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Introducing Ancient Rome: The Republic

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

According to the myth, the Roman aristocracy overthrew their Etruscan king Tarquinius Superbus in 509 BC and elected two magistrates to preside over the newly Republican government. Following this, half a century of ‘trial and error’ occurred until the Valerio-Horatian Laws of 449BC which laid the foundation for the Roman Republican system. With the groundwork in place, the fifth and fourth centuries witnessed Rome’s rapid expansion across the Italian peninsula. Key events include Rome’s defeat of the Latin League in 499BC, the creation of Latin colonies, the siege of Veii (396BC) and the simultaneous repulsion of the Gauls and the Greeks (349BC).

Rome’s mistreatment of its Latin allies led to the pivotal Romano-Latin War in 341. Rome crushed the revolt and imposed a settlement in 338 that outlined a new for Roman domination. Rome was to deal with its defeated opponents separately as opposed to in confederations and each community was to be assigned scaling levels of rights and privileges. Thus, a Roman commonwealth was created facilitating a process of rapid expansion. From 311BC onwards Rome turned its attention to Central Italy with a series of victories over the Etruscans, Umbrians and Samnites.

Roman conflict with Tarentum in 282BC over a treaty violation led to Rome’s first significant conflict with a Greek power. King Pyrrhus of Epirus came to aid the Tarentines in 280BC. Despite several victories, Epirus’ losses in manpower were not sustainable and so was forced to withdraw leaving Magna Graecia vulnerable to Roman aggression. By 263 BC, the last of the Greek colonies had fallen and Italy was unified under Roman rule.

With the Italian peninsular secured, Rome turned its sights to Mediterranean expansion. The First Punic war (264-241 BC) erupted over competing Roman and Carthage influence in Sicily with Rome securing a significant, but not yet total, victory. Both powers came to a head again in the Second Punic War (218-201BC) over Carthage’s refusal to respect Rome’s sovereignty over the city of Saguntum. After several emphatic defeats, Rome was able to recover and reduce Carthage to an insignificant power. Rome was now the undisputed power of the Western Mediterranean.

From 200-146BC Rome increasingly intervened in Greek politics culminating in the eventual annexation of the Greek East. Rome’s incursions were limited at first, serving to check Macedonian aggression and prevent a single hegemon from emerging in Greece. Roman policy is epitomised by the declaration of ‘Greek Peace’ following the Second Macedonian War. It was hoped that Philip’s final defeat would ensure long-lasting peace and so Rome would no longer need to interact with their Greek allies. Further Macedonian uprisings and an attempt by the Achaean League to challenge Roman dominance led to Rome incorporating Achaea and Macedonia as two new provinces (146BC).

The latter half of the second century was marred by a series of domestic crises for Rome. A consequence of Rome’s swift increase in size was a destabilisation of social order as the city-state struggled to make the transition to an Empire. Tribunate Tiberius Gracchus sought to alleviate some of these issues with an overhaul of agrarian laws favouring the peasantry. Tiberius’ laws angered the wealthy Senators who prospered from pre-existing tenancy laws and their prolonged opposition led to the eventual murder of Tiberius and his followers (133BC). Tiberius’ younger brother, Gaius, obtained the tribunate in 123BC and sought to further his brother’s reforms. Gaius’ reforms were widely popular but again the Senatorial class felt aggrieved. Following a brawl in a public meeting in 121BC, Gaius and 3000 of his followers were killed on the Aventine Hill.

A breakdown in relations between Roman and their Italian allies led to outright revolt in 91BC. The allies were successful in this ‘Social War’, with Rome conceding citizenship to a majority of Italians. The nature of the Res Publica was changed indefinitely and was followed by a century of civil war. The conflict between the two generals Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla established a dangerous precedent of popular generals setting their troops on one another and marching on Rome.

The Triumvirate of 59BC formed by Caesar, Crassus and Pompey served as the final nail of the coffin of the Republic with senatorial influence in decline and power becoming concentrated in the hands of a few men. The subsequent breakdown in the Triumvirate’s relationship led to a Civil war between Caesar and Pompey ending with the former’s success. Caesar’s increase in dictatorial powers led to his assassination and a brief return of senatorial authority. The emergence of a second triumvirate under Marc Antony, Octavian (Caesar’s chosen heir) and Lepidus avenged Caesar in 42BC and put an end to any hopes of a Republican restoration. The breakdown of the second triumvirate was followed by another civil with Octavian decisively defeating Antony and forming the Princeps under his monarchical rule.

Written by Harry Ferrigno

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