Ancient History & Civilisation


Later tradition held that Rome had been founded in 753. Many stories circulated concerning this event, but the most popular told of Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of Mars who were suckled by a she-wolf. Romulus founded the city, but killed his brother in a rage when the latter mocked his plans. A bandit chief whose followers were vagrants and outcasts forced to abduct women from the neighbouring Sabines when they wanted wives, Romulus was the first of Rome's seven kings, the last of whom was expelled in 509 when a Republic was founded. Whether there is any truth at all in these myths is impossible to say. Certainly Rome was at one stage a monarchy, and the Republic was probably created round about the traditional date. The archaeological record shows settlement in the area from the tenth century, but the villages in the area do not coalesce into something which could be termed a city until the sixth. The site was a good one, positioned at a natural crossing point of the River Tiber and with hilltops providing strong defensive positions. It also lay on several important trade routes, notably the via Salaria, or salt road, running from the coast into central Italy. Gradually Rome emerged as the dominant city in Latium, head of the Latin League. She managed to endure the onslaught of the Oscan-speaking peoples from the Apennines who swept through most of central Italy and overran Campania in the late fifth and early fourth centuries, and the Gallic tribes who simultaneously pressed down from the north. In 390 a Roman army was routed at the River Allia and the city sacked by a band of Gauls, but little permanent damage was inflicted and the check to Roman growth was only temporary.

In 338 the last great rebellion by the other Latin cities against Rome was defeated after a hard struggle. The Roman settlement in the aftermath of this conflict set the pattern for and accelerated her absorption of the rest of Italy. Some territory was confiscated and used to establish colonies of Roman and Latin citizens. Many noble families from Campania, which had remained loyal to Rome, were given citizenship and incorporated into Rome's ruling elite. The Latin League was abolished and the Romans did not negotiate with the defeated cities collectively, but formed a separate alliance with each community. Each city was now tied directly to Rome and obliged to provide her with soldiers to serve with her armies. The status of these communities was clearly defined by law, so that some were given full Roman citizenship, others citizenship in every respect apart from the right to hold office or vote at Rome (civitessine suffragio), and others continued to be Latin citizens, but were allowed the rights of intermarriage and commerce with Roman citizens. Most of Campania received full citizenship and the fertile lands of this area added greatly to Rome's prosperity. In 312 construction began on the via Appia, the first great Roman road, which ran from Rome to Capua, providing a physical link with the new territory.17 The Roman willingness to extend its citizenship was something unique in the ancient world and a major factor in her eventual success. Unlike those in other cities, freed slaves at Rome received the full franchise and by the third century many members of the population, including some senatorial families, numbered freedmen amongst their ancestors. The Roman talent was to absorb others and make them loyal to her. For the first time, the settlement of 338 extended full citizenship to communities which were not native Latin-speakers. The allied cities lost their political independence, although they continued to manage their own internal affairs, but gained benefits from the bond with Rome. Their soldiers were called upon to fight Rome's wars, but they also profited from the spoils of the subsequent victories. Latin as well as Roman citizens were almost certainly included in the colonies established on captured lands. In the late fourth and early third centuries Roman expansion assumed great momentum. The Samnites, Etruscans and Gauls were all defeated, despite some Roman disasters, notably at the Caudine Forks in 321 when a Roman army surrendered to the Samnites. The cities of Magna Graecia - the 'Greater Greece' heavily colonized by Hellenic communities - were subdued, despite the intervention of King Pyrrhus of Epirus on behalf of the city of Tarentum. Pyrrhus' modern army with its pike phalanx of professional soldiers and its war elephants inflicted two heavy defeats on Roman armies, but was eventually beaten. What was especially notable about this conflict was the refusal of the Romans to negotiate with Pyrrhus after his victories. This was certainly a surprise to the king of Epirus, who expected all wars to end in a negotiated peace settlement in the way that was normal in the Hellenistic world. Rome continued to expand, turning defeated enemies into loyal, but clearly subordinate allies. As Rome expanded so too did her citizen population which, combined with her allies, gave Rome vast resources of military manpower, far greater than those of Carthage.18

The number of Roman citizens steadily increased, and by the third century BC many lived long distances away from Rome, but the political life of the State was still entirely conducted in the city. Only when physically present in Rome could a citizen vote or stand for office. There were three main Assemblies where the Roman People expressed its collective will. The Comitia Centuriata voted to declare war or accept a peace treaty, and elected the consuls, praetor and censors, the senior magistrates of the State. TheComitia Tributa elected most of the more junior magistrates and could pass legislation. The Concilium Plebis was very similar, but excluded members of the numerically small patrician class. In these assemblies the People could only vote for or against a proposal, and there was no opportunity for debate or for an ordinary citizen to present a counter proposal. In all three the opinion of the wealthier citizens tended to predominate. This was especially true of the Comitia Centuriata, where the voting structure was based upon archaic military organization. The more prosperous citizens voted first and had fewer members in each voting-group or century, in the same way that they had once provided the cavalry and the most heavily armed infantry, who had the most prominent role in wartime. The senior class of the old heavy infantry, together with the even wealthier cavalrymen, totalled 88 out of the 193 centuries composing the assembly, not far short of a majority. It is always important to remember that Popular support, most of all in consular elections, always meant that a man had the favour of the bulk of the prosperous citizens at Rome and not simply the poor. The ten tribunes of the plebs had originally been created to defend the plebeians against aristocratic and especially patrician oppression, but by this time they were normally young senators at an early phase in their career. Potentially the powers of this office were considerable, since they presided over the Concilium Plebis and could present motions to it. Tribunes also possessed the right to veto any measure brought by another magistrate, however senior.

The Assemblies did not debate issues and were summoned only when required to vote. The Senate was the permanent council which discussed affairs of State and advised the magistrates. It consisted of around 300 members who were enrolled in its ranks by the censors, two senior senators elected every five years to oversee the census of citizens. Many were ex-magistrates and all had to possess substantial property, but the censors had considerable discretion in adding or removing names from the senatorial roll. The Senate's decrees did not carry the force of law and needed to be ratified by the people, but its very permanence ensured that it had the dominant role in foreign policy, receiving foreign embassies and choosing Roman ambassadors from its own ranks. Every year the Senate decided where the senior magistrates would be sent, allocating them 'provinces', which at this period were spheres of responsibility rather than primarily geographical areas. It also allocated military and financial resources to them, setting the size and composition of each army to take the field, and had the power to extend a magistrate's authority for an extra year, although this was a rare practice before the Punic Wars.

The Senate was permanent, its membership fairly stable, but the main executive officers of the State were all annually elected magistrates. The most senior of these were the two consuls, who were expected to cope with all the most important issues facing the State during their twelve months in office, whether this meant framing legislation or leading an army in battle. Their military role was especially important given the frequency of Roman war-making. The provinces allocated to the consuls were always an indication of current military priorities, since they expected to be given the most important enemies to fight. On the rare occasions that both consuls were sent against a single enemy it was a sign that a massive effort was to be made against an especially dangerous threat. Consuls and other magistrates received for the duration of their office imperium, the power to command Roman soldiers and to dispense justice. Imperium was symbolized by the magistrates' attendants or lictors, who carried the fasces, axes bound around with a bundle of rods indicating that their master could decree both capital and corporal punishment. A consul was attended by twelve lictors, more junior magistrates by fewer.

Although the consuls provided Rome's senior military commanders, they were not professional soldiers. A political career at Rome combined both military and civil posts. Before standing for office a man had to have served for ten campaigns with the army, perhaps as a cavalryman, but often as a military tribune or a member of a relative's staff. In his late twenties or early thirties a man might hope to be elected quaestor. The quaestors were primarily financial officials, but might also act as the consuls' second-in-command. The office of aedile was normally held in the mid thirties and had little role outside Rome itself, where it was primarily responsible for festivals and entertainments. Only one praetor was elected each year, and prior to the First Punic War the office had a purely judicial role. At least half of the consuls never held this post and some did so only after their consulship. Later the number of praetors and junior magistrates increased and their roles expanded as the victories in the first two conflicts with Carthage gready expanded Rome's territory and responsibilities. The political career, or cursus honorum, as a result became much more highly regulated in the second century BC, with for instance the legal minimum ages for each post being much more tightly imposed.

Candidates for political office at Rome were not elected for membership of a particular political party (for such things did not exist), and only rarely for espousing a particular policy. Men were elected on the basis of their former achievements, or, since the young men standing for the junior offices had rarely had much chance to gain distinction, on the achievements of their family. The Romans believed very strongly that characteristics and ability were passed on from one generation to the next. If a man's father or grandfather had won the consulship and led Roman armies to victory in battle, then there was every reason to believe that he would prove equally competent. The noble families took care to advertise the achievements of former generations, placing their busts and symbols of office in the porches of their houses alongside the insignia of the current generation. Funerals of family members were staged in public and included speeches recounting not just the achievements of the deceased, but of all earlier generations, whose presence was represented by actors wearing masks and dressed in their respective insignia and robes of office. The Roman electorate knew what to expect from a Claudius or a Fabius and were more likely to vote for them than a man whose name and family were unfamiliar. In addition to this advantage, the established families possessed many clients, men for whom they had done favours in the past, who were expected to support them. If past favours were not enough, then they also had the wealth to win support and mount a campaign celebrating their qualities. It was very difficult for a man whose ancestors had never held office to have a distinguished career. If such a man did manage to rise to the consulship then he was known as a 'new man' (novus homo). In every generation a few 'new men' rose in this way, adding their families to the existing nobility, so that although difficult, such success was by no means impossible. The 'new men' themselves, including Cato the Elder and later Cicero, were apt themselves to exaggerate the obstacles they had overcome and thus to add to their own achievement.19

Roman senators competed fiercely for high office and the honour, glory and financial rewards which it brought. The majority of senators never achieved the consulship, which was largely monopolized by a small number of wealthy and influential families. In the early years of the Republic the office had only been open to the few patrician families, but by this time plebeians had been admitted and some of the older plebeian families were every bit as aristocratic and powerful as the patricians. By the third century BC it was normal for there to be one patrician and one plebeian consul in each year. These established families possessed great wealth, large networks of clients and the prestige of numerous ancestors who had distinguished themselves in the service of the Republic. In the narrative of the Punic Wars the same names crop up again and again as each new generation of a family attained high office. The consulship brought command in the most important wars, and military glory was the greatest ambition of a Roman aristocrat. A great victory might win the right to celebrate a triumph, an honour which the Senate voted to successful commanders. For this ceremony the general had his face painted terracotta red like the statues of Jupiter and wore the regalia of the god, as he rode through the heart of the city, the spoils of his victory on display and his soldiers marching in parade. The only higher honour was the right to dedicate spolia opima on the Capitol, which only generals who had killed the enemy leader in single combat could win. Only two men, one of them Romulus, had performed this ritual before 265. Former consuls and men who had triumphed were chief amongst the elder statesmen in the Senate, the men with the reputation (auctoritas) which demanded that they be called upon in its debates. These men competed with each other to outshine their peers in glory and reputation. Their triumphal monuments were rich in superlatives, as everyone sought to be best and greatest, to conquer the most peoples, storm the most cities, win the most battles and lead the most captives into slavery. Rivalry amongst senators encouraged them to strive to serve the State more effectively as magistrates, but at this period it was closely controlled and aided the stability of the State. A Roman aristocrat did not want to overturn the Republic, but to be successful on its terms. The Senate and the Republic needed to be preserved if he was to be acknowledged as its pre-eminent member by his peers. A Roman senator would never dream of defecting to an enemy in the hope of rising to power in a future, defeated Rome.

It used to be believed that the Roman Senate was divided into clear political groupings or factions based around some of the dominant families. These were perceived as having consistent policies so that, for instance, it was suggested that the faction based around the Fabii, one of the old patrician lines, favoured expansion into southern Italy, whilst the Aemilii were more eager to expand overseas. It was an attractive idea since whenever a consul appeared who was connected by blood, marriage or association with such a family, historians could automatically assume that he favoured a particular policy, even when little was known about the individual and what he actually did. In this way patterns seemed to appear in Roman foreign policy, which could be explained by the changing fortunes of particular family groups. None of this is supported by our ancient sources, who never attribute particular political views, instead of character traits, to specific families. The Roman Senate, and especially the small number of dominant families, was a very small community which freely intermarried, so that most of the prominent figures in any period had some familial tie, however distant. It was not unusual for cousins to oppose each other politically. Faction was a negative term for the Romans, invariably applied to political opponents. Senators naturally sought as many friends and allies within the Senate as possible, but since all were ultimately in competition for the same offices and honours these groups were inevitably very fluid. When it conformed with their mutual interests, senators might combine to aid each other in their election campaigns or when involved in a legal dispute. Such a connection was not permanent, and might be abandoned if it no longer served a useful purpose. Only the members of the immediate family could invariably be relied upon. Roman politics was about gaining personal and familial success, not about the formulation of long-term policy. Its rhythm was the political year, with annual elections and allocation of provinces.20

Aristocratic competition at Rome was ardent but closely controlled and the Republic, like Carthage, proved far more stable than most Greek city states. The Greek historian Polybius believed that this was because it possessed a mixed constitution, that ideal of Greek political theory which combined the three main types of government believed to be the natural conditions for a civilized state, monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. At Rome the magistrates, and especially the consuls, possessed tremendous power and represented the monarchic element, whilst the more permanent advisory role of the Senate suggested an aristocracy. Democracy was provided by the Popular Assemblies who declared war, elected magistrates and passed legislation, and the ten tribunes of the plebs. The power of each group balanced the others, so that no one section of the State had overwhelming power. Few modern commentators have accepted the perfection of Polybius' version, most believing that the oligarchic element represented by the Senate was the dominant force in the State. However, it was certainly a fundamental principle of Roman politics that no one individual should gain unrivalled power. Therefore there were two consuls, each with equal imperium, who held office for twelve months and then returned to private life, since it was illegal to hold the same office in consecutive years and in theory a decade was supposed to pass before the same post could be held again. The competition between senators for the senior office made it unusual for it to be held more than once, highly exceptional more than twice. Only at times of great crisis was the normal order suspended and a single dictator appointed with supreme power overriding even that of the consuls. Yet this post was no basis for lasting dominance of the State, since it only lasted for six months. Most often it was used as a way of holding elections for the next year's magistracies in the absence of the current consuls and the dictator resigned after a matter of days.21

Rome's political structures do not fully explain the strong sense of community which bound all classes in the State together. To a modern eye Roman society may seem grossly unfair. The more prosperous classes had a disproportionate political influence and a small elite monopolized the important offices. There is no evidence to suggest that poorer citizens felt themselves to be unfairly disadvantaged. Although poorer citizens do seem to have been fairly deferential in their attitude to the wealthy, they still felt free to voice their opinion of their leaders in certain circumstances, as when soldiers marching in a triumph customarily sang ribald songs about their commander. Patronage pervaded Roman society, connecting all classes together in an intimate bond of mutual dependence. Patrons expected support and respect from their clients, senators for instance would demand their political and electoral support, but in return clients expected to receive aid in their own affairs. However indirectly, whether through the patron of their patron's patron or even further removed, most poorer citizens had some form of access to those at the centre of power. Social advancement was also possible, and perhaps far easier than is often imagined. Roman citizens identified themselves very strongly with the Republic and felt a part of it. When the State went to war all classes participated, each according to their level of prosperity, and all shared both the danger and the prizes of victory, even if the wealthier benefited more from the latter.

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