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 BCE. 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 associated with the Roman Republic are:

  • Badass Army
  • Badass Bureaucrat: The Romans practically wrote the book about effective bureaucracy. Every magistrate was expected to have military experience, and consuls and praetors were field commanders in addition to being civil officials.
  • Berserk Button: The rape of the noblewoman Lucretia (and her consequent suicide) drove the Romans into an absolute rage. You can guess the result.
  • Better to Die Than Be Killed: Romans considered that this was a way to Face Death with Dignity. Famous Romans who killed themselves in the face of defeat or sure death include the pro-Republic figurehead of the Civil War Cato the Younger, Marcus Antonius, the governor and general Quinctilius Varus, and the philosopher Seneca.
  • Book Ends: A rebellion against a supposed tyrant led by a man named Brutus played a crucial role both in the creation as well as in the end of the Roman Republic.
  • Boot Camp Episode: The drill grounds on Mars Field.
  • Break the Haughty: According to tales Romans had a slave ride in a triumph (victory parade) beside the victorious general whispering in his ear that all glory is fleeting. It was hoped that this way they would not be filled with enough pride to offend the gods or otherwise do harm to The Republic . Unfortunately not every haughty person was that easily broken. Even Rome couldn't fight fate.
  • Bureaucratically Arranged Marriage: Marriage was first and foremost a business arrangement between two families, and divorcing one's spouse to get a better deal from a different family happened often. Romans were also not particularly accepting of open affection, so Happily Married couples who openly acted this way were often found to be scandalous.
  • The Clan: Many of the aristocratic families of Rome.
  • Cincinnatus: Rome actually managed to create a number of these in Real Life. Including the Trope Namer.
  • Conscription: Rome had an elaborate system for enrolling citizens in its army.
  • Cool Sword: The Gladius
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: While the idea of business corporations was still over a thousand years in the future, traces of the trope can be found in Marcus Licinius Crassus. Famously, the man owned his own private firefighting service; whenever a building caught fire, he would offer to buy the properties from the owner and its neighbors at a scandalous discount, putting a literal spin on the term "fire sale." If the owners refused to pay up? He'd let the building continue burning.
    • Crassus was seemingly so single-mindedly focused on the accumulation of wealth that when someone caught him seemingly flirting with a Vestal Virgin and accused him of having an improper relationship with her—a crime for which the penalty was death for both parties—Crassus said that he was simply trying to win her trust in order to buy her villa at below market value; carnal desire didn't figure in at all. The court—and everyone else—believed him.
  • Courtroom Antic: Romans almost regarded the courtroom as a spectator sport. Considering the sizes of the juries involved, it might as well have been. Rome's most famous orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, left behind a huge number of extremely long speeches, the most famous being his orations against Traitor Lucius Sergius Catalina. Antics Cicero got away with in court:
    • Calling the prosecution's witness, who was an attempted murder victim, a shameless slut, whore, and murderess, and then saying he wasn't going to call her a shameless slut, whore, and murderess, and then calling her a shameless slut, whore, and murderess repeatedly throughout the rest of his speech.
    • Accusing a political rival of incest in a completely unrelated case.
    • Pretending to be Rome personified (it's complicated).
    • Pretending to be a long dead Roman Consul (again, it's complicated). Incidentally, he was pretending to be the Consul so he could call the attempted murder victim above a shameless slut, whore, and murderess. And being quite graphic about it.
    • Telling the judge he was going to ignore all courtroom procedure for the citizenship application he was arguing and spend the next hour or so discussing Greek literature.
    • Giving speaking tips to opposing counsel.
    • Complimenting opposing counsel on his skill — because the counsel was once one of his students.
    • Accusing an opposing counsel of being gay.note .
    • Accusing the jury of being corrupt (although this was often the case).
    • Discussing fashion in the middle of a murder trial.
    • Discussing town planning in the middle of a murder trial.
    • Discussing highway maintenance in the middle of a murder trial.
    • Discussing the inconvenient placement of public holidays in the middle of a murder trial.
    • It is worth noting, after reading the above, that Cicero lost only one case. He lost that case because the court was filled with heavily armed, menacing-looking men wanting a conviction and staring meaningfully at the jury throughout the proceedings.
  • Determinator: The Romans did not give up, no matter how many armies or fleets they lost.
  • Determined Homesteader: What Romans of the Republic thought the ideal Roman should be.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The entire Third Punic War. After utterly humiliating Carthage years before and effectively forcing it to become a Puppet State, the Romans burned the city to the ground for daring to defy Rome and set its own policy ... by fighting back against desert raiders.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: And Roman centurions were distinguished for this.
  • The Evil Prince: Monarchy was so discredited by experiences of this that even Caesar had to pretend to be Just the First Citizen. Additionally, one of the proposed titles for Octavian after he attained sole power over the Republic Empire was "Romulus," after the mythical founder of Rome. This was rejected because Romulus had been both a king and kin-slayer.
    • The Republic apparently began due to an Evil Prince. Sextus, son of the last King Tarquinius, raped a Roman noblewoman Lucretia, leading to her suicide. This caused the royal family to be thrown out.
  • Fair for Its Day: Whether it was actually more than average even for its day is debatable. But the Romans did have a useful system of law and organization that was able to win admiration from many historians.
  • Feuding Families: Temporarily subverted. Roman Clans would competitively try to draw attention to how useful they were to The Republic, rather than simply fighting against each other. This made for a state with a remarkable cohesion. However though reduced and controlled Feuding Families were not unknown and may have been an element in the civil strife toward the end of The Republic.
  • Fighting for a Homeland: The legends surrounding the foundation of Rome.
  • Gladiator Games: Trope Namer (literally, gladiator means "sword-user," from gladius, "sword"). Romans were addicted to these.
  • Good Republic Evil Kingdom: After overthrowing their own monarchy, the Romans regarded the idea in much the same way we do Nazism.
  • The Government: One of the first examples of an abstract bureaucratized state that is not simply a monarchy's Family Business.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Most famously, Horatius at the bridge, though there were many others. Sacrificing one's own life for Rome and one's fellow soldiers was considered a virtue in Roman society.
  • Honor Before Reason: Both subverted and played straight. The Roman code of honor emphasized such rational concepts as discipline and team loyalty rather then being a Glory Hound. If Achilles had been a Roman the centurion would have beaten him black and blue with his swagger stick. Nonetheless the Roman Code though not completely irrational was very exacting.
  • I Am Spartacus: For the Trope Namer, see above.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Marcus Porcius Cato (Cato the Censor) ended every single speech he made in the Senate, whether it was on grain prices, the setting of public holidays, or treaties with Gauls, with "Carthago delenda est" or, "Carthage ought to be destroyed". Eventually the Senate fulfilled his wish.
  • In the Blood: Romans had a superstition that this was literally true and thus would sometimes give votes based on which Clan someone was from in the hope that he would have the qualities of a noted hero. This added to the normal Nepotism of political life. Oddly enough the results provided a number of bureaucrats that were competent to no-worse-than-average. Sometimes luck wins out.
  • I Thought It Meant: The Social War was a war against the Socii, or "Allies" (basically Italians who got drafted to make the army bigger), not a civil war.
  • Luckily My Shield Will Protect Me: The big shield is a distinctive feature of Roman armies in all periods.
  • Macho Masochism: When the Etruscan king Lars Porsena took sides in an early Roman civil war, a Roman youth tried to kill him and was captured. The youth (one Gaius Mucius) told Porsena that 300 Romans had sworn to kill him or die trying. Mucius then thrust his hand in a sacrificial flame to make the point. Porsena released him and sued for peace.
  • Made a Slave: The fate of those who would presume to resist the might of Rome.
  • My Defense Need Not Protect Me Forever: The Roman General Fabius Maximus Cunctator (Fabius the Great Delayer), preserved Rome by carefully retreating from Hannibal until Hannibal grew tired of pursuing. Meanwhile the rest of the Roman Legions carved up those areas of Carthage's empire where Hannibal wasn't.
  • Non-Idle Rich: Marcus Licinius Crassus, famous for becoming the richest man in Rome—and one of the richest in history, with an estimated personal fortune of anywhere from 170 million-200 million sesterces (amounts that easily translate into the billions of dollars today)—through shrewd but unscrupulous business dealings. Among other ventures, he had his privately-owned firefighter extortion scheme.
    • Especially in the late Republic, one of the best ways to get rich was to be awarded command of an army. Once someone had that, they could use it to extract wealth from any neighboring countries they could get away with. Politicians would often bankrupt themselves to get offices with military commands, since the wealth they gained would more than pay for the extravagant campaign costs. Notably, Gaius Julius Caesar and PompeyTheGreat were two Romans that became wealthy in this manner. (Crassus himself, though, was an inversion: in later life he used his vast wealth to get command of an expedition against the Parthian Empire, to increase his prestige. It did not end at all well.)
      • Crassus played it straight too: the start of his wealth came from contributing to Sulla's victory in a civil war and plundering the properties of the losing side, and then increased it through his business dealings. He was a good general too: Spartacus' rebellion was actually succeeding until Crassus single-handedly defeated him (Pompey ended up accidentally stealing his credit, as Crassus had asked for reinforcements before realizing he didn't need them and Pompey, returning from a successful campaign, destroyed the only rebel unit that had escaped their crushing defeat).
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Unlike many of their opponents, Roman legions (at least towards the late Republic) were trained to advance silently, only raising a warcry when within charging distance.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Lucius Junius Brutus, possibly the best example in Classical history. The man's obfuscation was so well-played, his very name means "dullard." He went on to overthrow the last King of Rome and found the Roman Republic, before dying in battle. Counts as a Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass, too.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Romans developed much of the western worlds tradition of bureaucracy. You know who to blame.
  • The Patriarch: An ideal Roman pater familias or family head is this.
  • Patriotic Fervor: The Republic was famous for this. In legend it went to the level of a whole nation of KnightsTemplar. After the disastrous Battle of Cannae, the Romans instead of making peace fielded a whole new army next year even when it included old, young and slaves purchased by The Republic. The Romans apparently accepted it as their civic duty to be reserves.
  • Puppet State: Especially during the Republic, the Romans preferred to deal with problem neighbors by exterminating their old leadership and installing new, friendly leaders who paid annual tithes to Rome. They reserved outright conquest for the more stubborn cases.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Pyrrhus of Epirus won two against the Romans. This caused him to leave Italy and abandon his allies.
  • Rain Of Spears: The Romans used the pilum, a purpose-built javelin, in a volley before going toe-to-toe with the enemy with a gladius. (The biggest problem with throwing a sharp pointy thing at a bad guy is that they can throw it back. The pilum handled this by having a deliberate weak spot halfway down the shaft, which caused it to deform on impact.)
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: The Roman Army was known for its ruthlessness as well as its prowess. Being a professional army, however, they tended to have pretty clear rules when it was not okay to Rape, Pillage, and Burn. Generally, if a besieged city surrendered before the ram reached the gates, the army would enter the city with much less fuss.
  • The Republic: Trope Namer, from res publicae, "public matters."
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: What quite a few people seemed to think towards the end.
  • Sleazy Politician: A number, most noticeable toward the end. Crassus was famous along this line.
  • The Spartan Way: The Romans didn't take it quite as far as the Spartans, but Roman centurions were infamously harsh on their men. While it doesn't quite fit this period, one Roman commander got the nickname "Give-Me-Another" for beating his men so hard and so frequently that he was constantly having to ask for a new baton. (It bears noting that he was one of many killed by his own men during a general mutiny of the legions in Germany.)
  • The Stoic: The Greeks were the actual formulators of this philosophy, but it suited the Roman code of honor well enough to become fashionable and almost stereotypically Roman. Cicero actually wrote a pamphlet ("On The Nature Of the Gods") contrasting the virtue of Epicureanism, Stoicism, and traditional Peripatetic (i.e. Platonic-Aristotelian) philosophy. While he comes down on the side of the Peripatetics, he expresses a great deal of sympathy for the Stoics. Meanwhile, his contemporary, Cato the Younger, was a huge Stoic.
  • Walking Armory: After Gaius Marius commanded every soldier in the army to carry his own weapons rather than use pack animals, soldiers could charitably be described as this... or uncharitably described as "Marius' Mules."
  • We Have Reserves: One of the main advantages Rome had over Carthage.
  • What He Said: When administering the military oath, the usual practice was for one soldier in a unit to repeat the whole thing while everyone else said "Idem in me (And the same goes for me)." Convenient when several thousand need to be sworn in at once.

Works about or including the Roman Republic include:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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