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An End of the Republic

Rome’s Republic

According to legend, the Roman Republic came into being in 509 BC when the Romans expelled their last king, Tarquinius Superbus. The stories around the regal period in Rome  were not regarded as entirely factual by the Romans. The importance of the stories is that Romans had a myth of freedom. That freedom was secured by expelling monarchs and establishing constitutional rule.

Four hundred and seventy nine years of Republican rule followed, that is a very long time. In spite of some limited and often short-lived variations in how the Republic was arranged, the Romans  conceived of their Republic as a single form of government that had been in continuous operation since 509 BC.

  • Try subtracting 470 years from the current date and comparing what political life was like then and what it now.
  • Try thinking what it might be like if a political system which was so established, suddenly changed.

The characteristics of the system were:

  • rule by magistrates who were elected by the people.
  • a collegiate arrangement of magistrates that meant that there was more than one magistrate in each office so that they needed to work together and could operate as a check on their colleague’s power.
  • tribunes who were appointed to look after the interests of the ordinary population and limit the power of the senior magistrates.
  • law could only by made by the people and hence had to be passed by popular assembly.
  • magistrates who were appointed for fixed terms (normally one year) and elected by popular assemblies.
  • a powerful advisory council (the senate) made up of former magistrates.
  • a delegation of almost unlimited power (imperium) to the senior magistrates. Over time, magisterial power came to be controlled by laws on violence and corruption, the collegiate system, the veto of the tribunes, and the moral influence exercised by senators.
  • decisions tended to make taken by magistrates and government was primarily through magisterial action, though magistrates normally took advice. Laws were relatively few, though prior decisions of senior magistrates were taken as precedents.

Political systems operate within social structures. The Roman social system was complex.

The citizens were divided in different ways. There was an archaic division between patricians and plebeians, which was of very limited significance by the late Republic. The divisions that mattered were between the senators, the equestrians, and the rest.

The senators varied in number over the centuries. The leading magistrates were senators. Over the years, the main magisterial positions (consuls and praetors) came to be normally held by members of the leading families. These formed an informal heredity group (nobiles), but it was always possible for someone to break into that group. If such a person reached the consulship, they would be known as a novus homo (a new man). The very fact that there was a name for such an individual shows how unusual it was.

There was mobility between the classes of equestrians and senators. A senator’s son who had not yet been appointed to the senate or did not wish to join the senate would be an equestrian. Leading equestrians could hope to gain access to the senate. There were close friendships between senators and equestrians. Perhaps the most famous equestrian was Atticus, to whom the statesman, orator and philosopher, Cicero wrote many letters, and who was friend to many of the most prominent men of Rome, as his biography shows.

During the last two centuries of the Republic (and perhaps from a little earlier), senators became wealthier. They built luxurious houses. They farmed large estates. They had large numbers of slaves who cared for them and worked their lands. Much of that wealth came from the acquisition of empire.

Over the 470 years of the Republic, Rome became an empire. This was not a rapid process. Indeed, Roman imperial expansion was notably slow (see animation). Italy was acquired over approximately two centuries. Wars in Spain took a similar length of time. Greece and Macedon were invaded multiple times in the second century BC. Roman dominion in Africa was limited after the fall of Carthage in 146 until expansion under Augustus. The pace of conquest quickened notably in the last generation of the Republic, with Pompey bringing large part of Asia Minor, Syria, and the Palestine region under Roman control and Julius Caesar conquering Gaul. The conquest of the Mediterranean region made Rome one of the largest empires in antiquity and led to the influx of vast amounts of wealth and large numbers of people into the Italian peninsula.

Rome achieved this through relentless war. Rome not only put large numbers of her male citizens on the battlefield, but also recruited troops from allied communities. This enabled them to increase their army and was a practice that continued into the imperial period. At the start of the first century BC, the Italian allies began to agitate for citizenship. It is not very clear why the Italians wanted citizenship at this period. After a war between Rome and its Italian allies, a peace was made the result of which was the extension of citizenship to the communities of peninsular Italy (some Gallic communities in Northern Italy remained outside the citizenship). Periodically under the Empire other individuals or small groups were granted citizenship, but there was to be no further mass enfranchisement of citizens until AD 212.

In this section, we follow the themes of Roman politics in the last generation of the Republic and explore some of the tensions in the Roman political system.


Timeline: Republic

Timeline: Triumvirate

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