The Roman Republic (Latin res publica; from res, "affairs," and publica, "public") lasted as a representative government from 509 B.C. until the end of the civil wars as defined by Julius Caesar's death in 44 B.C.
The city of Rome is located on the Tiber River very near the west coast of Italy. It was at the northernmost border of the territory in which the Latin language was spoken and at the southern edge of Etruria, the territory in which the Etruscan language was spoken.
The Romans observed two principles for their officials: annuality or the observation of a one year term and collegiality or the holding of the same office by at least two men at the same time. The supreme office of consul, for instance, was always held by two men together, who exercised a power of mutual veto over any actions by the other consul. If the Roman army took the field under the command of the two consuls they were to alternate days of command. Most other offices were held by more than two men - in the late Republic there were 8 praetors a year and 20 quaestors.
The dictators were an exception to annuality and collegiality, and the censors to annuality. In times of emergency (always military) a single dictator was elected for a term of 6 months to have sole command of the state. On a regular but not annual basis 2 censors were elected every five years but for a term of 18 months.
The Legion was the backbone of Roman power.
History of the Republic
The Foundation of the Republic - 509 B.C.
Livy's version of the establishment of the Republic the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (superbus, "the proud") had a thoroughly unpleasant son, Sextus Tarquinius, who raped a Roman noblewoman named Lucretia. Lucretia compelled her family to take action by gathering the men, telling them what happened, and killing herself. They then were compelled to avenge her, and led an uprising that drove the Tarquins out of Rome to take refuge in Etruria.
Lucretia's husband Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus and Lucius Junius Brutus were elected as the first two consuls, the chief officers of the new Republic. The Brutus who assasinated Julius Caesar was a descendent of the first Brutus.
The early consuls took over the roles of the king with the exception of his high priesthood in the worship of Jupiter Optimus Maximus at the huge temple on the Capitoline Hill. For that duty the Romans elected a Rex sacrorum or "king of holy things." Until the end of the Republic the accusation that a powerful man wanted to make himself king remained a career-shaking charge. Julius Caesar's assasins claimed after they acted that they were preserving Rome from the reestablishment of an explicit monarchy.
Patrician and Plebeian
The people of Rome were divided into patricians and plebeians. These words have taken on such different connotations of wealth and ordinariness in modern English that they must be examined in their Roman context. The two classes were ancestral and inherited. One's class was fixed by birth rather than by wealth, and though Patricians had in the early Republic monopolized all political offices and probably most of the wealth, there are always signs of wealthy plebeians in the historical record, and many patrician families had lost both wealth and any political influence by the later Republic. One could move from one to another by adoption, like the political operator Clodius in the late Republic, who managed to have himself adopted into a plebeian branch of his own family for political purposes, but it was rare. By the 2nd century BC the classifications had meaning predominantly in religious functions - many priesthoods were restricted to patricians.
The relationship between the plebeians and the patricians was sometimes so strained that the plebeians seceeded from the city - literally left the city with their families and movable possessions and set up camp on a hill outside the walls. These secessions happened in 494, 450, and around 287 B.C. Their refusal to cooperate any longer with the patricians led to social changes on each occasion. In 494, only about 15 years after the establishment of the Republic, the plebeians for the first time elected two leaders, to whom they gave the title Tribunes. The plebs took an oath that they would hold their leaders 'sacrosanct' or inviolate during their terms, and that the united plebs would kill anyone who harmed a tribune. The second secession led to further legal definition of their rights and duties and increased the number of tribunes to 10. The final secession gave the vote of the Concilium Plebis or "Council of the Plebeians" the force of law - we call this a "plebiscite".
The Social War - 90-88 B.C.
In 90 almost all of the Italian allies of Rome rebelled in what the Romans called the Social War (allies = Socii, related to the English ?associates?). The allied cities in the Italian peninsula had sought for some time Roman citizenship and therefore more of a say in the external policy of the Roman Republic - most local affairs were self-governing and not as much of an issue as when the alliance would go to war and what the share of the proceeds would be. Rome undercut the military rebellion by extending citizenship to all of Italy south of the Po River and then spent two years defeating the cities still in arms. Sulla came to prominence as an officer in this war. Roman citizenship and the right to vote was limited, as always in the ancient world, by the requirement of physical presence on voting day. After 88 candidates regularly paid the expenses (or part of them) for their supporters to come to Rome to vote.
The Spartacist Rebellion - 73-71 B.C.
Large scale agriculture in the Italian peninsula came to depend on slavery and was rocked by a severe slave revolt that lasted from 73 to 71 B.C.
see Roman Empire
- political offices of the Republic
- figures of the Republic
- Late Republic