The Rise of the Roman Republic (c. 510 – 300 BC)
Rome… The Eternal City of the Seven Hills – once upon a time merely a humble village in the plains of Latium, ultimately a world power that controlled one of the greatest empires in the entirety of human history, leaving a nearly omnipresent legacy not only in the lands it once ruled but the modern world at large, something few other empires have accomplished.
Rome rose in a favourable geographical location: on the left bank of the Tiber, not too far from the sea, but far enough inland to be able to control important inland trade routes: alongside the Tiber and from Etruria southeast into Latium. At some point during the tenth century BC, a number of settlements emerged in the hills surrounding a swampy Latin valley. The inhabitants were Latins and other Italic people from the mountainous regions further inland. However, the language of the Latins was dominant and therefore became the language of the valley. In later ages, the Romans always had much to tell about the founding and early history of their city: tales about the twins Romulus and Remus, the Seven Kings (of which Romulus was the first) and all kinds of heroic deeds performed by individual Romans in the struggle for survival against the Etruscans, Greeks and surrounding Italic peoples. Nevertheless, as fascinating and numerous as these tales are, the actual historical truth in them is often unreliable and vague. For one thing, the date given by the Romans themselves for the founding of the city (21 April 753 BC) is both too late – the area had been inhabited since the tenth century BC – and too early, for Rome became a veritable city only around 600 BC.
The oldest Rome most likely did not even have the name Roma yet. It was a collection of small villages consisting of simple huts. It might be that these villages considered themselves ‘independent’ at first but if so it did not take long before a united political community emerged, ruled by a rex (king). It can be assumed that the king had more of a religious role instead of actual political power, for Roman society was from the outset built around the leader of each family, the pater familias, whom had absolute authority over his wife, his children (regardless of age) and his slaves. In between different patres, family ties inevitably came to be, which formed the basis for the principle of the gens (pl. gentes), a group of families which had the same family name and were therefore paternally related. All gentes combined were the Roman people: the populus Romanus.
It is also quite likely that this oldest Rome had an assembly, the comitia, though it is equally likely that this assembly had little more to do than obediently approve the decisions of the king and the aristocracy. Whatever the role of the assembly may have been, the king did not rule alone. The leaders of the most prominent families, usually the oldest members, formed a council: the senate or senatus (‘council of the eldest’). Its members were patres regardless, and from this stems the term patricii (patricians) to indicate the Roman aristocracy of later times. At this point however, Roman society was primitive at best, although the villages expanded rapidly towards each other to form a united settlement. Rome was nevertheless not a real city yet, let alone a power centre that might control territory further from home. This would all change when Etruscan influence began to overshadow Latium around 600 BC.
The story goes that a man named Tarquinius came from Etruria to Rome and established himself as king. It is told that he began many great projects, among them the great temple of Jupiter on the smallest of the hills of Rome, the Capitoline Hill; and the great square of Rome, the Forum Romanum which was built in the central dale between the Capitoline, Palatine and Quirinal Hills. The Capitoline Hill and its temple also began to serve as fortress in times of emergency and it can be assumed that the first city-wall was raised around this time too. Tarquinius is indeed an Etruscan name and the core of the story might actually be true: an Etruscan seized power in the city, probably with designs to use it as a base to expand Etruscan influence in Latium. The Etruscans almost certainly gave the name Roma to the city but due to the obscurity of the Etruscan language, the actual meaning of the word remains unknown, despite many proposed meanings. In any case, Rome had at last become an actual city by the end of the sixth century BC.
The Etruscan rulers introduced the Greek phalanx formation and thereby clearly separated the elite from the masses: those who could pay for the expensive arms and armour required to fight in the phalanxes and those who could not. Those who could pay and fight were organised into a legio of 3,000 infantrymen. The poorer citizens as a rule were not required to fight, but this cost them any kind of vote in the Roman assembly. The entire Roman populus became divided into three separate groups (sg. tribus). It is possible that this system had been introduced already before the Etruscans came but regardless, its importance increased massively under Etruscan influence. Near the end of the sixth century BC, the system was improved; Rome was now divided into four new tribus (pl.) but this time, the tribus referred to urban districts, rather than groups of people. In addition to the four districts in Rome, the Roman hinterland was divided into an unknown number of countryside districts. People were required to register, in order to facilitate tax payment (tributum) and recruitment for the army.
It is quite certain that the Etruscan rulers in time began to centralise and increase their power. To this end, the Etruscans began to repress the increasingly frustrated Roman aristocracy and introduced certain symbols and customs to emphasise their authority. Most prominent among these were the fascis (a wooden bundle sporting an axe-blade; pl. fasces) and the triumphus (the right of victorious cammanders to march into the city with their soldiers).
According to the Roman accounts, the last Etruscan king of Rome was Tarquinius Superbus, allegedly a man of great accomplishments but also of great tyranny. He is generally credited with finishing the Capitoline temple of Jupiter but used increasingly repressive measures to maintain and expand his power. This ultimately caused the Roman aristocracy to stage a coup d’êtat, abolish the position of rex and establish the Roman Republic. Though the story is quite possibly true, the Romans place the founding of their Republic in 510 BC, which is the same year the tyrant Hippias was driven out of Athens. This might therefore be a deliberate attempt at identifying Rome’s history with that of the greatest Greek city-state (something the Romans often did). In any case, the Etruscans suffered considerable loss of power and influence in Latium around 500 BC, causing the Greeks to drive them out of Campania in the south during the fifth century BC. This marked the beginning of the end for the Etruscans: the Roman Republic was born and although positive aspects of the Etruscan legacy were kept, the Romans were now free to make their own fortunes.
Thus, some 175 years before Alexander the Great, the Roman Republic stood politically independent. This was at first a rather shaky situation, requiring nearly a century of consolidation. On top of that, Rome had to face up to the other Latin cities, and together with the Latin cities against the Italic peoples that continuously tried to infiltrate Latium. To complicate matters even more, the Etruscans still held power north of the Tiber and in the fourth century BC, the Celtic invasions of northern Italy came dangerously close to Latium.
Around 400 BC, the Romans booked their first major triumph when they dealt the Etruscan city Veii a crushing defeat, thereby more than doubling Roman-controlled territory. Yet Rome’s difficulty in fending off Celtic attacks would prove to be its first major setback: Celtic invaders overran and ransacked much of Rome around 390 BC. The Romans recovered rapidly and fifty years later, they fought alongside Capua against the Samnite League and shortly afterwards continued expanding into Latium. Recognising Rome’s increasingly obvious hunger for power and territory, the Latin cities quickly banded together into a Latin League and resisted the Romans but – like all future enemies of the Roman Republic – were ultimately dealt a string of searing defeats. In 338 BC, the Romans smashed the Latin League and forced direct annexation upon most Latin cities. The rise of of Rome had now begun in earnest and the Roman state territory – the ager Romanus – was gradually expanded. Unlike the Greek city-states, the Romans were quite generous with their citizenship: Italic people in subdued territories were gifted either the full or partial Roman citizenship. This was a particularly smart policy because the Romans could secure an ever increasing number of Romanised people and therefore also military personnel. If a subdued territory was left ‘independent’, the Romans considered this a gift for which the defeated people had to show appropriate gratitude – that is obedience. Thus the power of the Roman Republic expanded in two different ways: direct expansion of the ager Romanus and the creation of a complex system of alliances with the people and cities of the Italian peninsula.
By 300 BC, the Roman Republic had become the dominant power in Central Italy and emerged as a considerable factor in the Western Mediterranean, causing more and more eyebrows to raise at its obviously grand ambitions. In Greece, orators began to warn against “the thundercloud in the West”, while Carthage hastily intensified its efforts to dominate the Western Mediterranean before the Romans secured Italy and would try to do the same. Before long though, a race for Western Mediterranean supremacy between Carthage and Rome began, which would ultimately lead to the bloodiest conflict the Mediterranean world had seen until then – the Punic Wars…
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