Rome: Origins of the Empire, Part Two

Rome

Julius Caesar is said to have once remarked ‘it is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience’.

During its early years, the Roman Republic was forced to endure a recurring cycle of conflict, bloodshed and pain. The Romans were more than willing to endure such pain, however. And although their road to dominance would be arduous, it would be assuredly confirmed in the coming centuries.

The Roman Imperial era, ushered in partly by the aforementioned legendary figure, often dominates history. Great emperors such as Augustus, Hadrian, Nero and Constantine all made their mark on the empire and the world. Their stories are a never-ending drama that no Hollywood film or HBO production could possibly dream of creating; A truly marvellous time for any enthusiast to look back on.

The rise of the Roman Republic prompted great change around the Mediterranean and Western Europe. In the centuries preceding and during the Roman ascendancy, the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s conquests – and death – were still being felt across the region.

His successor kingdoms in the form of the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty or the Seleucid’s were powerful regional forces. Additionally, the Phoenician power of Carthage would prove to be a legendary formidable foe in years to come.

Phoenician colonies littered the Mediterranean and were by all means the centres of regional trade in the ancient world. Rome would have to compete with these, which were tightly linked through trade to the Greek City States of the time.

They will clash, after all, Queen Dido condemned both the Romans and Carthaginians to perpetual enmity, remember? That story will come later, however.

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To traverse these difficulties Rome would need to take on a form rarely seen in the ancient world; streamlined in both its political and military capabilities, expansionist, diplomatic and unrelenting.

All of these aspects of the Republic can be imagined as a series of cogs, all working in unison to create a highly tuned machine. Each cog would need to continue turning or else the others would fail, and so through this we see the strict administration of every aspect of Roman society.

From the senate to the plebeians, the organisation was streamlined to the point where Assyrian or Persian efficiency of the past looked like child’s play.

As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and indeed these wonderful aspects of the Republic were not simply brainstormed around a table of aristocratic Roman gentlemen. They were hard earned and through rigorous trial and error the foundations of an empire were being laid before them.

For quite some time Rome had taken the form of a kingdom. This kingdom was not in the same vein as those we imagine in the recent past, however. Excluding Romulus – who was king by right of founding the city – the kings of Rome were chosen by the people to serve for life.

Granted the supreme command of the military, judicial authorities and administrative branches, one could argue the king appears almost presidential in nature. In the event of a kings death, the interregnum period would occur, during which the senate would deliberate on candidates for the kingship.

Even here, during its period as a monarchy, Rome presents itself as a moderately progressive society, perhaps almost modern in some respects.

Rome
Tarquin and Lucretia

The Seven Kings of Rome

Outlined by Varro, the chronology of Roman kings lasts around 243 years. However, modern scholars dispute this claim given that the seven legendary kings of Rome would each have to have reigned for 35 years or more. What is known is that some time around 509BC, Rome experienced a revolution.

Roman histories claim that while King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus was campaigning in nearby regions his son, Sextus, raped a Roman noblewoman.

The woman, known as Lucretia, appealed to the noblemen of the city for justice and a group led by Lucius Junius Brutus, her husband Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus and her father instigated a revolt.

According to accounts of the time, Tarquinius was very much reviled by the aristocracy and the common folk alike. His position as king came through treachery, having conspired with his wife to murder king Servius Tullius, thus taking his place.

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His military campaigns were immensely unpopular, he reduced the size and power of the senate and even went so far as to execute senators accused of remaining loyal to his predecessor. He is also alleged to have colluded with neighbouring enemies of Rome on the Italian Peninsula.

Although modern historians doubt the authenticity of the story surrounding Tarquinius, what is acknowledged is the existence of the monarchy. And, if we are to consider either story as the cause of his downfall, both suggest the revolt was not without justification.

It is possible that Tarquinius was simply an unpopular authoritarian monarch and the decadence of his family and court crippled his legitimacy as king.

With waning support in Rome and a people in open revolt, Tarquinius and his family were exiled from Rome. This saw the establishment of the Roman Republic with Brutus and Collatinus at its head as First Consuls.

Rome
Depiction of the Roman Senate: Cicero attacks Catiline.

The Birth of the Republic

Roman historian Titus Livius claimed that the first act of Rome’s consul Brutus was to make the people swear an oath to never again allow Rome to be ruled by a king. This oath is said to have been an adaptation of that taken by Brutus when declaring his intention to overthrow the monarchy, and follows as thus:

“By this guiltless blood before the kingly injustice I swear – you and the gods as my witnesses – I make myself the one who will prosecute, by what force I am able, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus along with his wicked wife and the whole house of his freeborn children by sword, by fire, by any means hence, so that neither they nor any one else be suffered to rule Rome.”

In the years following the overthrow of the monarchy, Rome began a series of reforms to delegate powers once held by the king to departments of the senate. Namely the religious and judicial duties once held by the monarch.

Tarquinius Superbus made attempts to retake his throne, both through force and by diplomatic means; appealing to the senate for the reimbursement of his family’s personal effects seized during the revolt and by allying with neighbouring kings and the Etruscans.

Rome was besieged but all attempts to retake his throne failed – Rome was destined to travel down a new path, and in the coming years Roman holdings on the Italian peninsula would expand rapidly.

In the next instalment of this series, I will explore the wars to come for this young republic.


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