According to legend, Romulus and Remus were the sons of Rhea Silvia, the daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa, a mythical city located in the Alban Hills southeast of what would become Rome. Numitor was deposed by his younger brother Amulius, who forced Rhea to become a vestal virgin so that she would not give birth to rival claimants to his throne. She however, was already pregnant by the war god Mars, destined to give birth, to twins.
Learning of the birth, Amulius ordered the infants Romulus and Remus drowned in the Tiber river. The twins survived, washing ashore at the foot of the Palatine hill, where the two were suckled by a she-wolf.
Later discovered by the shepherd Faustulus, the boys were reared by he and his wife. Much later, the brothers became leaders of a band of young shepherd warriors. On learning their true identity, the twins attacked Alba Longa, killed King Amulius, and restored their grandfather to the throne.
Romulus and Remus founded a town on the site of their salvation, the traditional date being April 21, 753BC. Romulus later murdered his brother after some petty quarrel, making himself sole ruler of the settlement which he modestly called “Rome”, in his own honor.
Except, the whole story, is nonsense. Much like a centurion with a cell phone.
It’s more likely that first three hundred years were a scrap for survival. If anyone had time to write down a serious history, it’s been lost.
Sparse factual material was embellished by later generations with some facts exaggerated or invented outright, while the more embarrassing episodes, were “disappeared”. This early or Regal period is said to be a time of six Kings, benevolent rulers all except for the seventh, a cruel tyrant known as Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.
According to legend, Tarquin was overthrown by public uprising, around 509/510BC. Etruscan civilization, dominant over the Italian peninsula since 900BC, had begun to lose hold. A series of wars would see the ascension of the Latin League (albeit temporarily), at the expense of the Etruscan league. The siege of Veii in 396BC brought the ancient Etruscan city into the Roman orbit.
The last remnants were absorbed in 27BC as Republic morphed into Empire, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.
Rather than restoring the monarchy, the Romans replaced the kingship with two annually elected magistrates, or Consuls. The Republic, was born.
The historian Livy tells us, the first 200 years of Republic was a never ending struggle between two social orders: Patricians and Plebeians. The privileged classes, and the common citizen.
The republic built a governing system of three branches with checks and balances and a strong aversion to the concentration of power.
The executive branch or Consuls (usually two) were primarily Generals, whose job was to lead the republican military in war. In times of national emergency, Rome would appoint a dictator in place of Consuls, a military leader entrusted with supreme command for no more than six months.
The Senate consisted of 300 who served, for life. Primarily an advisory body, the Senate focused mostly on foreign policy but exercised considerable jurisdiction over civil affairs, as the Senate controlled the treasury. At first exclusive to ex-consuls and other members of the Patrician class, the Senate would later open to members of the Plebian class.
Last came the Assemblies, the most democratic branch of Republican government, of which there were four.
Within fifteen years, the crushing debt of endless wars and the excesses of the publicani, the ruthless, usurious contractors hired by the state to collect taxes, brought the Plebeians to open revolt. There was talk of assassinating a Consul. The Plebs seceded in 493BC in much the same way, as a modern labor strike. With the economy ground to a halt, the popular ex-consul Agrippa Menenius was sent to negotiate, resulting in a direct representative of the common man, in the Assembly. This was the Tribune of the Plebs of which there were two, and later ten.
With their physical person sacrosanct, anyone who laid a hand on them was subject to death, the Tribune of the Plebs was uniquely able to propose and veto legislation and to rescue commoners, from the hands of Patrician magistrates. Several important offices opened to the Plebs by the 4th century BC, up to and including that of Consul, and Dictator
In theory, the Tribune of the Plebs brought representation for the common citizen. In practice, such powers in the hands of demagogues, would bring about the death of the Republic.
By the 5th century, the people of Gaul (modern-day France, parts of Belgium, western Germany and northern Italy) migrated south to the Mediterranean coast. Disaster struck in 390BC as war bands of the Gallic Chieftain Brennus swept out of the north, easily defeating Roman defenses at the river Allia and capturing and sacking much of Rome, itself.
The sack of Rome doesn’t seem to have been the disaster, described in Roman legend. Little archeological evidence exists to support the idea of a sustained sack and burning of the city. Very possibly, Brennus and his band were headed south to sign on as mercenaries, in service to Dionysius of Syracuse.
Maybe all they wanted was the sort of plunder easily carried away. Like the gold they were paid to get out of town which they happily did, following a 7-month siege.
There followed forty years of hard fighting in Latium and Etruria to restore the power of Rome. Be that as it may, the Gallic bogey man would live on in the Roman psyche.
The Latin war of 340-338BC ended in victory for the Republic, placing Rome in control of central Italy. The next three decades saw the conquest and colonization of the Samnites to the north and the Greek principalities, to the south. By 275BC, Rome was master of all Italy.
Meanwhile, a child was born in Carthage some 1,500 miles to the south, who would rock the Roman world. His name was Hamilcar Barca.
The 3rd century BC was a time of endless military campaign for the Roman Republic, no fewer than 68 of them.
Outward expansion inevitably brought the Republic into conflict with the other major Mediterranean power of the age, the ancient Phoenician seafaring civilization long since settled in north Africa, called Carthage.
Hamilcar Barca was a great general in the first of three wars between Rome and Carthage, the longest continuous conflict and the greatest naval war, of antiquity. The 1st Punic War went badly for Carthage and ended on harsh terms, including the loss of that famous navy. Hamilcar died in 228BC most likely drowning in the Jucar River but he lived on in a way, in the form of the Roman’s worst nightmare – Hamilcar’s sons sworn to eternal hate for Rome, Hasdrubal, Mago and possibly the greatest field commander in history, the general Hannibal.
In 218BC, Hannibal crossed into hostile Gaul at the head of 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 37 war elephants. His crossing of the Alps that winter is one of the great feats of military history, costing almost half of his force before entering Italy that December.
The first of several major battles took place on December 18, 218BC, on the banks of the Trebia River. The army of Hannibal was near invincible, defeating Roman legions in one major engagement after another. Trebia, Lake Trasimene, Cannae: where Hannibal annihilated nearly down to the man, the largest Roman army, ever assembled. For sixteen years, Hannibal’s Carthaginians were virtually unbeatable, devastating the Italian countryside as Rome drafted one army after another only to see them crushed, yet again. Meanwhile, Carthage itself was politically divided. Hannibal never did receive any significant support from home. In the end, he had to leave Italy to defend his homeland in North Africa.
Hannibal was soundly defeated by his own tactics on October 19, 202BC at the Battle of Zama, ending the second Punic war under humiliating terms for Carthage.
By the 1st century BC, Roman power all but encircled the Mediterranean, from modern-day Spain to Syria, from Normandy to North Africa.
Such diverse, conquered peoples proved ever more difficult to govern as troops were stationed literally everywhere, ready to use force, if necessary. In Rome itself, citizens suffered under a government that always seemed to be looking, elsewhere. Roman made goods and produce became ever more expensive as locals found themselves unable to compete, with the provinces. Many migrated to the city where, increasingly, those in public service sought to placate the masses with handouts, and lavish entertainments.
In the late first and early second centuries (AD), the Roman poet Juvenal spoke of the period in his Satires, of a population no longer dedicated to the sacred birthright of public service, of civic engagement, preferring instead panem et circenses. Bread and circuses.
In the end, the Republic died by its own hand, a victim of internal politics.
In the middle years of the Republic, legionaries were required to serve out entire campaigns, regardless of length. Larger homesteads could always count on the labor of slaves while smaller farms were left in the hands of wives and children. These often went bankrupt, properties bought cheaply by an increasingly wealthy and avaricious, upper class.
According to Plutarch, “[W]hen Tiberius on his way to Numantia passed through Etruria and found the country almost depopulated and its husbandmen and shepherds imported barbarian slaves, he first conceived the policy which was to be the source of countless ills to himself and to his brother.”
Tiberius and his brother were the Gracchus brothers, important populist politicians of the late Republic. Tiberius, a hero of the 3rd Punic war, instituted reforms redistributing lands, back to the poor. Tiberius became a hero to the poorer classes and hated by the wealthy, so much so that he and 300 supporters were beaten to death with stones and clubs, in 132BC.
The Senate attempted to placate the Plebs by enforcing Gracchus’ land reforms but, ten years later, Tiberius’ younger brother and heir to his populist politics Gaius, would share the fate of his brother.
The Gracchi were gone but the animus between Populares and Optimates, had never been greater.
The first of several civil wars began in 88BC with a struggle for power between two men.
Elected Consul an unprecedented seven times, Gaius Marius implemented military reforms, transforming the loyalty of the soldiery from the republic, to their commander. Lucius Cornelius Sulla was the ambitious son of a Patrician family.
Outmaneuvered by Marius for supreme command of the 1st war against King Mithradates of Pontus (eastern Turkey), Sulla gathered his allies and marched under arms, against Rome. It was an unprecedented act of hostility duplicated by Marius himself and his allies, on Sulla’s return to Pontus. The murderous “reforms” of Marius and his Populares paled in comparison to the second return of Sulla and his Optimates.
Imagine finding your name on a list published by your government, knowing that meant you were “proscribed”. Whosoever of your fellow citizens who found and killed you, was entitled to your worldly possessions. The names of as many 4,700 “enemies of the state” were nailed to the wall of the Roman Forum during the “proscriptions” of the Dictator Sulla.
Forty years later, a General’s marching on Rome at the head of an army was still an act of war, though hardly “unprecedented”. With the words “the die is cast”, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon river on January 10, 49BC, igniting another civil war. Caesar emerged victorious in early 44BC to be appointed, “Dictator for Life”. The very idea was an affront to traditional Roman sensibilities. Caesar was murdered by a cabal of Senators on March 15. The “Ides of March“.
Caesar’s killers believed they were saving the Republic but their actions, had the opposite effect. The assassination sparked a period of civil war and political instability from which Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, emerged victorious over Marc Antony and his Greek princess ally turned Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra.
Octavian was crowned the first emperor of Rome on January 16, 27BC and given the honorific title, “Augustus”. The Republic was dead. The era of Empire, had begun.