Foundation of the Republic
Since the foundation of Rome, its rulers had been monarchs, elected for life by the patrician noblemen who made up the Roman Senate. The last Roman king was Lucius Tarquinius Superbus ("Tarquin the Proud"). In the traditional histories, Tarquin was expelled in 509 BC because his son, Sextus Tarquinius, had raped the noblewoman Lucretia, who afterwards took her own life. Lucretia's father, her husband Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, and Tarquin's own nephew, Lucius Junius Brutus, mustered support from the Senate and army, and forced Tarquin into exile in Etruria.
The Senate agreed to abolish kingship. Most of the king's former functions were transferred to two consuls, who were elected to office for a term of one year. Each consul had the capacity to act as a check on his colleague, if necessary through the same power of veto that the kings had held. If a consul abused his powers in office, he could be prosecuted when his term expired. Brutus and Collatinus became Republican Rome's first consuls. Despite Collatinus' role in the creation of the Republic, he belonged to the same family as the former king, and was forced to abdicate his office and leave Rome. He was replaced as co-consul by Publius Valerius Publicola.
Most modern scholarship describes these events as the quasi-mythological detailing of an aristocratic coup within Tarquin's own family, not a popular revolution. They fit a narrative of a personal vengeance against a tyrant leading to his overthrow, which was common among Greek cities and even theorised by Aristotle. According to Rome's traditional histories, Tarquin made several attempts to retake the throne, including the Tarquinian conspiracy, which involved Brutus' own sons, the war with Veii and Tarquinii and finally the war between Rome and Clusium; but none succeeded.
Patrician era (509–367 BC)
Beginning with their revolt against Tarquin, and continuing through the early years of the Republic, Rome's patrician aristocrats were the dominant force in politics and society. They initially formed a closed group of about 50 large families, called gentes, who monopolised Rome's magistracies, state priesthoods and senior military posts. The most prominent of these families were the Cornelii[i], followed by the Aemilii, Claudii, Fabii, and Valerii. The power, privilege and influence of leading families derived from their wealth, in particular from their landholdings, their position as patrons, and their numerous clients.
The vast majority of Roman citizens were commoners of various social degrees. They formed the backbone of Rome's economy, as smallholding farmers, managers, artisans, traders, and tenants. In times of war, they could be summoned for military service. Most had little direct political influence over the Senate's decisions or the laws it passed, including the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of the consular system. During the early Republic, the plebs (or plebeians) emerged as a self-organised, culturally distinct group of commoners, with their own internal hierarchy, laws, customs, and interests.
Conflict of the Orders (494–287 BC)
Plebeians had no access to high religious and civil office, and could be punished for offenses against laws of which they had no knowledge. For the poorest, one of the few effective political tools was their withdrawal of labour and services, in a "secessio plebis"; they would leave the city en masse, and allow their social superiors to fend for themselves. The first such secession occurred in 494 BC, in protest at the abusive treatment of plebeian debtors by the wealthy during a famine. The Senate was compelled to give them direct access to the written civil and religious laws, and to the electoral and political process. To represent their interests, the plebs elected tribunes, who were personally sacrosanct, immune to arbitrary arrest by any magistrate, and had veto power over the passage of legislation.
In 367 BC the Lex Licinia Sextia was passed; it required the election of at least one plebeian consul each year. Also in 366 BC, the praetorship and curule aedileship were created. Shortly after the founding of the Republic, the Comitia Centuriata ("Assembly of the Centuries") became the principal legislative assembly. In this assembly, magistrates were elected and laws were passed.
After the consulship had been opened to the plebeians, they were able to hold both the dictatorship and the censorship. Plebiscites of 342 BC placed limits on political offices; an individual could hold only one office at a time, and ten years must elapse between the end of his official term and his re-election. Further laws attempted to relieve the burden of plebeian debt by banning interest on loans. In 337 BC, the first plebeian praetor was elected. During these years, the tribunes and the senators grew increasingly close. The senate realised the need to use plebeian officials to accomplish desired goals. To win over the tribunes, the senators gave the tribunes a great deal of power and the tribunes began to feel obligated to the senate. As the tribunes and the senators grew closer, plebeian senators were often able to secure the tribunate for members of their own families. In time, the tribunate became a stepping stone to higher office.
During the early republic, only consuls could revise the list of senators and appoint new members. Shortly before 312 BC, a Plebiscitum Ovinium transferred this power to the censors. By this point, plebeians were already holding a significant number of magisterial offices. Thus, the number of plebeian senators probably increased quickly. However, it remained difficult for a plebeian to enter the senate if he was not from a well-known political family, as a new patrician-like plebeian aristocracy emerged. The old nobility existed through the force of law, because only patricians were allowed to stand for high office. The new nobility existed due to the organization of society. As such, only a revolution could overthrow this new structure.
By 287 BC, plebeian indebtedness remained endemic; this resulted in the last plebeian secession, this time to the Janiculum hill. To resolve the situation, a dictator was appointed. The dictator passed a law (the Lex Hortensia), which ended the requirement that the patrician senators must agree before any bill could be considered by the Plebeian Council. The result was that control over the state fell, not onto the shoulders of voters, but to the new plebeian nobility.
Plebeian nobles and commoners (287–133 BC)
As a result of the end of the patrician monopoly on senior magistracies, many small patrician gentes faded into history during the 4th and 3rd centuries due to the lack of available positions. They were replaced by plebeian gentes, which rapidly achieved equal political status with the patricians. The most emblematic of these plebeian aristocrats were the Caecilii Metelli, who received 18 consulships until the end of the Republic; the Domitii, Fulvii, Licinii, Marcii, or Sempronii were as successful. About a dozen remaining patrician "progessive" gentes and twenty plebeian ones thus formed a new elite, called the nobiles.
The Lex Hortensia (passed some time between 289 and 286) extended plebeian laws throughout Rome. It made all citizens equal under the same law; but this reflected the rise of the plebeian nobility. Ordinary plebs remained subject to indebtedness and its material consequences. Those who had served in the military returned to find their farms in disrepair. The landed aristocracy began buying farms from debtors at discounted prices. Masses of unemployed plebeians soon began to flood into Rome, and thus into the ranks of the legislative assemblies. Their poverty usually led them to vote for the candidate who offered them the most. A new culture of dependency was emerging, in which citizens would look to any populist leader for relief. The popular assemblies, brought into being to improve the lot of commoners, were passive institutions. They only met when summoned by a magistrate, and could not propose laws or amendments, only vote on what was presented to them.
From the Gracchi to Caesar (133–49 BC)
Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune in 133 BC. He attempted to enact a law which would have limited the amount of land that any individual could own. The aristocrats, who stood to lose an enormous amount of money, were bitterly opposed to this proposal. Tiberius submitted this law to the Plebeian Council, but the law was vetoed by a tribune named Marcus Octavius. Tiberius then used the Plebeian Council to impeach Octavius. The theory, that a representative of the people ceases to be one when he acts against the wishes of the people, was counter to Roman constitutional theory. If carried to its logical end, this theory would remove all constitutional restraints on the popular will, and put the state under the absolute control of a temporary popular majority. His law was enacted, but Tiberius was murdered with 300 of his associates when he stood for reelection to the tribunate.
Tiberius' brother Gaius was elected tribune in 123 BC. Gaius Gracchus' ultimate goal was to weaken the senate and to strengthen the democratic forces. In the past, for example, the senate would eliminate political rivals either by establishing special judicial commissions or by passing a
senatus consultum ultimum ("ultimate decree of the senate"). Both devices would allow the Senate to bypass the ordinary due process rights that all citizens had. Gaius outlawed the judicial commissions, and declared the senatus consultum ultimum to be unconstitutional. Gaius then proposed a law which would grant citizenship rights to Rome's Italian allies. This last proposal was not popular with the plebeians and he lost much of his support. He stood for election to a third term in 121 BC, but was defeated and then murdered by representatives of the senate with 3,000 of his supporters on Capitoline Hill in Rome.
Populares and optimates
In 118 BC, King Micipsa of Numidia (current-day Algeria and Tunisia) died. He was succeeded by two legitimate sons, Adherbal and Hiempsal, and an illegitimate son, Jugurtha. Micipsa divided his kingdom between these three sons. Jugurtha, however, turned on his brothers, killing Hiempsal and driving Adherbal out of Numidia. Adherbal fled to Rome for assistance, and initially Rome mediated a division of the country between the two brothers. Eventually, Jugurtha renewed his offensive, leading to a long and inconclusive war with Rome. He also bribed several Roman commanders, and at least two tribunes, before and during the war. His nemesis, Gaius Marius, a legate from a virtually unknown provincial family, returned from the war in Numidia and was elected consul in 107 BC over the objections of the aristocratic senators. Marius invaded Numidia and brought the war to a quick end, capturing Jugurtha in the process. The apparent incompetence of the Senate, and the brilliance of Marius, had been put on full display. The populares party took full advantage of this opportunity by allying itself with Marius.
Several years later, in 88 BC, a Roman army was sent to put down an emerging Asian power, king Mithridates of Pontus. The army, however, was not defeated and won. One of Marius' old quaestors, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, had been elected consul for the year, and was ordered by the senate to assume command of the war against Mithridates. Marius, a member of the "populares" party, had a tribune revoke Sulla's command of the war against Mithridates. Sulla, a member of the aristocratic ("optimates") party, brought his army back to Italy and marched on Rome. Sulla was so angry at Marius' tribune that he passed a law intended to permanently weaken the tribunate. He then returned to his war against Mithridates. With Sulla gone, the populares under Marius and Lucius Cornelius Cinna soon took control of the city.
During the period in which the populares party controlled the city, they flouted convention by re-electing Marius consul several times without observing the customary ten-year interval between offices. They also transgressed the established oligarchy by advancing unelected individuals to magisterial office, and by substituting magisterial edicts for popular legislation. Sulla soon made peace with Mithridates. In 83 BC, he returned to Rome, overcame all resistance, and recaptured the city. Sulla and his supporters then slaughtered most of Marius' supporters. Sulla, having observed the violent results of radical popular reforms, was naturally conservative. As such, he sought to strengthen the aristocracy, and by extension the senate. Sulla made himself dictator, passed a series of constitutional reforms, resigned the dictatorship, and served one last term as consul. He died in 78 BC.
Pompey, Crassus and the Catilinarian conspiracy
In 77 BC, the senate sent one of Sulla's former lieutenants, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus ("Pompey the Great"), to put down an uprising in Hispania. By 71 BC, Pompey returned to Rome after having completed his mission. Around the same time, another of Sulla's former lieutenants, Marcus Licinius Crassus, had just put down the Spartacus-led gladiator/slave revolt in Italy. Upon their return, Pompey and Crassus found the populares party fiercely attacking Sulla's constitution. They attempted to forge an agreement with the populares party. If both Pompey and Crassus were elected consul in 70 BC, they would dismantle the more obnoxious components of Sulla's constitution. The two were soon elected, and quickly dismantled most of Sulla's constitution.
Around 66 BC, a movement to use constitutional, or at least peaceful, means to address the plight of various classes began. After several failures, the movement's leaders decided to use any means that were necessary to accomplish their goals. The movement coalesced under an aristocrat named Lucius Sergius Catilina. The movement was based in the town of Faesulae, which was not a natural hotbed of agrarian agitation. The rural malcontents were to advance on Rome, and be aided by an uprising within the city. After assassinating the consuls and most of the senators, Catiline would be free to enact his reforms. The conspiracy was set in motion in 63 BC. The consul for the year, Marcus Tullius Cicero, intercepted messages that Catiline had sent in an attempt to recruit more members. As a result, the top conspirators in Rome (including at least one former consul) were executed by authorisation (of dubious constitutionality) of the senate, and the planned uprising was disrupted. Cicero then sent an army, which cut Catiline's forces to pieces.
The most important result of the Catilinarian conspiracy was that the populares party became discredited. The prior 70 years had witnessed a gradual erosion in senatorial powers. The violent nature of the conspiracy, in conjunction with the senate's skill in disrupting it, did a great deal to repair the senate's image.
In 62 BC, Pompey returned victorious from Asia. The Senate, elated by its successes against Catiline, refused to ratify the arrangements that Pompey had made. Pompey, in effect, became powerless. Thus, when Julius Caesar returned from a governorship in Spain in 61 BC, he found it easy to make an arrangement with Pompey. Caesar and Pompey, along with Crassus, established a private agreement, now known as the First Triumvirate. Under the agreement, Pompey's arrangements would be ratified. Caesar would be elected consul in 59 BC, and would then serve as governor of Gaul for five years. Crassus was promised a future consulship.
Caesar became consul in 59 BC. His colleague, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, was an extreme aristocrat. Caesar submitted the laws that he had promised Pompey to the assemblies. Bibulus attempted to obstruct the enactment of these laws, and so Caesar used violent means to ensure their passage. Caesar was then made governor of three provinces. He facilitated the election of the former patrician Publius Clodius Pulcher to the tribunate for 58 BC. Clodius set about depriving Caesar's senatorial enemies of two of their more obstinate leaders in Cato and Cicero. Clodius was a bitter opponent of Cicero because Cicero had testified against him in a sacrilege case. Clodius attempted to try Cicero for executing citizens without a trial during the Catiline conspiracy, resulting in Cicero going into self-imposed exile and his house in Rome being burnt down. Clodius also passed a bill that forced Cato to lead the invasion of Cyprus which would keep him away from Rome for some years. Clodius also passed a law to expand the previous partial grain subsidy to a fully free grain dole for citizens.
End of the First Triumvirate
Clodius formed armed gangs that terrorised the city and eventually began to attack Pompey's followers, who in response funded counter-gangs formed by Titus Annius Milo. The political alliance of the triumvirate was crumbling. Domitius Ahenobarbus ran for the consulship in 55 BC promising to take Caesar's command from him. Eventually, the triumvirate was renewed at Lucca. Pompey and Crassus were promised the consulship in 55 BC, and Caesar's term as governor was extended for five years. Crassus led an ill-fated expedition with legions led by his son, Caesar's lieutenant, against the Kingdom of Parthia. This resulted in his defeat and death at the Battle of Carrhae. Finally, Pompey's wife, Julia, who was Caesar's daughter, died in childbirth. This event severed the last remaining bond between Pompey and Caesar.
Beginning in the summer of 54 BC, a wave of political corruption and violence swept Rome. This chaos reached a climax in January of 52 BC, when Clodius was murdered in a gang war by Milo. On 1 January 49 BC, an agent of Caesar presented an ultimatum to the senate. The ultimatum was rejected, and the senate then passed a resolution which declared that if Caesar did not lay down his arms by July of that year, he would be considered an enemy of the Republic. Meanwhile, the senators adopted Pompey as their new champion against Caesar. On 7 January of 49 BC, the senate passed a senatus consultum ultimum, which vested Pompey with dictatorial powers. Pompey's army, however, was composed largely of untested conscripts. On 10 January, Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his veteran army (in violation of Roman laws) and marched towards Rome. Caesar's rapid advance forced Pompey, the consuls and the senate to abandon Rome for Greece. Caesar entered the city unopposed.
Period of transition (49–29 BC)
A period of reform occurred between 49 BC, when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and 29 BC, when Octavian returned to Rome after Actium. During this period the previous century's gradual unravelling of republican institutions accelerated rapidly. By 29 BC, Rome had completed its transition from a city-state with a network of dependencies to the capital of a world empire.
With Pompey defeated and order restored, Caesar wanted to achieve undisputed control over the government. The powers which he gave himself were later assumed by his imperial successors. His assumption of these powers decreased the authority of Rome's other political institutions.
Caesar held both the dictatorship and the tribunate, and alternated between the consulship and the proconsulship. In 48 BC, Caesar was given permanent tribunician powers. This made his person sacrosanct, gave him the power to veto the senate, and allowed him to dominate the Plebeian Council. In 46 BC, Caesar was given censorial powers, which he used to fill the senate with his own partisans. Caesar then raised the membership of the Senate to 900. This robbed the senatorial aristocracy of its prestige, and made it increasingly subservient to him. While the assemblies continued to meet, he submitted all candidates to the assemblies for election, and all bills to the assemblies for enactment. Thus, the assemblies became powerless and were unable to oppose him.
Near the end of his life, Caesar began to prepare for a war against the Parthian Empire. Since his absence from Rome would limit his ability to install his own consuls, he passed a law before his death which allowed him to appoint all magistrates, and later all consuls and tribunes. This transformed the magistrates from representatives of the people to representatives of the dictator.
Caesar's assassination and the Second Triumvirate
Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 BC. The assassination was led by Gaius Cassius and Marcus Brutus. Most of the conspirators were senators, who had a variety of economic, political, or personal motivations for carrying out the assassination. Many were afraid that Caesar would soon resurrect the monarchy and declare himself king. Others feared loss of property or prestige as Caesar carried out his land reforms in favor of the landless classes. Virtually all the conspirators fled the city after Caesar's death in fear of retaliation. The civil war that followed destroyed what was left of the Republic.
After the assassination, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) formed an alliance with Caesar's adopted son and great-nephew, Gaius Octavianus (Octavian). Along with Marcus Lepidus, they formed an alliance known as the Second Triumvirate. They held powers that were nearly identical to the powers that Caesar had held under his constitution. As such, the Senate and assemblies remained powerless, even after Caesar had been assassinated. The conspirators were then defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. Eventually, however, Antony and Octavian fought against each other in one last battle. Antony was defeated in the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC, and he committed suicide with his lover, Cleopatra. In 29 BC, Octavian returned to Rome as the unchallenged master of the Empire and later accepted the title of Augustus ("Exalted One"). He was convinced that only a single strong ruler could restore order in Rome.