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The Roman Republic

History of Rome: Hadrian's Wall

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After the deposal of the last Etruscan king, in 509-10 BC, Rome abolished her regal system and instituted a new political order, the Republic.
The king was replaced by two consuls and a range of lesser magistrates, elected annually by the whole male citizen body. The consuls chose an advisory council, the Senate, at first ad hoc, later according to well-defined qualifications (of landed wealth, military and political service).
The consuls led the army in times of war and had executive powers in most others matters. Army service was a duty of citizenship but it was also a privilege for which only the wealthier (who could supply their own equipment) were eligible.
Soon a small group of aristocratic families, the patricians, managed to gain a virtual monopoly on the consulship and most other civic and priestly offices till the late 5th century BC, when the plebeians formed their own alternative state within the state and fought successfully in the course of the 4th century to win equal rights.
A large part of the solution relied on further territorial expansion, to acquire more land which was then allocated among the plebeians. The first city conquered was Veii, a major Etruscan rival a few kilometres north of Rome on the other side of the Tiber, in 396 BC.
After Veii Roman armies moved against the rest of Latium and up into the mountains of Samnium, making treaties by threat or outright war until the whole of central Italy was under Roman control.
The last Greek stronghold at Taranto was captured in 272 BC.

Once started, the process of conquest was difficult to arrest. Rome's way to obtain and maintain power in Italy had been to make her enemies into allies and co-opt with them into her own military machine, offering them a share of the booty in return for more fighting men to go on more campaigns.
After peninsular Italy, the next step was to move over to Sicily in 264 BC, which brought a series of wars with Carthage (near modern Tunis), whose great trading empire ranged from the coast of North Africa over western Sicily, Sardinia, and southern Spain.
The three wars between Rome and her rival are known as the Three Punic Wars (265 BC, 219 BC, 149 BC) and ended in 149 BC with the destruction of Carthage, razed and covered with salt.
During this century of wars Rome notably extended its domination eventually assuming the role of capital of the Mediterranean.
By the 1st century BC Rome had the control over Spain, North Africa, the Balkans, Greece, most of the Aegean, and large parts of Asia Minor and central North Africa.

After the victorious campaigns, Rome had to learn to administer its conquests.
At the beginning the task was very hard because Rome had virtually no bureaucracy, and the Romans preferred not to expand their administrative apparatus.
Rome initially used to establish alliances with foreign states and cities or to annex them as provinces governed governor, annually elected by the Roman senate, who held the civil and military authority of that province.
Their absolute power led many of them to overlook extortion by tax collectors and to commit bribery. The corruption was not effectively prosecuted since the courts showed a strong bias towards the senatorial class.
The Roman statesman Cato the Elder's sour prediction that foreign conquest would corrupt Rome itself proved all to be true.

Life in the Roman Republic

Rome's military triumphs brought increased power and prestige to the leading families and to the Senate. Even though an advisory body, the Senate held an unchallenged control over state finances, war, and foreign relations.
Affected by this total power, many senators adopted a very arrogant behaviour, deeply deplored by Cato the Elder. Romans traditionally deplored luxury and ostentation, but the immense wealth that streamed into the Senator's hands led them to show off their richness through the erection of magnificent homes enriched by artistic decorations imported especially from Greece.
Romans competed with each other to erect lavish temples and public buildings, as well as to offer sumptuous banquets. Roman nobility was completely affected by the Greeks and both men and women began to imitate their lavish lifestyle, particularly evident in the ostentation of personal and home adornment.


The wars with Carthage had a deep impact on the Italian land. The 15 years of Hannibal's incursions had notably impoverished the countryside.
Livestock and farms have been destroyed by the enemy forces, while large part of natural resources as timber and forests have been exploited by Romans to outfit their navy.
During that time many farmers left their lands to join the army.

Most of those impoverished lands were bought by wealthy Romans and landed by the thousands of slaved conquered and captured during the wars.
While the farmers began to move to the cities to enlarge the size of the urban population, the slaves had to stand a more and more brutal treatment by the greedy landlords.
This situation eventually led to rebellions, most of which led no practical improvement to the conditions of the prisoners. Life in the city was much better.
Craft workers and labourers could easily find work and enjoy the amusement of Rome thanks to the new wealth provided by the successful campaigns, which pushed the state and the senators to commission great private and public constructions.
But this meant also that workers increasingly became dependent on an expanding urban economy and the generosity of politicians.

In the meanwhile the army faced serious recruitment problems. The growing numbers of landless poor could no more satisfy the basic pecuniary requirements for military service while the eligible ones hesitated to serve long tours of duty overseas since their lands might be at risk during their absence.
Armies were necessary for an imperial power, but neither Roman citizens nor the increasing resentful Italians found enlistment attractive.
The resentment was due to the fact that even though by the 2nd century BC Italians peoples were highly integrated with Romans and could enjoy the profits of the empire, legally they were still considered as subjects.


The wealth and expansion of republic Rome led to the creations of new social groups, the nobiles and the equites. The nobilies were enriched plebs or aristocrats who joined into a new aristocracy of wealthy officeholders.
Their social status was determined by different factors such as lineage, wealth, landholdings, military reputation, and political achievements.
The equites, soon famous for their greed and corruption, were tradesmen who got rich thanks to the fact that they were not limited in their business affairs as the senators.
By the 2nd century BC, those entrepreneurs in business with the state were involved in a variety of economic activities that guaranteed them a political power parallel to that of the senatorial order.


Through their conquests Romans came in contact with high developed cultures, especially the Greek one, which encouraged the spread and development of their innovations in architecture, engineering, literature, and art.


Roman originality was more evident in engineering and construction than in decorative arts.
By 300 BC Appius Claudius Caecus had commissioned the pavement of the military road south to Capua, the Appian Way and of the first aqueduct of Rome.
Taking these projects as models, Romans have continued to build lots of roads and aqueducts throughout their empire. Initially Roman adopted from Etruscans the use of the arch and the temple of wood decorated with terracotta.
For most monumental buildings such as baths, amphitheatres, aqueducts, and markets they themselves pioneered the use of concrete covered by brick. In the 2nd century BC, the encounter with the Hellenic tradition and the widespread wealth among the aristocrats, favoured the spread of the colonnades and marble.
At the same time Romans developed their own characteristic public buildings called basilicas-large covered spaces for politics, laws, and commerce.
This is the same kind of structure adopted much later, in the 4th century AD, by the early Christians for their churches.


Despite the existence of a vibrant Greek culture in southern Italy, Roman literature developed quite slowly.
Before the 3rd century BC, the language adopted to write important works was Greek, while Latin was used only for few official documents such as the Twelve Tables, family records, or brief personal identifications.

The first work in Latin was a translation of Lucius Livius Andronicus (284?-204 BC) of the Homer's Odyssey.
Aside from some fragments of works written in Latin, the first works that survived in their totality are 20 plays of Plautus (254?-184 BC), humorous adaptations of Greek plays.
Ingeniously set in Greece, these plays denounce and ridicule Roman society through stereotyped characters, such as shrewd slaves, pompous soldiers, lovesick young men. Another great playwriter who followed even more faithfully the Greek model was Terence (195-159 BC).
Greek philosophy has influenced the writings of the poet Lucretius (94?-55? BC) "De Rerum Natura" ("On the Nature of Things") and of Catullus (84?-54? BC), whose best and most famous work is his cycle of 25 love letters addressed to the mysterious Lesbia.

Prose writers often wrote histories for propagandistic reasons. The first prose writer was Cato the Elder, whose "De Agri Cultura" ("On Agriculture", 160? BC) is the oldest surviving non-fiction work in Latin.
The history of Rome he wrote is clearly intended to bolster his own reputation and disparage the aristocratic families he despised.
Even the excellent Julius Caesar's (100-44 BC) "De Bello Gallico" and "De Bello Civili", the two famous historic books on the Gallic War and on the Civic War are two masterpieces of propaganda.
His former deputy Sallust has left short stories written in a terse, bare, and precise Latin that imitated Cato's style and was directly contrasting Cicero's rich prose.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was one of the greatest Roman writers, a noted orator, philosopher, and essayist. His works influenced the development of political philosophy, rhetoric, and prose style through the centuries and exceed the impact of any other Roman writer.


As for all the forms of art, Romans were initially influenced both in painting and sculpture by Etruscan style and then by the Greek one. They adopted wall painting and, later, fresco painting and mosaic work for decoration in the houses but unfortunately almost nothing of this most fragile art has survived from the Roman Republic.
Much more has survived from sculpture. The earliest artists were Etruscans but most of the marble sculpture was modelled on the Greek style.
The exceptions were Roman portrait-busts, far more realistic than their idealized Greek equivalents.

Civil Wars (133-44 BC)

In the space of just two centuries Rome had gone from being a small city-state among many others of its kind, albeit a fairly important one, to being the ruler of the Mediterranean and eventually mistress of her whole known world.
A simple agricultural community had become a commercial giant whose conquests poured gold, grain, and slaves into Italy. After four centuries of successful adaptations concerning economy, society, and culture, Rome had to face a necessary revision of the political institution in order to accommodate these changes.
The Roman elite no longer retained their traditional values as evidenced by laws against electoral bribery and provincial corruption, luxury, and excessive victory possessions.
The republican government developed for a city of 10,000 inhabitants could not administer an empire of millions.
A series of problems such as the army, the non citizen Italian allies, the urban poor, the exploited provincials, the brutality of the slave plantations, the inadequate financial system led to the biggest internal crises in centuries.

The Gracchi

History of Rome: Brothers Gracchi

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As soon as the pace of constant warfare and conquest abroad slowed down in the late 2nd century BC, things started to come apart at home, fuelled by various rebellions and counter-attacks in the new territories.
The republican-style army and powerful negotiating skills had achieved an empire but were not really capable of running it. The first thing needed was a professional, long-service army, which the state could deploy quickly and at will.
Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, elected as tribune in 133 BC, proposed a land law to limit private occupation of public property to 300 acres and to distribute the excess in 20-acres parcels to the landless.
This measure was intended to reduce the unemployed population of Rome, to make the poor eligible for military service, and to reverse the dangerous trend toward enormous plantations worked by slaves.
His proposal was vetoed and when he took the unprecedented step of standing for re-election a rioting broke out and a mob led by senators killed Tiberius and some of his followers. For the first time in centuries, violence had entered Roman politics.
Tiberius's younger brother, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, once elected, proposed an even more radical program of social and political reform encouraging the political aspirations of the equites and proposing that Rome extended citizenship to all the people of Italy. He died too in a street fighting.

These events underlined on one hand the increasing demanding of the Italian people, the equites and the populares, a new breed of politicians who advocated of the people (populus), and on the other one the moral and political weakness of the Senate, that could only maintain its dominance through violence.
The progressive escalation of these conflicts ended with the destruction of the republic.

A generation after the Gracchi, the military entered political life.
The Roman general Gaius Marius won the consulship in 107 BC with a popular mandate to defeat Joghurta, the king of Numidia who killed Italian traders, bribed Roman officials, and humiliated the Roman army in a drawn-out guerrilla war.
Marius recruited a large army by enrolling and providing arms to landless volunteers. This was the first step towards the abolishment of the old property qualification and the enlistment and training of a proletariat force.
But in so doing, Marius left a fatal legacy of professional armies whose soldiers were loyal to a general who recruited them and promised them land in return for their political support.
Politicians had found a powerful new weapon: a personal army that was no longer loyal to the Senate and the Romans people. As a result of this dangerous situation, the best part of the 1st century BC was taken up in a series of military dictatorships (magistrates given supreme powers to deal with emergencies) and terrible internal wars as a system struggled to find its feet.
First the Italian allies aided and abetted by opposing Roman generals Marius and Sulla took up arms against Rome in the so-called Social Wars (90-88 BC), winning the right of citizenship and other concessions.
Then Marius and Sulla fought it out between each other (in 88-82 BC), then Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar (49-45) and ultimately Mark Antony and Octavian (44-31) variously conspired and battled, with terrible loss of life.

Julius Caesar

History of Rome: Gaius Julius Caesar

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Gaius Julius Caesar was one of the most extraordinary of all the ancient Romans. Besides a genial general, he was a sophisticated man, a poet and scholar as well as the only orator of the time who could rival Cicero.
His immense charm brought him the loyalty of men and women and a great popularity and his resoluteness, consistency, and extraordinary grasp of the existing political situation led him to become the first dictator for life of Rome.

In 61 BC, together with Crassus and Pompey he formed the First Triumvirate. When his consulship ended, in 58 BC, he became governor of Gaul.
During the course of a decade he subdued most of the Gaul displaying his great military abilities. When he came back with his army to Italy, in 49 Bc, he began the civil war to preserve his honour, undermined by his greatest rival in the Senate, Pompey.
He followed, and defeated, him to Egypt where he first restored Queen Cleopatra to the Egyptian throne and then brought her to Rome in 44 BC as his mistress.
At that time he assumed the position of dictator for life.

Caesar initiated a legislative whirlwind. He promoted a series of social and economic measures to control debt, regulate traffic in Rome, and impose import tariffs to help Italian industry. He also promoted an ambitious building program that included the Forum of Julius to accommodate public business.
Conceiving Rome as an empire rather than merely as a city-state with overseas possessions, he reorganized the government of the Roman possessions and extended the citizenship to cities in Gaul and Spain.
On March 15, 44 BC, Caesar was fatally stabbed by a group of senators, including his protégé Brutus, so that his broad vision was to be followed and fulfilled by his great-nephew and political heir, Gaius Octavian.


Do you want to read more about the Roma's History? Here the links to the other sections:

The Early Rome
The Roman Empire
Rome in the Middle Age
The Renaissance
Baroque Rome
The Risorgimento
Modern Rome
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