The Roman Republic (Latin: Res Publica Romanorum) was the representative government of Rome and its territories from 510 BC until the establishment of the Roman Empire, sometimes placed at 44 BC (the year of Caesar's appointment as perpetual dictator) or, more commonly, 27 BC (the year that the Senate granted Octavianus the title "Augustus").
The city of Rome stands on the Tiber River very near the west coast of Italy. It marked the northernmost border of the territory in which the Latin language was spoken and the southern edge of Etruria, the territory in which the Etruscan language was spoken.
The Romans observed two principles for their officials: annuality or the observation of a one-year term and collegiality or the holding of the same office by at least two men at the same time. The supreme office of consul, for instance, was always held by two men together, each of whom exercised a power of mutual veto over any actions by the other consul. If the Roman army took the field under the command of the two consuls they alternated days of command. Most other offices were held by more than two men — in the late Republic there were 8 praetors a year and 20 quaestors.
The dictators were an exception to annuality and collegiality, and the censors to annuality. In times of emergency (always military) a single dictator was elected for a term of 6 months to have sole command of the state. On a regular but not annual basis two censors were elected: every five years for a term of 18 months.
The legion formed the backbone of Roman military power.
History of the Republic
The legendary founding of Rome — 753 BC
The Romans were very much convinced that their city was founded in the year 753 BC. Rome has often been said to have been started by Romulus and Remus. It was then, tradition had it, ruled by kings for several centuries.
The foundation of the Republic — 509 BC
Livy's version of the establishment of the Republic states that the last of the Kings of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus ("Tarquin the proud") had a thoroughly unpleasant son, Sextus Tarquinius, who raped a Roman noblewoman named Lucretia. Lucretia compelled her family to take action by gathering the men, telling them what happened, and killing herself. They then were compelled to avenge her, and led an uprising that drove the royal house, the Tarquins, out of Rome to take refuge in Etruria.
Lucretia's husband Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus and Lucius Junius Brutus gained election as the first two consuls, the chief officers of the new Republic. (The Marcus Junius Brutus who assassinated Julius Caesar claimed descent from this first Brutus).
The early consuls took over the roles of the king with the exception of his high priesthood in the worship of Jupiter Optimus Maximus at the huge temple on the Capitoline Hill. For that duty the Romans elected a Rex sacrorum or "king of holy things." Until the end of the Republic the accusation that a powerful man wanted to make himself king remained a career-shaking charge. (Julius Caesar's assassins claimed after they acted that they were preserving Rome from the re-establishment of an explicit monarchy.)
Patricians and plebeians
The people of Rome were divided into patricians and plebeians. These words have taken on such different connotations of wealth and ordinariness in modern English that they must be examined in their Roman context. The two classes were ancestral and inherited. One's class was fixed by birth rather than by wealth, and though patricians had in the early Republic monopolized all political offices and probably most of the wealth, there are always signs of wealthy plebeians in the historical record, and many patrician families had lost both wealth and any political influence by the later Republic. One could move from one class to the other by adoption, as did the political operator Clodius, who managed to have himself adopted into a plebeian branch of his own family for political purposes in the late Republic, but this rarely occurred. By the 2nd century BC the classifications had meaning predominantly in religious functions — many priesthoods remained restricted to patricians.
The relationship between the plebeians and the patricians sometimes came under such a strain that the plebeians would secede from the city — they literally left the city, took their families and movable possessions, and set up camp on a hill outside the walls. These secessions happened in 494, 450, and around 287 BC. Their refusal to co-operate any longer with the patricians led to social changes on each occasion. In 494 BC, only about 15 years after the establishment of the Republic, the plebeians for the first time elected two leaders, to whom they gave the title Tribunes. The "plebs" took an oath that they would hold their leaders 'sacrosanct' or inviolate during their terms of office, and that the united plebs would kill anyone who harmed a tribune. The second secession led to further legal definition of their rights and duties and increased the number of tribunes to 10. The final secession gave the vote of the Concilium Plebis or "Council of the Plebeians" the force of law.
Rome's military and diplomatic successes around the Mediterranean resulted in new and unaccustomed pressures on the structures of the old city-state. While factional strife had become a traditional part of Roman life, the stakes were now far higher; a corrupt provincial governor could enrich himself far beyond anything his ancestors imagined possible, and a successful military commander needed only the support of his legions in order to rule vast territories. In addition, small landowners were displaced in favor of large slave-run estates, resulting in large numbers of unemployed urbanites.
Beginning with the agrarian reform of Tiberius Gracchus in 133, the political convulsions became more and more severe, resulting in a series of dictatorships, civil wars, and temporary armed truces during the next century. Much of the political record of this period has survived, and we are able to understand it in some depth.
Gracchus' reform was simply to put more land in the hands of veterans, but ominously, his Senatorial opponents responded to his political machinations by killing him in the street. His younger brother Gaius Gracchus continued the reform efforts, promoted the extension of the franchise to all the cities of Italy, and established the equites as a new force in Roman politics.
If there is a point after which the Roman Repulbic was doomed, it would be the killing of the Gracchi. This showed that in extreme situations Rome was ruled by force and nothing else. Marius, Sulla, Julius Caesar and Ocatvian (later known as Augustus) learned this lesson and applied it more effectively and ruthlessly than the Senators.
A conservative reaction brought power back to the Senate, but they prosecuted the Jugurthine War of 112-105 so poorly, on top of a slave war in Sicily, and losses at the hands of Germanic tribes, of whom the Cimbri destroyed consular armies at Arausio in 105. Rome was saved by Marius, who held multiple consulships 103-101 while defeating the Teutones at Censored page (102) and the Cimbri near Vercellae in the following year. But Marius' military reforms had resulted in an army of proletarian volunteers with no special love for the Senate, and Marius' political allies used the army to threaten the Senate into passing laws reducing the Senate's power. Marius curbed his own allies, and took himself into lesser positions.
Again the Senate proved itself unequal to its role, and failed to deal with the growing discontent of the allies in Italy. After the reformer Livius Drusus was assassinated in 91, almost all of the Italian allies of Rome rebelled in what the Romans called the Social War (allies = Socii, related to the English "associates"). The Romans were only able to end the war in 88 by granting citizenship to all Italians living south of the Po River.
At the same time, Mithridates VI of Pontus overran Bithynia, the latest of several provocations which, this time, forced Rome to act. But Marius and Sulla contended over the command of the army, ending with Sulla marching on Rome with several legions, outlawing his opponents and passing laws favoring the Senate. Sulla then went to Greece, defeated Mithridates at Chaeronea in 86, then returned in 83 to overthrow Marius' ally Cinna. In the following year, Sulla secured appointment as dictator and used the post to reduce the power of the tribunes and the army, although the changes did not long survive his voluntary retirement in 79.
Large-scale agriculture in the Italian peninsula came to depend on slavery in the latifundia system, and was rocked by a severe slave revolt (the Third Servile War) led by Spartacus that lasted from 73 BC to 71 BC
Spartacus was a Thracian slave, and was trained as a gladiator. In 73 BC he and some of his comrades rebelled at Capua and fled towards mount Vesuvius. The rebel numbers quickly grew to about 70,000, comprising mainly Thracian, Gaul and German slaves.
Initially, Spartacus and his second in command Crixus succeeded in defeating several legions sent against them piecemeal. Once a unified command was established under Licinius Crassus who had six legions, the rebellion was crushed in 71 BC. About 10,000 slaves fled the battlefield.
The fleeing slaves were intercepted by Pompey who was returning from Spain, and 6000 were crucified along Via Appia from Capua to Rome. Although Crassus did most of the fighting against the rebels, Pompey claimed the victory. This was a source of tension between the two men.
In the final analysis, once the Romans found the right leadership the rebels were quickly defeated. This does not subtract from the achievement of Spartacus, who was able to unite a band of slaves into a fighting force capable of defeating several legions.
The whole incident showed the weakness of the Senate and the regime of the late Roman Republic.
The end of the Republic
In the end, the Roman world became too large and complicated for the structures of the republic to cope, and after a period of civil war ended by the Battle of Actium (31 BC), Augustus Caesar established the form of government that would later be regarded as the Roman Empire, with himself as its first Emperor. The transition from Republic to Empire was swift, yet subtle; rather than making a direct grab for power after the civil wars, Augustus' first move was to supposedly return power to the Senate in 27 BC. Augustus was granted the Consulship. Seeking more power, and with the aid of a Senate planted with Senators who sided with him, Augustus was granted the power of the tribune and also imperium proconsulare maius - supreme authority. 23 BC is the year that Augustus became the first of what historians now call an Emperor of Rome; the title that was used for him in his time was "First Citizen". A brilliant propagandist, he was very careful to cloak his takeovers in republican disguises. Augustus led Rome to great prosperity and four decades of civic peace. A generation of Romans were born and died in the course of his forty-five years as First Citizen, and this was now all that the people knew rather than the old days of the Republic. As such, the way was clear for Augustus to appoint a successor to his powers and the Republic was then lost.
If there is a point after which the Roman Republic was doomed, it was the killing of the Gracchi. Both killings were probably illegal. They showed that disputes about power in Rome would be settled by force and only in the interests of those who could use force - not by principles nor in the interests of the whole population. Marius, Sulla, Julius Caesar and Octavian (later known as Augustus) learned this lesson and applied it more effectively than the Senators.
But the killing of the Gracchi was a symptom of a more fundamental problem - the optimates, the aristocratic faction which had always dominated the Senate, had never completely accepted that plebeians (commoners) had rights. For example, Gaius Gracchus' reforms were motivated by his observation that military service had ruined many small farmers, so that their farms were taken over by the large landowners and the impoverished veterans became part of the unstable urban mob. This was not a new problem, in fact it was one of the triggers for the First Secession of the Plebs (what we would call a 'general strike') in 494BC. For centuries the Senators ignored this and other issues which might lead to a reduction in their privileges - for example they allowed to fall into disuse the Licinian-Sextian Laws (367BC), which limited the amount of public land one family could use for its own benefit. Gaius Gracchus' proposals were largely a rather moderate way of re-applying the Licinian-Sextian Laws.
To be fair, the Senate faced two problems which modern governments find very difficult - structural unemployment and a rapid change in the distribution of wealth. After the Second Carthaginian War (218-201BC) Rome's campaigns in Greece and Asia Minor brought into the city large numbers of educated slaves. Rome's wealthiest men bought these slaves and used them as craftsmen and adminstrators, which destroyed a lot of small businesses and forced their bankrupt proprietors to become part of the urban mob. But the arrogance and greed of the aristocratic Senators made it impossible for them to solve these problems, or even to face them.
In the end the only people in Rome who had any stake in the Republic were the aristocrats, and the lack of wider support left the Republic at the mercy of any competent general with loyal troops.
Political bodies of the Republic
Political institutions of the Republic
- Pontifex Maximus
- Princeps senatus
- Cursus honorum
Figures of the Republic
- Ahenobarbus family
- Julius Caesar
- Gracchi (Tiberius)
- Gracchi (Gaius)
- C. Marius
- Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus
- Marcus Licinius Crassus
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
Latin literature of the Republic
- Julius Caesar
- Fabius Pictor
- Livius Andronicus
- Grout, James: Encyclopaedia Romana
- Sinnigen, William G.; Boak, Arthur E. R.: A History of Rome to 565 A.D., Macmillan.