Sunday, 9 May 2021

The Fall of the Roman Republic 2, Spoilt by Success

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Part 2 of 3, the Middle Republican period 

The Early Roman Republican Period ends in 264 BC with Rome gaining mastery over all but the northern-most part of Continental Italy. It was on the verge of going to war against Carthage in Sicily which marks the beginning of the Middle Republican Period.

First Punic War

By the end of the Middle Republican period, Rome was already the greatest Empire of its time. It faced no credible external threat to its safety, and was poised for ever greater glory.

Embassies from small independent towns were frequently arriving before the Senate to swear allegiance to Rome, offer expensive gifts or ask Rome to mediate in disputes. The Senate had increasingly began dictating policy to allies and neighbours.

Rome’s merchants received an enormous windfall from the subjugation of the Greeks and the destruction of Carthage.  People and cheap goods flooded into Rome, including grain from Sicily and northern Africa, some as tribute.

Slaves were everywhere, building wealth for Rome’s rich, while cultured Greek slaves tutored their children. The din of new construction was constant as the city became adorned with elaborate new temples, gymnasia, baths, and palaces.

And yet, within a hundred years, the Republic had fallen.

What eventually brought the Republic to its knees was not an external threat. Deep in the heart of the Republic which had been founded on ideals of austerity, rule by consensus, devotion to honour and service to the Republic something was dying.

The beginning of the end was not marked by another military triumph or even a defeat.

It was the murder of a single man (along with many of his followers). Tiberius Gracchus, (132 BC) was murdered for trying to help Rome’s poor and fighting the entrenched self interest and corruption of many Senators.

Murder of Tiberius's brother

His death was the first open bloodshed in Roman politics in nearly four centuries and it was followed by a descent  into the use of force and murder in politics.

It showed that self interest, squabbling and corruption meant the Senate was unable to respond effectually to the internal problems of Rome's ‘Empire’ and it led to the civil wars that marked the final stages of the Republic.

Ongoing Military Triumphs

Roman’s main rivals at the start of the second Punic war.

The second Punic war was initiated by Hannibal (218 BC) and Rome came close to losing it, but Rome's position at the start of the war illustrates just how far Rome came by the end of the middle period.

Hannibal crossing the alps

At the start, Rome’s main rival empires were Carthage (which had expanded in Iberia) and the three inheritors of Alexander the Great’s empire: the Seleucid Empire (modern-day Turkey to India), Ptolemaic Egypt (with its territories in Syria and coastal Greece and Turkey) and Macedon (which dominated much of Greece).

Like the first Punic war, the second Punic war was one of the toughest Rome ever faced. For a long time Rome had no answer to Hannibal’s main army in Italy, raising large legions that suffering cataclysmic defeat after defeat. Hannibal managed to occupy a large part of southern Italy for 15 years, though he could not break Rome’s indomitable spirit.

All Rome could seem to do was to send smaller forces to attack Carthaginian captured territories and allies in Italy. It couldn’t face Hannibal front-on in Italy so went behind him  to disrupt his conquered territory and supply routes. It was a grueling war of attrition and the cost to Italy was appalling.

It was really only when Roman forces went even further behind, to attack Gaul (and later northern Africa) that they were able to weaken his position.   

By the end of the Middle Republican period, Macedon as an independent kingdom was no more (168 BC). Carthage had been goaded into a third war and was now completely destroyed (133 BC) and the few survivors sold into slavery.

The Greek Aetolian League had earlier been brought to heel and the Achaean league was crushed in the same year as the destruction of Carthage, with Corinth also completely destroyed. Macedonia, Greece and the former Carthaginian territories had been divided into Roman provinces, administered by Roman governors.  

The military victories and Rome’s ability to rise from adversity were incredible but, for the moment, we are focusing on the early Roman moral ideals and whether they were weakening. Here we will look at the Roman concept of justice in war.

It is difficult to judge the early Republic, because it was so long ago and the historical record is so uncertain. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that the early Republican Romans, especially their ruling classes, treated their ‘ mos maiorum’ (ancestral customs and honour) very seriously. 

This system wasn’t perfect, Rome was constantly looking for excuses to go to war that would fit within the rules they believed were lay down by their ancestors and Gods. Still, the prevailing culture moderated the extremes of militaristic, greedy or self-serving behaviour.

Justice in war and peace

The early Romans believed in ‘jus ad bellum’, or ‘justice in making war’, as mandated by both their ancestors and Gods. There was also justice in the treatment of the defeated and of allies.

Conquered people were given a treaty to sign, where they had to acknowledge Roman leadership, pay taxes, and supply soldiers. They were allowed to keep their own customs, money, and local government. The yolk of Roman rule was (at first) tolerable and the resolute loyalty to Rome of the other Latin cities (for example) was one of the only things that saved it in the second Punic war.

If a city surrendered ‘before the ram touched the wall’ (or unconditionally, trusting in Romans to treat the city honourably) they were treated well.

Of course, those that didn’t surrender or rebelled later faced harsh punishment.

These ideals didn’t abruptly disappear, especially amongst the Patricians and the somewhat conservative Senate, but there were signs they were weakening over time. 

Even towards the end of the Early Republic the event that triggered the first Samnite war was a sign of that Roman greed could triumph over fair treatment of an ally.

Rome and the first Punic War.

This is even more evident in the Punic wars.

Rome had a long history of peace with Carthage dating back to the start of the Roman Republic. In a 303 BC treaty, Rome agreed not to enter Sicily and in 279 BC they had both signed a mutual aid pact (against Pyrrhus), offering each other military assistance if needed. Carthage did supply material to the Romans and ferried a few of its troops.

Carthage an economic superpower

Carthage was much less aggressive militarily than Rome.

If Rome was a military super power, Carthage was an economic super power and Carthage's innovative agricultural techniques it, like Egypt, a major producer of grain and other goods.

Its senate, unlike the Roman one, was not solely dominated by land owning nobles and their military class. There was representatives of the clever Carthaginian/ Phoenician merchants. Carthage was most happy to establish hegemony over maritime trading cities, and often did not follow this up with land expansion.

Wars, especially extended wars, were bad for business.

The Carthaginian wars with the Greeks in Sicily were mostly Carthaginians defending themselves (and others) from the more aggressive Dorian Greeks (related to Spartans) and did not lead to Carthaginian conquest of Sicily.  

Most Carthaginian land conquest (up to the first Carthaginian war) was in northern Africa, around Carthage itself. It was a series of loosely held client kingdoms populated by Numidians and this made Carthaginian control vulnerable.

In the last war with Carthage (which Syracuse initiated) Syracuse had broken a siege of its city by sending an army into northern Africa and threatening Carthage (310 BC) in a way similar to what the Romans did later.

Carthaginian armies employed a lot of mercenaries and they were sometimes in competition with Carthaginian military leaders.

Request for Roman intervention, first Punic War (264 BC).     

 The only request for Roman intervention in Sicily came from a group of displaced Italian mercenaries who had taken over the town of Messana twenty years before. They had slaughtered the locals after being welcomed into the city (which was a departure port in the journey back to Italy).  Then they turned to piracy and land raiding, getting progressively more destructive.

Syracuse had a treaty that had the city in the Carthaginian sphere of influence. The circumstances are far from clear but (Sicilian) Greek city of Syracuse and the Carthaginians (now allies) had been forced to move against them.

There was no ‘jus ad bellum’ for Rome joining this war on the pirate’s side.

In fact, the Roman Senate were steadfast in their refusal to allow Rome to be involved in such an unjust war. It was the ambitious consul, Appius Claudius Caudex, with dreams of glory and loot, that eventually took it directly to the people’s assembly, bypassing the Senate.

He promised the people great booty and pointed out the strategic advantages of a toe-hold in Sicily. Greed and military ambition triumphed over Roman honour, and Caudex got to lead an army into Sicily.

A long and bitter war

Caudex had badly underestimated the stubborn Carthaginians, the difficulty of defeating their navy and the difficulty fighting a land war in rugged Sicily.

At 23 years, the first Punic war was the longest continuous conflict, and greatest naval war in antiquity. It resulted in huge casualties and losses, effectively bankrupting both republics. Eventually Rome forced Carthage to sign the Treaty of Lutatius in 241 BC.

Treatment of Carthage in defeat

After the first Punic war, Carthage faced a series of rebellions in its territories, mainly from foreign mercenaries, some of whom it had struggled to pay. This included northern Africa. Rome was tolerant as Carthage retook her territories in Northern Africa but they were greedily eyeing Sardinia.

In Sardinia, Carthage was having trouble displacing a group of rebels until the ‘local’ coastal (pro- Carthaginian) cities rose up and forced them out. Some of the rebels fled to Italy and appealed for Roman help. The Romans had tried to invade Sardinia unsuccessfully during the war. Now (238 BC), they used this as a pretext to send an occupation force in a clear violation of the treaty signed only three years or so before. Carthage had held the island for three hundred years.

 The Carthaginians sent a delegation to Rome protesting the violation of the treaty and explaining they were already preparing their second expedition to relieve the island.

The Roman Senate (in an action universally condemned by modern historians) said that they had been invited into Sardinia, so this was all Roman territory now. They said Carthage even preparing an expedition to the island was an act of war against Rome, and they demanded an amendment to the treaty that gave them Sardinia and Corsica. To add insult to injury, they demanded an additional 1,200-talent indemnity.

Carthage was bankrupt ,defeated by Rome and had just fought a long campaign to recapture Northern Africa . They were forced to capitulate. This cemented the intense hatred towards the Romans and inevitably led to the second Punic war. 

Addition of Sardinia and Corsica

This (and the long war against its own mercenaries) shifted the balance of power in the  Carthaginian senate towards its military leaders and allowed Hannibal’s family to control Carthage’s expansion in Spain.

Fifty years after Hannibal's war, Rome used a pretext to force Carthage into a third cruel war and finally destroy it.  

Carthage was barred from defending herself without Roman permission. Masinissa, educated in Carthage, had become king of all the Numidians and was seen as a staunch Roman ally. He had significantly aided the Roman final victory against Carthage in the second Punic war.

It is said that he was keen to pick off chunks of Carthaginian territory and the Romans were happy to see Carthage weakened further and often mediated unfairly against their old enemy. 

When Cato the Elder, a veteran of the second Punic war (subsequently known for his terrible brutality and conspicuous cruelty) arrived (152 BC) to mediate in yet another dispute, the Carthaginians rejected him. They were unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing from Cato. He, for his part, was offended by this and outraged that the city (while militarily powerless) had made a mercantile-led recovery. He loudly and repeatedly demanded it be destroyed.

This emboldened Masinissa (though now elderly) who launched a massive campaign (150 BC) with his Numidian cavalry throughout Carthage’s remaining territory, attacking multiple towns. He now controlled 50 % of Carthaginian territory and was besieging Oroscopa.

 It was 50 years since the end of the last war and the Carthaginians had already repaid the war indemnity with Rome. Some in Carthage felt the treaty should no longer apply. They raised an army to try to unsuccessfully try to defend themselves against the Numidians.

Rome landed an army not long after. At first they fooled the Carthaginians into believing a settlement was possible, but then gave a list of impossible and escalating demands many of which Carthage met (like disarming) but the Romans really wanted to utterly destroy Carthage, the city, the people, its history and its culture. 

Despite dogged and clever resistance, this was achieved in 146 BC, in an act that history Professors like  Naimark and Kiernan claim was a genocide. 

A little later in the same year, 146 BC Rome defeated a rebellion in the Achaean league (which controlled most of the Greek Peloponnese). Corinth was sacked and burnt to the ground, those who had not fled were killed and enslaved, and its artwork plundered. The Greek mainland became a province, like Macedonian provinces before it.

The situation with Achaean League was a little more complicated than one with Carthage.

The League apparently flirted with joining the Macedonians in their third war against Rome. Rome took thousands of hostages to ensure their good behaviour but later (perhaps to teach them a lesson) was slow to release them despite five embassies sent to Rome.

Rome then began to micro-manage the affairs of the League. When internal problems caused some members including Sparta to want to break away, Rome threaten to break up the League. Reducing the power of the League would have made Rome’s job easier but the suggestion incensed the Greeks on top of many prior provocations.

When the League assembled a second force to punish Sparta they knew they would be fighting Rome, and soon Rome sent two armies against them.

Destruction of Corinth, Allom

The treatment of Carthage especially, but also Corinth, was shameful. Rome's greed and arrogance was no longer bound by the rules of justice in war and peace. It could no longer be trusted to be fair to those it defeated or respect treaties it had signed. 

Abuse of allies

The Senate did hear cases of allies abused and neutral tribes attacked by Romans in campaigns. While they ordered restitution, none of the commanders were prosecuted.  

The Senate’s control over the military was weakening and Roman morality was in decline..


Changes within Rome, and the moral decline


The deluge of wealth pouring into Rome, not just from tribute and taxes but from plunder is hard to comprehend.

When Lucius Aemilius Paullus defeated Macedonia in the third Macedonia war, his triumphant procession took three days to complete. The first day was hardly long enough to allow the priceless works of plundered art, carried on 250 wagons. The next day featured cart upon cart of fine arms and armour, 2,250 talents of silver carried in large pots by some 3,000 men. The third displayed 231 talents of gold, 400 gold wreaths, and finally the enslaved royal family. And this was just what he gave to the Roman treasury.

Rome demanded increasing indemnities from anyone who opposed her will. Philip II of Macedon, for example, was made to pay 1,000 talents of silver at the conclusion of the second Macedonian war. By the time they defeated the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III (in 188 BC), he was forced to pay a ruinous 15,000 talents.

All this plunder challenged previous austere Roman morality, and became a problem when Rome was no longer expanding and the plunder was not flowing in. 

Rome had become a plunder economy with all the problems that this implies.

Rome, a great city

Ancient Rome started as one small Latin city-state amongst many. It would reach 800,000 by 1 AD and reach 1.2 million at its peak (200 AD).

Only the ancient city of Alexandria (Ptolemaic Egypt) rivaled it in size.

There influx of foreigners as free men, traders, or slaves and this engulfed the original Latin culture, especially amongst the man on the streets.

Foreign Influence

Romans always admired the Greeks and Greek became the second most common language. It became the primary language of the Byzantine Empire and was the written language of the new testament. Roman culture and education became more and more influenced by Greeks and Greek tutors.

Loss of Rome’s small farmers.

Rome at first had no standing army and the bulk of her legions were conscripted from small farmers. Conscripts had to supply their own equipment, pay a tax to fund the latest war, and sign up for the duration.

Of course, they took their duty to the Republic very seriously (at first). 

If they didn’t, the punishments were severe.

This ruined some farmers, even when the wars were local affairs. The first Punic war lasted 23 years and almost bankrupted both Rome and Carthage and depleted Rome of fighting men. The second Punic war brought conflict into central Italy and lasted 16 yrs.

Many family farms lay long neglected, waiting for them to return or, worse, become a burnt-out ruin as conflict rolled over them. Soldiers had to pay many of their own expenses, even later when legends were paid, the pay was poor and (unless there was a share in plunder) there were no retirement benefits.

Financial ruin increasingly faced those conscripted into military service.

With the conquest of Carthage, cheap grain flooded into Rome, some as tribute. Small Roman and Latin farmers simply could not compete.

Some even abandoned their farms and moved to the city to avoid military service.


In the early part of the second Punic war one estimate has Rome losing 120,000 men through death or capture in less than two years as they suffered defeat after defeat.

Romans took drastic steps to raise new legions: enrolling slaves and criminals. The senate repeatedly reduced the minimum wealth threshold for conscription before the system was abandoned all together (107 BC under Marius).

Treatment of veterans

From 177 BC there was a hiatus in the founding of ‘colonia’ in conquered territories.

These colonies had been established by veterans and their families. It was one way a small number could escape the poverty trap.

It’s not clear why the system stopped for a while, some senators were illegally using this public land for themselves, sometimes only paying nominal rents. Some of this rented land was seen as part of the family estate and passed down in inheritance.

An explosion in the number of Rome’s poor

Displaced farmers, veterans and impoverished labourers moved to the city, joining slaves, freed slaves and foreigners. There was a population explosion in Rome itself, with many plebeians desperately clinging to survival, while the ‘nobilitis’ (wealthy) lived-in undreamed-of splendour.

Rich landowners

The massive influx of slave labour allowed wealthy landowners to build vast estates (latifundia), worked by slaves and run by managers. They concentrated on more lucrative olives, grapes, and herding. By law, it was landowners that formed the Senate.

The land owners in the Senate determined who could use public land (originally taken by conquest). In theory the rights were auctioned and time-limited. In theory there were legal limits to the amount of public land each family could use. In practice these laws were ignored.

Some unscrupulous landowners even tapped water from city aqueducts to improve the quality of previously marginal land. They were happy to pay the occasional fine while officials looked the other way.

Now the once rich Latin farmland lay neglected and depopulated, apart from the large estates (latifundia).

While senators could only be wealthy landowners, the Equites, some plebeians and foreigners ran the other businesses and employed slaves. They also became wealthy but did not having the same political representation landholders had.


The early Republican Romans had judicial processes but citizens were trusted to police themselves inside the city. This broke down with increasing lawlessness. The city watch was limited to a small number of slaves (mostly carrying rope buckets sealed with pitch, in case of fire).

There was a religious prohibition on bearing arms in the central parts of old Rome but it was no longer safe to walk the streets at night, crime became rife. Most wealthier citizens had stoat doors and employed guards.


The Roman policy of weakening the Eastern Mediterranean regions caused a surge in piracy. Julius Caesar was captured by pirates early on in his career.


With Rome sacking cities and enslaving whole populations, and the renewed activities of pirates, there was a flood of slaves into Roman territories. Inevitably, the treatment of slaves deteriorated. Italy had become a thoroughgoing slave society, with well over one million slaves.

Loss of Roman ‘Mores’.

Roman Society had always been competitive but, with the influence coming from the East, austerity and humility gave way to lavish living and aggressive ostentation.

Patriotism and selfless service to the state, began to be replaced by self-service and greed.


Corruption became rampart. You could legally pay someone to vote for you, so it became increasingly routine for rich people to buy their way into the Senate or a magisterial office. Once they were there, there were many ways to recoup their money from their position. 

Merchants and builders bribed Senators and magistrates to get building and supply contracts and lobby groups bribed senators to make laws that they wanted. Favours were traded and cliches strengthened.

The Senate began to degenerate: from a consensus-driven group of elder aristocrats (stepped in the ideal of Roman morality) into factional groups. Corrupt, selfish, sinister, or fraudulent behaviour became common.

Rome’s infamous tax collectors

After 167 BC Roman citizens living in Rome no longer had to pay the usual wealth tax but this was not true in conquered territories. 

‘Publicani’ bid at auction for the rights to collect the wealth tax (tributa) in a given location for a given period.  In theory it was an auction, but it often involved bribes to senators.

If they collected less than what they bid, they made a loss; if they collected more, that was their profit. The tax collector at the head of the region would also employ others for a cut of the taxes they collected and these lower-level tax collectors were open to skimming and bribery.

The whole system became extortionate and corrupt but, as only citizens of Rome voted, and they were unaffected or actually profited by what was happening in the provinces , there was little will to change.


Censors, for a time, continued as the moral guardians of the Senate and Magistrates. In the late Republic the position was sometimes corrupted to expel opponents, without trial, in great purges. Increasingly, the prestigious position was unfilled or leading citizens were appointed but found the office untenable forced to resign within a year of their three year term. 

Corruption in the Provinces. With the defeat of the Carthaginians, Macedonian and then the Greeks , Rome departed from reliance on treaties to control her growing area of influence to appointing governors, sometimes with local client kings.

Such Governors were immune to prosecution unless entered Rome. Corruption and over taxation added to unrest in the provinces, especially in Spain.

‘Populares’ vs ‘Optimates’

Conflict between the poorer Plebs and the rich, especially the land owning aristocracy, wasn’t anything new. What had changed was the actual number of Rome’s poor, their increasing desperation and the need to find a resolution.

‘Populares’ were politicians who appealed to the people. While ‘Optimates’ favoured the power of the Senate.

Neither of these groups were political parties in the modern sense but most Populares tried to relieve the plight of the poor and were opposed by a group of corrupt and self interested Senators .

The Gracchus brothers and land reform

Tiberius Gracchus was one of the first people identified as a ‘Populares’. He  came from impeccable patrician and plebian aristocracy, and was elected plebian tribune in 133 BC.

Gracchi brothers, Guillaume

He headed a group that proposed enforcing an existing law that limit the amount of public land that could be rented by large landholders. The surplus land would be used to supply farms to poor plebeians.

Accounts we have of what happened were written much later and vary quite markedly in details, but essentially the Senate was resolutely opposed and did everything it could to block his reforms.

Eventually one group of senators sent an armed mob to kill Tiberius and many of his (unarmed) supporters. After this , the power of the Senate was used to send more into exile without trial and some were said to be executed. A similar fate would visit his brother, Gaius Gracchus, in 121 BC, when he tried similar reforms.

 The stage was set for the descent into the bloodshed and chaos that marked the late Republic.

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Monday, 1 March 2021

The Fall (Roman Republic) 1.The Early Republic

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The area that Rome controlled was said to reach a peak in 117 AD, but it was during the Republic (510 BC till 27 BC) that Rome had its greatest growth, starting from a small fortified town surrounded by powerful neighbours, to become the foremost Western power.

It was also during the Republic that Rome overcome some of its greatest external challenges. While it lost a few spectacular battles, it always returned quickly to become stronger than ever.

Death of Mus, Rubens (sacrificial charge 3rd Samnite war)

By the end of the middle Republican period (133 BC), Rome was continuing to grow in wealth and power. Its arts and building programmes were the envy of the world. It faced no credible external threat and yet something deep in the beating heart of the Republic was dying. 

It would cause the Republic to fall (even while Rome was already the greatest city of its time and was continuing to till growing).

The Republics fall can be seen from different aspects, but most agree. 

The Republic was ruined by its own success.

To understand how this could have happened, we need to start with Roman society and culture in the early Roman Republic from its beginning in 509 BC and then trace it through the middle and late Republican periods. 

I will attempt to be brief, but no discussion of Rome's history would be complete without at least some mention of her wars.


The culture, Early Republic (509 BC -264 BC)


An austere society based on an agrarian lifestyle

Romans, in common with most early people,  mostly lived on small, self-sufficient farms that surrounded their town. It was the Roman farmers tilling their rich volcanic soil that formed the core of their citizen’s militia and Romans were inordinately proud of their agrarian roots.

In the late republic, Cicero declared "of all the occupations … none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a free man." Cato the Elder, writing slightly later stated that the highest praise for an early Roman was being a “good husband (and a) good farmer”. He went on to say that “It is from the farming class that the bravest men and the sturdiest soldiers come.”

To the patricians, running a farm was the most worthy occupation and the success of the farm was a great source of pride. 

Farming was the only activity that a senator could engage in, and there were several early legends of great heroes leaving their ploughs (sometimes reluctantly) to lead Rome.

Cincinnatus leaves his plough (Juan Antonio Ribera)

The early Roman character was also one of austerity. 

Even in the midst of a military triumph, a victorious general must conduct himself with dignified humility at all times. The Roman moral code abhorred extravagance, and (during wartimes) laws were enacted to prevent Roman wives from wearing too much fine clothes and jewellery.

A militaristic society

From the very first, Rome was a militaristic society. Serving in the army was both a duty and a privilege. At first it was unpaid. 

Poorer men might be drafted in  extreme circumstance, and less well armed. This became less over time. Usually soldiers had to have a minimal level of wealth before they could join the army . This allowed them to provide their own equipment and pay for some of their expenses. Not only this, they had to pay an extra tax to fund the war they were fighting in.

The militia was central to civic life. Any patrician wanting a a career in administration had to serve ten years in the army. The people’s assembly (the comitia centuriata) was organised to parallel the civilian army, with most votes going to those who would be senior in the army.

The greatest achievement any Roman leader could aspire to was a ‘Roman Triumph’ decked out in a special toga and riding on a chariot in front of his army, captives, and the spoils of war (the ceremony followed by prayers to Jupiter, celebrations and games). 

A Roman triumph

As was said, he had to conduct himself with dignified humility and it was traditional for the troops to call friendly insults to their general (to prevent overweening pride). The triumph was not just an individual's but the republic’s, dedicated to the gods and ancestors, 

Cursus honorum (the ‘road to honours’) 

Embarking on the path to senior public service started with ten years of military service (at least as an equestrian, if not a more senior officer) and then gaining election as a quaestor (treasurer to supervise financial accounts) and then on to more senior positions. At first one had to reach a certain age before being eligible to advance to the next step.

 ‘Just wars’, the Roman ideal. 

While wars and military glory were an essential part of the Roman aristocratic ethos, their religion mandated that they only fight ‘just’ wars.

This was overseen by special priests of Jupiter called fetiales.

‘Ius fetiale’ were the ancient rules for declaring a ‘just’ war and included self-defence, a broken treaty  or being called to assist others.

Wars motivated by greed or wrongful treatment of allies could result in divine displeasure which would be disastrous.

‘Ius fetiale’ lead to the concept of ‘jus ad bellum’, or ‘justice in making war’.

The accounts of Rome’s early expansion were written hundreds of years later and always cast Rome’s opponents in the role of aggressor so Cicero, writing in the late republic, claimed “our people, through repeatedly defending their allies, have ended up as master of the world.”

The Roman historian Livy wrote: “there was one nation in the world which would fight for the liberties of others at its own cost, with its own labour, and at its own danger. It was even ready to cross the sea to make sure there was no unjust rule anywhere and that everywhere justice, right, and law would prevail.”

Rome, an expansionist society. 

There is more than a hint of Roman jingoism in the above views. 

Some Romans even suggested their civilization and their political system was so superior that they were doing subject nations a favour by invading them, other Romans claimed they were so successful because their cause was always 'just' and favoured by the Gods .

The truth was that Rome was always looking for an excuse to conquer. In the world they lived in, it was not hard to find someone ready to attack them , or a border dispute. 

If that didn't work, they were happy to be invited in to help in someone else's dispute. 

Those on a losing side soon knew to appeal  that they could appeal for Roman help. Of course, there was a cost. An ally  (or even a distant city) in need would soon find both itself and it enemies under Roman domination (usually subject to an expertly designed treaty rather than directly ruled at first).

Some, amongst Roman leaders, became adept at bending their own self-imposed rules. Treaties were sometimes cleverly manipulated to put unfriendly neighbours at a disadvantage.

And, once Romans marched to war, resistance to their military was usually punished by sacking, a payment of gold,  taking some citizens as slaves and a harsher treaty. If a subject nation rose in rebellion ( broke a treaty) it was punished particularly cruelly.

Having said all this, at least for a time, the Roman ideal of honourable war (enforced by the senate) put a limit on the worst of any manifest greed, abuse of power or desire for war.

Those cities that surrendered early ‘in good faith’ (trusting Roman fairness) or ‘before the ram reached the city gate’ were treated much more lightly. The Roman yolk on them was usually light with self-governance, reasonable taxes and providing troops to booster the Roman war machine. 

Allies were treated honourably, especially at first.

Honour, the glue that held the early Republic together

For the early Romans, service was both a duty and an honour. Their leaders were expected to live up to the Roman ideal in both their private and public life.

'Auctoritas' and the two types of power

In the Early Republic, wealth alone did not bring prestige. Power alone did not bring prestige. 

What early Roman politicians especially strived for was called 'auctoritas', a sort of moral authority, resulting in the people’s trust. In legends, the auctoritas their heroes projected had an almost mystic quality.  

Protestas, was the legal power of a Roman magistrate (or the pater familias within a family) but protestas could not be exerted without auctoritas.

Much of the power of the senate came from its prestige as a body of elders. This authority was called auctoritas patrum, ‘father’s authority’.

 Mos maiorum, ‘the way of the ancestors’.

The ideal of how a Roman man should behave was founded in ancestor worship, acting in line with what they believed were ancestral ideals. 

Romans had shrines in their house for ancestors, special feast days and prayed to their ancestors for approval and advice.  Upsetting the ancestors would usually result in serious misfortune (like a failed harvest, or a disaster in battle).

The Mos Maiorum, 'the way of the ancestors', was the ideals of discipline, dignity and self control , respect for the Gods, trustworthiness, virtue and honour.

It lead to Regimen Morum, the ‘mores’ of the Republic.

Romans took living up to these ideals (for those that led them) so seriously that enforcing the Regimen Morum (amongst the leaders and upper classes) became an important part of the work of what was called the Roman 'Censors'.

These two ‘magistrates’ (coming from the Roman word for ‘master’) were tasked with running the ‘census’ to determine the wealth of individuals. Along with social class, citizens needed minimum wealth to serve in certain groups within the army, (officer, knight, or infantry). It determined how much equipment they must supply, how much tax they paid, how much their vote counted in the people’s assembly and whether they were eligible for certain positions like the Senate.

The censors not only appointed senators, they were able to sanction (‘censure’) or even remove those from the senate, patrician or equestrian class who (in their opinion) did not live up to the Regimen Morum, the mores of the Republic.

The blind Cieco, famous Roman Censor

These unacceptable behaviours might not always be illegal or may have been already been punished by Roman courts but they included many things that we would recognise today as likely to offend public opinion.

They also included things like celibacy, neglect of one’s fields (or one’s horse for an ‘equestrian’), extravagant living, cruelty (towards slaves, dependents or clients) or excessive indulgence of children.

Carrying out a disreputable occupation like acting in theatres was unacceptable for nobles, and hence would result in punishment.

The censors were both judge and jury. The only limit to their power was that they had to both agree. For a time the office became very prestigious, usually awarded to former consuls. 

Roman morality was inherently conservative, backward looking, and a major pre-occupation of the early ruling class.

A Patriarchal Society

Rome’s social organisation was based on tribe/extended family with a strong, patriarchal, head (usually the oldest living male of a clan) called the ‘pater familias’.

The main limit on patriarchal power over family members money and personal lives was not a legal one, especially not at first. It was the social and internal pressure for leaders to behave in accordance with the Roman concept of honour.

The almost absolute power over social inferiors (and the loyalty expected to these senior figures) carried through to the military, the civil ‘magistrates’, the senate and the aristocracy.

Social class

Patricians were members of the noble families.

It is no accident that the term patres means ‘father’ and refers to the many descendants of the legendary 100 founders of the Roman senate. ('Senate' comes from 'senex', the Latin word for ‘old man’).  According to Rome’s founding legend, they were prominent elders, selected to advise the king.

There were three main patrician tribes divided into a total of thirty subdivisions with other prominent families added later.

Positions in the administration, senate, priesthood, senior positions in the military forces were (at first) reserved for patricians. In a way their families were seen as the fathers of Rome. They were the only ones who could vote in the comittia  curiata, the (patrician) people’s assembly which was divided along clan lines.

They dressed to reflect their position. 

Formal dress was the stola for women and the toga (impractical for military and other physical pursuits) for refined men. Senators, senior military figures and ‘magistrates’ had additional prestige as signalled by added purple cloth and wearing special rings.

Roman Toga

‘Equites’ (Equestrians or Roman knights) were a lesser aristocratic and military class. Originally it was (often) a hereditary position (with a horse supplied) but during a crisis it was opened to wealthy plebes and others who had to supply their own horse.

‘Equites’ had certain advantages over ‘plebs’, though not as much as Patricians.

One advantage they had over senators was that they were allowed to engage in non agrarian commercial activities which gave them an advantage in gaining public and army contracts.

Plebians (commoners) were largest group of Roman citizens. A large number had small rural holdings and formed most of the infantry. At first, only patricians could be senior officers.

By 287 BC, after a struggle called the ‘conflict of orders’ , plebians (in theory) gained the same legal rights as patricians. It still remained difficult for someone from an unknown family to acquire high office or a senior position in the army.

Not only that, over time elections became expensive. Senators were not paid. ‘Magistrates’ were often not paid directly or not properly compensated for expenses. As a result, high offices were only accessible to wealthy plebians, who now joined the patricians (initially in small numbers) to form a new ruling class. The plight of the poor had not been solved.   

Freed slaves liberti’ became Roman citizens (plebians) but suffered social stigma. They carried a taint that might take several generations to overcome

The Patronage System

This was an extension of the patriarchal Roman model (with revered and powerful ‘godfathers’) into the relations between the upper and lower classes.

Plebians had less opportunities and were at a significant disadvantage socially, in business or if they were in a dispute with a magistrate or a powerful patrician.

Many aspiring plebs (and some patricians of lower standing) sought the protection and opportunities provided by a 'patron'. Having many visible clients became a mark of prestige and power.

At the closest, ‘cliens’ would give their patrons familial loyalty, including following them to war. The more dependent clientela would meet at a daily morning reception at the home of the patron known as the ‘salutatio’ where they were given their duties, after which they might escort their patron to the forum.

As the Roman ‘magistrates’ began to directly govern conquered provinces, they brought this ‘patronage’ system with them. Local kings and other officials becoming dependent clients of the governor and his legions.

The number of Non-Roman citizens increased markedly as Rome gained success.

This included (Other) Latins who had limited rights but were not full Roman citizens and Peregrini , free-born foreign subjects.

Of course, there was a growing number of Slaves. They were mostly well treated at first, often being taken into the home, but they had few formal rights.

Governance of the republic, citizens assemblies.

The comitia centuriata

The main citizens assembly was called the comitia centuriata and was organised to reflect the initial organisation of the citizens army. It took over a lot of the functions of the patrician’s comittia  curiata which continued in a less important form.

 The comitia centuriata elected the senior roman ‘magistrates’. It passed some laws, and tried some serious cases. Only it could declare war.

The patrician seniors and the ‘equites’ voted first and their votes counted more than the votes of all other citizens. Poor people got no effective vote.

There were less powerful assemblies for communication, debating and campaigning for office and concilium (assemblies of specific group of citizens). 

One such council, the Plebian council (Concilium Plebis) became much more powerful over time as plebian power grew.

Consuls, Praetors and censors

An elected public official was called a ‘magistratus’, ‘magister’ meaning master.

A single dictator could be appointed for brief periods In a military emergency. He needed to be nominated by the consuls on advice by the senate and confirmed by the comitia centuriata. He was given Imperium which was absolute or kingly legal power (it was also used to describe the power of a general in the military) .

The post of dictator became inactive after the second Punic war  218–201 BC after which the Republic no longer faced any credible external threats.

Sulla, the first Roman in the Republic to seize power by force, was elected dictator after his second march on Rome (82 BC). (This was during a time when the rule of law in Roman courts and politics was already falling apart).

 Two consuls were the more usual senior ‘magistrates’, with powers like a king, but (at first) had yearly terms and an inability to be re-elected for another ten years. Each consul could veto the actions of the other so they had to rule by consensus, to further limit their powers. A consul was legally untouchable while in office as they were superior to all other magistrates.

This was still the model of a powerful patriarch (governed by honour and duty) but the Republic (after the experience with Rome’s last king) introduced ways to limit the power that a single man in Rome could get.

By law, consuls could only be patricians. During the conflict of orders when the plebians, for a period, insisted on the right to appoint the two ‘consuls’, they were called ‘consular tribunes’.

As governing Rome began more complex, other lesser magistrates were appointed: ‘praetors’ (literally meaning 'leaders'), propraeters and finally quaestors (treasurers) the most junior rank.

Proconsuls were retiring consuls who were nominated to continue some of their duties perhaps managing a war (but they were answerable to the consuls).

Plebian Tribunes  Part of the initial offer to resolve conflict at the very start of the Republic was the appointment of Plebian tribunes (by 449 BC there was a college of ten).

The body of a tribune was declared ‘sacrosanct’ which meant an offense against their person was an offence against the Gods. Not only that, the plebes also vowed to defend the person of each tribune ‘until death’.

At first plebes could not pass laws that applied to patricians but as they were declared sacrosanct, they could interpose their person (and then their will) to stop abuse of patrician power in the courts or the senate.

This was called the power of ‘veto’ (Latin ‘I forbid’).

They had to be physically present to do this, and their power ceased if they travelled more than one mile from the city.

Military expansion during the Early Republic

The last three kings of Rome were Etruscans and according to the founding legend, Etruscans were part of Rome from the beginning.

In the last quarter of the 6th century BC, the northern Etruscans were at their height, dominating the Latins and reaching as far as the Greek colony of Cumae in the south. By the time of the Republic, Etruscan power was waning and Rome had emerged as the strongest of the local Latins.

The Republic’s first two major wars were against Fidenae  (435 BC), a town near Rome originally held by the Etruscans but sometimes held by Rome , and then Veii (396 BC) , an important local Etruscan town that had once held hegemony over Rome.

Then the Gauls sacked Rome (390BC) and it took Rome s few decades to regain her former strength. 

The Latin league (in 340–338 BC) fought an unsuccessful war to establish their independence from a resurgent Rome.

 Cumae (once the greatest Greek colony in Italy) had been already been sacked (by the Oscans and Samnites in 421 BC) and the conclusion of the Latin wars gave Rome dominance over the central part of the west coast as far as Cumae.

Following on this, Rome grew quickly with colonisation and conquest, pushing further south (along the coast) and north against the Etruscans.

Rome’s reasons for first going to war with the Samnites are highly suspect. Even Livy admits that they were an ally (and a rival) of Rome at the time. They were besieging the wealthy city of Capua (also not an ally of Rome) and seemingly were close to taking possession of it.

According to Livy, the city asked for Roman help and was rebuffed. Then they offered their city unconditionally to the Romans. 

It was a very doubtful decision on moral grounds, but the Romans found it an offer too good to refuse. While the Romans sent emissaries (fetiales) to the Samnites, inviting them to withdraw, the Samnites were not pleased, not at all.

What followed were three hard fought wars (343 BC-290 BC), over half a century, where Rome with some lesser allies faced Samnites, Etruscans, Greeks, Sabines and others, even a few Gauls. It is not surprising that so many allied against what now seemed to be a dangerous predator, but Rome triumphed. The result gave Rome control of all central Italy from east to west. She was now the most powerful force in Italy.

 The Pyrrhic wars (280–275 BC) then gave her all the remaining former Greek colonies and Southern Italy.

She had already began to move against the last major Etruscan power (Volsinii) in 310 BC and the next eight years saw her mopping up residual Etruscan  resistance.

Now, mainland Italy (apart from a few Gauls (celts) on the Italic side of the alps) was all hers. 

It was 264 BC and Rome was on the brink of launching the first war against the Carthaginians. 

Next month’s blog will discuss the middle Republican period, beginning with an unjust war against Carthage. At the end, Rome had occupied Carthage, Macedonia and Greece. It had forced the large Seleucid Empire (one of the successors to Alexander the Great) out of Greece and the Greek cities along what is now the western coast of Turkey, forcing it to pay costly war reparations.

Despite this external success, Roman society was showing the signs of moral decay that would later spell the end of the Republic. 

The Middle Republican Period ends in 133 BC and it doesn't end with another great war or battle. It ended with the murder of a single man. 

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was a Plebian Tribune and a champion of the poor. He was trying to  help the poor and army veterans with land reforms. Unfortunately most of the senators were large land owners, often illegally making use of public land and a large group of them opposed him at every turn.

Tiberius was not a man to back down and it ended with his murder during a staged riot.

(Later, his younger brother, Gauis, became a great orator and also an elected tribune. His reforms were even more ambitious than Tiberius's and he was no less stubbornly determined. He was said to have suicided whilst being relentlessly chased by armed enemies).  

The third blog, and last of this series, deals with some of the events of the late republic. During this last hundred years or so (133–31 BC), Rome became consumed with the political use of the army, political murder, military coups, dictators and repeated civil wars.


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Sunday, 1 November 2020

The Last King of Rome

 The last King of Rome and the dawn of the Republic.

Lucius Tarquinus Superbus (Superbus meaning ‘the proud’) was the seventh and last king of Rome (reigned 335 BC-309 BC). It is not clear whether he is the son or grandson of the fifth king, also called Lucius Tarquinus, but with the epithet Priscus (‘the elder’).  After six ‘good’ kings, Superbus was said to be unmitigated villain (by his enemies).

Background, Roman Government

The power in ancient Rome was always concentrated in a powerful executive with broad powers. During the ‘Monarchy’ this was the king. They were mainly appointed, and it was for life.

In Republican times consuls and magistrates were appointed by the Senate and there were various curbs on their power.

During the Roman Empire, the Emperor was proclaimed by the army (and sometimes by ‘the mob in the street’) and this was then ratified by the Senate, sometimes with a degree of coercion. Some of the Emperors managed to successfully nominate their own successor, but succession could be and often was a bloody affair.

The Senate was the second most powerful institution in Rome and reached the height of its power about mid-way through the Republic.

The Senate was a council of ‘patriarchs’(leaders) of the prominent tribes or main family groups. 'Senate’ comes from 'senex’ old man, or elder so the original term meant a council of Elders to advise the King, though it had its own customary powers and functions

Later it included appointed magistrates (and war time leaders) still drawn (usually exclusively) from the Patrician class. During the time of the second last king, Servius, he expanded it to include less prominent families /tribes and he created a tribe for the commoners (the Plebeians).

As a result, the Senate was almost exclusively Patrician until late in the Republican with the rising power of the Plebs.

From the first, there were various people’s assemblies, presided over by a magistrate (mostly a Patrician), and at first they were limited to tribes (families/ clans) and hence they were dominated by the Patrician class.

 In general, the people’s assemblies had fairly limited power until late in the Republican era when the Plebeian assembly became a focus of power and anger at the ruling class and ‘the plebs’ began demanding the right to elect their own tribunes and magistrates, judge cases and pass laws (plebiscites). 

In the army, that same anger fostered the rise of military strong-men which eventually saw the end of the Republic (as discussed above).

 Emperors, Kings in everything but name

The first few Roman Emperors had many titles, but were at pains to portray themselves as 'Princeps Senatus', the leader of the Senate rather than the ‘king’(Latin, rex). For a long time they maintained an illusion that the Republic remained both alive and well.

Their absolute powers over government and the military meant they were kings in everything but name, and they were informally referred to as 'Basileus' (the Greek word for King). Basileus as a name for the Emperor didn't creep into official use until well into the time of the Greek -speaking Byzantine Empire.

A Tale of two women

The story of the rise of the last three (‘Etruscan’) kings of Rome begins with two clever but very different women.


The first is Tanaquil, the daughter of a powerful Etruscan family who was wife to Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. 

Her Etruscan name meant ‘Gift of Grace’ and on arriving in Rome, she took the name Gaia Caecilia (both from the Etruscan word for ‘happy’ and probably referring to her marriage to Priscus).

She was regarded as the model of womanly virtue, skilled in the domestic arts, particularly spinning and weaving, and credited with the origin of various Roman wedding customs. After her death, she was deified as a Goddess of healing and womanly virtue. 

Early Romans, like many others, venerated their ancestors who were considered immortal, so maybe deification might not have been such a  big step as it sounds. Maybe it resembled the veneration of a saint in some respects. (After all , Vesta was the main Goddess of the hearth).

Anyway, in addition to the above qualities, Tanaquil was educated in healing and the Etruscan arts of augury and prophecy. Because her husband had a Greek father, he couldn’t gain office amongst the Etruscans, and she convinced him to move to Rome. 

Legend has it that on his arrival, an eagle took his cap, flew away and then returned it back upon his head which Tanaquil interpreted as an omen of his future greatness.

The king himself noticed her husband and appointed him as the guardian of his own sons. After the King’s death, Tarquin addressed the people’s assembly and convinced them to elect him as king.

When he was assassinated (by the sons of the previous King during a staged riot), Tanaquil pretended he was still alive and appointed Servius Tullius, (another Etruscan) from her household, as regent. This allowed Servius Tullius to become king.

Tanaquil backed this up with tales of previous omens that she had ‘kept secret’, and she later allowed him to marry her daughter.

Tullia (Minor)

Now fast forward to a very different woman.

It was not uncommon in early Roman times for women to take a feminised version of their father’s (or 
husband’s) name. As a result, two of Servius Tullius’s daughters are only known as ‘Tullia major’ (the eldest, married to Lucius Tarquinius Superbus) and ‘Tullia Minor’ (married to his brother Arruns).

Tulia driving over her father, by Chairi

The younger sister was fierce and ambitious and was said to have conspired with Tarquin to murder Tullia Major and Arruns, so they could marry each other instead. She then encouraged her new husband to usurp Servius’s (her father’s) throne. When he had enough support, Superbus surrounded himself with armed men and sat on the throne, summoning the senators.

Servius hurried to confront him but the younger man flung him down the steps into the street and then had him set upon. As Tullia minor was driving home, she saw her father dying in the street and seized the reins from her chariot driver and spurred her horse and chariot over her father's corpse, spattering her dress with his blood.

Tarquin refused to bury the Servius, and then put to death a number of leading senators, whom he suspected of remaining loyal to the dead king. He continued to rule without the senate, judging capital crimes himself which lead men to fear opposing him.

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus as king

Superbus’s rule allegedly became known for arrogance and treachery, sacking various neighbouring towns to fund the building of temples while demolishing ancient Sabine shrines. 

Some of his (other) more infamous deeds include: 

1.      hiding swords in the house of one of his opponents and then accusing him at a meeting of Latin leaders of a plot to kill him. The swords were found and the accused man was executed by placing him in a deep well and putting a wooden frame on his head and throwing stones on top of the frame until he drowned.

2.      When he couldn’t conquer a Latin town,  Gabii, he got his son, Sextus to submit to flogging and then go there complaining of mistreatment by his father. Sextus was soon a leading citizen with command of the army. He sent a messenger to his father to inquire how he should deliver the city into his hands. The king, who was walking in his garden made no reply, but kept striking off the heads of the tallest poppies with his stick. Sextus took the hint, and put to death, or banished on false charges, all the leading men of Gabii, after which he had no difficulty in compelling the city to submit.

Talk about the tall poppy syndrome!

Superbus sacked several cities , bringing the wealth back to Rome to fund various building projects. It is said that when the populace became disenchanted with the cost, he again turned to conquest, this time Ardea, 35 kilometres to the south of Rome.

During the siege, it is said, that the bored young noblemen began drinking and comparing their wives.

Rape of Lucretia, Vecelli

Secret visits found that it was  Sextus’s cousin's wife, Lucretia, who was the most beautiful and the most dutiful. Struck by her beauty, Sextus returned to rape her with threats.

She later confessed what happened to her husband and then suicided. The (patrician) people’s assembly was called, and for this and other excesses, Tarquin’s ‘imperium’ was revoked. He was to be exiled and twin consuls appointed to rule Rome (with an election each year to limit their power).

When word of the uprising reached the king, he abandoned Ardea, and sought support from his Etruscan and Latin allies to march on Rome. Several attempts by him to regain his throne resulted in desperate battles. The most famous one was the assault by the Etruscan king Lars Porsena which led to the heroic deeds of Publius Horatius Cocles defending the bridge across the Tiber, allowing the Romans to retreat and the bridge be destroyed behind him.

Sextus was murdered by fellow Latins, and Superbus eventually went into exile in the Greek colony, Cumae, south of Rome.

But is this really what happened ?

The victor will always be the judge, and the vanquished the accused”.

an oft repeated adage, paraphrased by  Hermann Göring at his Nuremburg trial

As mentioned in the last blog, we have no written record of this time. For hundreds of years the only versions available were colourful tales often told by professional story tellers.

Adding to this, the victorious senators would have been keen to besmirch the reputation of the last king, as far as they could. All those who later gained power in the new Republic would hardly be interested in rehabilitating his reputation. Despite all this, Superbus hardly seems pure and innocent.

At the very least, he suppressed  the Senate. He likely murdered opponents. Of course this was the sharper edge of politics at the time. In a similar way, as soon as he was displaced, the rebels began killing his supporters for 'treason'.

Were the previous kings so much better?

Priscus was assassinated, partly by a mob led by the sons of the previous king.

And if Servius was such a great and popular king, how could he be so easily displaced, to die in the streets, alone and friendless, abandoned even by his own servants, and then driven over by his own daughter?

Some Patricians were involved in the plots to unseat the last three kings. Ambition had to play a part in this. Perhaps Superbus bypassing the Senate challenged powerful Patrician factions.

Furthermore, while I am not an expert,  I don't think it would be easy for Tulia to get her horses to trample a corpse lying in the streets. And if Lucius Tarquinus Superbus secretly hid swords in the house of an opponent to frame him, how do we find this out (if it was a secret)?

Lastly,  Lucius Tarquinus Superbus didn’t seem to lack friends in his attempts to retake his throne, maybe he wasn’t as unpopular as we have been led to believe.

Horatius (by Hendrick Golltzius)
As much as we all love the legend of Horatius holding the bridge (with two others and then alone when they were injured) it was very unlikely. The Etruscans knew about bows and arrows and it was said that he swam back to safety in full armour while arrows were falling all around him. 

There is also doubt as to whether the Etruscan king, Lars Porsena was acting for Superbus in his attack on Rome and maybe he wasn't beaten back. In one version he briefly occupied Rome.

Whatever really happened , this was a fight between the king and the senate and in this case the senate won. It was the end of the Roman kings and affected politics in Rome for many hundreds of years to come.

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