When we think about ancient European civilizations the one which instantly springs to mind is that of Rome. Without Rome Europe would have gone down a very different path that it did do as well as North Africa and the Near East. The legacy of Rome can be found in all traces of western society: the works of Shakespeare, the American senate and Christianity to name just a few things. As Alexander the Great, (see here), was forging an empire in the east Rome was spreading across the Italian peninsular. As Alexander's empire splintered following his death Rome continued on until 476 CE in the west and 1453 CE in the east. How did such a remarkable city achieve all this over two thousand years ago? First we must look at the mythical, and the actual, founding of Rome.
|Romulus and Remus and the wolf|
There are many variations of the main story of how Rome was founded. One variation has the king of Alba Longa, Numiter, being overthrown by his brother Amulius. Amulius had Numiter's male heirs executed and his daughter, Rhea Silvia, forced into becoming a Vestal Virgin. However, Rhea had become pregnant by the god Mars with twin boys. Amulius had Rhea's twins thrown into the River Tiber. The twins were discovered by a she-wolf who suckled the twins until they were discovered by the shepherd Faustulus and his wife Acca Larentia. The two raised the twins until they discovered their true heritage and aided their grandfather in ousting Amulius. However, the brothers did not want to wait until Amulius died to become kings so they went out to form their own city. A quarrel erupted between the brothers about who would found the city: Remus saw six vultures first while Romulus saw twelve vultures. Remus said his claim was stronger as he saw an augury first whereas Romulus claimed that as he saw more vultures it was his right. A fight ensued and Romulus committed fratricide. Romulus then finished the new city and invited people from all around to inhabit it ranging from runaway slaves to political refugees. However, only men inhabited the city. To rectify this in what has been called the 'Rape of the Sabines' men of Rome kidnapped, married and raped the women of the neighboring Sabines. As the men of Sabine went to destroy Rome in retaliation it would have ended in bloodshed had not the Sabine women called for peace. Peace was declared and Rome entered a golden age. Of course this story is a myth but it was very important in Roman legacy. They were ashamed of their mythical origin; they were ashamed that a hero like Romulus could commit fratricide and then order the kidnapping and rape of the women of Sabine. Stories were then created saying that Romulus's friend killed Remus and, the poet Virgil, (from The Divine Comedy), claimed that Remus was never killed. Instead he claimed that the brothers ruled side by side.
Another tale says that Rome was founded by refugees fleeing from the destruction of Troy. However, the actual founding of Rome has some connections to Greece. The city that is now Rome was founded by a group of people called the Etruscans, hailing from Etruria in modern day Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria. The Etruscans had trading ties with the Greeks and Greek society heavily influenced that of Rome, notice how similar the Roman pantheon is to that of the Greeks. For centuries the Etruscans would form the elite of Roman society, even after Rome became a republic, and this can be seen in the way that early Roman burial urns were the shape of houses exactly like Etruscan burial urns. Around 511 BCE though the kings were ousted. The son of King Tiberius Superbus raped a noblewoman called Lucretia. In response the Roman Senate revolted and ousted the kings. The Roman Republic was born.
Republic and Society
|19th Century fresco of a Senate debate|
The Roman Republic was organised around the Senate. You might recognize the acronym SPQR when looking at Roman motives and coins; this stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus (The Roman Senate and People). For years the Republic was ruled by two Consuls who ruled for a year and were chosen from among the members of the Senate who had previously been other elected officials. The phrase Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? can be linked to this as each Consul was supposed to check the power of the other as both could veto the other's decisions. The fact that Consuls had to serve for one year was also a way to check their power. Who made up the Senate though? The idea that the Senate's authority rested with the people, (as many parliaments do in present day governments), is not entirely accurate. To see who could sit in the Senate we have to look at Roman society. Society was initially split into patricians, (aristocracy), and plebians or 'plebs', (everyone else). As the Consuls chose the Senators this meant most Senators came from patricians. However, by 287 BCE the plebians had gotten legal equality with the patricians as the growth of Roman rule over new lands extended and merchants benefiting from the growth of Roman power started to become richer than patricians. This is a recurring theme in history which we shall look in more detail at when we reach the French and Industrial Revolutions. After 287 BCE membership of the Senate was mainly based on two factors: if you were rich, (similar to the Greek city state democracies), and if you were a citizen. Citizens had to be freeman or natives of Rome and the outlying areas. That is until 89 BCE. By 91 BCE Rome ruled all of Italy and Italians were angered that they were not citizens despite being similar to their Roman overlords. Thus started the Social War as they were angered that fellow Italians lacked equality. After two years they were defeated but given equality. Thus was the power of the idea of citizenship.
The Senate and Republic were not entirely safe though. Decades before the rise of Julius Caesar the Senate had been toppled by generals. If the Republic was in danger a magistrate could be declared dictator. Unlike the dictators like Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin that we are used to a Roman dictator was a temporary position. They could do whatever they want until the threat to the Republic passed. The general Sulla was just one who managed to repeatedly become dictator and it was not uncommon for Consuls to maneuver themselves into serving multiple terms. Rome also faced threat from outside. In 390 BCE, for example, the Gauls managed to sack Rome and managed to burn most of it to the ground. Also, Rome had to face the might of another Mediterranean powerhouse: Carthage.
The Punic Wars
|Hannibal crossing the Alps|
Carthage was an empire which stretched across most of the Mediterranean ruling from Morocco to Libya. Southern Spain, Sardinia, Corsica, Malta and Sicily were all part of the Carthaginian Empire. All of it was ruled from a city state around modern day Tunis. Like Rome one of the mythical origins of the city was that it was founded by Trojan refugees and like Rome it was a power; Carthage a naval one while Rome was a land one. As Rome started expanding out of Italy it naturally came into conflict with Carthage and in 264 BCE the first Punic War started. Despite being a land power Rome had been studying Carthaginian boats and, had expropriated the boats for themselves. Through this Rome succeeding in taking Sardinia, Corsica and Sicily. In 218 BCE a Carthaginian general called Hannibal decided to expand on his conquest of the Iberian city of Saguntum by going to war against Rome in its heartland. It was during this war that Hannibal led war elephants over the Alps and into the Italian peninsula after passing through Roman Gaul as well as inflicting massive damage onto the Roman forces at Lake Trasimene (in 217 BCE) and Cannae, (in 216 BCE). However, Hannibal had made a huge error in not bringing siege equipment with him so he could not take Rome. Stranded in Italy for several years his forces were bled dry by the Romans until he fled back to North Africa. At the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE Hannibal was defeated and Rome took almost all of Carthage's lands. The final Punic War started in 149 BCE. By this time Carthage was merely a city but there was a great urge to permanently destroy Rome's old enemy. Cato always said at the end of a speech 'Carthage must be destroyed'. In 146 BCE they succeeded in doing this where Rome destroyed Carthage so thoroughly that it got wiped from the map. All that remains of Carthage is an archaeological site.
The Punic Wars shows a very interesting fact: Rome became an empire while it was a republic. By conquering lands clearly outside of Italy and conquering people so very different to the Italian people Rome truly became an empire in everything but name. People were put in place to rule over old Carthaginian lands, soldiers were given land in conquered regions and the locals were not given citizenship. This would be evident in every empire in history ranging from the Achaemenid Empire to the British Empire around two millennia later.
Expansion and its consequences
|Caesar landing in Britain|
Rome capitalized on the disunity of Macedonia and Greece. The last king Pergamon capitulated in 133 BCE. Sparta's isolation, the weakened Macedonian state and various wars between the Greek leagues allowed Rome to take conquer individual states or turn one state against another to do it for them. Not to mention the superiority of the Roman army compared to the moribund Greek phalanxes. The Roman Centurions were more disciplined than that of the Greek phalanxes and were better equipped which gave them massive victories. In the west Roman victories were far more devastating: Rome's conquest of Gaul led to genocide. Unlike the Greeks who were organised in city states and small kingdoms Gaul was a collection of tribal chiefdoms centered around fortified cities called oppida as well as hillforts. Manching and Mont Beuvray are good examples of oppida. Prior to the Gallic Wars (58-50 BCE) Rome only controlled parts of southern Gaul, southern France, and they called it the Province, (where modern day Provence gets its name from). One general managed to conquer much of Gaul. A general called Gaius Julius Caesar. Caesar would travel from oppida to oppida and conquer any which did not submit to Roman rule. Rome claimed rule over all of Gaul, (an area comprising France, the Low Countries and the western Rhine), despite not actually ruling the land. Hence, any tribe which did not immediately submit would be basically massacre. During the Battle of Bibract in 58 BCE around 238,000 were killed by the Romans. Various other battles numbered this body count, not to mention the massacre of civilians in tribes which did not capitulate immediately. Through conquest and massacre Caesar managed to conquer Gaul and in 55 BCE he landed in Britain, (the Romans did not conquer Britain though).
These conquests had a great effect on Rome. For one, the new conquests in the Balkans, Gaul and from the Punic Wars caused the debate about what it meant to be a citizen. The newly conquered people were seen as vastly different to the peoples of the Italian peninsula but, the Italian peoples had no greater rights than that of the conquered peoples. Thus started the Social Wars. The conquest of Greece brought Greek literature, philosophy and art to Rome which completely altered Roman culture. The Romans managed to adapt Greek culture and make it distinctly Roman. Slavery also grew rapidly with conquest, especially from Gaul. Conquered peoples, including the remaining population of Carthage, were enslaved by the Romans which offered cheap labor for rich agriculturalists. This meant that rural peasants had to flock to the cities which created an urban populace. Rome's expansion also led to the development of capitalism as merchants could come into contact with new areas. The Silk Road boomed when Rome expanded and even the Celtic peoples traded with Rome as a burial at Hochdorf, Germany contained a Greek style cauldron. It also led to the rise of generals capable of toppling the Republic. Due to the size of the empire, (definitely an empire with the addition of Gaul and Greece), soldiers were often drafted from outside Roman lands. Instead of being loyal to Rome they were loyal to their general. To keep soldiers happy when they retired Rome gave them farming land as well but to they needed to conquer land to give soldiers land to farm, which made the Republic need the generals more, but to conquer land they had to more soldiers, which meant the generals were more powerful, but with more soldiers they needed more land etc. etc. This growth of military power led to Gaius Julius Caesar changing the fate of Rome.
Caesar and his legacy
Before we look at how Caesar came to power we need to know some background. Caesar had been a family member of an opponent of the general Sulla who started massacring his enemies, (and their families), when he was dictator. This made Caesar distrust the Senate. Caesar was also descended from a patrician family so could claim ancestry to the old aristocracy, (who were supposedly descended from gods). While warring in Gaul he made himself a popular figure. His accounts, written in third person, propelled himself into public limelight and him living among his troops made him a popular figure. Around 59 BCE Caesar joined forces with two other major generals, Crassus and Pompey the Great, to form the Triumvirate which would back each other politically in the Senate, (in 60 BCE Caesar became Consul), which worked very well. After becoming governor of Transalpine Gaul his famous conquests took place where he became a major public figure. However, Crassus was killed in 53 BCE while battling the Parthians of Iran which caused a rift in the Triumvirate. Pompey in 50 BCE got the Senate to call Caesar back to Rome for extending his power as governor. In 49 BCE Caesar crossed the Rubicon river which separated Italy from Rome, but he came with an army saying 'let the die be cast'. If he came back alone he would likely have been arrested. Thus a civil war started and Caesar narrowly managed to win several battles until Pompey fled to Egypt, itself going through a civil war between Ptolemy and his wife/sister Cleopatra battling for power, in 48 BCE. Ptolemy had Pompey beheaded thinking it would get Caesar to be on his side. Instead it infuriated Caesar that such a noble enemy in his eyes could be killed in such a way. He allied with Egypt's genius queen Cleopatra who fathered a son together, Caesarion, with Caesar, (although she arrived in a bag and not a carpet to meet Caesar). Doing this helped strengthened Roman influence in Egypt, especially following Ptolemy's death.
Caesar had taken over all of Rome's land, although forces loyal to Pompey would remain active for years, and he started to make a series of reforms after becoming consul and dictator. Caesar started a series of reforms including getting land pensions for soldiers, reorganized the debts for debtors and made the calendar far more accurate. Previously days in the calendar could be added, or taken away, by the consul but this became politicized as consuls could then use this to extend their own term, the term of allies or shorten the term of enemies. Caesar removed this. However, he also started making himself look like a god. Despite styling himself as a god the Senate still supported him because he became consul several other times. However, when Marc Anthony tried to style him king at a festival the Senate feared his power too much. At the Ides of March in 44 BCE Caesar was stabbed to death by members of the Senate; although he never said 'Et tu Brutus' which was made up by Shakespeare. They did this as they thought they could save the Republic; this failed spectacularly.
The Senate received little support for killing Caesar as his reforms were well liked. A second Triumvirate was formed between Marcus Lepidus, Marc Anthony and Caesar's adopted son Octavian. Unlike the last one it never had success as Octavian and Marc Anthony started battling over who should replace Caesar. The nineteen year old Octavian saw unexpected success. Being Caesar's adopted son he got much support from the military while Marc Anthony had to seek help from Cleopatra. At the Battle of Actium the Egyptian and Anthony's navies were destroyed. Octavian invaded Egypt causing Cleopatra and Anthony to commit suicide and, Egypt was then conquered by Rome in 31 BCE. In 27 BCE Octavian changed his name to Caesar Augustus. The Senate had killed Caesar to preserve the Roman Republic but had instead truly forged the Roman Empire.
Rome's rise to power has captured the imagination of the world. Everything about Rome's history remained important to the Romans. Caesar was murdered after it was rumored he would become king; being deified was seen as being more acceptable than being crowned. Also, as soon as the Roman Republic expanded outside Italy it sowed the seeds of its own destruction. One last thing to think about is Caesar's long lasting legacy. He relied on populism and militarism to rise to power and sustain that power. It is not surprising that he is seen as the first fascist dictator. Next time we'll look at how this empire fell.
Thanks for reading and the sources I have used are as follows:
-The Penguin History of the World by John Roberts
- Reassessing the Oppida: The Role of Power and Religion by Manuel Fernandez-Gotz. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 2014, Vol 33 (4), pp. 379-394
-Exploring Prehistoric Europe by Chris Scarre
-The Times Complete History of the World by Richard Overy
- Julius Caesar, BBC Radio Four In Our Time podcast
-Romulus and Remus, BBC Radio Four In Our Time podcast
- Julius Caesar, BBC Radio Four In Our Time podcast
-Romulus and Remus, BBC Radio Four In Our Time podcast