Roman Republic

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res publica Romana
Roman Republic
National motto:
Senatus Populusque Romanus
(Latin: "The Roman Senate & People")
Major languages(s) Latin, Greek
Capital(s) Rome
Government Res Publica
Head of state Consul, in times of military emergency Dictator
Establishment 510 BC
Dissolution September 2, 31 BC
First consul(s) Lucius Junius Brutus, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus (509 BC-508 BC)
Last consul(s) Mark Antony, Lucius Scribonius Libo, Aemilius Lepidus Paullus (34 BC-33 BC)
Preceding state Roman Kingdom
Succeeding state Roman Empire
See also Roman Republic (18th century) and Roman Republic (19th century).

The Roman Republic (Latin: Res Publica Romanorum) was the republican government of the city of Rome and its territories from 510 BC until the establishment of the Roman Empire, which sometimes placed at 44 BC the year of Caesar's appointment as perpetual dictator or, more commonly, 27 BC the year that the Roman Senate granted Octavian the title "Augustus".

The city of Rome stands on the banks of the river Tiber, very near the west coast of Italy. It marked the northernmost border of the territory in which the Latin language was spoken and the southern edge of Etruria, the territory in which the Etruscan language and people held sway.


Government institutions

Topics in Roman government
Roman Kingdom
Roman Republic
Roman Empire
Principate Dominate
Western Empire Eastern Empire
Ordinary magistrates:
Extraordinary magistrates:
Mandatory officials - offices, titles, honorifics:
Politics and law:

The first and most important institution of the Roman Republic was the Roman Senate. Inside the Senate there were two unofficial parties the optimates and the populares. The Senate had major influence and prestige being composed by aristocratic and rich patricians and plebians. The great majority of the senators were former republican officials.

The Romans observed two principles for their officials: annuality or the observation of a one-year term and collegiality or the holding of the same office by at least two men at the same time. The supreme office of consul, for instance, was always held by two men together, each of whom exercised a power of mutual veto over any actions by the other consul. If the entire Roman army took the field, it was always under the command of the two consuls, who alternated days of command. Most other offices were held by more than two men; in the late Republic there were 8 praetors a year and 20 quaestors.

The dictators were an exception to annuality and collegiality, and the censors to annuality. In times of military emergency a single dictator was elected for a term of 6 months to have sole command of the roman state. On a regular, but not annual basis two censors were elected: every five years for a term of 18 months.

The Roman legion formed the backbone of Roman military power. Rome used its legions to expand its borders from beyond the banks of the Tiber to dominate most of Europe and of the Mediterranean. Each time Rome conquered new lands, the area would be sectioned off into one or several provinces, with each under the command of an governor chosen by the Senate.

History of the Roman Republic

The legendary founding of Rome — 753 BC

The legendary twins Romulus and Remus, sons of the god Mars, are said to have been the founders of Rome, set as April 21, 753 BC. Through a period of 243 years, the Roman state grew in population with the annexations of the Sabines and the Alba Longans, founded by Aeneas's son Iulus, by military aggression. The last three kings of Rome were of Etruscan origin, whose influence could greatly be seen on Roman architecture and art. The expulsion of the last king in 510 BC set up the Roman Republic, with the Roman leaders Brutus and Collatinus as the republic's first consuls.

The establishment of the Republic — 509 BC

Livy´s version of the establishment of the Republic states that the last of the Kings of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus ("Tarquin the proud") had a thoroughly unpleasant son, Sextus Tarquinius, who raped a Roman noblewoman named Lucretia. Lucretia compelled her family to take action by gathering her kinsmen, telling them what happened, and then killing herself. They were compelled to avenge her, and led an uprising that expelled the royal house, the Tarquins, out of Rome into refuge in Etruria.

Lucretia's husband Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus and Lucius Junius Brutus were elected as the first two consuls, the chief officers of the new Republic (Marcus Junius Brutus who later assassinated Gaius Julius Caesar claimed descent from this first Brutus).

The early consuls took over the roles of the king with the exception of his high priesthood in the worship of Jupiter Optimus Maximus at the sacred temple on the Capitoline Hill. For that duty the Romans elected a Rex sacrorum or "king of holy things." Until the end of the Republic, the accusation that a powerful man wanted to make himself king remained a career-shaking charge (Julius Caesar's assassins claimed that they were preserving Rome from the re-establishment of a monarchy).

Patricians and plebeians

The toga was the characteristic garment of male Roman citizens. Non-citizens were not allowed to wear one.
The toga was the characteristic garment of male Roman citizens. Non-citizens were not allowed to wear one.

The people of Rome were divided into patricians and plebeians. These two classes were ancestral and inherited. Though patricians had in the early Republic monopolized all political offices and probably most of the wealth, there are signs of wealthy plebeians in historical records. Many patrician families lost both wealth and any political influence because of the later Republic. By the 2nd century BC the classifications had meaning predominantly in [religious] functions, where many priesthoods remained restricted to patricians only.

The relationship between the plebeians and the patricians sometimes came under such strain that the plebeians would secede from the city, taking their families and movable possessions, and set up camp on a hill outside the walls. Their refusal to co-operate any longer with the patricians led to social changes. In 494 BC, only about 15 years after the establishment of the Republic, the plebeians for the first time elected two leaders to whom they gave the title Tribunes. The "plebs" took an oath that they would hold their leaders 'sacrosanct' or inviolate during their terms of office, and that the united plebs would kill anyone who harmed a tribune. The second secession led to further legal definition of their rights and duties and increased the number of tribunes to 10. The final secession gave the vote of the Concilium Plebis or "Council of the Plebeians" the force of law. It is important to note that this force of law was binding for both patricians and plebians, and in fact made the Council of the Plebeians the leading body for approving Roman laws.

The building of the Republic

Throughout the 4th century B.C. the Romans fought a series of wars with their neighbors, most notably the Sabines and the Samnites, who became their principal enemies in the Italian mainland. Eventually they became the major power of the Latin League, a coalition of city-states in the area of Latium, the region of which Rome is now the heart. Serious set-backs did occur to Rome during this time. In 390 BC the Gauls from Gallia Cisalpina (modern Po Valley) defeated the Roman legions and sacked the city, requiring a huge ransom from the Romans to avoid completely destroying it (as a Roman senator protested to the Gallic chief Brennus that the weights used to measure the ransom of gold were inaccurate, Brennus threw his sword onto the weights and uttered the famous words: "Vae Victis" "Woe to the vanquished"). What really distinguished the Romans was despite all defeats they would (normally) simply regroup and continue to fight, never accepting defeat. Those conquered by Rome eventually became roman citizens and as such would fight in the roman army.

In 283 BC Pyrrhus of Epirus arrived to help the Greek colony of Tarentum against the Romans. Pyrrhus was widely considered the greatest military mind since Alexander the Great, but even after winning three battles was unable to defeat the Roman Republic, taking irreplaceable losses as he did so. The term "Pyrrhic victory" comes from these battles when Pyrrhus was supposed to have uttered the phrase: "Another such victory and I shall be lost." When Pyrrhus withdrew to fight wars in Sicily and Greece, the Romans won an important international victory and started to gain the attention of the Hellenistic superpowers in the East.

By 268 BC the Romans were dominant in Italy through a network of allies, conquered city-states, colonies, and strategic garrisons. The allies and the conquered city-states were always kept carefully divided by granting them different rights (some of them had the Latin Rights and others didn't) and different taxes in a policy of "divide and rule". At that time Rome started to look outwards of Italy and towards the islands and the rich trade of the Mediterranean.

The Punic Wars

Main article: Punic Wars

As soon as Rome had consolidated its control in Italy, it had to face down the serious threat from Carthage in a series of three Punic Wars ('Punic' is Latin for 'Phoenician') (264-241 BC, 218-202 BC, and 149-146 BC). After these conflicts, Rome was undisputedly the most powerful nation in Europe and the Mediterranean, a status it would retain until the division of the Roman Empire between the Western Roman Empire (which fell in 476 AD) and the Eastern Roman Empire (also called Byzantine Empire) (which survived until 1453 AD).

Carthage, a Phoenician colony on the coast of modern Tunisia, was a powerful city-state with a large empire in 264 BC, and, with the exception of Rome, the strongest power in the western Mediterranean. West of Athens, its naval dominance was uncontested, but its army was sorely lacking. Its citizens rarely fought directly against their enemies on land, but rather used the huge wealth they gained from trade to hire mercenaries to fight their wars for them.

The First Punic War between Rome and Carthage began as a dispute over the island of Sicily. Initially a series of Carthaginian naval victories gave Carthage military supremacy. In 261-260 BC, Rome countered, by building its own fleet using a captured Carthaginian warship as a model, and installing the corvus on their ships, an "assault bridge" that latched onto enemy vessels and brought them to a standstill. This allowed the Roman troops to board and capture Carthaginian ships with ease, and gave Rome back the initiative. After several naval battles which ended in Roman victories, a defeated Carthage signed a peace treaty giving Rome the total control of Sicily. In 238 BC the mercenary troops of Carthage revolted and Rome took the opportunity to seize Corsica and Sardinia away from Carthage. From that point on, the Romans used the term "Mare Nostrum" ("our sea") and effectively controlled the Mediterranean. Rome's navy could prevent any amphibious invasions upon Italy, controll the important and rich sea trade routes and potentially invade other countries.

Carthage spent the following years improving its finances and expanded its colonial empire in Hispania (modern Spain), under the Barca family, whose most famous member Hannibal, swore a sacred oath never to be a friend to Rome. In 221 BC Hannibal attacked Saguntum in Spain, a city allied to Rome, beginning the Second Punic War. In this war there were three major military theaters. First and foremost was Italy, where Hannibal defeated the Roman legions repeatedly. Second in importance was Spain, where Hasdrubal, a brother of Hannibal, defended the Carthaginian colonial cities, defeating the Romans on several occasions while losing battles in others. Thirdly, in Sicily, the Romans held military supremacy.

Hannibal's feat in crossing the Alps with war elephants passed into European legend: a fresco detail, ca. 1510, Capitoline Museum, Rome
Hannibal's feat in crossing the Alps with war elephants passed into European legend: a fresco detail, ca. 1510, Capitoline Museum, Rome

Hannibal surprised the Romans, leading a large army of mercenaries composed mainly of Gauls, Hispanics and Numidians into Italy through the Alps, famously taking with him a dozen African war elephants, even though these did not prove to be very valuable in the following campaign. Hannibal was a master strategist who knew that the Roman cavalry was, as a rule, weak and vulnerable and therefore used his superior Numidian light cavalry and Gallic and Hispanic heavy cavalry to devastating effect. At the command of his army, he defeated the Roman legions at several major engagements, most famously at the Battle of Cannae, but his long-term strategy failed. He didn't have siege equipment to take the city of Rome itself and so he proposed to turn the Italian allies against Rome and let the city be starved out. However, the Italian city-states, with a few major exceptions, stayed loyal and continued to fight alongside Rome, despite Hannibal's near-invincible army marching up and down devastating the Italian countryside. As a result, the war carried on inconclusively in Italy and Spain for sixteen years.

Decisively, Hannibal never received any large reinforcements from Carthage, despite his many pleas (most famously after the Battle of Cannae, as he sent his younger brother Mago) and the Roman Senate in true Roman tradition and stubbornness would never accept its defeat. Hasdrubal, a younger brother, repeated his feat, bringing another mercenary army into Italy while abandoning Spain, but was defeated at the decisive Battle of the Metaurus River.

Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, a young Roman commander, took control of the war in Spain, captured the local Carthaginian cities, made several alliances with local rulers and then invaded Africa itself. Hannibal returned to face down Scipio, and at the final Battle of Zama in 202 BC the Romans finally defeated Hannibal. Carthage sued for peace and Rome isolated the city by reducing it only to Africa and forcing it to pay a huge indemnity. Hannibal took a leadership role in rebuilding Carthage, and succeeded so well that Rome forced him to flee to Asia Minor, where he served several local kings as a military adviser until he committed suicide years later to avoid his capture by Roman agents.

Carthage was defeated but not finished. It managed to pay off the indemnity to the Romans quickly and began to show alarming signs of strength again, and it was Cato the Elder who, after a voyage to Carthage, ended all his speeches by saying: "Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam." ("I also think that Carthage must be destroyed!"). In 149 BC, Rome, fearful that Carthage might become a serious threat again, demanded near-impossible terms: the demolition and a refounding of the city of Carthage itself, away from the coast, deeper into Africa. The Carthaginians refused and Rome declared the Third Punic War, placing command to Scipio Aemilianus, who besieged the city for three long years before breaching the walls, sacking and burning Carthage to the ground, even, according to legend, going so far as to sow salt into the earth so that nothing might ever be grown there. Afterwards, the survivors were sold into slavery, and Carthage as an independent power was no more, though it would later be refounded as a Roman colony.

The conquest of Greece and Asia

The growth of Roman political power in Asia Minor
The growth of Roman political power in Asia Minor

During the Second Punic War, Philip V king of Macedon, one of the successor states of the empire of Alexander the Great, allied himself with Hannibal in his war against Rome. Though Philip did not give much to Hannibal, the act gave the Romans a casus belli in seizing territory from Philip along the Adriatic coastline in order, ostensibly, to combat piracy endangering Roman trade. This opened the doorway into Roman interference in the Greek mainland.

Roman initial policy was to weaken Macedon and to keep the Greek city-states, such as Athens, Sparta, Corinth and Thebes carefully divided. There were several powerful leagues of city-states, such as the Achaean League and the Aetolian League, both of which were used by Rome and Macedon in their game for supremacy inside Greece itself. Several wars resulted between Rome and Philip V, none of which went well for Philip himself, who watched his kingdom steadily be stripped of its power and territory.

In the meantime, Antiochus III the Great, king of the Seleucid Empire, waged war on Rome for the control of Greece from 192188 BC. Hannibal, at that time serving at Antiochus' court as a military adviser, urged the king not to attack Greece with so few troops — Antiochus did anyway and lost. Roman troops followed the Seleucid monarch back into Asia Minor, and for the first time Rome held territory on the far side of the Aegean. After the peace treaty, Rome gave considerable amounts of land to Pergamum, an independent city-state ruled by a Hellenistic monarchy not related to the Successors of Alexander, and to Rhodes, then a powerful maritime republic.

Upon Philip's death in Macedon 179 BC, his son, Perseus of Macedon, attempted to recover his father's lost power and influence and to reconquer Greece. The Roman Senate declared war against Macedon when Perseus was implicated in an assassination plot against one of Rome's allied kings. At first Rome did not fare well against the Macedonian forces, but in 168 BC, the Roman legions smashed the Macedonian phalanx at the Battle of Pydna, and Macedon was divided into four puppet republics.

For several years (168147 BC), Greece was peaceful, until Macedon rose up under a native king and was utterly defeated by Rome. In 146 BC Rome moved against the last remains of Greek freedom in the south, the Achaean League, and conquered them as well, ending definitively Greek independence. To provide a frightening example and to show that the age of Greek city-states was over, Rome utterly destroyed Corinth (it, like Carthage, was also rebuilt as a Roman colony). These territories were reorganized as provinces Achaea (southern Greece) and Macedonia, and were under Roman (later Byzantine) rule until the 13th century AD.

In 133 BC King Attalus III of Pergamum willed his entire kingdom to the Roman Republic. The decision was made partly because Attalus wanted to avoid any dynastic disputes that might arise upon his death, and partly because he also saw that the general trend in the Aegean was Roman imperialism. By willing his country, he hoped to avoid Pergamon's seizure by Roman force of arms; but things were complicated by the rebellion of Aristonicus, a relative of Attalus III who proclaimed himself king of Pergamum with the title of Eumenes III. After four years of war (133129 BC) he was defeated and captured. The territory was reorganized into the province of Asia, and ended up being one of the most valuable lands the Romans ever controlled, quickly filling the treasury of the Republic to levels it had never seen before. Roman Governors of Asia were also notoriously corrupt and greedy, and injustice was common in the province for nearly a century after the transfer of power.

But in 133 BC, there were problems closer to home.

Beginning of the end

Rome's military and diplomatic successes around the Mediterranean resulted in new and unaccustomed pressures on the structures of the old city-state. While factional strife had become a traditional part of Roman life, the stakes were now far higher; a corrupt provincial governor could enrich himself far beyond anything his ancestors imagined possible, and a successful military commander needed only the support of his legions in order to rule vast territories.

Starting with the Punic Wars, the Roman economy started to shift in a direction that was eventually self-destructive. Powerful families in Rome seized lands that once were held by Italian cities that had defected to Hannibal during the war. This began a process that would eventually undo the Republic itself.

The Roman army at the time was based upon land ownership - therefore, only men who could provide their own arms and prove they owned land could serve in the military. The idea was that men who owned farms had more to lose on the battlefield, and therefore would fight harder and longer than mercenaries or conscripts. As long as Rome had a large, stable population of landed, young males, this system worked, provided that the soldiers could return to work their farms when not on campaign. The nearly endless series of wars that came after the Punic Wars, however, made it impossible for the army to disband after only a few months - wars were becoming frequent, far away, and more importantly, time consuming to the point where farmers returned home only once every few years. As a result, their fields went unworked and fallow. This forced their families left behind to take out loans to buy food. These loans snowballed into such heavy debts that many farmers, while out fighting for Rome, ended up losing their lands to debtors, who consolidated them into latifundia.

By 133 BC the problem was too acute to ignore any longer. But many members of the Senate, especially the patricians and old families, now had a serious vested interest in preserving the status quo - to give up any land meant the end of their vast incomes, and the luxuries they were becoming increasingly notorious for indulging in. Moreover, money meant power - money bought votes, money bought immunity from prosecution, money could buy anything in Republican Rome, and without it, a senator did not last long. It was not merely a threat to the Senate's private incomes that was at stake - to many, it was the ability to run for office or move up the power ladder.

Enter the brothers Gracchus. Tiberius Gracchus began, in 133 BC, to reform the system to allow soldiers returning from the near-constant wars or garrison duties on the ever-expanding Imperial Republic's borders to receive parcels of land, doled out from the territory owned, technically, by the Senate and People of Rome, or, in other words, the state itself. However, much of this land was de facto being used by the Senators to enrich themselves, and any move to take it away was met with violent opposition by the Senate. Tiberius, in order to enact his reforms, had to work outside the constitution of the Republic. His actions were at best loopholes, at worst downright illegal. The Senate responded by slaughtering Gracchus and 300 of his followers in the streets of Rome.

His younger brother Gaius Gracchus continued the reform efforts almost ten years later, he promoted the extension of Roman citizenship to all the cities of Italy, and established the equites as a new force in Roman politics. Gaius, however, once more seriously threatened the Senate's land holdings, and eventually the Senate moved against him with armed force, hiring Cretan mercenaries to massacre him and his followers as they retreated to the sacred Capitoline Hill and barricaded themselves inside.

Marius and the Dictatorship of Sulla

"Marius amid the Ruins of Carthage" by John Vanderlyn.
"Marius amid the Ruins of Carthage" by John Vanderlyn.

A conservative reaction brought power back to the Senate, but they prosecuted the Jugurthine War of 112 BC-105 BC poorly, on top of a slave war in Sicily, and suffered several military defeats at the hands of invading Germanic tribes like the Battle of Arausio in 105 BC. These tribes menaced to invade Italy itself, but Rome was saved in the person of Gaius Marius a "novus homo" (a "new man": a wealthy man who had no ancestors whatsoever worth speaking of). Marius defeated Jugurtha in Africa in 105 BC, winning and ending the Jugurthine War. While on campaign, however, he learned that he’d been elected consul in "absentia" so he could combat the Germanic menace, and returned home to Rome. The roman military institution suffered major marian reforms. Among other things, he allowed the recruitment of poor landless Roman citizens into the legions. These he took to victory and destroyed the Germanic invaders. After the war, Marius managed to procure settlements for his veterans as a reward for their service, but only over violent Senatorial opposition. It was a sign of the changing times – Roman troops were now to be made up almost entirely of landless, poor, and otherwise unemployed men who looked on their commanders as their benefactors.

After the crisis, the Senate again proved itself unequal to its role, and failed to deal with the growing discontent of the allies in Italy. After the reformer Livius Drusus was assassinated in 91 BC, the great majority of the Italian allies of Rome rebelled, starting the Social War (Socii means allies in Latin). The Romans were only able to end this war in 88 BC, by granting Roman citizenship to all Italians living south of the Po River.

At the same time, Mithridates VI of Pontus overran Bithynia, the latest of several provocations which forced Rome to act. Lucius Cornelius Sulla emerged after the Social War as the new strongman of the conservative faction in the Senate, having served under Marius in both the Jugurthine War and in the campaign against the invading Germanic tribes, being the only man within Rome who could challenge Marius himself. Sulla was determined to lead this new war against Mithridates and finally to step out of Marius' shadow.

Marius, however, old man though he was, also wanted the generalship. In the end, Sulla won it and went to war against Mithridates in Greece, where he proved himself an able leader and excellent soldier, expelling Mithridates out of Greece, back into Asia, and imposed a new peace treaty favorable to Rome. While gone, however, Marius took an unprecedented step - he seized control of Rome itself by arming slaves and ex-veterans, using force to get himself elected a seventh consulship. He engaged in widespread butchery of his opponents, but his regime did not last long - only a few days after his election, he died of a massive brain hemorrhage, at the very height of his power.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla
Lucius Cornelius Sulla

Sulla returned to Rome in 83 BC to face down Marius' successor, Carbo, who'd only recently taken command from Cinna, Marius' hand-picked successor and former co-consul. The troops under Carbo did not put up a very strong fight, and Carbo was quickly dispatched as Sulla took control of Rome with his own army — not, be it noted, like Marius, who had used a volunteer force.

Sulla quickly made himself dictator of Rome. Though the office was technically only six months long, Sulla held on for two years, using his army to hold power. Sulla set about setting back the clock to the days before Gaius Gracchus. He curbed the power of the popular assemblies, reduced the ability of populist leaders using the current system to work outside the Senate, and drastically entrenched the power of the Senate in both the courts and passing of laws. Sulla, however, proved himself to be a tyrant, and installed the new procedure of proscription, wherein a person's property would be seized by the state and the protection of the law removed from them. In other words, it was now legal to kill a person outside the law - and Sulla set up an office for posting bounties on particularly troublesome opponents. He used the confiscated funds to refill the Roman treasury, badly depleted from the wars in Greece and the civil conflict in Italy. He proscribed wealthy Romans who spoke against him, and even some who were simply in his way or had particularly juicy estates. Thousands of Roman aristocrats were killed in the proscriptions in the two following years, before Sulla finally laid down his powers as dictator in 79 BC and retired to private life, dying not even a year afterwards in 78 BC.

Though the Roman Republic officially had another fifty years to go, the struggle between Marius and Sulla had ended true political freedom in Rome by bringing the military into the political process. Armies were now pawns in the political power game - a general with loyal troops could — and did - break laws, ignore the Senate, and plunder whatever they wanted from their provinces. Moreover, if the Senate attempted to prosecute these generals for any of their transgressions, they could take their troops to Rome and smash up the opposing faction in the city, and point to Sulla's precedent. The Senate in Rome was now there mainly for show - generals had ultimately, the last say when they wanted. No longer could consuls be elected without the approval of the generals in the field - and the only way to counterbalance a potentially dangerous legionary commander was with another of similar skill and army size. Yet even with the lessons of Sulla and Marius, the Senate in Rome acted very much as though it still had the true power in the Republic - and so long as the troops were willing to let them get away with their game, the fiction could be maintained. Without any real ability to defend itself, the Senate became more arrogant, factionalized, corrupt and unreasonable — and, in effect, sealed its own fate.

The Seventies and the Sixties

Sulla died the year following his resignation, in 78 BC. Throughout the decade of the 70s politics was dominated by the optimates; nevertheless, the Sullan constitutional settlement started to fall apart almost immediately, little by little.

From 73 BC to 71 BC the Roman Republic would be rocked by a slave revolt led by Spartacus who according to ancient sources was a Thracian "auxilia" who had deserted from the Roman legions. He had been captured, enslaved and trained as a gladiator. In 73 BC he and some of his fellow gladiators rebelled at Capua and set up a military camp on Mt. Vesuvius. Slaves across all the Italian peninsula flocked to him, and their numbers soon swelled to about 70,000. The best Roman legions were absent from Italy: some were in Spain under the command of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, suppressing a rebellion led by Quintus Sertorius, while others were fighting in Asia Minor under the command of Lucius Licinius Lucullus fighting Mithridates. Initially, the rebel slaves had great success against the Roman legions sent against them, and wreaked havoc across the Italian peninsula. In 71 BC, however, Marcus Licinius Crassus was given military command and crushed the rebels. About 6,000 were crucified; the 10,000 survivors who escaped were intercepted by Pompey, then returning with his army from Spain. Although Crassus did most of the fighting, Pompey also claimed credit for the victory, and this created tension between the two men.

Crassus and Pompey both ran for consul for the year 70 BC and were elected. The two spent most of the year trying to outdo each other in the lavishness of their public expenditures. Despite the two consuls' uncooperative natures, there was still the passage of two laws that chipped away at the Sullan settlement; first, the tribune was restored to its former power; second, the senatorial monopoly of juries was ended, and membership was divided equally between senators, equestrians, and a group known as "tribunes of the treasury" .

Meanwhile, Lucullus was fighting, quite successfully, against Mithridates and his ally and son-in-law, Tigranes the Great, King of Armenia, but was unable to completely pacify the territories he conquered. At the same time, M. Antonius (father of Mark Antony) and Q. Caecilius Metellus were attempting to stamp out the plague of piracy afflicting the Mediterranean, with reportedly grotesque inefficiency.

Due to these lack of successes, in 66 BC, Pompey was given an extraordinary military command. He stamped out piracy within forty-nine days and then began pursuing Mithridates. Pompey annihilated his army, and Mithridates remained a fugitive for the last three years of his life. Pompey followed up these successes by conquering the entirety of the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, ending the Syrian Seleucid dynasty. The captured wealth of the conquests more than doubled the income of the Roman state, and Pompey now surpassed Crassus as the wealthiest man in Rome.

Catiline propaganda cup for the election to 62 BC consulate (right cup). These cups, filled with food or drinks, were distributed to the electors to support the candidates.
Catiline propaganda cup for the election to 62 BC consulate (right cup). These cups, filled with food or drinks, were distributed to the electors to support the candidates.

The economic situation in Rome itself, however, was still problematic. Debt was the intractable problem and many, both noble and not, found themselves burdened with incredible debts. Their mantle was taken up by Lucius Sergius Catilina, who ran for consul in 64 BC for the year 63 BC on the platform of a wholesale debt cancellation – essentially a redistribution of wealth. Despite his noble birth, his policies scared the optimates, who instead supported the novus homo Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero was duly elected; Catilina finished third and out of office. Catilina ran again the following year, but this time was defeated even more heavily. He then, along with several dissolute senators, began planning a coup d’état that would include arson throughout Rome, the arming of slaves, and the accession of Catilina as dictator. Cicero found out and informed the Senate in a series of brilliant speeches, and was given absolute power ("senatus consultum ultimum") by the senate in order to save the republic. He executed the conspirators in the city without due trial; and his fellow consul, Gaius Antonius Hybrida then defeated the army of Catilina near Pistoria. None of Catilina’s soldiers were taken alive.

The First Triumvirate

In 62 BC Pompey returned from the east. Many senators, especially among the optimates, feared that Pompey would follow in the footsteps of Sulla and establish himself as dictator. Instead, Pompey disbanded his army upon arriving in Italy. Nevertheless, the Senate maintained its opposition to land grants for Pompey’s veterans and the ratification of Pompey’s eastern settlement. In addition, the Senate was also stonewalling Pompey’s old enemy, Crassus, in his attempts to gain some measure of relief for his allies, the tax farmers. Now arriving onto the scene was a young politician who had a heretofore successful, but not brilliant, career — Gaius Julius Caesar. Caesar took advantage of the two enemy’s dissatisfaction to bring them into an informal alliance known as the First Triumvirate. In addition, he reinforced his alliance by marrying his daughter, Julia Caesaris to Pompey. The three triumvirs would be able to dominate Roman politics due to their collective influence; the first step was Caesar’s election to the consulship for 59 BC.

In attempting to pass the laws which would benefit both Pompey and Crassus, Caesar ran into heavy opposition from his very conservative consular colleague Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, who used all manner of parliamentary tactics to stall the legislation. Caesar resorted to the unconstitutional tactic of violence; Bibulus ended up under house arrest for most of the year, and Caesar was able to pass almost all of his legislation. He was then appointed Governor of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum for a five year period. When the Governor of Transalpine Gaul died unexpectedly, the Senate assigned that province to him as well.

Caesar took up his governorships in 58 BC. He immediately launched a series of military campaigns across all of Gaul known as the Gallic Wars, and even raided Germania and Britannia. For a nine year period he carefully played the gallic tribes against each other (divide and rule) and crushed all opposition. These wars caused massive death and destruction and were, technically, illegal, as Caesar had exceeded his authority (which was supposedly limited to his provinces) in launching the invasions, but in Rome no-one, except his enemies in the Senate, really cared.

Meanwhile, the Triumvirate at home needed a boosting. In 56 BC, the three men who dominated the republic met at Lucca, inside Caesar’s province of Cisalpine Gaul (as a man in control of an army, he was not allowed to cross into Italy). The three triumvirs reached a new settlement: Crassus and Pompey were once again to be elected consuls for the year 55 BC; Pompey kept the command of the Roman legions in Spain (which he ruled in "absentia"), and Crassus, desiring military glory so that he could be on the same level as Pompey and Caesar, was given a military command in the east. Caesar’s governorships were extended for another five years.

In 53 BC, Crassus launched an invasion of the Parthian Empire (successor of the Persians). He marched his army deep into the desert; but here the Roman legions were not used to the fighting conditions, whereas the Parthian cavalry was adept at it. His army was cut off deep in enemy territory, surrounded and routed at the Battle of Carrhae. Crassus himself was captured and later executed, by having molten gold poured down his throat.

The death of Crassus removed some of the balance in the Triumvirate; consequently, Caesar and Pompey began to move apart. In 52 BC, Julia died, widening the gap emerging between the two. Pompey, who previously had been the senior member of the Triumvirate and, indeed, of the republic, was beginning to see his authority threatened by his junior partner, Caesar, whose campaigns in Gaul were vastly increasing his prestige, fortune and power. Consequently, Pompey began to align increasingly with the optimates, who themselves were very much opposed to Caesar and his "party" (i.e., the populares).

At the same time an united Gallic uprising, led by the charismatic leader, Vercingetorix, nearly succeeded in toppling the Roman military presence in Gaul; but Caesar, with his usual speed and brilliant mix of military strategy and ruthlessness, was able to defeat Vercingetorix at the siege of Alesia. The Gallic Wars were essentially over (a third of all male Gauls had been killed; another third was sold into slavery).

By 50 BC all Gallic resistance had been stamped out and Caesar had a veteran and loyal army to further his political ambitions. With Caesar’s governorship drawing to a close, the two greatest political and military leaders of the Roman Republic were hard-pressed to find any common ground, and a crisis was growing which would be the final nail in the coffin of the Republic.

The Civil War and Caesar's dictatorship

Julius Caesar, depicted from the bust in the British Museum, in Cassell's History of England (1902)
Julius Caesar, depicted from the bust in the British Museum, in Cassell's History of England (1902)

The key issue was whether or not Caesar would be able to stand for the consulship of 48 BC in absentia. Caesar’s governorship´s would expire at the end of 49 BC, and so would his immunity from trial. He was sure to be charged with violations of the constitution stemming from his consulship of 59 BC, which could result in his political, or perhaps even physical, death. If he was allowed to run in absentia, he could immediately assume the consulship, and then following that, immediately assume a new governorship, always maintaining his immunity. The optimates were heavily opposed to Caesar’s standing in absentia, and on January 1, 49 BC, passed a law declaring Caesar a public enemy and demanding his return to Rome to stand trial. Pompey was given absolute authority to defend the Roman Republic. These news reached Caesar probably on January 10, and proclaming "alea iacta est" ("the die is cast") (In fact, he said it in Greek, quoting Menander) Caesar crossed the Rubicon River (the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy during the Roman republic) with his army. Civil war had begun.

Caesar leading a veteran army quickly swept down the Italian peninsula, and encountered meager resistance from freshly recruited legions. The one exception was at Corfinium, where Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus was defeated. Caesar pardoned him, under his notable policy of clemency — he wanted to let everyone know that he would not be the next Sulla. He took Rome without opposition, and then marched south to try and stop Pompey, who was trying to withdraw from Brundisium across the Adriatic Sea to Greece. Caesar came close, but Pompey and his armies were able to escape at the last minute.

In 48 BC Pompey controlled the seas, and his legions heavily outnumbered Caesar’s; but the legions of Caesar, after ten years of vigorous campaigns were experienced veterans. Caesar, for his lack of a navy, attempted to try and solidify his control over the western Mediterranean, notably at Massilia and in Spain. The two armies first faced each other at the Battle of Dyrrhachium, on July 10, where Pompey won a major victory. Nevertheless, Pompey failed to follow up on his victory, and Caesar was able to regroup and win a decisive victory at the Battle of Pharsalus on August 9. Pompey fled to Egypt, where he hoped to find assistance.

Caesar pursuing Pompey, arrived in Alexandria, capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, to find the breadbasket of the Mediterranean in a state of civil war. Agents of the young king, Ptolemy XIII, had assassinated Pompey and presented his head to Caesar, believing it would please him and that he would support Ptolemy against his sister, Cleopatra. It had the opposite effect. Caesar began an affair with Cleopatra, and Ptolemy attempted to destroy Caesar in the city of Alexandria. A long, drawn-out city battle resulted, one of the most dangerous of Caesar’s career, but he triumphed and placed Cleopatra on the throne along with another brother, Ptolemy XIV. Cleopatra later gave birth to Caesar’s son, Caesarion, titled Ptolemy Caesar. Caesar hearing of an invasion in Asia Minor led by Pharnaces II of Pontus, the son of the old Roman enemy Mithridates, advanced there in 47 BC, and won a quick victory at the Battle of Zela. It was then that Caesar famously said, "Veni, Vidi, Vici" -- "I came, I saw, I conquered."

In 46 BC Caesar went to North Africa to deal with the regrouping remnants of the pro-Pompeian forces under Cato the Younger and Titus Labienus. He had a slight setback in the Battle of Ruspina before he defeated them at the Battle of Thapsus. Much to Caesar’s chagrin, Cato committed suicide. Caesar had wanted to pardon Cato, his most intractable foe, in order to gain popularity through further clemency. In 45 BC, he went to Spain, and won the final victory over the pro-Pompeian forces in the terrifying Battle of Munda. He said that before, he always had fought for victory, but in Munda he had fought for his life. He then returned to Rome; he had less then a year to live.

In that final year Caesar launched many reforms. He tightly regulated the distribution of free grain to the citizenry, keeping those who could afford private grain from having access to the grain dole. He reformed the calendar, changing from a Lunar to a Solar calendar and giving his gens name to the 7th month (July). This calendar, with minor changes made by Octavian (who a few years later renamed the 8th month (August) after one of his titles) and Pope Gregory in 1582 AD, has survived until now. He also reformed the debt problem. At the same time, he continued to accept enormous honors from the Senate. He was named Pater Patriae (Father of his Country), and began wearing the clothing of the old Roman kings. This deepened the rift between Caesar and the aristocratic republican Senators, many of whom he had pardoned during the civil war.

In 45 BC he had been named dictator for ten years. This was followed up in 44 BC with his appointment of dictator for life. A two-fold problem was created; firstly, all political power would be concentrated in the hands of Caesar for the foreseeable future, in effect subordinating the Senate to his whims; and secondly, only Caesar’s death would end this. As such, a group of about 60 senators, led by Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus, conspired to assassinate Caesar in order to save the republic. They carried out their deed on the Ides of March 15 March, 44 BC, three days before Caesar was scheduled to go east to defeat the Parthians.

The Second Triumvirate and Octavian's triumph

After Caesar’s assassination, his friend and chief lieutenant, Marcus Antonius, seized the last will and testament of Caesar and using it in a brilliant speech against the murderers, incited the mob against them. The murderers fled to Greece. In Caesar’s will, his grand-nephew Octavianus who was the adopted son of Caesar, was named as his political heir. Octavian returned from Greece (where he and his friends Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Gaius Maecenas had been helping in the gathering of the Macedonian legions for the planned invasion of Parthia) and raised a small army from among Caesar’s veterans. After some initial disagreements, Antony, Octavian and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, formed the Second Triumvirate. Their combined strength gave the triumvirs absolute power. In 42 BC, they pursued the assassins into Greece, and mostly due to the generalship of Antony, defeated them at the Battle of Philippi on October 23.

In 40 BC, Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus negotiated the Pact of Brundisium. Antony received all the richer provinces in the east, namely Achaea and Macedonia (modern Greece), Epirus, Bithynia and Asia (roughly modern Turkey), Syria, Cyprus and Cyrenaica and he was very close to Egypt, then the richest state of all. Octavian on the other hand received the Roman provinces of the west Italia, Gaul (modern France) and Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal), these territories were poorer but traditionally the "better" recruiting grounds; and Lepidus was given the minor province of Africa (modern Tunisia) to govern. Henceforth, the contest for supreme power would be between Antony and Octavian.

Sextus Pompeius denarius, minted for his victory over Caesar Augustus fleet. On this coin Sextus claims to have been appointed by the Roman Senate of the command of the Italian coasts.
Sextus Pompeius denarius, minted for his victory over Caesar Augustus fleet. On this coin Sextus claims to have been appointed by the Roman Senate of the command of the Italian coasts.

In the west, Octavian and Lepidus had first to deal with Sextus Pompeius, the surviving son of Pompey, who had taken control of Sicily and was running pirate operations in the whole of the Mediterranean, endangering the flow of the crucial Egyptian grain to Rome. In 36 BC, Lepidus, while besieging Sextus forces in Sicily, ignored Octavian’s orders that no surrender would be allowed. Octavian then bribed the legions of Lepidus, and they deserted to him. This had the effect of stripping Lepidus of all his remaining military and political power.

Antony, in the east, was waging war against the Parthians. His campaign was not as successful as he would have hoped, though far more successful than Crassus. He took up an amorous relationship with Cleopatra, who gave birth to three children by him. In 34 BC, at the Donations of Alexandria, Antony "gave away" much of the eastern half of the empire to his children by Cleopatra. In Rome, this and the seized testament of Mark Anthony (in which he famously asked to be buried in his beloved Alexandria) was used by Octavian in a vicious propaganda war accusing Antony of "going native", of being completely in the thrall of Cleopatra and of deserting the cause of Rome. He made sure not to attack Antony directly, for Antony was still quite popular in Rome; instead, the entire blame was placed on Cleopatra.

In 31 BC war finally broke out. Approximately 200 senators, one-third of the Senate, abandoned Octavian to support Antony and Cleopatra. Octavian’s chief adviser and extraordinary military leader, Agrippa, captured Methone on Greece. The final major confrontation of the Roman Republic occurred on September 2, 31 BC, at the naval Battle of Actium where the fleet of Octavian under the command of Agrippa routed the larger fleet of Antony and Cleopatra; the two lovers fled to Egypt. Due to Octavian's victory and his skillfull use of propaganda, negotiation and bribery many legions in Greece, Asia Minor and Cyrenaica went over to his side.

Bronze statue of Augustus, Archaeological Museum, Athens
Bronze statue of Augustus, Archaeological Museum, Athens

Octavian continued on his march around the Mediterranean towards Egypt, receiving the submission of local kings and Roman governors along the way. He finally reached Egypt in 30 BC, but before Octavian could capture his main enemy, Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra did the same within a few days, in August.

The period of civil wars were finally over. Thereafter, there was no one left in the Roman Republic who could, or wanted, to stand against Octavian, as the adopted son of Caesar moved to take absolute control. He designated governors loyal to him to the half dozen "frontier" provinces, where the majority of the legions were situated, thus, at a stroke, giving him command of enough legions to ensure that no single governor could try to overthrow him. He also reorganized the Senate, purging it of unreliable or dangerous members, and expanded it by filling it up with his supporters from the provinces and outside the Roman aristocracy, men who could be counted on to follow his lead. However, he left the majority of Republican institutions apparently intact, albeit feeble. Consuls continued to be elected, tribunes of the plebians continued to offer legislation, and debate still resounded through the Roman Curia. However it was Octavian who influenced everything and ultimately, controlled the final decisions, and had the legions to back it up, if necessary.

The Roman Senate and the Roman citizens, tired of the never-ending civil wars and unrest, were willing to toss aside the incompetent and unstable rule of the Senate and the popular assemblies in exchange for the iron will of one man who might set Rome back in order. By 27 BC the transition, though subtle and disguised, was made complete; in that year, Octavian offered back all his extraordinary powers to the Senate, and in a carefully staged way, the Senate refused and in fact voted Octavian Augustus, or 'the revered one.' He was always careful to avoid the title of rex ("king"), and instead took on the titles of princeps ("first citizen") and imperator, a title given by Roman troops to their victorious commanders. These titles, alongside the name of "Caesar", were used by all Roman Emperors and still survive (slightly changed) to this date. Prince derived from "Princeps" and Emperor from "Imperator", Caesar became "Kaiser" (German) and "Czar" (Russian). The Roman Empire was born.

Once Octavian named Tiberius as his heir, it was clear to everyone that even the hope of a restored Republic was dead. From that point on, Rome was a despotic regime, which, underneath a competent and strong Emperor, could achieve military supremacy, economic prosperity, and a genuine peace, but under a weak or incompetent one saw its glory tarnished by cruelty, military defeats, revolts, and civil war. The Roman Empire was eventually divided between the Western Roman Empire which fell in 476 AD and the Eastern Roman Empire (also called the Byzantine Empire) which lasted until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD. so fuck you

Causes of the collapse

In truth, however, the Republic had been dying since 133 BC, with the killing of the Gracchi. Their deaths signaled the end of debate and legal procedure — from that point on, it was whoever was willing to go the farthest that dictated policy. Murder became commonplace during election time, and mobs were often whipped up by opposing parties to frighten enemies into submission. It became accepted, even encouraged, in some circles, to use force to 'preserve the Republic'. Senators who could not legally block reform used assassination and trumped-up criminal charges to stop it; reformers who could not legally pass their bills used the steadily growing anger of the Roman populace to terrify the Senate or appealed to powerful generals and their armies for military support. Each time someone used violence to achieve an end, someone else hit back even harder to counter it. When Marius used his army of gladiators, slaves, and plebeians to seize Rome, Sulla hit back using professional legions. The result was a short-term stability and further weakening of the underlying structure of government.

The change also became one that put the men before the Republic — no longer was it possible to survive in the new vicious world of Roman politics by being humble and loyal to the ideals of the ancestors. Powerful politicians vied to become 'first amongst equals' through whatever means necessary, and ambitious men were only kept in check by other equally ambitious competitors. Marius and Sulla were the first, and their example gave rise to the first Triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey, and of the second one composed by Octavian, Lepidus, and Antony.

Moreover, the Senate had proven, time and time again, to be selfish, arrogant, stupid, and shortsightedly incompetent in so many areas that the Roman population no longer trusted them to lead. When someone did come from their ranks and proved himself capable, the Romans flocked to them in a desperate hope that they might pull together the Republic and restore sense to the system. The Senate, using what means necessary, struck down these champions one by one, starting with the Gracchi. Each time this happened, the Roman people became more willing to accept the extreme measures the reformers had to implement to ensure their laws, and their lives. Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon was technically treason, but no one outside the Senate cared, because it promised real change for a corrupt and unworkable Republic.

Within the Senate itself, the heavily entrenched, tradition-bound, rich conservative party constantly was at odds with any reformer of any sort that arose. The Gracchi worked outside the constitutional system by using the popular assemblies instead of the Senate; Marius had to fight tooth and nail just to get the necessary changes needed to recruit lower class soldiers; Sulla terrified the Senators with executions to enact reforms that were intended to actually preserve the powers of the Senate; and Caesar had to effectively conquer the whole Roman dominion in order to pass laws that were at least a century overdue. The harder the Senate fought to keep the status quo, the farther the reformers were willing to go, until at last it ended in Caesar's dictatorship.

The distrust the Roman citizens felt for the Senate was evident in the reaction of the troops to their commanders asking them to commit treason. The legions were willing to follow their commanders because they had no special love for the Senate, who only refused them pay and often fought over their rights to receive land upon returning home from war. There was no time when a commander asked his men to march with him on Rome and they refused, not one time where legionaries sided with the Senate. They chose to rally around names like Sulla and Pompey and Caesar, not the antiquated ideals of a Republic that rarely worked for them. The only thing that kept them in check, was each other. The Senate's inability to see this new reality cost it dearly. The Senate could not and did not want to adapt itself to the changing power structure, and as a result was pushed aside by those who could.

Part of the problem was that Rome's government was not designed to rule an empire. The Republic was meant to govern a city-state; one that was, even at its founding, growing in scope and power, but nevertheless only supposed to extend through the regions of central Italy. When territory was captured overseas, the Republic proved itself unable to effectively govern it. The provinces became fiefdoms of the governors, who proceeded to plunder them at will and engage in military adventures that did not have the approval of the Senate. These governors eventually took on Rome itself whenever they were threatened. There was no system of accountability, no ancient tradition of dealing with corrupt governors — the problem was new, and the Republic, so tradition-bound, would not change to handle it. Once the Republic became an Empire, only an Emperor could effectively rule it, not an oligarchic assembly. But it took nearly a century before that was fully realized.

In the end, the failure of the Senate to control the generals caused the downfall of Rome's Republic. The Senate was often too willing to protect its friends, allies and members from lawful prosecution for even the most evident and extraordinary crimes; and because of this it lost the trust of the Roman citizenry at large. When Caesar finally took Rome for himself, he was greeted with thunderous applause, because he, at long last, promised, and even delivered, reforms the Roman people had wanted since the Gracchi.

The legions of Rome physically dismantled the Republic, but it was the Senate that set up a world where such a thing could happen as the citizens looked on and cheered.

Political institutions of the Republic

Figures of the Republic

Early Republic

Late Republic

Latin literature of the Republic

Tourist resorts in the Republic

See also

External links


  • "The conquest of Gaul" by Gaius Julius Cesar
  • Harriet I. Flower (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, Cambridge 2004.
  • The Cambridge Ancient History, vols. 7-9, Cambridge 1990ff.
  • "The Enemies of Rome" by Philip Matyszak edited by Thames & Hudson
  • "Rubicon : the last years of the Roman Republic" by Tom Holland edited by Doubleday
  • "Caesar´s Legion" by Stephen Dando-Collins edited by John Wiley & Sons
  • "Nero´s Killing Machine" by Stephen Dando-Collins edited by John Wiley & Sons
  • "The Complete Roman Army" by Adrian Goldsworthy edited by Thames & Hudson
  • "The Roman Army" by Peter Connolly

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