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The Early Republic:
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan


Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.



The history of the *Roman Republic (509-27 BC) is roughly divided into three periods:

Our concern here (quite briefly) is with the first of these periods, where we begin to enter into the realm of true history (a romanticized version of which is to be found in Livy Books 2-10).

As regards "foreign affairs," the years 509-275 find Rome fighting a series of lengthy but eventually successful wars against her Latin neighbors (the Latin League), various peoples in Etruria (most notably the Veii), a number of peoples in the highlands to the west and south of Rome (most notably the Sabines, Aequi, Volsci, and Samnites, with the struggle against the Samnites being the most lengthy and bitter), and in southern Italy against the Greek colonists there (Tarentum). In the war with the latter (begun in 282), the Greek king *Pyrrhus of Epirus was called in (280-75). Pyrrhus was a professional general who readily defeated the much less rigorously trained Roman forces. The sheer doggedness of the Romans and their commanders, however, was such that Pyrrhus' own troops suffered heavy losses — to the point that, after a particularly fierce battle at Asculum (279) he is said to have uttered the words, "One more victory like that, and I am done for!" (Hence our term, *Pyrrhic victory, in reference to a victory won at such a cost as to be ruinous.)

A good deal of the reason for Rome's success in these ventures was its sheer doggedness and its constant willingness to suffer whatever hardships were necessary to attain final victory: no matter how often they lost, the Romans simply put another army into the field. But a major reason, e.g., for Pyrrhus' failure is also to be found in the Roman genius for accommodation — for winning over former enemies by means of various pragmatic concessions. In general, it eventually became obvious to Rome's enemies that there were more advantages in being "allied" to the Romans than in fighting against them. So when Pyrrhus attempted a war of attrition against Rome in Italy he soon found that few of Rome's allies could be convinced that it was worth their while to revolt against the Romans and go over to his side — something that would surely have led to Rome's downfall. (In this, the fate of Pyrrhus foreshadows the later experience of Hannibal.)

It is important to recall, however, that the allied states at this time are autonomous political entities, with their own governments: Italy remains divided among a large group of independent city-states, of which Rome is merely the most powerful and influential. As we shall see, while Rome controls affairs within Italy, few of the inhabitants of these allied states enjoy the right of Roman citizenship — a discrepancy that eventually leads to serious tensions.

Rome's success in extending its influence throughout Italy was based in large part on the willingness of the commoners to follow their aristocratic leaders and continue to fight for Rome, despite the numerous set-backs suffered by Roman forces in this period. Eventually, however, the years of war led to tensions between aristocrats and commoners. This, in turn, led to a series of ad hoc political concessions on the part of the aristocrats (who needed to placate the commoners in order to continue their military ventures) which resulted, by the latter part of the third century BC, in the constitutional arrangement that we associate with the Roman Republic.

This constitution is immensely important for western democratic political traditions (we in the West are "republicans," not Athenian-style democrats), but it is scarcely a system to be emulated. The main difficulty is its complexity — it comprises a variety of offices and institutions devised on an ad hoc basis over a period of several hundred years, as the aristocratic classes were compelled, over time, to grant various concessions to the lower orders. Because the Romans, with their veneration of tradition, were loathe to abolish any of their older institutions or practices, however, there gradually arose a bewildering array of political and legal offices and bodies, with a good deal of jurisdictional overlap between them. It was expected that each of these institutions would limit itself to the specific matters that it was originally designed to address, but there was no comprehensive constitutional document that defined the authority of these institutions in legal terms. Thus the Roman constitution was based on an assumed understanding of and respect for communal tradition rather than on a written document composed by statesmen in accordance with abstract philosophic principles. In this sense, it held within it the seeds of its eventual destruction.

In Rome itself, the years 509-275 —with the constant wars in Italy — witness a good deal of civil unrest. The Roman army of this time was a citizen army, drawn from the common people (the *plebs) and under the command of leaders from the aristocratic families of Rome. Rome may have thrown out its kings and established an elected form of government, but that government at first was firmly in control of the aristocrats and constituted more of an oligarchy than a democratic or representational form of government. As we shall see, the Romans did not have the passion for democracy that we associate with, e.g., classical Athens, but this oligarchic form of government did give rise to tensions.

The most immediate problem lay in the fact that the citizen-soldiers of Rome, drawn from the plebs, were small-scale farmers by and large: their absence in war could only lead to the decline of their small-holdings back home. Moreover, laws concerning debt were so harsh at this time that a man who did allow his farm to decline would find himself and his family in danger of being sold into slavery for debt (nexum). As a result, a man could spend months fighting for his city only to return and be sold into slavery to pay off his debts.

These tensions and others (e.g., the summary judgments and execution of sentence by the aristocratic consuls and quaestors when acting in their judicial capacity) led to what is known as the *Struggle of the Orders [494-287], a lengthy battle between the aristocratic (or *patrician) classes and the plebs, wherein the patricians were forced to grant various political concessions to the common people or face open rebellion. In this struggle, tradition has it that the plebs employed a strategy similar to that favored by modern labor unions: they withdrew their services by packing up and leaving the city. This type of general strike — known today as the secession of the plebs — is said to have occurred first in 494 BC and then again in 449. (Tradition holds that there were five such revolts in all, although modern scholars have cast doubt on the historicity of this.)

The ruling classes of Rome were a very practical sort: in dealing with the demands of the plebs or with those of the "allied" Italian states, they do not appear to have operated on the basis of any grand schemes (philosophical, imperial, or otherwise) but they were quite skillful politicians and were good at coming up with ad hoc solutions to particular problems. The series of solutions that they contrived over the years of the Struggle of the Orders led, by the third century, to the form of representational government that we generally assume when we refer to the Roman Republic, the details of which you will find in any basic work on Roman history or politics. We will examine those details in the next unit, but only in the merest outline.

Before we do so, however, it is important to realize two things about the mind-set of the average Roman (patrician or plebeian). First: the passion for democracy that politicians wax so eloquent about these days simply did not exist for him. (The masculine pronoun is intentional, since women could not vote and had very little in the way of a political voice.) The Romans venerated authority and believed that respect for traditional social and political hierarchies was essential for the preservation of social order. In this sense, the Roman outlook was by nature paternalistic: by instinct, it not only accepted but actively looked for an authority figure to which to turn.

This tendency pervades all levels of society. On the level of the family we find the supreme authority of the father of the household or *paterfamilias. By tradition, the father had absolute control — including the power of life and death — over members of his household or *familia (which would be assumed to include not only his wife and children [some themselves married with children], but also freedmen and slaves). The tradition is suspect — it is doubtful, e.g., whether a father, except in the most primitive times, could wantonly put to death a son or daughter — but it is informative nonetheless, as it reveals the degree to which the father's authority was venerated. On the religious level, this veneration is reflected by the tradition that it is in the paterfamilias that the genius or guardian spirit of the family resides. Consequently, no matter how old or powerful the son of a household might become, he remained, technically at least, under the authority of his father (patria potestas) so long as the latter was alive.

In social relations, the poorer classes looked to the patrician class (a term that is derived from the Latin word pater — "father") for financial support, protection, and aid in time of trouble. This results in what is known as the client-patron relationship (*clientela) — originally a personal bond between individual members of the poorer classes and the local patrician landowner. The client received protection and aid — both financial and legal; in turn, he bestowed status upon his patron — since aristocrats were judged, in part, by the number of clients they had under their authority — and would support his patron in elections, in court, and elsewhere.

[This system comes to be corrupted in the period of the Late Republic, when we see the rise of immensely wealthy patrons who hand out cash doles to gangs of lackeys who are in effect mere hirelings, ready to do anything their "patron" commands. Applied to foreign affairs, the system leads to military commanders who are able to claim whole foreign populations as their clientela. Still more troubling, the Roman troops themselves begin to see themselves as clients of their commanders rather than as armies fighting for Rome: hence the rise of individuals such as Julius Caesar. In the end, the corruption of the client-patron system represents but one example among many of an older Republican institution that simply could not operate amid the social, political, and economic realities of the Late Republic and Empire.]

On the political level, there were popular assemblies, but real power lay in the hands of the aristocrats: particularly the executive officers (*consuls) and the council of ex-magistrates, the *senate. (Again, note the paternalistic implications of the name: the Latin term senatus derives from senex — "old man," "elder.")

To sum up: democracy was never the aim of the Republican constitution. Instead, the focus was on the placing of reasonable limits on the traditional authority of the patrician classes — in particular, on assuring security of persons and property.

The second important point to keep in mind is the Romans' veneration of tradition — their deep-seated attachment to "the ways of our ancestors" or the *mos maiorum. The Romans were deeply conservative, in the literal sense of the word: they cherished the past and constantly held themselves up against the standard that it represented. Maintaining the traditional practices of their ancestors — and the standards with which those practices were associated — was crucial to their sense of self. At heart, this attitude is grounded in Roman religious practice: since the emphasis in Roman religion was on ritual acts rather than belief, it was considered crucial to perform individual rites correctly, exactly as they had been performed in the past, in order to ensure that they would have the desired effect of winning the good will of the gods.

As a result, while the Romans — being practical-spirited by nature — were quite happy to introduce new customs, they were loathe to discard old ones. A perfect example is provided by the Roman house. The traditional Roman atrium house prior to the first century BC was a somber affair: dark, inward-looking, practical in many ways but with relatively little in the way of domestic amenities. As the Romans came into increasing contact with the world of the eastern Mediterranean, however — the much more open and luxurious houses of the wealthy Hellenistic Greeks and the pleasure gardens of the Near East — the Roman elite came to modify their domestic arrangements. They did not discard the traditional atrium house but instead appended a separate "Greek" section onto the rear of it, adorned with gardens, art galleries, spacious day rooms, dining rooms, and so forth.


[In the plan below, the traditional section of the aristocratic Roman house appears on the left side and runs from the main entrance (2), through the atrium (8), to the tablinum (18) and its adjacent rooms. The rooms, colonnaded walks, and garden to the right of the tablinum represent the more elegant "Greek" section of the house.]

Image courtesy of Jean Alvares


As we will see, the aristocratic Roman house offers a useful conceptual model for the constitution of Republican Rome in its mature form: the latter, too, presents numerous "build-ons" in the form of practical concessions granted to the plebs by the ruling elite over time. In the end, however, it proves to be much less elegant in form than the typical aristocratic dwelling, and less successful in practice.


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Last Modified: Monday, 08-May-2006 16:10:35 CST
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