Hannibal leading his elephants over the Alps during his invasion of Northern Italy
Episode 21: Building the Roman Republic
The Big History of Civilizations (2016)
Dr Craig G Benjamin
According to Benjamin, the Roman republic was formed when residents of city-state Rome overthrew the last Roman king (535 BC) and created an assembly of nobles (called the senate), which elected two consuls to oversee the government.
In 493 BC, there was another major revolt, in which the plebians (commoners) refused to work or serve in the military. The Senate ended the general strike by allowing the plebs to elect tribunes with the power to veto the consuls’ decisions. However the vast majority of agricultural land continued to be owned by the nobility, who treated the peasants who farmed it as virtual serfs.
From 309 BC, when marauding Gauls sacked the city, Rome became increasingly militarized. During the Pyrrhic War (280-275 BC), Greek colonies in southern Italy hired Pyrrhus, the mercenary king of Epirus, to protect them against Roman aggression. Pyrrhus technically won all the battles he launched against Rome. However his forces were too weakened to defend themselves against further Roman assaults. By 270 BC, Rome had brought all the Greek city-states of southern Italy under Roman control.
The three Punic Wars (264-164 BC), directed against the Phoenicians who controlled Carthage, were the first military engagements involving hundreds of thousands of troops in multiple arenas throughout the Mediterranean. They were also the first wars in history to result in large numbers of civilian deaths.
In 203 BC, the Carthaginian general Hannibal occupied all of northern Italy for eight months and was preparing to march on when the Roman general Scipio attacked Carthage. In doing so, he forced Hannibal to withdraw from Italy and return to North Africa. As the Romans perfect the capacity to sustain war on multiple fronts, they eventually took control of the former Carthaginian empire, virtually extinguishing Carthaginian culture by 146 BC.
In 197 BC, the Romans attacked Macedonia to punish them for allying with Carthage, and in 146 BC, they put down an uprising in Corinth and annexed the entire Greek peninsula.
In 133 BC, the king of Pergamon (in modern day Turkey), bequeathed his kingdom to Rome. This meant the republic of Rome now had colonies in Europe, Asia and Africa.
Following the conquest of Greece, the Roman elite learned the Greek language and became avid consumers of Greek literature, philosophy and art. Meanwhile the city of Rome underwent a major social crisis as senators gobbled up more and more agricultural land, and troops released from the military returned from war to form an unemployed proletariat.*
Meanwhile extreme corruption prevented the Senate from enacting necessary reforms to prevent the Republic from collapsing. In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus attempted to enact a law to limit the size of senatorial farms, and the senate had him murdered along with 300 of his followers. In 123-122 BC his brother Gaius Gracchus was elected tribune and established the “dole,” a grain subsidy for unemployed Romans. He also tried to establish military colonies for veterans in Europe and Africa. He was also killed, along with 3,000 followers in violent rioting.
In 107 BC, the peoples assembly elected the tough general Gaius Marius as tribune. The latter established the destabilizing precedent of recruiting his own army among peasant followers. The creation by Gaius Marius and Sculla of personal armies to put down an uprising in Asia Minor would lead to Rome’s first civil war.
In 59 BC, Julius Caesar, elected consul in 64 BC, triggered the second civil war by refusing to disband the army he had led in Gaul. This caused his co-consul and most of the senate to flee to Greece.
After the senate appointed Caesar “dictator,” he declared the republic dead and passed laws to reduce debt, establish colonies for returned veterans. He also declared that one third laborers on senators’ estates had to be freemen. These reforms effectively reduced the number of Romans receiving the “dole” from 320,000 to 100,000 (out of a total population of 500,000_.
The alleged reason for Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC was to restore “liberty” to Rome. His 18-year-old adopted son Octavian formed an alliance with Marc Antony and the Senate to pursue and kill the assassins. Mark Antony ruled Rome until he fell in love with Cleopatra. This led Octavian to declared war on Egypt and proclaim Antony a traitor.**
Granted the titles Augustus and imperator (emperor) by the senate, Augustus went on to reduce corruption, professionalized the army and establish 40 overseas colonies for veterans.
*From the Latin word “proles” (offspring).
**Both Antony and Cleopatra subsequently committed suicide