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The Rise of the Roman Republic 61





300 Kilometers


200 Miles


M t s


























































Ioni an



MAP 4.1

— Ancient Italy and the City of Rome —


Ancient Italy

The long, boot-shaped Italian peninsula bisects the

Mediterranean (see map 4.1). At first glance it seems

especially favored by nature. Its central location lends it

strategic and commercial importance while its climate

is generally milder and wetter than that of Greece.

Agricultural yields are higher, and some of the upland

regions, which in Greece have become a moonscape of

rocks and dry scrub, can support grazing. These advantages, however, are relative. The development of prehistoric Italy was at first hindered by natural obstacles

of every kind. For most of its length the Italian peninsula is dominated by the Appenines, a mountain range

that in its central portions reaches nearly ten thousand

feet in height. On the east, the mountains drop precipitously to the Adriatic Sea. Few good harbors can be

found on the Italian shore of the Adriatic, and arable

land is scarce except in Apulia, the region immediately

southeast of Mt. Garganus, which protrudes like a spur

into the Adriatic.

The western coast, also lacking in good harbors, is

more hospitable. The valleys of the Arno and the Tiber

are suitable for agriculture and open out onto an extensive coastal plain that, though potentially fertile, was in

early times marshy and subject to floods. Further south,

around the Bay of Naples, is the rich plain of Campania

whose soil is the gift of volcanic deposits from Mt.

Vesuvius. Another active volcano, Mt. Etna, dominates

the eastern part of Sicily, the large, wedge-shaped is-

62 Chapter 4

Illustration 4.1

— An Etruscan Tomb. Wealthy

Etruscans often buried the dead in replicas of their homes. In this example of a

domestic interior from the third century

B.C., the household goods are portrayed

in stucco relief.

land immediately southwest of the mainland. As a consequence of climatic change, Sicily today is dry and relatively poor, but until the sixteenth century A.D. it

supplied much of Italy with grain.

At the opposite end of the peninsula, between the

westward curve of the Appenines and the great northern barrier of the Alps, is the valley of the Po. Flowing

eastward into the Adriatic, it is now among the world’s

richest agricultural and industrial regions, but its wealth

is largely the fruit of human effort. As recently as the

fourth century B.C. it was a wild marshland, not yet

tamed by two millennia of canalization and levee


Beginning in the eighth century B.C., Greek

colonists had established themselves in the richest of

the southern coastal lands. Eastern Sicily, Apulia, and

Campania, as well as Calabria (the heel of the boot)

and the shores of the Gulf of Taranto (its arch), were

soon dominated by poleis of the Aegean type, rich and

vigorous, but as combative and incapable of unified action as their models. At the same time, the Carthaginians colonized western Sicily and contended violently

with their Greek neighbors for land and trade. Of the

original inhabitants of these areas, some became slaves

or tenants of the colonists, while others retreated to the

interior and retained their tribal cultures.

A variety of tribes, Latins, Umbrians, and Samnites—each speaking its own Italic or other IndoEuropean language—inhabited Latium, the central part

of the peninsula. The Etruscans dominated the region

between the Tiber and the Arno. Their language can be

only partially deciphered, but their alphabet was similar

to that of the Greeks and their art seems also to have

been derived from Greek models. Most of what is

known about the Etruscans comes from archaeology,

and little has survived from the days when Etruscan

power was at its height (see illustration 4.1). Above all,

the Etruscans were city dwellers. Their economy was

based heavily on trade and manufacturing, and though

they were also accomplished farmers, they preferred

whenever possible to live in town. They constructed

their twelve main cities according to engineering and

religious principles that would profoundly influence

the Romans. Where terrain permitted, the Etruscans

favored a symmetrical and axial city plan that was unlike anything devised by the Greeks. Elaborate tunnels

of dressed stone drained low-lying areas or brought

fresh water for the consumption of the townspeople,

while the buildings featured arches and vaulted ceilings,

construction techniques that appear to have been invented by Etruscans.

This sophistication did not extend to political

arrangements. Etruscan society was rigidly stratified. A

handful of wealthy families dominated each of the

twelve cities through legally enforceable clientage and

the ownership of many slaves. In war, the rich fought

on horseback under a king who may have been elective. By the fifth century B.C. the Etruscans had

adopted the hoplite tactics of the Greeks and replaced

their kings with aristocratic magistrates. No movement

toward democracy is evident. But if the political evolution of the Etruscans differed from that of the Greeks, in

another respect they closely resembled them: The

twelve cities were almost incapable of united action. At

The Rise of the Roman Republic 63

an early date they formed a league, which was chiefly

religious and athletic in purpose. The cities also celebrated certain religious festivals in common, but

otherwise they fought incessantly and their merchants

competed for each other’s markets as well as for those

of the Greek and Carthaginian colonies to the south.


The Origins of Rome

The Tiber is the largest river in central Italy. Its valley,

running roughly from north to south, is strategically

important because it provides the easiest land route

for travelers—and armies—moving between the Po

valley and southern Italy. The last point at which the

river can be easily crossed lies about fifteen miles from

its mouth, where the valley is broad and marshy.

Seven low hills in the immediate area provide a refuge

from floods and invaders alike. In the eighth century

B.C. one hill, the Palatine, was occupied by a tribe of

people who spoke an early version of Latin. Shortly

afterward, a related group took up residence on the

nearby Aventine hill. These two settlements formed

the nucleus of ancient Rome. They were part of a

larger group of Italic communities that formed themselves into the Latin League for political and religious

purposes, but their common ties did not prevent them

from fighting among themselves.

Blessed with rich land and abundant water, the

early Romans were nevertheless too few to preserve

full autonomy in the face of Etruscan influence. The

nearest of the Etruscan cities was Veii, only twelve

miles away, and almost from the first, the Romans

found themselves under the influence of their more

powerful neighbors. Some of the first kings of Rome

bore Etruscan names, and reportedly the last of them

was not deposed and replaced by a Roman republic

ruled by two magistrates until 509 B.C. (although it

could have been a generation later).

In any event, Etruscan influence contributed

greatly to Roman civilization. The Romans adopted the

Etruscan alphabet, though not the language itself, and

learned most of what they knew about metalworking,

civic planning, and architecture from their northern

neighbors. Many religious customs described by Livy,

together with a number of Roman political institutions,

have Etruscan roots as well.

Under the kings, Rome used its dominant position

in the Latin League to subdue the Sabines and other

Italic communities along the lower Tiber, absorbing

their populations and granting citizenship to the lead-

ing families. This enlightened policy, a marked contrast

to the exclusiveness of the Greek poleis, was largely responsible for Rome’s successful expansion. The

prospect of fair treatment discouraged fanatic resistance

among the city’s enemies and made accepting Roman

hegemony far easier for its neighbors.

The policy was continued after the formation of

the republic. The Romans expelled the Etruscans as

part of a larger movement that involved Rome’s Greek

and Latin neighbors. The Etruscan city of Veii was

taken after an extensive siege in 396 B.C., almost doubling Roman territory. Nine years later, however, disaster struck. The Gauls, a Celtic people from central

Europe, descended on the peninsula and burned Rome

in 387 B.C. The action was a tremendous psychological

blow, for the Gauls, with their vast numbers and sheer

ferocity, appalled the Romans. They sometimes fought

naked and seemed to live exclusively on meat and alcohol. Fortunately, they made no effort to consolidate

their victory and retired to the sparsely inhabited valley

of the Po. They settled down to a more-or-less ordered

agricultural life and began the long process of clearing

and draining the region, which in later times would be

known as Cisalpine Gaul.

Among the more serious consequences of the Gallic invasion was that it undermined the loyalty of

Rome’s Latin allies. The Latin League rebelled against

Roman hegemony, but the Romans recovered quickly.

By 338 B.C. all of Latium was again subdued. Once

more, the Romans showed a restraint and a grasp of political realities that were all too rare in the ancient

world. The towns nearest Rome received full citizenship. Others, farther away, were granted municipal status, which meant that their citizens could marry or

trade with Romans but had no voting rights outside

their own communities. The specific provisions of

these agreements were tailored to individual circumstances and were open-ended in the sense that Rome

always held out the prospect of new privileges in return

for good behavior. Some towns were merely enrolled as

allies, but all save those that received citizenship retained self-government. The one universally enforced

rule was that none of the federated communities could

make similar agreements with each other.

To ensure communication and provide for the common defense, the first of a series of paved, all-weather

roads were built linking Rome with her allies (see illustration 4.2). A policy that would be followed until the

end of the empire was thus begun. Because all roads led

to Rome, these highways had the effect of separating

the allies from one another while allowing Rome to

intervene militarily in case of rebellion or some other

64 Chapter 4

Illustration 4.2

— A Section of the Appian Way. Begun about 312 B.C., the

Appian Way was the first of the great paved highways built to

link Rome with its allies and eventually with the farthest reaches

of its empire. As this modern photo demonstrates, Roman engineering was built to last.

threat. Surfaced in stone and often lined with trees, a

few of the roads are still in use today.

These arrangements proved effective in the next

great crisis. The consolidation of Latium threatened the

Samnites, a warlike people who inhabited the uplands

between Rome and the Greek settlements around the

Bay of Naples. Joined by the Gauls and by the

Etruscans, whose power was greatly reduced, they

launched a series of bitter struggles that ended with the

Roman victory at Sentinium in 295 B.C. Though a few

of Rome’s Latin allies deserted, the coalition as a whole

held firm.

The Roman military system achieved maturity during the Samnite wars. Under the monarchy, the Romans had learned to use hoplites flanked by cavalry

from the Etruscans. Their greater success resulted

largely from a superior discipline rooted ultimately in

cultural values. The Romans prized self-discipline, de-

termination, and a sense of duty to the community

above all else, but they were not indifferent to practical

concerns. After about 400 B.C. they paid their troops

while on duty. The Samnites, who were as tough as the

Romans and who enjoyed the defensive advantage of a

rugged, mountainous terrain, forced them to change

tactics. To achieve greater maneuverability, the Romans

abandoned the phalanx in favor of smaller units known

as maniples. A maniple contained 100 to 120 foot soldiers and was commanded by an officer known in later

days as a centurion. Thirty maniples, plus five in reserve, made up a legion. In battle, the maniples were

arranged in three lines, with a space between each unit

large enough to permit the forward ranks to move back

or the rear ranks to move forward as needed. Such a

formation required discipline and control, while permitting an almost infinite number of tactical combinations regardless of the terrain. The new system, which

in its basic outlines lasted until the end of the fourth

century A.D., was badly needed in the years after it

brought success in the battle of Sentinium. The Romans had to defend themselves against a series of powerful neighbors, but each victory made them new

enemies (see document 4.1). The defeat of the Samnites and their allies awakened the Greek cities of the

south. The Romans now controlled all of Italy from the

borders of Campania to the Po, and the Greeks feared

that such a concentration of power would lead to their

downfall. Bickering and complaining to the last, they

nevertheless united enough to hire the greatest mercenary of the age to defend their interests.

Pyrrhus of Epirus was ruler of a small state in what

is now Albania. Backed by Greek wealth and supported

by a contingent of war elephants, he twice defeated the

Romans but suffered such heavy casualties that he retreated to Sicily in 278 B.C., saying that if he won

another such victory he would be ruined. Nevertheless,

he returned again in 275 B.C. only to be defeated.

These wars gave rise to the term Pyrrhic victory and

marked the end of Greek independence on the Italian

mainland. The Greek cities, too, were incorporated

into the Roman system, and the Roman republic thus

ruled all Italy south of the Po.


The Economic and Social

Structures of Early Rome

The city that conquered Italy was similar in its social

arrangements to the classical Greek polis. A majority of

early Romans were small farmers. Though their plots

The Rise of the Roman Republic 65

[ DOCUMENT 4.1 [

Livy: Roman Tactics at the Time of the Samnite Wars

Titus Livius (59 B.C.–A.D. 17), known as Livy, was the greatest historian of ancient Rome. Writing with the patronage of the Emperor

Augustus, Livy compiled a history of Rome from its origins to 9 B.C.

This work, known as The Annals of the Roman People, consisted of 142 books; only 35 of these (plus fragments) have survived.

Livy was a conservative analyst who stressed the traditional strengths

of Rome, such as the citizen army. The following excerpt from Livy’s

history explains the organization of the army during the Samnite

Wars (343–341 B.C.) of the early republic.

The foremost line consisted of the hastati, forming 15

maniples [companies] stationed a short distance from each

other. This front line . . . consisted of the flower of the

young men who were growing ripe for service. Behind

them were stationed an equal number of maniples, called

principes, made up of men of a more stalwart age. . . . This

body of 30 maniples was called the antepilani because behind the standards there were stationed 15 other companies, each of which was divided into three sections, the

first section being called the pilius. The company consisted

of three vexilla [banners]. A single vexillum had 60 soldiers,

two centurions, and one vexillarius, or color-bearer; the

company numbered 186 men. The first vexillum led the triarii, veterans of proven courage; the second, the rorarii, or

skirmishers, younger and less distinguished men; the

third, the accensi, who were least to be depended upon and

were therefore assigned to the rearmost line.

probably averaged no more than two or three acres—

twenty acres was regarded as a substantial estate—the

intensive cultivation of many different crops provided

them with a measure of self-sufficiency (see illustration

4.3). Wherever possible, grain was planted between

rows of vines or olive trees and replaced with beans or

other legumes in alternate years, for the Romans practiced crop rotation and were careful to enrich the soil

through composting and animal fertilizers. Because grazing land was scarce, there was never enough manure.

Sheep were raised for their wool and for milk, while cattle were used mainly as draft animals. Everyone tried to

maintain a miniature orchard of apples, pears, or figs.

This kind of farming required skill and a great deal

of effort in virtually every month of the year. Fields had

to be plowed at least three times, then hoed frequently

during the growing season to reduce soil temperature

When an army had been drawn up in these ranks,

the hastati were the first of all to engage. If the hastati

failed to repulse the enemy, they slowly retired through

the intervals between the companies of the principes, who

then took up the fight, the hastati following in their rear.

The triarii, meanwhile, were kneeling under their standards with left leg advanced, their shields leaning against

their shoulders, and their spears planted in the ground

with points obliquely upward, as if their battle line were

fortified by a bristling palisade. If the principes were also

unsuccessful, they slowly retired from the battle line to

the triarii (which has given rise to the proverbial saying,

when people are in great trouble, “matters have come

down to the triarii”). When the triarii had admitted the

hastati and principes through the intervals between their

companies, they rose up and, instantly closing their

companies up, blocked the lanes, as it were, and in one

compact mass fell on the enemy, there being no more reserves left behind them. The enemy, who had pursued

the others as though they had defeated them, saw with

the greatest dread a new line suddenly rising up with increased numbers.

Livy. “History of Rome,” book 8, from Roman Civilization: Third

Edition: 2. Vol. Set. Naphtali and Meyer Rheinhold, eds. Copyright

© 1990, Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the


and preserve moisture. Water was always a problem in

the hot, dry Italian summer and often had to be carried

from some distance to irrigate the garden vegetables.

Compost piles, which used every bit of organic matter

available, needed water as well as frequent turning with

the pitchfork. The successful cultivation of vineyards

and fruit trees demanded clever techniques for grafting

and pruning.

Heroic efforts produced a balanced but simple diet:

wheat or barley gruel supplemented by olives, cabbage,

and beans. Milk, cheese, fruit, and baked bread provided variety, but meat—usually pork—was reserved

for special occasions. Sheep, goats, and cattle were too

valuable to be slaughtered for their meat but sometimes

found their way to the table after serving as burnt offerings to the gods. Hogs, which could root in the oak

forests or in other waste spaces, provided not only

66 Chapter 4

Illustration 4.3

— Roman Agriculture. These mosaics from Saint Roman-enGal, France, show Roman farmers engaged in gathering grapes,

picking apples, and bundling straw.

hams and sausages but also that greatest of all Roman

delicacies: roast suckling pig.

Roman farms were usually worked by the owner

and his familia—the legal definition of which, though

precise, was remarkably inclusive. It meant the nuclear

family as well as the entire household including dependent relatives and slaves. Most plots could support

only the owner, his wife, and his children, but the

labor-intensive character of Italian agriculture favored

the growth of extended families whenever sufficient

land was available. It also encouraged slavery, even on

properties that seem small by modern standards. No

great slave-worked estates existed of the kind that be-

came common in the second century B.C., but many

families found that owning a few extra workers was a

good investment.

Some slaves were war captives, but most were Romans subjugated for debt. As in Mesopotamia or early

Greece, those unable to satisfy their creditors were

forced to sell themselves or their children to discharge

their obligation. Under the early republic, slavery was

not as harsh as it would later become. The term of debt

servitude was usually limited, with freedom guaranteed

after a fixed period of years. Dehumanization was further reduced by the fact that most slaves lived under

their master’s roof and shared his table. Marcus Porcius

The Rise of the Roman Republic 67

Cato (234–149 B.C.), the author, general, and statesman

from whom much information is derived about rural society under the republic (see document 4.2), reported

that his wife sometimes nursed the children of slaves.

But slaves were still property and could be sold, beaten,

or killed without recourse to law.

In this, slaves were little different from the other

members of the familia. Theoretically and legally, the father, or paterfamilias, had absolute power of life and

death over his children and slaves. His wife, too, was

subject to his will, but he could neither kill nor sell her.

In practice, affection and the need for domestic tranquility diluted the brutality of the law. By the second

century B.C. women had, through court decisions and

senatorial decrees, gained a much larger measure of

control over their persons and dowries than they had

enjoyed in the early years of the republic.

In much the same way, the sale or execution of a

child rarely took place without the approval of the entire family, and public opinion had to be considered

as well. Rome, like ancient Greece, was a “shame”

society that exercised social control primarily through

community pressure. Reputation was vitally important,

and the mistreatment of women and children was regarded as shameful.

Women guarded their reputations and were generally respected. Like their Greek counterparts, they

managed the day-to-day life of the household. Women,

no less than men, were expected to conform to the

ideals of dignitas, fides, and pietas (dignity, faithfulness,

and piety) and to exhibit physical and moral courage of

the highest order. They were also expected to remind

their menfolk when they failed to honor those ancient

virtues. In many ways, the Roman model of feminine

behavior was more Spartan than Athenian.

Roman families were part of larger social groupings

that influenced their conduct. The importance of clans,

tribes, and other survivals from an earlier time has been

much debated, but clientage, the system of mutual dependency in which a powerful individual protects the interests of others in return for their political or economic

support, was legally enforceable and even more highly

developed than in Mesopotamia.

All of these arrangements were sanctioned by religion. The Roman pantheon of gods was superficially

like that of the Greeks, with Jupiter corresponding to

Zeus, Juno to Hera, Venus to Aphrodite, and so on.

However, in the early days at least, the gods do not

seem to have had clearly defined human forms. No

myths sprung up about them, and no suggestion was

made that they engaged in the kind of sexual antics

[ DOCUMENT 4.2 [

Cato: Farm Management

Marcus Porcius Cato (234–149 B.C.) was the first Latin

writer of prose. Though he wrote in the second century B.C.,

his fervent traditionalism led him to value the social ideals of a

far earlier time, and much of his political career was devoted to

a vigorous attack on luxury and the importation of foreign

ideas. His De agri cultura, the first of many Roman tracts

on farming, was directed to men like himself who had farmed

modest acreage with the help of an overseer and a few slaves,

not toward the owners of opulent estates. It includes a wealth

of technical information on every aspect of farming as well as

advice on management. The following passages reflect a hardbitten attitude that must have been common among Romans in

the earliest days of the republic.

Sell worn-out oxen, blemished cattle, blemished

sheep, wool, hides, an old slave, a sickly slave, and

whatever else is superfluous. The master should be

in the selling habit, not the buying habit. . . .

[O]n feast days, old ditches might have been

cleaned, road work done, brambles cut, the garden

spaded, a meadow cleared, faggots bundled, thorns

rooted out, spelt ground, and general cleaning

done. When the slaves were sick, such large rations should not have been issued.

When the weather is bad and no other work

can be done, clear out manure for the compost

heap; clean thoroughly the ox stalls, sheep pens,

barnyard, and farmstead; and mend wine-jars with

lead, or hoop them with thoroughly dried oak

wood. . . . In rainy weather try to find something

to do indoors. Clean up rather than be idle. Remember that even though work stops, expenses

run on none the less.

Cato. De agricultura, trans. W. D. Hooper and H. D. Ash. Loeb

Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,


common among the Olympians. When Greek culture

became fashionable in the second half of the third century B.C., such distinctions tended to vanish. Greek

myths were adapted to the Roman pantheon, and the

Roman gods and goddesses were portrayed according

to the conventions of Greek art. The Romans also believed in a host of spirits that governed places and natural processes (see document 4.3). They consulted the

68 Chapter 4

[ DOCUMENT 4.3 [

St. Augustine: Animistic Spirits in Roman Religion

St. Augustine (A.D. 354–430) was born Aurelius Augustinus in the

Roman province of Numidia in north Africa, the son of a Christian

mother and pagan father. Augustine moved to Rome, where he taught

rhetoric and continued to accept traditional Roman religious practice.

He converted to Christianity in his thirties and became a priest, returning to Africa, where he served as bishop of Hippo. His writings, especially his autobiographical Confessions and The City of God,

were extremely influential in shaping early Christianity. The following

excerpt from The City of God describes the polytheistic Roman religion of his youth.

But how is it possible to mention in one part of this book

all the names of gods or goddesses, which the Romans

scarcely could comprise in great volumes, distributing

among these divine powers their peculiar functions concerning separate things? They did not even think that the

care of their lands should be entrusted to any one god; but

they entrusted their farms to the goddess Rumina, and the

ridges of the mountains to the god Jugatinus; over the hills

they placed the goddess Collatina, over the valleys, Vallonia. Nor could they even find one Segetia so potent that

they could commend their cereal crops entirely to her

care; but so long as their seed grain was still under the

ground, they desired to have the goddess Seia watch over

omens before virtually every act, public or private, and

performed sacrifices to assure its success. The sacrifices

might involve the burnt offering of an animal, which

was usually then eaten, or a libation of wine or oil.

Gods and spirits alike had to be appeased. The Romans

were not, however, a priest-ridden people. Priests of

both sexes specialized in the care of temples or in foretelling the future. They were never a separate caste. At

home, the father presided over religious rites and was

responsible for making sure that the family did not

offend the gods. No concept of personal salvation is

evident, and ethical concepts were largely unrelated

to divine will.

Some Romans were richer than others. The source

or extent of their greater wealth is hard to determine,

but at an early date the Etruscan kings identified one

hundred men of substance and appointed them to an

advisory body known as the Senate. The senators represented families that owned land, held slaves, and

it; then, when it was already above ground and formed

standing grain, they set over it the goddess Segetia; and

when the grain was collected and stored, they entrusted it

to the goddess Tutilina, that it might be kept safe. Who

would not have thought the goddess Segetia sufficient to

protect the standing grain until it had passed from the first

green blades to the dry ears? Yet she was not enough for

men who loved a multitude of gods. . . . Therefore they set

Proserpina over the germinating seeds; over the joints and

knobs of the stems, the god Nodutus; over the sheaths enfolding the ears, the goddess Volutina; when the sheaths

opened and the spikes emerged, it was ascribed to the goddess Patelana; when the stems were of the same height as

new ears, because the ancients described this equalizing by

the term hostire, it was ascribed to the goddess Hostilina;

when the grain was in flower, it was dedicated to the goddess Flora; when full of milk, to the god Lacturnus; when

maturing, to the goddess Matuta; when the crop was “runcated”—that is, removed from the soil—to the goddess


St. Augustine. The City of God, books 4, 8, from Roman Civilization:

Third Edition: 2 Vol. Set, Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Rheinhold, eds.

Copyright © 1990, Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

could afford to fight on horseback instead of on foot.

Like their Etruscan counterparts, they presided over

elaborate networks of clientage in which mutual obligation was enforced by religious and legal sanctions.

When the monarchy fell, the Senate remained to advise

the two governing magistrates, who would eventually

be known as consuls, and the senatorial families became

the core of the patrician order.

The patricians were the hereditary aristocracy of

the Roman republic. While other citizens could vote,

only the patricians could hold office as magistrates or

serve in the Senate. The plebeians, who were free citizens even though many of them were bound by ties of

clientage, resisted this situation from the start. Some of

them had grown rich during the years of expansion under the monarchy and resented being excluded from

public life.

The majority of plebeians had grown poorer. Their

farms, which had never been large, were divided and

The Rise of the Roman Republic 69

divided again by inheritance until many citizens were

virtually landless. Roman law insisted on partible inheritance, the more-or-less equal division of property

among heirs. The practice persists today wherever the

Roman legal tradition remains. It is a major obstacle to

the preservation of a family’s wealth. The only solution

to the problems it created, apart from demographic catastrophe, was territorial growth. New lands acquired

through conquest were distributed to Roman citizens,

with those who commanded the legions taking the

lion’s share. Poor plebeians, faced with imminent bankruptcy, wanted a fairer division of this public land and

an end to debt slavery.

These aims were not incompatible. Rich and poor

knew that both could be achieved by combining forces

against the patriciate. As a result, plebeian efforts to develop institutions and win for themselves a place in

government were the dominant theme of Roman politics from the beginnings of the republic until the third

century B.C. This Struggle of the Orders forged the basic institutions of the Roman state.


The Evolution of Roman Government

The power of the patricians was deeply rooted in law

and custom, but even before the fall of the monarchy it

was in one sense an anachronism. The heart of the Roman army was infantry, and Roman survival depended

upon the swords and spears of plebeians, not horsemounted aristocrats. In Rome, as in the Greek polis, political rights would grow from military service.

The plebeians began their struggle in 494 B.C.

when they answered a senatorial call to arms by leaving

the city and refusing to fight against the Volscians, a

neighboring people who threatened to invade Roman

territory. This dramatic gesture won them the right to

elect tribunes, who could represent their interests and defend them against unjust decrees by the magistrates. In

the following year they erected a temple on the Aventine to Ceres, the Roman variant of the Earth Mother.

Ceres, unlike the sky-gods favored by the patricians,

had long been associated with peasants and artisans.

The temple, along with its aediles, or wardens, gave sacred status to the plebeian cause and placed its tribunes

under divine protection. It also provided the basis for a

political organization. The meetings of the cult, which

were open only to plebeians, issued decrees or plebiscites

in opposition to the public assembly. This body soon

evolved into an assembly that was regarded by plebeians as a kind of alternative government.

Pressure from the plebeian assembly bore fruit more

than a generation later in the publication of the Twelve

Tables (c. 451–450 B.C.). They were the first body of

written law in Roman history, and Livy called them,

with some exaggeration, “the fountainhead of all public

and private laws.” The codified laws reinforced the privileges of the patricians, recognized the plebeians as a distinct order, and indirectly offered them a measure of

legal protection. Laws that were written down could not

be altered at will by patrician judges who often acted

out of self-interest or class prejudice. The tables also introduced the principle of equality before the law (aequatio iuris) because these laws applied to patricians and

plebeians alike. The Twelve Tables themselves were destroyed during the Gallic sack of Rome in 387 B.C., and

their provisions are known today primarily through the

commentaries of later jurists (see document 4.4). Seen

through the eyes of these commentators, the tables

seem harsh and regressive. The principle of patria potestas,

for example, gave the husband the powers of “head of

the family” and instructed him to kill a deformed baby.

Another table stated that women were perpetual minors

under the guardianship of their fathers or husbands, a legal principle that persisted in European law for more

than two thousand years. But if the Twelve Tables seem

conservative in many respects, they were also an important step in the establishment of plebeian rights and the

rule of law.

Among the more revolutionary features of the

Twelve Tables was their recognition of wealth, in addition to birth, as a measure of social stratification. This

may not seem like an advance, but it reflected an important part of the plebeian agenda. By 443 B.C. all citizens were ranked by property qualifications, which

determined not only their military role but also their

right to participate in the public or centuriate assembly

that elected the magistrates. A new official, the censor,

was elected to determine the rankings on an ongoing

basis, and the census became an important civic and religious ritual (see illustration 4.4).

The entire body of male citizens was divided into

centuries, roughly corresponding to the size of a maniple, the military unit that, in its original form, had

probably contained about one hundred troops (see

table 4.1). The centuries were in turn divided into

classes ranging from the first class of heavily armed hoplites to a fifth class armed only with slings. The patrician equites, or cavalry, and the proletarii, who owned only

their children and could afford no weapons, were technically outside the class system, but this was little more

than a convenient social fiction. The important point

70 Chapter 4

[ DOCUMENT 4.4 [

Ulpian: Roman Law

The Roman jurist Ulpian was born at Tyre in Phoenicia and

died in A.D. 225. His writings on the law comprise almost a

third of Justinian’s Digest of the Laws. (see chapter 6). In

this selection he describes the moral and intellectual basis of

Roman law and, in so doing, demonstrates its importance in

Roman thought and practice. Note in particular Ulpian’s understanding of natural law, which was to have a great influence on Western jurisprudence down to the present day.

When a man means to give his attention to law, he

ought first to know whence the term law (ius) is

derived. Now it is so called from justice (iustitita).

In fact, as Celsus neatly defines it, ius is the art of

the good and fair. Of this art we may deservedly

be called the priests; we cherish justice and profess

the knowledge of the good and the fair, separating

the fair from the unfair, discriminating between the

permitted and the forbidden, desiring to make

men good, not only by the feat of penalties, but

also by the incentives of rewards, affecting, if I

mistake not, a true and not a simulated philosophy.

This subject comprises two categories, public

law and private law. Public law is that which regards

the constitution of the Roman state, private law that

which looks to the interest of individuals; for some

things are beneficial from the point of view of the

state, and some with reference to private persons.

Public law is concerned with sacred rites, with

priests, with public officers. Private law is tripartite,

being derived from the rules of natural law, or of the

law of nations, or of civil law. Natural law is that

which all animals are taught by nature; this law is

not peculiar to the human race, but is common to

animals which are produced on land or sea, and to

the birds as well. From it comes the union of male

and female, which we call matrimony, and the procreation and bearing of children; we find in fact

that animals in general, even the wild beasts, are

marked by acquaintance with this law. The law of

nations is that which the various people of mankind

observe. It is easy to see that it falls short of natural

law, because the latter is common to all living creatures, whereas the former is common only to human beings in their mutual relations.

Justinian. Digest of the Laws I: 3–4, from Roman Civilization:

Third Edition: 2 Vol. Set, Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Rheinhold,

eds. Copyright © 1990, Columbia University Press. Reprinted

with permission of the publisher.

was that the equites and the hoplite class had enough

votes between them to outnumber everyone else. This

protected the wealthy of both orders and, on property

issues at least, made them allies. Wealth rather than

birth was becoming the chief source of political power.

Property issues came to a head after the Gallic

invasion of 387 B.C. Many poor Romans lost their

property and were forced into debt slavery. Popular rebellions in 385 B.C. and 375 B.C., though unsuccessful,

led to a series of reforms. Under the Licinian-Sextian

Laws of 367 B.C., plebeians were admitted to the highest offices of the state, and the popular assembly was allowed to pass laws, subject to senatorial approval. The

result was a century of reforms. New laws abolished

debt slavery and expanded the distribution of public

land to poor citizens. Implementation was made easier

by rapid territorial expansion during the second half of

the fourth century B.C. The rich were prevented from

seizing all of the gains. Finally, in 312 B.C., the Senate

admitted plebeians to membership for the first time,

and in 287 B.C. it lost its veto power over the popular

assembly. The Struggle of the Orders had ended.

The government that emerged from this prolonged

controversy was, in theory at least, carefully balanced

to represent the interests of all Roman citizens and was

for this reason of great interest to the theorists who,

two thousand years later, framed the U.S. Constitution.

Legislative authority rested in the centuriate and plebeian assemblies, though the decrees of the latter may

not have been binding upon all citizens and the most

important function of the centuriate assembly was to

elect the consuls and other magistrates. Leadership of

the state, including command of the army, was vested

in two consuls who served one-year terms and could

succeed themselves only after a ten-year interval. In

theory, the consuls inherited the full imperium or authority of the old monarchy, and their edicts had the force

of law. In practice, they consulted closely with the Senate and could veto each other’s measures if necessary. In

war, one consul normally commanded the legions while

the other remained at home to govern, but it was not

uncommon for both consuls to take the field and command the army on alternate days. In moments of extreme crisis, the consuls could also appoint a dictator,

subject to senatorial approval. The dictator, who was

always an experienced general, held absolute power for

six months and could mobilize the resources of the

state without legal interference.

These arrangements met the defensive needs of a

small community, but as Rome expanded, campaigns

grew longer. Armies had to be maintained in distant ar-

The Rise of the Roman Republic 71

Illustration 4.4

— A Census. A census was taken every five years by the consuls of the republic to ensure that citizens were properly assigned

to their classes and to facilitate recruitment into the army. On the

right, citizens make their declarations to a scribe and an assessor

3 TABLE 4.1 3

The ‘Servian’ Classification of Male Citizens

The classification of troops by the first census after the

Servian reforms of 444 B.C. provides a measure of Roman

wealth and population in the early republic. The classifications of wealth in terms of asses, a coin introduced in

the third century B.C. when about thirty-three of them

were needed to purchase a bushel of wheat, are therefore

approximate, but scholars believe that they provide a fair

estimate of the citizen population and its relative poverty.



























Ranked with class I






and others





of men



(in asses)

Number of



Source: Adapted from T. Frank, ed., An Economic Survey of Ancient

Rome, vol. 1 (Paterson, N.J.: Pageant Books, 1959), p. 20.

eas for years at a time. In 325 B.C., the office of proconsul

was created by extending a consul’s field command for

the duration of the campaign even though his term as

consul had expired. This institution, even more than

the dictatorship, became a threat to the survival of the

republic in later years, for it allowed the proconsul to

develop an independent geographic and military base.

in the presence of soldiers. On the left, a bull, a sheep, and a pig

are offered in sacrifice. Like most civic rituals in the Republic, the

census had a religious dimension as well. The reliefs probably

date from 115 B.C. to 97 B.C.

Other magistrates called praetors administered justice,

though they, too, might serve as generals in time of

war. Upon taking office they made a public declaration

of the principles by which they would interpret the law,

and these statements became landmarks in the development of Roman jurisprudence. The most respected office in the Roman state was that of censor. There were

two of them, and they registered citizens as well as supervised morals and guaranteed public contracts. They

could also remove senators from office on financial or

ethical grounds. Other offices included the quaestors

who assisted the consuls, especially on financial matters, and four aediles, who supervised markets and other

public services. All were subject to interference from

the tribunes, whose persons were still sacrosanct and

who served as spokesmen for those who felt oppressed

by the magistrates.

But the Senate, in theory no more than an advisory

body, remained the most powerful institution of the

Roman state (see document 4.5). Its members were

originally appointed by the consuls; after 312 B.C. that

right was given to the censors. Most senators were former consuls, which meant that they were men of great

wealth and experience—the leading citizens of Rome.

Few consuls dared to ignore their advice, and the

quaestors, who were mostly young men ambitious for

higher office, followed them without hesitation. Because the quaestors administered public expenditures,

this gave the Senate de facto control over finance.

The Senate was also responsible for provincial affairs, including the distribution of newly acquired public lands and of income derived from provincial sources.

This enormous source of patronage supplemented the

vast resources already available to the rich and powerful. Whether patrician or plebeian, the senators were all

nobiles and patrons who could count on the support of

clients in the assemblies and at every level of the administration. They could therefore influence legislation

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