Hubris and Nemesis: the divided Republic, c. 449–367 BC

In the 60 years of patrician rule after the overthrow of the kings, Roman territory had hardly increased at all. Lars Porsenna had been defeated and Tarquin restoration prevented. Roman hegemony over the Latin cities had been restored. The Sabines, Aequi and Volsci had been repulsed and Latin territory safeguarded. But these had been defensive wars, and the cost of victory had been high. Nothing yet gave any clue that the divided and embattled city-state beside the Tiber would, within two centuries, control the whole of Italy, and two centuries after that, most of the Mediterranean. However, the plebeian triumph of c. 449 BC had given Rome’s latent imperialism a new cutting edge. Loans, evictions and land-seizures – traditional methods for building up large holdings – were unpopular and now open to legal challenge. The booty, slaves and new land to be had through war therefore loomed larger in the ambition of Roman patricians. The Assembly of the Centuries, moreover, was more likely to vote for war, even foreign war, now that the common soldier could expect a decent share of the spoils. Mid-5th century Rome was a state whose inner tensions were being transformed into an outward-thrusting energy; a state where aspirations that might collide and produce stasis at home were about to be redirected into foreign conquest.

There was, at the time, a long-running dispute with the Etruscan city-state of Veii, which lay about 20 km due north of Rome. A short distance up the Tiber, Veientine territory extended on to the south bank of the river and included the strategically important town of Fidenae. This Veientine foothold on the Latin side of the Tiber posed a direct threat to Roman territory and to the city’s control of the lucrative trade in salt and luxury goods in the valley. Veii itself occupied a rocky plateau completely surrounded by cliffs and waterways except for a narrow neck of land on one side: a natural fortress of great strength. It was enclosed by a defensive wall several kilometres in circumference running along the top of the cliffs. Temples towered over the city. Artists’ workshops lined the streets. Roads radiated from the metropolis to the sea, to other Etruscan cities, and to Veii’s own rich agricultural hinterland. Heavily populated and wealthy, one of the great cities of Etruria, Veii was defended by a hoplite phalanx thousands-strong. This was a very different sort of enemy from a Sabine war-band; Veii was fully the equal of Rome.

War first broke out between the two cities in c. 483 BC. It then lasted, on and off, for almost a century. In the First Veientine War (c. 483– 474 BC), the Romans were defeated (the Fabii clan almost annihilated), and Veii retained control of Fidenae, the object of the struggle. In the Second Veientine War (c. 437–435 BC), a reinvigorated Rome went on to the offensive, captured Fidenae by siege, and drove the enemy off the south bank. Both these wars were, in a sense, defensive responses to the threat posed by Veientine control of Fidenae. Not so the Third Veientine War (c. 406–396 BC), the first unequivocally aggressive war in Roman history, where the aim was total conquest.

Veii itself was put under siege, an operation that strained Roman resources to the limit. The logistics of maintaining siege lines; the numbers and resourcefulness of the defenders; the threat posed by Etruscan relief-columns; and attacks on Latin territory by Veii’s barbarian allies: these in combination brought Rome close to defeat. In the crisis, the state declared martial law and appointed its leading citizen, Marcus Furius Camillus, dictator. Camillus reorganized the army, introduced pay so that men could afford to remain in the field outside the usual summer campaigning season, and began a more aggressive siege of Veii. The defences were penetrated along one of the main drainage tunnels beneath the city, some of which, it seems, had not been blocked. The Romans stormed in, and Veii was put to the sack. It is worth stressing what this implied: first, the soldiers ran amok, killing men, raping women; then, the survivors were rounded up and sold into slavery; finally, all movable property was systematically and comprehensively looted. The sack of Veii in 396 BC meant that the city and its people – according to some the wealthiest in Etruria – ceased to exist. The territory of the city was annexed, doubling the size of the ager Romanus, and this was later settled by Roman farmers, enrolled in four new tribes.

Veii had been destroyed in a new and terrible kind of war. Not a war for limited objectives to be ended by treaty when one of the protagonists sued for peace, but a total war whose aim was the annihilation of the enemy. And even as they fought this war, the Romans were active on other fronts, driving the Aequi and Volsci from parts of eastern and southern Latium. Rome had become something more than the leading city in a defensive alliance of Latins; she had become a predator state threatening the whole of west-central Italy. This was part of a wider change. The old international system – based on patchworks of small cities and tribes – was disintegrating. A new system dominated by great powers was emerging across the Mediterranean. For now, and for the next 200 years, it would remain uncertain which of the rising powers would win the contest for global supremacy. Rome’s imperial future was not predestined; many times history might have taken a different course; even now, at the moment of the fall of Veii, her greatest victory so far, danger threatened. In the far north, another warlike people was on the move; and one strong branch of that people had just lunged southwards into the Italian peninsula. A great Celtic battle-host was heading for Rome.

In the 6th century BC, when Rome was a small city-state ruled by Etruscan kings, a distinctive warrior aristocracy – members of what archaeologists now call the ‘Hallstatt culture’ – controlled a group of territories in Central Europe north of the Alps. The Hallstatt lords spoke Celtic, lived in hill-forts, and were buried with funerary carts, bronze cauldrons and drinking horns. At first their numbers were few and the territories they controlled small and scattered, but during the 5th century Celtic influence spread. A new style – the ‘La Tène culture’ – was adopted by an increasingly numerous aristocracy. Drinking sets and fire-dogs, gold and silver torcs, elaborate horse fittings, and weaponry, especially iron swords in decorated scabbards, became essential status-symbols in much of Central Europe. The aristocracy was formed of chieftains and small retinues of warriors, who wore helmets and sometimes body-armour, fought on horseback or in chariots, and were expert in the use of long slashing swords. Though the military ethos affected the whole of Celtic society, such that military service with spear and shield was an obligation on all free men, military achievement was a particular mark of noble status. The standing of a chief was measured by the size of the retinue of followers he attracted through success in war and raiding. In the late 5th century, this Celtic warrior culture burst the bounds of its homeland and flooded across Europe in a succession of violent waves. In the age of migrations (c. 400–200 BC), the Celts reached the furthest fringes of the Continent and beyond: across France and into southern Britain and eastern Spain; eastwards to the lower Danube and the shores of the Black Sea; from there into Greece and across the Aegean to Turkey; and over the Alps into the Po Valley, where they clashed with Ligurians, Etruscans and Veneti. Thus the Celts entered the history of the Greeks, who called them Keltoi, and of the Romans, who called them Galli.

One of the first to set out, in 390 BC, was Brennus. Seeking whatever chance might offer – mercenary service, war booty, land on which to settle, at any rate something honourable – Brennus led his host south into the heart of Italy. Alerted to the danger, the Roman army mobilized and met the Gauls in the steep valley of the River Allia, a small tributary of the Tiber on Rome’s north-east frontier. Here, for the first time, Roman soldiers faced a Celtic battle-array. A great mass of spearmen shouted war-cries and beat weapons against shields, many of them naked to the waist save for torcs, bracelets, painted tattoos and patterned cloaks. Trumpet blasts could be heard above the din, animal totems were waved aloft, and priests in the ranks called on the Celtic gods for assistance. In front were young warriors brandishing swords and shouting challenges to single combat. The battle was soon over. The Celtic charge was shattering. The whole line surged forwards at tremendous speed, its loose order and light equipment allowing the Gauls to sweep round the Romans’ flanks and threaten their rear. The ponderous phalanx of the city-state – a tight-packed block of slow-moving heavy infantry – was defenceless against such tactics. The Romans broke and ran. Thousands were cut down in the rout. A remnant retreated to the ruins of Veii and entrenched themselves. Nothing then stood between Brennus and Rome.

The city was effectively undefended. The 6th century wall was dilapidated, and new suburbs had been built outside its protection. Besides, the circuit was too long to be held by the depleted forces left in the city. As the Gallic host approached, the citizens retreated to the Capitoline Hill, where they improvised a breastwork at the top of the cliffs. There they held out for months – while the Gauls occupied and plundered the city – until hunger compelled them to seek terms. The fate of Veii a few years earlier cast a black shadow over these days. Was Rome, so recently and so completely victorious, now in its turn to be ethnically cleansed? Brennus, though, was a Gaul: his motives were mercenary, but his ambition modest; he was content to be bought off for a ransom in gold. Long afterwards, the Romans told each other stories about the Gallic invasion – how the sacred geese of Juno had alerted the defenders to a night attack; how Camillus, the victor of Veii, twice defeated the retreating Gauls with a scratch force; and how Camillus also, when the Romans saw the devastation in their city and debated moving to Veii, persuaded them to stay and rebuild. But these edifying tales cannot alter the fact that the Gauls had had Rome at their mercy, and that, had they been a more ruthless enemy, they might have destroyed it as utterly as the Romans had destroyed Veii.

The Gallic invasion set Roman power back a generation. The city’s imperial prestige was shattered, and old enemies sought to reverse past defeats. There were wars against the Etruscan cities of Falerii and Tarquinii, challenging Rome’s seizure of Veientine territory. The Aequi and Volsci raided Latium again. There was conflict, too, with former allies: the Etruscan city of Caere, which had supported Rome against Veii; the Hernici hill-tribesmen, who had belonged to the Latin League; and some of the Latin cities themselves – Tusculum, Praeneste, Velitrae and Tibur. Gallic war-bands and Greek pirates were also active. Yet, though on the defensive on several fronts, Rome survived. Moreover, despite the demands of militia service, she mobilized her citizens to build a new wall around the city (known as the ‘Servian Wall’). Ten metres high and four wide, built of masonry hauled from a Veientine quarry, the wall enclosed the whole of the then-existing city, a total length of more than 10 km. The work of quarrying, transporting and laying the stone represented at least five million man-hours of labour. In the aftermath of the Gallic invasion, the Roman state revealed extraordinary resilience. The burden, however, was heavy and unevenly distributed, and the effect of this was to reignite the Struggle of the Orders.

The plebeians were the soldiers, navvies and casualties of the beleaguered city’s ordeal. Heavy losses at the Allia had carried off the young workers on many peasant farms. Land had been laid waste and property plundered by the invaders. The ransom to buy them off had been high. Since then, unceasing war had meant frequent call-ups and high taxes, while the building of the wall had consumed the labour of thousands. These burdens, bad enough in themselves, had accelerated the grinding tendency for small proprietors to get into debt and lose their land and freedom. To this ancient feud between rich and poor was now added, especially since the fall of Veii, a new grievance over recently conquered ‘public land’ (ager publicus). Should this remain under state control – under the control, that is, of patrician magistrates inclined to offer it in large blocks to their friends? Or should it be divided into small plots and distributed to poorer citizens? Was conquered land, that is, to be farmed by patricians or plebeians?

The issues were bitterly contested. When the maverick patrician and war-hero Marcus Manlius Capitolinus championed the popular cause, paying off the private debts of many plebeians from his own resources and promising a general redress of grievances, he was met by a conservative counter-attack led by another war-hero, Marcus Furius Camillus, the man now acclaimed as ‘the second founder of Rome’ for his role in the city’s recovery after the Gallic invasion. Capitolinus was prosecuted for sedition and executed inc. 384 BC. This provided a breathing-space but solved nothing. Plebeian agitation was renewed the following decade. Gaius Licinius Stolo and Lucius Sextius Lateranus were repeatedly reelected tribunes of the plebs on a radical platform of debt, land and constitutional reform. For ten years, the patricians blocked their initiatives, and the tribunes in turn used their veto power to paralyse government. In c. 367 BC, the opposition finally crumbled and three major reforms were enacted: debt payments were reduced by deducting past payments from the capital owed and setting a three-year maximum period for the repayment of the remainder; ager publicus was henceforward to be sold off in private plots, with holdings limited to 500 iugera (300 acres); and the right of plebeians to stand for the consulship was legally recognized.

The Licinio-Sextian laws amounted to a comprehensive defeat for the patrician aristocracy – symbolized by the election of one of the two plebeian leaders, Lucius Sextius Lateranus, to the consulship the following year. The gains, moreover, were permanent, and additional laws strengthened the position of the plebeians further in succeeding decades. Interest on loans was first restricted; then debt-bondage was abolished outright. Plebeians were first guaranteed one of the annual consulships; then they gained access to most of the high priesthoods. Other laws increased the power of the popular assemblies, and one, the most important, gave edicts (plebiscita) of the Assembly of the Plebs equal status with laws (leges) proposed by the Senate and passed by the Assembly of the Centuries. This last measure, in 287 BC, was effectively the closing act of the Struggle of the Orders, which had begun over two centuries before.

Within two generations of the Licinio-Sextian laws, in fact, the plebeian movement had disappeared, its aristocratic leaders absorbed into an expanded governing class, its institutions, above all the plebeian tribunes and the Assembly of the Plebs, incorporated into the workings of the Roman state. The old patrician aristocracy was transformed into a new nobility (nobilitas) by the admission to its ranks of rich plebeian families. The reactionaries who had dominated the consulship in the first half of the 4th century BC lost control to a new party of moderates – pro-reform patricians and plebeian newcomers. No longer was high office monopolized by an exclusive hereditary caste; an aristocracy based on wealth and public service, open to recruitment from below, was now in power.

Was the Struggle of the Orders ended, then, by the simple device of incorporating the popular leaders? Some plebeian radicals fearing this had certainly opposed their leaders’ aspiration to the consulship during the Licinio-Sextian agitation. But had the grievances of poor plebeians remained acute, they would eventually have found new leaders – as they were to do in the Late Republic. Yet no great popular movements disturbed the internal order of the Middle Republic. From the late 4th to the mid 2nd century BC, the Roman state was remarkably stable. The Greek historian Polybius, writing towards the end of that period, was fascinated by the Roman constitution, seeing in it a large part of the explanation for Rome’s victories over Greece. ‘The elements by which the Roman constitution was controlled were three in number … and all the aspects of the administration were, taken separately, so fairly and so suitably ordered and regulated through the agency of these three elements that it was impossible even for the Romans themselves to declare with certainty whether the whole system was an aristocracy, a democracy or a monarchy. In fact, it was quite natural that this should be so, for if we were to fix our eyes only upon the power of the consuls, the constitution might give the impression of being completely monarchical and royal; if we confined our attention to the Senate, it would seem to be aristocratic; and if we looked at the power of the people, it would appear to be a clear example of democracy … the result is a union which is strong enough to withstand all emergencies, so that it is impossible to find a better form of constitution than this … Whenever one of the three elements swells in importance, becomes over-ambitious and tends to encroach upon the others, it becomes apparent … that none of the three is completely independent, but that the designs of any one can be blocked or impeded by the rest, with the result that none will unduly dominate the others or treat them with contempt. Thus the whole situation remains in equilibrium, since any aggressive impulse is checked, and each estate is apprehensive from the outset of censure from the others.’(6)

Polybius was an intelligent observer. To a degree he was right. Sovereignty rested with the People, not the Senate, so that popular consent was the precondition for all major acts of state – the ‘democratic element’. The Assembly of the Centuries elected senior magistrates and voted on constitutional laws and declarations of war. The edicts of the Assembly of the Plebs had been given the force of law. And a new Assembly of the Tribes – originally set up as a conservative alternative to the Assembly of the Plebs – became virtually indistinguishable from the latter. (The ancient Assembly of the Cantons had by this time become little more than a decorative relic.) But the popular assemblies were controlled from above: the People could meet only on the summons of a higher magistrate, vote only on proposals submitted to them, and elect candidates for office only from an approved list. Laws could not be amended, merely accepted or rejected, and debate was limited to speakers chosen by the presiding magistrate. The block-voting system weighted things in favour of the better-off. Meetings were often packed by the clients of great men.

Meantime, as the state expanded, the number of elected magistrates gradually increased: two censors every five years and two consuls every year had become standard, but more praetors (judges and administrators), military tribunes (junior generals), plebeian tribunes (popular representatives), aediles (responsible for public works and municipal regulations) and quaestors (finance officers) were created as needed. The senior magistrates – censors, consuls and praetors – had imperium, a regal power of command during their term of office; they were accompanied on public occasions by lictors (lictores), each bearing a bundle of rods and an axe, symbolizing the senior magistrate’s judicial authority. This was the ‘monarchical element’ in Polybius’ scheme. The Senate, of course, represented the ‘aristocratic’. It was now an assembly of rich office-holders, men of property and distinguished family who had held a senior magistracy, some of patrician descent, many now plebeian. An obsession with rank and etiquette dominated proceedings. The leader of the house (princeps senatus) always spoke first, followed by others in order of their former office, and, when all were done, the ‘sense of the house’ (sententia) would be clear. The senators would then vote a ‘decree of the Senate’ (senatus consultum), technically only advice, but advice which, in view of the supreme auctoritas of the assembly, was all but binding on magistrates.

The mixed constitution that Polybius describes was indeed crucial to Rome’s internal stability and her capacity to wage imperialist war. But he conflates form and content, attributing prime significance to legal niceties, and misses the most essential characteristic of the Roman constitution: its stability rested on the fact that, because it accurately reflected the balance of class forces in Roman society, it enjoyed a wide measure of popular support. Rome remained, at root, an oligarchy. It was governed by an aristocracy of top landowners and office-holders, a nobilitas formed of a few hundred top patrician and plebeian families. This ruling class was now relatively open to recruitment from below, and competition for state office, and the honour (dignitas) and reputation (gloria) associated with it, was intense. Only a minority of consuls in the 500 years between 300 BC and AD 200 had consular fathers: birth no longer guaranteed success; one had to fight for one’s place among Rome’s grandees. Achievement was proudly displayed, and men honoured by Rome reciprocated with rich benefactions. ‘Appius Claudius Caecus,’ announces the epitaph of one of the most famous figures of the late 4th century BC, ‘son of Gaius, censor, consul twice, dictator, interrex three times, praetor twice, curule aedile twice, quaestor, tribune of the soldiers three times. He captured several towns from the Samnites, and routed an army of Sabines and Etruscans. He prevented peace being made with King Pyrrhus. In his censorship, he paved the Appian Way and built an aqueduct for Rome. He built the Temple of Bellona.’(7) Offices held, victories won, monuments built: these are paraded as tokens of the great man’s prestige. Appius Claudius Caecus exudes the self-confidence of the Middle Republican ruling class.

The power of men like Caecus was not so much constrained by ‘democracy’ – as the Polybian model would have it – as shaped by a need to harness popular energies in the service of both rival aristocratic houses and the state as a whole. The People could not be taken for granted: they had to be wooed and placated. Stability was the result of class compromise in the Struggle of the Orders and the consequent emergence of a united citizen-body with a common interest in conquest. Most vital of all was the economic security of the Roman peasantry who formed the legions. Only in part was this due to new laws on interest, debt-bondage and land distribution. Equally important was Rome’s explosive imperialism after the middle of the 4th century BC. The social contradictions that had produced the Struggle of the Orders in the Early Republic were resolved in the foreign conquests of the Middle Republic. For the nobles, there was wealth, power and glory in military achievement. For the commons, there was pay for military service, a share in the spoils, and new land for those who wanted it. For the state, there were inflows of booty, indemnities and tribute with which to buy off social discontent, monumentalize the city, and build yet bigger armies. To this – resulting in the transformation of a Latin city-state into a Mediterranean empire – we now turn.

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