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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