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9: The Roman Republic

  • Page ID
    17043
  • In many ways, Rome defines Western Civilization. Even more so than Greece, the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire that followed created the idea of a single, united civilization sharing certain attributes and providing a lasting intellectual and political legacy. Its boundaries, from what is today England to Turkey and from Germany to Spain, mark out the heartland of what its inhabitants would later consider itself to be “The West” in so many words. The Greek intellectual legacy was eagerly taken up by the Romans and combined with unprecedented organization and engineering on a scale the Greeks had never imagined, even under Alexander the Great.

    • 9.1: Roman Origins
      Rome was originally a town built amidst seven hills surrounded by swamps in central Italy. The Romans were just one group of “Latins,” central Italians who spoke closely-related dialects of the Latin language. Rome itself had a few key geographical advantages. Its hills were easily defensible, making it difficult for invaders to carry out a successful attack. It was at the intersection of trade routes, thanks in part to its proximity to a natural ford in the Tiber River.
    • 9.2: The Celts
      Eventually, when the Romans began to expand beyond Italy itself, it was the Celts who were first conquered and then assimilated into the Republic. The Romans regarded Celts as barbarians, but they were thought to be barbarians who were at least capable of assimilating and adopting "true" civilization from the Romans. Centuries later, the descendants of conquered Celts considered themselves fully Roman.
    • 9.3: The Republic
      The Roman Republic had a fairly complex system of government and representation, but it was one that would last about 500 years and preside over the vast expansion of Roman power. An assembly, called the Centuriate Assembly, was elected by the citizens and created laws. Each year, the assembly elected two executives called consuls to oversee the laws and ensure their enforcement. The consuls had almost unlimited power, known as imperium.
    • 9.4: Class Struggle
      Rome struggled with a situation analogous to that of Athens, in which the rich not only had a virtual monopoly on political power, but in many cases had the legal right to either enslave or at least extract labor from debtors. In Rome's case, an ongoing class struggle called The Conflict of Orders took place from about 500 BCE to 360 BCE (140 years!), in which the plebeians struggled to get more political representation.
    • 9.5: Roman Expansion
      Roman expansion began with its leadership of a confederation of allied cities, the Latin League against nearby hill tribes that had periodically raided the area, then against the Etruscans that had once ruled Rome itself. Just as the Romans started to consider further territorial expansion, a fierce raiding band of Celts sacked Rome in 389 BCE, a setback that took several decades to recover from. In the aftermath, the Romans swore to never let the city fall victim to an attack again.
    • 9.6: The Punic Wars
      Rome's great rival in this early period of expansion was the North-African city of Carthage, founded centuries earlier by Phoenician explorers. Carthage was one of the richest and most powerful trading empires of the Hellenistic Age, a peer of the Alexandrian empires to the east, trading with them and occasionally skirmishing with the Ptolemaic armies of Egypt and with the Greek cities of Sicily.
    • 9.7: Greece
      Thus, after centuries of warfare, by 140 BCE the Romans controlled almost the entire Mediterranean world, from Spain to Anatolia. They had not yet conquered the remaining Hellenistic kingdoms, namely those of the Seleucids in Mesopotamia and the Ptolemies in Egypt, but they controlled a vast territory nonetheless. Even the Ptolemies, the most genuinely independent power in the region, acknowledged that Rome held all the real power in international affairs.
    • 9.8: Greco-Roman Culture
      The Romans had been in contact with Greek culture for centuries, ever since the Etruscans struck up their trading relationship with the Greek poleis of southern Italy. By the time the Romans finally conquered Greece itself, they had already spent hundreds of years absorbing Greek ideas and culture, modeling their architecture on the great buildings of the Greek Classical Era and studying Greek ideas.
    • 9.9: Roman Society
      The government of the late Republic was still in the form of the Plebeian Assembly, the Centuriate Assembly, the Senate, ten tribunes, two consuls, and a court system under formal rules of law. By the late Republic, however, a network of patrons and clients had emerged that largely controlled the government. Elite families of nobles, through their client networks, made all of the important decisions.
    • 9.10: The End of the Republic
      The political stability of the Republic up until the aftermath of the Punic Wars had never been open fighting between elite Romans in the name of political power. In a sense, Roman expansion had united the Romans; despite their constant political battles within the assemblies and the senate, it had never come to actual bloodshed. Both that unity and that emphasis on peaceful conflict resolution within the Roman state itself began to crumble after the sack of Carthage.
    • 9.11: Caesar
      Julius Caesar’s rise to power is a complex story that reveals just how murky Roman politics were by the time he became an important political player in about 70 BCE. Caesar himself was both a brilliant general and a shrewd politician; he was skilled at keeping up the appearance of loyalty to Rome's ancient institutions while exploiting opportunities to advance and enrich himself and his family. He was loyal, in fact, to almost no one, even old friends who had supported him.
    • 9.12: Mark Antony and Octavian
      ollowing his death, Caesar's right-hand man, a skilled general named Mark Antony, joined with Octavian and another general named Lepidus to form the Second Triumvirate. In 43 BCE they seized control in Rome and then launched a successful campaign against the old Republican loyalists, killing off the men who had killed Caesar and murdering the strongest senators and equestrians who had tried to restore the old institutions.
    • 9.13: Conclusion
      The Roman Republic's rise to power was in no way inevitable. No Roman leader had a "master plan" to dominate the Mediterranean world, and the Romans of 500 BCE would have been shocked to find Rome ruling over a gigantic territory a few centuries later. Likewise, the demise of the Republic was not inevitable, either. The class struggles and political rivalries that ultimately led to the rise of Caesar and then to the true transformation brought about by Octavian could have gone very differently.

    Thumbnail: Statue of Julius Caesar, Via dei Fori Imperiali, Rome. (CC BY-SA 4.0; Leomudde via Wikipedia)

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