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Date: 5/26/2016 12:39:41 AM
Page Title: Rome
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Roman mosaic

The Founding Legend

Rome was founded in 753 BC and the founding is generally ascribed to the legend of Romulus and Remus, twin orphans supposedly raised by wolves. In this legend, a rightful ruler, Numitor, is overthrown by a usurper who sends king Numitor’s daughter to live among the virgins so that no heir can be born, but the daughter is impregnated by Mars and the twins Romulus and Remus are the result. They are ordered killed by the usurper but are instead abandoned on a hillside by a sympathetic retainer where they are nursed by a wolf and then rescued by a shepherd and raised. They overthrow the usurper when they come of age.

The Etruscans

(This section largely drawn from Exploring Humanities by Laurie Schneider) The wolf story shows the influence on the Romans by the Etruscans, a people who lived to the north of Rome on the Italian peninsula and of whom little is known. Scholars cannot decide whether the Etruscans were native to Italy or emigrated from elsewhere. Linguistically they are a non Indo European group, but some scholars believe they are from an area in Tuscany called Villanova, near Bologna. They showed a high level of skill in metalworking and their burial customs showed a belief in a material afterlife—useful items were enclosed in the tomb. (hyperlink?) The Etruscans also reflected an aristocratic taste for dance, food, music, and fashion—all at the same time. (In certain writings they are described cooking to music.) They were influenced by the Greeks, adopting the names of Greek gods and myths, architecture, sculpture, and they possessed Greek vases and used the Greek alphabet. They appeared to build temples in a similar style except that the steps are only in the front rather than symmetrically on all four sides. (hyperlink picture)

Etruscan women had more privilege than Athenian women. They could attend theater, sporting events, religious festivals and engage in sporting contests. Mirrors found at Etruscan sites betray an awareness of fashion (appearance) which provoked criticism by Greek men. Etruscans also developed advanced dental care techniques, making dentures, bridges, etc. The last Etruscan king, Tarquin the Proud, was expelled from Rome in 509 BC, after which Rome declared itself a republic.

Because the early Romans suffered under these foreign Etruscan kings, they were ever after suspicious of single unregulated rulers. So the Romans established a dual leadership policy, a system of two co-rulers who shared equal power. The theory was that one would act as a check on the other. The Romans could also choose a single dictator for emergency occasions as during a time of war if it were necessary. The Dictator was a temporary position. He held absolute power over the army for 6 months.

The Romans picked up many useful ideas from the Etruscans. The Etruscans excelled at commerce and taught the Romans how to trade. The Romans also used the Etruscan alphabet for their own language and numbers. The Romans also borrowed from the Etruscans city planning (streets), the triumphal procession, gladiatorial combat, and the arch.

Early Rome

(Main source: Spielvogel) Rome was marked by class division. The power in the Senate, the ruling body, was patrician or large landowning families, which was 10% of the population. The other 90% were the plebeians. Plebeians operated in the popular assembly and had to struggle to gain their political rights. As in most places, including here, the road to equality was long and arduous.

Early in the republic all the power was concentrated in the hands of the patricians. Only patricians could be elected to governmental office. During this early period, marriage between plebeians and patricians was forbidden. But over time, some plebeians accumulated wealth equal to patricians and began to demand equal rights, which eventually included intermarriage between patricians and plebeians.

A series of reforms made it possible for the plebeians to participate in the Roman government. In 495 BC a political crisis occurred and the plebeians threatened to walk out of the state and leave the patricians responsible for defending it alone. This action forced a compromise: development of the office of tribune. The job of the tribune was to protect the plebeians against arrest by patrician magistrates. The tribunes themselves were not to be touched by anyone, even a patrician. The penalty for interfering with a tribune was death without a trial.

In 471 BC tribunes made proposals before the popular assembly, and, if adopted, they had the force of law but were not binding to patricians. The next step to equality was to have the law published. Apparently only patricians knew the law, which was not published and available for scrutiny. A special committee called “decemviri” was appointed to oversee the publication (note the root word “public”) of the law in 450 BC. The document was called the Twelve Tables of Law. By publishing the law, the plebeians could now see how badly off they were, which encouraged further discontent until 445 BC and changes that finally culminated in intermarriage between plebeians and patricians.

The office of Consulship was opened to plebeians in 367 BC. Few, and from only the most prominent families, could get elected. In 287 BC, laws passed in the plebeian assembly became binding on all citizens, including patricians. It would seem that Roman government had evolved into a democracy, but it only seemed so because it was really more of an oligarchy of the wealthy patrician and plebian aristocracy.

By 264 BC one of the consuls had to be plebian. Eventually power shifted towards the plebeians in the way that in England power shifted to the House of Commons from the House of Lords or here from senate to congress.

The Punic War

The first Punic war against Carthage which began in 264 BC was essentially a trade war. The dispute was over a portion of Sicily. Carthage had established markets there and on the Italian mainland which brought them into conflict with Rome. The Romans also fought with the Carthegenians from North Africa for control of southern Italy. (map). The first war ended with Carthage defeated in 241 BC. Rome then scooped up Carthagenian colonies while Carthage was in a defenseless state as a result of a mutiny among its troops in Sardinia. Carthage, however, expanded into Spain and recovered lost income with new colonies. In 218 BC a second war was initiated with Hannibal leading the Carthegenians this time. Hannibal marched across the Alps and attacked the Roman homeland but could not shake the loyalty of the Roman colony cities. Hannibal destroyed the Roman army in 216 BC and roamed their territory at will, but the Romans raised a new army and recovered. Hannibal did not have the equipment to lay siege to Roman cities, but he and his army occupied Roman territory for 14 yrs. The effect of Hannibal’s raids destroyed the small farm economy, which was replaced by large ranches worked by slaves which affected the social structure of Roman society. (see below) Finally in 206 BC the Roman general Scipio pushed Hannibal out of Spain and the Romans eventually defeated Carthage in 202 BC. Carthage was so weakened by this defeat that it no longer posed a threat to Roman hegemony. However, certain conservative elements in Roman political life would be satisfied with nothing less than the complete annihilation of Carthage. An excuse was found when Carthage went to war against a Roman ally. Rome finally obliterated Carthage in 146 BC by burning the city to the ground and salting the fields.

Economic Change and Reform

The war put a lot of pressure on political institutions and forced the evolution of the Roman political state. Consuls, judges, and important and influential plebeians were promoted into the senate which was a more efficient decision making body during war. Large-scale farming was on the increase because many small farmers were losing their land (because of the destruction caused by Hannibal’s occupation and the neglect caused by lengthy tours of foreign duty), increasing opportunity for larger farms to swallow them and consolidate capital. Traditionally infantry soldiers had been the backbone of the army, small landholders, which gave them a stake in the republic, but which they lost from neglect and economic pressure. Politically a small circle of very wealthy landowners controlled the fortunes of Rome. From 233 to 133 BC, 80 percent of consuls were from only 26 families. 50 percent were from only 10. (Spielvogel p. 135). This was tantamount to the old style Greek oligarchy.

Within this small group two factions arose: the optimates who favored aristocrats and aristocratic privilege and populares who favored the people or at least used popular assemblies to leverage their political influence. (still oligarchy). And between these rose the equestrians, the new moneyed wealth from business rather than land.

Land reform, the desire to place state land back into the hands of individual small farmers, was foiled by assassination of the reformers, the Graccus brothers. Tiberius Gracchus, elected tribune in 133 BC, tried to force a bill through, as Solon had done in Greece, to redistribute land to small farmers which would have made him influential to a large number of voters. He was killed by a group of disgruntled senators who feared the imbalance this would cause. His brother Gaius, elected in 123-2 BC, created opportunities for equestrians by assigning them as tax collectors, subsidizing grain, and prosecuting corruption. He too was assassinated.

Crucial Changes in the Army

Important changes to the army occurred during the consulship of Marius 107 BC. In order to raise an army to fight the Celts, he recruited volunteers from urban and rural poor, men who owned no land and hence technically held no stake in the Roman Republic as traditional conscripts did. These recruits swore their loyalty to the general and not to the republic, which made them a powerful political tool in the hands of an ambitious and perhaps unscrupulous governor. In order to recruit them, however, he had to promise them land.

Pompey and Caesar

Both Caesar and Pompey had become powerful and influential from the wealth they had amassed during their generalships. Both had come into conflict with the Senate that wanted both to surrender their positions and their armies. Choosing Pompey as the lesser of two evils, the Senate voted for Caesar to give up his command and become a private citizen. He refused and went to war and defeated Pompey in 49 BC and returned to Rome in 45 BC.

The Late Republic

One of Julius Caesar’s titles was “dictator for life.” Originally, dictator was a temporary position. And remember the Romans were traditionally nervous about single rulers because of their experience with the Etruscan monarchy. Caesar, nevertheless, seemed to take charge responsibly and initiated building projects, gave work to the urban poor and gave self-rule to Italians outside of Rome. He also founded the first public library in Rome. But because of the entrenched Roman fear of kings, a group of Senators killed him in the name of traditional republican values. Civil unrest and division of rule between Antony and Octavius resulted. This is also the period of the rise of the equestrian class who were tax patricians but political plebeians. Class divisions deepened as the rich became richer and the poor poorer. Hmmmm.


When Augustus defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra (VII) in 31 BC, the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire. All political power was consolidated under control of one man, the emperor. Political freedom was suppressed and emperor worship was institutionalized. Augustus ruled under his self described label of “prince,” which meant chief among equals and which was really his maintenance of absolute power disguised as shared power. It seemed like the traditional structure with consul sharing leadership with the Senate but the appearance of sharing was window dressing. Augustus was in complete control however the dressing deflected the discontent that Julius Caesar provoked with his naked display of absolute power.

This period of relative political serenity under Augustus was called Pax Romana and it reached its peak during the rule of Trajan (98-116 BC). The Pax Romana went from 31 BC to AD 193. Not completely serene, this was also the period of the notorious Caligula (37-41) and the infamous Nero (54-68). After Trajan there was economic decline and political instability where military emperors were installed by their armies and assinated when they displeased them. But if you could avoid getting butchered by a gang of disgruntled centurions, or senators as in Ceasar’s case, life was pretty good. (hyperlink menu lifestyle) After Marcus Aurelius installed his son, Commodus the unworthy, as his successor who was murdered by his own body guards, civil war, chaos, and the fall of Rome began in earnest. Lack of money and barbarians are the two main problems.

The Fall (hyperlink)

Because of the expansion of Roman territory, the main tool to maintain order, the army, also increased in size. It was comprised of legions made up of Roman citizens, Italians, and auxiliaries who were non-Italian. Italians became reluctant to serve as the empire expanded and recruits had to be drawn from the non-Italian population they controlled. By 100 AD only 1 in 5 was Italian.

The third century was an era of instability. During a period of 50 years during this era, there were 22 emperors and only 2 did not die of violence. This was the period when the military controlled who sat on the Roman throne. The

Roman army was as likely to pillage and plunder the territory it was supposed to protect as protect it. The monetary system was stressed as gold coins disappeared from circulation and silver was diluted. Plague killed off up to a third of the population, tax revenue declined, and the army, unpaid, took matters of remuneration into their own hands.

Diocletian 284-305 AD restructured the empire for more efficient administration. His main reform was to divide the empire into four sections with two rulers and two vice rulers although Diocletian claimed to be the ultimate authority of the four. By 324 Constantine eliminated the co-rulers and became the sole emperor.

In the fourth century, in spite of reforms to prop up the empire, pressure came from the Huns who traveled west and pushed out the Visigoths who moved south and west from Germany and into Roman territory. The Visigoths became Roman allies but soon revolted and destroyed the Roman army and killed the Roman emperor who tried to stop the revolt. Then things really got out of control. The Vandals came in 455. The Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476.

It is interesting that the name of the last Roman emperor contains the name “Romulus,” the name of the mythic founder, and “Augustulus,” based on the name of the first emperor, Augustus. It is also significant that the form of Augustus is “Augustulus,” which is the diminutive of Augustus in Latin. It is like calling someone named Robert or John, “Bobby” or “Johnny.” It signifies youth, or childhood, or immaturity, if you want. And so Rome began with a child raised by a wolf and ended diminished with a child preyed upon by wolfish conquerers who would never live up to his great namesakes.

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