The Roman Res Publica-The Beginnings

THE evident place to start an examination of the Republican system is with the instigation of the Republic after the removal of the last king, Tarquinius Superbus. Prior to this, the archaeological evidence seems to suggest that Rome had been simply an Etruscan dominated polis and part of a loose federal system in Latium. The latter two kings do seem to have ensured a certain level of Roman domination (Livy, 1.50-1) which was to become a full blown hegemony of a nascent Latin League after the expulsion of the Etruscan monarchy and a period of vicious conflict with the other cities of Latium. It is in this period of Etruscan kings that we find the origins of what was the most ancient of the four various comitiae: the comitia curiata. The curiata was undoubtedly the senior comitia in age and consisted of thirty curiae which were themselves divisions of the Ramnes, Tities and Luceres, the original tribes of Rome, demonstrated in the archaic forms of their names (Varro, De Lingua Latina, 5.55-6 in which he discusses the ancient debate of Ennius and Volnius as to the origins of the names and whether they were early Latin or Etruscan.). The power of the comitia curiata, despite being so ancient, was minimal and by the final days of the Republic its power was restricted to the ratification of magistrates, wills and adoptions and rubber stamping the transfer of the occasional patrician who voluntarily chose to relinquish that status and become plebeian, usually for the purposes of running for the office of Tribune of the Plebs (Patterson, JR, Political Life in the City of Rome BCP 2001, 9). In a governmental sense, the three other Assemblies were of much greater importance: the comitia centuriata, the comitia tributa and the concilium plebis, but more on these later. The question arises immediately as to what res publica meant. Lacey and Wilson describe it thus:

Res publica was the Romans’ usual name for their state. Res publica literally means ‘public business’, and this, says, Cicero, with his typical and matter-of-fact Roman bluntness, means res populi – ‘the people’s business’. And who are ‘the people’? ‘The people’ is ‘a union of a number of men, acknowledging each other’s common rights, and pursuing in common their advantage or interest’. Res publica then is the community, and the business of such a union of men, no more, no less.’ (Lacey and Wilson, Res Publica – Roman Politics and Society according to Cicero, BCP, 1994, 1)

An equally integral part of the society which Rome wanted to build around herself was the concept of ‘virtus’. Schofield points out that there were characteristics which had been shown by the early people which Cicero puts into his two works De Republica and the Tusculan Disputations. These were, as Gildenhard put it, ‘[based] on Cicero’s programmatic belief in the superiority of [Roman] practice over [Greek] theory in the realms of politics and ethics.’ (Gildenhard, Paideia Romana, CUP, 2007, 119 ‘Just as Rep. 1.2 insists that those generations who founded human communities anticipated every meritorious insight reached by philosophers, so Tusc. 1:2 maintains that the ancestors organized the sociopolitical aspects of human existence better than any other people, without the benefits of (philosophical) theory and learning.’)

The personal, moral and philosophical qualities listed are cited in Schofield (Republican Virtues in Companion to Greek and Roman Political Thought, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, 199 – De Republicalex, pietas, religio, iustitia, aequitas, pudor, continentia, fuga turpitidinis adpetentia laudis et honestatis and fortitude, whereas in Tusc, they are gravitas, constantia, magnitudo animi, probitas – the only overlapping quality is fides.).

So, this post-monarchic system was termed res publica, literally meaning ‘things of the people’. It was, however, a catchall term to a certain extent. As Flowers has pointed out, the term ‘…can mean both the political community (politeia) itself and its increasingly characteristic system of government.’ (Roman Republics, Princeton, 2012, 11)

The changes in the constitution (The use of the term ‘constitution’ must be treated with care, however; Rome never had a written constitution, but rather it ‘resided in the Romans’ accumulation of customary practices, traditional regulations, and public legislation.’ Tatum, Roman Democracy in Companion to Greek and Roman Political Thought, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, 214) are hard to pin down at the very instigation of this res publica – Livy in the opening sentence of the second book of Ab Vrbe Condita states:

‘I will now relate the history of a free Roman people in peace and war, the election of annual magistrates and greater obedience to the commands of law than to those of men’ ((2.1.1))

It has been suggested that here the reader is given the impression that Livy is proposing these changes as the actual beginnings of Roman history as opposed to the Etruscan / Sabine history of Early Rome, though the fact that there remain many of the nobilitās with Etruscan names who continue to play a major role in the later political structure does seem to challenge this idea (Frank, T, An Economic History of Rome, Batoche Books, 2004, 26). The two key points which Livy emphasises, however, are the concept of libertās (Basic meaning of freedom, though for the ‘hidden’ ideas which came with libertas, see Wirszubski, C, Libertas as a Political Idea at Rome during the Late Republic and Early Principate, Cambridge 1950, 7-30), though whether Livy, writing in the Imperial era, had the same understanding of the concept as that of the early Republic, we will never be sure; secondly, the elected magistrates and annual elections, and particularly with reference to the positions of the consulship, the dictatorship and the tribunate. Livy tells us that the first two consuls were Lucius Iunius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collinatus (1.60.3) – 510/509 BCE. This seems to be the first indication that there has been a change from the regal system prior to this (Chlup, JT, Nulla Unquam Res Publica Maior dissertation, ‘The consulship serves as synecdoche in that it represents the whole constitution, a position for which it is well suited as its most visible element in the Ab Vrbe Condita.’). What he does emphasise is that the power of the consuls was not lessened from that of the king, but rather that the annual elections were the source of the new libertās. (1.7-8)

‘One might more correctly state that the origin of the liberty was owed to the annual nature of the consuls tenure of office rather than any lessening of the power the kings possessed. The first consuls enjoyed all the rights and insignia of the highest office; they were only forbidden to hold the fasces at the same time, in case the double intimidation of the people should seem their goal.’

In the use of the language, the frequent repetition of libertās (six times in six sentences), the new constitution seems to become an equivalent of the early, mythical days of the birth of the city, the twin consulship almost a latter day Castor and Pollux, whose temple was on the Forum:

‘… the ancient legends of Rome are retold in the light of Rome’s new-found liberty as they illustrate the nature of it or reveal the dangers entailed by it. For Liberty is a complex possession.’ (Ogilvie, RM, A Commentary on Livy Books 1-5, Oxford 1965, 233)

In real terms, the actual structure of power does not in itself appear to have changed drastically; the insignia are those of the regal period, the power still rests in the hands of the consuls, though now a diarchy rather than a monarchy, but the visible structure has been adapted and limited to an annual tenure, chosen by the populus Romanus and hence the different words which Livy uses – potestās for the kings, imperium for the consuls – in order to underline the interpolation of libertās and the distinction between assumed potestās and the imperium granted by the populus as a consequence of that libertās. Indeed, the fact that Roman historians tended to date events according to eponymous consuls, as ‘in the year x and y were consuls’, not only underlines the continued elected nature of imperium and ergo the libertās granted to the Roman citizen as well as his duty to participate in the electoral process, but also that it gave later readers of Livy’s work an understanding of the ‘consulship as an inseparable part of Roman historical consciousness, functioning as the primary means by which he can – and must – work through the past.’ (Chlup, ibid.)

This new system of consuls and subsequently developed structure of magisterial offices, and the progress an individual was expected to go through in order to access and achieve such office, the cursus honorum, was to be the catalyst for the extension of Roman power and influence – the feeling of belonging rather than simple obedience to one man – instead, obedience to the Law and the Constitution were arguably the foundation which brought Romans to the realisation that they were Rome, and that they were her future as well as, for Livy’s later readers, that Rome was her citizen body and that they were an integral part of that continuity of populus and elected magistrati as their leaders (Cicero, On Duties, 1.124 ‘It is especially the duty of a magistrate to bear in mind that he is the representative of the state and that he must uphold its dignity and honour, preserve its laws, apportion to all their constitutional rights, and remember that all this has been granted to him as a sacred trust.’) which had raised the Empire to its position under the Res Publica. It can also, of course, be seen that it was the antithesis of this and the growth of the overweening power of individuals combined with an ever-deepening loyalty to the cult of one man combined with a level of violence and intimidation which grew to a point where it occasionally verged on anarchic, was to play a leading role in the collapse of Republican Rome in the 1st century BC.

A further key point to extract from here is arguably the birth of what would become the mos maiorum – the tradition of the ancestors, an intrinsic part of the Roman psyche (Ennius, Annals, 467 ‘On manners and men of olden times stands the Roman state.’). This could be interpreted as coming from the perceived role and actions of Brutus, a man of plebeian origin, who was to become one of the great heroes of Republican sentiment at Rome, assuming an almost mythical role in the founding of the Republic. As first consul, he is the bringer of libertās and indeed the embodiment of everything which was required of a consul (Bernard, J-E, Le Portrait chez Tite-Live, Brussels, 2000, 200 ‘le premier consul, Brutus, est le modèle exemplaire du consul républicain, symbole de la lutte contre la tyrannie des rois’). In moving to bring to trial and to execute conspirators against the nascent Republic, he is seen as being not only the bringer of libertās, but also its guardian and protector, even at the expense of his own sons who numbered amongst the conspirators – for the first time we see the Leitmotiv of Roman duty:

‘…the familiar theme of public duty triumphing over private relationship.’ (Ogilvie, Commentary, 241)

Indeed, the role of Brutus is described by Wisemann in the following terms:

‘In the construction of Roman identity, the legend of L. Iunius Brutus has a significance rivalled only by that of Romulus himself. After the foundation of the city, what could be more important in the collective memory than the means by which freedom and constitutional government was attained?’ (The Legend of Lucius Brutus in Citroni (ed) Memoria e Identità, 2003, 21)

Further, even though he would undoubtedly have been able to assume full power at the end of his tenure of office, Brutus stepped down, but remained a defender of libertās. (Livy, 1.8 ‘Brutus…qui non acrior vindex libertatis fuerat quam deinde custos fuit. (Brutus proved…to be as keen a guardian of liberty as he had been its initial champion.))

Here, in arguably the first hero of Rome, the pater liberatorem, is found the embodiment of everything that is required to be a citizen of Rome – the foundation of the mos maiorum in the founder of the Republic (Tacitus, ‘libertatem et consulatum L. Brutus instituit’ (L. Brutus established political freedom and the consulship) Annales 1.1). As this shows, even as late as Tacitus, there existed the automatic assumption in the Roman psyche that libertās was associated with the instigation of the consulship and the election of magistrates by the populus Romanus, though the question of what the concept of populus Romanus actually signified from the Late Republic and especially in Cicero’s writings is one to which we shall return. A major caveat, however, must be taken into account here. Brutus was evidently held in the highest esteem by the Romans, an esteem comparable with all other protagonists in foundation myths, though here the foundation of a political system as opposed to a city state itself, therefore the question of his existence must be considered. Welwei (L. Iunius Brutus – ein fiktiver Revolutionsheld in Romulus zu Augustus: Große Gestalten der römischen Republik Munich, 2000) has posited that he was in reality a fiction in which the highest aspirations of the Republic were personified and that, if a L. Iunius Brutus did in fact exist, his cognomen must date from the 4th century. Despite this, for the Romans he existed and that which he personified was evidently of integral importance to their ‘new’ government and its subsequent development and evolution.

From the period 500 – 264, the priority of the nascent Roman Republic was expansionism in the Italian Peninsula. At the outset, Rome was surrounded by hostile groups; to the East, the bellicose tribes such as the Sabini, Aequi and Volsci; to the North, the Etruscan poleis and to the South Hellenic colonial poleis with the hostile seas to the West, guarded by the (at that time) friendly Carthaginian navy. Rome’s main early military priority was to combine with her Latin allies in the plains of Latium and defend her territory throughout the ‘bella’ – though likely little more than border skirmishes in all actuality. There is little verifiable evidence for many events attributed to this period and our primary sources seem to be heavily influenced with a pseudo-mythological heroism of certain main players such as Cincinnatus, though, as Dudley (Roman Society Penguin 1991, 21ff) has pointed out, there are certain limited anchor points, such as the migration of 5,000 Sabines in 505 who went on to form the gens Claudia and the foedus Cassianum of 493 (Dionysius, Antiquities of Rome 6.95.1-3) which brought an end to an unexplained war between the Romans and the Latins. What we can tell from these victories are that the foedi show there to have been a legislative body rather than regal individual with the power to contract these treaties, and the populus Romanus grew with each victory as the newly conquered peoples were incorporated into the ager Romanus, though the level of citizen rights granted to these peoples did vary enormously (Finley, M Politics in the Ancient World Canto, 1994, 17). Dionysius (9.59.3-5) tells us of a further treaty with the Aequi in 467. The incorporation of new people meant a larger army and hence the greater chances of voluntary alliances and secession to Rome or the conquering of groups who would not submit to Roman hegemony by free will, such as the Etruscan city of Veii, eventually razed to the ground after a long siege under the dictator Camillus in 396 (Livy, 5.21.10-13; 22.1, 8; 23.3). Politically, we see the appointment of the dictator. There are serious doubts as to the veracity of the sources which are available for the early period, however, as well as subsequent interpretations made by those ancient authors; Wiseman cites the example of Horace who believed that a knowledge of Greek culture dated from the end of the Punic Wars (Epist. 2.1.156-163 (Wiseman, TP, Prehistory of Roman Historiography in Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, 66)). Such is evidently incorrect as soon as the evidence is examined, but was nevertheless the opinion of a writer of the calibre of Horace, showing the level of misconception which might well have existed. The first Roman historian, Fabius Pictor, wrote in c200 and his work was the basis for the subsequent historians. The evidence, which Pictor and his fellow historians of the 2nd century BC consulted, was scant even then (It should further be noted that Pictor’s writings were in Greek and aimed at a Hellenic audience; cf Erdkamp, P, Polybius II, 24: Roman Manpower and Greek Propaganda, 145). When handling this already poor evidence of the earliest period, they manipulated and distorted the situation such as to be more or less producing histories of their own day, or at least totally dependent upon the understandings of the events and structures through their contemporary eyes. These sources were in themselves distorted, either through intention or misinterpretation, by Livy in his Histories; as such, at least with reference to the political and legislative references Livy makes to the earliest periods, many modern historians question their level of reliability (Oakley in Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic Cambridge 2004, 16).

From the earliest days there was a level of disunity at Rome due to the differences between the plebs (Interestingly, terms such as plebs urbana – urban mob, and particularly plebs sordida – filthy and unwashed show that the term was originally extremely derogatory, but adopted by the plebs themselves, became a badge of honour and something of which to be proud, shown in the use of plebs in an official status) and the optimates, beginning in 494 and continuing sporadically until 287 which brought concessions at the earliest period and ultimately a granting of political equality at the end through the lex Hortensia (Gellius, Attic Nights, 15.27.4), though, as Kennedy has pointed out, there is ‘irony here…that the lex Hortensia was intended to bind the office [ie the tribunate] to the senate in order to use it to control the plebs.’ (The Politics of Natural Law in Cicero’s De Legibus, 5) The question arises, who exactly were the plebs at this point. Whilst there can be little doubt that the majority were from the small farmers, this is simply due to the economic and social realities of the time. Whether the better off amongst the peasant class, those who qualified to serve as the traditional hoplite force, were included, is debated. Raaflaub argues that such members of the plebs must have ‘dominated the phalanx’ (in Balancio Critico, 1993, 150) whereas Momigliano argues they consisted of those who were simply infra classem. Cornell, however, puts forward:

‘The likelihood is that they included both [agricultural workers as well as urban artisans], and that the organised plebeian movement embraced an undifferentiated mass of poor people who shared a common sense of distress and were united in their commitment to the cause. In this sense it was the plebeian movement that created the plebs, not the other way round.’ (The Beginnings of Rome, Routledge, 1995, 257).

He further goes on to point out that, if Raaflaub were correct in his interpretation and the majority of the heavy infantry were involved in the secession, it is doubtful that the Conflict of the Orders would have continued for any length of time, let alone the subsequent two centuries, and hence he more or less discounts Raaflaub’s idea. Moreover, the military contribution made by the plebs at this point does appear to be somewhat minimalised by Appius Claudius in 493 when he stated categorically that there was little to concern the state on this front as their role in the fighting forces was minimal and that the army could cope without them (Dionysius, 6.63.3). This again does seem to counter Raaflaub in that the removal of the majority of the hoplite phalanx through secession would have a major impact in military matters, whereas it is credible that any concerns would be lessened if the army consisted principally of the optimates and their clientelae for the heavy infantry and the cavalry, the plebs more likely supplying the light infantry and missile troops. This does, further, tie in with Frank’s proposition that the ensuing struggle had an economic basis as much, if not more, than a political (Frank, T, 2004, An Economic History of Rome, chapter 3: The Rise of the Peasantry).

The first major social unrest in 494 occurred when the plebs made a move against the treatment of the nexi – those in debt bondage (nexum) by the patrician class through their withdrawal of labour and occupation of the Aventine Hill or the Sacred Hill outside the pomerium. This is usually termed the First Secession of the Plebs, which Livy associates with the Latin Wars (2.32).  It was also here that the Temple of Ceres, Liber and Libera was dedicated on the Aventine, which went on to become a cult centre of the plebs, underlining the likelihood that the plebs consisted principally of men involved in agriculture, unsurprising when considering the economic realities of life in the period. The concession granted was the annual election of their own representatives in the governmental system – the Tribunes of the Plebs:

‘Negotiation then began concerning restoring concord, and agreement was reached on the following terms: the plebs should have their own sacrosanct magistrates, who would have the right to help plebs against actions by the consuls, and no senator would be allowed to hold the magistracy’

These originally numbered two to balance the consuls (Cicero, Rep. 2.58 ‘contra consulare imperium tribuni plebis…constituti.’ Livy, 2.58.1 – Diodorus 11.68.8 does suggest there were four or even five originally), though this grew to ten with one representative per tribe. It was from this point the concilium plebis came in to being, which excluded the patricians and further the tribunes were protected by the plebeian oath which swore to exact vengeance upon anyone who violated the person or obstructed the actions of the tribunes, thus rendering their person sacrosanct for the duration of their tenure of office (Frank, T, An Economic History of Rome, 28; Dionysius Roman Antiquities 6.89.1-3). This was to prove an exceptionally important concession in achieving an at least perceived balance in political power between the plebs and the patricians. The tribunate was in response to the major difficulties that the young Republic was facing, through domestic problems caused by rivalry between the two social groups as well as external – at this point war with the Volsci. The internal problems were the immediate necessity, as the latter would remain insoluble otherwise. Livy says clearly that the divisions were so marked that Rome was to all intents and purposes ‘a state within a state’ or ‘two distinct states’ (Livy, 24.1 adeo duas ex una civitate discordia fecerat). The creation of the tribunate was the only solution as it extended the up until now notional libertās to a concrete libertās for the plebs (Brunt, however, argues that libertās was something which was in reality introduced gradually due to simple political expediency as opposed to an ideological change at the end of the monarchy. The point still remains, however, whether the tribunate was a reintegration of the plebs or a first integration, something which is a highly debated and complex question). Wirszubski has argued, however, that the tribunes quickly

‘…ceased to be the champions of the under-privileged and became the allies of the ruling class, to which indeed many tribunes belonged… From a constitutional point of view, the alliance between the Senate and the tribunate was perhaps the most solid foundation for the senatorial supremacy in the State.’ (Libertas as a Political Idea at Rome during the Late Republic and Early Principate, Cambridge 1950, 32-3)

This alliance was one thing that made the later attempts and limited success to use the potential power of the tribunate by the Gracchi such a key change. It must, however, be held in mind that this simple division into two groups is perhaps much too simplistic. Terminology used in the archaic documentary evidence does seem to demonstrate that it was perfectly possible to belong to more than one group in society simultaneously, and therefore overlapping was at least likely. Such would allow for a series of groups with a differing level of interests, sometimes in common, sometimes conflicting and this must surely have served to exacerbate the problems rather than simply two diametrically opposed factions which would have rendered a solution somewhat simpler, avoiding the two centuries of struggle.

The next major event came in 451/450 with the codification of the Twelve Tables by the decemviri – the Council of Ten – as it set in stone – or rather bronze – the rights which each citizen could expect and the level of protection offered under the law (Livy, 3.32.5-7 for the creation of the decemvirate, Dionysius 10.55.4-5; 56.6-7 for the codifying of the law. For the texts of the XII Tables, see Dillon and Garland, 27-33). The Eleventh Table did, however, forbid intermarriage of plebeians and patricians (conubium) and, according to legend at least, the board of 451 was different to that of 450. Equally, the removal of the decemviri was only achieved by the Second Secession of the Plebs. In 449, the law of provocatio ad populum – the right of appeal to the People was passed, reaffirming the right of 509 of appeal to the Assembly where a sentence of death or flogging was passed on a citizen by a magistrate. This was followed in the same year by a law rendering all citizens, whether plebeian or patrician, under obligation to accept and follow the result of a full plebiscite – the laws of Horatius and Valerius (Livy, 3.55.1-7; 13-15). A reading of such documents as the Twelve Tables does show that the societal structure was highly complex as well as, in almost every example, bipartite, emphasising the underlying problems of the Conflict of the Orders (patres and conscripti, assidui and proletarii, equites and pedites, seniores and iuniores inter alia.).

445 saw the repealing of the clause in the Eleventh Table that banned marriage of plebeians and patricians but it was in the years 444 to 392 that perhaps the most radical occurrences took place when the consuls were replaced by either three, four or six military tribunes who exercised consular imperium. In the period 391-367, every year saw the six consular tribunes in power. What makes this key is that Livy tells us the office was open to patricians and plebeians, again loosening the patrician stranglehold on the reigns of power. 367 saw the lex Licinia Sextia (Livy, 6.35.1-5) which abolished the office of consular tribune and reintroduced the full consular system and constitution. There was also in this year the establishment of the praetorship. From 367, the consulship was opened to plebeian candidates (Livy, 6.42.9-14)as well as patrician and between 366 and 342 half of the years saw a plebeian consul in power.

Livy gives 443 as the year of the inauguration of the censorship. The censors were senior, arguably the most senior magistrates, of the state, though they were granted no imperium. In the early period, two were elected every four years, though this later became every five years, and almost invariably came from the body of ex-consuls. Until 339, they were usually both patricians (the first plebeian censor was recorded in 351), though after the leges Publiliae one of their number had to be a plebeian. We are told they wore purple togae (Polybius, 6.53.7), a throwback to the regal dress, and their initial duties were to register the citizens for military service (at least until the Marian reforms of 107) and for the purposes of taxation, as well as the granting of public contracts to the various bidders for these, the publicani (Cicero, De Legibus, 3.3 for the traditional duties of the censors). Until Sulla’s changes to the senate, the censors were also responsible for admitting new members and removing senators on fiscal and moral grounds. This latter role combined with the fact that they conducted the census of citizens by oath of family, age and property, participation in which was a prerequisite for the right to vote in the comitia centuriata, rendered the censors exceptionally influential and, despite a lack if imperium, indirectly powerful magistrates (Plutarch, Cato the Elder, 16.1 ‘This magistracy [censor] was at the peak, as it were, of every office and was, in a way, the culmination of any political career, as it had many powers amongst which the examination of character and lifestyle.’).

On the military front over this period, Rome had experienced a mixture of triumph and disaster. In 396, they had captured the city of Veii, not in itself an unusual occurrence as the expansion of Roman influence through military conquest had been a consistent in the recent preceding decades – where it is significant is that the sources tell us that it was their first major victory fighting without aid from their socii on the Plain of Latium. In contrast, Rome had been sacked in 390 by a marauding Gallic army after inflicting a heavy defeat on the legions on the banks of the river Allia just north of Rome (Livy, 5.48.6-9). The sources are, however, very brief in their accounts of the sacking of the urbs Romana, and we can simply be sure that it occurred, that the Romans were left with a deep seated fear and hatred of the Celts and that the tales of this which we have left are scarcely within the realms of credibility (Oakley, in Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic Cambridge 2004, 23). Subsequently a number of the Latin cities abandoned their alliances with Rome in 389 and wars were underway against the Aequi, Volsci and Etruscan cities as well as the Conflict of the Orders in Rome proper. Despite all these difficulties, Rome fought her way back against her enemies and political reform calmed the Conflict of the Orders to the extent that in 366, she was again looking to expand her influence in Italy. For the next century, Rome was more or less consistently at war, either against the tribes and Gallic homelands to the north or against the Hellenes to the south, including the Pyrrhic wars. 338 was, however pivotal in that it saw the end of the last Latin War which gave the Romans the opportunity to act as the masters for the first time and dictate the relationship which the Latinate cities were to have with their new mistress, as well as instigating the establishing of Latin coloniae. The Old Latin League was abandoned and the Latin territories were under Roman hegemony, with a number being forcibly absorbed into the Roman state at the point of a pilum, though resentment was not long lasting amongst some as the absorption often rendered the peoples of these new territories full citizens with all the rights and privileges which that entailed as well as allowing the cities to be governed locally. A smaller number of towns were allowed their independence, although the one thing they had in common was being surrounded by Roman territory, something which effectively rendered them powerless in any realms of foreign policy and trade outside of their own city borders. Other larger settlements, such as Capua, were absorbed into the ager Romanus but were cives sine suffragio – they were subject to all the demands which were made on a citizen, but were denied the vote and hence the opportunity to play an active part in the running of the state and were excluded from the magistracies, all of which were only open to full citizens.

The question of seemingly perpetual war in Rome is one which has been heavily debated amongst scholars for many decades. Why did the Romans allow a situation to develop where a significant percentage of the citizen population was continuously serving in heavy military campaigning? The generally held view until recent times was that Rome was forced to wage war by necessity of defence against highly aggressive neighbouring states whose soul desire was to destroy Rome, and that the subsequent growth in power and land at Rome was little more than a bonus of these defensive campaigns; Roman expansion seemed to be a purely accidental bonus of their defensive wars and the elimination or absorption of their aggressive neighbours into the Roman state was a result of kismet, or the will of the gods. Since Harris (War and Imperialism in Republican Rome 327-70 BC OUP, 1979) however, the question of the desire for economic gains and individual as well as state gloria has been raised. Whilst in wars in the Early Republic, defence was undoubtedly a key factor, the question of intentions in the Middle and Late Republican periods is a subject of heavy debate still, and readers should examine these questions through close study of the scholars involved in the debate (cf Rich, J, Fear, Greed and Glory Chapt 2 in War and Society in the Roman World, Routledge, 1993 for an excellent introduction to the question with references to the scholars involved in the debate).

The concurrent expansion of the ager Romanus over this period saw the beginnings of the perennial problems brought by private land holding. After Veii had fallen and its lands absorbed into the ager Romanus all citizens had been given a small land grant of several iugera which, though most likely of little actual gain to the wealthy, did give each citizen family land. The lex Licinia Sextia secunda of 367 sought to resolve this difficulty by making the maximum private land holding 500 iugera, an attempt to cut back on the much larger amounts of land held by individual patricians even at this point. The 330s appear to show a further change in the military, one which was the starting point of that which was to become the norm, in the evident lengthening of the military campaigning season. Livy (8.16.6) recounts that in 335, 334 and 333, magistrates did not raise new armies, but rather took them over from their predecessors. The legions had evidently spent the winter under arms rather than returning to their fields at the end of the campaigning season. These winter encampments amongst allies are recorded through the Third Samnite War on a fairly regular basis, again emphasising the change required by keeping armies in the field rather than disbanding them in order to allow the small farmers to produce their crops. Whilst it is necessary to treat Livy’s accounts of the 4th century with a certain level of sceptecism, there is equally no reason completely to discount these accounts as, with the increased distances from Rome and the need to hold on to the newly gained lands combined, such legions held over winter would most likely have served as a garrison for this period as opposed to continuing to wage the campaign and then be in place when the following campaigning season began under the command of a new magistrate (cf Rosenstein, N, Rome at War, UNC, 2004, 31-32).

The next problem to be tackled was the continuing difficulty of the nexum, thus a further lex Licinia Sextia of 366 was passed to alleviate this, followed by similar laws in 357, 352, 347 and 342. Evidently this was a serious problem which would not go away, requiring legislative intervention every five years. Whilst in many ways seeming to mirror the problems faced by Athens in the 6th century, which had been supposedly solved by Solon’s reform known as the seisakhtheia, the throwing off of burdens, the problem must have been much greater at Rome, principally due to the sheer numbers of the poor in comparison to those in Athens as well as the radically different attitudes of the eupatridai at Athens and their ultimate acceptance of the need for democratic reforms as compared with the refusal to abandon the oligarchy among the Roman nobilitās, and as such not easily solved by a single piece of legislation as had supposedly occurred in Attika, though the situation there was in reality much more complex. The difference in sizes of land holdings, the immense estates of the rich as compared with the tiny amounts of land held by individual peasant farmers, was the root cause of the problem, leading to an enormous level of debt amongst the lower classes who were poverty stricken at the best of times. The vast majority of the populace was being held to ransom by the tiny minority, a socio-economic situation which could not continue, hence the plebeian efforts to rectify the situation. As Niebuhr (Niebuhr, BG, The History of Rome, London, 1837-42) demonstrated almost two centuries ago, the main reaction at Rome, unlike anywhere else, was centred around the distribution of the ager publicus as opposed to privately owned land, demonstrated by the fact that the same difficulty was in existence in the time of Ti. Gracchus in 133. The fundamental difficulty lay in the fact that the state owned lands which the poorest farmers cultivated and upon which they relied was occupied as opposed to owned by the richest families and their personal clientelae, and the most extreme measures came in the form of limiting the amount of public land which these wealthy families could control via the means of the lex Licinia Sextia of 367. The moves by the plebs principally rested on the demand that new territories brought into the ager Romanus be distributed and allocated to named individuals (assignatio viritana) so that these lands, removed from state ownership, would not be open to occupation by the rich and powerful. Secondly there was the dual demand that there be legal limits on the amount of land controlled by one family – 500 iugera – and the number of livestock which might be pastured on that land. As Cornell (The Beginnings of Rome, Routledge, 1995, 328) has pointed out there was no limit prior to this on the land that a member of the peasant class might occupy either, provided he was a citizen, but the simple reality was that they either did not have the financial ability to occupy such tracts of the ager publicus or that they were unable to do so in the face of the power of the rich who also chose to move on any stretch of fertile land. The results of this attempt to restrict the land seizures are highly questionable. The only punishment lay in the form of fines, which the wealthy could easily pay, particularly taking into account the concomitant rise in income received from that land. Further to this, the obvious step of setting up a legal system to return the seized lands to the ager publicus was not taken, nor were the plebeian demands for assignatio viritana met, rendering the law little more than an ineffective stop gap to resolve immediate difficulties rather than propose a long term solution to the major socio-economic difficulty of the period. The simple fact that the Gracchan reforms, which did redistribute such land holdings, could call upon such huge swathes of land retaken from the occupied estates only serves to emphasise the ineffectiveness of this solution – indeed, had there been a successful outcome here, it would seem likely that there would have been no need for the Gracchan agricultural reform laws at all. Such a massive imbalance had reduced many of the poor to little more than chattel slaves in the social hierarchy or a situation comparable to that of the villeins of early mediaeval Europe; in 380, the tribunes had proclaimed that one class of citizens had ruined and despoiled the other (Livy, 6.27.6 ‘demersam partem a parte civitatis.’) and the supposed attempt at tyranny by M. Manlius Capitolinus, the hero who had saved Rome from the Gauls, was supported by his buying up the debt of many of the poor from his own personal fortunes, hence opening himself to the perennial cry of demagoguery to control the mob. It is, however, an obvious question to ask whether his traitor’s death, being thrown from the Tarpeian Rock, had more to do with his releasing the underclass from their nexum rather than any particular political question. The above mentioned legislation of 357 and 347, the latter of which halved the standing interest rate of 8.3%, was aimed at limiting the interest rates payable on the debt and facilitating the repayments required; Livy  (7.28.9) recounts that strict limits were placed on the interest charged by usurers in 344, and the lex Genucia of 342 banned the charging of interest on such debts completely. This ties in with the establishment of the bankruptcy commission of 352 (7.21). At some point in the 4th century, although an exact date is almost impossible to assign, the Roman mint was set up, introducing a silver based currency to the economic system for the first time, leading to the consequent economic crises which the fiscal legislation described by Livy attempted to control (Tenney, F, An Economic History of Rome, 30-31).

The distribution of land which had taken place requires an important point of note, however, and this had a further subsequent effect. The area around Latium had a good level of subsoil, and hence the fertility and productivity of such was better than the surrounding hills and mountain areas which had only a thin layer of soil set on top of the igneous baserock. As is often seen in modern day equivalent situations, the level of deforestation, which occurred very rapidly, had a further consequence in that the soil, which could bear harvests, was washed away through the processes of soil erosion at an extreme rate which then combined with the decreased rainfall that occurs after the removal of the forests to exacerbate the difficulties. Fertile lands became marshlands through clogged waterways on the plains due to silting of the streams and rivers, increasing health problems in a major expansion of malaria carried by the mosquitoes which inevitably bred in the new marshlands; indeed, erosion in the Sabine Hills became so extreme that they became bare rock and totally incapable of supporting arable farming, though still supporting goats and sheep. Much of the remaining land was also put to raising livestock as the cultivation of grass was easier on the plains due to the extended dry season and lesser amount of fertile soil as, despite the necessity to cut food for the livestock from any still forested areas during the height of the dry season, there was a market, and hence income, available from the meat markets of the urban wealthy and the necessity of wool for clothing. As the ager Romanus expanded, the availability of pasture for both winter and summer became available, but, despite the profits which the livestock breeding brought, the original capital investment which success in this area of agriculture required, was well outside of the capacities of most of the peasant farmers. As the wealthy expanded their control over these lands, particularly in Campania, the work was most likely carried out by slaves, leading to emigration of citizens and the concomitant problems this led to in the city to which they moved. In the areas where the soil erosion had been especially harsh, the only things which could be cultivated were the olive and the vine, again something which lay outside of the fiscal power of the peasants as vineyards required some five years with no return from the wine, and olive groves are a minimum of fifteen years before any return is made from oil. These three major changes in the agricultural produce of the central lands of Italy were to lead to the need for ever greater imports of grain and subsequently the requirement of leges frumentariae for many holders of political power as well as the much later necessity for the annona, the state sponsored grain dole, to subsidise the food requirements of the swelling populace and prevent high, regular numbers of food riots, indeed, even the rapidity with which the ager Romanus expanded in a short period of time still did not solve these problems (Beloch, KJ, Römische Geschichte bis zum Beginn der punischen Kriege, Berlin, 1926, 620-21 – 822km2 in 510, 1,902km2 in 340 and 23,226km2 in 264 of a potential 130,000km2 on the whole peninsula). Livy (5.30.8) tells us that the main reason behind the distribution of the ager Veientanus was to encourage a growth in population post its occurrence in 393, but when comparing this to what we know of the reality, this motive must be examined, again posing the question as to how much Livy was transposing the problems of the Late Republic into a time before they actually existed. The problem just as likely lay more in the simple fact that the military manpower required by Rome could only be drawn from the assidui, those who were above the capite censi or proletarii. In granting the parcels of land to numbers of the landless poor, the system was raising those landless, who as such were not available for military duty, to the station where they would be expected to fulfill that requirement, hence ensuring the legions were fully manned. In later times, the principle beneficieries were the veterans, given part of their booty in the form of land from the ager publicus, but prior to this, the settlers are not mentioned as being mainly veterans until after the Hannibalic War, so, whilst in the Middle and Late Republic, ‘victories often led to distributions of land of which the beneficiaries were probably the soldiers who had won the battles’ (Brunt, PA, Italian Manpower, 225BC-AD14, Oxford, 1971, 392) the question of the beneficiaries of the Latin land grants in the Early / Early-Middle Republic is open to perhaps wider questioning. Furthermore, in the 3rd century until the start of the Hannibalic War in 218, Rosenstein (Rosenstein, N, Rome at War: Farms, Family and Death in the Middle Republic, Chapel Hill, 2004, 60) estimates that some 240,000 soldiers served, whilst only 60,000 veterans were settled in Latin coloniae. If such a limited fraction of the soldiers were settled, the question must arise as to whether they refused such a land grant, or whether such were only offered to the minority of the veterans, and if this were the case, would not the remaining colonists be ergo drawn from the proletarii, thus diminishing the number of landless poor whilst expanding the pool of potential soldiers? Indeed, if we look into the Late Republic, one of the key reasons for the reforms of Ti. Gracchus was, as explained in detail in a later chapter below, the low level of the numbers in the legions and the concomitant problems which ensued from such undermanning. As long as the capite censi was ineligible for military service, until the Marian reforms of 107, any process via which they could be granted the position of assidui would surely have been used. Though many scholars accuse Livy of imposing the problems of his time onto situations in an earlier period as stated above, I feel that it must be accepted that such reason for the Gracchan reforms instigated by Tiberius in 133 might have been simply using a solution which had been effective before, in time of need of greater military strength, particularly in the expansionist period. The fact that Livy points out with regularity the use of military terminology for the foundation of the Latin colonies is undeniable, but does this necessarily imply that the settlers were all veterans? The comitia centuriata used a military structure and assembled on the Campus Martius and the citizen ordones were classified in military terms, but were nevertheless part of the civilian social structure at Rome; hence, the use of militaristic terminology does not, it would appear, necessarily imply a purely militaristic structure in the new coloniae as it did not in Rome itself. It must also be borne in mind that the participation in a Latin colonia, unlike the obligation to settle a Roman colonia, was on a purely voluntary basis and the settlers in such Latin coloniae were under no compunction to depart their homes and set up in the new settlements (Salmon, ET, Roman Colonization under the Republic, London, 1969, 24). Whilst there should be no doubt that veterans played a part in the settling of new coloniae, something which can be deduced from the fact that there were two sizes of land grant, one half the size of the other, there would doubtless have been a large percentage of settlers who came from the landless but who, through their land grant from the ager publicus, would be raised to the status of assidui in order to increase the military power of the citizen army in the Roman coloniae and a population of former Romans in many of these new Latin coloniae who would be available in time of war (cf Brunt, PA, Social Conflicts in Republican Rome, Norton Library, 1971, 5ff for the Roman origins and restricted rights in Latin coloniae after they renounced their status as Quirites in return for land). The majority of the peasant class did, however, head for the city of Rome, their abandoned land, especially in the southern, fertile lands, being snapped up by the wealthy landowners, where they simply added to the burgeoning markets for the products subsequently produced on a large scale on their abandoned fields. In later periods after the conquests of Gaul, Hispania and other Mediterranean littoral provinciae, the pushing of these hungry mouths to colonise was possible (although few coloniae, Roman or Latin, were founded post 177), the Early Republic was able to cope with the growth in the urban population, though it did lead to drastic falls in the rural populace and the expansion of the wealthy villae estates. Hopkins (Conquerors and Slaves, Cambridge, 1978) assumes that there were some 3,000,000 free inhabitants in southern and central Italy and a further 1,400,000 in Cisalpine Gaul in 225, of whom some 400,000 were urban dwellers. This he combined with an estimated 4,000,000 free inhabitants, of whom 1,100,000 lived in cities by 28, based upon the Augustan census figures, meaning that the last two centuries of the Republic saw a drop of some thirty per cent (from 4,100,000 to 2,900,000). His estimates of the slave population are perhaps less easy to prove, but he gives an increase from 500,000 in 225 to 2,000,000 or so in 28, of whom 800,000 he believes would be urban based, giving a figure of roughly 1,200,000 rural slaves, meaning that the peasant class would never again be able to return to their rural Italian roots; the military service given by the peasant legionary had, according to Hopkins, the result that he was displaced from his country homeland for ever. The growth of a large scale market oriented system of farming with dairy producers closest to the city, slave worked crop, oil and wine producing estates beyond these and the livestock breeders at the limits of market oriented production farthest from the city tie in with Cato and Varro who write of the pastio villatica close by the urban limits. Archaeological evidence does also support the proposed slave worked estates beyond this, hence supporting Hopkins’ thesis. Whilst it has been argued that the sources do not talk of great numbers of slave staffed villae in the Republic which in itself shows that such were the rare example, I would argue that the the fact they do not talk of such numbers of slaves on the estates suggests that they were in fact more likely the norm; a writer is much more likely to refer to the exception rather than that which his readers might see every day if travelling through the countryside.

A further key shift in the power balance came with the election of Gaius Marcius Rutilus, a plebeian, to the office of dictator in 356, followed in 351 by the election of the same Rutilus to the office of censor. The subsequent development came in 342 when the lex Genucia (Livy, 7.42.1-3, 7) guaranteed that one of the consulships had to be held by a pleb, as well as the removal of interest charges on the nexum mentioned above. In 339, a second plebeian Dictator passed a decree which enhanced the binding power of plebiscite on all citizens and the lex Publilia clarified the right of the plebs to one of the consulships every year. Three years later, 336, saw the first occasion when a plebeian, Quintus Publius Philo, held the preatorship as well as dictator in 339 BC, consul in 339, 327, 320 and 317 and censor in 332 (Livy, 8.12.14-17; 8.15.9). These demonstrate the growing political rights and power of the plebs as opposed to the curule magisterial offices resting solely in the hands of the patrician class. The Colleges of Pontiffs and Augurs were not opened to the plebs until 300 (Livy, 10.6.3-6, 9-11) when the numbers of both Colleges were expanded. Perhaps more importantly, the same year saw the right of provocatio ad populum against consular decisions, reinforcing and enhancing the previous laws of 509 and 449. The decrees of 339 saw a point where, due to the binding of all citizens, including the patrician dominated senate, all the Quirites were obliged to accept all decisions passed by the plebeian assembly, there was a level of cooperation in government due to the tribunes and the curule magistrates cooperating as it put a level of restraint on both branches (Flower (ed), Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, 21).

The final Secession of the Plebs came in 287 (Livy, Periochae, 11), again principally due to the difficulties of the nexi. This resulted in a final ultimate law subjecting all citizens to the decisions of a full plebiscite.

In summary, the 5th century saw high political office becoming accessible to non-patricians for the first time in the guise of the ‘military tribune with consular power’ and, by tradition, from 445, the legitimising of contracts of marriage between plebeians and patricians, but these are by tradition and legend. As Finley has pointed out (Politics in the Ancient World, Canto, 1994, 14), this implies a level of wealth development amongst the plebeian class and made them a de facto ordo in their own right in every legalistic sense. Whilst these are generally accepted dates and leges, there remain questions – consular lists prior to the 490s hold non patrician names, leading to the question of how fluid the borders between the patricians and plebeians were prior to the more set boundaries imposed during the period of the decemvirate. Further, were the divisions into plebeian and patrician even really in existence prior to the leges Liciniae Sextiae? This may appear to be the installation of a class system; North points out: ‘The resulting oligarchy is often called the nobiles (nobles), and although the meaning of the term is disputed and the use of any term suggests a degree of class stability that was never in fact achieved by the great families concerned, it has served as a useful shorthand for the dominant elite at any point.’ (Constitution of the Roman Republic in Blackwell Companion to the Roman Republic Kindle Edition 2012).

The ruling group was to remain in a somewhat more fluid state than that which we would expect by using such terms in a modern sense.

The darkest point as far as reliable evidence is concerned lies in the late 5th and 4th centuries BC. Whilst we do have rather detailed accounts left by Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, as has been discussed above, their information must be treated with great care due to the questionably unconvincing nature of the sources upon which they relied in the first place. Rome’s position of power was low, as Eckstein has put it:

‘…down to the mid-fourth century Rome was not merely an ordinary city-state in terms of its institutions, but a not very successful city-state in terms of the achievement of even local security.’ (Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War and the Rise of Rome, UCP, 2006, 121)

Up until 338 (

Livy tells of the quelling of Latin resentment and a final victory under L. Furius Camillus and C. Maenius, consuls for 338 BC – 8.14.1-12), the question of Roman hegemony was still very much in the balance. As late as the mid 340s, wars of survival were still being fought within a day’s march of the urbs Romana.  Whilst she held major sway in Latium, as Sherwin-White has stated, ‘…in Campania and Etruria there were other states in a similar stage of development which in appearance were equally strong.’ Therefore, ‘…Conceptions of the Roman power that are only proper after the conquest of Samnium and the Pyrrhic wars need to be set aside.’ (The Roman Citizenship Clarendon Press, 1939, 39) Roman dominance was not a guaranteed future state at this point.

Whatever the level of trust we can place in these reforms and their dating, and even effectiveness and necessity, what cannot be questioned is that, by 300, there was little political advantage to be exercised purely by being a member of the patricians, and the élite of the plebeians seem equally to have shared political power. The problems of the poorer members of the plebeian ordo were presumably tentatively solved in the massive colonial expansion programme undertaken over the late 4th and early 3rd centuries BC, alleviating the pressures on the state and the populace when combined with the ultimate abolition of the nexum (Livy, 8.28.1-2, 5-8). The success of this must again be questioned, however – why would the final Secession of the Plebs in 287 have the problem of debt-bondage as a cause had it been solved by the earlier measures? Indeed, the economic problems caused by endemic poverty amongst a large percentage of the populace were to be a constant thorn in the side of the Roman state. This Conflict of the Orders can, moreover, in no way have been as extreme or violent as Livy seems to lead us to believe without the state falling in to civil war or collapsing entirely, but even so, there must have been a much more pacific period after 366 amongst the Romans as the increase of the land controlled by Rome through aggressive expansionism shows. The resultant reforms led to the integration of the plebeians into the governmental system, loosening the patrician grip on power and limiting their wealth through land, at least theoretically, via the lex Licinia Sextia secunda of 367. The cooperation of the senate, dominated by the patricians, and the tribunes to put through legislation was an integral part of the settling of the Roman governmental system, though, as events such as the necessity to pass laws enforcing previous decrees and the continual annexation of the ager publicus show, there were difficulties which were to remain chancres in the Roman state. Nevertheless, these reforms did help ad concordiam civitatis and bring at least some level of harmony to the state by the integration of both patricians and plebs in the state, the military and the governmental structure. The releasing of the poor from the labour which they supplied as part payment under the nexum did leave a large gap in the workers for the estates, and it is from this point that the importance of the slave work force in the agricultural industries takes on a more major role, as this was the only practical source of filling the apparent deficiency in numbers of the necessary labour force, and from the time of the Samnite Wars on, there are regular records of mass enslavements after almost every major military campaign; indeed, the slave markets were to become a key element in the Roman economic growth through the free port on Delos which, it has been estimated, could cope with some 10,000 slaves per day, mainly supplied by the pirates in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it was from this early period that the key importance of slavery stems, not, as some have argued, as a development in the period after the Second Punic War; evidence from the 4th century shows that Rome was a slave society long before the titanic clash with Carthage, and as Brunt has argued, the Romans would scarce have been able to enlist such a high percentage of the workforce as well as keep the economy functioning and the food supplies if there had not been a substantial number of slaves already being used in the agricultural industry during the almost two decades of the Hannibalic War and the life and death struggles which involved such enormous numbers of the cives Romani and the socii (Brunt, PA, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic, 19). This new found liberty of the peasant class and replacement by the slave workers had a further knock on effect in that it gave the state a much larger pool of men to call upon for extended military service, provided those numbers qualified for a position above the capite censi, a likely reason, as explained above, for land grants from the ager publicus, thus allowing for more prolonged and more frequent campaigns and consequent expansion of the ager Romanus due to the Roman citizen army; as Nicolet has pointed out, ‘At any given time when the state was at peace with its neighbours, Rome had no army at all.’ (Le métier de citoyen dans la Rome Républicaine, Paris, 1976, 134 (trans. Falla, London, 1980)) While this is undoubtedly true, the number of years in which Rome was not actively involved in military campaigning is very low.

It is in the five decades after 338 that we see the appearance of the municipes. The Campanians were the first to be granted this new civitas sine suffragio – citizenship without vote, and therefore not classed as Quirites under law, though still requiring them to fulfill the duties in military service of the full citizens – for having taken no part in the second Latin uprising. Livy (Livy, 8.17.12) tells us how subsequently in 334, the Acerrani were Romani facti – made into Romans. Interestingly, this, unlike on previous occasions, appears to have required no military service to the Roman state. The granting of citizenship to various degrees was to become an almost Leitmotiv of Roman history, finally reaching its zenith under Caracalla in the 4th century AD when he granted all inhabitants of the Empire citizenship, though this was a broadening of suffrage to expand the tax pool in an attempt to counteract the extreme fiscal problems facing the Late Empire rather than for any altruistic reason. It must, however, be taken into account that there does appear to have been a certain level of confusion between the terms civitas sine suffragio and socii foederatii within our primary sources. Livy uses the former to refer to the Atellani, though they are listed later alongside the Samnites, socii foederatii who did revolt (Livy, 22.61.11-13). This refers to after the culmination of the Second Samnite war, the reasons for which Livy gives in detail (8.23.1-7). Where Rome did benefit most from such settlements for peace was in the increase of military manpower upon which she could call whilst, either directly or indirectly controlling the external political life of these:

‘The rulers of Rome thus secured what they wanted most: direct control of the military manpower of these communities. During the later stages of conquest of Italy, Rome made unilateral treaties with allied communities that largely kept their independence. Even these allies lost part of their sovereignty, however, because their troops could only fight under Roman command and their authorities could no longer engage in diplomatic relations with other states.’ (Erdkamp, P, The Tranformation of the Roman Army in the Second Century BC in War and Territory in the Roman World, 43)

However we understand these debated points, one thing is indubitable; from the earliest days of the Republic the executive arm of the state was supplied by the magsitrati and, unlike our modern systems, ‘there were no abstract, permanently staffed institutions of government that would continue to exist whether or not someone was in charge of them.’  (Mackay, Ancient Rome CUP, 2007, 26)

Therefore, this must be the next point examined.

At the instigation of the Republican system, there were only a small number of magistrati and, in comparison with the duties of the later magistrates, relatively confined and simple, though they were to lay the foundations of those later magisterial duties. The following table from Mackay best sums these up:

  • ‘Collegiality: With the exception of the dictator (not a normal magistrate), magistrates always came in boards called ‘colleges’. All members of a college had equal powers, and in the event of conflict, the negative wish prevailed, that is, one member’s opposition was sufficient to thwart another member’s action.
  • Popular election: Roman magistrates were always elected by the Roman People in their various assemblies.
  • Annual terms of office. Apart from the Censors, Roman magistrates held office for only one year. While in office, they were not subject to legal prosecution, but the restriction of office to only one year meant that they were soon accountable for their actions. (By the fourth century, this restriction was found to be militarily inconvenient, and an extension of office called prorogation was instituted to allow magistrates to continue to operate outside the pomerium for more than one year).
  • Prohibition of direct election from one office to another. Although this was not apparently a fixed rule at first, the Romans soon developed the idea that a magistrate should not be elected to another office while already holding one. The reason for this is obvious given the immunity of magistrates from prosecution.’ (Mackay, ibid, 27)

Now we need to return to the assemblies. Gellius describes the three popular comitiae thus:

‘It is also written in the same book [Laelius Felix to Q. Mucius] that, ‘whenever voting is carried on according to people’s families it is called the ‘curiate’ assembly [comitia curiata], when by property and age a ‘centuriate’ assembly [comitia centuriata] and when by regions and localities a ‘tribal’ assembly [comitia tributa]; furthermore, it is against the sacred law for the centuriate assembly to be held in the pomerium as the army must be gathered outside the city limits, and as such it is llegal that it be gathered in the city. Thus, it is practice to hold the comitia centuriata on the Field of Mars [Campus Martius] as the army would also be brought to this place for the reasons of protection of the people while they cast their votes.’ (Attic Nights, 15.27.5.)

As discussed above, the oldest of these was the comitia curiata. The most powerful and influential was the comitia centuriata. According to tradition, this had been instigated by Servius Tullius, the penultimate king of Rome, in the mid sixth century BC. The main role of the comitia centuriata was the election of these senior magistrates – the consuls, praetors and the censors, and the declaring of war and of peace. Until the third century, it also passed laws, though after this date this duty usually passed to the other two major assemblies. Both Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus are our principle sources for the workings of this assembly, though they were, to reiterate, writing much later. It is they who explain the name – that the structure of the assembly bore significant similarities to the hierarchical structure of the army, though based upon wealth. The voting centuries, based upon the military expectations of the wealth class to which a citizen belonged varied massively in size and rights, just as in the army. At the highest level were the equites who constituted 18 voting centuries, beneath them, the class I who constituted 70 centuries by 3rd century BC, classes II-V constituted 90 centuries until the 3rd century and thereafter 100, a further four centuries were named for specialist army units, and the vast majority of the citizen pool, whose wealth was below that acceptable for military service constituted the capite censi amalgamated into one voting century. As those centuries constituted of the most wealthy voted first, it becomes obvious that, provided those of the equites and class I voted together, they would carry any vote and therefore there would be no requirement to call upon the other centuries – even after the 3rd century BC reforms, it only needed a handful of class II centuries to side with the upper two tiers and the vote was theirs. It is interesting to note, further, that the military connections also took place in that the comitia centuriata voted in the ovile on the Campus Martius, situated outside the pomerium in the location where the army would be assembled for a triumphal procession, possibly due to the structure of the assembly based upon the military hierarchy.

The latter two assemblies, the comitia tributa and the concilium plebis on the surface appear to be very similar in their roles. The major difference in them lay in the membership. As can be supposed by the name, the concilium plebis was composed entirely of citizens of the plebeian class and was closed to members of the patrician class and its principle role lay in the election of the plebeian aediles and the ten annual tribunes of the people. The comitia tributa on the other hand consisted of the citizen body from both classes, though the plebeians evidently heavily outnumbered the patricians. This elected the quaestors, curule aediles and the junior magistrates for the year. It further had the right to pass laws, something of which the concilium plebis was denied until the lex Hortensia of 287 (Gellius, Attic Nights 15.27.4 ‘In the same book of Laelius Felix (To Quintus Mucius) it is written…’Tribunes, however, do not summon the patricians or consult them on any question. And so, measures which are passed on the proposals of tribunes of the plebs are not properly called “laws” but “plebiscites”, and these decrees were not binding on patricians until Quintus Hortensius as dictator brought in a law that whatever the plebs decided upon should be binding on all Quirites.’). What is most interesting to note is the geographical organisation of both rather than a financial basis, in some ways echoing the Klesithenic reforms used to balance power at Athens. As the expansionism around Rome proper had succeeded, the number of tribes had further grown, rising to 31 rural and 4 urban by 241 through Italians being granted citizenship for the most part. The members of a tribe would all vote together – if for an election, then simultaneously, or one after the other for legislative purposes. The outcome of the tribal vote would be recorded as being either pro (for the proposal/candidate) or contra: against. There was further no debate allowed before the vote, unlike in the Athenian ekklesia, at Rome, such idea of debate was restricted to the contio which occurred and was completed prior to any vote in the assembly. It was not until 139 in the case of elections and 131 in legislative matters that the ‘secret ballot’ was introduced – prior to this, the voting had been orally reported to the teller of votes. The secret ballot involved placing one of two tiles in a ballot box – either V or A (VTI ROGAS – as you ask; ANTIQVO – as it was – there were only Yes/No options available to voters) where it was a legislative matter; in elections, the initials of the preferred candidate would be recorded on a wax tablet. This can be seen as a measure introduced to expand the democratic process – such a voting system had been common in Hellenic democracies – but was not seen as being a good thing by all, especially the patricians – Cicero stated quite openly: ‘who does not know that the laws providing for a secret ballot have removed all the authority of the optimates?’ (De Legibus, 3.34)

Polybius, cited as the introduction to this chapter, describing the structure of the res publica in his own day, viewed it as a mixed constitution:

‘The three kinds of government that I spoke of above all shared in the control of the Roman state. And such fairness and propriety in all respects was shown in the use of these three elements for drawing up the constitution and in its subsequent administration that it was impossible even for a native to pronounce with certainty whether the whole system was aristocratic, democratic, or monarchical. This was indeed only natural. For if one fixed one’s eyes on the power of the consuls, the constitution seemed completely monarchical and royal; if on that of the senate it seemed again to be aristocratic; and when one looked at the power of the masses, it seemed clearly to be a democracy.’ (6.11.11)

The question, however, remains as to how accurate Polybius was in this interpretation. For him, the monarchical element lay in the consular diarchy. Its regal powers tempered by the one year limit to the office and the fact that there were two consuls, something which does seem to tie in with Livy in Ab Urbe Condita. The aristocratic element was the senate made up of the élite and the democratic element by the comitiae and the plebs. Lintott indeed argues that Polybius believed the Roman mixed constitution as an excellent theoretical governmental system, though it was being pushed to its extremes by the pressures from the aristocratic élite:

‘…sovereignty nominally belonged to the people in their assemblies, various factors – economic, political, military and religious – ensured that the people deferred to their ‘betters’, the leaders of the nobility who, in fact, controlled all aspects of life and government through the senate and the magistracies. Because no salaries were paid for governmental duties, these tasks could in practice be exercised only by the wealthy.’ (Shotter, D, The Fall of the Roman Republic, Routledge, 1994, 2)

In all reality, through non governmental offices and influences, the richer census classes rendered the system a plutocracy cum aristocracy (‘…Polybius was wrong about the Roman constitution. An aristocracy governed the Republic from its foundation until Julius Caesar overthrew it.’ Rosenstein, N Rome and the Mediterranean 290-146 BC, Edinburgh, 2012). Polybius himself (11.3 – 8) did accept that he had simplified the system to its most basic level, but it must be borne in mind that, as a Greek, Polybius was most likely interpreting the system he looked on at Rome as an outsider through the eyes of his experience of the Hellenistic concepts of government and constitutional function he knew from home (cf. Tatum Roman Democracy? in Companion to Greek and Roman Political Thought, 215: ‘It did not occur to him [Polybius]…to inquire whether Greek political theory furnished the best means for understanding the complications of Roman government.’). It was standard Greek thought that the best political system consisted of a mixed constitution, stemming from the ideas propounded by Aristotle in his Politics, and any bias towards one system or another was to be seen as a weakness rather than a strength – cf his attitude that the Punic constitution at Carthage was inferior to the Roman in that it was too heavily biased towards a democratic outlook over the aristocrats (6.51). It is questionable whether the Hellenic ‘ideal constitution’ in the sense Aristotle meant it was even possible taking into account the differences in population between the Rome of the time and any of the Greek poleis; even Athens, the largest of the Greek city states, at the height of her influence and power was tiny in comparison to the Rome of the 2nd century BC, and it can indeed be argued that a better understanding of the governmental, political and social structure which was more familiar to Polybius from his Greek upbringing comes rather in Thucydides (8.65.3) in which the balance of power rests with what we would term the economic middle class, preventing an extreme level of influence from either the rich or the poor, though the thory of the evolution of a constitution based on generic type must be taken into account (cf Hahm, DE The Mixed Constitution in Greek Thought in Greek and Roman Political Thought, 190-196 for a detailed discussion of this point.)

. This was most certainly not the case at Rome. As Heftner has stated:

‘..die Analyse, die er auf diesen Fakten aufbaut, ist jedoch zu sehr von dem griechisch-polittheoretischen Idealbild der so genannten ‘Mischverfassung’ inspiriert, um den Realitäten der römischen Welt ganz gerecht werden zu können. Seine Vorstellung von einem aus der Verbindung unterschiedlicher Verfassungselemente hervorgehenden dauerhaften Gleichgewicht nimmt keine Notiz von der Tatsache, dass die von ihm beschriebene Ordnung in Rom das Produkt einer ganz bestimmten historischen Entwicklung war, und dass ihre Stabilität, die ihn so beeindruckte, dem Zusammenfall einer günstigen Konstellation gesellschaftlicher, mentaler und struktureller Voraussetzungen zu verdanken war…’ (Heftner, H, Von den Gracchen bis Sulla Verlag Friedrich Pustet, 2006, 20-21 ‘‘…the analysis which he constructs from these facts is, however, much too heavily inspired by the Greek political theory of the ideal in the so called ‘mixed constitution’ to be classed as an accurate representation of the Roman world. His depiction of an enduring equilibrium stemming from a situation in which the elements of the constitution are linked does not take into account the reality that the order he describes at Rome was the product of a very individual development and that its stability, which so impressed him, was due to the coincidence of a whole group of social, mental and structural preconditions…’)

Polybius, indeed, underlines this power of the tribunate:

‘…where a single one of the tribunes exercises his veto, the senate may not pass a decree concerning any matter; it cannot even sit – and it must be pointed out that the tribunes must always act in accordance with the point of view of the people and act on its wishes.’ (6.4-5)

The continuing influence and the need to persuade the people who carried the votes in the assemblies was to remain of major importance throughout the Republican period, and in particular the right to veto from a tribune where any legislation was viewed to be to the disadvantage of those whom his duty it was to protect. The necessity of delivering canvassing speeches, either on a candidate’s own part, or for another’s election, was never to be removed and the simple fact that consuls spent a large part of their year in office organising the elections and supervising the campaigns of those who were to follow them shows this. This intrinsic overlap of the senatorial auctoritās and the ultimate power lying in the hands of the populus Romanus was to play a fundamental role in the political life of the Res Publica Romana throughout its existence. Where the senatorial elite was able to make its biggest impact was not due simply to the bias in favour of their centuries in the voting assemblies, but rather in the economic power which it wielded, playing on the reliance of the majority of the populace on their ‘betters’. When this was combined with the seemingly innate idea of deference to these ‘betters’ prevalent among the poor, then the power of the optimates is more clearly seen (cf Cicero pro Flacco 15-16 – he condemns the Greek civic assemblies as the uninstructed mob taking votes upon which they have not reflected nor been guided by their ‘betters’ unlike the instructions from their betters which the Romans received in their contiones). It was a confusing mix of these as well as the long established interconnection of individualisation and such peculiarities of the ancients as the fully established system of dependent clientae, particularly where such were built up over a series of generations, that the success in confounding attempts at any collective identity amongst groups outside of the richest echelons of Roman societal structure can be best observed. Indeed, it can be argued that it was this situation which prevented the slanderous charge of demagoguery being aimed at many of the politicians who were overtly populares, though more on this later.

The speeches and debate which preceded a vote were held in a very specific assembly, the contio, one of four non voting assemblies which could be called (The other three were the military contio, held on the Campus Martius outside the pomerium and two others which gathered to hear eulogies to a deceased statesman at the rostra and the triumphal contio held after the procession from the Capitol by a successful general). The contio had no power in the formal sense; ‘to hold a contio is to speak to the populus without taking a vote.’ (Gellius, Attic Nights, 13.16.3) This does not mean that they were of little or no importance, however. Millar (The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic, Michigan, 1998) has presented detailed arguments as to the informal power and consequent importance of the contiones and Morstein-Marx states:

‘…they had a clear and essential place in the traditional legislative machinery…these meetings, and the responses to them of the citizenry, other magistrates, such as tribunes and consuls, or the Senate, tended to seal the fate of bills, so that by the time they came up for a vote the results rarely occasioned any surprise.’ (Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic, Cambridge, 2004, 35)

The power and influence of the contiones is something to which I shall return later. Suffice to emphasise here the importance of these non legislative assemblies and the reality of political life that any politician who wished to carry a vote had to be able to sway and persuade the contio prior to its being put before the voting assemblies.

On the military front, by 290, the Samnite Wars were finished, the alliances had been signed and the Romans had, if not conquered, at least brought their northern Etruscan neighbours to heel. However, we know from accounts, though rather vague and full of lacunae, that there was military action again in 284 in the north. A Gallic tribe, most probably the Senones, was besieging the Etruscan city of Arretium, which had been under Roman rule for a substantial period of time. The Gallic siege army also probably had an element of Etruscan rebels amongst its numbers and had been serving as mercenary forces, although none of the sources tell us for whom. Under terms of treaty, the Romans, after receiving a request for aid from Arretium, sent an army commanded by the consul for the year, L. Caecilius Metellus Denter either to persuade the Gauls to end the siege or to defeat them in battle. In probably 283 BC, the Romans and the Gallic / Etruscan army met Metellus’ forces on the field of battle, the Romans suffering a major defeat and Metellus Denter losing his life. A second army was sent out from Rome, this time commanded by a veteran general, M’. Curius Dentatus. As there was technically a treaty in existence with the Senonian Gauls following a major Roman victory twelve years previously, the Senones would have been under a variety of obligations to the Romans, and hence Dentatus sent envoys rather than drawing up his battle lines immediately. These envoys brought two demands – the return of Roman prisoners after the defeat of Denter, and a demand that the Senones not permit any of their tribesmen to serve in a mercenary capacity under Etruscan command, the Romans technically being in a state of war with the Etruscans. Accepting that both of these are correct, though there is absolutely no reason to doubt the former, the Senones was not the key enemy Rome was intending to defeat in this conflict, but rather to crush what must have been a full revolt on the part of an unknown number of Etruscan poleis. Had the Senones agreed and returned to their native lands, it is likely that, in the short term at least, there would have been no further comeback from Rome, although probably only until she had dealt with the more immediate and presumably pressing Etruscan threat. The Senones, however, broke all traditional and sacred laws regarding official envoys and put the hapless Roman ambassadors to death, hacking them to pieces and, according to one account, spreading their bloody remains. This act was viewed by all later Roman writers as being reason why barbarians, and especially Celts, were totally untrustworthy and as a justification of all martial acts against them in subsequent times. Indeed, the act was viewed as such an atrocity that P. Cornelius Dolabella, consul for 283 stopped his march on the Etruscan homelands to invade the Senonian homelands and commit what amounted to genocide and ethnic cleansing, laying waste to the entire territory, slaughtering every man and selling the women and children into slavery, after which their territory was absorbed into the Roman sphere as the ager Gallicus. Having achieved this, Dolabella returned to his campaign against the Etruscans. This treatment of the Senones only served to bring a much more powerful Gallic tribe, the Boii, into alliance with the Etruscans and their remaining Senonian mercenaries and they marched on Rome, getting to within 45 miles of the city. Dolabella met them at Lake Vadimon and nearly annihilated the allied forces. Those who fled the battlefield were chased down by Dolabella’s colleague. The subsequent three campaigning seasons were spent in subduing the Etruscan poleis until a far more dangerous threat came from the south in the form of war with Magna Graecia.


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