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Birth of the Roman Republic: Warfare, Struggle and Instability

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ata1515 is a student of ancient and modern European history. Join me over at the Roman Republic on Quora to ask questions.

This article discusses important events in ancient Roman history that took place in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Learn about significant moments that led to the birth of the Roman Republic.

This article discusses important events in ancient Roman history that took place in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Learn about significant moments that led to the birth of the Roman Republic.

Decades of War

When the Senate and People of Rome deposed Tarquin the Proud and established the Republic they changed the balance of power in Latium, a region of what is modern-day Italy. Tarquin was an Etruscan, and his family came from a powerful Etruscan city. Not only did he have personal connections with other noble families, but being of the Etruscan culture meant that he could call upon the other Etruscan city-states for aid in the case of trouble. Without Tarquin the Romans were alone.

Rome was founded in war with its founding legend being a war against the neighboring Sabines. In the years since it was founded Rome had waged campaigns against the other Latins, Veii, the Sabines. Aequians, and Volsci. With the fall of the monarchy, Rome had to soldier on against all these enemies without support, and that is what they did.

Livy records that the Romans went to war against one or more of these people every year for over two decades. Some of the campaigns were long, like the Fabian-Veii War, others were little more than raids to seize material and slaves from their neighbors. While many of these campaigns were inconsequential by themselves, Roman power grew as the century drove forward.

While the Romans won many battles, they also lost many battles. Consuls were killed in the field regularly, drastic defeats saw enemies lay siege to Rome itself time and time again. Rome's great strength was not in drill or technology but in assimilation. As their enemies grew weaker from war after war, Rome grew stronger.

An image of the Roman senate during a session. The Roman senate most often met at the Curia, a public building in the city, but they also met in other areas of Rome or on its outskirts.

An image of the Roman senate during a session. The Roman senate most often met at the Curia, a public building in the city, but they also met in other areas of Rome or on its outskirts.

Conscripting an Army

Rome's army in the fifth century was not the professional force of the later imperial legions, but a yearly draft of eligible citizens. These citizens were able to provide their own equipment and would have arrived at the Field of Mars a motley crew of citizen-soldier sporting anything from Roman forged pilums to spoils of war taken from their last campaign. Roman soldiers were placed in groups based on lot, and so every year a man would have new companions to fight beside.

This peculiar habit of splitting the men by lots rather than keeping the same formation every year meant that the army was poorly drilled to work as coherent units. Many Axial Age states relied on their soldiers' familial bonds to hold the line together. Families, city quarters, or entire villages were often mobbed together in the hope that discipline would arise from close social bonds and a desire to see your kin safe.

Rome however sought to mimic the ancient heroes of Homer and encouraged its soldiers to compete with one another in tests of heroism. Competitions of courage, skill, and athletic prowess drove the Roman soldier to outdo his fellow citizen wherever possible. Rewards were given out to soldiers who performed the best at these tasks.

In addition to driving the individual soldier to greater feats of glory, the Roman system drew upon the power of allied states. Allies were organized in the Roman style and obliged to provide troops to the Roman campaigns. These campaigns were always led by Roman generals. To ensure the loyalty of the allied states Rome established colonies.

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Roman colonies were made up of citizens from Rome who were sent to live in captured territory. They would give up their citizenship and become citizens of the town they moved to. This created blocs of Latin-speaking citizens in captured towns who followed Roman customs and styles. These colonies would help to assimilate captured lands, ensure their loyalty, and outgrow Rome's enemies.

Political Instability

Years of warfare saw the Patricians gain more wealth, more land, and more political power. The Plebeians gained wealth from the wars fought, but not at the same rate as the Senatorial class. Plebeians also gave up more than the Senatorial class, who could not participate in most commercial business. Constant warfare meant that small farmers, merchants, and the like were at a greater danger of losing their livelihood than the rich Patricians.

Colonies were one way of dealing with the poor, as it gave them an opportunity for a new life. Another was the public games, including racing and combat, as well as public feasts. As the years of war drew on none of these distractions were enough to dissuade the Plebs from working together to get greater representation. In what became known as the Conflict of Orders the Plebs refused to fight for the Patricians and the Senate was forced to make political changes.

While the Patricians maintained their political supremacy throughout the fifth century, the Plebs increasingly gained power by refusing to work or fight for the Consuls who led the armies whenever they thought it would reinforce their position. Though the Patricians would maintain their dominant role in the Senate at this time, the Conflict of Orders greatly weakened Rome's ability to extend its influence beyond the local region in Latium.

An image of the Roman historian Livy, whose History of Rome is an important source text.

An image of the Roman historian Livy, whose History of Rome is an important source text.

Livy and Lost History

Save for a few major events in the second half of the Fifth Century most of Roman history was lost to historians until after the Gallic Sack of Rome, 390BC. Livy reports several events, but he would have had heard them second hand. Moreover, Livy's history is tainted by presentism, that is, Livy recorded history based on the Rome in which he lived, many years later.

Livy wrote for a Roman audience in the first century, and his works reveal more about what Romans in that time thought about their own history. While the events detailed by Livy should be taken as accurate, his speeches, his comments on people's motivations, and even his understanding of how things worked in the early Republic should all be read as the opinions of his day rather than the historical truth.

The Roman Republic was born of blood when the last King was driven out and defeated, but it was in the tumultuous century that followed that the constitution, laws and society developed into the Rome that we know of.

Overview of Livy and His History of Rome

Sources and Further Reading

  • Armstrong, J. (2016). Early Roman warfare: From the regal period to the First Punic War. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military.
  • DeVries, Kelly. Battles That Changed Warfare, 1457 B.C - 1991 A.D.: from Chariot Warfare to Stealth Bombers. New York: Metro Books, 2011.
  • Lendon, J. E. Soldiers & Ghosts: a History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
  • Livy, and Betty Radice. Rome and Italy: Books I-V. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1982.
  • Mackay, Christopher S. Ancient Rome: a Military and Political History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Penrose, Jane. Rome and Her Enemies: an Empire Created and Destroyed by War. Oxford: Osprey, 2005.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 ata1515

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