The Roman Republic (page 3)
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.
Geographical Expansion of the Republic
War with Greece
By about 272 BC, all of Italy was a unified, centrally controlled state under Roman authority. Under Pyrrhus of Epirus, the Greeks fought for ten years to maintain their power base in southern Italy; but despite Pyrrhus’s considerable abilities as a commander, the Romans refused to accept defeat and continued the struggle until Pyrrhus eventually withdrew. (Today, the idiom Pyrrhic victory refers to an empty victory or one won only at great cost.) In fact, the Greeks achieved a highly significant long-term victory; their culture would reach and influence successive generations because of its adoption by the Romans. Romans would follow the Greek models in literature, fine art, philosophy, and architecture. They also adopted the Greek religion, with its family network of gods and goddesses. The Romans used different names for the gods: thus, Zeus became Jupiter, Athena became Minerva, Ares became Mars, and so on.
Having driven the Greeks out of their Italian stronghold, the Romans turned their attention to the large islands off the Italian coast. At that time, the Phoenicians were centered in the North African city of Carthage and had established large colonies in Sicily and Sardinia.
Carthage had originally been an important trading post for the Phoenicians. When the Persians conquered Phoenicia, many Phoenicians fled to Carthage, which grew from a trading post into the center of a new Phoenician empire. From the sixth century BC on, Carthage was the most important center of trade in the Mediterranean; this made it a threat to Roman domination in the region.
Conflict between Carthage and Rome over the control of Sicily eventually escalated into the Punic Wars (Punic is Latin for “Phoenician”). In 241 BC, the Romans won the First Punic War, which was largely a naval conflict. The Carthaginians agreed to cede control of Sicily.
The Second Punic War, which began in 218, pitted the great Carthaginian general Hannibal against the Roman army. The Carthaginians had taken over Greek settlements along the east coast of Spain, giving Hannibal a base from which to invade Italy from the northwest, over the Alps. This surprise attack is considered one of the greatest examples of military strategy in history and would be imitated by Napoleon centuries later. Despite its brilliance, it ended in a stalemate, with Hannibal in power in the south and the Romans still in control of their capital city. In 202, Scipio led the Roman troops into Carthage, where they defeated Hannibal.
Fifty years went by before the Third (and last) Punic War. Carthage had begun to show signs of economic and political recovery. This alarmed many Romans, who foresaw an endless struggle for supremacy against Carthage if it recovered its former position of power. The Roman statesman Cato insisted that Carthage must be destroyed; as soon as the Roman troops achieved victory over the Carthaginians, they demolished the city.
The most important effect of the Punic Wars was Rome’s unquestioned dominance of the western Mediterranean. No other civilization could possibly match the might of the Roman military, nor the resources of the Roman state. The Roman Empire was not only vast in physical size, it was politically, culturally, and economically unified. The Romans had created the world’s most powerful civilization.
Conquest in the East
After the death of Alexander, the Macedonian Empire had broken up into a number of small kingdoms. This made the Roman conquest of the region a fairly simple matter for two reasons. First, the successor Macedonian kingdoms were much too small to stand up against the might of the Roman army. Second, there was too much hostility and distrust among these kingdoms for them to unite their forces against Rome. In the end, the entire region, including Egypt, fell under Roman domination. The Ptolemies continued to rule Egypt more or less independently until its final defeat by Rome in 31 BC. Attempts at rebellion in the eastern outposts of the empire always ended in defeat. For instance, Anatolia and Syria rose up against Rome in 89 BC, but the great Roman general Pompey put down the rebellion in 62.
The map in Figure 6.1 shows the Roman Empire at its greatest geographical extent.
The Roman Roads
As the Romans expanded north and east, they built roads, primarily to make it easier and more efficient to move their troops throughout the empire. The roads also eased communication, travel, and trade. The Romans built most of this vast network of roads between the fourth and second centuries BC. It was possible to travel from southernmost Italy, Greece, or Spain to the northern coast of France, and from the Atlantic coast to the Hellespont, without ever leaving a Roman road. The Romans also built roads along the North African coast, on the islands, and in their Near Eastern possessions.
The Romans were the greatest engineers of their time. Their roads were paved with stones, sloping slightly from the center toward both sides to provide for drainage. Trenches carried off the rain and melted snow. Sections of Roman roads and walls exist to this day.
Roads were not the only great achievement of the Roman engineers. They also invented concrete, a building material still in use today, and they erected stone bridges that are as strong today as they were when new, two thousand years ago. The aqueducts that brought water to Rome and the sewer systems that managed the city’s waste were marvels in their day; it would be many centuries before northern European cities such as Paris and London would have sewer systems to match ancient Rome’s.
Soldiers played a major role in the road-building project. Given the size of the empire, a vast army was essential for internal law and order, as well as external defense and attack; untold thousands of men from all parts of the empire joined the army. This took them away from farming the land; thus small independent farms gave way to estate farms that employed slave labor. All ancient civilizations practiced slavery; in the Roman Empire, the typical slave had been taken as a prisoner of war. Roman law gave slaves certain rights; for example, they could earn money, and their status was not permanent. A slave could purchase his or her freedom, and many did.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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