Chapter 2


The republic, 510–60 BC

‘[Lucius Valerius] Publicola [one of the original consuls] instituted the rule that the lictors should march in front of each consul on alternate months, so that the insignia of office should not be more numerous in the republic than under the kings.’

(Cicero, On the Republic 2.31)

First-century BC bronze figurine of lictor with fasces. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

The Latin term res publica (from which comes the word ‘republic’) is usually translated as ‘state’ or ‘commonwealth’. At no time was Rome a democracy (that is, ruled by the people) in either the Greek or the true sense. Its society was rigidly divided by legal status (free or enslaved) and by class. Free men or women were further classified, for example, according to whether they were so by birth or by release from slavery, were Roman citizens or Latins, or were independent or answerable to a guardian or other person in authority.

Roman mosaic of child slave in kitchen, with figs and fish. (VRoma: Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg: Barbara McManus)

The republic began, and ended, as a state largely dominated by the two upper classes: the senators, who qualified by birth and wealth; and the equestrians or knights (equites). Until the second century BC, the latter were, by reason of their property holding, provided at public expense with a horse, with which they were required to report for military duty. The constitutional change from monarchy to republic was gradual. The main functions of the king, including full military command, were undertaken by two consuls with equal powers, elected for one year only.

From 367 BC, one consulship was normally held by a plebeian. The consuls presided over the Senate and over those assemblies which they were eligible to attend as members; they could also propose laws for consideration by the people. Their authority within the city was subject to provocatio (literally, a ‘calling out’), whereby the people could formally appeal against a decision. In time of war, however, right up to the beginning of the first century BC, the consuls, by tradition, led the troops. When both consuls were on a campaign together, sole command alternated on a daily basis. If the politics of the republic were about power, to achieve the consulship was also about prestige. To be, and to have been, consul was a privilege that was jealously guarded by a group of leading families, on whom it conferred nobilitas, which can mean ‘nobility’ but also ‘fame’ or ‘recognition’. The first of a family to achieve the highest office was referred to – sneeringly – as novus homo: ‘new man’ or ‘upstart’.

The consul was so named because he ‘consulted’ the people and the Senate. The constitution allowed, however, that in time of crisis, and particularly during wars, a single ‘dictator’ could be nominated to exercise complete control for not more than six months.

Statue of the young emperor Augustus as pontifex maximus, with his head covered as a mark of respect, end of first century BC. (VRoma: National Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

Matters of state religion were in the hands of the pontifex maximus (the literal meaning of pontifex is ‘bridge builder’). This was an elected office, in the same way as those of other state officials, but with it in his case came an official residence in the middle of the Forum. The pontifex maximus was responsible for the calendar, for presiding at state ceremonies, and for the nomination of Vestal Virgins and some priests. He also had disciplinary powers over the priestly classes.

State Officials

As the tasks of government of state and empire grew, so other political offices were created.

  • Censor (two): chief registrar, financial and tax officer, inspector of public works, and arbiter of public morality. The office was instituted in 444 BC, and it was held by a plebeian for the first time in 351 BC. The post was usually restricted to those who had climbed the ‘ladder of honour’ (cursus honorum) from quaestor to consul. From the second century BC elections for censor took place every five years, to coincide with the taking of the census. A censor held office for only eighteen months, though his acts remained in force until the next election. He had wide disciplinary powers, even over those who neglected to weed their agricultural land.
  • Praetor (six after 197 BC): chief law officer and judge, and understudy to the consuls, particularly in the administration of the provinces (provincial governors were normally drawn from the ranks of former consuls and serving or former praetors).
  • Aedile (four after 366 BC): supervisor of public works, temples, markets and games.
  • Quaestor (four after 421 BC, eight after 267 BC, and twenty from the time of Sulla): assistant to the consuls, particularly as controller of the military or civic treasury, and keeper of records. The minimum age was twenty-five, to allow for the completion of military service.

The early Roman coinage, like that under the kings, was linked to weight. This heavy bronze dupondius (c. 265 BC), 8.5 cm in diameter, was worth two asses (represented by the two bars) and carried the head of Roma, personifying the city. (Photo © Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

State Assemblies

While the existence of the various assemblies gives the Roman constitution an air of democracy, the Senate was principally an advisory body, and in none of the others did members vote as individuals. Voting was by group or category, according to the assembly's composition; the majority voice of a group represented a single vote. State officials (magistri) were elected by this means.

Senate: about three hundred members up to the reforms of Sulla. Nominations were originally automatic and by birth or rank; later they were made by the consuls and, after about 350 BC, by the censors. Plebeians were admitted during the fourth century BC, after which the senate became a body predominantly of men who had served as state officials. It did not pass laws so much as refer its advice (senatus consultum). It had, however, control over finance, administration of the state and empire, and relations with foreign powers. It also adjudicated on religious matters and acted as an intermediary between the Roman people and the gods.

  • Comitia Curiata: assembly ofrepresentatives of wards, ten each from the three original tribes of Rome,and the original people's council at the time of the kings. In the fourthcentury BC its functions were largely assumed by the Comitia Centuriata.
  • Comitia Centuriata: originally the assembly ofrepresentatives of military units (centuries). It was reconstituted into193 centuries, to which eligible voters (all Roman citizens) wereallocated according to their means. Each century comprised an indefiniteand variable number of members. Ninety-eight of the votes (a majority)were in the hands of the eighteen centuries of equestrians and the eightyrepresenting the top five property bands. The assembly elected seniorstate officials, declared war, instituted peace treaties, approvedlegislation, and, until the function was transferred to the courts, hadthe final say in cases of execution or exile.
  • Concilium Plebis (meeting of the people): the original plebeian parliament, sitting andvoting in thirty-five tribal or district divisions. It elected its ownofficers and formulated decrees (plebiscita) for observance byits own kind, which, after 287 BC, could be made binding on the wholecommunity.
  • ComitiaTributa (tribal assembly):organized in tribes in the same way as the Concilium Plebis but opento all citizens. It elected minor officials and was a means of approvinglegislation on a different voting basis to the Comitia Centuriata.

Republican coin, issued by the moneyer P. Licinius Nerva, showing voting in an assembly. Two voters are casting their ballots: the voter on the left receives his tablet from an attendant below, while the other, after crossing the bridge, places his tablet in the voting urn. Below, a drawing of the image. (VRoma: National Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

Conflict of Orders

At the outset of the republic, the patricians had not only the means and inclination to exercise government, but all the power, too. However, the plebs succeeded in gaining rights with which to improve their lot through passive resistance, including sit-down strikes, and collective bargaining. In about 494 BC the office of tribunus plebis (tribune of the people) was created to be a convenor of the popular assemblies and to present the people's grievances to the consuls or the Senate. A tribune had extraordinary powers. Whereas a government official could quash the act of a colleague of equal status, a tribune of the people could hold up almost any business of state, including actions of officers and resolutions of the Senate, merely by pronouncing a veto. He was on call day and night to any citizen who required help.

One of the great plebeian dynasties and a pillar of the nobility was the family of the Caecilii Metelli. Inscriptions from the Arch of Augustus in the Forum name all Roman consuls from 753 BC to 19 AD. This part of a slab lists those from 123 to 115 BC, nine years during which four men named Caecilius Metellus held the highest office of state. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

As the plebeians achieved political and military prestige which entitled them to be classed as aristocracy, some of the great patrician families began to lose their way. A new ruling class emerged, distinguished by families, in addition to the patricians, whose members had acquired nobilitas. Nobles bred nobility, and by the third century BC the lists of consuls and priests were dominated by similar names from the same families. Members of the nobility exercised their power through wealth, intrigue and the system, which appears to have gone back to the period of the kings, whereby armies of dependent clients were collected, and protected, by patrons. The nobility effectively controlled the Senate and, through patronage, influenced the election of officers of state, who included the holders of religious posts.

The Twelve Tables

Another significant development was the appointment in 451 BC of the decemviri, a committee of ten, to refine, standardize and record a statutory code of law. The result, known as the Twelve Tables, was engraved in copper and permanently displayed to public view. This constituted a condensed set of rules for public, private and political behaviour, covering in each case a variety of circumstances within a precise format.

Even more important than the actual details (and the laws contained in the Twelve Tables were never formally repealed in Roman times) was the fact that now everyone – patrician, plebeian, consul, senator, state official, ordinary citizen – was subject to the same written code, professionally drafted and precisely stated in terms which demonstrate the Roman aptitude for legal expression and constitute the starting point of European as well as of Roman law.

Cut-away reconstruction drawing of the interior of the Basilica Julia in the Forum. Begun probably in 54 BC, it was rebuilt by Augustus after destruction by fire. During the early empire it was where meetings of the court of the centumviri were held, to adjudicate principally on matters of inheritance. Pliny the Younger (Letters 6.33) describes pleading a case before them. (VRoma: from Ch. Huelsen, The Roman Forum: Its History and Its Monuments, tr. J. B. Carter, 1909: Barbara McManus)

From city state to Italian Empire

By 265 BC the Romans had conquered the whole of the Italian peninsula below the river Arno (Arnus). They also successfully resisted several incursions into their territory by the Gauls, who occupied the valley of the Po (Padus), and in 275 BC had finally seen off the hired army under Pyrrhus (318–272 BC), king of Epirus, who had been called in to protect the interests of the Greek city states in the south.

The attitude of the Romans to the peoples they defeated was enlightened and tactically sound. They refused to deal with conglomerates of states, such as the league of Latin cities to which Rome had originally belonged, or with the Etruscan empire as a whole. They insisted on treating each conquest on its individual merits, and imposed restrictions or awarded privileges according to the circumstances. Some were granted Roman citizenship without voting rights, and some a kind of probationary citizenship; others had to give up part of their territory, which became public land, was carved up into lots for the use of Roman citizens, or was employed as the site of a new colony.

The people of a defeated state were sometimes allowed to trade with Rome and even marry its citizens, but they were forbidden from doing either with the natives of other defeated states. It was a case of applying the Roman proverb ‘divide and rule’. All were regularly required to provide manpower for the armies of Rome. This continuous supply of recruits was a factor in the determination to extend the power of Rome. It was not until the second century BC that soldiers received any formal pay, though from 406 BC they were reimbursed for their field expenses, less the cost of rations and other items from military stores. A soldier’s reward came in spoils and land: the Roman empire grew as a means of providing these.

The year 338 BC marked the final capitulation and dissolution of the Latin league of states, and the establishment of Roman colonies along the coast of Latium that were out of bounds to settlers from other Latin towns. Shortly afterwards, treaties were made with the Campanian towns of Cumae and Capua, of Greek foundation but more recently under Etruscan domination, whereby these, and certain other communities in the region, accepted a form of Roman citizenship and the duty of supplying soldiers in return for military protection.

Latium, Campania, and Samnium. The Caudine Forks are at the gap in the mountains immediately below the name Caudini. Mount Ciminius is just to the north of the lake between Tarquinii and Falerii. (Ancient World Mapping Center)

It was not long before the call for protection came, against Samnite invasions of Campania. The Samnites could be contained quite easily on the plains of central Italy, but once they retired to their mountainous homelands new military tactics were required to dislodge them. The war continued, with few interruptions, for thirty-seven years before finally ending in 290 BC. It culminated in victory for the Romans, but not before they had, in 321 BC, suffered the most shameful defeat in their history. Trapped in the Caudine Forks, a series of narrow mountain passes, the whole Roman army, with its consuls and officers, was forced to surrender. Six hundred knights were demanded and handed over as hostages. Then the real humiliation began. First the consuls, having been stripped of their cloaks of office, were sent under the yoke. Then the whole army, in descending order of rank, one by one, was forced to follow, while the Samnites hurled insults at them and cracked jokes, maiming or killing any who protested at their treatment.

The last-remaining Etruscan footholds in Campania had been swept away in the latter part of the fifth century by Oscan-speaking tribes from the southern Apennines. The disintegration of the rest of the Etruscan empire began in 310 BC, when a Roman army penetrated as far as the wooded slopes of Mount Ciminius, and then by a forced march through the forest got behind the opposing confederate army and crushed it. Three major Etruscan cities immediately sued for peace. The rest followed suit by degrees until 283 BC, when the capitulation was complete.

The Gaullish tribes who had spilled over into the fertile valley of the Po as a result of Celtic migrations in the fifth century BC resisted Roman attempts to annex their territory until 191 BC, and Ligurian tribes on the east coast offered pockets of resistance for a further twenty years. But thereafter the whole region now recognized as Italy was in Roman hands.

The Punic Wars (264–146 BC)

The western Mediterranean. The Ebro is the river that flows in a north-westerly direction from the coast north-west of the main Balearic island. Saguntum is farther down the coast, due west of the Balearics. Rhodanus is the river Rhône. (Ancient World Mapping Center)

The spark which ignited the metamorphosis of Rome from an Italian to a Mediterranean power was a small enough incident. The Greek city of Messana, on the north-eastern tip of Sicily, had in 289 BC been seized and occupied by a notorious gang of retired Campanian mercenaries. They were still there in 264 BC when the king of Syracuse, ruler of the significant Greek stronghold further down the coast, decided to winkle them out. The mercenaries asked the Carthaginians, who occupied parts of the west coast of Sicily, to send a fleet and raise the siege.

The Carthaginians obliged, but their fleet stayed on in the harbour. The mercenaries then appealed to Rome to rid them of the Carthaginians, on the somewhat specious grounds that their Campanian blood entitled them to the same protection as the Campanian allies of Rome on the mainland.

The Senate havered and passed the buck to the Comitia Tributa, which voted, if not actually for war, then at least for the dispatch of an expedition against the interfering Carthaginians to restore Messana to its criminal overlords. The arrival of the expedition so surprised the Carthaginian commander at Messana that he sailed his ships home. However, the Carthaginian government was humiliated by what they saw as a defeat and resolved to recapture Messana.

Thus began the first world war in history to be contested on principles. It was fought to the finish, and to the death. It continued, in three phases that totalled forty-two years, for well over a century. When it finally ended, Carthage, which at one time had 300 cities and 700,000 people in its capital, was a smoking heap of rubble.

Carthage was originally a colony of Phoenicia, the Mediterranean power along the west coast of Syria: hence the Latin name for a Carthaginian, Poenus, from which comes the adjective ‘Punic’. The language of the Carthaginians was Semitic, and their gods were those of the Phoenicians.

The key strategic position of Carthage on the coast of the Mediterranean governed its military tactics and economic policy. Carthage was a sea-going nation, using its fleet, which was manned by its citizens, virtually to close the western Mediterranean to all other nations, to wage war and to trade throughout the Mediterranean and down the west coast of Africa as far as Guinea – gold, ivory, bronze, tin, pottery, grain, perfume, dyes and, of course, slaves.

Roman black-and-white mosaic of Carthaginian merchant ships; between the fish is a grain measure. (VRoma: Ostia, Square of the Guilds: Susan Bonvallet)

Carthage also founded colonies along the North African coast as far as Cyrenaica, in southern Spain, Corsica and Sardinia, as well as on the western tip of Sicily. Carthaginian citizens did not normally fight in the army, which was composed mainly of African conscripts and mercenaries from around the Mediterranean … and Carthage could afford to employ the best. However, this multi-racial army still had to be forged into a coherent fighting force, which was the responsibility of its commanders, who were Carthaginians and professional career soldiers.

The First Punic War (264–241 BC) was largely fought at sea. The Romans built a series of fleets to match those of the Carthaginians and manned them with marine commandos trained in hand-to-hand fighting. (In an age of rudimentary artillery, the standard naval tactic was to attach grapples to an enemy ship and then overwhelm its crew with superior numbers.) The losses on both sides were enormous, but the Romans were better at unearthing and deploying ever more resources, and finally the Carthaginians sued for peace and agreed to withdraw all of their claims to Sicily. Shortly after hostilities ceased, however, the Romans took advantage of the temporary preoccupation of the Carthaginians with a revolt of their mercenaries to annex Corsica and Sardinia.

Hannibal, one of a line of gallant and spectacular military commanders whose efforts finally ended in failure but whose exploits are remembered better than, or at least as well as, those of the men who finally defeated them. (Hannibal Barca and the Punic Wars website)

Carthage retaliated by increasing its empire in another region: the whole of southern Spain, with its vast potential wealth and manpower, was overrun. This Spanish campaign was led successively by a brilliant trio of generals from the same family: Hamilcar (d. 229 BC), his son-in-law Hasdrubal (d. 221 BC) and Hamilcar’s son Hannibal (247–182 BC). It was so successful that in order to prevent Carthage extending its influence farther north, the Romans were forced into a diplomatic manoeuvre. The river Ebro was to be regarded as the boundary between the interests of the two powers, but the town of Saguntum would remain nominally under Roman protection. When, in 221 BC, Hasdrubal was murdered by a slave whose master he had put to death, Hannibal succeeded to the command. He started the Second Punic War (218–202 BC) by attacking and capturing Saguntum. The Carthaginians were motivated to renew hostilities by a desire for revenge and by their fear of Roman incursions into their newly won territory in Spain.

At first, the Romans assumed that tactically this war would be a continuation of the first, so they prepared a fleet in which they could cross to Carthage and this time take the city itself. Hannibal confounded them (and the rest of the world then and since) by doing not just the unexpected but the seemingly impossible. He marched his army – infantry, cavalry, baggage train and the famous elephants – out of Spain and across the river Rhône on a flotilla of boats and rafts, against continual opposition from native Gallic tribes.

He then invaded Italy by a route that took him over, and through, the Alps; at one point he blasted away a wall of solid rock by heating it with fires and then dashing raw wine on to the stone. It is said that he entered Italy with just 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry, having lost 18,000 footsoldiers and 2,000 horsemen since crossing the Rhône. Nevertheless, with these and the surviving elephants, he soon gained control of northern Italy, having outflanked one Roman army before the river Trebia and trapped another by Lake Trasimene.

Gold stater, c. 217 BC, from the war against Hannibal: Roman soldiers with captive. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Rome itself was too tough a nut for Hannibal to crack, so he bypassed the city and went on to the south, where at Cannae he outmanoeuvred and virtually annihilated a numerically much stronger Roman force led by the consuls Lucius Aemilus Paulus and Gaius Terentius Varro.

For the next fourteen years, Hannibal and his army rampaged around southern Italy. Eventually, though, they were lured back to Carthage, and to defeat at Zama in 202 BC, by a splendid campaign conducted by Cornelius Scipio, who had already driven the Carthaginians out of Spain. At Zama, Scipio managed to neutralize Hannibal’s tactic of opening the battle with a frontal charge of eighty elephants. Hannibal himself survived the battle, only to end his life in exile in Asia, having failed in his attempt to rebuild his country’s fortunes by political means.

Publius Cornelius Scipio (234–183 BC) was awarded the honorific surname of Africanus after his campaign against Hannibal in Africa. (Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples)

After the Second Punic War, Rome confiscated Spain, leaving Carthage with just its North African colonies, and promptly waded into local Spanish conflicts to keep the native tribes in order. It also became embroiled in full-scale wars in Macedonia, Asia Minor and Syria. In spite of the sanctions and conditions of peace that had been imposed, there was the possibility that Carthage might rise again and try to take revenge once more. Marcus Porcius Cato (234–149 BC), also known as Cato the Elder, saw this more clearly than anyone else. Whatever question was being addressed in the Senate, the eighty-five-year-old politician incorporated into his speech the words, ‘In my opinion, Carthage must be destroyed.’

Cato. (Fenrir DK history website)

The Carthaginians were finally manoeuvred into having to defend themselves against Numidian invasions of their territory, which was technically a breach of the treaty of 201 BC under which they were forbidden to take up arms without Rome’s permission. The Senate, which, egged on by Cato, had made plans for just such an eventuality, voted for war once again. A trained army of 80,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry was dispatched under the command of the consuls, who had orders to prosecute the war until Carthage had been razed to the ground. The Third Punic War lasted for three years. It continued so long because of a heroic Carthaginian defence of their city. Nevertheless, Carthage was ultimately destroyed and the 50,000 survivors of the siege were sold into slavery.

Tiberius Gracchus (c. 168–133 BC) and Gaius Gracchus (c. 159–121 BC)

The brothers Gracchus had an aristocratic upbringing. Their father was a notable consul and military leader, their mother the daughter of Scipio Africanus. (Julius Caesar: The Last Dictator website)

Tiberius Gracchus, having served with the army and as a quaestor, was elected tribune of the people in 133 BC. The main reform he proposed was the reclamation of tracts of land which had been acquired by the state in its conquest of Italy, and their redistribution among smallholders with guaranteed tenure in return for a nominal rent. Those currently occupying the land, who were merely tenants of the state, would be restricted to what had for some time been the legal limit of ownership (500 acres plus a further 250 acres for each of up to two sons), and would be compensated by being granted a hereditary rent-free lease. His bill also restored to the list of those eligible for military service (for which a tradition of qualification was the possession of land) a section of society that had fallen out of the reckoning.

Though the bill had the backing of several prominent senators as well as one of the consuls, Tiberius’ tactics in trying to make it law were questionable. Instead of submitting it first for discussion by the Senate, he proposed it directly to the Concilium Plebis, where it was bound to succeed. This inevitably annoyed the Senate, which persuaded one of the other tribunes to veto the bill as it was being read out. Tiberius retaliated by invoking his right to suspend all business. He then refused to listen to attempts to persuade him to refer his legislation to the Senate and took the unprecedented step of asking the assembly to vote his refractory colleague out of office, which it promptly did. The bill was then passed to acclamation, and three commissioners were appointed to administer the scheme: Tiberius himself; his younger brother Gaius; and Appius Claudius Pulcher, ‘leader’ of the Senate and Tiberius’ father-in-law.

Greece, the Aegean, and western Asia Minor. (Ancient World Mapping Center)

The commission began work immediately, and in all about 75,000 smallholdings may have been created and farmed as a result. When it began to look as though the commission would run short of funds, Tiberius coolly proposed to the Concilium Plebis that the revenue confiscated from the newly acquired kingdom of Pergamum should be diverted to its use. The Senate, rather than risk being outflanked again (and this time in the area of finance, which it regarded as its prerogative), capitulated, but Tiberius was a marked man. State officials could not be brought to task while they were in office, but they could be prosecuted afterwards for acts committed during their term. Tiberius Gracchus now took the unprecedented and arguably unconstitutional step of announcing himself as a candidate for a tribuneship for a second consecutive year. A band of senators, having failed in an attempt to have him disqualified from standing, charged out of the Senate, broke up an electioneering meeting which Tiberius was addressing, and clubbed him to death with stools and cudgels.

A group of senators, late first century BC. (VRoma: Ara Pacis, Rome: Ann Raia)

They had not by any means heard the last of the Gracchus family, though. Nine years after his brother’s assassination, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus was elected a tribune of the people. Then he was elected again, unopposed, the following year. (It is said that one of his first acts in office was to have the law repealed whereby a man could not hold office for two years in succession.)

Gaius was a different and more formidable proposition than Tiberius. He was more flamboyant and passionate, and a skilled and powerful demagogue. His programme of reforms passed by the Concilium Plebis was wide ranging and designed to benefit all interests, except, of course, those of the Senate. He reaffirmed and reactivated his brother’s land laws and established smallholdings in Roman territory abroad. For city-dwellers who could not be persuaded to leave the teeming streets of Rome for the hazards of country life, he enacted corn laws which entitled every citizen on demand to a monthly ration at a fixed price.

While the nobility still dominated the Senate, the wealth and business acumen lay largely with the equestrian class. Gaius Gracchus gave them greater power, and riches, by awarding them the right to contract for gathering the enormous taxes which accrued from the newly created province of Asia, and by substituting knights for senators as jurors in cases of extortion brought by the state against provincial governors. He also forced through massive measures for expenditure on public works, particularly roads and harbours, which again benefited the business community. His most enlightened piece of legislation, however, fell foul even of theComitia Tributa. This was a proposal to extend full Roman citizenship, and thus voting rights, to the population of the surrounding area of Latium, and to give all allied states in Italy the rights enjoyed by the Latins, such as trade with Rome and intermarriage with Romans.

When Gaius Gracchus offered himself in 121 BC for a third term of office as tribune, the Senate resorted to terrorism once again, though this time with quasi-constitutional overtones. They put up against him a straw candidate with an entirely fallacious programme of reforms that would be even more appealing to the people, and he was duly elected. The supporters of Gaius Gracchus held a mass rally on the Aventine Hill, but made the mistake of carrying weapons. One of the consuls, Lucius Opimius, armed with a senatus consultum ultimum, which gave moral backing to a senior official to take action against those who were endangering the stability of the state, raised a levy of citizens augmented by a company of soldiers and archers to disperse the demonstrators. Gaius escaped the first wave of violence, but then, recognizing that the cause was hopeless, ordered his personal slave to stab him to death. It is said that 3,000 of his supporters were rounded up, thrown into jail, then strangled.

Gaius Gracchus was begged by his friends to escape, while they held off his pursuers. As he ran along, no one helped him or gave him the horse for which he asked. He finally took refuge in a sacred grove. ('The Death of Gaius Gracchus' by Jean Baptiste Topino-Lebrun (1764–1801), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseilles: Gallery of Art website)

The actions and ultimate fates of the brothers Gracchus constituted a watershed in Roman politics. Their legislation highlighted the links between the problems of property holding, poverty, the army, and the extension and retention of the empire. Their use of a popular assembly to initiate legislation gave it powers rivalling those of the Senate. That political conflict could lead twice to violence established a precedent that affected the equilibrium of Roman society and instigated periods of anarchy and civil war.

Gaius Marius (157– 86 BC) and the reform of the Roman army

The Roman world at the end of the second and beginning of the first centuries BC. (Ancient World Mapping Center)

What Tiberius Gracchus tried to halt when he was tribune in 133 BC was a trend that had begun centuries earlier and which, by the very success with which Rome had conducted its military operations, had become a vicious circle. Ancient armies were manned by peasant farmers, and a society continually at war required a constant supply of conscripts. Smallholdings fell into disuse because there was no one to tend them. As Roman conquests spread throughout the Mediterranean lands, even more men were required, and wealth and cheap corn poured back into Rome, much of it into the hands of entrepreneurs, who became even richer and invested in land out of which they carved vast areas for vegetables, vines, olives and sheep farming, all managed by slave labour.

Treading grapes. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Book of the Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press, 1970)

The dispossessed rural poor became the urban poor, thus also becoming ineligible for military service as they were no longer nominal property holders. Not only was there a shortage of recruits, but the soldier had nothing to return to between campaigns or at the end of his service.

A solution to the problem of recruitment was devised by Gaius Marius, a man of humble origins who was born near Arpinum, a town in Latium about sixty miles south-east of Rome. He first saw military service in Spain, and did not hold any public office until he was thirty-eight, when he was elected a tribune of the people. Four years later, in 115 BC, he managed to achieve a praetorship and made a good marriage, to Julia of the family of that name; he was thus to become an uncle by marriage of Julius Caesar. He then served in the African wars against Jugurtha, who in the wake of the destruction of Carthage had usurped the whole of Numidia after being granted half.

Marius returned to Rome in 108 BC to stand successfully for consul, in which capacity the Comitia Tributa elected him to assume military command in Africa, an infringement of the traditional prerogative of the Senate to make all military appointments. Abandoning the usual methods of enlisting servicemen, Marius openly recruited volunteers from the urban poor, promising them victory, booty, glory and, of course, permanent jobs. He introduced new training methods and, with the first professional army the Romans ever had, brought the fighting to a speedy end (although the final negotiations, which resulted in the kidnap of Jugurtha and his handing over to Rome for execution, were conducted by a young quaestor called Cornelius Sulla).

Drawing of a legionary on the march, with his weapons and personal gear. (VRoma: Landesmuseum, Mainz: Barbara McManus)

When it was announced in Rome that the African war was over, Marius was elected consul in his absence. He was re-elected in 105 BC, and assigned to Gaul, where near Arausio (Orange) two displaced Celtic tribes from the north, the Cimbri and the Teutones, had inflicted the greatest defeat on the Romans since Cannae. He was elected again for the years 103–101, during which he destroyed the menace of the Cimbri and the Teutones.

Marble statue of a dying Gaul, a first-century copy of a third-century BC bronze original from Pergamum. (VRoma: Capitoline Museum, Rome: Susan Bonvallet)

As a professional soldier at the head of what was now a professional army, Marius needed to establish the means for his soldiers to receive allotments of land on discharge and to continue his own career by getting a new command. He threw in his lot with the tribune Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, a man not above using street violence to achieve political ends, with whose help he was elected consul for a sixth time for the year 100 BC. Saturninus now put forward on Marius’ behalf a number of legislative proposals in the Gracchus mould, including the usual controversial measures for land allotments to be made to army veterans from the Italian states and full franchise for some of them.

The whole programme was accepted, but not without predictable opposition from both the nobility and the people of Rome, which culminated in violent demonstrations. These were put down by Marius’ soldiers, who, of course, had a vested interest in the outcome. This appearance on the streets of Rome of armed soldiers, and their use without an act of the Senate was a precedent of profound significance. From that time onwards, the rule of Rome was always in the hands of whoever had the support of the army.

Mid-first-century bust of a man believed to be Gaius Marius. (VRoma: Glyptotek, Munich: Barbara McManus)

Saturninus now instigated a tragic sequence of events by organizing the assassination of an inconvenient political opponent. The Senate issued a senatus consultum ultimum obliging Marius to take action against his principal supporter, which he did by arresting him with an armed force. An enraged mob then broke into the prison and lynched Saturninus and several of his cronies. The Senate now repealed all of Saturninus’ laws on the grounds that they had been implemented by force, which was technically true. Marius, with no legislation to back his plans for his soldiers and no political support, went into temporary exile at the end of his year in office. When he returned, it was to take an active part in the ‘Social War’ (91–89 BC). A confederacy of Italian states in the south, fed up with having to fight for Rome without being treated as equals, and not even being allowed to participate in the decisions for which they were fighting, rebelled. They lost the war but eventually gained their objective, as most of them were granted full citizenship.

Denarius from the time of the Social War; the Italian confederacy takes the oath against Rome. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

In 88 BC all Roman eyes turned to the east, where Mithridates (c. 132–63 BC), king of Pontus, had invaded the Roman province of Asia and massacred 80,000 Roman and Italian citizens. The Senate appointed Sulla, who was consul that year, to lead a force against Mithridates. The tribune Sulpicius Rufus (124–88 BC) passed a package of laws through the Concilium Plebis, one of which called for the transfer of this command to Marius. Sulla marched on Rome with his six legions and had the decision reversed. This was the first time that a Roman army had been used against Rome itself.

Sulpicius went into hiding, but was discovered and killed. Marius, now in his seventieth year, fled with his adopted son, but he was picked up near the coast of Latium while hiding in a marsh and was sentenced to death by the local magistrates. However, he was hustled aboard a ship when no one could be found to perform the execution. He ended up in Carthage, but the Roman governor in Africa ordered him to move on.

In the meantime, while Sulla was carrying out his orders in Asia, Cornelius Cinna (d. 84 BC), one of the two consuls for 87 BC, took the opportunity to reintroduce another of Sulpicius’ proposals – the enrolment of the newly enfranchised Italians and freedmen as members of the traditional thirty-five tribes. He was promptly ejected from the city by his consular colleague but soon raised an army of Italian volunteers. He was joined by Marius, now back in Italy with a small force of cavalry, which he augmented by breaking into the quarters where slaves who worked on the farms were held at night and enlisting them as fighting men.

Slave quarters at Villa Adriana, Palace of Hadrian, early second century AD. (VRoma: Sue Olsen)

Together, Marius and Cinna marched on Rome with their motley armies. After a dreadful siege in which thousands died of plague, the city capitulated, having extracted from Cinna a promise that there would be no bloodshed. Marius, who had kept silent during this exchange, obviously did not regard himself as a party to the agreement, and the killing began as soon as the gates were opened. It went on for five days. Marius and Cinna now proposed themselves as consuls for the next year, 86 BC. No one dared oppose them. On 13 January, however, Marius died – it is said of drink and delirium, but possibly simply of old age. He had reformed the army and had been consul an unprecedented seven times, but his ambition, combined with his political naivety, had caused the stability of Rome to be permanently upset.

Sulla (138–78 BC) and his constitutional reforms

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (later surnamed Felix) came from a good family of moderate means. When he returned in 83 BC from a successful eastern campaign, he had no political power beyond that which a man at the head of a trained army of veterans could command. This, however, gave him a more than adequate means of capturing Rome in the face of the nominally more constitutional opposition raised by the consuls, Gnaeus Papirius Carbo (d. 81 BC) and Marius junior (110–82 BC), but not without unnecessary butchery.

This accomplished, Sulla had himself appointed not consul, but dictator. In this capacity his first act was to rid himself of all political and personal opposition, using the novel method of proscription – the posting up of lists of undesirable characters whom anyone was now at liberty to assassinate (for which they could claim a reward). For a start, he pronounced sentences of death on forty senators and 1,600 knights. Other deaths, expulsions and confiscations of property followed.

Mid-first-century BC bust, believed to be that of Sulla. (VRoma: Glyptotek: Barbara McManus)

Sulla then reorganized the constitution to put power effectively back into the hands of the upper classes. He virtually nullified the traditional influence of the tribunes of the people. He doubled the membership of the Senate by admitting some 300 knights and selected Italian office-holders in outlying municipalities. He also made the holding of a quaestorship an automatic qualification for membership of the Senate, and raised the number of quaestors to twenty. This, together with the reapplication of the statutory ten-year gap between holding the same office, and the introduction of a new regulation that two years had to elapse between the holding of an office and election to the one above it, meant that there were now more junior state officials seeking fewer senior posts, and having to wait longer for them. As the competition grew, the ambitious were prepared to resort to unconstitutional means to achieve their aims.

Sulla's reforms of the legal system were less contentious. He established new courts to deal with specific offences, and crystallized the distinctions between civil and criminal law, though he removed the right of anyone except a senior senator to adjudicate in lawsuits.

After three years of a reversion to what constituted an absolute monarchy, Sulla retired in 79 BC to his estate at Puteoli, there to write his memoirs. He died not much more than a year later, of phthiriasis. It was the end of an era, even though technically the republic still had some fifty years to run.

Republican denarius of about 57 BC, depicting Sulla, coined by his grandson, the moneyer Quintus Pompeius Rufus. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

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Timeline for Chapter 2


The republic

509 - Establishment of the republic. First consuls. Dedication of Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill.

496 - Romans defeat Latins at Lake Regillus.

494 - Traditional date for the institution of the office of tribune of the people.

451/450 - The Twelve Tables.

443 - First censors.

439 - The murder of Spurius Maelius.

409 - First plebeian quaestor.

390 - Gauls sack Rome, but withdraw in return for ransom.

367 - First plebeian consul elected. Creation of praetorship.

356 - First plebeian dictator.

351 - First plebeian censor.

340 - War against Latins.

338 - Latin league of states dissolved. Campania becomes Roman.

327–290 - Samnite wars.

321 - Disaster at Caudine Forks.

312 - Appius Claudius Caecus constructs the Via Appia and the Aqua Appia.

310 - Roman inroads into Etruria.

308 - Surrender of Umbria.

283 - Final capitulation of Etruscans.

280–275 - Pyrrhus leads Greek cities in south of Italy against Rome.

272 - Surrender of Tarentum and other Greek cities in south.

265 - Rome now holds all Italy south of the Arno.

264 - First show in Rome with gladiators.

264–241 - First Punic War.

260 - Gaius Duilius wins Rome’s first naval victory at Mylae.

241 - Western Sicily becomes first Roman province.

239–237 - Rome annexes Corsica and Sardinia.

237 - Hamilcar overruns southern Spain.

227 - All Sicily and Sardinia with Corsica become provinces.

221 - Hannibal assumes command of Carthaginian forces.

219 - Hannibal captures Saguntum.

218–202 - Second Punic War.

218 - Hannibal invades Italy

217 - Hannibal defeats Romans at Lake Trasimene.

216 - Hannibal defeats Romans at Cannae.

211–206 - Scipio’s campaigns in Spain.

202 - P. Cornelius Scipio (soon to be Africanus) wins the Battle of Zama.

197 - Spain annexed and divided into two provinces.

191 - Rome completes conquest of Cisalpine Gaul.

184 - Cato elected censor, having been consul in 195.

167 - End of third war against Macedonia, which is divided into four self-governing regions.

167–160 - Maccabaean revolt in Judaea.

153 - Roman year begins on 1 January.

149–146 - Third Punic War.

146 - Destruction of Carthage and Corinth. Province of Africa established.

144 - Dedication of  temples to Hercules Victor by Lucius Mummius Achaicus

133 - Tiberius Gracchus is tribune of the people. Pergamum bequeathed to Rome and in 129 becomes the province of Asia.

123–122 - Gaius Gracchus is tribune of the people.

121 - Transalpine Gaul becomes a province.

112–106 - Wars against Jugurtha.

107 - First consulship of Marius.

105 - Cimbri destroy two Roman armies in Gaul.

102–101 - Marius defeats Teutones and Cimbri.

100 - Sixth consulship of Marius.

91–88 - Social War between Rome and Italian allies, who are effectively tired of fighting for Rome without being treated as Roman citizens. The allies lose the war but make their point.

88 - First consulship of Sulla, who is assigned the command against Mithridates VI, king of Pontus. Motion by P. Sulpicius Rufus, tribune of the people, to appoint Marius in Sulla’s place. Sulla marches on Rome, his consular colleague is killed, and Marius is outlawed. Mithridates massacres Roman citizens in Asia. Sulla departs for the East with his army.

87 - The consul Cornelius Cinna is deposed and driven out of Rome by his consular colleague, Gnaeus Octavius. Marius and Cinna capture Rome and massacre all opposition. They are elected consuls for 86.

86 - Seventh consulship of Marius (who dies 13 January) and second of Cinna.

85 - Third consulship of Cinna and first of Papirius Carbo. Sulla agrees peace terms with Mithridates.

84 - Fourth consulship of Cinna and second of Carbo. Cinna is murdered by his soldiers while crossing to Asia to confront Sulla.

83 - Sulla lands in Italy, and is joined by Crassus and Pompey.

82 - Consuls are Gaius Marius Junior and Carbo. Sulla defeats opposition forces. Marius commits suicide. Sulla proclaimed dictator. Proscriptions. Constitutional reforms.

80 - Sulla resigns as dictator and goes into retirement.

78 - Death of Sulla. The beginning of the end of the republic.


74  Bithynia and Cyrenaica become provinces.

73–71  Slave revolt of Spartacus.

70  First consulship of Pompey and Crassus. Trial of Verres by Cicero.

67  Pompey crushes the pirates.

66–63  Pompey, given exceptional powers in the east, defeats Mithridates and reorganizes the region. End of the Seleucid empire. Syria, including Judaea until 40 BC, is made a province.

63  Consulship of Cicero. Conspiracy of Catiline. Caesar is elected pontifex maximus. Birth of Caesar’s great-nephew, the future Augustus.

60  ‘First Triumvirate’ of Caesar, Crassus, Pompey.