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Roman soldiers and their general (vukkostic / Adobe Stock)

The Roman Republic – Was It Truly A Republic?


The Roman Republic was the period in ancient Roman history that superseded the Roman Kingdom and preceded the Roman Empire. Traditionally, the founding of the Roman Republic is dated to 509 BC, when the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown. The end of the Roman Republic, on the other hand, is conventionally dated to 27 BC when Octavian Caesar’s adopted son and heir was granted the titles Augustus and Princeps.

The Legendary Fall of a Kingdom

According to legend the city of Rome was founded by Romulus in 753 BC. Until 509 BC Rome was ruled by kings. The last Roman king was Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, who was regarded as a tyrant. While the king grew increasingly unpopular with his subjects the immediate cause of his overthrow was an incident known as the ‘Rape of Lucretia’. The king’s son, Sextus Tarquinius, had desired Lucretia the wife of his cousin, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. Although Lucretia initially refused to submit to Sextus, the prince made threats against her and her good name thus causing her to acquiesce to him. She revealed the whole affair to her husband and father before committing suicide out of shame.

The Rape of Lucretia. (Blancogato78 / Public Domain)

The Rape of Lucretia. (Blancogato78 / Public Domain)

As a result of Lucretia’s death Collatinus, his father-in-law Spurius Lucretius Tricipitinus, along with two others Lucius Junius Brutus and Publius Valerius Publicola, vowed to avenge Lucretia’s death by overthrowing the monarchy. With the support of the Senate and the army, the four men succeeded in deposing the king and having him exiled to Etruria.

Another View

Although this is the narrative of the founding of the Roman Republic as provided by the ancient Roman historians themselves (who, incidentally, were writing centuries after the Republic’s establishment), modern historians provide a different story. The prevalent modern view is that Tarquinius Superbus was overthrown not by Collatinus and his accomplices, but by Porsenna the Etruscan king of Clusium. Before Porsenna could establish his rule in Rome, however, he was forced to withdraw leaving Rome without a leader. Instead of reinstating their king, however, the Romans decided to entrust the government of their city in the hands of two consuls who were elected on an annual basis.

A Just Republic?

Apart from the consuls, other important political offices and institutions were created during the early years of the Roman Republic, whereas those from the days of the monarchy were adapted to suit the political realities of the day. For example, during the time of the Roman Kingdom the Senate served as advisors to the king. During the Republican period, however, members of this all-patrician institution served, in theory, as advisors of the magistrates and of the Roman people. In practice, however, the collective prestige of the senators allowed the Senate to wield immense political power.

Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain)

Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain)

The third branch of government was the Assembly which was composed of both patricians and plebeians. Although this group could elect government officials and consuls, the ultimate decision regarding the passing of laws was reserved for the Senate.

Thus, although the Roman Republic was established as a reaction against the excesses of the monarchy it in fact replaced one tyranny with another, the tyranny of the Senate. Until the beginning of the 5 th century BC, political power in the Republic was concentrated in the hands of the patrician class. In 494 BC the plebeians were granted the right to elect their own officials known as the Plebeian Tribunes.

By 451-450 BC the plebeians had managed to petition for legal customs to be written down in the form of the ‘Twelve Tables.’ This took the privilege of legal decision making out of the minds and hands of a select few patricians and into a more formal legal code, the first Roman written legislation. The plebeians would gain more power in the centuries to come, finally achieving political equality during the 3 rd century BC.

Roman civilians examining the Twelve Tables after they were first implemented. ( / Public Domain)

Roman civilians examining the Twelve Tables after they were first implemented. ( / Public Domain)

Expansion of the Roman Republic

In the meantime, the increasing power of the plebeians meant that the Republic had to allot more land to this class, and this played a role in Rome’s expansionist foreign policy. The first city that fell to the Romans was Veii, situated several kilometers to the north of Rome and on the opposite side of the Tiber. After the fall of Veii in 396 BC, the Roman Republic continued their expansion into the rest of Latium and central Italy, after which it went on to campaign against the north and the south. The conquest of Taranto, a Greek stronghold in the south in 272 BC marked the conclusion of Rome’s Italian campaign.

Map showing Roman expansion in Italy. (Javierfv1212 / Public Domain)

Map showing Roman expansion in Italy. (Javierfv1212 / Public Domain)

By becoming the sole ruler of mainland Italy, the Roman Republic came into conflict with Carthage, leading to the Punic Wars, in which the Romans emerged victorious. Using both diplomacy and force, the Roman Republic expanded in the east and west. By the time of Julius Caesar’s death in 44 BC, the territories controlled by the Roman Republic included Italy, Sicily, North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, Gaul, Greece, parts of Asia Minor, and the Levant.

Although the Roman Republic had been able to conquer vast territories it was not prepared to govern them. As a result, many problems arose both at home and abroad. In order to deal with these increasing problems, strong, natural-born leaders returned thus giving rise to such figures as Gaius Marius, Cornelius Sulla, Gnaeus Pompeius, and Julius Caesar. Although necessary, these strongmen were considered to be in opposition to the values of the Republic and Caesar’s assassins considered themselves to be ‘defenders of the Republic’.

The senators encircle Caesar, a 19th-century interpretation of the event by Carl Theodor von Piloty. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain)

The senators encircle Caesar, a 19th-century interpretation of the event by Carl Theodor von Piloty. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain)

The assassination of Caesar did not lead to the restoration of the Roman Republic but hastened its demise. Although a triumvirate was formed by Caesar’s successors civil war soon broke out between Octavian and Mark Antony. After the latter was defeated, Octavian became the sole ruler of Rome. Although the façade of the Republic was maintained, in reality, Rome had been transformed into an empire.

Top image: Roman soldiers and their general (vukkostic / Adobe Stock )

By Wu Mingren


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The Roman Senate was not "all-patrician". After 367, plebeians were allowed to run for the consulship and subsequently be members of the Senate, not to mention the Equites (e.g., Cicero) who were also among its body. And 'the Assembly" is a completely inaccurate term? Which assembly: the Comitia Centuriata, Comitia Curiata, Comitia Tributa, or the Concilium Plebis (the only body that was the sole domain of one class, the plebeians)?

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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