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Rome

Rome before Augustus

Ancient Rome was built on the east, or left, bank of the Tiber on elevations (now much less prominent) emerging from the marshy lowlands of the Campagna. The seven hills of the ancient city are the Palatine, roughly in the center, with the Capitoline to the northwest and the Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian, and Aventine in an outlying north-southwest curve. The Pincian, N of the Quirinal, is not included among the seven. In the westward bend of the Tiber, W of the Quirinal, lies the Martian Field (Campus Martius), facing the Vatican across the Tiber. On the side of the Tiber opposite the Palatine is the Janiculum, a ridge running north and south, which was fortified in early times.

Early in the first millennium B.C. the Tiber divided the Italic peoples from the Etruscans in the north and west (see Etruscan civilization). Not far to the north were the borders between the Sabines and the Latins; the Sabines were closely related to Roman life from the very beginning. The hills of Rome, free from the malaria that had been the bane of the low-lying plains of Latium, were a healthful and relatively safe place to live and a meeting ground for Latins, Sabines, and Etruscans. In the 8th cent. B.C., the fortified elevation of the Palatine was probably taken by Etruscans, who amalgamated the tiny hamlets about the Palatine into a city-state. Tradition tells of the founding of Rome by Romulus in 753 B.C. (hence the dating ab urbe condita, or AUC, i.e., from the founding of the city), and of the Tarquin family, the Etruscan royal house. It was probably Etruscan rule that civilized Rome and gave it the hegemony of Latium.

The Roman Republic

The Romans overthrew their foreign rulers c.500 B.C. and established the Roman republic, which lasted four centuries. The patrician class controlled the government, but the plebs (who comprised by far the major portion of the population) were allowed to elect the two patrician consuls, who held joint power. The vitality of the patricians was remarkable, and long after political power had been granted to the plebs, experienced patricians continued to govern Rome.

As the majority realized its power and the aristocracy continued its rule, the people demanded (and received) privilege after privilege; the greatest were the election of plebeian tribunes (see tribune) and the codification (c.450 B.C.) of the Twelve Tables. With the growth of the city, multiplication of consular duties called for new officials: quaestor, praetor, and censor. The three popular assemblies, or comitia, developed slowly, but they quietly abstracted legislative power from the patricians. The ancient senate, theoretically the supreme power of the state, became more and more powerful until in the 3d cent. B.C. it controlled the consuls completely.

Although the Roman republic was never a true democracy, historians have modified the traditional view that it was the tool of a powerful aristocracy and have acknowledged that the system had open aspects beyond the control of the ruling class. It remains true, however, that it was under senatorial administration that Rome began its march to world supremacy and that in the end the senate was crushed under the weight of the huge problems of empire.

The Subduing of Italy

In the 4th cent. B.C., Rome extended its influence over W Latium and S Etruria; during the course of that century and the next, Rome came in full contact with Greek culture, which modified Roman life tremendously. The idea of the old Roman courage and morality, however, was kept alive by such staunch conservatives as Cato the Elder. The power of the city may be inferred from the tremendous impression the sack of Rome (390 B.C.) by the Gauls made in subsequent times.

The Samnites were subdued in the wars dated conventionally 343–341 B.C., 326–304 B.C., and 298–290 B.C., and the inhabitants of Picenum, Umbria, Apulia, Lucania, and Etruria were pacified. The Roman policy in subduing Italy was that of a master toward slaves. Tarentum, besieged by the Romans, called for the aid of Pyrrhus of Epirus; he won victories at Heraclea (280 B.C.) and Asculum (279 B.C.), but after a dispute with his Italian allies he returned to Greece, leaving the Romans masters of central and S Italy.

Conquests Overseas and to the East

Rome, previously a continental power, began to look seaward in the 3d cent. B.C. Sicily, a granary of the ancient world, was an obvious goal, but Rome's rapid conquests could not continue there without meeting the like ambitions of Carthage, which ruled the W Mediterranean. The Punic Wars were thus inevitable, and in this titanic struggle the fate of Carthage and the destiny of Rome were decided. Although Carthage had the great general Hannibal, Rome fought with the resources of Italy behind it and had such leaders as Scipio Africanus Major. Rome gained from the Punic Wars dominion over Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and the northern shores of Africa, indisputable hegemony in the Mediterranean, and an insatiable desire for conquest.

With Carthage humbled, the Roman republic turned its attention eastward. Philip V of Macedon was defeated after two campaigns (215–205 B.C., 200–197 B.C.), and Antiochus III of Syria was conquered at Magnesia (190 B.C.); eventually the defeat of Perseus (171–168 B.C.) made Macedonia a Roman province. Greece did not become a Roman province, but the brief opposition of the Achaean League was disposed of, and the Greeks became subject to Rome. Egypt acknowledged vassalship to the republic in 168 B.C.

Effects of Expansion

The rapid expansion of Roman dominion, however, had terrible effects at home. The provinces were governed by the senate for the benefit not of Rome but of the senatorial class; enormous wealth (by graft and by trade) flowed into the hands of the senators, who used it exclusively to their own advantage. The equites (see knight), a class of financiers, came into its own through management of imperial trade. Class dissension was rife, and in spite of agrarian laws the masses were daily more dissatisfied. The slaves in Sicily rebelled twice (c.134–132 B.C., c.104–101 B.C.), and the Gracchus brothers in a political victory tried to make the populace more powerful, but such defiance was to no avail. Massacres and incredible barbarities disposed of the slaves' restlessness, and the Gracchi were assassinated (133 and 121 B.C.).

Marius defeated Jugurtha (106 B.C.) and the Cimbri and the Teutons (101 B.C.), and he heralded a new era by definitively introducing Roman arms into Transalpine Gaul. Rome was forced by the Social War (90–88 B.C.) to extend citizenship widely in Italy, but the republic was nevertheless doomed. A slave revolt led by Spartacus was put down mercilessly. Marius, the idol of the populace, used proscription to rid himself of his foes, but Sulla, a conservative, destroyed Marius' party by the same method.

Julius Caesar

After Sulla's retirement his lieutenant Pompey emerged as a popular champion. He abolished some of Sulla's reactionary measures, suppressed Mediterranean piracy, and made himself master of Rome. His defeat of Mithradates VI brought Pontus, Syria, and Phoenicia under Roman dominion.

On Pompey's return from the East, he found an ally for his ambitions in Julius Caesar, a popular democratic leader of the best patrician blood. With Marcus Licinius Crassus to furnish the funds, Pompey and Caesar formed the First Triumvirate (60 B.C.), and Caesar departed to make himself immortal in the Gallic Wars. Within ten years Caesar and Pompey fell out; Pompey joined the senatorial party, and Caesar (as the champion of the people and of republican legality) led his devoted army against Pompey. Pharsalus was the result (48 B.C.), and Caesar was master of Rome.

He governed through the old institutions, with wisdom and vigor. His territorial additions were the most important ever made, for his conquest and organization of Gaul placed Rome in the role of civilizer of barbarians as well as ruler of the older world. The age of Caesar was a great period in Roman culture, and the cosmopolitan Roman was considered the ideal. Greek was the language of much of the empire, and Greek literature became fashionable. Even more influential was Greek thought, which served to destroy Roman religion and to open the Romans to the Eastern cults, which were enormously popular for years. Cicero, an urbane lawyer and philosopher of broad culture, was typical of the period.

At the death (44 B.C.) of Caesar, the territories ruled by Rome included Spain (except part of the northwest), Gaul, Italy, part of Illyria, Macedonia, Greece, W Asia Minor, Bithynia, Pontus, Cilicia, Syria, Cyrenaica, Numidia, and the islands of the sea, and Rome completely controlled Egypt and Palestine. The rule of Caesar marked an epoch, for it completed the destruction of the republic and laid the foundations of the empire.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Italian Political Geography


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