Monday, February 24, 2014

Roman Transition to a Republic

As you may know from previous posts, the Roman Republic was born out of the overthrow of an Etruscan monarchy. When the break occurred in 509 B.C. the components of the Republican government were largely in place, so the transition to the first stable Republic in history was relatively smooth. Still, Rome was fragile for three or four decades while she built her confidence to a level that would see her conquer the western world.

What is a Republic, you ask? The word comes from the Latin res publica or thing of the people. In other words, a government without a monarchy that allows citizens with voting rights to have a say in government affairs through participation in assemblies. Voter eligibility rules required that a man had to be a property owner and citizen in good standing in order to cast a ballot. The assemblies were conducted in the Roman forum and only those attending could vote, so travel distance had an important impact on participation. Tribes located at a great distance would have to see the benefits to them of making the long journey before they would commit to it. In one famous case, remote tribes refused to attend a critical assembly meeting because they were in the middle of the harvest.

The history of the Roman monarchy is a combination of folklore and invention. It’s first king, Romulus, is apocryphal. The next four remain foggy in history, although the third of those, Tullus Hostilus, is credited for building the first Senate House. The next three include two Etruscans and one Latin, named, Servius Tullius, who was the most notable of the entire group.

The Roman government during the time of the monarchy consisted of the king, who was the principal administrator of the government and the guardian of the religious apparatus, the Senate, made up of one hundred men, from each of the three original Roman tribes, and the tribal assembly, called the comitia curiata. The latter was mostly a figurehead body, approving legislation passed by the Senate, but Servius Tullius created a second and more powerful assembly, called the comitia centuriata, which was modelled after the Roman army. Power was divided by wealth; cavalry at the top and common foot soldier at the bottom. The distribution of votes in the body was rigged in favor of the wealthy, who had a majority of the votes and could carry or block any initiative.

The last king, the Etruscan Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, received the nickname Superbus (arrogant) because of his autocratic behavior. He was ultimately expelled along with his family when the Roman people decided they had had enough of him and kings in general. The orchestrator of the coup was Lucius Junius Brutus, nephew of the king and a republican idealist. In the first act after the expulsion of Superbus, Brutus made the Roman people swear allegiance to the new political system:

Omnium primum avidum novae libertatis populum, ne postmodum flecti precibus aut donis regiis posset, iure iurando adegit neminem Romae passuros regnare.

To quote Livy, “By swearing an oath that they would suffer no man to rule Rome, it forced the people, desirous of a new liberty, not to be thereafter swayed by the entreaties or bribes of kings.

Brutus was named the first consul of the new Republic along with Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, but almost immediately there was trouble. The former king tried to regain the throne by using his ambassadors to put together a conspiracy against the Republic, and the rebels included two of Brutus’ sons. Forced to abide by his principles and save the young Republic, Brutus had his sons executed along with other conspirators. Superbus then tried to wage war on the Rome, but he was repulsed for good at the Battle of Silvia Arsia. Brutus led the cavalry on the side of the Republic but did not survive the battle.

With the threat of the former king extinguished, the Republic was free to move forward in its new form. The administrative function of the king was given to a pair newly created magistrates (consuls) and religious authority was granted to a magistrate called the Pontifex Maximus. The consuls were given veto right over each other to avoid an accumulation of power and as a further brake on the latter, their term of office was limited to one year. A common element of republics throughout history has been the design of governmental structures that make it difficult to accumulate power, because republics are built by those who abhor a monarchy.

In the first decades after the removal of the king, Rome would face twin threats to her sovereignty: wars with her neighbors and an internal class struggle. In the former case, she was attacked by almost everyone: first Etruscans, Samnites, Latins, from nearby who were conquered and assimilated; and then the Volci and Aequi, tribes from the western edge of the Apennine Mountains, who fought Rome for nearly a century. We think of Rome in later times as imperialistic, but her posture here was totally defensive, and she was just trying to survive. Those early military victories sharpened her skill in battle and honed her cultural will for the future.

Class struggle would carry on for centuries and nearly everyone is familiar with the terms patrician and plebian, which survive to the present day as labels for rich and poor. The Rome of the monarchy had built a patronage system of mutual benefits -- patricians were able to use plebs to act as their agents and those plebs received protection and compensation in return. But that system was not enough to keep class differences under control once the Republic came into being. In 494 B.C, the plebs initiated a strike to demand a grain distribution to help those suffering from a famine. The Senate resisted at first, but was eventually forced to give in. Ultimately, the plebs spent a couple of centuries trying to achieve equality in office and equality in power. The Senate fought them all along the way but reforms were gradually put in place without a major disruption or civil war. Laws were written down in 451 B.C. and displayed in the Forum, offices that were originally restricted to patricians were made open to plebs, and a new magistrate was created, the Tribune, designed to protect the people from abuses of the upper class. The political relationship between classes remained stable until the period after the Punic Wars when the economic status of the lower class plunged to a point where it acted as a catalyst for social unrest and eventually civil war.


Anonymous said...

Great post! I was wondering if you c could do a piece on the Roman class system and social structure?

Mike Anderson said...

Sure can. Will do.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

The Romans translated the Greek word "politiea" as Republic. The Spartans had a republic, Cicero called it so, and it had two kings. Cicero had the Roman Republic start under Romulus. A republic is mixed government. The definition of a republic is any government without a king comes from the Bio of Theseus in Plutarch.