Lecture: Roman Republic and Empire

Geography of Italy

topographic map of ItalyLike Greece, Italy has sandy, well-draining soil, lots of rocks and good access to the sea, although it also has some interior valleys that are wonderful for agriculture. Also like Greece, most of the area is good for olive trees and grapes, leading to exports in the long-storing versions of these products (olive oil and wine). And as in Greece, because the areas of Italy were separated from each other just enough to cause distrust, there was competition and misunderstanding between the regions.

By the 8th century BC, the Latin tribes in the middle shared the peninsula with the Etruscans in the north and the Greeks in the south, and these two peoples provide the foundation for Roman culture. The Etruscans were excellent engineers and warriors, and the Greeks brought Greek culture and learning. Although we are unsure exactly how much influence each has on Rome in earlier times, by 500 BC it was clear that the combination of Etruscan, Latin and Greek contributions had created something unique.

Much of this contact and cultural combination came through conquest, as Rome expanded to conquer the Etruscans and form alliances with the Greek colonies. As it developed in wealth and power, Rome came under attack by tribes and kingdoms nearby. In defeating each of these, Rome was able to establish a narrative of self-defense. But in practical terms, Rome was expanding, first under a monarchy and by the 6th century BC as a Republic. By then their main enemy was Carthage, a city in north Africa that had been founded as a Pheonician colony.

Despite their expansion, and ultimately the creation of a huge empire, the Romans saw themselves as farmers by nature, making the geography properous. Cato the Censor (243-149 BC), although he served the Roman state as a plebeian in the highest jobs in government, saw himself as a farmer. His book of advice on agriculture is still useful today.

 Click here to open document in new window

Roman politics

Although surrounded by the countryside that fed it, and to which public figures would go for vacations and retirement, Rome was a city. In the Republic, two houses represented the people of Rome. The Senate was comprised of patricians, those who had inherited power through historic land owndership. Plebeians filled the Concilium Plebis, or the Assembly. Plebeians who took part in the Concilium were not poor -- they tended to be the most educated, wealthy and respected non-patricians in Rome.

One of the most important things to understand about the development of the politics and political ethics of ancient Rome is virtú or, as it was called then, virtus. Although often translated as "virtue", the word encompassed a whole perspective. Men with virtus exhibited strength and talent in public life, and were morally upstanding. Model behavior in the service of the state was the goal. We can see this perspective represented in Cicero's Dream of Scipio. In this excerpt, a man named Scipio meets up with the man for whom he is named, Scipio Africanus, a hero during the Punic Wars over a century before. Scipio Africanus not only gives us a great idea of the Roman knowledge of the world, but he also advises young Scipio on virtus.

 Click here to open document in new window

The moral values of leadership played a significant role in the Republic. Cicero would ultimately be killed by continuing to support these values in a time of Empire.

From Republic to Empire

As the Roman Republic expanded, life changed for the people in Rome, who were primarily of Latin descent. With each new territory came new responsibilities for the government, and new trade arrangements.

The grandsons of Scipio Africanus, the brothers Gracchus, attempted to reform the land laws that favored patricians and left little for the plebeians. Before the late 2nd century BC, land had been obtained by either inheriting it or being granted it. Soldiers could acquire land through service in the early Republic, but over time that became more difficult as land speculators and patricians controlled large areas. As tribunes, the brothers implemented such measures as citizenship for Latins outside the city of Rome and fixed prices for grain. This price fixing was important, because as Rome had expanded, she had acquired grain-growing areas such as Sicily. Sicilian grain was cheaper than that grown near Rome, and could be imported at low cost, undercutting the profits of Roman farmers.

Populist reforms such as those the Gracchi implemented were unsuccessful. Both men were clubbed to death by mobs in 133 and 121 BC, horrible and unusual acts that seemed to set up some kind of precedent of solving political problems through violence.

By 107 BC, it was clear that the dysfunctional Republic was in need of leadership, and generals seemed natural choices. General Gaius Marius, fearing barbarian attack on the expanded territories, worked on expanding the army by advancing on ideas originally proposed by the Gracchi. The army was expanded using lower-class plebeians, who were completely dependent on their generals to provide enough conquered land to reward them. This had the effect of creating "private" armies who were more loyal to their commanders than to the Roman state. Brutal civil war followed, between armies of Marius and those of General Sulla. The Roman constitution had a provision for a "dictator", a temporary emergency leader who would have full power. In 82 BC, General Sulla took advantage of this provision to enforce reforms designed to balance the power of the patrician Senate and the plebeian Tribunes. He then, in accordance with the constitution, resigned his power.

The prevalence of private armies and civil war as a method for obtaining land to pay soldiers was the background for the death of the Republic. Might became right, and virtus seemed to disappear in the battles for power. The question is when exactly the Republic became an Empire, in terms of leadership rather than territory.

Some say it happened with Julius Caesar, who returned from his far-flung battles against the Celts to march on Rome and obtain power. Caesar engaged in further reforms and expansion of the empire, particularly into Egypt. There he encountered Cleopatra, the descendant of General Ptolemy and co-ruler of Egypt with her brother. Caesar and Cleopatra formed an alliance that allowed her to rule alone, and favored Rome to engage in trade with the wealth of Egypt. Caesar fathered a child with Cleopatra, whom his mother named Caesarion (in case there was any doubt about his parentage).

Cleopatra on papyrusAlthough he was proclaimed by the Senate "dictator in perpetuity" (undermining the idea of a constitutional dictator), continued power struggles led to Caesar's death by stabbing, in the Senate chambers, in 44 BC. Succession was a problem. Caesar had been very popular with plebeians. Mark Antony, his top general, assumed that he was the natural heir, but Caesar had named his grandnephew Octavian as the heir to his name and position. Antony, needing soldiers and money, went to Egypt to create a military base for ultimate action against Octavian's control of Rome. He fell in love with Cleopatra, whose interests were served by keeping him in Egypt (possibly to defend Egypt against Octavian). When Octavian came, and the Battle of Actium was fought in 31 BC, Cleopatra would turn her ships away from the battle, and Antony would follow, losing Rome forever. Fearing Octavian's plan to parade her through the streets of Rome, Cleopatra committed suicide.

Octavian became Augustus Caesar, and his power was such that it could force peace among the various factions. Some say there is no Empire until Augustus. Even at the height of his power, however, Augustus insisted that he was only "princeps", first citizen of the Roman Republic, not emperor. The Pax Romana over which he presided was not peaceful in the sense that war on the frontier was almost constant, but inside the Empire many places (includeing Rome) experienced extraordinary prosperity and stability. The Senate promoted this stability by heaping honor upon honor upon him, even the title "father of his country". We say his name all the time, when we refer to the month of August, the sixth month in the Roman calendar and renamed for him. (Of course, the calendar itself, which held sway until a few hundred years ago, was called the Julian calendar after Julius Caesar.)

Augustus died in AD 14, and unfortunately the emperors who followed him were not of his caliber. Some, like Tiberius and Nero, appear to have been insane, at least according to historian Tacitus (who wrote from the comparative safety of the early 2nd century, the time of the "good emperors"). Nero was reputed to have built a marble stable for his horse, whom he appointed consul. He was also known for commanding attendance when he played the lyre at concerts, where no one was allowed to leave even if dying or giving birth. Under these Julio-Claudians, the emperors became increasingly removed from all but their own wealthy and private lives.

Roman technologyBarbegal mills

Roman politics is fun, but in terms of the modern West, the leadership styles and political problems don't provide very good models. With the exception of Roman law, which became highly developed, the main contribution of the Romans was their technology


The city of Rome was huge by the end of the millenium. About 1/3 of the city of Rome was comprised of the villas of the elite, about 1/3 was the slums where most people lived, and about 1/3 was public spaces. Fires were frequent, and got out of control. Rome's fire department was privately run. Crassus, one of the consuls with Julius Caesar, would appear with the fire trucks and offer to buy the buildings as they were burning, becoming one of the great Roman slumlords. The public spaces were necessary because of the slums, where people lived in even more crowded conditions than they do in urban slums today. People who don't have enough space spend a lot of time outside, on the streets.

To prevent urban violence, Rome provided public spaces with baths, fountains, gymnasiums, and places of entertainment. Tickets to the Forum (chariot races!) and the Colisseum (lions eating Christians!) were cheap. The city of Rome also provided flour, for free, to citizens. This "bread and circuses" approach was designed to distract people from their misery, and thus prevent revolt and mobs supporting opposition parties. In providing everyone with flour, Romans developed a technology that had been used in smaller settings: water-powered flour mills. Centuries before in India, the first wheels (noria) had lifted water from rivers onto fields. And small horizontal wheels had used rivers to turn millstones to grind grain. The Romans combined both with gears to allow a vertical wheel to provide more power.



horizontal grain mill



Then they built them one after another, creating a factory to grind grain to feed Rome.

Barbegal mills    Roman water mills

Roman Roads

The Romans built a huge road network around Europe. The important thing to keep in mind is that these roads had only one purpose -- getting the army quickly from place to place. They were not built between towns or ports, but rather to connect one fortification to another.

Roman Roads

Although initially created by laying planks of wood on wooden rails, Roman road technology developed over time to create roads that are so stable they are still used today (though many have been paved over with asphalt).

Roman road construction

The roadbed was concave, and filled with stones and gravel in layers to create perfect settling of the roadbed, which consisted of thick paved stones fitted together over gravel. The top of the road was often curved for good drainage to the sides.

Appian Way

The Appian Way, leading from Rome to the sea, is one of the few roads used today without asphalt overpaving.

Roman stepping stones

In cities, stepping stones not only helped pedestrians get across the street. They also were of standard width, so they controlled the width of carts that could move around the city. This led to smooth traffic and few obstacles within the city.

Aqueducts and architecture

Water was brought into the cities from the mountains via aqueducts. Although fuctional for moving water, the aqueducts crossing the landscape also provided a visual reminder that one was in the Roman Empire and controlled by Rome.

cross section of aqueduct

I used to wonder where the water was in an aqueduct. Turns out it is on the inside, run in channels usually sealed with clay. Several channels could be used to more easily divert water to different places. An extra channel along the top could also be used.

Aqueduct in southern France

This aqueduct in southern France gives an idea of how huge they were, a continual reminder of who was in charge as well as a source of fresh water.

In addition to monumental architecture, bridges and roads, the Romans built one building that has outlasted barbarian attack and the ravages of time. The Panthenon gives us an idea of the Roman obsession with perfect forms. The temple is dedicated to all the Roman gods (thus the name), and is so beautiful that according to legend the barbarians were literally stopped in their tracks and didn't destroy it.



As with their other arts, Roman literature frequently harked back to that of ancient Greece. One of the most famous works is Virgil's Aeneid, an epic story of a warrior journeying from the Trojan War to found the city of Rome. It is the story of a man's odyssey to become a man of virtus, the universal theme of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey being translated into Roman culture. The lyric poet Horace wrote of politics and poetry. Ovid developed classical mythology with his stories and set up much of what we know of the Roman gods (themselves modelled on Greek gods). Juvenal wrote satire, a Roman genre which commented on social mores. His satire on women is a good example:

 Click here to open document in new window

statue of womanThis can also tell us something about how Imperial Rome considered women. As in the other cultures we've studied, wealthy women had the opportunity for education and a role in political life, although women were not permitted to vote or hold office. Tacitus tells us how powerful royal women were, even poisoning their enemies to further the political careers of their relatives.

Why did Rome fall?

As the Roman Empire expanded, Roman armies encountered many different kinds of people. The Gauls in what is now France, the Celts in Britain, and the Germanic tribes of central Europe all were influenced by Roman conquest. As the empire expanded, conquered peoples were offered alliances, and sometimes even citizenship, in return for providing military support at the borders against foreigners just outside the new edges of the Empire. Those military leaders who collaborated with Rome were rewarded with high political position, representation in Rome, and control of their own lands. In their villas in the countryside, these collaborating rulers lived a life that was very Roman.

How they were to be represented in the government was a huge question. Tacitus reports on the conflict in the Senate:

 Click here to open document in new window

The 3rd and 4th centuries were a time of internal corruption and external violence in the Empire. At the same time a new faith, Christianity, was emerging and uniting large groups of the poor. In 285 Emperor Diocletion divided the empire into two halves, each ruled by an emperor and a deputy (the tetrarchy). This was only the first step in what would become a permanent division under the Emperor Constantine. Over the next century, the western half of the empire was continually under attack by tribal groups, particularly the Goths. In 476 the city of Rome itself was sacked by the Visigoths, and the west would not see another truly Roman Empire. The east would become the Byzantine Empire, predominantly Greek-oriented and Christian.

In deciding what happened to cause this "fall" of Rome, historians have come up with many theories. Edward Gibbon, a 19th century historian, believed the empire had been weakened by Christianity. Modern historians have developed a "lead poisoning" theory that is quite interesting. Wealthy Romans used lead-based makeup on their skin, drank wine out of lead cups (wine leaches lead out of metal), and had their water delivered in lead pipes. Poor Romans couldn't afford lead items, drank milk (an antidote to lead poisoning) and received water through clay pipes. Lead causes sterility and insanity, and the theory is that the wealthy became insane and infertile, struggling with leadership roles and not leaving enough children to succeed them.

Other historians focus on the overextension of the empire. The army was stretched thin, and the collaborators at the edges of the empire couldn't hold their areas in the face of the "barbarians" (foreigners). Also, climate change was a factor, since the invaders were in retreat from invaders in their own territories, who were looking for better climate and conditions for their animals.

It is most likely that all the proposed reasons have some truth in them, though none would account for everything.


Lessons of History

1. "Captive Greece held Rome captive" -- Horace

2. Technology can help hold an empire together.

3. "Bread and circuses" can distract a population and cause them to become complacent, giving a government more power.


Creative Commons License
The text by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Creative Commons License
The voice audio by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002. This page has been checked for web accessibility using WAVE.