home | 1000 BCE to 500 CE | The Gods of Rome



Rome staggers to Empire

Strength through Compromise | More Concessions and Written Law – the Twelve Tables | Strength after Defeat by the Gauls | Rome Wins Domination of Italy and Defends itself against the Hellenistic East | the First Punic War and a New Spirit for Empire | Punic War II (Hannibal's War) | The Punic Wars change Rome | Rome's Hegemonic Arrogance | Rome Destroys Carthage and Conquers from Hispania to Greece

Map of Ancient Italy and Sicily, 400 to 200 BCE

Map of Ancient Italy and Sicily, 400 to 200 BCE

Strength through Compromise

In the mid-700s BCE, Latin-speaking Indo-Europeans are believed to have migrated southward across the Alps to the warmer climate and rich lands on the Italian peninsula. By then an Etruscan civilization dominated the peninsula's northwest, and an in the 500s an Etruscan king was ruling Rome, a city populated by Latins who farmed and raised animals, a city divided between aristocrats (people wealthy in land, the major source of wealth production) and commoners. In 509 BCE a group of Roman nobles drove the Etruscan king, Tarquin, from power. Without a king, Rome had become a republic. Power passed to a council of aristocrats called the senate.

In separating themselves from Etruscan rule, Romans lost trade with the Etruscans and with Greek colonies in southern Italy. What little there had been in imports ended. Rome's merchants and craftsmen suffered, and Rome experienced economic depression and grain shortages.

Rome was challenged also by their fellow Latin neighbors. While under Etruscan rule, Rome had been the greatest power among the Latins, and Rome had been resented by the other Latins. In the year 496 these Latins warred against Rome over disputed lands and to free themselves from Rome's hegemony. Rome won the Battle of Lake Regillusis, and with victory Rome's leaders put vanity aside and abandoned their claim of hegemony in Latium. They saw advantage in peace and cooperation with their fellow Latins, one advantage being trade and another being an strength through an alliance. In 493, Rome joined an alliance with its Latin neighbors as an equal.

The alliance treaty held that business contracts between people from different states within the alliance were to be bound by law. And the treaty held that in wars against outsiders, alliance members were to share in commanding armies and in the spoils of war. The alliance strengthened Rome in the wars that soon followed. The Etruscans began an attempt to impose again their rule on the Romans and other Latins. And there were periodic wars across decades against mountain people in central Italy who were increasing in population and attempting to expand.

Rome's aristocrats were horsemen, and cavalry was their basic fighting unit. Wars gave them prestige and helped them to maintain their claim of leadership over the other Romans. But a development in the art of war was denying the aristocrats their exclusive right to prestige. The Greeks, Etruscans and now the Romans were using heavily armed infantrymen – men who were commoners. The increased importance of the common man in combat had encouraged democracy in Athens, and now it was increasing the self-confidence of Rome's commoner-soldiers, who were also small farmers.

Economic distress exacerbated conflict between aristocrats (patricians) and commoners (plebeians). Involved in this conflict was the rise of debt slavery. When a small farmer was seized for non-payment of his debts, other commoners, mainly farmer-soldiers, might attempt to rescue him by force.

Rome's farmer-soldiers and farmer-veterans demanded a bigger share in the distribution of lands, and they demanded the abolition of veterans' debts. They advocated the creation of an assembly that spoke for their interests and the interests of all common people. They wanted common people to be able to elect men to preside over this assembly and to keep watch on the Senate and to have the power to veto Senate proposals. And they wanted a commoner elected as one of the Senate's two chief executives – its two consuls. The consuls served as commanders-in-chief of the military, and this included the power to have soldiers executed for lack of discipline. The consuls also decided who would be promoted to positions of authority within the Senate and who could declare an emergency, giving themselves rule for six months. There were two consuls so as not to give too much power to one man, as with the kind of monarch they had recently overthrown. Each consul was able to veto a decision by the other.

A strike by plebeians was followed by patricians acknowledging that it was no longer as it had been in the days when aristocrats alone were the warriors. The patricians were willing to compromise. Although the Senate did not give the plebeians exactly what they wanted, it did create military tribunes, commoners or aristocrats to be elected by both small farmers and by aristocrats. The farmer-soldiers were encouraged by this increase in their participation in government. It gave them more of a sense that in war they were fighting for their own interests. This enhanced their morale and strengthened Rome as a military power.


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