The Latin words res publica which are perhaps best translated as ‘public affairs’ are the source of today’s term ‘republic’.
Before setting out on reading about the history of the Roman republic, please find here the various offices and assemblies which were created in order to rule of the Roman state.
The Revolt against King Tarquin
In 510 BC Rome witnessed a revolt against the rule of Etruscan kings.
The traditional story goes as follows;
Sextus, the son of king Tarquinius Superbus raped the wife of a nobleman, Tarquinius Collatinus. Was king Tarquinius’s rule already deeply unpopular with the people, this rape was too great an offence to be tolerated by the Roman nobles. Lead by L. Iunius Brutus, they rose in revolt against the king.
Sextus fled to Gabii but was killed. Meanwhile the King with his two brothers escaped to Caere. Aided by the city of Veii king Tarquinius (or Tarquin as he is called in English) fought a battle against his rebellious subjects, but failed to win back his city.
The rebellion against Tarquinius failed to achieve final independence for Rome, but it should be the birth of the Roman republic. It was after this revolt, that the senate handed power to two consuls, although at first they were called praetors (a title which later should come to be the name of a different office of the republic). These consuls each held power for one year, in which they ruled much like joint kings of Rome.
What also needs to be kept in mind is that this rebellion was indeed a revolt by the aristocracy of Rome. Rome was never a democracy as we would understand it today, nor as the Greeks understood it. In the early days of the Roman republic all power would reside in the hands of the Roman aristocracy, the so-called patricians ( patricii).
But king Tarquinius, though defeated, was not yet dead. And so he called upon the help of the fellow Etruscan king Lars Porsenna. Porsenna duly besieged Rome. Legend tells us of the hero Horatius fending off the Etruscan hordes at the Tiber bridge which he asked to be destroyed behind him as he fought.
Other legend tells of Porsenna eventually calling off the siege. A Roman hero, Mucius Scaevola, having convinced him to leave, proving how determined the Romans were to defeat him, by holding his hand over a naked flame and not removing it until it had burned away.
However, the opposite seems really to have been the case. Porsenna captured Rome. He didn’t place Tarquinius back on the throne, which seems to indicate that he instead planned on ruling the city himself. But Rome, though occupied, must have remained defiant. In an attempt to quell any future revolts Porsenna banned anyone from owning iron weapons.
But this tyranny wasn’t to last. Under Roman encouragement other cities in Latium revolted against Etruscan domination. Alas, in about 506 BC things came to a head. The allied Latin forces, led by Aristodemus, met at Aricia with an army which Porsenna had sent against them under the command of his son Arruns.
The Latins won the battle. This was a decisive blow against the Etruscans and now, alas, Rome had won its independence.
War with the Latin League
Rome was evidently the largest city within Latium. And the confidence it gained from this knowledge made it lay claim to speak on behalf of Latium itself. And so in its treaty with Carthage (510 BC) the Roman republic claimed control over considerable parts of the countryside around it.
Though such claims the Latin League (the alliance of Latin cities) would not recognize. And so a war arose about the very matter. Rome, having won independence from the Etruscans already faced its next crisis. The very Latin force which had defeated the Porenna’s army at Aricia now was used against Rome. At 496 BC the Roman forces met those of the Latin League at Lake Regillus.
Rome claimed victory. But if this was really so, is unclear. The battle may well have been an indecisive draw. In either case, Rome’s ability to withstand the combined might of Latium, which had earlier defeated the Etruscans, must have been an astonishing fete of military prowess.
In about 493 BC a treaty between Rome and the Latin League was signed (the foedus Cassianum). This might have been due to the Latin League admitting to Roman superiority on the battle field at Lake Regillus. But more likely it was because the Latins sought a powerful ally against the Italian hill tribes who were harassing them. Either way, the war with the Latin League was over.
The Early Conflict of the Orders
Had the revolt against king Tarquinius and Porsenna been led entirely by the Roman nobility, then it was essentially only the Roman aristocrats (the patricii), who held any power. All decision of note were taken in their assembly, the senate. Real power rested perhaps with little more or less than fifty men. Within the nobility of Rome power itself centered around a few select families. For large part of the fifth century BC names such as Aemilius, Claudius, Cornelius and Fabius would dominate politics.
There was indeed an assembly for the people, the comitia centuriata, but its decisions all needed the approval of the patrician nobles.
The economic situation of early Rome was dire. Many poor peasant fell into ruin and was taken into slavery for nonpayment of debt by the privileged classes.
Against such a background of hardship and helplessness at the hands of the nobles, the commoners (called the ‘plebeians ‘ (plebeii) organized themselves against the patricians. And so arose what is traditionally called ‘the Conflict of the Orders’.
One believes that the plebeians were partly inspired by Greek merchants, who most likely had brought with them tales of the overthrow of the aristocracy in some Greek cities and the creation of Greek democracy.
If inspiration came from Greek traders within Rome’s walls, then the power the plebeians possessed stemmed from Rome’s need for soldiers. The patricians alone could not fight all the wars which Rome was almost constantly involved in. This power was indeed demonstrated in the First Secession, when the plebeians withdrew to a hill three miles north east of Rome, the Mons Sacer.
Several such secessions are recorded (five in total, between 494 and 287 BC, although each one is disputed).
Leadership of the plebeians was largely provided by those among them, perhaps wealthy landowners with no noble blood, who served as tribunes in the military. Accustomed to leading the men in war, they now did the same in politics.
It was either after the First Secession in 494 BC or a little later, in 471 BC, that the patricians recognized the plebeians rights to hold meetings and to elect their officers, the ‘tribunes of the people’ (tribuni plebis). Such ‘tribunes of the people’ were to represent the grievances of ordinary people to the consuls and the senate. But apart from such a diplomatic role, he also possessed extraordinary powers. He possessed the power of veto over any new law the consuls wanted to introduce. His duty was to be on call day and night to any citizen who required his help.
The fact that plebeian demands didn’t seem to go further than adequate protection from the excesses of patrician power, seems to suggest that the people were largely satisfied with the leadership which the nobility provided. And it should be reasonable to suppose that, despite the differences voiced in the Conflict of the Orders’, Rome’s patricians and plebeians stood united when facing any outside influence.
One demand voiced by the plebeians as part of the Conflict of the Orders was that of written law. For as long as there was no simply code of written rules, the plebeians remained virtually at the mercy of the patrician consuls who decided what the law was.
And so a commission was set up in 451 BC. It consisted of ten patricians. They were called the decemviri (‘the ten men’). They were charged with creating a simple code of laws within a year. And after the year had passed, they had produced ten tables, listing the laws which should govern Rome.
But their work was deemed unfinished and so another ten men were appointed, this time consisting of five patricians and five plebeians, to complete the work. They held office for another year, in which they produced two more tables, completing the work which was to become famous as ‘the Twelve Tables’.
However, during the time in which the decemviri were in office the Roman constitution was no longer in place. And so they ruled in place of the consuls. But when their year was up, they refused to resign and instead chose to rule by tyranny.
But their attempt to take over the state failed. The Second Secession had the plebeians walk out on Rome again, forcing the tyrannical decemviri to resign (449 BC).
It is worth mentioning that, apart from the above version of the tale, some historians believe that the same ten patrician devemviri ruled for two years, preparing the Twelve Tables. But when the plebeians deemed the laws not far-reaching enough, they forced them to resign and instead brought about the appointment of two more radically-minded consuls.
The Twelve Tables
And so came about the famous written Roman law, the Twelve Tables. The laws were engraved in copper and permanently displayed to public view. The twelve copper tables were a simple set of rules governing the public, private and political behaviour of every Roman.
Here are some examples:
Death sentences now were only allowed to be issued by the law courts. And the final court of appeal in death penalties would be the Comitia Centuriata. Previously some lenders had seen it fit to condemn some debtors to death who failed to pay. Regarding the problem of debt the law now stated that there was a maximum rate of interest. Anyone confirmed by the courts as owing a debt would be given thirty days to pay. After this he could be sold into slavery by his creditors.
Regarding theft; if a thief was a freeman he was flogged and then handed to the person from whom he stolen to repay what damage he had done, if necessary by working for him. If the thief however was a slave he was flogged and then thrown to his death off the cliff of the Capitoline Hill known as the Tarpeian Rock.
No burials or cremations were allowed within the city walls.
The maintainance of roads was the responsibility of those on whose property they bordered.
It was an offence to cast or have a which cast any spells on someone else.
Marriage between patricians and plebeians was forbidden.
To demonstrate in the streets against an another person was forbidden. One was allowed to demonstrate for or against a particular cause, but not against a specific person.
One was permitted to remove a branch from a neighbour’s tree which overhung one’s property.
For the theft of crops there was the death penalty (clubbing to death).
For slander there was the death penalty (clubbing to death).
The levels of punishment for assault were also defined; the level varied according to the status of the person who had committed the crime. Harsher for a plebeian, milder for a patrician. And should the victim of the crime be a mere slave, the sentence was reduced yet further.
The laws also distinguished between an intentional and an accidental killing.
A father had the right to kill his deformed child.
And the historian Pliny the Elder tells us that the penalty for murder according to the Twelve Tables was less than that for stealing crops.
The Roman code of the Twelve Tables lasted as long as the Roman Empire itself. Though more importantly, it was the first time that written code was put down which applied right across the social scale from the patricians to the plebeians. The Twelve Tables are generally seen as the beginning of European law and are hence seen as a milestone in history.
War with Etruria, the Volscians and Aequians
Had Rome rid itself of its Etruscan despots and allied itself with the cities of the Latin League, then now she stood at the head of Latium. But enemies still loomed all around; the Etruscans were still a potent force and Sabellian and Oscan hill tribes (foremost the Volscians and Aequians) threatened the plain of Latium.
Rome was therefore always at war, attacked or attacking her Etruscan neighbour Veii, or the Volscians or Aequians, or an occasional Latin foe.
Meanwhile the Hernicans (Hernici), who were a Latin tribe wedged between the Aequians and the Volscians, preferred alliance to Rome (486 BC). It was a typical example of the Roman motto ‘divide and conquer’.
When the Etruscan sea power was shattered by Hieron of Syracuse at Cumae in 474 BC, the menace from Etruria was so much weakened that for nearly forty years there was no war with Veii.
The Aequian and Volscian powers were broken. In all wars of the fifth century BC the balance of victory lay with Rome and her allies.
Usually this involved a gain of territory by the victors, the lion’s share going to Rome whose strength therefore constantly increased.
One very notable incident of the Aequian wars occured in 457 BC when a Roman army was sent to attack the enemy garrison on Mt Algidus. It marched right into a trap and urgent help was needed to save the survivors of the battle. A relief force was quickly organized and handed to one Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, including the powers of dictatorship. Cincinnatus, having been called from his fields to take up this great office, led his forces against the Aesquians and managed to force a way through which the trapped army could escape. His job done, Cincinnatus returned, relinquished his power and returned home to tend his farm. It was this which should make this man the ‘ideal republican’ in many a later Romans eyes. And not merely in Roman eyes, as the existence of the city of Cincinnati in today’s United States demonstrates.
By the end of the fifth century BC Rome had in fact become all but the mistress of Latium. The Latin cities, known as the Latin League, might have still been independent, but they were increasingly subject to Roman power and influence.
A final war with Veii ended with definite conquest (396 BC) which added a great area on the west of the Tiber to Roman territory.
The decisive victory was in part due to pressure on Etruria by a new enemy, the Gauls, who by this time had completely overrun the basin of the Po and from there were crossing the Apennines into Etruria itself.
The Etruscans had also been driven out of their possessions in Campania, south-east of Latium, by the Samnites, descending from the hills.
Invasion by the Gauls
Had the invasion by the Gauls from the north weakened Etruria so much that Rome had at last succeeded in conquering its old enemy Veii, then only six years later the flood of Celtic barbarians burst into Rome itself (390 BC).
Legends afterwards told of that invasion. Barbarians are said to have broken into the senate house and been awestricken by the dignity of the silent seated senators, before massacring them all. The attempt of a surprise attack on the besieged Capitol was frustrated by the cackling of geese of Juno which warned the Roman guards. And legend also gave us the famous scene of the huge ransom which was being weighed out when the Gallic chief Brennus tossed his sword onto the scale with the words ‘Vae victis’ (‘Woe to the vanquished’). And alas further legend tells us of the heroic leader Camillus, conqueror of Veii, who with his ramshackle forces attacked the Gallic hordes.
The definite fact which survives is that the Gauls, having swept devastatingly over Etruria, poured into Rome, sacked it, and then rolled back to the north.
Etruria never recovered from the blow whilst Rome reeled under it. The Aequians and Volscians, joined even by some of Rome’s dependent allies, seized the moment to make a last desperate attempt at dominance of Latium, only to find themselves broken by Rome’s indomitable armies.
The Latin League was reorganized in a form which made it even more dependent on Rome than before. Its chief city, Tusculum, was absorbed into Roman territory with her people receiving full Roman citizenship. (380 BC).
Rome was queen of Latium from the hills to the Mediterranean, from the borders of Campania to the Tiber, a substantial section of Etruria finally under her sway.
The Later Conflict of the Orders
The Gauls having withdrawn and Rome being the confirmed leader of Latium, the old struggle between the patricians and the plebeians renewed in intensity again.
Naturally, it had in effect never gone away but had continued on as a process which now came to a head.
The small plebeian landowners ached under the strain of military service and the losses they had incurred during the invasion of the Gauls.
They looked with resentment upon the patricians who still commanded the consulship and so had access to decisions regarding what should happen to conquered land. Land no doubt many plebeians hoped for receiving a share of in order to alleviate their hardships.
And one major effect the wars had had on Roman society was to reduce the number of patricians significantly. Having a share of the army beyond their proportion of the populace, the patricians had had to suffer terrible losses during the wars.
Apart from this, several patrician families saw political advantages in championing the cause of the plebeians, so gaining vast popularity, but serving to further undermine the status of the patrician class. Largely these will have been the families of those who had intermarried between the classes, ever since it had been allowed in 445 BC.
Aside from this the wealthier plebeians now had their eyes on power, seeking to hold office themselves in which they should be able to propose laws rather then only being able to oppose them as tribunes of the people.
With the patricians weakened and the aspirations of the plebeians on the rise, the erosion of the constitutional differences between the two was inevitable.
The patricians put up a brave struggle, fighting in turn to keep each office exclusive to their kind. But once in 367 BC, with the passing of the ‘Licinian Rogations’ their cause was effectively lost. The Conflict of the Orders should last for several decades thereafter, but the winners were inevitably going to be the plebeians.
The ‘Licinian Rogations’
Had the patricians put up of brave fight to defend their privileges, then it was their leader Camillus, the hero of patrician conservatism, who alas saw there was no other way. Camillus had even been appointed dictator twice to quell disorder. Or, as some might say, to enable the patricians to hang on to power for that little bit longer, in spite of the powerful tribunes of the people.
But the struggle was futile and so the Licinian Rogations, a bill combining the agrarian and constitutional demands of the plebeians, were passed in 367 BC.
The agrarian part of the Licinian Rogations was too easily evaded to be effective in the long run. But the enactment that henceforth one of the consuls must be a plebeian was the death-blow to the privileges of the old aristocracy.
However, by that time the office of consul was largely a formal position. Varro describes the consul being called so, “as he consults the senate”.