The Roman Republic
The Roman Republic
The first step along the road to Roman supremacy and the Roman Republic was the defeat of the Etruscans. The Etruscans were bound to fall; because their civilization was not politically unified, it was not strong enough to defend itself against a determined challenger.
First the Romans and then the Greeks defeated the Etruscans—the Romans on land in 509 BC, the Greeks at sea in 474. The Greeks were content to maintain control of their established power base in the south; the Romans, more expansion-minded, were thus handed control of the rest of mainland Italy.
The last blow to the Etruscan civilization came about 400 BC with the invasion of the Gauls, a northern European tribe. After defeating the Etruscans, the Gauls moved south and in 390 they sacked Rome. The Romans held out against them, however, and the Gauls eventually retreated north.
The Romans used 509 BC—the date on which they defeated the Etruscans— as the founding date for the Roman Republic. It would last in name until 31 BC, although the republican system of government would, in fact, develop into a dictatorship before that date.
Roman society was divided into two classes based on birth: the patricians (aristocrats) and the plebeians (commoners). The Roman leaders recognized this division when they created their system of government. The highest officers were the two consuls, elected for one-year terms. To be elected consul, a man had to have served in at least two lower-level political offices; this ensured that those in charge of the government would always be experienced leaders. The consuls ruled through the Roman Senate, which contained two categories of officials: senators and tribunes. Only a patrician could be a senator; the tribunes represented the plebeians.
Both Senate and society reflected a balance of power. In the Senate, the tribunes had veto power, and, after 366 BC, one of the two consuls was always a plebeian. Outside the Senate, the plebeians had the power of popular demonstration against the government. In addition, since the mass of the army was drafted from the plebeians, the patricians had an incentive not to alienate them. On their side, the patricians had the power and privileges that accompany wealth in any society.
Women enjoyed some degree of rights and freedoms in ancient Rome. No woman could hold office, but even plebeian women could own property and run businesses (such as taverns or laundries). Patrician women were often very well read and educated, although they usually received their schooling at home. A forceful, intelligent woman from an influential patrician family could wield a high degree of political influence.
Around 450 BC, the Romans developed a civil and criminal law code known to history as the Twelve Tables of Law. It banned intermarriage between patricians and plebeians, thus demonstrating the Roman belief in the necessity of maintaining the separation of classes in society. However, its laws applied equally to all.
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