Thursday, January 29, 2009

Recommended Reading - The Roman Republic

The best way to learn about the Roman republic is to start with the works of Michael Grant. His writing is enjoyable and not overdown like that of some historians.

My favorite is The History of Rome. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1978.

Grant has also written, The Gladiators, Julius Caesar, Nero, Fall of the Roman Empire, and others.

For more detailed look at the history, consider the work of H.H. Scullard. A History of the Roman World 753 to 146 B.C, Routledge Press, London & New York, 1980. His also wrote a companion work titled, A History of the Roman World 133 B.C. to 68 A.D.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Roman Calendar

Because the Romans were an agrarian society, the phases of the moon and the seasons were the first yardsticks they used to build a calendar. The earliest known example supposedly dates from the founding of Rome (753 B.C.). That early calendar had ten months:

Martius (31 days), Aprilis (30 days), Maius (31 days), Junius (30 days), Quintilis (31 days), Sextilis (30 days), September (30 days), October (31 days), November (30 days), December (30 days)

Notice that December (Deci=10) is the tenth month, and there are only 304 days in this calendar. The other 61 days were not in a named month. Martius 1st (the first day of the year) was on the Vernal Equinox, which was the first day of planting for farmers.

In the 713 B.C, the calendar was reformed and two months were added at the end of the year.

Martius (31 days), Aprilis (29 days), Maius (31 days), Junius (29 days), Quintilis (31 days), Sextilis (29 days), September (29 days), October (31 days), November (29 days), December (29 days), Ianuarius (29 days), Februarius (28 days)

This calendar had 360 days, but was still mismatched with the solar year of 365 days, four hours, and fifty six minutes, so an accommodation was made to add a leap month. February was shortened to twenty-four days, to produce a twenty-seven day leap month about every three years. This leap month was called the Mensis Intercalaris.

The system described above lasted some 650 years until the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. Caesar made January 1st the beginning of the year and set the days of the months to their current length. December, the original tenth month, was now the twelfth month. A day was added at the end of February every four years to account for the four hour difference between the calendar and solar year. Caesar also changed Quintilis to July to honor himself. Not to be outdone, his successor, Caesar Augustus, named August after himself.

What is the origin of the names of the months? March was named for Mars, the God of War; April from Aphrodite, Goddess of Love. May comes from Maia the mother of Mercury; June from the God Juno. January comes from the God Janus and February from Februa, the Roman festival of Purification.

Oddly, September was renamed Germanicus during the year 37 A.D. April. May, and June were renamed Neroeus, Claudius, and Germanicus during the year 65 A.D.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Senate of Rome. The Senate of America. Similar or Different?

The Senate of Rome came into being with the Republic in 509 B.C, after the last Etruscan King was overthrown. Originally comprised of 300 members, the Senate became the seat of power in the Roman Republic: introducing laws, nominating magistrates from its own members, and influencing clients to act on their behalf.

At its heart, the Senate was always a nepotistic club, consisting of family members succeeding family members over the generations. In the century between 230 B.C. and 130 B.C, for example, two hundred consuls were elected. Of those, 159 came from 26 families and 99 came from only 10 families. Despite its narrow ruling class composition, the Senate was an effective governing body for centuries.

As the Roman territory expanded in the late republican years, the Senate became less effective, because it could not adapt to the changing requirements for government. Ultimately, its poor judgment and the rising power of the people led to the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire. The people rose partly because the generals began to pay the troops directly, causing a transformation from a citizen army to a professional army. Troops loyal to a power hungry commander could overthrow a government, as they did for Julius Caesar.

The United States Senate was modeled after the Roman Senate – a body of elder statesmen design to act as a brake against the whims of the people, whose interests were expressed in House of Representatives. The original plan called for senators to be elected in the same way as representatives, but this was voted down by “small” states who feared states with the largest territories could control them. The framers also feared a repeat of what happened to the Romans -- too much power by the people resulting in demagoguery -- so they put in place a system where Senators were elected by the states rather than the people.

What can we say about the Senate today? Certainly it is made up of rich men (40 millionaires by last count), but is it still an effective body? The Roman Senate was corrupted by bribes. The American Senate is corrupted by lobbyists. What this means for the future no one can say, but the Roman Republic was strong enough to survive for 450 years, while our Republic has endured for less than half that span.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The silver Denarius over 450 years

The four coins shown above are examples of the silver Denarius over some 450 years of both the Republic and the Empire. The coin on the upper left was struck in 211 B.C, featuring the god Roma on the face. The coin on the upper right is Julius Caesar, struck in 40 B.C. The coin on the lower left is Marcus Aurelius, struck in 161 A.D. The fourth coin is Gordian III, struck in 238 A.D.

Foundation of Roman Law – The Twelve Tables

In the beginning of the Roman Republic (509 B.C.), the law was held privately by the priests and the aristocratic class (Senate). Abuses of the plebian class were common, and it didn’t take long for the people to agitate for better rights and legal protections from these abuses. As early as 494 B.C., there was a mass demonstration and strike by workers demanding basic rights.

After decades of continuing unrest, the Senate agreed to publish the laws for all to see. Ten scholars, called Decemvirs, were designated to compile and publish the law. The result of this effort was the Twelve Tables – posted in the Forum in ~450 B.C.

The surviving portions of the Tables are an interesting mix of religion, private law, and criminal law. The first two deal with legal procedure, the third with debt, and the fourth and fifth describe rights of the head of the family and inheritance. Table six outlines law pertaining to acquisition and possession, while table seven deals with land ownership. Table eight covers injuries, table nine public law, and table ten sacred law.

Here are some examples:

Table I No.1 - If anyone summons a man before the magistrate, he must go. If the man summoned does not go, let the one summoning him call the bystanders to witness and then take him by force.

Table IV No.1 - A dreadfully deformed child shall be quickly killed.

Table IV No.5 - A child born after ten months since the father's death will not be admitted into a legal inheritance.

Table VI No.3 - A beam that is built into a house or a vineyard trellis one may not take from its place. This is used today in the case of selling a house and leaving the appliances.

Table VII No.1 - Let them keep the road in order. If they have not paved it, a man may drive his team where he likes.

Table VII No.10 - A man might gather up fruit that was falling down onto another man's farm.

Table VIII No.9 - For a person the age of puberty to dispasture or cut down a neighbor’s crop by stealth in the night, shall be a capital crime, the culprit to be devoted to Ceres and hanged; but if the culprit be under the age of puberty, he shall be scourged at the discretion of the magistrate, or be condemned to pay double the value of the damage done.

Table VIII No.13 - It is unlawful for a thief to be killed by day....unless he defends himself with a weapon; even though he has come with a weapon, unless he shall use the weapon and fight back, you shall not kill him. And even if he resists, first call out so that someone may hear and come up.

Table VIII No.27 - Associations or clubs may adopt whatever rules they please, provided such rules be not inconsistent with public law.

Table IX No.4 - The penalty shall be capital for a judge or arbiter legally appointed who has been found guilty of receiving a bribe for giving a decision.

Table X No.8 - Gold should not be burned or buried with the dead, except such gold as the teeth have been fastened with.

Table XII No.1 - Marriages should not take place between plebeians and patricians. This was reversed in 445 B.C.

The original Tables displayed in the Forum were destroyed during the Gallic invasion of 390 B.C.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Aqua Marcia – The Great Roman Aqueduct

Most people know the Romans were great engineers. The roads and buildings they built survive today as monuments to that skill. But the list of Roman engineering feats is not complete without mentioning the aqueducts, which combined beauty and functionality with engineering skill.

In the earliest days of Rome, drinking water was obtained from wells or the Tiber River, but it wasn’t long before the Tiber became polluted. To solve this problem, the Romans decided to build aqueducts to transport fresh water from mountain springs to the city. The first, named Aqua Appia, was constructed in 312 B.C., but the Aqua Marcia stands as the greatest of the Roman aqueducts.

The Praetor Urbanus of 144 B.C, Quintus Marcius Rex, was given authority by the Senate to build a third Roman aqueduct, one that could reach the tops of all seven hills of Rome. By 140, the project was complete and the new aqueduct was named after him.

Aqua Marcia was 56 miles long and fed from springs located near the ancient town of Morano. At its source Marcia was 318 feet above sea level and reached Rome at 59 feet above sea level, averaging about one foot drop in one thousand feet of length.

Only 12% of Marcia was above ground on arched conduits with the remainder underground with the water carried by pipes. Once the aqueduct reached the city, water was dumped into catch basins and then distributed to fountains and baths.

Wealthy Romans were willing to bribe public officials to have unauthorized cuts made in the channels to divert water to their villas and inspectors had to constantly check for leaks and unauthorized use. (Graphic from mvl aegean via Flickr)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Roman Money

The Romans were slow to adopt the use of modern coins for financial transactions compared to their more sophisticated neighbors, the Greeks. In the fourth century B.C., the Greeks were using coins made of precious metals, while the Romans were still using bronze. A sample Roman trade equivalence was:

1 ox = 10 sheep = 100 lbs bronze

More often than not, goods were traded without using money. The use of heavy lumps of bronze, which had to be weighed at the time of sale, was extremely cumbersome.

When the Romans finally started making lighter coins in the fourth century B.C., they featured images of animals as a representation of value. The Roman word for money, Pecunia, comes from the word pecus or cattle. These coins, called Rudes, were one pound lumps of bronze.

The dominant coin of both the Republic and the Empire was the silver Denarius, which weighed 4 oz. When the Denarius was first struck in 211 B.C., its value was,

1 ox = 10 sheep = 60 Denarius.

Roman soldiers were paid 120 Denarii per year until 50 B.C., when their pay was doubled by Julius Caesar. Some additional examples:

A cavalry horse cost 312 Denarii
A slave cost 300 Denarii
A tunic, toga, and sandals could be purchased for less than 100 Denarii.

The Denarius lasted 450 years as the most common Roman coin (211 B.C. – 243 AD).

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Roman Coins

This coin is a silver Denarius of Julius Caesar, struck in 40 BC. Notice how it was mis-struck by the slave coin maker. The coin blank probably was too large for the coin.

Part of the motivation for Caesar's assasination was the need to destroy a man who was arrogant enough to put his image on a coin. No Roman had attempted this in the history of the Republic. Caesar's early coins showed him veiled as the Pontifex Maximus of Rome (chief priest). Later Denarii, such as this one, show him wearing a crown. This coin was struck four years after Caesar's death when he had already been deified by the Senate.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Class System in the Roman Republic

Ancient Rome operated as a two class society consisting of Patricians and Plebians. Patricians were the aristocratic class and Plebians were all Roman citizens who were not Patrician. The word Patrician comes from "Patres", the plural of father, a term used to designate the first members of the Senate. The term Plebian means "of the common people".

In the beginning of the Republic, the Patrician class controlled the administration of laws, all political offices, and the state treasury. Then, over time, agitation by the lower class broke down the control of the Patricians, and extended rights to the lower class. The Patricians agreed to display a list laws in the Forum to prevent indescriminate application of justice, and courts were made more equitable. High elected offices were opened up to the Plebian class and they began to have more of a say in government.

The Republic included, in its system of government, more than one People's Assembly to vote on and pass new laws. One of these assemblies was modeled on the structure of the Army, and the Knights (members of the cavalry) became the most influential of its members. Later the Knights evolved into the Equestrian order - a third social class, above the Plebians but below the Patricians.

Colonial America had an informal class system of its own. The rich who came over from Europe considered themselves patrician, while the poorest of the immigrants, the indentured servants, were little more than slaves. Fortunately, the hardships of the wilderness and the independent spirit of the colonists, eventually eroded away any pretense of a class system in America. Those who were clever could accumulate wealth for themselves and become independent of the rich, and the political system contained assembly bodies with independent minded people who were not willing to live under the power of either the wealthy class or the crown.

The American middle class is mich like the Equestrian class of Rome, because it fills the void between rich and poor: a class made up of those citizens who, by their own skill, can rise above humble roots.