In Our Time: The Roman Republic

The Roman Republic was the subject of an In Our Time episode all the way back in 2004 – we listened to it last August while there weren’t any new In Our Times airing. It’s a pretty broad subject for a 45 minute programme – 500 years of history plus its rise and fall – so of necessity it was painting with fairly broad brushstrokes and looking at themes and commonalities across the centuries. Tackling it were Greg Woolf (St Andrews University), Catherine Steel (University of Glasgow) and Tom Holland (historian and author). (NB: Institutions presumably out of date, it being 12 years ago.)

They started by talking about the foundational myths of the Republic as the stories they told themselves shaped how the Republic functioned. This isn’t Romulus and Remus – they are a foundational myth for the city – instead the two key stories are the rape of Lucretia and Horatius on the bridge. Lucretia was raped by the son of the King of Rome, and afterwards she committed suicide whilst calling on her kin to avenge her. This sparked an uprising (led by a man called Brutus) which drove out King Tarquin. Following this the Romans declared they would have no more kings. The second legend follows on directly from this one* – Tarquin didn’t take kindly to losing his kingdom like this, and enlisted the support of one of the nearby Etruscan cities. He returned to Rome at the head of an army and it seemed like the Romans were going to be forced to take their king back. However before this could happen Horatius stepped forward to stand on the bridge the army were marching over. He and two companions held off the army for long enough for the bridge to be destroyed behind them, preventing the army from reaching the city. So you have this ideal that the people will rule themselves (with no kings) and when a hero is needed a citizen will step forward to give his own life for his city.

*Well, that’s the way they told the legend on the programme, when looking it up on wikipedia to check spellings of names I saw that there it’s set much later in the Republic’s history – the point remains the same though.

The Roman Republic was the first constitutional democracy meaning that people were voted into positions of responsibility. (Athens was a direct democracy, where everyone voted on what should be done.) The political structure was based on sharing power around in two different ways. Firstly the many powers that a king had once had were distributed between several people. Secondly any given person only held a particular office for a short term (rather than for life). The ephemerality of power and glory were a key concept for the Republic. A consul was consul for a year. A general who’d won a victory was given a triumph and treated like a god for a day. Theatres and celebratory buildings (like triumphal arches) were temporary structures. Even the permanent infrastructure buildings weren’t built of stone but of more ephemeral materials. Which puts the Emperor Augustus “coming to Rome a city of brick and leaving it a city of marble” (as discussed on the In Our Time about the Augustan Age (post)) in a different light: that’s not just an upgrade to the buildings, that’s a change of ethos.

Clearly the Republic wasn’t static over its 500 years of history – in particular the balance of power between the people and the aristocracy was constantly shifting and evolving. But it was at heart a very conservative society which looked back to a prior Golden Age. Much was written in later days in the Republic about how it had been better in the early days (before whatever the most recent crisis had been) – and this genre includes most of the surviving texts written about how the Republic was founded. Changes were often brought in by announcing that they were returns to the ways things were done in the past – whether or not this was actually true. This continues after the Republic as well – they brought up on the programme that Augustus’s propaganda cast the beginning of the Empire as a restoration of the good old days of the Republic.

The end of the Republic can be thought of as it becoming a victim of its own success. Before they went out and conquered such vast lands it was possible for every key political figure to come back every year to Rome and vote for the new Consuls and so on. And when your campaigns only last a year and are nearby then the army can be based on the idea of farmer-soldier citizens. Every able-bodied land-owning male citizen was supposed to enlist – easily done when he comes back in time for harvest, but what do you do about his farm if he’s on campaign for 5 years at a time? And once the land-owning requirement was abolished where do long term soldiers retire to when they’re done in the army? The Senate generally prevaricated over the provision of awards and recompense to these retired soldiers – which left a gap for the generals of the armies to fill. And if your reward would come from the charismatic general you were serving under, then your loyalty would be to him first rather than to Rome or to the Senate.

The Triumvirate of Pompey, Crassus and Caesar (the first stage in the transition from Republic to Empire) can be seen as having grown out of Pompey not liking his downgrade in status when he returned to Rome. Whilst out campaigning in the East he had been treated like a king, back home in Rome he was only one amongst equals. And not a particularly important one at that – having been away he was out of the loop, politically speaking. The experts said that Caesar’s motivation was probably that he saw there as being only so many “slots” for important people in any new regime and he wanted to make sure he occupied one of them.

The defining point for the end of the Republic was the crossing of the Rubicon by Caesar and his army. The Rubicon is a river between Italy and Gaul, and it marked the boundary between the provinces (where a general could be a king in all but name) and the core territories (where the general was no more important than any other aristocrat). The tradition was that you could not bring your army with you into the core – and so Caesar camps on the other side, which makes the Senate nervous. He’s given the choice between dismissing his army and crossing himself, or taking his army and leaving. But Caesar knows that if he does this then he loses all the power he’s worked for – and so he brings his army across the Rubicon.

I said that was the defining point of the end, but as they discussed on the programme that’s only obvious with hindsight. It probably wasn’t clear to the Romans that the Republic was gone forever until one Emperor inherited from another … and perhaps not even until an Emperor was deposed and yet still the Republic was not not restored.

In Our Time: Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is one of the most well known Roman historical figures. He conquered Gaul, changed the nature of the Roman state from republic to almost empire (although it took Augustus to finish that job), and his writings are still read today in Latin classes. Discussing him on In Our Time were Christopher Pelling (University of Oxford), Catherine Steel (University of Glasgow) and Maria Wyke (University College London).

Caesar was born in 100BC and grew up in a turbulent time for the Roman Republic. He was the son of a patrician family, which meant his family could trace their lineage back to the beginning of Rome and beyond (somewhat mythologised as these things often are – apparently he could trace his ancestry to Aeneas and thence to Venus). Theoretically being a patrician didn’t give you any extra power, but in practice there was still a certain degree of political cachet attached to this status and it was the ticket to an easier entry into politics. During Caesar’s teens and early 20s the Republic was embroiled in a civil war, which the general Sulla eventually won – this was not the side that Caesar’s family were on. Sulla carried out purges of those who had been on the opposing side, so this was a time of danger for the young Caesar, he was also under pressure to divorce his wife. He began his military career as a way to keep out of the way. Although they didn’t mention it explicitly on the programme another destabilising event during these years was Spartacus’s slave revolt (post about the In Our Time episode on that).

After Sulla’s death Caesar embarked on a political career (they said on the programme that the military and politics were very closely intertwined). During this time he often promoted populist policies. These included things like ensuring people had a right to a trial rather than magistrates being able to order executions just as they saw fit. The experts said this was a deliberate political strategy on Caesar’s part, in order to have popular support during elections. Caesar was successful in his career, becoming Consul in 59BC.

After his consulship Caesar became Governor in Gaul. Generally after being a Consul you got a province to look after for a while. Gaul at the time really only consisted of the south of what is now France, plus the region spanning the Alps in modern Italy (then called Cisalpine Gaul). Under Caesar’s rule Gaul was extended to the Rhine in the north and the coast in the west. He also (as I’m sure we all know) crossed the Channel to Britain but wasn’t inclined to spend the time conquering it. Caesar established a reputation for being ruthless and fast moving as a general. He conquered large amounts of territory by the practice of marching his legions deep into the non-conquered territory then defeating one of the tribes there. He would then declare the territory behind that point conquered and work on pacifying it.

During this time Caesar wrote the work that is still taught in schools – the Commentaries on the Gallic War. I had to translate a chapter of this in my Latin GCSE nearly 25 years ago, so I suppose I don’t know more recently than that but given it’s 2000 years old plus/minus 25 years gets lost in the rounding errors 😉 Caesar wrote this is a propaganda tool and it was probably sent back to Rome piece by piece as he wrote it. He was out of Rome for 5 years during these campaigns and this was a way of keeping him in the minds of the people. He wrote it in a third person format, as if it was an objective report, but it seems clear that he picked and chose his events to suit his needs.

On his return to Rome Caesar had fallen somewhat from favour, and his alliances had broken down (despite his propaganda). He had for a while been allied with Pompey, who was married to Caesar’s daughter as a means of sealing that alliance. But Julia died in childbirth, and Pompey didn’t renew the alliance. Caesar felt that if he came back to Rome without his army (as was customary) he would be arrested and prosecuted, so he brought his army with him. This ignited a civil war between Caesar and a Senate faction led by Pompey. It is from this return to Rome that we get the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” – the Rubicon was the river that marked the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul (where Caesar was entitled to have an army) and the territory of Rome itself (where Caesar was not).

Most of the early fighting of this civil war took place out in mainland Greece. The experts said this was what tended to happen at the time – the armies would move eastwards and actual battles didn’t happen near Rome. Although his opponents were tenacious (and good Generals) Caesar was victorious. This was probably due to the fact that his army were men he’d commanded and worked with for the last 5 years, rather than the newly raised forces of the opposition. It’s during this war that Caesar spent time in Egypt and met Cleopatra. During the war and after he had won Caesar used his now overwhelming support in the Senate to become first Dictator for a year (a customary position someone could be appointed to in a time of crisis) and subsequently Dictator for life (rather less customary).

After the war was over Caesar embarked on reforming the government of the Roman Republic – harking back to his original populist politics. The experts said it wasn’t a grand programme of cohesive reform, more that Caesar was focusing on things he saw as causing the problems he saw in his time growing up in the chaos of civil war. He also established himself as a god, and more shockingly flirted with kingship. A large part of Rome’s underlying mythos at the time was that they had Got Rid of Kings. So looking like you might want to be King – by, say, wearing the traditional ceremonial robes of a king – was a good way to unsettle and upset the Senate. This, then, was what lead to Caesar’s political opponents assassinating him – and many of that faction hoped it would bring a return to the previous political situation before Caesar had started edging towards kingship. Sadly for them instead it ignited yet another civil war, which eventually lead to the establishment of the Empire by Caesar’s grandnephew Augustus.

At the end of the programme they spent a little bit of time talking about what we know about Caesar’s personality – which is not really very much. One of the experts (Wyke or Steel) emphasised his ruthlessness and compared him to more recent figures such as Mussolini. They’d also a little earlier in the programme talked about how he was also known for his debauchery and jadedness – his fling with Cleopatra wasn’t an aberration in otherwise abstemious lifestyle!