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History of Ancient Rome

Roman Kingdom | Roman Republic | Roman Empire

Western Roman Empire | Byzantine (Eastern) Empire
(Western and Eastern Empires ran simultaneously)

Frankish Empire & Holy Roman Empire
(not considered legitimate successors)

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Rome had a Republican form of government between its eras of monarchy and Empire. Ostensibly, Rome remained a Republic even during the times of the Empire, as the Senate still congregated and approved the new emperor.


By Roman tradition, the Roman Republic resulted from the fall of the Roman monarchy under Tarquinius Superbus in 509 BC. To prevent the abuses of power by Tarquinius, the nobility of Rome decided to create two offices of consuls as the lead executives. While the power of consuls at times was as extensive as the Roman king, the dual nature of the position and its short one-year term of office created a relatively novel limit on the chief executive, one which the Romans prided themselves on even once the Republic ended in all but form. Unofficially, the Roman Republic ended in 27 BC, but a Senate remained well into the Imperial period until it was dissolved under Emperor Diocletian.


The major wars during the Republic were the Punic Wars that were fought with the Republic of Carthage in 264 to 241, 218 to 201, and the final Third War in 149 to 146.

Beginning of the EndEdit

Political instabilityEdit

Increasing instability and violence marked the final years of the Republic. This trend, initiated by the Gracchi in the second century BC, and Sulla's proscriptions in the late 80s, ended centuries of relatively peaceful governance. This kind of violent and sensationalist politics only sought to inflame tensions within Roman society, namely the poor and the disenfranchised. However, despite potential for revolution within the lower ranks, revolution itself only threatened twice before the final collapse, during the Social War and the Catiline conspiracy.

Other political problems stemmed from the domination of the consulship by Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Gaius Julius Caesar. Economic factors

The expansion of the Roman Empire brought about "the development of a money based economy," which altered the old system based on land ownership. This had many effects, including the weakening of the landed nobilis's position in favour of the wealthy Knights, and finally contributed to the "steadily declining state of public morale in Rome." Out of this depressed situation Catiline led a rabble of economically wounded nobles and veterans on the political platform of debt cancellation; however, Cicero through luck, "patient care, sober judgment and exceptional intelligence," thwarted the attempted revolution and checked the threat of civil war, all without the use of arms. Cicero, now heralded as the 'Saviour of Rome', reached the pinnacle of his fame," and cemented his role as a defender of the Republic; however, the manner in which the Senate dealt with the crisis demonstrated the Senate’s reactionary tendencies to secure its own interests first. This move away from a policy of compromise to self-interested reaction was a key shift in Roman politics which would in the long term contribute to the final collapse of the Republic.

Economic and political strifeEdit

Rome's military and diplomatic successes around the Mediterranean resulted in unforeseen economic and political pressures on the state. While factional strife had always been part of Roman political life, the stakes were now far higher; a corrupt provincial governor could acquire unbelievable wealth; a successful military commander needed only the support of his legions to rule vast territories.

Starting with the Punic Wars, the Roman economy began to change, concentrating wealth in the hands of a few powerful clans and causing political tension within Rome.

Much of the newly conquered territories were seized by rich and powerful families. Additionally, as only men who could provide their own arms were eligible to serve in the Legions, the majority of Roman troops came from the middle class land holders who theoretically would be fighting to defend their own lands. With military campaigns now lasting years rather than just a few months, soldiers could not return to work their farms. With their holdings lying fallow, their families quickly fell into debt, and their lands were lost to creditors — typically wealthy landholders who consolidated these properties into vast latifundia. Formerly middle-class soldiers would return from years of campaigning to find themselves landless, unable to support their families, and ironically, unemployable because the successes of the Legions made slaves a much cheaper source of labor.

By 133 BC the economic imbalance was too acute to ignore, but the wealthy patricians and old families in the Senate had a vested interest in preserving the status quo. It seemed that a land reform through the traditional channels was an unlikely prospect.

Gracchi reforms (133 to 121 BC)Edit

In 133 BC, a tribune, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, tried to introduce land reform to redistribute "publicly held land" to the now landless returning soldiers. He proposed the enforcement of a Roman law, which had mostly been ignored, which limited the use of public lands. While "public lands" were technically state owned, such land was often used by wealthy landholders, many of them Senators. Under the enforcement of this law many of them would lose property.

As it seemed unlikely that the Senate would agree to enforce the law, Tiberius bypassed the Senate entirely, and tried to pass his reform through the Plebeian Assembly as a plebiscite, using the legal principle of Lex Hortensia. While technically legal, this was a violation of political custom, and outraged many patricians. The Senate blocked Tiberius by bribing his fellow tribune to veto the bill. Tiberius then passed a bill to depose his colleague from office, violating the principle of collegiality. With the veto withdrawn, the land reform passed. An incensed Senate refused to fund the land commission. Tiberius used the plebeian assembly to divert funds from the income of Pergamon to fund the commission, challenging Senate control of state finances and foreign policy. When it became clear that Tiberius did not have enough time to finish his land reforms, even with political and economic backing, he announced that he would run again for the tribunate, violating annuality. This was the last straw for the patricians, who, fearing that Tiberius was setting himself up as a tyrant, responded by slaughtering Tiberius and 300 of his followers in the streets of Rome.

Tiberius's younger brother Gaius Sempronius Gracchus attempted to continue political reforms using similar tactics almost ten years later. He seems to have been more of a demagogue who attempted to pass a slew of popular laws to gain popular support rather than to be a political reformer with a specific agenda like his brother. He was neither as successful, nor as popular, as his elder brother, but he managed to create many political enemies. Escalating political tensions finally exploded once again in violence on the Capitoline Hill, where Gaius Gracchus and 3,000 of his followers were killed.

Whatever their intentions, the political careers of the Gracchi brothers had broken the political traditions of Rome, and introduced mob violence as a tool of Roman political life. It was a change from which the Republic would never recover.

The End of the RepublicEdit

The end of the Republic was marked by Octavian and Marc Antony taking total control over the Republic.

Social WarEdit

With Marius' retirement, the way was cleared for the political career of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla was a patrician, and a traditional political conservative, who had served under Marius as a competent officer in Numidia and Germany. However, there was political enmity between the two, as Marius had "slighted" Sulla by failing to credit him with the capture of Jugurtha.

In 91 BC, a tribune and political champion of the rights of the Latin allies, Marcus Livius Drusus, attempted to pass a law granting full Roman citizenship to all the Italian allies living south of the Po River. When Drusus was murdered, many of the Italian allies, especially those among the Samnites, exploded into the rebellion of the Social war (Socius is Latin for ally).

Ironically, to try to end the war, Rome offered full citizenship to any of the rebelling allies who would cease the conflict. Most of the allies ceased fighting, but several continued the rebellion. In response, Gaius Marius came out of retirement, and commanded the Roman forces in northern Italy, while Lucius Cornelius Sulla commanded the Roman legions in southern Italy, bringing the war to an end in 88 BC. Following their joint victory, Sulla stood for election as Consul, and was elected.

Important FiguresEdit

  • Marcus Tullius Cicero was a politician, philosopher, and orator. He spent his life defending the Republic with a liberal personality. Sided with Pompey and was murdered in 43 BC.
  • Gnaeus Pompeius was a general, dictator, and politician. He sided with the Senate when Caesar took power.
  • Marcus Porcius Cato was known as the Stoic. He was a conservative politician who sided with Pompey in the last civil war.
  • Caesar was a politician who took power using the force of his Gallic legions. Murdered.

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