätantike. München 2019.
  • Demandt, Alexander: Zeitenwende. Aufsätze zur Spätantike. Berlin 2013.
  • Gehrke, Hans-Joachim / Schneider, Helmuth (Hg.): Geschichte der Antike. Ein Studienbuch. Stuttgart 2013.
  • Pohanka, Reinhard, Die Römer. Kultur und Geschichte. Wiesbaden 2012.
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