Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER III

The Roman Republic

The Roman Republic was structured as a republican government anchored on the principles of checks and balances and the separation of powers. It was established in 509 B.C. after the toppling of Rome’s last seven kings, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. As maintained by tradition, Tarquinius Superbus was a tyrant—an anomaly from the other six kings who were benevolent rulers.

Cicero Denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari (1889)

According to the prevailing modern view, Tarquinius Superbus was defeated and ousted by the Etruscan king of Clusium Porsenna. However, Porsenna was forced to retreat before he could claim the monarchy; he left Rome without a king and so the kingship was replaced by the consuls—two magistrates elected annually by citizens; the consuls were largely consulted by a Senate. The Senate comprised a group of elected magistrates.

The exact event that sounded the knell of the Roman Republic remains a contentious topic among scholars, but it is believed to be 27 B.C. when the Roman Senate bestowed supreme power to Octavian who later took the title Augustus.

It was during this epoch that Rome’s sovereignty expanded tremendously; the republic purchased hegemony over the entire Mediterranean region, the Italian peninsula, North Africa, Spain and Greek.

Celtic Invasion

The Celtic expansion (namely the Gallic tribes) was occurring at a fast pace; by 390 B.C., they managed to invade the northern regions of Italy. The Romans were troubled when a belligerent tribe invaded two towns of Etruria, as the region was very close to the Roman dominion. Overwhelmed by the vicious invasion, the Etruscans looked to Rome for help. The Republic responded and the two warring parties, the Romans and the Gauls, met at the Battle of Allia River (390-87 B.C.).

The Romans performed miserably in the battle; they were not only trounced by the Celtic tribes but also chased back to Rome where the Celts followed and carried out a devastating act of pillaging. The invaders were driven out with a ransom in gold.

The bloodletting of this battle made the Romans and Gauls fierce enemies. It led to the many Roman-Gallic Wars that took place at various intervals during the following two centuries.

Punic Wars

Rome was becoming a major military force in the 3rd century B.C. It had asserted its unchallengeable dominance over the Italian peninsula with its victory in the Pyrrhic War of 280–275 B.C. and with the Greek kingdom proved that the Roman Republic was a force to be reckoned with.

With a fierce military establishment, the Republic was equipped to challenge the most prominent powers in the Mediterranean region: the Greek and Carthage (now Tunisia) Kingdoms.

The Punic Wars were a succession of three battles between the Roman Republic and Ancient Carthage. The wars took place over the span of 20 years between the years 274 and 146 B.C.

Maps to Illustrate the Punic Wars, by Joel Dorman Steele, and Esther Baker Steele (1883)

The First Punic War 264-241 B.C.

The war was rooted in the battle for supremacy over the island of Sicily. Carthage was a dominant power in the Mediterranean Sea with an extensive trade root. The navy supported the commerce by clearing trade routes and conquering new land.

It was this Carthaginian navy that enforced the treaty which prohibited Rome from conducting commercial activities within the western region of the Mediterranean Sea. But in 264 B.C., the silence of Rome was broken when Carthage conquered Sicily. Although Rome was no match for the unparalleled Carthaginian Navy, it built 330 ships and trained sailors.

As the Roman military was a land-based army that lacked naval experience, it designed ships that consisted of the corvus (ramps and gangways) which could be placed onto an enemy’s ship, serving as a bridge through which the army could land on the opponent’s ship; therefore, during the confrontation with the Carthaginian Navy, the Roman military turned it into a land-battle.

After a series of wars, Rome was able to defeat Carthage and claim rights to the island of Sicily in 241 B.C. Carthage was coerced to disburse war indemnities.

The Second Punic War 218 -201 B.C.

Carthage suffered heavily from the loss of the First Punic War. The army of mercenaries Carthage used in the war demanded for their pay; the conflict culminated to the Mercenary War of 241-237 B.C., out of which Carthage came out the victor but with heavy losses.

By the time Rome invaded the Carthaginian territories of Corsica and Sardinia, Carthage was too weak to fight back. The kingdom tried to compensate by occupying and expanding in Spain.

The Second Punic War was inevitable when Hannibal, a Carthaginian general, assailed the city of Saguntum, Rome’s ally. Hannibal, crossing over the Italian Alps, invaded Italy. The general proved to be an insuperable threat to the republic as he managed to triumph in nearly all the battles he engaged in. Convinced that it was impossible to overcome Hannibal in Italy, the Romans dispatched a troop to the African continent where they were able to imperil the capital of the Carthaginian kingdom.

Hannibal was quickly called back to Africa where he faced the Roman military force, spearheaded by Scipio Africanus, at the Battle of Zama. Hannibal lost and Cartage was faced with another devastating blow and the indemnities of war.

The Third Punic War 149–146 B.C.

Carthage was never able to fully recover from the Second Punic War. Barely able to pay the indemnities, Carthage was left vulnerable to the incursions of neighboring Numidia (today’s Algeria and Tunisia). The two forces went into war and Numidia was able to claim victory. Debt-laden Carthage had another war indemnity to address.

The Roman Republic was indifferent about the clash between the two forces, but it was deeply concerned about another revival of Carthage.

After paying off the war indemnities to Rome, Carthage felt it had finalized the treaty with the republic. Nonetheless, Rome, regarding the restoration of Carthaginian rule as an annoyance, was set on the destruction of the kingdom. The Roman Senator Cato the Elder would complete his every speech with:

“Further, I think that Carthage should be destroyed.”

And in 149 B.C., Rome acted on her apprehension. A Roman embassy to Carthage brought forth a proposal to the Senate, demanding the dismantling and rebuilding of Carthage further inland. Vexed by the proposal, Carthaginians flouted the proposal. The Third Punic War was thus commenced.

The Roman force spearheaded by general Scipio Aemilianus was able to easily conquer Carthage for three years. After a vicious act of ransacking, the Romans incinerated the city. The Carthaginian population was either enslaved or killed and Rome annexed all the territories of Carthage.

Rebellion: War of Spartacus            

The War of Spartacus in 73–71 B.C. (also known as the Third Servile War, or the Gladiator War) was the final and third war of a succession of slave uprisings against the Roman Republic. Collectively, the triad of battles is known as the “Roman Servile Wars.”

Although there had been other slave rebellions in Rome the most threatening was the War of Spartacus. Between the years 73 and 71 B.C. a faction of slaves that had escaped from captivity went round sacking the city. The faction was initially composed of 78 runaway gladiators, but it grew to a mob of 120,000 children, men and women.

Spearheaded by several leaders, one of them being the famed gladiator-general Spartacus, the mob carried out successful pillages without being caught. Most of the adults in the group were well-built and adept in combat; they proved to be a fierce challenge to the Roman armed forces.

In depicting the event, Plutarch states that this was an attempt made by the slaves to gain their emancipation by running away through Cisalpine Gaul. Florus and Appian, on the other hand, describe the uprising as an endeavor by the slaves to invade the Roman city. 

The war was finally squashed by a force of eight legions led by Marcus Licinius Crassus. The war was concluded in 71 B.C. after the army of Spartacus proposed a negotiation with the legion of Crassus when hearing of the reinforcement of the army of Rome (the legion of Gneaeus Pompeius Magnus or Pompey the Great was on its way to succor Crassus’ legion which was closing in on the rebels). The negotiation was unsuccessful as Crassus failed to accept it. A certain group of the rebels fled the scene but were pursued by the Roman army. Nearly all the slave rebellions were killed or crucified.

The Spartacus War had shaken the Roman citizens. Because of this, they started to treat their slaves better and certain constitutional rights were established to better the lives of slaves.

For Crassus and Pompey, this victory was to reap great political success. The seeds for the shift of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire were sown here.

Julius Caesar

Born on July, 100 B.C. (although, according to some, 102 B.C.), Gaius Julius Caesar was the son of a praetor (also named Gaius Julius Caesar) who presided over Asia. His mother, Aurelia Cotta, was of a noble birth.

Unlike the Optimate Factions who believed in the superiority of the noble class and adhered to the Roman values that favored the elite minority, Caesar and his family were populists who believed in the devolvement of power.

Military Career

The joining of Caesar in the military service was a rather unplanned one. When his father died in 85 B.C., he became head of the family at only 16 years of age. He joined the priesthood and was elected the High Priest of Jupiter. Adhering to the customs of priesthood, he also broke off his engagement to a plebian girl and married a praetor (one must be a member of a patrician and must also be married to one in order to become a priest).

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar, by Lionel Royer (1899)

However, when the Roman ruler Sulla affirmed himself dictator, he pursued a rather strategic campaign to rid his administration of dissidents and those who held the populist ideology. Caesar, thus, was targeted and unfrocked from his position and forced to flee the city. He was consented a return, but since his family’s property was confiscated he had to join the army in Asia as a means of income. He also didn’t trust that Sulla would stay true to his word and leave him in one piece.

The military turned out to be his forte. He achieved one success after the next. His success in the Gallic Wars (ended in 51 B.C.) made him the earliest Roman general to invade Britain. Roman territory was able to expand to the English Channel and the Rhine.

Political Career and Statesmanship

Caesar, in 60 B.C., joined a political coalition with the two most prominent figures in Rome: Pompey and Crassus. The triad (often dubbed “The First Triumvirate”) remained a dominant political force in the republic for many years. They employed populist tactics to win over the society; the reactionary ruling class of the Senate contested this mater stoutly.

The senators encircle Caesar, by Carl Theodor von Piloty (1865)

In 53 B.C., following Crassus’ death, Caesar’s military success, notably that of the Gallic Wars, proved to be a threat to Pompey and the conservative class within the Senate (Pompey had joined forces with the Senate). At the conclusion of the Gallic Wars a military command was issued requesting that Caesar relinquish his military power and make his way back to Rome.

Caesar flouted the command by crossing the Rubicon River and later entering Rome with his army in January 49 B.C. This commenced a civil war from which Caesar emerged the victor, where after he was appointed Dictator for a decade.

After his defeat by Caesar’s small forces at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 B.C., Pompey fled to Egypt; however, upon hearing the rising fame of Caesar, the co-regent of the Egyptian Empire Ptolemy XIII had Pompey executed. Caesar, outraged by Pompey’s murder, proclaimed martial law and conquered the royal palace. This was the event that occasioned his famed love affair with Cleopatra VII. She bore him a son Ptolemy Caesar (Caesarion).

Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Leon-Gerome (1866)

Unparalleled in both his political and military authority, Caesar now stood at the helm of the government. In 46 and 45 B.C. he was elected for his third and fourth terms as consul. He oversaw the tribunate and the dictatorship.

On March 15,  44 B.C., Caesar was murdered by a cabal of senators among whom were Marcus Junius Brutus (Caesar’s next selection as heir), and Gaius Cassius Longinus. He was brutally stabbed twenty-three times in the porch of the basilica of Pompey the Great.

Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Caesar’s cousin and right-hand man, in partnership with Octavian, Caesar’s grandnephew and adopted heir, avenged the perpetrators for the murder.

The Death of Caesar, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (between 1859 and 1867)

The Romans in Britain

It was in 55 B.C. the Romans arrived in Britain. During the Gallic Wars which were fought in France, the Britons intervened to help the Gauls. Julius Caesar, who was spearheading the Roman army, invaded Britain as a punitive action for their participation in the war.

In late August 55 B.C., the Roman army landed on the British isle with 12,000 soldiers. The army, before coming off the vessels, was faced with a bellicose British troop that managed to carry out a strong resistance at the beach. Astonished by the gallantry of the Britons, Caesar stated:

“The Romans were faced with serious problems. These dangers frightened our soldiers who were not used to battles of this kind, with the results that they do not show the same speed and enthusiasm as they usually did in battles on dry land.”

Despite the strong resistance the Britons put up, they were repelled by the Romans. But Caesar, knowing that his army was outnumbered, had his force withdraw to Gaul.

The next year, in 54 B.C., Caesar returned with an army of 30,000 soldiers. He was successful this round. Establishing a military base there, he took on each tribe one by one. However, his focus on the British isle led to a neglect of Gaul (France) where a serious uprising took place. Caesar and his troop left to stamp out that turmoil and the Romans never returned to Britain until 90 years later.

In 43 A.D. Rome invaded Briton; Emperor Claudius dispatched a force of 40,000 men. The Romans stayed in the isle for many years, but were unable to get full control as some Britons continued to resist their existence.

The Roman Army and Warfare

The Roman military had two structures: the Roman Army and the Roman Navy. Together, these branches would carry out the triple duty of securing the republic’s borders, maintaining internal piece and imposing taxation on conquered people.

The Roman army engaged in innumerable battles - and managed to triumph in most of them. But the army wasn’t exactly undefeatable; it did have its fair share of humiliating and catastrophic defeats. But the army was resilient, it knew how to recover from a loss, quickly restructure and set out for another battle.

The army had to deal with two kinds of wars. There were the foreign wars undertaken as a counter-attack or in defense of an ally and the civil wars which the republic was fraught with.

In the period between 509 and 315 B.C., the army’s style of warfare resembled that of the Greeks phalanx formation. From 315 to 107 B.C. the Roman army structured its force in maniples. And in the later years of the republic (107–27 B.C.) the army was modeled through the Marian reforms implemented by Gaius Marius.

Antony's Civil War

Antony's Civil War (also known as the Final War of the Roman Republic) was fought between the one time allies Gaius Octavius (Octavian) and Mark Antony. The war was ignited when the Senate declared war on the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra VII. Her lover, Antony, turned against the Roman government and joined sides with her.

The Battle of Actium 2nd September 31BC, by Laureys a Castro (1672)

At the Battle of Actium on 2nd September, 30 B.C., the two forces met in a naval combat that was to conclude the war. Octavian emerged the victor; Antony and Cleopatra retreated to the city of Alexandria, where they both committed suicide. Following their death, Octavian ordered for the killing of Caesarion, the son of Caesar and Cleopatra.

The title Augustus was conferred to Octavian by the Senate in 27 B.C. This made him the first Roman Emperor initiating both the conclusion of the Roman Republic and the dawn of the Roman Empire.

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