Useful Notes: The Roman Republic

Romulus and Remus, Rome's legendary founders

"There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish... it was so fragile."
Marcus Aurelius, Gladiator

The Eternal City, Rome, has several origin tales. The Aeneid recounts the wanderings of refugees from the sack of Troy who founded the Latin people.note  The Aeneid also says the Trojans are founders of the Roman people, though the city hasn't been founded yet. Later, Romulus and Remus, the Ur Examples of Raised by Wolves, founded the city itself on the curiously precise date April 21st, 753 BC. Certain aspects about the founding myths have a curious plausibility and the idea that the original Romans were an outlaw band or fleeing refugees does seem believable. Rome, founded on the seven hills, was ruled by a succession of seven kings, the last few showing heavy Etruscan influence (see here, here, and here for more info).

After a time the Romans lost patience with living in The Kingdom and threw out Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), and formed what they called a respublica (literally, "Thing of the People"), from which we gain the term "Republic." Rome was organized as an oligarchy with The Aristocracy, called patricians, controlling the "Senate" (derived from senex, meaning "old man"), though the public had some say on the issues through the tribunesnote  (lit. Protector of the People) who had veto power over the Senate, as well as the less formal ability to beg favors from their patrons. This organization is reflected in the famous Roman slogan SPQR which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, or "The Senate and People of Rome." The Republic in social structure was quite family-oriented with various clans becoming centers of webs of patronage, a patron/client relationship that has modern answers in political machines and The Mafia. While Rome's system was not democratic by modern standards it had for its time a reputation for justice and stability and its elaborate checks and balances were often admired by Greeks whose cities were often troubled by chaos.

The Republic had a succession of executive magistrates with one-year terms, including quaestors (low-level magistrates, 20 a year), praetors (mid-level judicial magistrates, the lowest office to grant its holder the benefit of lictors/bodyguards carrying around their telltale ''fasces''), and two consuls (top executives with executive powers checked only by each other and the Senate). In addition, the Republic came with a safety valve: in times of crisis, a six-month term for a special office, dictator, could be granted to one person, granting him complete control of the state. There could be good dictators (Cincinnatus, Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator), but usually the inherent danger of the office prevented widespread use, and both Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix and Gaius Julius Caesar would declare themselves dictator pro vita, or dictator for life, granting them supreme power until death.

The Republic expanded through Italy both through its Badass Army and its genius for wooing conquered people from nearby cities who shared similar cultures. The extreme early myths such as the Rape of the Sabine Women portray how much of Rome's early growth was due to both of these factors.

At this point Rome was a regional power in Italy. The three Punic Wars took Rome from merely being the dominant power in Italy to become the largest power in the Mediterranean Basin (to the point where the Romans simply called the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum, or "Our Sea"). The best known of these wars was the Second Punic War, involving the famous Hannibal. Due to these conflicts, Rome inherited the domains of Carthage's Empire, and sway over the Mediterranean rim. Unfortunately, the Roman governmental system wasn't up to governing a large multicultural empire, and internal power struggles grew more and more intense. Added to this was massive corruption and outright stealing of veterans' lands by large landowners. Popular pressure (represented by the famous Grachii) and Civil War broke out (first between Marius and Sulla, following a war with the Italian "allies"; then between Pompey the Great and Caesar), until finally The Republic was taken over by Julius Caesar. Caesar's successor Octavian, after a long struggle first with Caesar's assassins, then with Caesar's right-hand man Marc Antony, assumed the name Augustus and supreme power as the first Emperor of Rome (princeps, lit. "first citizen," originally a title awarded to the person entitled to speak first in the Senate—Augustus was leery of putting on airs. "Emperor" came from "Imperator" or "commander" in Latin, i.e. commander-in-chief of the armed forces, another of his titles. Obviously having the military backing him was essential for his regime). Though Augustus pretended he was merely first among equals and actually declared the Republic restored, the ascension of Augustus can be considered the death of the Republic.

The Roman Republic left a lot of imprints in Western culture in fields ranging from military tactics to engineering to philosophy (when they weren't plagiarizing the Greeks) to rhetoric (Marcus Tullius Cicero especially) to politics and the nice big one, law. The legal systems of most of Europe are wholesale borrowings of Roman Law with some adjustments, and even English-speaking nations will find a lot of old Roman Law in their own (the first rule of codified Roman Law is otherwise known as the subpoena).

Episodes from the history of the Roman Republic that show up in fiction with some frequency are:
  • The Pyrrhic War: Remembered best for the proverbial Pyrrhic Victories achieved by Pyrrhos, the ambitious king of Epirus (north-western Greece), who battled the expansion of Roman hegemony over the Greek colonies of Southern Italy, and eventually had to give up after winning all battles but the last.
  • The above mentioned Punic Wars against Carthage, especially the second one which featured Hannibal's famous trek from Spain into Italy, in the process crossing the Alps with War Elephantsnote  Hannibal and his (eventually futile) campaign into Italy are among the best-remembered episodes of ancient Roman history, partly because of the sheer tremendousness of Hannibal's military achievements, and partly because this was the last time for several hundred years to come in which, for a moment, the very existence of the Roman state seemed to be at stake.
  • The Spartacus Rebellion. In 73 BC, a rebellion broke out in a gladiatorial school in Capua, resulting in about 70 gladiators escaping. The gladiators, led on by a certain Spartacus, defeated an army detachment sent to bring them in, and, by systematically freeing other slaves, ignited a general slave rebellion, also known as the Third Servile War. At the height of the rebellion, a multitude of 120,000 former slaves — men, women and children — marched through Italy, supplying itself by plunder. After a series of spectacular victories for the rebels, fortunes changed and in 71 BC, the slaves were defeated in a Last Stand at Rhegium in Calabria by legions under the command of Marcus Licinius Crassus. Some 6,000 survivors were crucified along the Appian Road, while Spartacus' body was never identified.
  • The end of the Republic. The Gallic Wars, the rise of Gaius Julius Caesar, his Civil War with Pompey, his assassination in 44 BC, the annexation of Egypt after the death of Cleopatra VII, the struggle between Octavian and Mark Anthony and the rise of Octavian as Augustus, the first Roman emperor.

See also The Roman Empire, its successor state. For the Roman Army specifically, see The Glory That Was Rome.

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:


Works about or including the Roman Republic include:

Comics
  • Astérix: Takes place during Gaius Julius Caesar's era.
  • Suske en Wiske: In De Nerveuze Nerviërs the cast travels to Belgium around the time Caesar conquered the regions. They battle alongside the Belgian tribe the Nerva against Roman troops. In Hannibal the cast travels to the time when Hannibal Barca crossed the Alps.

Film
  • Spartacus — The 1960 movie starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Live-Action TV
  • Rome: The HBO series (co-produced by the BBC), premiered 2005 and 2007 respectively.
  • Spartacus: Blood and Sand: Series by Starz, premiered in 2010.

Literature
  • Lays of Ancient Rome by Sir Thomas Macaulay: A collection of poems about The Republic. They are imagined to be what early Roman literature would have sounded like if much of it hadn't been lost.
  • In Over the Wine-Dark Sea there are a few references to Rome, as well as a sea-fight with a Roman trireme. But it is otherwise agreed that it was one of those Barbarian cities "that would never amount to anything.".
  • Scipio Africanus: The Man Who Defeated Hannibal by Ross Leckie: A fictional autobiography of Scipio, the general who commanded in the Second Punic War and was possibly Rome's greatest general ever.
  • Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series.
  • As if the real Roman Republic wasn't Badass enough, John Maddox Roberts' Alternate History Hannibal's Children has them take a level or three in reaction to being exiled north of the Alps. When they come back one hundred years later, a Greek thinks that the sound of Roman laughter reminds him of swords clashing against shields. They don't swagger or bully; they're too badass for that. In one battle, an "inexperienced" Roman army under a "second-rate" general faces a veteran mercenary force twice their size and led by Carthage's best general. The Romans are wiped out — but the Carthaginian army is wrecked, with two-thirds of its troops killed outright, and most of the rest badly battered.
  • Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series.
  • David Drake's Ranks of Bronze has intergalactic traders buying a legion of Roman soldiers (the survivors of Carrhae) and using them as muscle against primitive civilisations.
  • Lucan's Pharsalia, an epic poem telling the Roman Civil Wars.
  • Robert Harris' Imperium trilogy, chronicling the life of the famous Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Table Top Games

Theatre

Video Games