Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Gen Eds H8b: The Roman Republic

Oath of the Horatii, by David
The eighth unit of world history in this series is "The Age of Rome." This is my second post in that unit.

This is part of my "General Education in a Nutshell" series. The series consists of ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. The first topic in the overall series was philosophy. So far in the world history section:
The Founding of the Republic
1. According to legend, Rome was founded in the year we would call 753BC. In the Aeneid, Virgil has his hero, Aeneas, flee the defeated city of Troy with the destiny of coming to the area where Rome would be founded. [1] Aeneas has a vision of his descendant Romulus founding the city. He thus gave Rome a heritage as old as that of the Greeks, and made the dominance of Rome a final victory of the Trojans over Greece.

Romulus and his brother Remus, were said to survive after being abandoned as infants by suckling with a she-wolf. [2] Later they would return to those hills overlooking the Tiber River to found a city. But they disagreed on which hill to found the city on, ending with Romulus killing Remus. The founding of the city is dated from that time, when Romulus declared himself king.

According to legend, Romulus established the first three tribes of Rome, each of which was further divided into ten curia or wards each. Each tribe had a "tribune," and each curia had a "curio" as its leader. These divisions became the basis for taxation and for enlisting soldiers for battle. According to tradition Romulus also picked one hundred men to constitute the Roman senate. These "fathers" became the "patrician" class of Rome, while everyone left became the "plebs."

2. It is hard to know how much of these origin stories are historical, but they nevertheless give us a picture of how Rome understood itself at a very early stage. According to legend Rome had seven kings until Tarquin the Proud was expelled from Rome in 509 BC, the legendary beginning of the Roman Republic.

After Romulus there had been Numa Pompilius (ca. 700BC). He was said to have built the temple of Janus, whose doors were open when Rome was at war and closed when Rome was at peace. He is said to have established the office of pontifex maximus, the high priest of the Roman people, as well as the "Vestal Virgins," virgin priestesses who kept a sacred fire that was never to go out.

Tullus Hostilius and Ancus Marcius (600s BC) fought against neighboring tribes and extended Rome's rule over the immediate area. Tarquin the Elder was an Etruscan. According to tradition he established the circus maximus, where horse races took place. He also brought Etruscan customs for patrician clothing like the toga, as well as various Roman rituals.

After the elder Tarquin's assassination, Servius Tullius ruled in the mid-500s. He is said to have incorporated three more hills into Rome, completing its number at seven. He also expanded the number of tribes by thirty. The number of tribes was set at twenty at the beginning of the Roman Republic. [3] Then Servius himself was murdered.

The murderer became the final king, Tarquin the Proud, known for being a tyrant. His son infamously raped Lucretia, a virtuous wife who ended up committing suicide. Tarquin was finally deposed by Lucius Junius Brutus. Almost five hundred years later, his descendant Brutus would participate in the murder of another dictator, Julius Caesar--invoking the family precedence. [4]

3. The Republic was run by two consuls, who were elected by the Roman Senate to rule for a year. Outside of Rome they commanded armies, which were required to disband before crossing the Rubicon River. Every five years, the elected consuls became "censors" who took a census of the Roman people and adjusted the membership of the Senate appropriately.

In its fully developed form, ambitious Roman men would follow a path known as the cursus honorem, a "course of honor," a path that could lead to the highest offices of Rome. [5] It might start with notorious service in the military, becoming a tribune who commanded in the Roman legions. Once achieving senatorial status, a person might serve as a quaestor who served administratively in some way, such as directing certain games or being a paymaster.

Next one might become an aedile and given even more responsibility, such as running a temple. [6] Then there was the role of a praetor, which next to consul was the highest position a Roman male could have under normal circumstances. This was primarily the role of judge.

4. The Roman system did not develop overnight, and there were civil wars from time to time. As we would expect, the privileged often abused their power at the expense of the plebs, which occasionally led to revolt and civil war. Around 450, ten men (Decumviri) were appointed to draft a code of laws to create official boundaries and rights for the people. These "Twelve Tables" became the basis for Roman law.

Conquering Italy
5. By about the year 400BC, Rome more or less possessed the central area of Italy. But in 390, Celtic tribes from the north sacked the city. These were the Gauls who gave the name Galatia to the region Paul would later visit in Anatolia (Turkey). These were the Gauls who would wander first into the area of present day France, whom Julius Caesar would later fight. And these were the Celts who would migrate into Great Britain, the ancestors of the Scots, Irish, and Welsh.

Interactions would continue with the Gauls for the next two hundred years.

Rome would have three Samnite wars in the 300s, which extended Rome's territory southward in Italy. At the beginning of the 200s, Rome would war with the Greek colonies in the very south of Italy. These Pyrrhic Wars were waged with the king of Epirus, on the west coast of Greece, who technically won a couple battles with the Romans. But Pyrrhus experienced such massive casualties that we now use the phrase "Pyrrhic victory" to refer to a win that is involves such substantial loss that it can hardly be called a victory.

These Greek colonies in southern Italy are the location where the famed philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras had a somewhat religious community in the late 500s BC.

The Punic Wars
6. The three Punic Wars took place between Rome and Carthage during the years 264-146BC. Carthage is on the northern coast of Africa, where Tunisia is today. Carthage was a city of Phoenician origin and a major sea power. It was the Roman conflict with the Carthaginians that led it to develop its own fleet of ships.

The first war (264-41BC) was over the island of Sicily. In what would become a pattern for Rome, one party in a conflict called on Rome for help. Then by the end of it, Rome had annexed its territory. Soon Rome controlled not only Sicily but the islands of Corsica and Sardinia as well.

The second Punic War (218-201) is the one when the famed Hannibal crossed the French Alps on elephants and soundly defeated the Romans repeatedly in northern Italy. However, he lost so many soldiers and elephants in the process that he was not able to take Rome itself. Scipio Africanus would ultimately defeat Carthage on its own ground, reducing Carthaginian territory mostly to the city itself.

Rome largely provoked the third and final Punic War (149-6). Carthage had paid its debt to Rome. It was rebuilding its military. After a visit, Cato the Elder began ending each of his speeches in the senate with "Carthage must be destroyed." Rome made some unreasonable demands, which Carthage refused. They went to war, and Rome thoroughly destroyed the city, making it uninhabitable. It dismantled and then burned all its buildings to the ground, and sowed its fields with salt.

Rome was now in complete control of the western Mediterranean.

The Macedonian Wars

7. Rome's wars with Macedonia, to the north of Greece, overlapped with the Punic Wars. During the second Punic War, the king of Macedon allied himself with Hannibal, drawing the Macedonians into the conflict. This was the first Macedonian War.

Rome intervened again (200-196BC) when Macedon ignored its demand that it stay away from some of the Greek islands off the coast of Anatolia (Turkey). With Rome's honor at stake, it pounced until Macedon was back in line, then withdrawing to Rome again. Then the Greek Seleucids tried to expand into Greece and were again repulsed by the Romans (192-88BC). [8] This was the first time that the Romans had entered Anatolia.

There was a third and fourth Macedonian war. After the third, Rome became convinced that it needed to divide up the Macedonian kingdom and have a permanent presence in Greece. The fourth ended with the destruction of Corinth by Mummius in 146BC, the same year Carthage was destroyed. [8]

Rome was now in control of Greece and the Aegean Sea.

The Civil Wars
8. The late second and early first centuries BC were tumultuous for Rome itself. From about 134 to 44BC we have the "Crisis of the Roman Republic." In the 130s and 120s, two brothers known as the Gracchi tried to distribute much of the the land of wealthy patricians to the poor and to veterans. Both were killed, the first violence in Rome since the 500s. This drive to grant more rights to the "populares" stood at the heart of the conflicts--one side fighting for them, the other strongly resisting.

The next decades would see three slave wars and the slave revolt that ended with the death of Spartacus (in 71BC). Sulla would break the rules in 81 and bring his army across the Rubicon, setting a dangerous precedent that Julius Caesar would repeat a few decades later in 49BC. [9] The senate then understandably voted him dictator. As dictator, Sulla was empowered to undo some of the populist reforms that the Gracchi and others had made and reinvigorate the power of the upper class.

9. Then there was Pompey. Pompey distinguished himself as a general in the wars against Mithridates in Anatolia. At the end of those wars, Rome would effectively control the land we now know as Turkey. In the year 64, Pompey would intervene in a dispute between brothers in Jerusalem, and effectively Rome would now control Palestine as well. In 64, Pompey walked into the Most Holy Place of the temple, inspiring the writing known as the Psalms of Solomon.

The powerful Pompey was part of an informal and at first secret pact between three men--himself, the wealthy Crassus, and the popular Julius who would soon be declared Caesar. Julius also was pushing popular reforms, which the powerful senate had been able to resist since Sulla. But with these three in agreement--the first "triumvirate"--Julius was able to push some reforms through.

Crassus died in battle against the Parthians in the east in 53BC. Then Pompey and Caesar became enemies, and their armies fought against each other, with Caesar defeating him in 48. He was assassinated later that year in Egypt.

10. In 49BC, a year before he finally defeated Pompey, Julius Caesar followed the path of Sulla and crossed the Rubicon with his army. Now in control of the capitol, he set out to defeat Pompey, and was declared Caesar for ten years by the senate in his absence in 47BC. Then in early 44BC he was declared Caesar for life, leading to his assassination on the "Ides of March" that year, March 15.

Then Caesar's adopted son, Octavian, took to revenge. A second triumvirate formed with Octavian (who would become Caesar Augustus), Mark Antony, and Lepidus. While the first triumvirate was unofficial, the Senate made this second triumvirate an empowered unit more powerful than the consuls.

Brutus was pursued by Octavian, who defeated him at the Battle of Philippi in 42BC. Brutus committed suicide.

Eventually, tensions between Octavian and Mark Antony erupted into civil war between Roman armies as well. Antony had been having an affair with Cleopatra in Egypt (after marrying Octavian's daughter to create peace between himself and Octavian). Octavian had the senate declare war on Egypt, with Antony declared a traitor. Then Octavian defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium in 39C. Antony and Cleopatra then fled back to Egypt, where they committed suicide. From that point on Egypt was a client kingdom of Rome, a kingdom allowed to rule itself as long as it obeyed Rome.

In 27BC, Octavian was given the title "Augustus" by the Senate.

  • Foundation legends, symbols, and rituals are incredibly powerful, even though they are often historically dubious. 
  • If you turn to a bully in your hour of need, they will probably be your next oppressor.
  • Sometimes the cost of winning is so great that it is really losing.
  • If a state does not take care of the ordinary person, that person will eventually revolt against the system.
  • Sometimes an enemy provokes you so that, if you bat an eye, he has an excuse to destroy you.
  • When the cat's away, the mouse will play.
  • Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. Watch your back.
Next Week: History 9a: Greeks and the Hellenistic Age

[1] The Aeneid was written in the early years of Augustus' reign (late first century BC) as propaganda to portray his reign as destiny, as fated.

[2] These tribes were geographical rather than based on ethnic or family relationships.

[3] The primary source for the legend is Livy, who wrote a history of Rome at about the same time as Virgil, Books from the Foundation of the City. The expression "from the founding of the city" was the way the Romans marked time. So Jesus was born about 747AUC (ab urbe condita, "from the founding of the city"), 6BC.

[4] Shakespeare has Brutus cry out, "sic semper tyrranus" as he kills Caesar--"thus always [to] a tyrant."

[5] The cursus honorem was not finalized until the time of Sulla's dictatorship in 81BC.

[6] Romans 16:23 seems to indicate that Erastus was an aedile in the city of Corinth.

[7] This is the same Seleucid thrust during which the Maccabean crisis took place in Israel.

[8] Corinth lay in ruins until 44BC, when Julius Caesar refounded the city. Commentaries on 1 Corinthians often quote passages about how immoral the city of Corinth was. Although it no doubt had its fair share of immorality at the time of the New Testament, it is at least worth knowing that the passages being quoted come from the earlier period of Corinth's history, before it was destroyed by the Romans.

[9] The expression, "crossing the Rubicon," refers to a decision that commits you to a certain course of action, whether you regret it or not. It's all or nothing now. Or as Caesar is thought to have said, "the die is cast."

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