History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Tag: Imperium

Rome – The Republic

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Rise and Fall

Video: Rise of the Roman Republic

Video: The Unification of Italy


Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(Hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,
Parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

You, Roman, make your task
to rule the nations by your government
(these shall be your skills),
impose upon them peace and order,
spare those who have submitted
and pacify the arrogant.

VirgilAeneid”, Bk. 6, L. 847


Until the third century BC, the people living in the north and middle of the European continent – mostly Celts and Germans – appeared on the political map of the known world only by proxy: by virtue of the trade undertaken by the seafaring people, whose commercial and military interests then centred upon the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Of pivotal importance to this age were the great ports, for they not only provided safe havens from the volatility of the sea but served as commercial hubs or, should the need arise, as gathering points for the men-of-war.

Expansion of the Celts

The principal harbours of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea were then among the greatest and most busy towns of the age: Athens and its harbour Piraeus, Ephesos and Miletus in western Anatolia, the ports of Rhodos, Cyprus and Crete, Sidon and Tyrus in Palestine, Trapezos and Chersonesos in the Black Sea, and always Alexandria Egypta, with her famous lighthouse and the greatest library of the world: these were the naval and thus political heavyweights of the period. At this time, the Levant and Northern Africa were far more fertile than they are today: the fabulous wheat harvests along the Mediterranean Africa coast and Sicily provided for many centuries most of the grain that fed southern and western Europe, her coastal cities and hinterlands.

From the sixth to the fourth century BC, the Greek and Phoenician town states around the Eastern Mediterranean Sea engaged in a rapid colonial expansion westward. Among many smaller settlements and ports, towns as famous as Massilia, today’s Marseille, Neapolis, i.e. the “New Town“, today’s Naples, and Gades, today’s Cadiz, were founded at this time. One Phoenician community settled near today’s town of Tunis at the African coast, vis-a-vis from Sicily, and from this promontory began the economic exploration of the West, of Spain, Italy and southern France. In these lesser-known parts of the Mediterranean Sea, large profits beckoned.

Twins and a she-wolf

From the fifth century BC onward, Carthage, as the new settlement became known, established herself as the dominant trading force in the western parts of the Mediterranean Sea by founding new colonies that extended as far as the Atlantic coast, and the Iberian Peninsula was thus linked with the consumers of Greece, Syria and Egypt. In the third century BC, however, her ongoing expansion into the Italian markets was checked by an indigenous opponent, the young city-state of Rome. We know little of Rome’s actual, as opposed to legendary, origins, although archaeological work recently begun on Palatine Hill may soon deliver clues. The primary saga of Rome’s establishment, however, is a well-known tale which draws on various popular elements of foundation myths. The twins Romulus and Remus, sons of the war god Mars and the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silva, were abandoned after birth but found, floating down the Tiber River in a basket, by a she-wolf that nursed them to boyhood. They were subsequently adopted by a shepherd and his family, and, in the year 753 BC founded a small settlement on the Palatine Hill, overlooking the Tiber River, and in the distance, perhaps five leagues away, the blue waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea. [FN1]

Mars and Rhea Silvia by Peter Paul Rubens

[FN1] As usual, the elements of the myth do not truly fit and are hardly of original quality (Floating basket, anyone? See Moses and Osiris). By definition, a virgin should not give birth, and why a god and such an honourable lady did not have the pocket change to rear twins properly, must be left to the reader’s imagination. Legend says it was because of an evil prophecy – which promptly came true.

Aeneas killing Turnus

A somewhat different account tells the story that the twins descend from a visit of the heroic Aeneas of Troy on the shores of the Tiber, who arrived after a somewhat complicated journey from the cinders of his home town and a stopover in the arms of Dido (at Carthage) in middle Italy and thus bestowed a claim of noble ancestry to the fledgeling village. He married a certain Lavinia after killing her boyfriend Turnus and eventually becomes the ancestor of the twins (see Wiki)

Building the Walls of Rome – Copperplate

At any rate, peace in the hamlet foundered soon, by virtue of some unexplained family business which led to the murder of Remus by Romulus, as in Cain and Abel. Soon after the ordeal, Romulus was able to welcome new blood. To improve the population count, Romulus declared a zone between the two summits of near-by Capitoline Hill a habitat for fugitives; and it may tell us something about law and order in early Roman history that Romulus soon found numerous prospective citizens; men ejected from their tribes for various offences.

Sabine Hills

While it seemed that crime was as popular and profitable career then as it is today, and Romulus experienced few problems in attracting new associates, it was female company that proved a rare occurrence on the settlement’s campfires and many lecherous thoughts were addressed at the misty hills belonging to the tribe of the Sabines, who were known for an abundance of female members. Given the criminal backgrounds of many of the new Roman citizens, it was no surprise that a solution to the problem was found only within the confines of war; when battle raged in Rome between the Romans and the Sabines, the women brought it to a close. Livy writes:

“[The women], from the outrage on whom the war originated, with hair dishevelled and garments rent, the timidity of their sex being overcome by such dreadful scenes, had the courage to throw themselves amid the flying weapons, and making a rush across, to part the incensed armies, and assuage their fury; imploring their fathers on the one side, their husbands on the other, “that as fathers-in-law and sons-in-law they would not contaminate each other with impious blood, nor stain their offspring with parricide, the one their grandchildren, the other their children. If you are dissatisfied with the affinity between you, if with our marriages, turn your resentment against us; we are the cause of war, we of wounds and of bloodshed to our husbands and parents. It were better that we perish than live widowed or fatherless without one or other of you.”  Livy, Ab urbe condita 1.13

Jacques-Louis David painted the happy end of the story, when the women intervene to reconcile the warring parties (1799) Louvre, Paris

Together with the poaching of any girl they chanced upon in the woods or the coastline, adult entertainment was finally secured and the procreative challenge solved.

A Roman Feast, by Roberto Bompiani (1821 – 1908)

Rome’s early days as a kingdom are shrouded in the veils of oral tradition, because no records exist and only a few inscriptions remain. It is believed that the spot was initially chosen because of a ford, where the river could be crossed, and the hills provided an easily defensible position. What appears to be different from the usual kingdoms around is that the king did not reign because of his descent from a royal family or a god but by authority through the use of imperium, formally granted to the king by the Comitia Curiata with the passing of the Lex curiata de imperio at the beginning of each king’s reign.

[FN1] see Wiki: “The traditional version of Roman history, which has come down to us principally through Livy (64 or 59 BC-AD 12 or 17), Plutarch (46–120), and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (c. 60 BC – after 7 BC), recounts that a series of seven kings ruled the settlement in Rome’s first centuries. The traditional chronology, as codified by Varro (116 BC – 27 BC), allows 243 years for their combined reigns, an average of almost 35 years. Since the work of Barthold Georg Niebuhr, modern scholarship has generally discounted this schema. The Gauls destroyed many of Rome’s historical records when they sacked the city after the Battle of the Allia in 390 BC (according to Varro; according to Polybius, the battle occurred in 387/6), and what remained eventually fell prey to time or to theft. With no contemporary records of the kingdom surviving, all accounts of the Roman kings must be carefully questioned.”

Etruscan Culture
Former Etruscan walled town Civita di Bagnoregio

Around 500 BC, the town state began to change its political organization from a run-of-the-mill monarchy to a republican oligarchy. This was due, it seems, to the influence of the Etruscans, a peculiar people whose pale of settlement reached from Rome north-westward to the vicinity of Pisa, and whose culture displayed no similarity to any of their neighbours, except, perhaps, for the fact that they used an alphabet traceable to the Greek.

The Ancient Quarters of Rome

Myth holds that four men, led by Lucius Junius Brutus, and including Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, Publius Valerius Poplicola, and Spurius Lucretius Tricipitinus incited a revolution that deposed and expelled the seventh and last king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and his family from Rome in 509 BC, after the king’s son Sextus Tarquinius had raped the lovely Lucretia, who promptly committed suicide. Brutus and Collatinus then became the first consuls of Rome, which subsequently developed her own intricate form of political government (see Detour One below).

Italy around 400 BC
Triumph of Furius Camillus by Francesco Salviati

The Etruscans were either destroyed or assimilated by the Romans in the third century BC, yet it appears that their laws were an early influence on the first Roman laws, which were written, the legend goes, on twelve clay tablets sometime around 450 BC. With the Roman conquest of the principal Etruscan town of Veii in 396 BC under the leadership of Marcus Furius Camillus [FN1], their culture vanished, and the same year is commonly accepted as the beginning of the Roman expansion. Incorporating Etruscan and other local customs and fashion, the Roman state developed its own cultural identity. In the pictures below, we present a few scenes of typical Roman life.

[FN1] Marcus Furius Camillus is said to have been elected dictator five times, was granted four triumphs and received the honorific “Second Founder of Rome”.

Shopping at the Forum
The Vintage Festival, by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema
Taberna in Ostia Antica – A sort of Roman McDonalds
A garden party …
Triclinum from Pompeii – Roman Dining Room
A bath, also from Pompeii
A Rug Merchant in Ancient Rome by Eduardo Ettore Forti
Cesare Mariani – The Mask Seller, A Roman Street Scene, 1875

The following years generated fair amounts of local hostilities, which were somewhat amplified in 387 BC by a roving Celtic tribe, the Senones, led by their chieftain Brennus southbound from Gallia Cisalpina. At that time, the population of the wide valley of the Po River was Celtic as well, and forays along the coasts were not uncommon. King Brennus’s men plundered their way southward to Rome, which they sacked: with the exception of the top of Capitoline Hill, whose sleeping sentries were alerted, in the nick of time, by the chatter of a handful of geese. The attack on the hill and its gold cache was thus deflected, although the Senones took everything that moved and left for further adventures. The geese, since then, enjoyed a protected habitat on Rome’s principal hill, fed well by grateful citizens – only to be slaughtered and cooked at the next holiday, perhaps. Sic transit gloria mundi.

He got the girls but not the gold – “Brennus and His Share of the Spoils” also known as “Spoils of the Battle” by Paul Joseph Jamin
Samnite soldiers from a tomb frieze in Nola 4th century BC

After the Senones had vanished, local warfare was speedily reinstated and concentrated upon the Samnites, Rome`s south-eastern neighbours. It took three campaigns to subdue them [343 -290 BC], and with the subsequent success against Tarentum [282 -272 BC], the victorious republic extended her tenure over the whole Italian boot: from Ariminum, today’s Rimini, in the north-east, where the northern piedmont of the Apennines mountains meets the Adriatic Sea, to Regium, at the tip of the boot. These conquests more than tripled the size of the Roman territory, and the increasing trade volume on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea brought the republic at length into contact, and soon into conflict, with the established naval superpower of the time – Ancient Carthage.

Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire is an oil on canvas painting by J. M. W. Turner.
Carthaginian Possessions in grey

Around the year 250 BC, the Phoenician (=Punic) sphere of dominance comprised the African coast from the Great Syrte of Lybia all the way to today’s Moroccan coast; the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Baleares and Spain from the Ebro River in the north-east to the Rock of Gibraltar, and even a few colonies on the Atlantic Ocean, Gades, today’s Cadiz, being the most important of them (see map, areas in grey).

Carthage was the most important port in the western Mediterranean

The conflict between Rome and Carthage first centred on the island of Sicily, fabulously wealthy then, and in the long run scattered skirmishes turned into open warfare. For the first time in her history, Rome had to fight a naval war, and it took a few attempts to get things right. It helped that around 260 BC an unknown Roman engineer conceived a mechanism that enabled Roman infantry, the pride of the nation, to participate in sea battles (in which the Phoenicians were reported to be masters). A plank (called “corvus”,`raven´) that could be lowered onto an enemy ship allowed Roman legionaries to enter the opposing vessel and fight the way they were used to, on foot, with spear and sword. In 260 BC, the Battle of Mylae, north-west of Messina, brought Rome her first naval victory.

Corvus

A second victory, at the Ecnomos promontory in 256 BC, allowed a Roman expeditionary force in the strength of four legions to set foot on the African continent. Their advance on Carthage was checked, however, by a hastily collected force of Punic mercenaries in an action near today’s Tunis, and the mauled Roman legions, which suffered from logistic problems to boot, did not have the strength to continue the campaign and were quickly forced to return. This tactical success, however, could not save the island of Sicily for Carthage, which became the first Roman “provincia” in 241 BC.

An uneasy truce ensued but lasting peace was out of the question, given the awareness of both sides that only the winner would continue to harvest the fruits of trade. In 227 BC Rome acquired the islands of Sardinia and Corsica from a weakened Carthage; at this time the Romans began to call the Mediterranean Sea “mare nostrum“, our sea.

By 219 BC a new generation of Punic soldiers, more familiar with land warfare than their fathers had been, was ready to renew hostilities. One specific young officer showed great promise in all things military and was entrusted with the command over the whole Punic army in the twenty-fifth year of his life. As the qualities of a man are often best judged by his enemies, we shall contemplate what Titus Livius, his Roman adversary, wrote about Hannibal:

The old soldiers fancied they saw Hamilcar [his father] in his youth given back to them; the same bright look, the same fire in his eye, the same trick of countenance and features. But soon he proved that to be his father’s son was not his highest recommendation. Never was one and the same spirit more skilful to meet opposition, to obey or to command. …

He entered danger with the greatest mettle, he comported himself in danger with the greatest unconcern. By no difficulties could his body be tired, his ardour dampened. Heat and cold he suffered with equal endurance; the amount of his food and drink was gauged by natural needs and not by pleasure. The time of waking and sleeping depended not on the distinction of day and night.

What time was left from business he devoted to rest, and this was not brought on by either a soft couch or by quiet. Many have often seen him, covered by a short field cloak, lying on the ground betwixt the outposts and sentinels of the soldiers. His clothing in no wise distinguished him from his fellows; his weapons and horses attracted everyone’s eye. He was by long odds the best rider, the best marcher. He went into battle the first; he came out of it the last. He served three years under Hasdrubal’s supreme command, and left nothing unobserved which he who desires to become a great captain ought to see and do.” (1)

Legend has it that Hannibal’s father Hamilcar had obliged the son to swear by oath to remain at all times an enemy of Rome. Under the son’s command, Carthage decided to carry the war to the opponent’s own turf, and the gold of the state was liberally spent on the equipment of a fresh army. Carthage opened the second round of hostilities by attacking and seizing Saguntum, a Spanish town that was an ally of Rome, and the Roman senate consequently declared war [Second Punic War, 218 – 201 BC]. Hannibal now faced the strategic choice whether to attack Rome by land or by sea.

The invasion of a defended coast from the sea is one of the most difficult military manoeuvres, and since Hannibal could not ignore how quickly and efficiently the Romans had adapted to naval warfare, he judged the invasion of Italy from the sea an enterprise doomed to fail. The only other way to reach the enemy on his own turf was by land, through Spain and France; a route fraught with the obstacles of the Pyrenees and the Alps. The advantage of the strenuous approach, however, was of tactical nature: it promised surprise, the most cherished of military commodities.

Crossing the Alps

The newly assembled Punic army, including not only the standard infantry and cavalry units but a corps of thirty-seven elephants as well, set out for Italy in 219 BC. The first part of the exercise was the easiest and most comfortable, with the exception of a little mal de mer it brought on for the landlubbers: by ship from Carthage to Mastia [later called “Carthago Nova”, today’s Cartagena]. There the land campaign began. For the greater part following the coastlines, Hannibal’s forces marched over 1,000 miles, or 1,600 kilometres, to their destination. Having hugged the seashore as far as Narbonne in southern France, they changed direction at the Rhone River, which they followed northwards. When they reached the confluence of Rhone and Isere, they branched out eastwards and passed today’s Grenoble and Frejus in traversing the French Alps, touching Italian soil when they descended into the valley of the Po near today’s Torino.

Hannibal, by Francisco Goya
‘Hannibal Crossing the Alps on an Elephant,’ a painting by Nicolas Poussin.

Alas, the exercise proved costly: of the 60,000 troops that had left Mastia, only 26,000 were left to greet Italia; more than half of the horses and sixteen of the precious elephants had perished in the journey. Nevertheless, Fortuna was on Hannibal’s side: when he descended the Alps with his damaged force, he encountered a congregation of Celtic tribes who had their own bill to square with Rome and Hannibal was able to add about fifteen thousand Gauls to the common cause. Surprise was fully achieved. The Roman legions were protecting the beaches of Sicily from Punic invasion, not the rocks of the Alps, and had to be rushed north at best speed. Their hectic advance led them straight into an ambush Hannibal had laid at the Trebia River (218 BC), north-east of Genova, and the Romans were soundly beaten. This victory and the advance of winter, in which campaigning was impossible, permitted the Punic army and their allies to rest, re-equip themselves and stock up supplies, and allowed their commander a thorough planning of the next engagement.

In the spring of 217 BC, a well-replenished Punic/Gallic force began its drive towards Rome. Around the halfway mark of the march, near Lake Trasimene (217 BC), they encountered another hastily approaching Roman army, and a second ambush drove the legions into disarray and retreat. The second defeat in a row astonished the Senate and People of Rome, who had been too long accustomed to hear good news only from the battlefields. Recognizing the qualities of their opponent, caution was urged and obeyed. A reorganization of the available forces resulted in the establishment of a new army in the strength of fourteen legions; altogether over 70,000 men, the largest armed body Rome had ever sent into the field. The command over the forces of the republic was entrusted to the patrician senator Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, who was in addition appointed to the office of “dictator“, which gave him not only unlimited “Imperium”, the power of command, for six months, but also indemnified him, a priori, from any legal consequences of his actions or omissions.

The Gaul Ducar decapitates Flaminus at the Battle of Lake Trasimene by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre

Fabius advanced cautiously, being informed by his spies of his opponent’s every move, up to a point where his vanguard could barely see the Punic outposts, yet he was sure that their advancement would be reported to Hannibal. At this point, he ordered the legions to stop for the day and erect the standard fortified overnight camp, almost in sight of the enemy. Fabius’s lieutenants, aware that they outnumbered the opposition, recommended various plans of attack for the coming day, which were all denied.

Since it had been the habit of Roman armies for centuries to attack the enemy once contact was established, and Hannibal was aware of this fact, Fabius’s unorthodox behaviour baffled the Punic captain. He decided to break up his own position and move a few miles away, there to reorganize his army for the battle he expected for the next day. But the battle never materialized: Fabius shadowed Hannibal’s every move, but anytime the Punic army proceeded to leave camp and close ranks in anticipation of battle, the Roman legions moved a few miles away and built another god-damn camp. It was very frustrating. The same thing happened the next day and the day after. For weeks and months, the game proceeded, and Fabius acquired the not so glorious nickname of “Cunctator“, the “Hesitater”. While his “Fabian” tactics, as they are still called today, did not earn him a victory, he did not suffer defeat, either.

Consequently, nothing much happened in the next six months, and when his imperium ran out, Fabius handed the control of the legions to his successors, the chief magistrates of the year 216 BC, consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro. These men and their lieutenants, aware of the fact that they commanded the finest army Rome had ever fielded and that they vastly outnumbered the invaders, were only too cognizant of the glory that the successful delivery of the country from Punic evil would entail. Subsequently, they set out to chase Hannibal down and to compel him to battle. Rumour had it that the Punic army was somewhere near the southern Adriatic coast, and the legions began their approach. Hannibal was indeed discovered in Apulia, about fifty miles north of the “spur” of the Italian boot, in the vicinity of a small town called Cannae.

Cannae

A few days after his spies had informed him about the strength and commanders of the Romans, Hannibal ordered his troops to deploy and the day of confrontation dawned. He arranged his outnumbered force in a slight crescent, but placing his cavalry, a few lightly armed but swift foot-soldiers and the few remaining elephants at the flanks of the arc. When the Roman infantry, perhaps amused over this silly arrangement, formed a wedge and struck right into the heart of Hannibal’s position, the Phoenician centre retreated, which further inspired the attackers’ confidence. When the full weight of the Roman attack was poised upon the midst of the Punic line, Hannibal ordered his centre to retreat a bit more, which drew the Romans further in. When the legions were thus fixed in the midst of his infantry, he ordered the flanks to proceed forward-inward and trapped the whole Roman army in a double encirclement.

Initial Deployments
Destruction

In the subsequent slaughter, tens of thousands of legionaries expired on the field of Cannae and only a very modest fraction of the great army, less than ten thousand souls, made it back to Rome to report. Livy wrote, “Forty-five thousand and five hundred foot, two thousand seven hundred horse, there being an equal number of citizens and allies, are said to have been slain.” As a result of these losses, Rome could not deploy forces big enough to challenge Hannibal for years to come, simply because there were not enough men of the required age and possessions left. At this time only propertied Roman citizens, who had to pay for their own weapons, armour and supplies, served in the legions. Most of these men were now buried at Cannae.

The Death of Aemilius Paullus at Cannae by John Trumbull, 1773
Hannibal, by Giovanni Batista Tiepolo

“Never when the city was in safety was there so great a panic and confusion within the walls of Rome. I shall, therefore, shrink from the task, and not attempt to relate what in describing I must make less than the reality. The consul and his army having been lost at the Trasimenus the year before, it was not one wound upon another which was announced, but a multiplied disaster, the loss of two consular armies, together with the two consuls: and that now there was neither any Roman camp, nor general nor soldiery: that Apulia and Samnium, and now almost the whole of Italy, were in the possession of Hannibal. No other nation surely would not have been overwhelmed by such an accumulation of misfortune.” –  Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, xxii.54, on the Roman Senate’s reaction to the defeat.

Theodore Ayrault Dodge wrote:

Few battles of ancient times are more marked by ability… than the battle of Cannae. The position was such as to place every advantage on Hannibal’s side. The manner in which the far from perfect Hispanic and Gallic foot was advanced in a wedge in echelon… was first held there and then withdrawn step by step, until it had the reached the converse position… is a simple masterpiece of battle tactics. The advance at the proper moment of the African infantry, and its wheel right and left upon the flanks of the disordered and crowded Roman legionaries, is far beyond praise. The whole battle, from the Carthaginian standpoint, is a consummate piece of art, having no superior, few equal, examples in the history of war.” (1a)

Hence, Rome could not afford to go back to the offensive for more than a decade and was restricted to employ defensive measures, denying Hannibal reinforcements and supplies from Carthage. This worked to a degree, and for the next thirteen years, 216 to 203 BC, the Punic army meandered around the Italian countryside, without any opportunity to strike a decisive blow at the enemy. Rome’s defensive policy bore its first tender fruit when an expeditionary corps was able to reconquer Sicily, the important grain source, and a second detail wiped out the Punic towns in Spain. The latter force was commanded by the young Publius Cornelius Scipio.

Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus

A scion of the noble Cornelius family, Scipio had joined the military at an early age and soon distinguished himself in battle. At the scandalous age of only twenty-six years, [FN2] in 210 BC, he was given the command in Spain, which he conquered and turned into a Roman province. He was elected consul in 205 BC, at the age of thirty-one, and developed a plan to circumvent Hannibal by attacking Carthage directly. He invaded Africa successfully via Sicily and was able to beat a small Punic corps in the Second Battle of Tunis, 203 BC. As a consequence of the Roman threat to Carthage, Hannibal was recalled in the same year with the remnants of his force and ordered to prepare for a showdown with the Roman wunderkind.

[FN2] Military command in the early Roman republic was a prerogative of the consuls, who were mostly in their forties or older and had already collected military and political experience in other public offices.

Movements before Zama

The subsequent Battle of Zama, about a hundred miles south-west of Carthage, decided the Second Punic War. The Roman prodigy revealed that he had learned from his predecessors’ mistakes at Cannae, and used an enveloping manoeuvre of his own design to defeat the enemy. Hannibal had to flee Africa and spent the rest of his life in Grecian and Asian exile. Carthage capitulated and was forced to accept a choking peace in which they had to cede Spain and lost all ships, merchantmen as well as men-of-war, to confiscation. Reparations were fixed at 10,000 gold talents, more than 100,000 kilograms, or seventy times the amount of the world’s annual gold production.

Battle of Zama, by H. P. Motte,
… and by Cornelius Cort

The protracted Iberian and Punic wars had changed the economy, and hence the whole society, of the winner. Scipio’s successes had added two provinces to the realm, Nearer and Further Spain, which proved particularly valuable for the copious amounts of metals yielded by its mines; copper and silver in particular. The two new provinces were to be governed by praetors, magistrates ranked just below the consuls, of which an additional two had to be elected each year just for this purpose.

Another huge economic side effect was the expansion of Roman slavery. It had been fuelled since the beginning of the Roman expansion by the taking of prisoners of war, who were enslaved wholesale. Antiquity considered slavery a normal form of human existence. A discussion of this subject is planned for a separate post – here a few classic paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme on the subject:

The extended war had also necessitated the establishment of a proper arms industry, something Rome had not possessed at a time when every legionary’s equipment was custom-made. The new weapons industry largely depended upon slave labour, which for the first time amounted to a majority of the Roman workforce. Slave labour was also the economic foundation of the newly evolving latifundiae, huge farms which, in theory, belonged to the Roman people as a whole but were in fact let to patrician families for negligible rents under an absentee ownership system. Although Carthage’s days as a competition for Rome were over, its spectre provided a useful bane for fear-mongering Roman politicians. A case in point was Cato the Censor, one of the most obnoxious men of Roman history, if we believe the historians.

Marcus Porcius Cato

Marcus Porcius Cato [234-149 BC], known as the “Elder Cato” or “Cato the Censor”, became a prominent Roman politician against all odds. He had served in the Second Punic War under Scipio, and, by marrying a rich and noble if ugly daughter of good family, qualified for the Senate despite his inferior pedigree. During his youth and adolescence, he had been dreadfully lampooned by the status- and ancestry-conscious sons of Roman nobles because of his rural origins: his family were farmers at Arpinum, a small town south-east of Rome known for its cheese but not much else.

He made up for these frustrations by dedicating much of his later career as a censor to retaliation against his former tormentors. The office of censor invested the holder with the authority to let state contracts for building or tax farming, a duty in which corruption was hard to avoid. But it was the second duty of the censor on which Cato had cast a longing eye: the censor controlled access to and membership in the Senate. There was a means test which required every senatorial candidate to show a minimum fortune of a million sesterces or an equitable area of farmland, and a senator who once fell short of the minimum for any reason could be evicted from the august body – although senators gravitated to fiscal, if not political, solidarity and it rarely occurred that they allowed one of their own to be disqualified. But the censor could also dismiss a senator upon a showing of unacceptable moral conduct, and nobody was truly surprised when Cato declared practically all conduct ethically unbecoming. He hounded the arch-aristocratic Cornelius family relentlessly, and when he was able to ruin Scipio’s brother Asiagenus, the hero was said to have died of a broken heart.

Except for his terrorizing the nobility, Cato’s main contribution to the political debates was an undying hatred of Carthage – or perhaps of mankind in general – which he promoted by invariably ending his senatorial sermons with the phrase “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” [‘In addition, I think that Carthage should be destroyed.’]. He trampled on everybody’s nerves like an ancient hybrid of Rush Limbaugh and Ralph Nader until the Senate in 147 BC resolved to destroy Carthage.

The subsequent “Third Punic War” was little more than a completely unnecessary slaughter of a defenceless people. Carthage had never recovered from the Second War and was no threat to anybody save for Cato’s hysterics and the jealousy of another member of the Cornelius family, a grandnephew of the hero of Zama, who saw in a third campaign a risk-free opportunity to crown himself with military glory.

The Punic Wars – Overview

His full adult name was Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus Numantinus, and his name told much of his biography. He was born in 185 BC as a son of Lucius Aemilianus Paullus, a famous general and statesman, and adopted into the Scipio branch of the Cornelius clan. Like his granduncle, he was elected consul while technically being underage, in 147 BC, and was entrusted with the command against Carthage, whose defenceless people he massacred and buildings he razed in 146 BC. For this heroic act, he received the additional cognomen of “Africanus”, i.e. conqueror of Africa. He was re-elected to the consulship in 134 BC and convinced the Senate to send him to one more campaign. The adversary, or perhaps the victim, was the Spanish town of Numantia, the last former ally of Carthage. The town had resisted Roman attacks for over fifty years, but after a siege of eight months, Scipio’s army breached the walls, and the disgraceful spectacle of Carthage was repeated. Scipio had the males killed without exception and the females sold into slavery, and subsequently received another cognomen, that of Numantinus, destroyer of Numantia.

J. M. W. Turner’s The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, 1817
Scipio Aemilianus before the ruins of Carthage in 146 BC

Such a man could not avoid making enemies, even in his family. When his brother-in-law, the famous tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus attempted to introduce a land bill in the senate – see below – which would give impoverished veterans a small piece of land to retire on at the end of their service, Scipio turned out his most bitter opponent. When Gracchus was found dead soon thereafter, Scipio could not dispel suspicion, and when he suddenly died in 129 BC, aged only forty-six, his wife, Tiberius Gracchus’s sister, was believed to have poisoned him.

While the political and social structures of the republic had been relatively stable in the centuries between 500 and 130 BC, the following hundred years, until 30 BC, brought great social change amid geographical expansion and, in the end, beheld the replacement of senatorial rule by the principate of Augustus and his successors. Because many institutions, designations and customs of the Roman Republic and early Empire were to exercise influence on political models of the next two thousand years, they shall be briefly reviewed before we proceed.


Detour One: (Separate Blog Entry): https://jvpalatine.com/a-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-the-forum/ Political Procedures of the Roman Republic


Detour Two: (Separate Blog Entry): https://jvpalatine.com/the-power-of-command/ Potestas, Auctoritas and Imperium – Forms of Command


In addition to the politics described in the two posts above, another application of the Roman sense of organization could be observed in the realm of the military. A large part of Alexander’s temporary military superiority had resulted from his innovative use and the tactical flexibility of the Macedonian “phalanx“, an originally Greek form of infantry deployment. The fighters of a phalanx formed a compact body with overlapping shields, from which long spears protruded. The regulative genius of the Romans invented a similar formation but went a step further; they created a unit, the legion, which included all the men, instruments, and supplies to fight a war on its own, and became the predecessor of the modern “division“.

A legion was composed, as far as active soldiers were concerned, of ten “cohorts“, each cohort consisting of six “centuries“, which numbered, confusingly, eighty men, not a hundred. One cohort thus accounted for 480 men (6 x 80), and a legion of ten cohorts hence totalled 4,800 combatants. It employed, however, also non-combatants: artisans, smiths, engineers, cooks, medics and the like in a strength of about 1,200 heads as well as an artillery unit but not, surprisingly, much cavalry. Rome never deployed as much cavalry as other nations did, mindful of the supply problem; Caesar, for example, in his conquest of Gallia, used German cavalry, not Roman riders. If there was a cavalry unit attached to a legion, it was fielded by allies and had its own tactical command.

The decisive geostrategic factors which counted for much of Rome’s military superiority, however, were the roads, which had been built with military necessities in mind. They ran as straight as possible over bridges, passes and tunnels. Roman infantry was used to a daily march of about sixteen miles or twenty-five kilometres but could make forty kilometres a day in a pinch. The legions hence enjoyed the advantage of the “inner lines” more often than not; they could move troops and thus project force in a province or at a border faster than the enemy could.

Last not least, education mattered. While Rome was never given to inventing much philosophy and scholarship and never made schooling a legal obligation, it appropriated Greek culture and spread it over the western parts of the known world, which had never experienced the Grecification of the East that Alexander’s empire had provided. The sons of the better Roman families were schooled by Greek pedagogues who delivered a two-step education: the first part was called the trivium [“the three ways”], and taught the foundations of what Rome considered civilized human intercourse: grammar, rhetoric and logic, and the successful candidate would be awarded the character of a bacchalaureatus, a bachelor’s degree. The trivium exists until today in the sense that basic knowledge is held to be “trivial“; it should be known to everybody who claims an education.

Relief found in Neumagen near Trier, a teacher with three discipuli (180-185 AD)

The second part of the curriculum was composed of the quadrivium [“the four ways”] and consisted of the study and mastery of arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy and astrology, which were a single field of study then. Upon completion of the studies, the pupil would be awarded a degree of magister artium, master of the arts. The teachings of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle were studied in Rome, Athens and Alexandria for centuries, until the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I decreed the closing of all academies in AD 529. The advent of a new religion, Christianity, caused the replacement of education with dogma, and Edward Gibbon angrily noted that “in the revolution of ten centuries [AD 500 — 1500], not a single discovery was made to exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind. Not a single idea has been added to the speculative systems of antiquity, and a succession of patient disciples became in their turn the dogmatic teachers of the next servile generation.” (2)

Indeed, not only intellectual stimulation decreased with the eventual triumph of Christian doctrine, so did progress in general. With the exception of Alexandria, Rome was unsurpassed in her infrastructure and remained for centuries the best-organized community on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Her houses were built, two thousand years ago, with concrete as their principal material, and apartment blocks called “insulae” (islands), reaching heights of up to a hundred feet. Aqueducts carried fresh water from the mountains into the city, which had an underground sewer system and offered dozens of communal bathhouses and public latrines on major street corners.

The markets of Rome offered goods as varied as spices from Taprobane, today’s Sri Lanka, rugs from Persia, amber from Germania or sheep wool from Britannia. Roman banks used cheques and money transfers, sold communal obligations, and leased or financed goods on credit very much like today. It was said that Julius Caesar’s good friend Marcus Licinius Crassus, immortalized in the English language as the godfather of the word “crass”, employed fifty scribes alone to tally his possessions. In many respects, the achievements of the Imperial Roman civilization would not be surpassed until the second half of the nineteenth century.


Detour Three: (Separate Blog Entry): https://jvpalatine.com/heist-of-the-millennium/ One adventurous patrician proconsul, Quintus Servilius Caepio (Consul 106 BCE), loses more men than had perished at Cannae after he had stolen more gold in Gallia than Rome ever had in her treasury.


100 BC

As briefly mentioned above, civil strife began to plague Rome from 130 BC on, concentrating on the relations between rich and poor. The trouble had begun with the Gracchi brothers, relatives of the Cornelius clan. Their ancestry was as patriotic and famous as it could be: their mother Cornelia was the daughter of Scipio Africanus, the hero of Zama, and Aemilia Paulla, sister of the conqueror of Greece; their father was Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, consul in 177 and 163 BC and censor in 169 BC. Their sons, however, displayed shockingly plebeian tendencies. The elder, Tiberius, stood for and was elected a tribune of the plebs in 133 BC; he brought in a law to change the way Rome handled the ager publicus, the lands taken from enemies after defeat, which were legally the property of all Roman citizens. In contravention of the law, affluent senators had established a hold on these areas, which they rented for little money from the censor and added to their latifundiae, the great farms that operated on slave labour. Tiberius Gracchus brought a law in the Comitia Plebis that would parcel out these lands to veterans or even the poor. The aristocrats were convinced that he had gone mad, communist, or both, and when he tried, against the custom, to run for a second term of tribuneship, a gang of senators behaving badly clubbed him to death on the steps of the senate house.

The Gracchi by Eugene Guillaume

His brother Gaius, ten years younger, successfully ran for the tribuneship ten years later, in 123 BC. He was not only willing to give his brother’s land law another try; he had his mind set on a comprehensive reform of the Roman commonwealth. His proposals envisioned free grain for the poor, a reform of military service, public works, a new judicial system, Roman citizenship for the allies and tax reform. It was a challenging program, and the patricians, who felt their power threatened, pulled out all the stops they had, legal or illegal, to ward off the reforms. Gaius, like his brother, had to run for the tribuneship again, in 122 BC, but unlike Tiberius, he did get re-elected and continued the reform package. The senators had figured him out by then, and in his third campaign defeated him by handing out unprecedented bribes. As soon as they began to dismantle his laws, Gracchus tried to putsch, was defeated, and committed suicide. All his reforms were then recalled.

Gaius Gracchus

Yet it proved impossible to push the toothpaste back in the tube. Twenty years later, Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, another three-time tribune elected in 103, 100 and 99 BC, reintroduced Gracchian ideas to the legislative debate and associated himself early with Gaius Marius over the question of securing land for Marius’s veteran legionaries. At the end of 100 BC, insufficient grain harvests in Sicily and Africa caused widespread famine around the Mediterranean coasts and public uproar in Rome. Saturninus used the riotous assemblies to run for tribune yet again and was elected. He swiftly passed a grain law in the Comitia Plebis, which entitled the plebeians to receive free grain from the state.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix

The problem with the law was that absolutely no grain was to be had, free or not free, and the treasure refused to pay for no grain. Saturninus blamed the situation, as one would expect, on a senatorial conspiracy; the Senate struck back and accused him of treason. Saturninus’ demise was similar to the death of Tiberius Gracchus, delivered by another gang of young patricians led by one Lucius Cornelius Sulla: they lured Saturninus and his sycophants into the senate house, locked them in, climbed on top of it and killed their opponents with a rain of tiles from the roof. This stopped the land law for a while.

Yet the social issues refused to die, and because war was to occur too frequently in the next decades, the problem of reorganizing and rewarding the legions only gained in importance. Soon it centred on the persons of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who led opposing factions of the citizenry through the next thirty years, from 108 to 78 BC – which brought the defeat of Germanic invasions, some further extensions of Roman possessions and the first extensive Roman civil war. In a wider context, the eighty years from 110 to 30 BC induced the change from Republic to Principate and Empire.

Early Germanic Invasions, Cimbri and Teutones, until the battles of Aquae Sextiae (103 BC) and Vercellae (102 BC)

Gaius Marius [157-68 BC] was a hayseed from Arpinum, which we have encountered above as the town of good cheese and birthplace of the Elder Cato. His status as homo novo, a “new man”, in ancestry-worshipping Rome initially relegated him, despite his wealth, to a place in the legions, where he had a career solid enough to carry him to one year’s service as a praetor. His further ambitions were, however, checked by his most undignified pedigree until he, most probably in return for a financial consideration, was allowed to marry a patrician Julia of the Caesares branch. [FN2] The Julii Caesares were one of the oldest families in town: they traced their ancestry back to the kings of Alba Longa, a town even older than Rome, ten miles to the south. They had that streak of stubborn dignity that does not bid well for financial success: relying on the income of their small agricultural possessions, they could not compete in the bribing race for political offices. The patriarch of the mostly blond-haired family was thus assured of a seat in the Senate, but the family had not produced a consul since the fourth century BC; offices were simply too expensive.

[FN2] Julia (c. 130 BC – 69 BC, aunt of Julius Caesar) was a daughter of Gaius Julius Caesar II (praetor-grandfather of Caesar) and Marcia (daughter of praetor Quintus Marcius Rex). She was a sister of Gaius Julius Caesar III (the father of Julius Caesar) and Sextus Julius Caesar III, consul in 91 BC. At about 110 BC she married Gaius Marius; as a result, she is sometimes referred to as Julia Maria. They had a son, Gaius Marius the Younger. According to Plutarch, it was by marrying her, a patrician woman, that the upstart Marius got the snobbish attention of the Roman Senate and launched his political career. Julia is remembered as a virtuous woman devoted to her husband and their only child. Her reputation alone permitted her to keep her status, even after Sulla‘s persecutions against Marius himself and his allies. Julia died in 69 BC and received a devoted funeral eulogy from her nephew Julius Caesar. (See Wiki)

After a so-so career, Marius received the province of Further Spain (Hispania Ulterior) to govern in 114 BC, where he killed off a few brigands and returned to Rome, his already considerable fortunes miraculously augmented. A few years later, in 109 BC, he was sent as a senior legate to the assistance of then-consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus in his campaign against Jugurtha. Mr Jugurtha was a Numidian, i.e. Berber troublemaker, and the inefficient campaign of Metellus failed to neutralize him for a few years. Marius won the consulship in 107 BC, returned to Africa, and with the aid of his young quaestor Sulla eventually defeated Jugurtha. Competition and finally civil war between these two men, Marius and Sulla, was to determine Rome’s fate for the next thirty years.

Yet Marius perceived Rome’s underlying military problem. The traditional system was based on property requirements for those citizens eligible to serve in the legions, of whom, in an age of increasing economic inequality, fewer and fewer were to be found. [FN3] On the other hand, tens of thousands of Rome’s poor were ineligible.

Thus, Marius came up with the concept of the probably first professional standing army, paid by the state and thoroughly trained. Details please see Wiki – Marian Reforms. The drawback of the reforms, however, was that the legions lost their character as free men fighting for the Republic – they became dependent on their general. The loyalty of the legions shifted away from the Roman state and towards the generals who led the army, as soldiers now had a direct financial incentive to support their generals’ ambitions.

Video: The Marian Reforms

Yet the unbelievable stupidity of Quintus Servilius Caepio and his loss of 80,000 men at Arausio threw the state, only two years later (105 BC) into another existential crisis (see Detour Three, above) and the panicked Republic, quite unconstitutionally but not unprecedented (see Quintus Fabius Maximus), elected Marius in absentia to a second consulship in 104 BC.

Teutones attacking

The first order of business for Marius was to take care of the Germanic threat in Gallia and Gallia Cisalpina. After their decisive victory at Arausio, the Cimbri and Teutones had migrated in different directions and eventually split up. Marius was tasked to rebuild the Gallic legions, more or less from scratch. By disregarding the property requirements and building on his recent glory of the successful Jugurthan war, he succeeded in gathering about 30,000 Romans and 40,000 Italian auxiliaries near the town of Aquae Sextiae, today’s Aix-en-Provence near Marseille, and re-establishing the military defence of the province. His former quaestor Sulla accompanied him as his principal legate, indicating that, at this time, their relation was untroubled. While the danger remained, Marius was reelected to the consulship in 103 and 102 BC (with Quintus Lutatius Catulus).

In the summer of 102 BC, about a quarter-million Germans – Teutones and Ambrones – led by their king Teutobod, had crossed the Durance river, east of where it entered the Rhône. Marius’ men shadowed them, and after a few days of manoeuvring, a battle ensued near Aquae Sextiae, which the new legions won decisively. Only about 17,000 Germans survived to be sold into slavery. The famous instance of the slaughter occurred when, as Roman historians recorded, 300 of the captured women committed mass suicide, which passed into Roman legends of Germanic heroism (cf Jerome, letter cxxiii.8, 409 AD:

By the conditions of the surrender three hundred of their married women were to be handed over to the Romans. When the Teuton matrons heard of this stipulation they first begged the consul that they might be set apart to minister in the temples of Ceres and Venus; and then when they failed to obtain their request and were removed by the lictors, they slew their little children and next morning were all found dead in each other’s arms having strangled themselves in the night.

The Teutonic Women kill their children and commit suicide, by Heinrich Leutemann

That Marius donated the proceeds of the slavery sale to his men and officers, instead of keeping it to himself- to which he was entitled to – only made him the more popular.

In the following summer of 101 BC, the Cimbri finally arrived as well, in Gallia Cisalpina. Most likely, they followed the river Adige after having crossed the Brenner Pass, instead of somewhat illogically turning back west to the modern Vercelli; this way, the location of the battle would be in the modern Polesine instead, possibly near modern Rovigo. It is said that more than 100,000 warriors under the command of the Cimbric king Boiorix descended into the Valley of the Padus (the Po River), where they were met by Marius, who was assisted (or hindered, some said), by his co-consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus.

The outcome of the Battle of Vercellae was never in doubt and the legions had another slaughter-fest. The Cimbri were virtually wiped out and the Germanic threat on the northern border ceased to exist. A grateful Marius granted Roman citizenship to his Italian allies, for which he was criticized, but what could be done? Revoke?

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Battle of Vercellae
The Defeat of the Cimbri, by Alexandre Gabriel Décamps
Gaius Marius’ victory over the Cimbri by Francesco Saverio Altamura at the Civic Museum of Foggia

(1) (1a) Theodore Ayrault Dodge., Hannibal, Barnes & Noble 2005, ISBN 0-7607-6896-X (pbk.), p. 120, pp. 378 – 379

(2) Gibbon, Edward, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Modern Library 2003-5, First Citation: Mass Market Edition 2005, Second Citation: 4th Edition 2003-4, ISBN 0-6896-X (pbk.), p. 1174 [1001]


To Be Continued – Sulla and the Social War

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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The Power of Command

Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate - Cicero attacking Catilina, from a 19th-century fresco
Representation of proceedings in the Roman Senate – Cicero attacking Catilina, from a 19th-century fresco

The exercise of authority in Rome – at least during much of the Republic – things changed under the Principate and the Empire – was based, as were morals and religion upon the mos maiorum, the laws of the elder, and Roman society was very much a mirror image of its core, the family.

The family – which rather should be translated as “household” than referring to the blood relatives only – was almost dictatorily headed by the pater familias, while the relations outside of the family were guided by the principles of patron (patronus) and client (cliens).  

It surprises little that these two elements were largely mirrored within the legal concepts of civil and military authority.

The concept of potestas was applied, as we would say, in matters of the private law, within the family as the Patria potestas, and in civil law the power, or perhaps better the jurisdiction and responsibility, of a magistrate to promulgate the laws and arrange the workings of the state, i.e. rather an expression of socially recognized power than an executive function.

Paterfamilias
Paterfamilias

Auctoritas, however, was different in nature, not a matter of the law but a measure of the prestige a man (or, in Imperial times, a woman) enjoyed within the Roman society. Politically, it expressed itself predominantly in the Senate, in the auctoritas of the Princeps Senatus, the censors, and other outstanding personalities. (1) It was, naturally, a matter of charisma.

Imperium was a more serious matter. It was the legally prescribed formal power of command a citizen held over a civil or military entity – a military unit, a province, territory, campaign or special command (e.g. Pompey against the Cilician pirates in 67-66 BC). Imperium was held by the curule aedile, the praetor, the consul, the magister equitum, and the dictator, and such promagistrates (propraetors and proconsuls) which were appointed annually for the government of provinces.

Imperium was bestowed by a legal act of the Senate and originally limited to one year with the exception of the dictator’s term of six months and the rare imperium maius which could last as long as the underlying mandate. In the last century of the Republic, these rules were commonly broken – Marius‘ seven consulships, Caesar‘s five-year term in Gallia and his and Sulla‘s dictatorships. The emperors’ Imperium, naturally, ran for a lifetime.

Imperium included – at least in principle – the power to command everything up to the death penalty for offenders (although various laws limited the death penalty for Romans citizens, which, however, tended to work better for the rich and famous than for the poor sods of Subura and the bottom of Esquilina, the two tribes reserved for the majority of the plebs).

Since many magistrates held Imperium, the question of overruling was a constant practical matter. Commonly it worked by seniority – an aedile could be overruled by a praetor, the praetor by the consul and so forth. Colleagues could overrule each other, i.e. veto – and frequently did, except for the dictator, whose orders were above the law and not subject to subsequent judicial proceedings.

In special cases – see Pompey above – the Senate could give out imperium maius (“greater”) to an official, usually for a closely defined task (dictators held it by definition). This proved such a desirable and effective method of office that it was quickly appropriated by the emperors and became their hallmark.

Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, the two famous tribunes, by Eugene Guillaume

The last and rather different form of a command – being entirely a negative power – was the famous “Intercessio!” – ‘I step in!’, by which any Tribune of the Plebs (of which they were usually ten) could veto discussions, commands, trials and even laws. This being a most practical way of interference, every bigwig of the late republic – Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar and the like – made sure they always had one or two tame tribunes on their payroll which they could use for political sabotage.

This ability proved so useful and desirable that, from Augustus on, every emperor made sure to receive the tribunal character on the occasion of his ascension to the throne. Imperium maius and the tribunal power became the major instruments of Imperial reign.

Clemency could be obtained by appealing to a Vestal Virgin

 

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

(1) See Wiki: The 19th-century classicist Theodor Mommsen describes the “force” of auctoritas as “more than advice and less than command, a piece of advice which one may not safely ignore.” Cicero says of power and authority, “Cum potestas in populo auctoritas in senatu sit.” (“While power resides in the people, authority rests with the Senate.”)

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A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum …

Cicero indicts Catilina - Painting by Hans Werner Schmidt
Cicero indicts Catilina – Painting by Hans Werner Schmidt

Political procedures of the Roman Republic

In the first two hundred years or so, Rome was a monarchy: the names of seven kings are known, of whom the last, Tarquinius, possibly of Etruscan origin, was deposed in 509 BC and the republic proclaimed. From then on, Rome was socially and politically divided in two “classes”, ninety-one “centuries” and thirty-five “tribes”, each of these classifications counting for a different political purpose. The two “classes” were, for one, the common men or “plebs” [short ‘e’, rhymes with ‘pets’, adjective ‘plebeian’, ¶], and, second, the “patricians” [from Latin ‘pater’, i.e. father, ¶], the nobility. These ancient aristocrats professed to rule the plebs much like a stern but benevolent father rules his children – for their own benefit.

These two classes worked together, or, rather, against each other, in four different legislative and executive congregations: one “Senate“, which comprised only patricians (in the first centuries), and three “assemblies of the people“, which had different legislative authorities. Since the origins of all these bodies reached back into the mythical days when Rome had been a monarchy, these bodies had been created without the benefit of written laws; hence legislative competition was furious, and it took three centuries to iron things out.

Due to its seniority as the oldest political institution, the Senate did not limit itself with technical jurisdictional issues; its members viewed themselves as the natural leaders of the commonwealth due to their former status as the king’s advisors. Membership was for life unless a senator was expelled for pauperism, immorality or treason. Technically, the senators were limited to income from agrarian possessions, for they were legally forbidden to entertain plebeian businesses; but they knew everything about silent partnerships and employing straw men.

The death of Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate by Vincenzo Camuccini
The death of Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate by Vincenzo Camuccini

In ancient times, the Senate had been a purely patrician affair, consisting of one hundred members. Around 500 BC, plebeians gained access, and during the days of the republic the membership swelled to 300, and in imperial times to 600 and eventually 1,000 members. As it may be assumed, it took the plebs decades and sometimes centuries to effect changes in the elitist club. In the early days, the Senate could not pass laws binding all Romans, for its exclusive patrician membership, but this technicality was easily circumvented. A decision of the Senate was called a “consultum”, a decree, and was technically a request to one of the assemblies of the people to enact a law in the form suggested by the Senate. Despite vigorous plebeian opposition, the house succeeded in retaining sole jurisdiction in matters of the treasury or  fiscus, foreign affairs, including war, and the appointment of provincial governors.

The three assemblies of the people dealt, each in its own distinctive way and composition, with elections and the enactment of lesser laws. The “Comitia Centuriata”, the Centuriate Assembly, included both plebeians and patricians and was organized in “Centuriae”, i.e. “centuries” of one hundred men each, classified by wealth. The system of centuries hinted at the congregation’s original military character: a centuria of one hundred men was, of course, the basic unit of the legion. In the Comitia Centuriata, ninety-one centuries were represented, and each centuria had one vote.

This small number of votes reflects on the character of Roman voting rights, which were timocratic in nature, not democratic: based on wealth or status, not “one man -one vote”. Each centuria had one vote, which was decided by the relative majority of votes within it; the swindle in favour of the nobility lay in the fact that a centuria of patricians was indeed composed of one hundred men, while each centuria of the plebs was comprised of many thousand men. The following description of the political system of the Republic is much indebted to the late Colleen McCullough.

Since forty-six votes were needed for an absolute majority of 46 to 45 in the 91 “centuries”, the 4,600 wealthiest men, all nobles, organized in these 46 centuries, were automatically assured of a majority.

The business of the Centuriate Assembly was to elect consuls and praetors annually, and two Censors every five years. In theory, the assembly could also pass laws, which happened seldom and was the proper court to charge and try “Perduellio” – high treason. Such trials, however, became increasingly rare when the plebs realized that it was impossible to convict a nobleman against the votes of his fellow aristocrats.

The “Comitia Populi Tributa”, the Tribal Assembly or Assembly of the People, was also composed of both plebs and patricians but rigged in a different way. The “tribes” were based upon the ancient rural origins of Rome and centred on the old families: a “tribe” was the equivalent of a former territory, a village, perhaps, that had belonged to one of the old clans. Thirty-one of the total thirty-five tribes were made up from people whose ancestry related back to these ancient rural communities, and it made no difference if only three or five living members were left: they had one vote. The multitudes of the plebs, however, were assigned to two of the four “city” tribes, Esquilina and Subura, and hence these tens of thousands of men together only had two votes. The business of the Tribal Assembly was to elect lower magistrates, the curule aedile, the quaestors and the military tribunes, the apprentices for future generalships. It could pass laws and hear criminal and “civil trials.

The principal political instrument of the plebs was the “Comitia Plebis Tributa” or “Concilium Plebis”, the Assembly or Council of the People. It was the youngest of the legislative bodies, excluded patricians, and had earned its power by sheer and determined opposition against Senate and nobility. It could only be convoked by the peoples’ own elected officers, the “Tribuni Plebis“, Tribunes of the People, and could pass any law law [which were called “plebiscites”, an appellation still in use today, ¶]. The three assemblies, as mentioned, but not the Senate, elected public officials, some of which wielded “Imperium” while others did not.

The word “Imperium” is best translated as the “power of command” and is obviously the root for the words “emperor” or “empire”. It prescribed the degree of legal authority vested in the office, the execution of power that bound every Roman citizen, plebe and patrician alike. It was conferred by legal act of the respective comitia and lasted for one year. Every holder of “imperium” was preceded in public by lictors, bodyguards, who shouldered fasces. Fasces were bundles of birch rods tied together crisscross wise with red leather thongs; an ancient design, probably of Etruscan origin. The number of lictors preceding the magistrate depended on the office: an “Aedile” was preceded by two lictors, a “Praetor”, “Propraetor” or “Master of the Horse” by six, a “Consul” by twelve, and a “Dictator” by twenty-four.

Outside of Rome, axes were inserted in the birch bundles to indicate that the magistrate wielded power over life and death. Only a dictator was allowed to show axes inserted in his fasces within the pomerium (the religious borders of Rome), a reminder of his unconditional power that could not be gainsaid. The words fascism and fascist derive, of course, from fasces; after his takeover of Italy, Benito Mussolini reintroduced them as symbols of his power. The number of legislative bodies and magistrates makes the Roman government a complicated affair; the graphic at the bottom may be of assistance.

In order of ascending authority, the following were Roman public offices: The “Tribunes of the Soldiers” were two dozen aspiring men, more often than not from noble families, between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine, which were elected by the Tribal Assembly and were basically cadets, officer trainees: six of them were allotted to each of the four Roman legions that, together with four legions of allies, made up the standing army in the days of the republic. They should not be confused with the centurions, which were essentially Roman NCO’s, company commanders. These tribunes could have authority in the field, if the general so decided, but carried no imperium.

Roman politics were a male-only affair - perhaps with the exception of the legendary Fulvia
Roman politics were a male-only affair – perhaps with the exception of the legendary Fulvia – here with the head of her arch-enemy Cicero

The “pomerium” were the sacred borders of the city, which ran essentially around the Capitol, Palatine and Aventine hills. To cross these borders from the outside meant to lose any imperium one possessed. This was essentially a precaution against military putsches, for the legions always assembled outside of the town and a general leading them in with designs on usurpation automatically lost his power of command. Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, which was the border from his province Gallia Cisalpina to Italia proper was the crossing of a similar legal border and thus amounted to a declaration of civil war against the Roman Republic.

The lowest rank of civil public servant was the “Quaestor”. They were also elected by the Tribal Assembly, usually six per year. This office was also considered the lowest rung of the “cursus honorum“, the acknowledged stations in the career of a full-time Roman politician. The quaestor’s duties were of financial nature: he was either seconded to a praetor or propraetor who governed a province, detailed to duty in the treasury, or consigned to one of the great ports. They did not carry imperium.

The next rank in the system was the “Aedile”, of which two varieties existed: two “Plebeian Aediles”, elected by the Assembly of the Plebs and hence not possessing imperium, and two “Curule Aediles”, which were elected by the Tribal Assembly and did wield imperium. Originally, the curule aediles had to be of patrician descent but this proviso was abandoned in the fourth century BC. The aediles governed the town itself: supervising construction and enforcing (or not) the building code, securing the supply of clean water flowing from the great aqueducts, and keeping roads, markets and other facilities in order.

The most important political part of the office was the aediles’ responsibility to arrange the ludi, the games, Rome’s favourite pastime. They provided the principal opportunity for a young politician to build a reputation; the more splendid the games, the higher the aedile’s prestige in the peoples´ esteem and his chances to be elected to more prestigious offices later.

There was a drawback: the state did not allocate funds for the games. The aediles were counted on to pay the expenses, which ran into the millions of sesterces, from their own purses. Not surprisingly, some aediles ruined their family fortunes in pursuit of sensational games and ended in exile, fugitives from their creditors. In most cases, however, the loan sharks were willing to wait until their candidate reached the rank of “Praetor” and was dispatched to govern a province. At such time, the recovery of the mostly modest principal plus interest, compounded, up to fifty per cent annually, took place, on the backs of the provincials. Exploitation was the normal and accepted course of business in the governance of a province: the governor could, for example, levy his own taxes, sell the Roman citizenship, forgive tax debts or issue exceptions, for a consideration, or create criminal indictments and then peddle their dismissal; treason was the favourite charge. He could also take advantage of the tax-farming system Rome implemented upon the provinces: contracts were let to businesses that paid the whole amount of taxes of, say, a town, an estate, or a whole province, in advance to the treasury and obtained, as compensation, the right to collect the imperial taxes on their own cognizance from the unhappy people. The tax rates they assigned were, alas, mysteriously high; higher than the amounts legally prescribed on some scroll in the treasury in Rome. The company, which belonged to the governor or his creditors, kept the difference. It was an excellent business, and for many politicians the only way to get rid of the debts they had incurred during their aedileship.

The second-highest rank in the hierarchy of Roman magistrates was the Praetor, as mentioned above. Initially entrusted with legal duties, the administration of justice and oversight of the courts, the number and duties of praetors varied in later years, when the government of provinces was added to their curriculum. Of the two praetors elected in ancient times, one, the Praetor Urbanus, as the word indicates, was responsible for lawsuits between Roman citizens or parties within the pomerium, while the second one, the Praetor Peregrinus, was deputized to litigate cases involving foreign entities. If both consuls were absent, chiefly during times of war, the praetor urbanus assumed the command over town and people. In the later days of the Republic, when more and more provinces were added to the Roman fold, additional praetors were elected as regents. They ruled either during their standard one-year term of office or in a subsequent year, in the case of which they were officiating as Propraetor [“in the stead of a praetor”, ¶). In the last century of the Republic, between six and eight praetors were elected annually. They did, of course, possess imperium.

The most senior regular officer owning imperium was the “Consul“, the executive head, or heads, of the Roman administration. It was one of Rome’s peculiarities to elect two persons to fill the highest office, so as to publicly and expressively deny any resemblance to a monarchy. The position of consul was also the zenith of the “cursus honorum”, but a popular or exemplary meritorious consul could be re-elected to a second term, provided that ten years lay between the first and second consulship.

Two plebeians could be consul at any one time, but not two patricians. A consul’s imperium eclipsed any other officer’s power, anywhere, unless a “Dictator” was in office. At the end of his term, the retired consul was given the honorific “consular”; he now was an elder statesman and enjoyed a privileged position in the Senate. Consulars were often deputized to govern provinces if no praetor was available, or were sent on special diplomatic or economic missions, the most important and recurring of which was to secure the annual grain supply from Sicily and Africa.

The office of Dictator was reserved for emergencies, most of which were of military nature. The office absolved the holder from any legal consequence of his actions or omissions, but was limited to six months. A dictator was appointed by the Senate, more often than not on the recommendation of the “Princeps Senatus”, the unofficial president of the Senate, or the consuls. Technically, the dictator’s title was “Magister Populi”, Master of the People; in this context “people” referred to the infantry he would presumably lead into the field. The first decision he had to undertake on the assumption of office was the appointment of a lieutenant called the “Magister Equitum” or Master of the Horse, that is, the cavalry. Dictators were appointed very infrequently.

The most senior of all Roman magistrates were the “Censors“, although they did not possess imperium. A candidate for censor must have absolved the complete “cursus honorum”, hence must have been a consul, and preferably one of the better ones. A team of two Censors was elected by the Centuriate Assembly for a term of five years, which they, however, were at liberty not to complete. In general, they busied themselves with their tasks for a year or perhaps two and then semi-retired. In addition to the duties mentioned above in the context of the elder Cato, they also administered the general economic classification which determined every citizen’s place in the proper centuria. On the outside of Rome, their duty was to perform a full census of all Roman citizens every five years, as mentioned in Luke 2:1.

The complete antithesis to all the offices and governmental functions enumerated above were the “Tribuni Plebis”, or Tribuni Populi, the tribunes of the plebs respectively the people (both terms were used). Their origin lies in the town’s early history, when political decision-making was more of a physical than verbal matter.

They were ten, elected annually by the Assembly of the People, and their task was the defence of the rights, the property and the lives of the common man against the machinations of the patricians, who in the days of yore had enjoyed a political monopoly. Since the tribunes of the plebs were elected by the plebs alone, they had no preconceived place within the fabric of Roman governance and thus carried no imperium. Their safety and authority lay in the oath the assembly took after election, to defend the inviolability of their representatives with their own lives.

The tribunal power was chiefly negative; although they could bring in and pass laws in the assembly of the people, the main authority lay in their what since has been called the “veto power” against the actions of any magistrate, officer or even fellow tribune; he could stop not only the passing of laws but even their discussion in the Senate or the assemblies with the magic word “intercessio” [“I step in”, ¶].

Such an ability to frustrate political action was not overlooked by the movers and shakers of the last century BC: it became common practice for Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar to have at least one or two tame tribunes whose election they had financed on the payroll, to counteract any designs their enemies came up with. Many parts of the Roman administrative machine became, often in only slightly different form, stock features of European political organization in the next two thousand years. The word “senator” comes to mind, as does “dictator” as a generic term for autocrats who, alas, only very seldom retire after six months. Consuls, albeit with different functions, work in every nation, and the word “patrician” still denotes a revered elder statesman. But it was the great concept of the “Imperium” that exerted the loftiest influence on the political designs of the next two thousand years: hegemony over the European continent became the treacherous ideal of many a ruler’s political daydreams.

Below an organizational diagram of Roman politics (inspired by Colleen McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series. Link for bigger version here.) (NB: “¶” in the text denotes a remark by the author. © John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

Roman Offices
Roman Offices

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