[Edited pretty thorougly on the Ides of  March 2009.  Lots of typos still.]


 For convenience sake, Historians divide Roman history up into three periods, each named for the governmental type Rome had at the time.

1.  Monarchy (753-509)
2.  Republic (509-31 BC)
3.  Empire (31 BC—AD 476 in the West and to AD 1453 in the East)

During the period of the monarchy, Rome isn’t very important, and so we don’t cover that period in this class.  The stories of the monarchy, however, are fascinating, and you might enjoy reading them on your own in the opening chapters of Livy’s great history of Rome.

Equally interesting, and much more important, is the story of Republican Rome—a story that, told in full, has some exceptionally valuable lessons for us. It’s a story full of surprises. The story of the rise of Republican Rome is one of the most amazing success stories in all history. Even more surprising is Rome’s continued success during the last days of the Republic, the period we call the Roman Revolution.

 During the Republican period (509 BC to 31 BC), Rome grows from a small city state, perhaps not much bigger than Groton, and ends up dominating all most the entire Mediterranean. The equivalent today would be a town the size of to grow to the point where it dominated first South Dakota, then all of the Midwest, then the United States, and finally turning all of North America into the great Grotonian empire.  Quite a surprise…

And yet, not quite such a surprise as it might seem at first. A closer look at the Roman people shws that they had from their earliest days many of the qualities that make for success. 

One key to early Roman success was what the Romans themselves called VIRTUS.  “Virtus” comes from the Latin word “vir” which means “man.”  However, a better translation for us would perhaps be excellence.  The Romans strove for excellence in all that they did—and perhaps Diogenes would have been more successful in his search for a true man if he had crossed the Adriatic and looked in Rome.

An important part of virtus was what the Romans called Pietas, piety. The Romans had a religious ceremony for every occasion—and they were convinced that they had their relationship with the gods exactly right.  The worked to maintain the pax deorum, a kind of treaty with the gods. Roman historians and poets constantly pointed to Roman religion as one of the reasons for Roman success.

And modern historians would agree. One historian rights that it was Roman religion that gave the Romans their “doggedness, and determination.”  The Romans lost battles: they never lost wars.  They always held on, always expecting that, in the end, the gods were on their side.

Roman pietas extended to their ancestors as well. The Romans preserved masks of the men (and sometimes the women) of each generation, getting out those masks for ceremonial events. Here was a constant reminder of what one was living for: to add glory, honor, and dignity to the family tradition.

Another part of virtus was gravitas.  We get our word gravity from gravitas, but a better translation is probably seriousness.  The Romans took themselves and their responsibilities seriously.  This included both family responsibility and civic responsibility. During the early Republic, adultery was rare and divorce almost unheard of. Stable families: again, a key for transmitting cultural values from one generation to the next. And as to civic responsibility, consider the Roman consul Brutus whose commitment to duty meant he was willing to pass sentence of death even on his own sons when they were found plotting against Rome.

Another key to Roman success: Roman respect for authority, symbolized by fasces. Although the Romans elected their leaders, once the leaders were elected, the Romans respected their leaders’ authority: a tricky business, but a major source of strength. 

In addition, Rome was successful because of her ability to solve internal political problems peacefully.  The great example of this: the Struggle of Orders.

During the early days of the Republic, Romans were divided into two classes, the patricians and the plebians. The patricians were the most powerful 50 or so families in Rome—about 10% of the population.  The plebians?  Everyone else.

Initially, all power was in the hands of the patricians.  Only patricians could be consuls, the chief executive and military officers of Rome.  Only patricians could be praetors, the judicial officers of Rome.  Only patricans could be quaestors, the financial officers of Rome. And only patricians were eligible for the senate, the chief legislative body of Rome.

 Naturally, with all power in the hands of the patricians, the plebians were often treated unjustly.  They could easily have staged an armed revolt, even wiping out the patricians as a class if they had wanted.  Instead, they used only the peaceful technique of seccessio (essentially, going on strike) to achieve their goals.

And they did win a series of important concessions:

1.  The right to elect 10 sacrosanct tribunes, men who could stand up and speak for others without fear of retribution of any kind (470 BC).

2.  The Twelve Tables, the first written law code for Rome (450 BC).

3.  The right to intermarry with the patricians and the right to hold offices like the consulate.

4.  The lex hortensia (287 BC), a law which gave the plebians the right to pass legislation binding on the Roman state in their assemblies whether or not the senate consented.  In other words, now the plebians could make any law they wanted and had the ultimate say in any matter—at least theoretically.

The important thing to notice is that, in the long, long struggle to secure their rights, the plebians, with very real grievances, never once used violence to gain their ends.

This served Rome well, because, had the Romans been fighting one another, they could never have won the victories that led to the growth of Roman power.

Republican Rome was constantly at war, first with Rome’s immediate neighbors, then for control of Italy, and then for control of the lands bordering the Mediterranean.      

Rome’s victories in these wars show both what’s surprising and not so surprising about Roman success.  A good example, the three Punic Wars (264-241, 218-202, 149-146).

The Punic Wars were wars against Carthage, originally a Phoenician colony (hence the name Punic).

The first Punic war was fought over control of Sicily, and, one would have thought that the Carthaginians, a seafaring power, would have a great advantage when fighting for control of an island—especially since Rome had no navy at all.  Well, the Roman got their navy.  They took a wrecked Carthaginian ship as their model and built for themselves ships just like the Carthaginian ships.  A now they are an equal to Carthage on the seas?  Well, they shouldn’t have been, but Rome found a way to overcome superior Carthaginian sailing skills and, eventually won the 1st Punic War.

The second Punic War also started badly for the Romans.  Led by Hannibal, Carthage attacked Rome from the north, defeating Roman forces at Trasimene, Trebia, and, finally (216) at Cannae.  The Romans lost 50,000 men in a single day in that last battle.  But the Romans lost battles: they never lost wars.  Though their commanding officers had clearly blown it, the Roman people rallied behind them and held on. And the Romans learned. They copied and imitated some of Hannibal’s strategies.  They figured out how to deal with attacking elephants.  And they won the 2nd Punic War as well.

And the Romans finished the job. Cato(this Cato we often call Cato the Censor to distinguish him from later Cato’s), constantly reminded the Romans of the danger Carthage posed to Rome and its culture.  He conclude all his speeches (no matter the topic) with the words “delenda est Carthago,” Carthage must be destroyed. 

In these days of cultural relativism, we find it hard to identify with Cato’s view, and so hard to understand what’s going on here. But Cato clearly believed that Roman society stood for something good, that Carthage stood for something evil. And the Carthaginians were a cruel and corrupt people. Just as during WWII Americans believed they stood for something noble against the evils of totalitarianism, so Roman belief that they stood for something noble was a strength to them.  And eventually Carthage was destroyed in the 3rd Punic War (though Cato didn’t live to see it).

But Rome’s successes in warfare created a complicated political situation in Rome—and were beginning to affect Roman virtus as well. 

Rather than just two competing classes, Rome now had lots of competing interests.

1.  A few of the most successful plebian families joined with the patricians and became what we call the Senatorial class.

2.  Other successful plebians formed a slightly less privileged group, the Equestrians.

3.  Many plebians, however, lost their farms, came to the cities, and found few opportunities for gainful employment.  These people constitute what we call the proletarians.

4.  Rome’s Italian Allies constituted yet another interest group, cities that had aided Rome in it’s victories over Carthage and in the Macedonian Wars.

5. Rome also governed many subject peoples, people who sometimes preferred Roman governors to their native rulers, but who might prefer independence as well.

6.  Finally, there were tens of thousands of often cruelly treated slaves who might stage a revolt at any time.

    Perhaps Rome could have once again solved its problems peacefully, but, instead, the Romans end up going through a hundred year period we call the Roman Revolution (133-31 BC), a period in which the Romans eventually lose their ability to be a self-governing people.

 The Roman Revolution began with the Grachhi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Grachhus.  The Gracchi were from one of the most distinguished patrician families of Rome.  Nevertheless, in 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus decided to run, not for Consul, but for Tribune, wanting to be one of the ten sacrosanct spokesman for the people of Rome as a whole.

 Once elected, T. Gracchus proposed a plan to restore the plebian small farmers.  He proposed taking public land and selling it to landless proletarians on good terms.  Why? Well, without land and a decent income, Roman soldiers couldn’t afford the proper equipment, and Gracchus had realized that an inadequate base from which to recruit soldiers was going to mean military disaster for Rome. 

His plan was a good one…but the senate said no.  Why?  Because senators were using that public land as if it were there own, and they simply did not want to give it up.

 Gracchus decided the issue was too important to give up on, and so he took the matter to the assembly which, by the lex hortensia of 287 had the right to pass legislation binding on the Roman state with our without the consent of the senate.

 After some political maneuverings (and some legally questionable actions on both sides), T. Gracchus got his legislation passed. Well begun—half done: but only half done. T. Gracchus decided to run for a 2nd term as tribune, and the senators just wouldn’t put up with this.  They armed their followers and chased Tiberius Gracchus through the streets, eventually clubbing him to death and killing some 300 of his followers.

 The senate was back in charge, and all was right with the Roman world.  Except that it wasn’t.  Tiberius Gracchus wanted his reforms for an important reason: restoring the Plebians was essential to the success of the Roman army, and some of his surviving supporters could see this.

 In 123 BC, Gaius Gracchus decided to take over where his brother had left off.  He ran successfully for tribune in 123 and 122, and carried out a series of reforms somewhat broader than his brother had championed him. He was unsuccessful in his third try for tribune, and, losing his sacrosanct status, he was all of a sudden vulnerable.  The senate took advantage: armed the followers for an attack.  The attempts of Gaius Grachhus and his supporters to defend themselves were all the excuse they needed. Gaius Gracchus was killed—and this time 3,000 of his followers.

 The senate was in charge, and all was right with the Roman world. Except that it wasn’t.

 The Grachhi had wanted their reforms for a reason: Roman military success.  And, without the completion of these reforms, Rome was vulnerable. 

 A guy named Jugurtha began stirring up trouble for Rome in Africa.  Even more worrisome, the Cimbri and the Teutones were headed south and threatened Rome itself.

 The African situation was more and more troubling as senatorial general after senatorial general failed. This gave one of the equestrians, a man named Gaius Marius, the campaign issue he needed to be elected Consul (107 BC).  He promised he could succeed were the senatorial generals had failed.  And, sure enough, he did—a great hero!

 Meanwhile the threat posed by the Cimbri and the Teutones was getting worse.  Several senator-lead armies failed, and Marius decides to run again for consul, promising success.  He gets five more consulships, each time using the same issue—and he does eventually beat the Cimbri and the Teutones. 

 He was successful in part by turning Roman soldiers into professional soldiers.  Now there were some real advantages to a professional army, but also a big disadvantage: professional soldiers are more expensive. Marius wanted pay for his soldiers, but the senate, once again, said no. Marius made himself some effective political alliances with the reform elements in Rome (people who favored programs like that of the Gracchi) and was for a time successful.

 But the senate eventually maneuvered Marius into a bad political position, and Marius had to leave for a temporary exile.  The senate was in control, and all was right with the Roman world.

 Except that it wasn’t.  Without Marius military leadership and with reform long overdue, Rome soon found itself facing a real crisis. 

Rome’s Italian Allies revolted, insisting on their share of political power (Social War—90-88 BC).  And in the East, Mithridates of Pontus leads a revolt against Rome, and Rome looks likely to lose all possessions there.

 To the rescue?  Gaius Marius and his former associate by now rival Sulla.  Marius and Sulla manage to help Rome end the Social War, but now there’s a new question: who will take on Mithridates?

 Both Sulla and Marius want to take their troops east, and the soldiers of both men are eager to fight: lots of good things for the taking, and lots of opportunity to kill people without them having much of an opportunity to kill you back.  Who is going to go?

 Well, the senate hates Marius and gives the command to Sulla. Marius is mad, but what can he do?  Well, he can go to the assembly, which, by the lex hortensia of 287 had the right to pass legislation binding on the Roman state without the consent of the senate.  The assembly decides Marius can have the command against Mithridates.

 But wait!  Sulla’s troops are very close to Rome when they get the bad news: they aren’t headed east after all.  And so Sulla marches his men into Rome, smiles very nicely and says to the assembly—you were right the first time. Me and my army are the ones going to fight Mithridates, right?

 Well, yes sir, Mr. Sulla.  Anything you say—and off goes Sulla, leaving the senators in charge and everything right in the Roman world.

 Except *also* left behind is Marius—and some very angry troops. Marius and his allies now march on Rome and take over.  And now is the time to settle old scores.  Many, many senators are put to death—and we call this period the Marian reign of terror—though Marius himself dies right at the beginning of it and would likely have restrained his troops somewhat.

 For a few years, the allies of Marius control Rome, making at long last some long overdue reforms.  But reform won’t last: Sulla is coming back eventually and bringing his army.

 Well, that day comes: Sulla marches on Rome, defeats his enemies, makes himself dictator, takes revenge on the Marians—and retires, leaving the senators back in control and everything right in the Roman world.

Except that it wasn’t.

 Mithridates resumes his attempts to drive Rome out of the eastern Mediterranean. Pirates plague Mediterranean shipping. Slaves under Spartacus stage a revolt, liberating thousands of slaves and taking appropriate revenge on their former masters.

 But the worst threat to Rome came from within the political system itself. Politics in Rome had become essentially a game for the wealthy and powerful, a high stakes games without any fixed rules.  Roman politicians, with very few exceptions came to thing that anything that would increase their own power and prestige was fair enough.

 Typical of the new kind of politician, Catiline.  Catiline was a capable man, but totally unscrupulous and immoral.  He ran for consul in 63 BC.  Running against him was Cicero, a great philosopher and a true statesman.  And which of these two men did the Roman people vote for?

 Well, Cicero of course.  But it was a near thing. How did a corrupt man like Catiline almost win?  By lavish campaigning among influential Romans: parties with lots of food and wine and for dessert young women or boys—whatever happened to be your taste.  But the main promise: a cancellation of debts.

 When Catiline didn’t win, his disappointed followers decide to take matters into their own hands and kill Cicero.  The plot was discovered, and Cicero ended up having the conspirators put to death—without the usual safeguard of a fair trial. You see the problem here: unscrupulous and unlawful behavior almost forces the political opposition to take unscrupulous and unlawful steps of its own.

 Foremost of the unscrupulous politicians who destroyed the Republic, the members of the first triumvirate, Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey.

 Now each of these men was capable, but they were unscrupulous in the extreme.  Crassus ended the Spartacus revolt: a crucified thousands of slaves. Caesar added Gaul to Rome—but carried out a campaign of what we might call genocide. For a time, the three men worked together, but after Crassus death, Caesar and Pompey ended up battling it out. Caesar’s forces prevail: Caesar reigns and Pompey dies.

 Caesar was a skillful politician: he knew how to make himself popular: one government program after another. Colonization, building programs, libraries, calendar reform. But what he was after was power pure and simple. He made himself dictator for ten years then dictator for life. He seemed to be angling to make himself king (as Shakespeare shows) but what he was really after was to make himself into a god. 

 And this was too much for the senators.  Sixty of them organized a conspiracy against Caesar, and on the Ides of March 44 BC, they assassinated him. They ran from the theater shouting, “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!”

 But they were wrong. It was the Republic that was dead. Caesar’s death plunged Rome into another 13 years of bloody civil war, the years of the 2nd triumvirate.  And when the dust had cleared, the Republic was gone…replaced by the rule of one man: Casesar’s adopted son Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus: best known by his nickname, Augustus.

 And do you know what’s remarkable about this?  Amidst all this struggle, all this fighting, slave revolt, civil war, pirates, assassinations—Rome actually grows. France is added to the empire. Egypt. Britain for at least a brief time.

 Is that amazing, or is that amazing?