The Roman Republic was founded in 509 BCE following the fall of the Roman monarchy. At the start of the Republic, Rome was a relatively unknown city in central Italy. Over the next several centuries Rome would grow to become the dominant force on the Italian peninsula and eventually the Mediterranean.
Following the exile of the last king of the Roman monarchy, Rome was now controlled by the Senate. Each year the Senate would elect two consuls who would act as the heads of state. By selecting two consuls, one could keep the other in check unlike during the Roman monarchy where one man had total control over Rome. Additionally, consuls only served one-year terms, and once their office ended, they could be prosecuted for their actions.
Towards the end of the fifth century BCE, the Senate set off on a campaign of rapid territorial expansion. Over the next several centuries Rome's borders expanded significantly. Victories in the Samnite Wars, Pyrrhic Wars, Punic Wars (to name a few) saw the territories of ancient Rome expand to include: Italy, France, Spain, Greece, northern Africa and various other regions.
As the first century BCE approached a storm was brewing within the Roman Republic: a massive class divide existed, several slave uprisings occurred, and many of Rome's generals had far too much control; resulting in several civil wars throughout the first century BCE. The first of these wars between Marius and Sulla was particularly bloody with many of Rome's elite being put to the knife. The next great civil war was between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great which would be the catalyst for the fall of the Roman Republic. The final civil war of the Republic was fought between Octavian (Augustus) and Mark Antony.
Augustus would found the principate in 27 BCE. This year marks the end of the Roman Republic and the start of the Roman Empire which would last until 476 CE.
Founding the Roman Republic
In 509BC, Brutus led a rebellion against the Tarquin the Proud, the last king of Rome. The coup was successful, and Tarquin was exiled. However, Tarquin sought help from the Etruscan League to be restored as king in Rome. Despite the Etruscans agreeing to help the conflict resulted in a ceasefire. After Tarquin's plot to regain the throne with the Etruscans had failed he looked toward the Latin League. They also agreed to help however this attempt also failed as the newly founded Roman Republic defeated the the Latin League at the Battle of Regillus in 496 BCE. Thus securing the Senate as the primary government of Rome.
Despite a monarch being replaced by a more democratic Senate, it did not solve the class issue which had existed in ancient Rome. In 494 BCE, shortly after the Republic's foundation an event known as the first secession of the plebs took place. Whereby, many of the plebeian class withdrew from Rome to the Mons Sacer (Sacred Mountain). To bring these people back to Rome, the Senate freed many of the plebs from their debts and established the position of the 'Tribune of the Plebs'. An office in the Senate which could only be held by a person of the plebeian class.
There are five documented secessions in Roman history, in 494 BCE, 449 BCE, 445 BCE, 342 BCE and 287 BCE. This theme of conflict between the classes existed at all parts of Roman history.
Expansion of the Roman Republic
In the latter half of the fifth century BCE, Rome began on a number of military campaigns to expand its borders. This to enforce the new law properly with several victories over other cities in central Italy; Rome captured Fidenae in 428 BCE and following a nine-year siege also conquered the city of Veii.
Gallic Sacking of Rome
Despite recent success, Rome suffered a massive setback following a Gallic invasion of the Italian peninsula. The Roman Republic lost at the Battle of Allia to a Gallic army which allowed Rome to be sacked and plundered. The citizens of Rome were forced to retreat to the Capitoline Hill while the rest of the city was at the mercy of the Gauls. It was only after many of the invaders fell ill that the Romans were able to negotiate reparations in return for the Gallic forces leaving Roman territories.
Rome's campaigns begin anew
Despite the sack, Rome recovered quickly and looked toward new conquests. Rome first had to deal with the Latin League, who declared war on the Roman Republic in 340 BCE. However, Rome won a series of battles bringing an end to the war in under two years.
Samnite Wars – 343 to 282 BCE
The Samnite Wars were a series of three wars fought over a period of sixty-one years. The Samnite Kingdom lay to the east of Rome and posed a significant threat to the Republic's territories. The first Samnite War began in 343 BCE when the city of Capua came under threat from the Samnite Kingdom. Capua sent an envoy to Rome to ask for their protection. Rome agreed to help and sent a messenger to the Samnite Kingdom threatening to declare war if they attacked Capua. Despite this warning the Samnites still attacked Capua, and thus the First Samnite War began.
The Second Samnite War (326 to 304 BCE) began as a power struggle between the two sides over control of the city of Naples. This conflict lasted a period of twenty-two years and was costly to both sides. Despite suffering a series of crushing defeats in the middle of the war, Rome overcame the Samnites and achieved dominance in central Italy.
The Third Samnite War (298 to 290 BCE) saw the Samnites, Etruscans, Umbrians and Gauls join forces against Rome. Despite the alliance of so many of Rome's enemies, the Republic was successful. Victory in this war meant there was little competition to Roman dominance in Italy.
Pyrrhic Wars – 280 to 275 BCE
The Pyrrhic War was a five-year war against the Greek controlled cities on the southern coast of Italy. The war began when the independent city of Thurii sent an envoy to Rome asking for protection against the Greek city of Tarentum. Rome accepted Thurii's plea, and the Pyrrhic War began.
The war was very bloody, and there were significant losses on both sides. Pyrrhus had brought nineteen war elephants into battle which had devastating effects on the Roman forces. However, after a string of costly battles, Pyrrhus saw no way to win a decisive victory against Rome and withdrew his forces back to Epirus.
The war also gave birth to the phrase 'Pyrrhic victory'. An instance where despite winning a battle or war it is hollow and has little meaning as you have lost too much for it to be beneficial. Plutarch quoted Pyrrhus as saying:
"If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined."
Punic Wars – 264 to 146 BCE
The Punic Wars were a series of three wars fought between Rome and Carthage. These wars were the largest conflicts that Rome had entered into up to this point, Carthage being one of the great civilizations of the Mediterranean.
The First Punic War (264 to 241 BCE) lasted twenty-three years and began due to Rome's ambition of controlling Sicily. Carthage was a maritime empire and relied heavily on its naval forces. Rome, on the other hand, had little naval capabilities at the start of this war. However, this changed dramatically as Rome quickly built a fleet which rivaled that of the Carthaginians. Despite the war being costly on both sides Rome won and forced Carthage into signing a treaty whereby they left Sicily to Rome and paid large sums of money.
The Second Punic War (218 to 201 BCE) spanned seventeen years and was initiated following the actions of Hannibal Barca in Hispania which triggered Rome into declaring war. Hannibal then famously marched an army including thirty-six war elephants over the Alps and into Italy. Hannibal repeatedly humiliated Roman legions but was unable to cause a critical blow to Rome. The Republic was unable to defeat Hannibal in battle and instead decided to attack his supply line by using its navy to crush any Carthaginian support. Hannibal was forced to withdraw from Italy but ultimately was defeated at the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE.
The Third Punic War (149 to 146 BCE) centered mainly around the Siege of Carthage and resulted in the city being razed and destroyed with all of Carthage's territories being annexed into the Roman Republic.
Servile Wars - 135 to 71 BCE
The Servile Wars were a series of slave uprising within the Roman Republic. Following the recent victories over Carthage and other enemies, a lot of slaves were brought back to Italy. While this boosted the economy, it created tension and unrest; not only among the slaves but also the lower class who were losing their jobs.
Both the first and second revolts caused a nuisance to the Republic but were quickly crushed by Roman forces. However, the third of these uprisings (73 to 71 BCE) is the one that made its way into modern culture. It was led by the escaped gladiator Spartacus, and within two years his rebellion grew from under a hundred members to over 120,000 men, women, and children. It took until 71 BCE when the Senate gave Crassus a significant force to crush the rebellion.
Decline of the Roman Republic
Before 133 BCE the Roman Republic looked to be in better shape than ever before. After defeating Carthage as well as various other conquests, Rome’s territories were at the largest they had ever been. The year 133 BCE marks the beginning of the fall of the Roman Republic, it would take just over a century for the Republic to replaced by the Roman Empire.
Tiberius Gracchus – 133 BCE
In 133 BCE, Tiberius Gracchus was appointed to the position of tribune. Once elected he proposed that all state-owned land should be redistributed among the plebeian class. Currently, most of the land in Italy was owned by Rome's mega rich and was of no benefit to the lower classes.
Despite strong opposition in the Senate, Tiberius was able to get the reform passed. However, once the law was passed the Senate refused to give Tiberius the resources he required to properly enforce the new law. The role of tribune was only for a duration of one-year, and when his year in office was over, he stood for re-election to finish what he had started.
However, on his re-election, Tiberius set out to meet a crowd when he was informed that the Senate intended to assassinate him. Tiberius armed his men with clubs and other weapons which were on hand. Tiberius attempted to signal to the crowd that his life was in danger by pointing at his head. However, his opponents believed that he was asking for a crown. These opponents outraged rushed to the Senate to tell the senators what was happening. This led to a senior senator, Nasica, demanding that the consul takes action but when he refused Nasica exclaimed:
"Now that the consul has betrayed the state, let every man who wishes to uphold the laws follow me!"
Nasica led a mob to where Tiberius was speaking and killed him and over three-hundred of his supporters. Before throwing their bodies into the River Tiber. Many more of his followers were either imprisoned, executed or exiled.
Gaius Gracchus – 122 BCE
Gaius Gracchus, the younger brother of Tiberius, was elected to the position of Tribune a decade after his brother. He had similar ideas of wealth redistribution, gaining him the support of the masses but also creating enemies among the senatorial classes.
The most notable of Gaius' social reforms was a grain law, which would entitle all citizens of Rome to a monthly grain ration. Gaius also made various changes to the legal system, which included a law which allowed any magistrate who had exiled a citizen of Rome without trial to be prosecuted.
Gaius' final act as Tribune was organizing a demonstration on the Aventine Hill. Many of Gaius' supporters armed themselves, and the Senate saw this as an opportunity to remove Gaius. The consul, Lucius Opimius, rallied the Senate to pass a decree condemning the demonstration and granting him the power to raise a small force to quell it. Lucius Opimius massacred Gaius' supporters. Gaius fled the scene and later committed suicide.
Gaius Marius and Sulla
Gaius Marius gained widespread support in Rome following his military victories in the Jugurthine and Cimbrian Wars. This support granted Gaius the position of consul a total of seven times, including five consecutive terms between 105 and 100 BCE.
As consul, Gaius made significant reforms to the Roman army. These changes increased the amount of Romans available for military service. Before these reforms, a soldier would have to purchase their weaponry and equipment, under the Marian reforms the state would now provide soldiers with equipment. Many of the lower classes chose to enlist in the army as they had few other opportunities to accumulate wealth. Marius also reorganized the army into legions (4,800 soldiers). Each legion had ten cohorts (480 soldiers). Each cohort had six centuries (80 soldiers). Marius also standardized the training and equipment of all soldiers in the legions. These reforms significantly improved the effectiveness and efficiency of the Roman military.
Sulla was also of military pedigree having taken senior positions of command in the Jugurthine, Cimbrian and the Social Wars.
The two men had a growing rivalry. Sulla believed that his efforts in the Cimbrian War had been overlooked with Marius receiving much of the credit. The two men also belonged to the two different political parties of ancient Rome. Sulla was a member of the Optimates party which favored the aristocracy, while Gaius was a member of the Populares party which promoted the rights of the lower classes.
Gaius Marius and Sulla were on a collision path following a nasty piece of politics on Marius' part. In 88 BCE, the Senate chose Sulla to take an army to Greece in order to defend Greek allies against an attack against Mithridates of Pontus. Marius disagreed with the decision and bribed a tribune to convince the Senate to reverse their ruling and grant Marius the position.
Sulla infuriated by this action convinced his six legions to march with him to Rome and seize control of the city. This was the first time in Roman history that a general had advanced on the capital. However, it would not be the last time. Gaius Marius without an army was forced to flee Rome and found refuge in northern Africa. After Sulla had secured Rome, he introduced political reform to strengthen the power of the Senate. Sulla then took his six legions to Greece to complete the task he had been given before Marius had intervened.
On returning from Greece in 82 BCE, Sulla had no political office and once again marched on Rome taking control of the city by force. He granted himself the position of dictator, a political office which was only meant to be used when Rome was in severe danger. Regardless, Sulla used this power to introduce a proscription list, allowing him to kill and seize the assets of anyone who opposed him. Roughly forty senators and over a thousand equestrians were executed in the first of these lists.
After Sulla had secured his political objectives, he retired in 79 BCE returning all of his power to the Senate.
Pompey and Crassus
Pompey and Crassus were two of Sulla's supporters. The two were both successful military commanders, and Crassus was one of the wealthiest men of the ancient world. Following the retirement of Sulla, many of the opposing faction wanted Sulla's reforms undone. Pompey and Crassus came to an agreement that if elected they would repeal many of Sulla's orders. The two were elected as consuls in 70 BCE.
Julius Caesar was an ambitious general and statesman. Having completed a term as governor in Hispania, Caesar sought to run for consul in Rome. However, there was too much opposition against him in the Senate, and without the necessary support, he turned to Pompey and Crassus.
Caesar gained the support of Pompey and Crassus by promising to push through reforms which were to their personal advantage. The alliance was strengthened when Caesar married his daughter, Julia, to Pompey. The three men's combined power and influence was enough to make the Senate redundant allowing them to pass any laws they wished.
However, there was a significant faction in Rome who objected to what was happening. Clodius loathed the triumvirate and started funding armed gangs to disrupt the three's policies. The situation worsened when another senator, Milo, funded opposition gangs who supported the triumvirates intentions.
The first triumvirate began to crumble when Julia died in 54 BCE severing the connection between Caesar and Pompey. One year later Crassus died at the Battle of Carrhae (53 BCE). This caused Pompey to switch his allegiance from Caesar to the Senate.
In 50 BCE, Pompey with the support of the Senate sent an envoy to Caesar demanding he disbands his legions otherwise he would be made an enemy of the Roman Republic. Caesar refused, and in 49 BCE he crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome with his legions starting a civil war. Pompey and the Senate could not raise an army quick enough and were forced to flee Rome; this allowed Julius Caesar to march into the city without conflict.
Outside of Rome, Pompey was able to raise his legions, and a bloody civil war ensued, lasting until 45 BCE. Caesar was successful in defeating his former political ally and declared himself dictator for an indefinite period.
In 44 BCE, Caesar was assassinated in a plot led by Cassius and Brutus. This event once again sent the Roman Republic into a state of turmoil and civil war.
Octavian and Marc Antony
Caesar in his will granted his nephew Octavian his title and vast estates. Octavian was only eighteen at the time of Caesar's death but proved to be an incredibly talented statesman.
Mark Antony, Caesar's second in command, had expected much of Caesar's power to fall into his hands and was resentful of the will. Antony moved to gain as much power as he could and in 44 BCE, was elected to the office of consul. Antony refused to ratify Caesar's will preventing Octavian obtaining the money he needed.
In response, Octavian went north to where Caesar's legions were located. He convinced the army to fight under him and also took the large quantities of gold stationed there. Octavian then marched south back to Rome, amassing more support for his cause, including two legions which were loyal to Antony. The Senate detested Antony and despite Octavian being the adopted son of Julius Caesar they saw him as the lesser of two evils.
Antony's term as consul was coming to an end and knowing that he didn't have the political support to stay in Rome he went north to Gaul where his remaining loyal legions were located. Antony intended to force the current governor of Gaul, Brutus, to relinquish control of the province to him. Brutus refused, and Antony laid siege to the settlement where Brutus was situated. The Senate sent Octavian and his army to deal with Antony.
Antony was forced to retreat and traveled to Hispania where an old ally, Lepidus, was governor. He and Lepidus came to an agreement whereby Antony assumed control of Lepidus' legions. This gave him a total of seventeen legions, the largest single force the Roman Republic had ever seen.
Following Octavian's success against lifting Antony's siege, the Senate had sought to dismantle Octavian's power. Antony looked to take advantage of this and sent Lepidus to Octavian to broker a deal. The three would combine forces to form the second triumvirate against the Roman Senate.
Following the establishment of the second triumvirate, Octavian sent an ultimatum to the Senate. He demanded that he be appointed consul and that Antony was exonerated from any crime he was perceived to have committed. The Senate refused Octavian's requests. Consequently, Octavian marched on Rome with eight legions. Facing no military opposition, he made himself consul and ratified the "Triumviri Rei publicae Constituendae". This gave Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus the status of dictators of the Roman Republic.
To establish a source of income, the three issued a proscription list in which they killed many political rivals and acquired their assets. Many members of the Senate had fled to the eastern provinces where they had been gathering an army to retake Rome. These attempts were futile as the triumvirate's combined forces easily overwhelmed the efforts of the Senate.
While the triumvirate had been successful, it began to dissolve. Lepidus had been marginalized by Octavian and Antony. Consequently, he withdrew from the alliance and claimed Sicily as his. However, his legions defected to Octavian's cause, and Lepidus was sent into exile.
This just left Mark Antony and Octavian to fight for the fate of the Republic. The two had split the Roman Republic into two halves, Octavian held Rome and the West, while Antony took the eastern provinces and resided in Egypt alongside Cleopatra.
In 32 BCE, Octavian acquired Antony's will; it stated that his body was to be shipped to Egypt when he died. This news did not go down well in Rome, and this gave Octavian the leverage he needed to launch a war against Antony. This civil war culminated in 31 BCE at the Battle of Actium where Octavian's most trusted general Agrippa destroyed Antony's forces. Leaving Octavian in sole control of all of Rome's holdings.
In 27 BCE, the Senate granted Octavian the name of Augustus among various other extraordinary powers, marking the end of the Roman Republic.