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    Roman Empire

    Ancient Rome


    Ancient Rome, the period between the 8th and 1st centuries bc in which Rome grew from a tiny settlement to an emerging empire while developing from monarchy to a republican form of government.

    Nearly 3,000 years ago shepherds first built huts on the hills beside the Tiber River in central Italy. These encampments gradually grew and merged to form the city of Rome. Rome’s history is unique in comparison to other large urban centers like London, England, or Paris, France, because it encompasses more than the story of a single city. In ancient times Rome extended its political control over all of Italy and eventually created an empire that stretched from England to North Africa and from the Atlantic Ocean to Arabia. The political history of Rome is marked by three periods. In the first period from 753–509 bc, the city developed from a village to a city ruled by kings. Then, the Romans expelled the kings and established the Roman Republic during the period from 509–27 bc. Following the collapse of the republic, Rome fell under the domination of emperors and flourished for another five centuries as the Roman Empire from 27 bc–ad 476. This article begins the discussion of ancient Rome’s history with the city’s legendary founder, Romulus, and ends when Augustus becomes the first emperor of imperial Rome, in 27 bc.

    Modern motion pictures and television often portray the ancient Romans as military conquerors as well as ardent pleasure seekers, and there is some truth to those images. Their armies did brutally subjugate the Mediterranean world. Today statues of native leaders such as Vercingetorix in France or Arminius in Germany honor those patriots who battled against Roman domination in Europe, just as Christians honor early disciples martyred by the Romans. The ancient Romans also did enjoy lavish and sometimes even cruel entertainments that included gladiatorial combats, chariot races, and animal hunts in the arena.

    Yet these same Romans created a civilization that has shaped subsequent world history for 2,000 years. The remains of vast building projects, including roads and bridges, enormous baths and aqueducts, temples and theaters, as well as entire towns in the North African desert, still mark Rome’s former dominion. Cities throughout Western Europe stand on Roman foundations.

    The Romans also had enormous cultural influence. Their language, Latin, gave rise to languages spoken by a billion people in the world today. Many other languages—including Polish, Turkish, and Vietnamese—use the Roman alphabet. The Romans developed a legal system that remains the basis of continental European law, and they brought to portraiture a lifelike style that forms the basis of the realistic tradition in Western art. The founders of the American government looked to the Roman Republic as a model. Modern political institutions also reflect Roman origins: senators, bicameral legislatures, judges, and juries are all adapted from the Roman system. In addition, despite recent modernization, the Roman Catholic Church still uses symbols and ritual derived largely from the ancient Romans.

    Contrary to popular image, the Roman state was not continuously at war. Roman armies most often served on the frontiers of the empire while Roman lands nearer the Mediterranean were more peaceful and more culturally and economically interconnected than in any subsequent era. The Romans extended citizenship far beyond the people of Italy to Greeks and Gauls, Spaniards and Syrians, Jews and Arabs, North Africans and Egyptians. The Roman Empire also became the channel through which the cultures and religions of many peoples were combined and transmitted via medieval and Renaissance Europe to the modern world.


    The land and environment of Italy provided the Romans with a secure home from which to expand. Italy is a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea and protected to the north by the Alps mountain range. The climate is generally temperate, although summers are hot in the south. Rome was part of a region near the Tiber River in central Italy that was called Latium (now part of Lazio). Its Latin-speaking inhabitants originally joined the waves of Indo-European peoples who crossed the Adriatic Sea from the Balkan Peninsula and settled in central Italy about 1000 bc.

    To the north, the Etruscans had established a vigorous civilization (see Etruscan Civilization) in the region called Etruria. These people probably originated in Asia Minor and spoke an entirely different language than neighboring Indo-European peoples. In southern Italy and on the large island of Sicily, colonists fleeing from famine and political conflict in Greece founded new cities between 800 and 500 bc. The city of Naples derives its name from the Greek words Nea Polis (New City).

    Volcanoes like Mount Etna and Mount Vesuvius dot the western coast of Italy and its offshore islands, leaving sections of Latium, Campania near Naples, and Sicily fertile from the residue of volcanic ash. The mountains were once rich in timber and had meadows where sheep and goats grazed in the warmest months before they were driven to the plains for the winter. There was salt along the Tiber River and large deposits of iron were located in Etruria. North-south land routes allowed for overland trade, and so commerce as well as agriculture, pasturage, and metalwork drove the economy.

    ALegends of Early Rome

    The story of Rome’s founding survives only in primitive myths and meager archaeological remains. An island in the Tiber River afforded the easiest crossing point, and archaeology shows that some Latins established a settlement on the nearby Palatine Hill; perhaps they hoped to rob, or collect tolls, from traders crossing the river on their way from Etruria to southern Italy.

    Roman myth created a more glorious tale of the city’s beginnings. These legends trace Rome’s origins to Romulus, a son of the god Mars and also a descendent of the Trojan prince Aeneas, who brought his people to Italy after the city of Troy burned. Romulus and his twin brother Remus were grandsons of King Numitor of the ancient city of Alba Longa in Latium. Numitor was deposed by his brother, who also tried to kill the twins by having them thrown into the Tiber. Instead, the infants washed ashore and were suckled by a she-wolf who became—and remains today—the symbol of Rome. When the brothers grew up, they restored Numitor to his throne and then founded a new city on the Palatine Hill above the river.

    There are no contemporary written records of the Roman monarchy, so the stories of the early kings are primarily preserved in the works of historians Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who wrote seven centuries after the time of Romulus. These legends and even some of the kings themselves are probably mythical creations, and the dates that they reigned are either inventions or rough approximations. Nevertheless, such myths often contain bits of historical information that are passed on and transformed through repeated telling.

    BLegendary Period of Kings (753-509 bc)

    The Romans believed that Romulus and Remus founded Rome in 753 bc, and that Romulus erected a wall around the site of the new city. When Remus tried to assert his leadership by scornfully leaping over the inadequate wall, Romulus killed him and became the city’s first king, giving it his name. He then invited his neighbors east of the Tiber River, the Sabines, to a festival and kidnapped the Sabine women—called the “rape of the Sabine women”—to provide the wives necessary for the Roman population to grow. Other legends about Romulus include his mysterious disappearance in a storm cloud, an event that led the Romans to proclaim him a god.

    The second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, was a Sabine who was regarded as especially just and devoted to religion. Many of Rome’s religious traditions were later attributed to Numa, including the selection of virgins to be priestesses of the goddess Vesta. He also established a calendar to differentiate between normal working days and those festival days sacred to the gods on which no state business was allowed. His peaceful reign lasted from 715 to 673 bc.

    Under Tullus Hostilius (672–641 bc) the Romans waged an aggressive foreign policy and began to expand their lands by the conquest of nearby cities like Alba Longa. When the warlike King Hostilius contracted the plague, the people thought it was a punishment for the neglect of the gods so they named Ancus Marcius, a highly religious grandson of Numa, as the fourth king (640–617 bc). Marcius founded the port of Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber.

    A wealthy man from the Etruscan city of Tarquinii, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus,came to live in Rome and became such a favorite of King Ancus that he managed to succeed him even though he was considered a foreigner. Tarquinius, who ruled between 616 and 579 bc, was said to have drained the marshes between the hills and paved an area for the market place that became known as the Roman Forum. His successor, Servius Tullius (578–535 bc), organized the Roman army into groups of 100 men called centuries and was said to have built a new wall around the city. The cruel seventh king, Lucius Tarquinus Superbus or Tarquin the Proud (534–510 bc), was expelled in 510 after his son cruelly raped Lucretia, a virtuous Roman matron and the wife of his kinsman Collatinus.

    Archaeology shows that there is some truth to these legends. There were huts on the Palatine Hill above the Tiber River by the 8th century bc, and the evidence of both burials and cremations indicate that two different cultures like the Romans and the Sabines had intermingled. The Forum was first covered with a pebble pavement about 575 bc and its draining dates to the period of Etruscan kings. On the other hand, archaeologists believe that the earliest wall around the city was built in the 4th century bc—two centuries after the reign of Servius Tullius. Even if the names, dates, and legends of early Rome remain highly questionable, remnants of Roman material culture help to document significant transformations in Roman life.

    CEtruscan Influence

    The Etruscans had enormous cultural, social, and political influence on early Rome. The origins of this seafaring people remain obscure, but most scholars now believe that the Etruscans brought their language, their religion, and their love of music and dance from the Near East to northern Italy. Their distinctive culture was further shaped in the Italian region of Tuscany, which bears their name.

    Tomb paintings provide a record of Etruscan civilization and illustrate their cultural sophistication, intense religious beliefs, and artistic accomplishments. Their skill at urban planning, engineering, and waterworks had a deep influence on the development of Rome. In Rome itself, projects attributed to the Etruscan kings included the building of city walls, the engineering of the Forum, and the construction of the great drain to channel both rainfall and sewage into the Tiber. For centuries the Romans also built and decorated their temples in the Etruscan style. They were in awe of the extraordinary metalwork of Etruscan craftworkers shown in products ranging from iron plows to bronze mirrors, silver bowls, and fine gold jewelry. Elaborate aristocratic tombs in central Italian towns such as Praeneste (now Palestrina) as well as rural drainage trenches cut into rock to preserve topsoil show that Etruscan influences even spread to the countryside around Rome.

    Other aspects of Etruscan culture also had a lasting impact on the Romans. The Etruscan cities were controlled by the nobility and ruled by kings. Rods and axes, symbols of civil and military authority, represented royal power to the Etruscans. Later, bundles of rods surrounding an ax, called fascesin Latin, were carried before Roman magistrates in ceremonial processions. Etruscan women possessed a social freedom which scandalized Greek writers, since they were allowed to recline on couches with their husbands at public banquets. Women received greater respect and visibility than in other cultures, and this treatment became an important legacy to the Romans.

    The Etruscans had extensive commercial exchanges with the Greeks; for example, Greek pottery reached Etruria, while Etruscan ironwork has been found in Greek sites. The Etruscans also took the alphabet from the Greeks and incorporated the Olympian gods into their own array of deities. Etruscan power reached its peak in the 6th century bc when three successive Etruscan kings ruled at Rome and their control extended from the Po Valley in northern Italy to the Bay of Naples in the south.

    The Etruscan cities shared both language and culture and came together for religious festivals, but they were also rivals and sometimes had bitter disputes. This internal turbulence prevented the Etruscans from uniting against common enemies. A generation after the Romans expelled Tarquin the Proud, the last of their Etruscan kings, the Greek colonies of southern Italy and Sicily defeated the Etruscans in a sea battle at Cumae near Naples (474 bc). The Etruscans forever lost their outposts in southern Italy, and their civilization began a slow decline.


    From earliest times the family lay at the center of all personal and social relations in Rome and even influenced public and political activities. Religion was the other principal element that shaped early Roman life, and religion and family remained closely intertwined as the twin pillars of Roman society for the five centuries of the Roman Republic.

    The Romans held moral values that were typical of a conservative agrarian society with strong family networks. They were hardworking and frugal, self-reliant and cautious, serious about their responsibilities and steadfast in the face of adversity. They particularly valued virtus, the physical and moral courage suitable to a man (vir). The stress on family responsibility was evident in the idea of pietas, the belief that every Roman owed loyalty to family authority and to the gods of Rome. Likewise fides (good faith) made a Roman’s word his or her bond—in both public and private life. The early books of Livy’s History provide many examples of the virtues and values that Romans believed made them different from, and superior to, other peoples.

    AFamily Relationships

    Beginning with the era of the kings, the Roman family mirrored the patriarchal nature of the Roman state in the absolute and lifelong power (patria potestas) that the father (paterfamilias) exercised over his wife, children, and slaves. Each father was the priest of the cult of his ancestors and of the hearth gods of the family. Ancestor worship focused on the genius of the family (gens) which was the inner spirit passed on from one generation to another. Their genius bound Romans to their ancestors and their descendents in a single continuous community. The primary purpose of Roman marriage was to produce children, and all legitimate offspring belonged only to the father’s family. In event of divorce, children remained with the father. For centuries a father had the right to abandon an infant at birth. Usually this unwanted child was a deformed boy—or a girl whose family wished to avoid paying a dowry. The law even allowed a father to execute a grown son for treasonous behavior.

    Despite the father’s extreme authority, Roman writings provide evidence of warm family feeling. Parents were closely involved with the education of their children; Roman boys would accompany their fathers to the forum to observe public meetings as preparation for citizenship. When members of the Roman nobility died, their sons delivered speeches in praise of the deceased and also their ancestors, while masks of these loved ones were displayed. This custom helped to sustain family pride and cultivate family myths, but as the statesman Cicero later commented, “the history of Rome has been falsified by these speeches for there is much in them that never happened.”

    Within the Roman family, there was also much greater intimacy between a husband and wife than in Greece, where men and women saw relatively little of each other. After marriage, a Roman girl left her father’s authority to enter the household of her husband (or father-in-law, if he was still alive). A girl was usually between 14 and 17 years of age at her wedding, while her husband was often in his mid-20s. Young Roman children would not be forced to enter marriage unwillingly, but few could refuse parental arrangements. In early Rome divorce was rare and only happened if the husband desired it; later, divorce became more frequent among the upper classes. A shortage of women resulted from the abandonment of infant girls and deaths during childbirth. Roman women could almost always find husbands, even for second or third marriages. No unmarried women were recorded among the aristocratic class in Republican Rome.

    Roman women could attend public and private banquets and enjoyed far more social freedom than their counterparts in Greece. Mothers were in charge of domestic servants and played an important role in child rearing, providing strong moral guidance to sons as well as daughters. According to earliest Roman law, daughters shared equally with sons in the estate of a father who died without a will, and they were usually included in their father’s bequests. The moral strength and loyalty of Roman women became an important theme in literature as wives stood by husbands through civil wars and exile.


    The Roman household included slaves who labored beside the family in the fields. The earliest slaves were poor peasants who were reduced to slavery by debt. Slavery had no ethnic or racial basis: birth, conquest, or debt condemned men and women to that condition. Early slaves were thought to be part of the family and were treated reasonably well. Slaves were permitted to keep some private savings (peculium), with which they might eventually purchase their freedom. After emancipation a freed slave became a Roman citizen. Freedmen often remained with families as paid laborers on farms or in households.

    It was only much later, in the 2nd century bc, that huge numbers of foreign captives were brought to Rome to work on immense plantations. Romans then began to treat slaves with a cruelty that eventually provoked several terrible slave revolts. One of the most famous leaders of slave uprisings was Spartacus, an army deserter who was sold into slavery as a gladiator. He and his followers defeated Roman forces several times, including a series of battles known as the Third Servile War, or Gladiators’ War, before Spartacus was killed. Despite insurrections, slavery survived as an institution throughout Roman history.

    CReligious Practices

    The earliest Romans were primarily an agricultural people and focused their religionon spirits who, according to their beliefs, presided over nearly every aspect of the natural world, including springs, forests, and rivers. Some of these deities survived over time to become the gods honored with small shrines at crossroads throughout Italy. Early superstitions, such as the magical power of the evil eye, also continued long after the Romans introduced new religious practices. Some taboos, such as those that prohibited the high priest of the god Jupiter from touching a horse or dog, were mysterious even to the Romans themselves and were attributed to the remote past. To these primitive beliefs the Romans added such Etruscan practices as interpreting the will of the gods by the flight of birds (auspices) or by the study of an animal’s liver.

    The Etruscans had also adopted gods from the Greek pantheon, or family of gods, and many of these divinities were passed on to the Romans. Zeus, the Greek god of the skies, for example, had a counterpart in the Roman god Jupiter, while Hera, the wife of Zeus and queen of the gods, became the Roman goddess Juno. Other Greek gods with Roman equivalents included Aphrodite, the goddess of love, known to the Romans as Venus, and the Greek god of war, Ares, who was called Mars by the Romans.

    The ancients believed that religion held the Roman state together. Kings, and later civil magistrates, were obligated to ensure that the community remained at peace with the gods. Public pageantry emphasized the importance of devotion to the gods and included prayers, festivals, and sacrifices. A certain element of reciprocity existed in religion, as the Romans expected their gods to respond to offerings. The Latin phrase quid pro quo (one thing for another) which described such an exchange is still used today. Gradually, groups of priests and priestesses took responsibility for the worship of specific gods and goddesses. The most notable of these groups were the vestal virgins who served Vesta, the goddess of the hearth.

    The Roman calendar was fundamentally a religious document. Some months were named after gods, including January for Janus, who presided over beginnings, and March for Mars, the war god. Other months were merely numbered. The Roman calendar originally began with March, so the seventh month, September, took its name from the Latin word septem for seven. The name of the eighth month, or October, derived from octo for eight, and others followed suit.

    The Romans also named the days of the week for gods. The Romance languages continue to use Roman gods for these days, while in English the names of their ancient Germanic counterparts are used. Hence Friday, the day of the goddess of love, Venus, is vendredi in French, but takes its English name from Freia, the German goddess of love. In 45 bc when Julius Caesar acted as the dictator of Rome, he revised the calendar to reflect the solar year, making it 365 days long and adding an extra day every fourth or leap year. See also Calendar: The Roman Calendar

    Like the calendar, Roman religion did not remain static. The Romans adopted new gods whose specific powers were needed by the people. At the siege of the Etruscan city of Veii in 396 bc, the Romans tried to entice Juno, the patron goddess of the Veians, to their side. When Veii fell, the Romans claimed that the goddess had deserted the people of that city and so they erected their own temple to Juno in Rome. Further Roman conquests brought other gods into its pantheon. This flexibility in Roman religion mirrored a similarly flexible attitude toward political institutions during the era of the Roman Republic.

    DPolitical Institutions

    The early Romans were a practical and conservative people whose political organization evolved very slowly; as a result, there was considerable continuity from the time of the monarchy to the republic. The Roman constitution always remained unwritten and was changed less frequently by law than by custom. Just as Roman religion retained inexplicable rituals and taboos, outdated political institutions were rarely abolished. The Romans preferred to retain familiar institutions and procedures while adapting them to the changing circumstances of a growing state. For example, the interrex was originally an official whose name derived from his duty of performing religious ceremonies in the interregnum or period between the reigns of different kings. The interrex survived in the republic as an official who presided over elections when both consuls had died or been killed.

    Early Rome was ruled by kings who had wide military and judicial powers and represented the people to their gods. After the death of Romulus, the king was selected by the Senate (derived from the Latin senex, which means “old man”), a governmental body comprised of the heads of noble families. The Senate also advised the king. This institution survived into the republic and became the dominant political force through which the noble, landowning families controlled the religious, political, and economic life of the new aristocratic state. Under senatorial leadership Rome conquered Italy and much of the Mediterranean world.

    Under the monarchy, another governmental organization, the Assembly of the People, included all male Roman citizens. Members of the Assembly were divided into 30 clans (curiae). In earliest times the Assembly met to witness the announcement of a new king or a declaration of war. Eventually each clan could cast a single vote to approve wills and adoptions, both of which were important for the transfer of land.

    EBuilding Projects

    The earliest remnants of buildings at Rome are the postholes of huts built on the Palatine Hill. By the 6th century bc, the Romans had drained the swampy area between the Palatine and Capitoline hills and then paved it. They used this area as the main forum where public meetings, markets, religious ceremonies, and burials were held. The Romans also constructed temples and some houses in the Forum, as well as an impressive drainage system, which is still visible where the main sewer empties into the Tiber River. They built the first bridges across the Tiber during this early period of the kings, although most of the surviving stone bridgesare from later periods. Contemporary sources suggest that both Romulus and Servius built walls around the early site of Rome, but archaeology has not yet uncovered any walls constructed before the 4th century bc. By the end of the monarchy, the villages on the hills had added an urban center and a group of public buildings.


    The historian Livy (59 bc–ad 17) described the foundation of the Roman Republic (republic is from the Latin res publica, which means “that which belongs to the people”) as a morality tale. In his account, valiant Roman patriots under the leadership of Lucius Junius Brutus overthrew the cruel foreign tyrant Tarquin in 509 bc. The truth was certainly more complex. The Etruscans faced increasing military threats from the Gauls, a Celtic people to the north, and from the Greeks in the south. The fall of the Etruscan kings was part of a much larger story, but only the heroic Roman version survives.

    The Roman aristocrats provided the leadership for the establishment of the Roman Republic, and they continued to dominate it for centuries. During the five centuries of the republic, Rome grew from a small city of 10,000 into a great cosmopolitan metropolis of 1 million whose empire of 15 million subjects encompassed the entire Mediterranean basin. Social and political conflict inevitably arose as the conservative Romans attempted to keep their old values and institutions in place while exercising their authority over subjects of many different nationalities.

    The Romans adapted to changing circumstances with a great deal of political struggle but relatively little internal violence. Despite the eventual collapse of the republican system of government in the 1st century bc, it was a remarkable achievement both in its length and scope. Even the collapse of the republic did not lessen Rome’s domination of the Mediterranean world, for its empire remained largely intact for another five centuries under the rule of the emperors.

    APolitical Institutions of the Republic

    The Senate and the citizen Assembly survived from the monarchy into the republic. In theory the Senate played only an advisory role, but because it contained mostly former civil officials, called magistrates, it was respected as the repository of Roman wisdom and tradition. The Senate had such great authority (auctoritas) that magistrates consulted it on all-important issues, and it became the dominant force in the areas of religion, foreign policy, and public finance. The Senate did not pass legislation, but its decrees were treated with the greatest respect. See also Thematic Essay: Roman Political and Social Thought

    Citizens participated in the Assembly, which could pass laws, elect magistrates, and declare war. Over the centuries the Romans organized these popular assemblies in different ways, but the voting system always favored the rich. For example, one popular assembly, the comitia centuriata, which probably developed in the 6th century bc, consisted of 193 voting blocks, each with a single vote. Citizens were assigned to those 193 “centuries” on the basis of wealth, and the centuries of the richest class had few members, while the one century reserved for the landless had tens of thousands of members, but could only cast a single ballot. No free discussion took place in Roman assemblies, and citizens could only approve or reject proposals presented by a magistrate.

    The kings left the early Romans with a fear of domination by a single ruler. As a result, the Romans replaced the kings with magistrates who were collegial, which meant that several officials held the same office simultaneously, and each could check the others. The Assembly of citizens elected these officials annually. The two chief magistrates, called consuls, were invested with the military, judicial, administrative, and even some of the religious powers of the king. They could veto (from the Latin word veto, for “I forbid”) each other’s actions, but they usually agreed to share power. Often one consul served in Rome while the other was in command of the army. A consul could not be removed while in office, although he could be prosecuted for corruption after leaving the position.

    As Rome grew, the creation of other magistracies removed some of the administrative burden from the consuls. Beginning in 443 bc, two former consuls were chosen every five years as censors; their primary job was to take the census. These men drew up population and property rolls for the state. The censors also kept a list of senators and could delete names, and in that way expel individuals from the Senate, for financial or moral reasons. Censors were also responsible for awarding public contracts and were held in such esteem that they were the only Roman magistrates to be buried in royal purple.

    Praetors formed another group of magistrates. They were originally established in 367 bc as junior consuls, but their chief function was to preside over trials under civil law. Praetors were responsible for the early development of Roman legal procedure. Since praetors also had military authority, they later served as commanders of Rome’s many armies across the Mediterranean world.

    The dictator was a temporary magistrate who was appointed by the consuls in an emergency, and the title initially held none of its modern negative associations. The dictator exercised full royal power, free of any veto, but could generally hold office for a maximum of six months. The consuls often appointed a dictator when foreign invaders threatened Rome, and they believed that all power should be vested in one general. The office was especially popular in the early republic; it was used infrequently when Rome no longer had enemies in Italy who threatened the state.

    Individuals who reached these high offices had extensive political and military experience. Ambitious young Romans could only embark on a political career after ten years in the Roman army, although in early times this military service might entail just a few months each year. They could then progress through a series of elected offices. Preparatory positions included quaestors, who served as financial supervisors, and aediles, who were responsible for the upkeep of public buildings as well as the presentation of state festivals and games.

    BInternal Political Conflict

    Under the monarchy, the primary social distinction was between landholding nobles, called patricians, and their peasant workers known as the plebs or plebeians. Probably few patricians had great wealth, since popular stories portray patrician generals as returning from the battlefield to plow their fields, but they did hold substantial political power. Since Roman society excluded the plebs from all political offices and priesthoods, their demands for more privileges produced a “struggle between the orders” which lasted for centuries.

    In 475 bc, the Etruscans threatened Rome and the newly independent city had to recruit infantry for its army. The need to draw soldiers from the plebs gave these downtrodden people their first opportunity to secure power for themselves. Plebs refused to do military or agricultural work until the Senate agreed to recognize them as a distinct element within the Roman state, with rights to an assembly and their own officials called tribunes. The result was the tribuni plebis, or people’s tribunes, who could veto decrees of the Senate or proposals of magistrates

    The plebs were particularly angry at the arbitrary use of unwritten custom by aristocratic officials, so the Senate made an important concession with the publication of a code of Roman law, known as the Law of the Twelve Tables, in 451-450 bc. But the law remained harsh to debtors, and intermarriage between plebeians and patricians was still forbidden. It took further social unrest over the next two centuries to produce additional reforms. Eventually, Rome admitted plebeians to all offices including the consulship and the priesthoods. From 287 bc decrees of the plebeian assembly (plebiscita) had the force of law over the entire state. Thus, the struggle between the orders concluded with the apparent triumph of the plebs.

    Roman families forever remained either patrician or plebeian, but the practical importance of the division slowly diminished, since the widening gap between the rich and the poor became more significant. Soon, the popular assembly was organized into “classes” on the basis of wealth. Further class conflict lay primarily in the future, however, and Rome experienced its first extended period of social peace between 287 and 133 bc.

    CExpansion During the Republic

    Roman writers like Livy took patriotic pride in recounting Rome’s rise to domination of the entire Mediterranean world, whichthey portrayed as part of a divine plan. Rome’s conquests began with the defeat of the Etruscans and Rome’s other Latin neighbors, whose lands were placed under Roman rule. Eventually Rome conquered the communities in the central mountains, the Greek cities of the south, and the Gauls of the Po River valley. And since the winners write history, little is known of how the defeated peoples viewed these wars.

    C1Conquest of Italy (510-264 bc)

    Early Rome was a small city, but it had inherited a tradition of expansion from the Etruscans.The drive for expansion and acquisition of new territory was fueled by a growing population, the need for land grants for the plebeians, a competitive ethic among the leading families, and their need for property to give to their sons. Rome was able to expand in part because it was more politically stable than its enemies. Despite the social turmoil of the early republic, the Romans usually settled conflict by compromise as increasingly empowered plebs provided the manpower for Rome’s armies.

    The Romans adopted an aggressive military policy, but they were not strong enough to become masters of the Italian peninsula immediately. They fought for nearly a century just to ensure their safety from the Etruscans. They also faced invasion by the Gauls, a people of the Celtic language group who inhabited most of modern-day France and northern Italy. The disastrous sack of Rome by the raiders from Gaul in 390 bc could well have ended the city’s history, even though patriotic fiction has since minimized the event. At that time some Romans argued that they should emigrate; instead, citizens made the momentous decision to rebuild Rome.

    During the next century the Romans capitalized on their advantageous geographical position in the center of the peninsula, as the Etruscan cities to the north and Greek cities to the south fought amongst themselves. The Romans made their army more flexible by adopting javelins, using cavalry, and organizing the infantry in small groups (called maniples) which were superior in mountain fighting. These new military methods eventually allowed Rome to conquer all of Italy and achieve the first political unification of the peninsula.

    Immediately to the south of Rome was the Latin League, composed of 30 cities that shared their language and religious festivals. During the 5th and 4th centuries bc, Rome increasingly dominated these cities and eventually dissolved the league and made subjects of both the Latins and the Etruscans.

    About the same time, Rome expanded further southward and annexed the rich farmland of Campania, a region bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea. Expansion brought Rome into conflict with the mountain peoples of central Italy, the Samnites, who conducted frequent raids against the cities of Campania. The Campanians formed a league centered on the town of Capua and invited Rome to defend them against the Samnites. The Romans fought three bitter campaigns against the Samnites between 343 and 290 bc. Despite some serious losses, Rome ultimately prevailed.

    Once the Romans secured dominance over the Etruscans in northern Italy and the Samnites in central Italy, they then began to challenge the Greek cities that still controlled the peninsula south of the Bay of Naples. These cities sought aid against the Romans from King Pyrrhus of Epirus in northern Greece. Pyrrhus had gained a reputation as a brilliant adventurer who had won many battles, although with huge loss of life (thus the term Pyrrhic victories). He invaded Italy, but despite early victories against Roman armies, he was eventually defeated. By 266 bc Rome controlled Italy from the plains of the Po River valley in the northern part of the peninsula to its southernmost tip. The city on the Tiber River had vanquished all enemies within Italy. The next step was to cross a narrow waterway, the Strait of Messina, to the fertile island of Sicily.

    The Romans referred to the defeated Latin, Italian, and Greek cities as allies, but they were, in fact, Roman subjects. Rome gave full citizenship to the people of only a few of these cities; most others received more limited privileges such as intermarriage and trading rights. Rome required these cities, known as municipia, to pay taxes and to supply detachments for the Roman army, but otherwise allowed self-government in internal affairs. Rome also established military colonies throughout the peninsula to ensure loyalty and protect the coast from pirates and invaders.

    The Romans, in comparison to other ancient peoples, were generous in granting citizenship to freed slaves. They were slower in extending citizenship to newly conquered peoples, although in time they did grant citizenship to their loyal subjects throughout Italy and eventually, after 212 bc, throughout the entire Mediterranean world. That generosity and Rome’s adaptability to new circumstances were, perhaps, the chief reasons for the success of this small city in conquering, and ultimately transforming, so many neighbors.

    C2Conquest of the Mediterranean (264-133 bc)

    Afterits conquest of Italy, Rome next came into conflict with the most dangerous enemy it had ever encountered, Carthage. Merchants from the coast of Phoenicia (modern Lebanon) had established the city of Carthage on North Africa’s Gulf of Tunis about 800 bc. Carthage grew into the greatest military power of the western Mediterranean. Its armies were composed of hired soldiers known as mercenaries and led by generals from hereditary military families. Carthage founded its own colonies, subjugated nearby Africans to gain access to their rich agricultural lands, and controlled trade across the western Mediterranean.

    Carthage’s historical importance was based on its confrontations with Rome rather than its culture. The Romans used the adjective Punic to describe the people of Carthage, who were known as Poeni because of their Phoenician descent. Very little Punic writing survives, so knowledge of ancient Carthage comes primarily from descriptions by its Greek and Roman enemies. The cultural or intellectual life in Carthage was limited; the only known book was a manual on agriculture that was later translated for Roman settlers. Rome’s eventual victory in its struggles against Carthage ensured that Greco–Roman rather than Near Eastern civilization would dominate in the western Mediterranean region.

    The Carthaginians, like their Phoenician ancestors, were seafarers and traders, and the earliest treaties between Rome and Carthage concerned commercial rights. The city of Carthage controlled the coast of Spain as well as the islands of Malta, Sardinia, and much of Sicily. Rome’s spectacular growth during the 3rd century bc caused concern for its rival, even though Rome’s empire was land-based, while Carthage relied on naval supremacy for dominance.

    C2aFirst Punic War (264-241 bc)

    Warfare between Rome and Carthage began in the Sicilian city of Messina. The mercenary soldiers who controlled that city initially invited Carthage to provide military support against King Hiero II of Syracuse, but they then appealed to Rome for aid against the Carthaginians. At the time fighting broke out in 264 bc, Carthage was wealthier than Rome. It also had the greatest navy in the Mediterranean, while the Romans had never fought on the sea. Rome built a navy, but the city’s generals, lacking any experience in the strategy of naval warfare, decided to model sea battles after land battles. The Romans used grappling hooks to hold enemy ships while infantry soldiers boarded them for hand-to-hand combat. This clumsy but practical technique allowed the Romans to defeat the Punic fleet.

    The Romans suffered many setbacks, but their tenacity carried them through the war. In 242 bc, a Roman commander boldly attacked a Punic fleet in stormy seas. A triumph resulted, as Roman forces sank 50 Carthaginian ships and captured 70 more. Carthage surrendered, and Rome received Carthaginian possessions in Sicily as well as a payment of 3,200 talents—the equivalent of a year’s pay for 200,000 Roman soldiers. With these naval victories, Rome became the leading power in the western Mediterranean. See also Punic Wars

    C2bSecond Punic War (218-201 bc)

    Carthage, a city of fewer than 500,000 people, struggled to pay the enormous sum owed to Rome after the First Punic War. Officials dispatched Carthage’s leading general, Hamilcar Barca, to Spain, where he attempted to develop colonies that would help pay the war reparations. He successfully conquered much of Spain and developed rich mines there. In 221 bc Hamilcar’s son Hannibal became commander of Carthaginian forces in Spain, and over the next 20 years this young general became the most successful commander ever to face the Romans in battle. When Rome made an alliance with the Spanish city of Saguntum, Hannibal regarded this action as interference in Carthaginian affairs and laid siege to Saguntum. In 218 bc Rome declared war on Carthage for the second time.

    The Romans expected to fight the war in Spain, but Hannibal surprised them and invaded Italy first. In one of the great marches of military history, he brought his army with its African war elephants across southern France and through the Alps mountains into northern Italy—all in only five months. He lost one-third of his own troops during the icy crossing, but the Gauls of northern Italy quickly defected to his side, giving him 50,000 men under arms in the spring of 217 bc. This number was still far fewer than the half a million soldiers Rome could theoretically recruit in Italy, but Hannibal’s personal resourcefulness and his military genius sustained the Carthaginian army in Italy for almost 15 years.

    After Hannibal demolished a Roman army in a battle at Lake Trasimene (Lago Trasimeno) in 217 bc, the impatient Roman Assembly wanted dramatic action and a quick solution. The consuls were authorized to attack, but Hannibal outsmarted his adversaries, and his cavalry overwhelmed the Roman legions at the Battle of Cannae in 216 bc. According to the Greek historian Polybius, Rome lost nearly 70,000 citizens and allied troops with another 10,000 captured, while fewer than 6,000 Carthaginians fell. It was the greatest defeat ever inflicted on Roman troops and remains a textbook case of the destruction of a larger army by a smaller one.

    The terrible losses at Cannae provoked a brief panic in Rome, but the battle proved to be a turning point in the Roman military effort. The rich contributed to the war through voluntary contributions and allowed their slaves to serve as rowers for the fleet. Enlistments rose and even slaves were drafted, so that there were about 240,000 men under arms by 212 bc. Finally, the Assembly allowed the more cautious Senate to control the conduct of the war. Between 214 and 210 bc, Rome regained the great cities of southern Italy (Capua and Tarentum) and Sicily (Syracuse and Agrigentum).

    Rome carried its offensive to Spain in 209 bc, when troops led by the young general Publius Cornelius Scipio, cut the Carthaginian supply lines. The following year Scipio defeated Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal, and the Romans drove the Carthaginians out of Spain once and for all. The Carthaginian army under Hannibal was also having trouble in Italy because Carthage had refused to send additional reinforcements and weapons. In 207 bc Hasdrubal crossed over the Pyrenees Mountains from Spain to assist him, but was killed by the Romans in a battle at the Metaurus River in northern Italy.

    Roman troops next invaded Africa, and Hannibal was recalled from Italy to defend Carthaginian territory. In 202 bc at the Battle of Zama, Scipio defeated Hannibal and thereafter gained the honorary title Africanus—the conqueror of Africa. He later became known as Scipio Africanus the Elder when his adopted grandson also became a military hero.

    Rome assessed Carthage with an enormous fine to be paid over 50 years and, more devastatingly, forced Carthage to relinquish all possessions outside Africa, to restore territory to Rome’s ally King Masinissa of Numidia (present-day Algeria), and to retain only ten ships. Carthage would never again threaten Rome.

    C2cThird Punic War (149-146 bc)

    Carthage humbly accepted Roman demands, but the conservative Roman senator Marcus Porcius Cato (known as Cato the Elder) was so obsessed with a fear of Carthage that for decades he ended every speech with the statement: “And Carthage must be destroyed.” Rome finally seized on a minor offense to wage another war against Carthage. After a difficult three-year siege, the city fell to a Roman army commanded by Scipio Aemilianus, the grandson of the victor of Zama, who was called Scipio Africanus the Younger.

    C2dInvasion of Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean

    During the 50 years after Hannibal’s defeat in the Second Punic War, Rome’s involvement in the eastern Mediterranean grew substantially. In the decade following 220 bc, Rome established a protectorate along the coast of Illyria (present-day Albania). This action greatly annoyed King Philip V of Macedonia, who was the dominant power in Greece. In retaliation, he made a treaty with Hannibal during the Second Punic War, but provided the Carthaginian army with little assistance. After Hannibal’s defeat at Zama, Philip’s enemies invited Rome to liberate the Greek cities under Macedonian domination. The Romans invaded Greece in 197 bc and their legions were victorious at Cynoscephalae in the region of Thessaly (Thessalia). Two years later the Roman general Titus Quinctius Flamininus granted freedom to all Greek cities and placed them under Roman protection.

    Support of the Greek cities soon drew Rome into conflict with the region’s most powerful king, Antiochus III, whose empire stretched from Asia Minor across Mesopotamia and Iran to India. When Roman ambassadors asked Antiochus to assure the freedom of Greek cities of the Asian coast, he ironically asked about the “freedom” of the cities of Italy under Roman control. Antiochus chose to invade Greece and drew Rome into a war that resulted in his defeat in 189 bc. The Romans forced Antiochus to pay the largest fine recorded from the ancient world—15,000 talents. Antiochus also had to relinquish most of his ships and his war elephants and withdraw his troops from Asia Minor to his capital at Antioch in Syria.

    After these victories, Roman commanders became increasingly arrogant and ruthless in their dealings with the Greek world. They intervened in domestic political struggles, almost invariably on the side of the aristocrats, who were usually wealthy landowners. When the Roman general Lucius Aemilius Paullus defeated Macedonia and its Greek allies at Pydna in 168 bc, he took 1,000 noble Greek youths to Rome as hostages and enslaved 150,000 men, women, and children in northwest Greece. Any pretense of Roman concern for Greek freedom was now dead.

    The Greeks and Macedonians tried to rebel against Roman rule, but after a hard-fought battle, they failed. In 146 bc, the Roman armies razed the ancient city of Corinth, took its treasures to Rome, and sold its inhabitants into slavery. In a single year Rome had destroyed both Carthage and Corinth. The brutal choice for other territories under Roman rule was clear: obedience or annihilation. At least one king learned the lesson: Attalus III of Pergamum chose to spare his subjects unnecessary pain by bequeathing his entire kingdom to the Roman people when he died in 133 bc.

    Rome’s victories over Carthage brought Sicily (in 241 bc), Sardinia (237 bc), Spain (201 bc), and North Africa (146 bc) under its control. As a result of wars in the eastern Mediterranean, Rome also took direct control of Greece (146 bc), Macedonia (146 bc), and western Asia Minor (129 bc). The Romans looked on the Mediterranean as mare nostrum (our sea) since they controlled nearly its entire perimeter after incorporating the coastal area between Italy and Spain as Transalpine Gaul in 121 bc. Some peoples continued to resist domination by Rome, but in peaceful areas like southern Gaul, Roman culture penetrated deeply. Numerous Roman monuments that still survive in the French region of Provence, for example, illustrate this influence. During the 1st century bc, the remainder of the eastern Mediterranean coastline, including Libya, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, fell into Roman hands as did all of Gaul and the Balkans south of the Danube River.

    Rome came and conquered, but also learned to administer its conquests effectively.This lesson did not come easily or quickly. The Roman state had virtually no bureaucracy, and the Romans initially preferred not to expand their administrative apparatus. Rome usually established “alliances” with foreign states and cities, but also annexed some areas as provinces when the local political organization was inadequate, as in Spain, or untrustworthy, as in Macedonia. The Roman Senate gave each conquered province an individual charter, and the Roman governor held all of the province’s civil and military authority. The governors were Roman senators who had held the consulship or praetorship, and in peacetime they were usually appointed for one year. Military activity often led to longer terms. Their absolute power led many governors to overlook extortion by tax collectors and to line their own pockets through bribery.

    C3Governing the Conquered Territories

    Rome failed to prosecute corrupt bureaucrats effectively since the courts showed a strong bias towards the senatorial class. Attempts at reform were unsuccessful, and the Roman statesman Cato the Elder’s sour prediction that foreign conquest would corrupt Rome itself proved all too true.The historian Sallust, writing during the civil wars of the 1st century bc, dated Rome’s corruption to the destruction of Carthage in 146 bc and the absence of any foreign threat.

    DSocial and Political Life During the Republic

    Rome’s military triumphs brought increased prestige to its leading families and to the Senate. In theory, the Senate remained an advisory body, but no one challenged its control of state finances, war, and foreign relations. Roman generals and ambassadors were all senators, and they came into frequent contact with eastern kings. The attitudes of these all-powerful rulers influenced some of the Romans to adopt an arrogance that conservative statesmen like Cato deplored. Scipio Africanus the Elder, for example, wore Greek clothes when he was in Sicily, while the proconsul Titus Flamininus was worshiped as a god in Greece. No matter how often the Romans publicly scorned such attitudes and ideas, senators were frequently affected by them.

    Immense wealth also streamed into the hands of senators whose military commands gave them vast booty. The Romans had traditionally deplored excessive luxury and ostentation, and had generally restricted aristocratic competition to service in war or in public life. In 275 bc the Senate actually expelled a former consul for possessing ten pounds of silver tableware. A century later, however, such rigid behavior had become outdated, and wealthy Romans began to imitate the Greeks. They built magnificent homes and imported art as decoration. Romans competed with each other to erect lavish temples and public buildings, as well as to offer sumptuous banquets prepared by Greek chefs. Scipio Africanus the Younger even surrounded himself with an entourage of poets and Greek intellectuals.

    The influx of wealth transformed both the men and women of the Roman nobility. Just as eastern kings had influenced Roman senators, so did the cultured and wealthy Greek princesses of the Hellenistic Age influence Roman women. In an attempt to imitate the lavish lifestyles of the Greek nobility, many Roman matrons used legacies from fathers and husbands who had died in battle to obtain items for personal adornment. Some of their purchases were so extravagant that a law was eventually passed limiting finery and confiscating excessive gold jewelry. Conflict developed between the concept of the cosmopolitan woman presiding over a salon served by dozens of slaves and the ideal of the Roman matron weaving at the family loom. Scipio Africanus the Elder’s wife, Aemilia, decorated her chariot with gold and silver, while her daughter Cornelia wore no adornments and proclaimed that her children were her jewels. In a society that respected women’s intellectual accomplishments, Cornelia also published her correspondence.

    D1Rural Populations

    A similar antagonism existed between the lifestyles of urban and rural populations of the Roman Republic. The 15 years that Hannibal’s armies had roamed the Italian countryside left a permanent mark on the agriculture of the peninsula. Hannibal’s soldiers took livestock and destroyed farm buildings, while Roman farmers neglected their fields to fight the war. The Romans also used most of the peninsula’s timber to outfit their navy, and the deforestation of the mountains caused increasing problems of erosion. Italian soil had never been enormously fertile, so when cheap grain began to flow into the country from Sicily and other overseas conquests, the Romans turned to herding, and the cultivation of grapevines for wine and olive trees for oil. But herds, trees, and vines all required substantial long-term investments, which many soldiers returning to abandoned fields could not afford.

    The wealthy bought property from these impoverished farmers and also occupied huge tracts of public land that the government had seized from conquered Italian cities. These fields were farmed by hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war brought into Italy as slaves. Over time, the Roman landlords became greedy. That greed led to the brutal treatment of the slaves, who responded by launching a series of terrifying revolts. These slave uprisings began in 135 bc with 200,000 slaves under arms in Sicily, and culminated with the rebellion of Spartacus in 73 bc.

    The influx of slaves drove many peasants from the countryside to the cities and swelled the size of the urban proletariat, or laboring classes, duringthe 2nd century bc. Many soldiers had seen the luxuries of Greek cities and willingly gave up their harsh rural lifestyles to work in an urban setting. The spoils of war provided funds for a great deal of construction, so initially jobs were plentiful. Senators commissioned private palaces and public memorials, while the state built roads, aqueducts, and temples. Craftworkers and laborers could easily find work and enjoy the subsidized amusements of Rome and other Italian cities. However, they also became dependent on an expanding urban economy and the generosity of politicians. Since Rome spent all of its income each year, the urban population was vulnerable to an economic downturn and a potentially explosive situation existed in the capital itself.

    Although the lure of tribute money and other spoils of war sharpened the taste for military conquest, the army faced severe recruitment problems. Property ownership was a requirement for military service, since soldiers had to provide their own arms, but the growing numbers of landless poor could no longer satisfy these basic qualifications. Even those men who were eligible hesitated to serve long tours of duty overseas when the prospects for rich booty had declined and their lands might be at risk during their absence. Armies of occupation were necessary for an imperial power, but neither Roman citizens nor the increasingly resentful Italians found enrollment attractive.

    D2Italian Subjects

    Rome had subdued Italy and then used its Italian subjects to conquer the Mediterranean. Initially Rome had been generous with political rights and had bestowed degrees of citizenship on favored communities and on freed slaves. The Italians were, at first, peaceful and loyal, and by the 2nd century bc had grown culturally and economically closer to the Romans. Most of the Italian people spoke Latin, adopted Roman coinage, and traveled on the superb network of Roman roads that linked the cities of an increasingly urbanized Italy. Italians worked beside the Romans as tax collectors and traders in the provinces, and the profits of empire helped to build the public monuments that adorned Italian towns like Pompeii. When rebels in Asia and North Africa rose to resist their oppressors, Italian merchants were even massacred alongside the Romans.

    In the provinces, the Italians were conquerors, but at home in Italy, they were regarded as subjects. They became increasingly resentful that the Romans continued to withhold full political rights from them. The army was more Italian than Roman, yet Italians received a smaller share of the booty. Confiscated Italian land was rented to Romans, and the Italian towns had to endure repeated insults at the hands of arrogant Roman officials who demanded expensive hospitality on their visits. The local Italian aristocracy hoped for change, but as they waited, the intensity of their resentment grew.

    D3New Officeholders

    The political victories of the plebeians led to the creation of a new aristocracy of wealthy officeholders, called nobiles by the Romans. The nobiles came from the ranks of both plebs and aristocrats. By the 2nd century bc, a complex interplay of factors including lineage, wealth, landholdings, military reputation, and political achievements determined social status. A wealthy man like Cato, who reached the highest offices but was not an aristocrat, still felt resentment toward aristocratic families like the Scipios.

    The expansion of Rome complicated these social divisions by enabling another new interest group, the equites, to reach economic and, eventually, political prominence. Equites could achieve great wealth in trade and business without the controls imposed on senators, who were restricted in their business dealings. Since the wars with Hannibal, the Roman state had become more involved in a variety of economic activities, including shipbuilding, provisioning of armies, road building, management of mines and public works, and, most importantly, tax collection. The equites controlled these services by setting up companies to do business with the state.

    The equites soon became notorious for their greed and corruption, taking about one-third of all tax collections as profit. They often used the enormous funds at their disposal to manipulate the grain market in a province or to lend money at interest rates up to 48 percent. Their wealth enabled them to control the governors through bribery and restrain senators through silent partnerships or secret agreements. During the 2nd century bc, these entrepreneurs developed a strong sense of their political as well as economic interests, and by late in the century they were called the equestrian order to parallel the senatorial order.

    D4Changes in Values

    In two centuries Rome transformed itself from a small city-state to the ruler of the Mediterranean. A poor agricultural community had become a commercial giant whose conquests poured gold, grain, and slaves into Italy. Rome had permanently altered its economy, society, and culture, as well as the surrounding Italian countryside. Yet, after almost four centuries of successful adaptation, the political institutions of the republic were not sufficiently flexible 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 processions, called triumphs. Nor did they understand that republican institutions, developed for a city of 10,000, could not administer an empire of millions. For example, Rome had no adequate financial system and relied on annual income from tribute and taxes as operating capital. When income and, thus, expenditures declined, severe economic crises could result. Roman senators were unwilling to address the problems of the army, the noncitizen Italian allies, the urban poor, the exploited provincials, or the brutality of the slave plantations. They responded only to crisis, and they would soon be confronted by the greatest internal crisis in centuries.

    ECultural Life During the Republic

    TheRomans excelled in architecture and engineering long before they could approach the Greeks in the quality of their literature or art. Roman conquests encouraged the spread of their innovations throughout the Mediterranean world.

    E1Architecture and Engineering

    True Roman originality appears more often in engineering and construction than in the decorative arts. By 300 bc Appius Claudius Caecus had commissioned work on the paved military road south to Capua, which became known as the Appian Way. He also initiated construction of Rome’s first aqueduct to bring water to the city from nearby hills. These projects later became the models for hundreds of miles of aqueducts and thousands of miles of paved highway built throughout Rome’s empire. In addition, the Romans took the arch from the Etruscans and, on their own, pioneered the use of concrete covered by brick as the basis for most monumental buildings, including baths, amphitheaters, aqueducts, and markets.

    The earliest Roman temples followed the Etruscan style and were built with wood decorated with terra-cotta. Roman architects designed and decorated these structures with the idea that they would be viewed from a single perspective. In contrast, Greek temples were intended to be observed from all sides. When the Romans turned to stone buildings in the 3rd century bc, they preserved a similar structure.

    The construction boom of the 2nd century bc, spurred by the profits of conquest and the desire of aristocrats for luxury, led to the incorporation of Greek features such as the use of colonnades and marble. The Greek style of colonnaded courtyards, for example, became an important part of Roman villas. In the 2nd century bc the Romans even devised their own characteristic public buildings called basilicas—large covered spaces for politics, law, and commerce. Much later in the 4th century ad, the early Christians adopted the same type of structure for their churches.


    Despite the presence of a vibrant Greek culture in southern Italy and Sicily, Roman literature developed quite slowly. Through conquest, Rome began to spread the Latin language, but only official documents like the Twelve Tables, family records, or brief personal identifications were written in Latin before the 3rd century bc. Some Roman aristocrats learned Greek, and the earliest histories by Romans were written in Greek, perhaps to convince the Hellenistic world that Rome was not an entirely barbarous state.

    The first literary work in Latin was a translation of the Greek poet Homer’s Odyssey by Lucius Livius Andronicus (284?-204 bc),who was probably born in one of the Greek colonies of southern Italy and brought to Rome as a slave. Livius and others also translated Greek tragedies into Latin. Only fragments exist of these works as well as the epics and tragedies of Quintus Ennius (239-169? bc), who is sometimes called the Father of Latin Literature.

    The first works in Latin that survive in their entirety are 20 plays of the earthy writer of comedy, Plautus(254?-184 bc). According to Plautus, his plays were performed at fairs where snake charmers and acrobats competed for the audience’s attention, so he spiced up adapted Greek plays with coarse humor. Not unlike modern television situation comedies, his plays use stereotyped characters (shrewd slaves, pompous soldiers, lovesick young men) in ingenious plots. The English playwright William Shakespeare adapted Plautus’ play Menaechmi as The Comedy of Errors (1592?), while The Braggart Soldier and other plays by Plautus formed the basis for the American musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). Political leaders in the Roman Republic took themselves very seriously, but the works of Plautus show that the Roman masses could laugh at topics like family, chastity, and even the military, as long as the plots of these plays were safely set in Greece.

    Terence (195-159 bc), who originally came from Carthage, became Rome’s other great comic poet. He followed Greek models more faithfully than Plautus and wrote comedies in clear and elegant Latin.

    The first prose writer was Cato the Elder,whose practical handbook on farming, De Agri Cultura (On Agriculture; 160? bc), is the oldest surviving nonfiction work in Latin. Cato also wrote a history of Rome that he claimed was for the education of his son, but he clearly intended the book to bolster his own reputation and disparage the aristocratic families which he despised. The most accomplished historian to write in Republican Rome was Polybius, a Greek hostage brought to Rome in 167 bc. His history of Rome’s rise to the domination of the Mediterranean, written in Greek, is the best source available for this period. Polybius combined rigorous methodology with a philosophical approach to history that made him unique among historians of Rome.

    By the 1st century bc, Roman writers and intellectuals were reading widely in Greek philosophy and literature. The poet Lucretius (94?-55? bc) wrote De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), a long poem that passionately expounded the ideas of the Greek philosopher Epicurus on the mechanical working of the universe. The other great poet of the late republic was Catullus (84?-54? bc). He was much influenced by the elegance and intimacy of Greek poetry from Alexandria, the center for Greek culture and learning in Egypt. He is best known for his cycle of 25 love poems addressed to a mysterious woman whom he calls Lesbia. The love affair recounted in the Lesbia poems was genuine, and these verses convey the poet’s ecstasy and despair with an immediacy that still strikes a responsive cord after 2,000 years.

    Among works of Roman prose, the commentaries of Julius Caesar (100-44 bc) on the Gallic War and the Civil War (De Bello Gallico and De Bello Civili) are masterpieces of propaganda. Caesar, a famed military commander and later dictator of Rome, was also a skilled writer who chose to present his conquests with a contrived objectivity and third-person detachment that gave added credibility to his account. Caesar’s former deputy Sallust (86-35? bc) has left short histories—Bellum Jugurthinum (War with Jugurtha) and the Bellum Catilinae (Conspiracy of Catiline). His moralizing approach to history focused on the decay of the aristocracy, and his bare, precise style imitated Cato.

    Sallust’s terse writing was in direct contrast to the rich prose of one of Rome’s greatest writers, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 bc), who was also a noted orator, statesman, philosopher, and essayist. Cicero’s speeches and letters are most widely known, but he also wrote essays on the history and practice of oratory. Cicero created a philosophical vocabulary in Latin by translating and adapting Greek philosophical works. Cicero’s works influenced the development of political philosophy, rhetoric, and prose style through the centuries and exceeded the impact of any other Roman writer.


    The Romans first learned wall painting from the Etruscans and later were influenced by Greek fresco painting and mosaic work for the decoration of houses. Unfortunately, in this most fragile of all art forms, almost nothing has survived from the Roman Republic. (The only remaining Etruscan painting was preserved in sealed tombs, while nearly all we have of Roman painting was sealed off in ad 79 by the lava flowing from Mount Vesuvius, when it erupted and destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum).

    More Roman sculpture has survived from the republic. The earliest artists were Etruscan, and from the 3rd century bc sculpture seen in Rome came primarily from defeated Greek cities. Most Roman marble sculpture continued to be in the Greek style. The outstanding exceptions were Roman portrait-busts, which showed great originality and were far more realistic than their idealized Greek equivalents. The tradition of realistic representation probably originated in the terra-cotta busts of ancestors, which had long been displayed at the funerals of Roman aristocrats.

    FCivil Wars and Personal Struggles (133-44 bc)

    The Romans themselves believed that the century of civil war that destroyed the republic originated in the changes brought about by the success of Roman imperialism. Some like the Roman historian Sallust blamed the gross economic inequalities that had emerged: farmers without land, laborers without jobs as a result of slave labor, and Italian allies without the rights of citizenship. Others like Cato the Elder criticized the corruption of Greek culture and the pride and ambitions of aristocratic families who put personal glory before the common good. Still others like Cicero saw the transformation of the army and urban mobs into instruments of political power as the death knell for traditional senatorial government. There was some truth in all these views as irreconcilable differences among the Romans propelled the state toward civil war.

    F1The Gracchi

    The social conflict that eventually destroyed the Roman Republic first erupted with the election of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus as tribune in 133 bc. Gracchus came from a distinguished family background: His father had served twice as consul, and his mother, Cornelia, was the daughter of the famed general Scipio Africanus the Elder. He proposed a land law to limit private occupation of public property to 300 acres and to distribute the excess in 20-acre parcels to the landless. According to Tiberius, the aim of this measure was 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. Those families who had long occupied public land believed they had de factoownership and would not relinquish it without a struggle. Roman aristocrats attributed his actions to personal ambition, but Gracchus claimed that he intended to protect the peasantry and save the Roman Republic.

    When Tiberius bypassed the Senate and brought his legislation directly to the Assembly, another tribune vetoed the proposal. Tiberius had him removed by the assembly, but the Senate retaliated by refusing to provide funds for implementation of the land law. Gracchus then proposed that the government use the treasure of King Attalus of Pergamum, just bequeathed to the Roman people, for that purpose. Tiberius’s actions were legal, but unprecedented in the history of the carefully balanced Roman constitution. His opponents feared Tiberius could become a despot, especially when he began to walk through Rome accompanied by private bodyguards. After he took the unprecedented step of standing for reelection, 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.

    In 123 bc Tiberius’s younger brother, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, was elected tribune and proposed a more radical program of social and political reform. Gaius, a brilliant orator, undermined senatorial domination by encouraging the political aspirations of the equites and by proposing that Rome extend citizenship to the people of Latium and Italians in the surrounding areas. He, too, died as a result of street fighting, and his senatorial opponents executed more than 3,000 of his supporters without trial.

    After the deaths of the Gracchi, a new breed of politicians arose called populares.They considered themselves advocates of the people (populus), although they came from the same noble background as their opponents. The supporters of continued senatorial dominance were known as optimates since the nobility called themselves the optimi (best). Although the populares drew their support from the urban poor or the landless rural population, they were senators just like the optimates. Thus, the political rivals of the late republic all held the same social position but promoted different agendas.

    The Gracchi were not conscious revolutionaries, but their actions and the senatorial reaction ushered in a series of social conflicts. Neither of the brothers made much permanent improvement in the condition of the urban poor, and the Italians were further embittered when they saw the defeat of proposals, such as the extension of Roman citizenship, that would have addressed their grievances. On the other hand, the Gracchi’s policies made the equites a political force for the first time. Tribunes recovered the inherently revolutionary power of their office that allowed them to act for the plebs and block actions by the Senate and other magistrates, and the popular assemblies again recognized their own power. The moral and political weakness of the Senate was exposed; the nobility 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, setting an even more dangerous precedent. When the North African king Jugurtha, ruler of Numidia, killed Italian traders, bribed Roman officials, and humiliated the Roman army in a drawn-out guerrilla war, the Roman general Gaius Marius won the consulship in 107 bc with a popular mandate to defeat Jugurtha. He recruited a large army by enrolling and providing arms to landless volunteers; thereafter, generals recruited and trained armies based on voluntary enlistments and property qualifications were dropped.After Roman troops led by Marius captured Jugurtha, the people repeatedly reelected Marius consul, expecting him to defeat marauding Germanic peoples in southern Gaul. Marius left a fatal legacy of professional armies whose soldiers were loyal to the 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 Roman people.

    Italian discontent over Rome’s failure to grant them citizenship or otherwise reward them for their military assistance finally erupted in 91 bc in a general revolt known as the Social War. The Italians who had helped conquer the Mediterranean now fought against the Romans.The Italians established their own capital at Corfinium and issued coinage showing the Italian bull goring the Roman wolf.The Italian army fought well, and Rome finally ended the war by agreeing to extend citizenship to all free inhabitants of Italy. Within a generation, Italians appeared in public life, and within two generations they reached the highest offices of the republic.


    Lucius Cornelius Sulla was an impoverished Roman aristocrat who had distinguished himself in the Social War and hoped to make his fortune through an overseas command. While Rome fought against the Italians, the cities of Asia rebelled and joined with King Mithridates VI Eupator of Pontus (in what is now Turkey) in killing 80,000 Roman and Italian traders and tax collectors. The Senate gave Sulla the potentially lucrative command of the forces that were being sent to defeat these cities. However, Gaius Marius also wanted the post, and his supporters tried to remove Sulla. Sulla responded by marching on the Roman capital in 88 bc to reestablish his right to the position given him by the Senate. He drove Marius and his supporters from the city.

    For the next four years Sulla pursued his eastern war, capturing Athens and finally defeating Mithridates. But during this time his Marian enemies again gained control of the government in Rome and declared Sulla an outlaw. After Sulla made peace with Mithridates, he brought his loyal army back to Italy to confront the government.

    In 83 bc Sulla landed in southern Italy and marched on Rome. Sulla needed to eliminate all opposition and to secure money and land for his 120,000 soldiers and his greedy followers. He issued proscription lists, which put a bounty on the heads of thousands of Romans whose property could then be confiscated. In less than a decade of civil war 200,000 free Romans and Italians had met violent deaths. The image of a Roman general turning his troops on the capital and murdering his political opponents haunted Rome ever after.

    A frightened Senate appointed Sulla dictator, although his term was not limited to six months like constitutional dictators of the past. Then Sulla, rather ironically, tried to protect the Senate against military leaders like himself. He packed the Senate, which had been depleted by wars and executions, with his own supporters and proposed reforms to ensure senatorial authority in the future.As a result of these reforms, consuls had to wait ten years before standing for reelection, and proconsuls could only hold office for a single year. By restricting the term of office, Sulla hoped to prevent officeholders from building up loyal troops and undermining the Senate, as both he and Gaius Marius had done. In 80 bc Sulla relinquished the dictatorship and soon retired to the pleasures of private life. None of his successors who attained such power would relinquish it so quietly.

    GPolitical Values in the Late Republic

    Patronage remained an important element in the Roman political system. Social changes diminished the traditional patronage of the rich toward the poor and masters toward their freedmen, but it survived in new forms. Popular politicians turned the entire urban population into their followers by distributing food and providing entertainment. The most important new form of patronage developed between generals and their troops. This mutual interdependence became possibly the central element leading to the fall of the republic.

    Roman politicians and their families were also linked by a network of personal, financial, and marriage ties that were described by the general term of amicitia (friendship). Such agreements could be public or private, tactical or strategic, honorable or disgraceful.

    The struggle to equal or surpass the achievements of ancestors lay at the heart of Roman ambition in public life. The transformation of Roman society brought competition in other arenas, as families vied to amass wealth and display it with increasingly lavish houses, retinues, and banquets. There seemed to be no limits to personal rivalry among powerful men who expected to have books written about them, and who received homage as gods from Rome’s Greek subjects. Yet a savage competition for state office remained the fundamental element in the search for prestige. Electoral office led to military commands which, in turn, brought wealth and power. Every ambitious Roman spent time on the election campaign trail, and handbooks that provided lessons on election strategies still survive. Rising young men like Julius Caesar often borrowed vast sums to promote their political careers. Their debtors could only expect repayment when the politician reached high office. Frequent attempts at electoral reform show that corruption ran rampant. The prizes were too great and the stakes too high. Roman political life of the 1st century bc was not about losing gracefully; it was about winning, or else.


    Intense rivalries for power followed Sulla’s resignation, and Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero fought valiantly for 20 years to stabilize the government and preserve the republic. Cicero hoped to bring senators and equites together in an alliance that represented responsible citizens against dangerous fanatics. He had no senatorial ancestors, but his oratorical abilities were quickly recognized. After rhetorical and philosophical studies in Greece, Cicero served as a lawyer and catapulted into prominence with his brilliant prosecution of a corrupt governor of Sicily.

    Widespread recognition of Cicero’s abilities brought him the consulship in 63 bc, and while serving in that office, he successfully suppressed an armed rebellion by his rival Catiline, a supporter of Sulla and the political leader who had lost to Cicero in the election. Cicero hoped to bring senators and equites together in an alliance of what he saw as responsible citizens against dangerous demagogues and potential military tyrants. In the end, however, Cicero was a political failure. He excelled as a scholar and a lawyer, but perhaps overvalued words, argument, and reason. He could not persuade senators to put aside their personal interests in the greater interest of the Roman state. Despite his flaws, he fought a heroic battle to preserve what he believed to be Rome’s best interests.

    G2The First Triumvirate

    Among the ambitious political hopefuls were two of Sulla’s junior officers, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known as Pompey, and Marcus Licinius Crassus. These two men remained closely linked for the next three decades. Conservative senators despised both of them. Sulla called Pompey “the Great,” and the 25-year-old Pompey proudly added the title to his name. Pompey’s early cruelty had earned him renown as “teen-age slaughterer,” but even before he held high office, he was a skillful military recruiter and commanded armies with a self-confidence that annoyed and frightened the Senate. Crassus had profited enormously from Sulla’s proscriptions by buying the property of those condemned at bargain prices. Many such shady dealings made him the richest man in Rome. If Crassus was unpopular with senators, he found his natural constituency among the equites, for whom he became a spokesman. He and Pompey were jointly elected consul in 70 bc.

    In the succeeding years, Pompey embarked on a military expedition to suppress piracy and to launch another war against King Mithridates VI in Asia. Pompey also reorganized Roman provinces and independent kingdoms in the east, and even conquered Jerusalem. When Pompey returned to Rome in triumph, he voluntarily disbanded his troops, much to the relief of all who feared a repeat of Sulla’s massacres. The Senate then made the mistake of refusing to provide Pompey land for his soldiers and drove him into an alliance with Crassus. The Senate had refused Crassus an adjustment of the equites’ contracts for taxes in Asia, since a famine had reduced the tax collections. Pompey and Crassus found another ambitious politician with a grievance against the Senate, Julius Caesar.

    Gaius Julius Caesar was one of the most extraordinary of all ancient Romans. Despite his modern image as a general, Caesar was a sophisticated man who was 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 he could successfully project his personality to a political assembly or an army. His sharp intellect was matched by a strong will that never wavered.

    In an age characterized by indecisive politicians, Caesar acted, for better or worse, with resoluteness and consistency. Many of Caesar’s contemporaries shared his ambition, but they lacked his extraordinary grasp of the existing political situation. This latter trait stemmed from a deep understanding of himself, his friends, and his opponents, and made him both a great general and a remarkable man. Despite his aristocratic birth, Caesar always supported the populares. He had a great rapport with the people and gained enormous popularity.

    In 61 bc Marcus Porcius Cato (called Cato the Younger to distinguish him from his great-grandfather, the Roman statesman and writer Cato the Elder) led the Senate in rebuffing the three most powerful Romans of the day: Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar. Cato was deeply conservative, and his attempts to curtail the influence of these men drove them to make a three-way political compact called the First Triumvirate. Pompey’s needs were clear enough. His future demanded that he reward his troops with land, and his honor required that the Senate ratify the treaties he had made in the east. Cato, who had the knack of doing the principled thing at the wrong time, infuriated the equites by rebuffing Crassus and thus destroying Cicero’s hope for a compact between equites and the Senate. When Julius Caesar returned from his year as praetor in Spain and hoped to run for the consulship, a senatorial vote on his triumph was intentionally delayed to make him choose between holding a great victory procession or proceeding with the election.

    Together, Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar took what the Senate refused them. Once Caesar was elected consul by the Assembly, he proposed the legislation necessary to satisfy Crassus and Pompey. When the Senate denied his efforts, he used Pompey’s veterans to intimidate voters and force these measures through the Assembly. Once the three men had satisfied their immediate goals, however, rivalries led to disputes among them. Caesar, who was deep in debt from his political campaigns, became governor of Gaul in 58 bc after his consulship ended. He hoped to recoup his fortunes through conquest and booty. After Crassus was killed by the Parthians in a military disaster in Syria in 53 bc, the Senate increasingly wooed Pompey as preferable to Caesar.

    G3The Rising Power of Julius Caesar

    Caesar first displayed his military brilliance during his long term as governor of Gaul. He did not have the strategic genius of Alexander the Great or Hannibal; instead, his success lay in his ability to appraise a situation realistically, to train his troops, and then to make the necessary logistical preparations. Caesar acted quickly to exploit every opportunity, a characteristic of both his political and military life. He made few errors and could swiftly capitalize on the mistakes of others. In Gaul he developed a battle-hardened army and was well prepared for civil war.

    Over the course of a decade, Caesar subdued great portions of Gaul, built roads, captured a million prisoners, and took vast amounts of the region’s wealth. Caesar’s enormous success did little to appease his enemies, who waited for him to leave his command in Gaul before launching the customary prosecutions for corruption. Caesar would not relinquish his armies until he was given immunity, but in the Senate Cato opposed any compromise. Pompey was the other possible military leader who could oppose Caesar, so Cato and the Senate relied on him for support and naively expected Italy to rise up against Caesar. Caesar felt that the optimates in the Senate intended to humiliate him and that he had to fight to preserve his honor. In January of 49 bc, Caesar marched his army across the Rubicon River, the boundary between his Gallic province and Italy. With the words “The die is cast,” he began a civil war.

    Pompey withdrew his troops to Greece; Caesar pursued and soon defeated them. Pompey fled to Egypt where he was murdered, and Cato went to Africa, where he lost another battle before committing suicide. In death as in life, Cato haunted Caesar. Cato was honored by sentimental supporters of the republic as “the last of the Romans.” With hindsight, he seems more clearly a man who helped to bring about the destruction of the republic he professed to hold so dear.

    Caesar followed Pompey to Egypt where he restored Queen Cleopatra—earlier deposed by her brother Ptolemy XIII—to the Egyptian throne. He soon brought her to Rome as his mistress. Caesar routed the rebellious king of Pontus in Asia Minor, a battle in which the historian Suetonius quoted Caesar as having made the famous statement: “I came; I saw; I conquered.” He then defeated Pompey’s remaining forces in Spain and Africa. He returned to Rome, and in 44 bc he assumed the position of dictator for life that a frightened Senate had offered.

    Caesar initiated a legislative whirlwind. Through numerous social and economic measures he attempted to control debt, regulate traffic in Rome, and impose import tariffs to help Italian industry. He started an ambitious building program that included the Forum of Julius to accommodate public business. He also took measures to prevent the flooding of the Tiber River. Caesar’s Julian calendar, with a minor modification by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century AD, remains the calendar in use today. He established many colonies and was generous in his extension of citizenship to cities in Gaul and Spain. Caesar became one of the first leaders to conceive of Rome as an empire rather than merely as a city-state with overseas possessions, although it was left to his great-nephew and political heir to make Caesar’s broad vision a reality.

    HThe End of the Roman Republic

    On March 15, 44 bc, Caesar attended a meeting of the Senate. A group of senators, including his one-time protégé Marcus Junius Brutus, fatally stabbed Caesar 23 times. Brutus and his friends were honorable and patriotic, but they were also foolish, and Rome paid dearly for their folly. The assassins expected that Caesar’s murder would take Roman government out of the hands of the generals and restore senatorial domination. It did not happen. For decades the army had been the true source of Roman political power. Caesar’s troops were not appeased by the Senate’s proclamation that Caesar’s death had restored their freedom. They sought to guarantee the privileges Caesar had given them and to exact revenge for their fallen leader.

    More than a decade of murder and civil war followed the assassination. Caesar’s deputy Mark Antony quickly seized command of the troops and control of the war chest to pay them. He forced Brutus, Cassius, and the other assassins to flee to Greece. But another, unexpected heir to Caesar’s wealth and name emerged. In his will Caesar had posthumously adopted his 18-year-old grandnephew, Gaius Octavius, who was then a student in Greece.

    The youth, although inexperienced, immediately showed the courage and intelligence that would later bring him mastery of the Roman world as the emperor Augustus. He crossed to southern Italy, took the name of Gaius Julius Caesar (known by historians as Octavian) and began to recruit Caesar’s troops to defend his legacy. After he drove Antony’s forces from Italy, he realized that the senators would discard him as soon as they were free of Antony. In 43 bc, Octavian joined forces with Antony and another of Caesar’s former aides, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, to form the Second Triumvirate and march on Rome. They issued death-lists for their opponents and even the great orator Cicero was struck down while fleeing to a waiting ship.

    The Second Triumvirate defeated Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in northern Greece and then embarked on a program to attend to neglected provinces and resettle veterans. Antony took on the administrative reorganization of the wealthy eastern provinces. There, like earlier Roman governors, he gained personal wealth and the loyalty of both his troops and Rome’s dependent kings.Octavian’s task was far less desirable. He had to confiscate land in Italy to give to his armies for resettlement, a process that caused resentment and even rebellion among the local residents. By shrewd maneuvering, however, Octavian won the loyalty of the troops and built a political base among the leading citizens of the Italian towns.

    Jealousy and ambition led to mutual suspicion among the the three men. Antony married Octavian’s sister as one attempt at reconciliation; yet Antony also conducted a love affair with Cleopatra and publicly acknowledged his children by her. Octavian played on Roman prejudice against eastern peoples to attack Antony and provoke civil war. In 31 bc he defeated Antony and Cleopatra in a sea battle near Actium, in Greece (see Battle of Actium). The lovers fled to Alexandria where, powerless to stop the advance of Octavian’s armies into Egypt, they committed suicide the next year.

    Octavian became the unchallenged master of Rome and the entire Mediterranean. Yet his victory over Antony could no more resolve the conflicts consuming the Roman Republic than had Caesar’s victory over Pompey. Octavian was only 33 years old at the time, and he was fortunate to have another 44 years of rule to address Rome’s problems. He faced the monumental tasks of demobilizing huge armies and safeguarding their future loyalty, ensuring the safety of Rome’s long-neglected European frontiers, and reducing class hostility and civil unrest in the capital. He also had to make the Italians an integral part of Roman social, cultural, and political life, establish an administrative apparatus to govern the empire, and devise a form of monarchy that would avoid any resemblance to ancient Etruscan tyranny or to eastern kingship.

    His first step was to repair the bitter wounds of civil war. On January 13 of 27 bc, Octavian, in his own words, “transferred the Republic from my own power to the authority of the Senate and the Roman people.” This statement was a carefully scripted piece of political theater. The Senate awarded Octavian the name of Augustus and mobs demanded that he retain power. In the legal fiction of restoring the republic, Augustus claimed that he held “no more power than the others who were my colleagues in each magistracy.” In fact, he was establishing the imperial monarchy that has become known as the Roman Empire. This empire endured for five centuries. See also Roman Empire.


    The republic was a tottering political system well before Augustus solidified his power, but despite its weaknesses republican rule had also led Rome to many positive advancements. The empire built on the important legacies of the republic and helped to preserve its reputation in the minds of future generations.

    Under the republic, the Romans had conquered the Mediterranean, but they were increasingly unable to administer it. Jealousy and factionalism among the elite stood in the way of efficient government. After the armies became involved in civil conflict, it was clear that only a single autocratic ruler could solve the social, economic, and political crises of the late republic.

    The republic collapsed, but this political change did not disrupt many areas of Roman life. Social organization, the status of citizens, family ties, and cultural and intellectual influences did not change significantly. People living in the provinces even observed an improvement in Roman administration after the fall of the republic. Wealthy Italians felt better accepted in senatorial society, soldiers were better paid, and the urban masses better fed. Only the old nobility, and their intellectual heirs, mourned the loss of freedom.

    The Roman Republic became an ideal that remained intact in the minds of historians, poets, and political theorists. The problems of the republic were soon forgotten as people looked back in admiration at its legacy of political freedom and influence. That visionary republic, which had been described by the historian Polybius and defended by Cicero, was later imitated by the city-states of Renaissance Italy and admired in 18th-century republics in France and America.

    Another important legacy of the Roman Republic was the growth in power and prestige of the city of Rome. During the 2nd century bc, the population of the capital swelled with eastern slaves and dispossessed peasants. Also, during the 2nd century bc, Rome became the political capital of the Mediterranean world. By the 1st century bc, Rome was becoming a great intellectual and cultural center, which even attracted Greek philosophers and writers. The last decades of the republic saw the development of monumental public complexes in the center of the city, setting a pattern followed later by the emperors.

    The Roman Republic was a dynamic and flexible political organism that was a noble system of government for a small city-state. It made Rome a world power, but it was unsuitable for a large and diverse empire. Furthermore, it had become rigid in the hands of a tiny elite by the time Julius Caesar swept it away. Although some institutions such as the Senate and magistrates survived, Caesar’s successor, Augustus, created a new government that allowed Rome and its people to survive, to grow, and to prosper.

    Contributed By:
    Ronald J. Mellor

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