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Keith Woodall's Lesson Notes Index

Introduction to Ancient Athens
Liberalism
Nationalism
Socialism
The Industrial Revolution

 

Background

The origins of Rome are just as obscure as those of the Ancient Greek cities, perhaps even more so, because Rome was not the first major city and the Romans did not create the first civilisation in the Italian Peninsula. The foundations of Roman civilisation are shrouded in myth and legend, created by the Romans themselves, and which therefore glorify Rome itself to the detriment of those other civilisations which preceded it - particularly the Samnites and the Etruscans.

The Romans always claimed that their city was founded by Romulus and Remus in 753 B.C. (in spite of the legend, modern archeological research does place the earliest the origins of Rome at about this time). Rome was then said to have come under the domination of the Etruscans and was ruled by them until 509 B.C. when the last Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus, was deposed.

 

 

Togatus Barberini

Part of the statue of Togatus Barberini (Musei Capitolini)

 

KEITH WOODALL'S LESSON NOTES

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Introduction to Ancient Rome

The Roman Republic (509-27 B.C.)

The form of government created in 509 B.C. was the republic (res; thing: publica; of the people), but do not imagine for one moment that republic in the Roman sense had anything in common with democracy in the Athenian sense. They were no more synonymous then than they are today. The following text is an extract from the writings of a Greek historian, Polybius, in the 2nd.century B.C.

"The three sources of political power that I mention above have their place in the Roman constitution. All the activities of the state are organised and controlled by the three separate powers in such a way that not even a citizen of Rome can say with certainty if their constitution is aristocratic, democratic or monarchical. And they are right to be perplexed, as I am"

Polybius was referring to the powers given to:

  • the consuls (monarchical?)

  • the Senate (aristocratic?)

  • the Comitia Centuriata (democratic?)

 

Social and Military Organization in the Early Republic

It is certain that the organization of social groups in the early republic was based on the demands of war. Not only had the Romans expelled the Etruscans by force in 509 B.C. but thereafter had to fight other Italic civilisations simply to survive (e.g. the Samnites).

By the early 5th.century B.C. all the male inhabitants of Rome were considered citizens on condition that they spoke Latin.

N.B. With the passing of time and as the Roman Empire grew this insistence on knowledge of Latin was the one demand made upon non- Romans in order to become citizens until the Decrees of Caracalla in 212 A.D.)

The citizens were registered into 20 "tribes" according to wealth and place of residence and each "tribe" had to organise tax collection and recruit citizens for military service.

All citizens were organised into "classes" according to wealth and therefore their capacity to provide military equipment and it was for this reason that early Roman society was organised on a military basis.

For defence every able-bodied citizen was enrolled in a century (in theory 100 men as the name suggests, but in practice it varied between 75 and 80). Six centuries formed a cohort and ten cohorts formed a legion. By the 3rd.century B.C. there were 4 legions - about 18000 citizen soldiers.

In civic affairs the organization was exactly the same, which is why the popular assembly was called the Comitia Centuriata

N.B. At this point it has to be remembered that unlike, Athens where all citizens had equal political status, regardless of social class, the citizens of Rome were divided into two distinct and frequently hostile groups:

Patricians. They could be described as the Roman republican aristocracy who claimed to be direct descendants of Romulus. This argument was used by them to justify not only their right to most of the land, property and therefore the wealth of Rome but also the control of its government and therefore the monopoly of political power.

Plebeians. They were the vast majority of poorer citizens - farmers, artisans shopkeepers who increasingly bitterly resented the domination and the arrogance of the patricians.

The Roman Republic had its equivalent of the Athenian Ecclesia but the organization was very different. The Roman Comitia Centuriata (or Comices) was the citizen's assembly organised in the following way:

 

Comitia Centuriata (Comices)

Patricians:

  • 18 centuries of "Equites"

  • 80 centuries of 1st.class citizens

Plebeians:

  • 20 centuries of 2nd.class citizens

  • 20 centuries of 3rd. class citizens

  • 20 centuries of 4th. class citizens

  • 30 centuries of 5th. class citizens

  • 5 centuries of property- less citizens

Total 193 centuries (or about 18000 citizen soldiers).

 

The Comitia Centuriata did not meet on a regular basis. It only met when it was summoned by the Consuls ( who were always patricians at this time) in order to vote on a specific issue and even then the voting procedure was organised in such a way that the patricians retained control of it. When an issue had to be decided there was no general vote ( the total number of votes in favour against the total number of votes against), but a vote by "class". In other words the highest class, the Equites voted first, then the 1st. Class, then the 2nd. and so on. What this actually meant was that in the majority of cases once the two patrician classes had voted (and you can imagine very easily that they would vote in favour of their own interests) and a distinct "yes" or "no" vote had been obtained then the vote was over - everybody else could go home. In other words the plebeians rarely, if ever, were allowed to express their opinions and, therefore, had little or no role in the affairs of state at this time (5th - 3rd. centuries B.C.).

This situation would change and with the passing of time the Roman Republic would appear to become more democratic but as we all know "appearances are deceptive"

 

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