The Roman Republic was founded in 509 BCE following the fall of the Roman Kingdom. At this point in time, Rome was a relatively small city in central Italy. Over the next couple of centuries, Rome would establish itself as the dominant force on the Italian peninsula and eventually throughout the Mediterranean.
Following the exile of the last king of the Roman monarchy, Rome was now controlled by the Senate. Each year the Senate would elect two consuls who would act as the heads of state. By selecting two consuls, one could keep the other in check unlike during the Roman monarchy where one man had total control over Rome. Additionally, consuls only served one-year terms, and once their office ended, they could be prosecuted for their actions.
Towards the end of the fifth century BCE, the Senate set off on a campaign of rapid territorial expansion. Over the next several centuries Rome's borders expanded significantly. Victories in the Samnite Wars, Pyrrhic Wars, Punic Wars (to name a few) saw the territories of ancient Rome expand to include: Italy, France, Spain, Greece, northern Africa and various other regions.
As the first century BCE approached a storm was brewing within the Roman Republic: a massive class divide existed, several slave uprisings occurred, and many of Rome's generals had far too much control; resulting in several civil wars throughout the next century. The first of these wars between Marius and Sulla was particularly bloody with many of Rome's elite being put to the knife. The next great civil war was between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great which would be the catalyst for the fall of the Roman Republic. The final civil war of the Republic was fought between Octavian (Augustus) and Mark Antony.
Augustus would found the principate in 27 BCE. This year marks the end of the Roman Republic and the start of the Roman Empire which would last until 476 CE.
Establishing the Roman Republic
In 509BC, Brutus led a rebellion against the Tarquin the Proud, the last king of Rome. The coup was successful, and Tarquin was exiled. However, Tarquin sought help from the Etruscan League to be restored as king in Rome. Despite the Etruscans agreeing to help the conflict resulted in a ceasefire. After his attempt had failed, Tarquin looked to the Latin League; however, this attempt also failed, and the newly founded Roman Republic defeated the Latin League at the Battle of Regillus in 496 BCE; this secured the position of the Roman Republic and the Senate as the rulers of Rome.
An issue which persisted throughout all eras of Roman history was the struggle between the rich and poor classes of ancient Rome. Shortly after the founding of the Republic in 494 BCE, an event known as the first secession of the plebs occurred. Whereby, many of the plebeian class withdrew from Rome to the Mons Sacer (Sacred Mountain). To bring these people back to Rome, the Senate freed many of the plebs from their debts and established the government position of the 'Tribune of the Plebs'. An office in the Senate which could only be held by a person of the plebeian class.
There are five documented secessions in Roman history, in 494 BCE, 449 BCE, 445 BCE, 342 BCE and 287 BCE. This theme of conflict between the classes existed at all parts of Roman history.
Up until halfway through the fifth century BCE, Rome had no written law. However, in 454 BCE, the Senate selected an embassy which would be sent to Athens to investigate how best to write and implement a functioning legal system. After the embassy returned from Athens a group of ten men was chosen to make laws for a period of one year. Once the year had passed the laws were brought into practice. Following the success of the first decemviri, a second group of ten men was chosen to establish more laws.
Expansion of the Roman Republic
In the latter half of the fifth century BCE, Rome began on a number of military campaigns to expand its borders. This began with several victories against other cities in central Italy; Rome captured Fidenae in 428 BCE and following a nine-year siege also conquered the city of Veii.
The only blot in this time period was an ambush suffered at the hands of the Aequi in 457 BCE. Roman forces had been surrounded and total disgrace was avoided only when a Roman relief force came to the rescue. They mounted a simultaneous attack on the Aequi forcing them into submission.
Gallic Sacking of Rome
Despite recent success, Rome suffered greatly following a Gallic invasion of the Italian peninsula. The Roman Republic lost the Battle of Allia to a Gallic army which allowed Rome to be sacked and plundered. The citizens of Rome were forced to retreat to the Capitoline Hill while the rest of the city was at the mercy of the Gauls. It was only after many of the invaders fell ill that the Romans were able to negotiate reparations in return for the Gallic forces leaving Roman territories.
Rome's Campaigns begin anew
Despite the sack, Rome recovered quickly and looked toward new conquests. Many of the other kingdoms and cities of Italy saw Rome as a growing threat, and in 340 BCE the Latin League declared war on Rome. However, Rome was dominant in all conflicts and won the war within two years.
Samnite Wars – 343 to 282 BCE
These were a series of three wars fought over a period of sixty-one years. The Samnite Kingdom lay to the east of Rome and posed a significant threat to the Republic's territories. The first Samnite War began in 343 BCE when the city of Capua came under threat from the Samnite Kingdom. Capua sent an envoy to Rome to ask for their protection. Rome agreed to help and sent a messenger to the Samnite Kingdom threatening to declare war if they invaded Capua. Despite this warning the Samnites still attacked Capua, and thus the First Samnite War began.
The Second Samnite War (326 to 304 BCE) began as a power struggle between the two sides over control of the city of Naples. This conflict lasted a period of twenty-two years and was costly on both sides. Despite suffering a series of crushing defeats in the middle of the war, Rome overcame the Samnites and achieved dominance in central Italy.
The Third Samnite War (298 to 290 BCE) saw the Samnites, Etruscans, Umbrians and Gauls join forces against Rome. Rome's victory in this war meant that there was little competition to Roman dominance throughout Italy.
Pyrrhic Wars – 280 to 275 BCE
The Pyrrhic War was a five-year war against the Greek controlled cities on the southern coast of Italy. The war began when the independent city of Thurii sent an envoy to Rome asking for protection against the Greek city of Tarentum. Rome accepted Thurii's plea, and the Pyrrhic War began.
The war was very bloody, and there were significant losses on both sides. Pyrrhus had brought nineteen war elephants into battle which had devastating effects on the Roman forces. However, after a string of costly battles, Pyrrhus saw no way to win a decisive victory against Rome and withdrew his forces back to Epirus.
The war also gave birth to the phrase 'Pyrrhic victory'. An instance where despite winning a battle or war it is hollow and has little meaning as you have lost too much for it to be beneficial. Plutarch wrote that Pyrrhus said that:
"If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined."
Punic Wars – 264 to 146 BCE
The Punic Wars are a series of three wars fought between Rome and Carthage. This was the largest conflict that Rome had entered into up to this point, Carthage being one of the great civilizations of the Mediterranean.
The First Punic War (264 to 241 BCE) lasted twenty-three years and began due to Rome's ambition to control Sicily. Carthage was a maritime empire and relied heavily on its naval forces. Rome, on the other hand, had little naval capabilities at the start of this war. However, this changed dramatically as Rome quickly built a fleet which rivaled that of the Carthaginians. Despite the war being costly on both sides Rome won and forced Carthage into signing a treaty whereby they left Sicily to Rome and paid a large sum of money.
The Second Punic War (218 to 201 BCE) spanned seventeen years and was initiated following the actions of Hannibal Barca in Hispania which triggered Rome into declaring war. Hannibal then famously marched an army including thirty-six war elephants over the Alps and into Italy. Hannibal repeatedly humiliated Roman legions but was unable to cause a critical blow to Rome. The Republic was unable to defeat Hannibal in battle and instead decided to attack his supply line by using its navy to crush any Carthaginian support. Hannibal was forced to withdraw from Italy but ultimately was defeated at the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE.
The Third Punic War (149 to 146 BCE) centered mainly around the Siege of Carthage and resulted in the city being razed and destroyed with all of Carthage's territories being annexed into the Roman Republic.
Servile Wars - 135 to 71 BCE
The Servile Wars were a series of slave uprising within the Roman Republic. Following the recent victories over Carthage and other enemies, a lot of slaves were brought back to Italy. While this boosted the economy, it created tension and unrest; not only among the slaves but also the lower class who were losing their jobs.
Both the first and second revolts caused an inconvenience to the Republic but were quickly crushed by Roman forces. However, the third of these uprisings (73 to 71 BCE) is the one that made its way into modern culture. It was led by the escaped gladiator Spartacus, and within two years his rebellion grew from under a hundred members to over 120,000 men, women, and children. It took until 71 BCE when the Senate gave Crassus a significant force to crush the rebellion.
The Decline of the Roman Republic
Before 133 BCE the Roman Republic looked to be in better shape than ever before. After defeating Carthage as well as various other conquests, Rome’s territories were at their largest they had ever been. The year 133 BCE marks the beginning of the fall of the Roman Republic, it would take just over a century for the Republic to replaced with a different form of rulership.
Tiberius Gracchus – 133 BCE
In 133 BCE, Tiberius Gracchus was appointed to the position of Tribune. One elected he proposed that all state-owned land should be redistributed among the plebeian class. Currently, most of the land in Italy was owned by Rome's mega rich and was of no benefit to the lower classes.
Despite strong opposition in the Senate, Tiberius was able to get the reform passed. However, once the law was passed the Senate refused to give Tiberius the resources he required to enforce the new law. The role of Tribune was only for a duration of one-year, and when his year in office was over, he stood for re-election to finish what he had started.
However, on his re-election, Tiberius set out to meet a crowd when he was informed that the Senate intended to assassinate him. Tiberius armed his men with clubs and other weapons which were on hand. Tiberius attempted to signal to the crowd that his life was in danger by pointing at his head. However, his opponents believed that he was asking for a crown. These opponents outraged rushed to the Senate where they were told of what was happening. This led to a senior senator, Nasica, demanding that the Consul takes action but when he refused Nasica exclaimed:
"Now that the consul has betrayed the state, let every man who wishes to uphold the laws follow me!"
Nasica led a mob to where Tiberius was speaking and killed Tiberius and over three-hundred of his supporters. Before throwing their bodies into the River Tiber. Many more of his followers were either imprisoned, executed or exiled.
Gaius Gracchus – 122 BCE
Gaius, the younger brother of Tiberius was elected to the position a decade after his brother. He had the same motivation and looked to redistribute the wealth of Rome in favour of the plebeians. He proposed a series of reforms which were to the benefit of various groups in Rome and subsequently gained mass support. The most notable of these reforms was his grain law which made grain rations available to all citizens of Rome.
Gaius overstepped his mark when he proposed to give additional rights to Rome’s Italian allies. The popularity he had with the common citizens of Rome’s declined and it gave his political enemies additional scope to manoeuvre.
The final nail in the coffin came when Gaius organised a demonstration on the Aventine Hill in Rome. The senate saw this as an opportunity and the consul Lucius Opimius rallied the senators to pass a decree which condemned the demonstration and allowed him to raise a small force to put it down. The situation escalated and resulted in Lucius massacring Gaius’ supporters. Another event which added to the growing tension in Rome’s territories.
Gaius Marius and Sulla
The next major reformist was a general by the name of Gaius Marius he rose to fame consequent to his victories in the Jugurthine War and his efforts in crushing the threat of the Germanic Cimbri and Teutons who were causing havoc to the north of Italy. These events allowed Gaius to take the position of consul six times; once in 107 and five consecutive terms from 103 to 99 BCE.
Gaius made sweeping reforms to the Roman army that made more people eligible for service and introduced cohorts over the manipuli formation which had been used for centuries previous. Whilst many senators objected these reforms amongst others were passed with relative ease.
It was the man Sulla who was appointed by Gaius as quaestor when he was consul in 107 BCE that would destabilise the Roman republic. Gaius belonged to the ‘populares’ political party in Rome which favoured the lower classes of Rome whereas Sulla was a member of the ‘optimates’ party which was the party of the aristocrats in Rome. Additionally, the two men had fought with each other in the Jugurthine War and against the Germanic Tribes: the Cimbri and Teutons. Sulla believed his efforts to be overlooked with Marius taking the credit for victories he had played a prominent role in.
It was when the senate granted Sulla the position of putting down the Mithridates VI of Pontus who was invading Rome’s eastern provinces that things began to boil over. Gaius Marius whilst growing increasingly old resented the senate’s decision and convinced them to reverse their decision and give him the position. Sulla took great insult to this and marched on Rome with his six legions and took the position by force. Sulla went to the eastern provinces defeating the invaders before returning back to Italy.
On his return in 82 BCE Sulla had no political office and once again marched on Rome taking control naming himself dictator. A position which had not been used in well over a century. Whilst the position of dictator only existed for six months Sulla stated he would remain in the position indefinitely. Sulla used his newfound power by introducing a proscription list which named anyone who could politically rival or threaten him. Around forty senators and over a thousand equestrians were killed in the first wave alone. Sulla ceased their properties and assets distributing them amongst his own men.
Whilst Sulla’s actions can be seen as direct acts against the senate he actually did a lot to put the senate back into power. After Sulla had achieved his political objectives he made the senate Rome’s ruling power once again. He increased the amount of senators by double introducing members from other cities outside of Rome to quell unrest elsewhere. He also reinstated that a member of the senate must wait ten years before holding the same political office again, e.g. consul.
After significantly strengthening the authority and power of the senate Sulla retired in the year 79 BCE; he returned to his estate where he later died.
Pompey and Crassus
Two of Sulla’s supporters would be next to take the headlines in Rome. After both enjoyed military successes; Pompey in Spain and Crassus put an end to Spartacus’ slave revolt. Since Sulla had retired the populares party had been attacking his reforms. Pompey and Crassus both belonging to the optimates came to an agreement with the opposition. If the two were elected as consuls they would repeal many of the reforms that Sulla had brought into existence. The opposition agreed and in 70 BCE the two were elected as consuls and repealed many of Sulla’s decrees.
Julius Caesar was an incredibly ambitious general and statesman. Having completed a term as governor in Hispania and coming off the back of several great military victories Caesar returned to Rome in order to run for the position of consul. However, up against tough opposition from members of the optimates. He didn’t have the necessary support within the senate to gain the consulship. He subsequently looked to gain support with two of the most influential men in Rome, Pompey and Crassus.
Caesar having gained Crassus’ support looked towards Pompey in order to get the votes he needed. Pompey had just returned from the eastern provinces where he had put various rebellions and invasions down uniting the region. Having returned back to Rome the senate refused to approve the policies that Pompey had put in place in the east.
Caesar saw this as an opportunity and proposed a coalition between the three men. He proposed that if the two rallied support for him to gain consulship then he would ratify Pompey’s changes in the east as well as the promise of a future consulship. Crassus had various business interests across the empire and in the east where there were current troubles. Caesar would make reforms which benefited Crassus’ interests. Caesar benefited from this deal as he gained consulship but would also serve as governor of Gaul following his consulship. Caesar married his daughter Julia to Crassus in order to secure the agreement. Caesar was elected as consul in the year 59 BCE.
This political alliance essentially made the senate redundant with the three men commanding enough power to make all important decisions. However, the alliance didn’t last. Clodius who detested the triumvirate and began funding armed gangs in Rome in order to disrupt his enemies’ interests. The situation in Rome worsened when another senator Milo funded gangs to counter those belonging to Clodius. In 53 BCE, Crassus died at the Battle of Carrhae and shortly after Pompey’ wife Julia died breaking any connection which Caesar and Pompey shared.
Things continued to worsen in Rome; violence intensified and Pompey joined the senate against Caesar. Pompey, in 50 BCE, with the senate’s backing stated that if Caesar did not disband his legions then he would be made an enemy of the Roman Republic. By 49 BCE, Caesar had mobilised a legion and crossed the Rubicon starting a civil war. Pompey and the senate could not raise an army quick enough and had to flee Rome, allowing Caesar to march into the city without any opposition.
Pompey was able to raise his own legions and bloody civil war endued which lasted until 45 BCE. In this time Caesar declared himself dictator and made many reforms to the state in order to secure his position. He significantly increased the number of senators introducing many of his own supporters which decimated the power of the original senators who opposed him. He also reduced the power of other assemblies so that no one had sufficient power to challenge him.
However, Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE in a plot which was led by Cassius and Brutus. This once again sent the Roman Republic into a state of disarray and eventual civil war.
Octavian and Marc Antony
Caesar had no sons of his own and subsequently in his will adopted his nephew Octavian as his own son granting him his title along with his vast estates. Octavian whilst only 18 at the time of Caesar’s death proved to be a very talented politician and military leader.
As Caesar’s second in command Marc Antony had not expected all of Caesar’s wealth to pass to Octavian and attempted to seize the wealth and power for himself. After Caesar’s assassination there was widespread hatred for Caesar’s killers Cassius and Brutus. Antony used this hatred to get himself elected to the position of consul in 44 BCE.
As Antony refused to ratify Caesar’s will which gave Octavian Caesar’s wealth; Octavian went north to where Caesar’s legions were located. He convinced them to fight under him and also took a vast amount of gold which was stationed there. He then began to march south back to Rome amassing more support for his cause, most notably winning two of Antony’s legions to his side using some of the money he had acquired.
The senate in Rome disliked Marc Antony who wasn’t suited to the Roman world of politics. Whilst Octavian was flying the flag of Caesar, which many of the senators opposed, they saw him as a better choice over Antony due to his young age believing they could manipulate him.
Antony’s consulship was coming to an end and he could see that he didn’t have the necessary political support to stay in Rome with Octavian and his large army awaiting Antony decided to go north to Gaul with his remaining armies. Antony intended to force the current governor of Gaul, Brutus, to concede control of the province to him. Brutus refused and Antony subsequently laid siege to the settlement where Brutus was.
Octavian was sent by the senate to Gaul to crush Antony forces. He was successful and forced Antony to retreat further north with the remnants of his army.
However, once Octavian had been successful in beating down Antony’s forces the senate looked at dismantling Octavian’s power. They gave command of the Republic’s legions to Decimus and the naval forces to Sextus Pompey, both who opposed Octavian’s ideals.
Marc Antony had regrouped and had travelled to Hispania where his friend Lepidus was governor. He created an allegiance and assumed control of Lepidus’ legions giving him a total of seventeen, the largest single force throughout Rome’s republic. He then asked Lepidus to Gaul where Octavian was situated to negotiate a deal. This would later become known as the second triumvirate.
The second triumvirate consisted of the three men; Octavian, Marc Antony and Lepidus. Once the alliance had been formed Octavian sent an ultimatum to the senate; stating that he was to be made consul and that Marc Antony be exonerated and be declared not an enemy of the state. The senate refused his demands which resulted in Octavian marching on Rome with eight legions. Just like Caesar, Octavian faced no opposition. Once in Rome he was elected consul Octavian was made consul and ratified the ‘Triumviri Rei publicae Constituendae’ which made the three men of the triumvirate dictators of the Republic.
The triumvirate had successfully acquired the power they needed; next they looked towards securing their financial needs. The three issued a proscription list which had thousands of their political rivals listed. This significantly secured their position whilst also raising sufficient funds for their military campaigns.
The senate, including Caesar’s killers; Cassius and Brutus, had gone to the eastern provinces where they had amassed an army. However, this was futile as the triumvirates armies overcame them.
However, just like the first triumvirate the second also began to fall apart. Lepidus had been marginalised by Octavian and Antony he subsequently claimed that Sicily belonged to him. Octavian used this as an opportunity to dispose of Lepidus. Octavian didn’t even need to raise an army as Lepidus’ legions defected to Octavian’s cause and Lepidus was sent into exile.
Marc Antony’s fate was sealed in 32 BCE when Octavian obtained Antony’s will. It stated that his body should be shipped to Egypt to be buried, this was a great insult to everyone in Rome and this political propaganda gave Octavian the support to launch a war against Antony. Octavian alongside his most trusted general Agrippa destroyed Marc Antony’s forces at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. This left Octavian in sole control of Rome’s territories.
In 27 BCE, the senate granted Octavian the name of Augustus. This marks the end of the Roman Republic which had lasted for 482 years. Octavian, now Augustus, became the first emperor of the Roman Empire.