The reclining figure represents the Tiber River. Beside him are Romulus and Remus the mythical founders of Rome, with the wolf who is said to have raised them.

James L. Stanfield/National Geographic Creative

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  • Rome’s Transition from Republic to Empire

    The reclining figure represents the Tiber River. Beside him are Romulus and Remus the mythical founders of Rome, with the wolf who is said to have raised them.

    The Roman Republic was founded when after the last Etruscan king was overthrown in 509 B.C. Rome’s next government served as a representative democracy in the form of a republic. Initially, Rome’s wealthiest families, the patricians, held power and only they could hold political or religious offices. Everyone else was considered plebeian, and no member of this group could hold office. Over a period of nearly 200 years, however, the plebeians fought for and gained power within the government.

     

    At the heart of the Roman Republic was the Senate. It is believed that the Senate existed during the rule of the Etruscan kings. The Senate advised the kings on matters pertaining to rules governing the city and population. In the republic, members of the patrician class served as advisors to the other governing bodies of the republic. Although the Senate did not formally make laws, the prestige of its members gave the Senate great influence over Rome’s law-making bodies.

     

    The Senate lasted as a sole governing body for the republic for only a brief time, lasting from the republic’s founding in 509 B.C. until 494 B.C., when a strike orchestrated by the plebeians resulted in the establishment of the Concilium Plebis, or the Council of the Plebs. This gave the plebeians a voice in the government. As a result, new legislative, or law-making bodies of the Roman Republic, were formed. Called assemblies, these legislative bodies shared power in the following way:

    • Comitia Centuriata – Decided about war and peace; passed laws; elected magistrates (consuls, praetors, and censors); considered appeals of capital convictions, conducted foreign relations.
    • Concilium Plebis – Elected its own officials, formulated decrees for observance by the plebeian class; in 287 B.C., gained the power to make all decrees binding for the entire Roman community.
    • Comitia Tributa – The tribal assemblies, open to all citizens; elected minor officials; approved legislative decisions often on local matters; could wield judicial powers but could only levy fines rather than capital punishment. 

    Leading the republic were two consuls who were elected by legislative assemblies. They served for one year, presided over the Roman Senate, and commanded the Roman military. Though their power was somewhat limited by the establishment of other magistrate positions, the consuls were effectively the heads of state.

     

    The republic stood strong for several centuries. However, as Rome’s power and territory expanded, internal conflicts began to emerge as citizens and families struggled for power. For example, in the 1st century B.C. the famous Roman orator Marcus Cicero uncovered a plot by a Roman senator, Lucius Catiline, to overthrow the Roman government. Some citizens, such as the Gracchus brothers, attempted to institute government reforms and social reforms to help the poor. Ultimately, factions emerged (loyal to either the patrician or plebeian classes or to a specific military general), hostilities erupted, and a series of civil wars plagued the republic. During these civil wars, a prominent general and statesmen named Julius Caesar began gaining significant power. He commanded the loyalty of the soldiers in his army and enjoyed access to substantial wealth after conquering the province of Gaul.

     

    The Senate, fearful of Caesar’s power, demanded he give up command of his army and return to Rome as a citizen. Caesar refused, instead marching his army south directly into Rome. As a result, another civil war erupted between Caesar and his chief political rival, Pompey. Caesar emerged victorious, and was named dictator for life. Other leaders within the republic feared Caesar would become a tyrant with this new title. To prevent this, a group of senators conspired and assassinated him. In response to Caesar’s death, his nephew and heir Augustus defeated the conspirators. He then established himself as the first Roman emperor.

     

    The Roman Empire dramatically shifted power away from representative democracy to centralized imperial authority, with the emperor holding the most power. For example, under Augustus’ reign, emperors gained the ability to introduce and veto laws, as well as command the army. Furthermore, the emperor wielded significant authority over those who served in lower level executive positions. No citizen could hold office without the emperor’s consent. As a result of this redistribution of power, the popular assemblies that functioned during the republican period became less important and powerful.

     

    While the assembly became virtually ceremonial, the Senate survived. Primarily, the Senate survived during the early period of the empire as a legitimizer of an emperor’s rule. The powers given to the emperor still came from the Senate. Since the Senate was composed of Rome’s elite and intellectual citizens, they impacted public opinion. With this power, the Senate could declare an emperor to be an enemy of the state, or following an emperor’s removal or death, the Senate could officially wipe the record of his reign from official history.

     

    At the time of Augustus’ reign, the Roman Republic had solidified control over the Italian peninsula, established North African colonies following its victory over Carthage during the Punic Wars, and controlled large swaths of territory in Spain and Gaul. Under the Imperial Roman emperors, Roman territory expanded farther, dominating most of the European continent, including Britain and major areas of modern-day Eastern Europe.

     

    This expansion, while bringing to Rome great wealth, power, and prestige, ultimately helped bring about its downfall. Even with the Roman road system contributing to the mobility of the military and trade, the cost of maintaining the vast empire weighed heavily on both Rome’s treasury and its political administration. Added to this burden were increasing raids and attacks by foreign tribes and communities. Emperors attempted to solve these problems through internal reforms.

     

    For example, the emperor Diocletian split control of the Roman Empire into two halves, a western and an eastern portion. Diocletian believed the territories throughout the empire would be easier to control and support if they were overseen by two administrations. Future emperors attempted similar reforms, but ultimately the internal conflict between the eastern and western halves, external pressure by foreign tribes, and the ongoing depletion of Rome’s wealth and infrastructure finally rendered the empire vulnerable to collapse.

     

    In A.D. 476, the last of the western Roman emperors, Romulus Augustulus, was dethroned. Nevertheless, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, identified in history as the Byzantine Empire, would last another thousand years falling to the Ottoman Turks in A.D. 1453.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    assassinate Verb

    to murder someone of political importance.

    capital punishment Noun

    death penalty.

    censor Verb

    to ban, edit, or suppress material for political or social reasons.

    ceremonial Adjective

    used for a ritual or formal occasion.

    collapse Verb

    to fall apart completely.

    conquer Verb

    to overcome an enemy or obstacle.

    consul Noun

    one of two chief officials of the ancient Roman republic who were elected every year.

    council Noun

    group of people selected to act in an advisory, administrative, or legislative capacity.

    democracy Noun

    system of organization or government where the people decide policies or elect representatives to do so.

    dictator Noun

    person with complete control of a government.

    emperor Noun

    ruler of an empire.

    Etruscan Adjective

    (~768 BCE-264 BCE) people and culture native to Etruria, in what is now northern and central Italy.

    executive Noun

    person with a high amount of authority and power in a company or business.

    foreign Adjective

    having to do with another culture, country, or nation.

    formulate Verb

    to develop or create.

    Gaul Noun

    Western European civilization that became a major part of ancient Rome.

    government Noun

    system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

    head of state Noun

    public representative of a nation, sometimes the official leader of a country's government.

    infrastructure Noun

    structures and facilities necessary for the functioning of a society, such as roads.

    Julius Caesar Noun

    (100 BCE-44 BCE) leader of ancient Rome.

    king Noun

    male monarch.

    military Noun

    armed forces.

    Ottoman Empire Noun

    (1299-1923) empire based in Turkey and stretching throughout southern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

    overthrow Verb

    to forcibly remove from power.

    patrician Noun

    a noble or person of high rank.

    peninsula Noun

    piece of land jutting into a body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: peninsula
    pertain Verb

    to be related or connected to something.

    plebeian Noun

    common or low-ranking person.

    political Adjective

    having to do with public policy, government, administration, or elected office.

    prestige Noun

    positive reputation.

    prominent Adjective

    important or standing out.

    province Noun

    division of a country larger than a town or county.

    Encyclopedic Entry: province
    religious Adjective

    having to do with spiritual belief.

    representative Noun

    someone or something who acts in place of a group of people.

    Roman Adjective

    having to do with the civilization of ancient Rome, including the kingdom, republic, and empire.

    Roman Empire Noun

    (27 BCE-476 CE) period in the history of ancient Rome when the state was ruled by an emperor.

    significant Adjective

    important or impressive.

    sole Adjective

    only or individual.

    strike Noun

    situation of people refusing to work in order to call attention to their working conditions.

    swath Noun

    path or line of material.

    territory Noun

    land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.

    victorious Adjective

    having won.

    vulnerable Adjective

    capable of being hurt.