Early Roman Society

Rome and the Romans have had a profound affect upon civilization.  Not only language, but also Roman administrative practices have become part of our modern world.  Many modern European cities, such as London, Paris, and Vienna began as Roman colonies or military camps.  The framers of the American Constitution looked to Rome for a framework.  Napoleon and Benito Mussolini both modeled themselves and their empires after the Romans

 Geography:  One must first understand the influence of Geography to understand the success and influence of the Romans. The old expression is:  The three most important things in business are location, location, and location.  It was true for the Romas also.  Their geographic location made a huge difference in their success.

 Italy was prime for development:  

·         Fertile lands, good for farming—this encouraged population growth.·         Apennine Mountains offered some defense to the North (but it was not an absolute defense; a number of people who invaded Rome did so from the North.

·         Rivers are shallow, and there are few natural harbors, so the area was easily defended from invasion by land.

·         There was convenient access to the Eastern and Western Mediterranean.

The City of Rome was built on the Tiber River in an area of the Italian Peninsula known as Latium; hence the term “Latin." Roman Civilization can be divided into two phases:

Roman Republic:  509 B.C. – 48 B.C.
Roman Empire:
  48 B.C. – 476 A.D.

             Later, the Empire divided into two parts, Western and Eastern.  The Western, with Rome itself as the Capital, fell in 476 A.D.  The Eastern Empire lasted for almost another 1,000 years, until 1456. 


            Mythically, the Romans believed that the City itself was founded by two twin Brothers, Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she-wolf named “Sylvia.”  The scene of Romulus and Remus being nursed by the she-wolf is the Roman equivalent of a Manger Scene.

             Five main population groups entered the area:

 ·         Celts (often called the Gauls) -- chiefdom-oriented tribes of Germanic origin.  Had very little influence of Roman civilization.
Etruscans – settled area around present day Florence, then called “Etruria.  Little is known about them, their language is unlike any other language (which suggests that they were indigenous to the area) and has never been translated or deciphered. The little that is known suggests they were highly influenced by Greeks; had a city-state type culture.

 ·         Latins – on the Tiber River in Latium.  They were conquered early on by the Etruscans, ruled by an Etruscan King, and Etruscan aristocracy.

These people were the parents of the Romans –Romans drew much of their civilization from the Greek and Etruscan culture.

 The Etruscans were the dominant influence in the area, and contributed heavily to Roman Civilization.  Among their contributions:

 ·         They were the first to use the Arch for building bridges.  It is a form that adds strength, and dissipates the weight of a structure.  It is from the Arch that we get our word “architecture.”

·         Introduced soothsayers, and goods with human forms, mostly borrowed from the Greeks, of course.  “Beware the ides of March.”

·         Held slave fights – typically at funerals, as a blood memorial to one’s greatness. These were the forerunner of the Gladiatorial games.

·         Started public parades as welcomes for War heroes.

·         Adopted the Greek alphabet; somewhat altered, but in use still today. 

The Etruscans dominated Italy for several hundred years. They built large cities, established political and economic alliances between their settlements, and developed the ability to manufacture bronze and iron implements of high quality. They built a large trading fleet and traded throughout the Mediterranean. They still faced challenges, however. They were defeated at sea by a fleet of Greek ships and attacked from the west by Celtic tribes. .

About 509 B.C. the Romans, led by Junius Brutus, overthrew a particularly cruel Etruscan ruler, and established a Greek Style city-state.  This was the origin of the Roman Republic. 

The Roman Republic 

Rome first existed as a Republic, with a Constitution.  It was not a single written document, but a series of laws, etc. that guaranteed certain rights to every Roman citizen. In the Republic, almost anyone who lived on the Italian peninsula could become a Roman citizen.  He could not vote, unless he lived in Rome itself; but otherwise had all the other benefits of citizenship.  The Romans were very practical, and made these people part of the republic, not ruled by it, as the Greeks had done with the city-states, which failed. The entire republic was connected by a system of roads and highways which made transportation to and from Rome easy; and also allowed armies to move easily. The existence of the Roman roads made life much easier.  They even built a system to bring in water, the aqueduct.

             There were two classes of people in the old Roman Republic: 

·         Patricians:  land-owning families; wealthy and respected; “old money.”  For many years, they were the only class eligible for Public Office.  They were about 30% of the population, but had 70% of the wealth. They elected the Consuls (described below) who held military and civil power. The Patricians had the right to sit in the Roman Senate, also described below.

The Latin “Pater” means “father,” so they were literally the “city fathers.” 

·         Plebeians:  “everybody else.”  Originally, they had no right to participate in public affairs; however, as a result of much bad feeling between the two groups, in the fifth century, a Constitution was adopted, and a Republican form of Government was adopted. Under the constitution, the Plebeians had the right to elect a tribune who represented their interests in the government. Tribunes could intervene in all political matters, and could veto any measure they deemed unfair. Originally, there were two tribunes, but the number later rose to ten.

 Government under the Republic:  The Roman Constitution was altered on several occasions to more effectively reflect the interests of the Republic. Ultimately, several legislative bodies and elected officials shared power:   

·         The Senate:  members of old, Patrician families.  Eventually had full authority over government finance and foreign policy.

 The importance of the Senate is often seen in Roman Movies, where one sees the phrase SPQR.  In Latin, it is Senatus populusque Romanus:  Literally, “the Senate and the Roman People. 

The Centuriate Assembly (Comitia Centuria):  military organization; made up of all property-owning males.  It eventually ceased to exist.

Consuls: had to be 40 years old, have military and government experience.  Two were elected each year; had veto power and right of sacrosanctitas.  They were always Patricians

Concilium Plebis:  Only Plebeians could serve.  Eventually this body had full authority over domestic affairs.

Praetors:  two per year, in charge of domestic affairs.

Tribunes:  In charge of protecting rights of plebeians.  Low person on Government totem pole.  Good place to start a political career.

Censor:  most respected man in Republic.  He was elected every five years and enrolled new families in Senate; he also prosecuted Senators accused of corruption.

Pontifex Maximus:  served for life.  He was the “Chief Priest,” responsible for setting the calendar for the year, decided which days appropriate for public business, which were not.  He chose the time for moveable feasts, and was in charge of taking the auspices, reading the omens.

By allowing both Plebeians and the Patricians a voice in government, the Republic managed to largely avoid class tension. During times of civil or military crisis, the Romans appointed an official known as a Dictator, who held absolute power for a period of six months. This extraordinary measure allowed the republic to remain stable even during times of crisis.

Expansion of the Roman Republic

During the early years of the Republic, the Romans faced external pressure from the Etruscans and Celtic people who pushed inward. Over time, the Romans were able to suppress these peoples and establish a dominant state in central Italy. They eventually gained control of the entire Italian peninsula. They maintained control by establishing military colonies in conquered regions and by remarkably generous policies towards conquered peoples. Those who came under Roman rule were exempt from paying Roman taxes, could maintain their own religious practices and their own internal governments, could trade in Rome, and even take Roman spouses. Some were able to gain Roman citizenship, and hold high government positions. The only restrictions were that they could not make military or political alliances with anyone other than with Rome itself, and must furnish soldiers for the Roman army. With this military support, the Romans were able to suppress the occasional rebellions that erupted in the peninsula.

With the peninsula under Roman control, the republic soon came into conflict with other groups as it extended its influence into the Mediterranean, primarily the Phoenicians, who had established a city-state at Carthage near modern day Tunis. The Phoenicians were famous for their trading empire, and were a dominant trading force in the Mediterranean, as well as the southern Iberian peninsula (modern Spain) and the western region of Sicily, which was rich in grain fields. The tremendous wealth they accumulated from their trading empire allowed the Carthaginians to maintain a powerful state and army.  The Romans also came into conflict with the Antigonid, Seleucid, and Ptolemaic empires, the remains of the conquests of Alexander. They also had thriving trade and commercial concerns in the Mediterranean. The end result was a series of wars, the most famous of which were the wars between Rome and Carthage known as the Punic Wars, from 264 to 146 B.C.

The Punic Wars: The Carthaginians were originally Phoenicians and Carthage was a colony founded by the Phoenician capital city of Tyre in the ninth century BC; the word "Carthage" means, in Phoenician, "the New City."  The Phoenicians were conquered by the Assyrians in the seventh century BC, and then conquered by the Persians; an independent Phoenician state would never again appear in the Middle East. Carthage, however, remained. Since Phoenicia no longer existed as an independent state, that meant that Carthage was no longer a colony, but a fully functioning independent state. While the Romans were steadily increasing their control over the Italian peninsula, the Carthaginians were extending their empire over most of North Africa. By the time that Rome controlled all of the Italian peninsula, Carthage already controlled the North African coast from western Libya to the Strait of Gibraltar, and ruled over most of southern Spain—and the island of Corsica and Sardinia in Europe as well. Carthage was a formidable power; it controlled almost all the commercial trade in the Mediterranean, had subjected vast numbers of people all whom sent soldiers and supplies, and amassed tremendous wealth from gold and silver mines in Spain.

The Romans and Carthaginians had been in sporadic contact for many years, but neither side felt threatened by the other. The Romans were aware of the Carthaginian heritage: they called them by their old name, Phoenicians. In Latin, the word is Poeni, which is the origin of the name of the wars between the two states, the Punic Wars. Between Carthage and Italy lay the huge island of Sicily; Carthage controlled the western half of Sicily, but the southern tip of the Italian peninsula put the Romans within throwing distance of the island. When the Sicilian city of Messana revolted against the Carthaginians, the Romans intervened, and the first Punic War erupted. The First Punic War broke out in 264 BC.E. It was concentrated entirely on the island of Sicily. Rome besieged many of the Carthaginian cities on Sicily, and when Carthage attempted to raise the siege with its navy, the Romans utterly destroyed that navy. For the first time since the rise of the Carthaginian empire they lost power over the sea-ways.

   The war ended with no particular side winning. In 241 BC, the Carthaginians and Romans signed a treaty in which Carthage had to give up Sicily and to pay an indemnity to cover Roman costs for the war, which it could well afford. But Carthage soon faced rebellion among its mercenary troops and Rome, in 238 BC, took advantage of the confusion by seizing the island of Corsica. The Romans feared the Carthaginians and wanted build as large a buffer zone as possible between them and the Carthaginians. By gaining Sicily, the Romans had expelled the Carthaginians from their back yard; they now wanted them out of their front yard, that is, the islands of Corsica and Sardinia west of the Italian peninsula.

 The Carthaginians were furious at this action; even Roman historians believed it was a rash and unethical act. The Carthaginians began to shore up their presence in Europe. They first sent the general Hamilcar and then his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, to Spain to build colonies and an army. Both Hamilcar and Hasdrubal made allies among the native Iberians, and their armies, recruited from Iberians, grew ominous as Carthaginian power and influence crept up the Iberian peninsula.

In 221 BC, Hamilcar's son, only twenty-five years old, assumed command over Carthaginian Spain. His name was Hannibal.  The Romans saw a problem coming, and attempted to settle it diplomatically by demanding that Carthage dismiss Hannibal and send him to Rome. When Carthage refused, the second Punic War began in 218 BC.E.  This time Rome was facing a formidable opponent; in the years following the first Punic War, Carthage had created a powerful empire in Spain with a terrifyingly large army. Among the other weapons which he carried were elephants, to be used to charge into Roman lines and smash them. Hannibal marched that terrible army out of Spain and across Europe and, in September of 218, he crossed the Alps with his army and entered Italy on a war of invasion. He lost most of his elephants and many troops crossing the Alpine passes, but though his army was tired from the journey, he literally smashed the Roman armies he encountered in northern Italy. Within two months, he had conquered the whole of northern Italy, with the exception of two cities. These spectacular victories brought a horde of Gauls from the north to help him, fifty thousand or more; his victory over Rome, as he saw it, would be guaranteed if he could convince Roman allies and subject cities to join Carthage

The situation looked bad for the Romans; however, none of the central Italian allies had gone over to Hannibal's side The Romans refused to engage Hannibal directly, so he moved his army around the Italian countryside absolutely unopposed. Hannibal, however, was weak in numbers and in equipment. He didn't have enough soldiers to lay siege to cities such as Rome, and he didn't have either the men or equipment to storm those cities by force. In 211, he marched to the walls of Rome, but he never laid siege to it. So confident were the Romans, that on the day that Hannibal marched around the walls of Rome with his cavalry, the land on which he had camped was sold at an auction in Rome, and it was sold at full price.

 The Romans decided to fight the war through the back door. They knew that Hannibal was dependent on Spain for future supplies and men, so they appointed a young, strategically brilliant man as proconsul and gave him the title of imperium over Spain. This move was unconstitutional, for he had never served as consul. His name was Publius Cornelius Scipio (237-183 BC). Scipio, who would later be called Scipio Africanus for his victory over Carthage (in Africa), by 206 had conquered all of Spain, which was converted into two Roman provinces. Hannibal was now left high and dry in Italy.

Scipio then crossed into Africa in 204 BC and took the war to the walls of Carthage itself. This forced the Carthaginians to sue for peace with Rome; part of the treaty demanded that Hannibal leave the Italian peninsula. Hannibal raised a new army and attacked the Romans again, but was defeated. When it appeared that he would be captured, he committed suicide by taking poison. As a result of the Second Punic War, Rome became the dominant power in the Mediterranean.

Later, Carthage managed to recover most of its commercial prosperity, but not its former strength. Still, the Romans were suspicious and somewhat jealous. The Roman senator, Cato, was famous for ending all his speeches with the phrase, "Carthage must be destroyed."   The Romans demanded that the Carthaginians abandon their city and move inland into North Africa. The Carthaginians, who were a commercial people that depended on sea trade, refused. The Roman Senate declared war, and Rome attacked the city itself. After a siege, the Romans stormed the town and the army went from house to house slaughtering the inhabitants in what is perhaps the greatest systematic execution of non-combatants before World War II. Carthaginians who weren't killed were sold into slavery. The harbor and the city was demolished, and all the surrounding countryside was sown with salt in order to render it uninhabitable.

While the Punic Wars were raging, the Romans came into conflict with the remains of Alexander's old empire. In a series of five wars, the Romans subdued them, and by 100 B.C.E., were the dominant power in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. In fact, they spoke of the Mediterranean as mare nostrum. ("Our sea.") At the zenith of Roman power, the Mediterranean was a Roman lake.

From Empire to Republic

Problems arose as a result of the Punic Wars and the Eastern Mediterranean campaigns:

      Class tension, caused by the growing latifundia and increasingly suffering lower classes, resulted in civil war. Reform was proposed by two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi. The Gracchi attempted to limit the amount of land any individual could control, however the wealthier elements considered them dangerous and both were assassinated several years apart. Political power remained in the hands of the privileged few, and their policies protected themselves, rather than the empire as a whole.

Some historians have argued that the history of the dispute and the experiences of the Gracchi demonstrate that the constitution of the Roman Republic only worked for a small city-state, not a large growing Empire.

 Many Roman soldiers had no economic resources following the end of the wars to support themselves and their families, and remained loyal to their own generals. They often placed the interests of the army ahead of the state. Among the more famous generals was Gaius Marius, who sided with the reformers, and planned a redistribution of land, and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who sided with the aristocrats. Civil war erupted, and in 87 B.C.E., Marius placed Rome under military occupation. However, he died the following year, and Sulla seized the city, and slaughtered his enemies wholesale. He posted lists of "proscribed" people whom he called enemies of the state, and urged the people of the city to kill them on sight. A reign of terror ensued which killed over ten thousand people in five years. Sulla died in 78 B.C.E. but by that time had imposed a governmental program which strengthened the hand of the wealthy upper class.  The latifundia continued to grow, and the ranks of the lower classes increased in number. The urban poor increasingly joined personal armies of ambitious generals, who also threatened political stability as they could lead their armies against the established government.

Among the generals raising private armies was Gauis Julius Caesar. He was a nephew of Marius, and would have been murdered by Sulla's people, except the latter did not consider him a threat; plus he was in Greece most of the time. Caesar spent large sums of his own fortune sponsoring battles between gladiators and wild animals, which made him popular with the common folk, and earned him a seat in the government. Caasar, along with Marcus Crassus and Pompey, formed the First Triumvirate. Crassus died fighting in Mesopotamia in 53 B.C.; Caesar had been given command of the area Northwest of Rome known as Gaul; with the understanding that he would remain on the far side of the Rubicon River (the boundary between Roman and Gallic territory). Caesar was immensely popular in Rome, and when conservatives attempted to maneuver him out of power, he turned his army toward Rome itself. When Caesar made his decision to march on Rome, he crossed the Rubicon, and is reported to have uttered at that time: Jacta Alia Est. (The die is cast.)

The Rubicon is a very small, inconsequential river; almost nothing more than a creek; but because of Caesar’s actions, when one has made an irrevocable decision, when he has gone beyond the point of no return, he is said to have “crossed the Rubicon.”

Pompey fled Rome, and went to Egypt, where he was murdered.  Later, Julius Caesar himself went to Rome, where he married Cleopatra; the Queen of Egypt and a member of the Ptolemy dynasty. Cleopatra had ruled with her younger brother; Ptolemy IV.  It was a very uneasy relationship; and when she first met Caesar, she had herself carried into his chambers wrapped up in a rug; that was unrolled before him. 

Julius Caesar set up Roman colonies in Gaul, Spain, North Africa as placed to send veterans and the poor; for a new beginning.  The result was the spread of Roman culture throughout the Mediterranean.    This was also the beginning of the Roman Empire.