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Senatus Populusque Romanus
Senate and People of Rome
The Roman Era - BC 753 - AD 453

"There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome's allies; and if Rome had no allies, the allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest -- why, then it was the national honor that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbours...The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, it was manifestly Rome's duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs."
Joseph Schumpteter, Imperialism and Social Classes, 1919

In the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great of Macedonia brought all the empires and dominions, in fact most of civilization known to the Western World, under his suzerainty in a series of rapid military conquests. In so doing, he carried to the highest point of development the art of war as it was practiced in the Greek city-states. He utilized the phalanx- a solid mass infantry formation using pikes as its cutting edge-as the Greeks had long done, but put far greater emphasis on heavy cavalry and contingents of archers and slingers to increase the maneuverability of his armies.

The Romans eventually fell heir to most of Alexander's empire and extended their conquests westward and northward to include present-day Spain, France, Belgium, and England, bringing these areas within the pale of Roman civilization. The Romans built on the achievements of Alexander and brought the art of war to its zenith in the ancient world. They perfected, in the legion, a tactical military unit of great maneuverability comparable in some respects to the modern division, performed remarkable feats of military engineering, and developed elaborate systems of fortification and siegecraft. For all their achievements, the Romans made no real progress in the development of new weapons.

Roman military institutions, like Roman political organization and economy, underwent progressive decay after the second century AD. The Roman Empire in the west was succeeded first by a congeries of barbarian kingdoms and eventually by a highly decentralized political system known as feudalism, under which a multitude of warring nobles exercised authority over local areas of varying size.

SPQR was the "motto" and the official monogram of the Roman Republic, in the same way that "US" or "USA" represents the United States. SPQR stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus (in Latin) or Senate and People of Rome (in English). The Romans of classical antiquity were as enthusiastic for acronyms as modern Americans [BKs, KFCs, VCRs, DVDs, MRIs, EKGs and NASAs]. SPQR was inscribed on the base of the legion's eagle standards, like the regimental number for Napoleon's regiments, after the reforms of Marius [which created a professional military and did away with other legion symbols. SPQR seems to have been used in the Roman vexilla, though it was not used on flags in antiquity.

In Italy, Greek and Etruscan civilizations preceded that of Rome; Greek civilization spread throughout Sicily, the Gulf of Tarantum and Campania, while Etruscan civilization extended to the whole of Central Italy and the Po Valley. Greek cities included Naples, Cumae, Zancle (Messina), Taormina, Catania, Syracuse, Sybaris, Croton, Locri and Regium, while Capua, Pompei, Perugia, Tarquinia, Bologna and Mantua were Etruscan. Rume had not yet been founded.

According to popular belief, it owes its origins to navigators who landed at the mouth of the Tiber. Romulus and Remus were supposedly descendants of the Troyan hero Aeneas. In all probability, Rome was actually founded by groups of Latins from Albalonga who settled on the Palatine. History records the establishment of Rome in 753 BC by Romulus, son of a king of Albalonga (a city near Lake Albano). According to Cato, Rome was founded in BC 751 ; according to Polybius, in BC 750 ; according to Fabius Pictor, in 747. Romulus became its first King after killing his brother and populating the city with outlaws and women abducted (according to legend) from the Sabines. Romulus was followed by six other kings. Then in the year 509 BC, the Romans forced Tarquinius the Proud from the throne and proclaimed a republic. Historians attribute definite achievements to each of the kings and, therefore, the periods in which they reigned can no longer be considered legendary.

Under the kings, it was said that Rome fought several victorious wars but did not begin to expand. The kings were said to have been vested with military, judicial, and religious powers, and were assisted by a council of elders, known as the Senate. The people were originally divided into two classes, the patricians and plebeians, and into three tribes comprising ten curiae. Committees formed by the curiae elected the king. The next-to-the-last king of Rome, Servius Tullius, is said to have been responsible for a reform which divided the people into five classes, based on the riches of the individual families. By acquiring more wealth, it was possible to advance from one class to another. The basis of the system, however, was the family, and the families gathered together in blood groups formed the Aentes, or clans.

After the fall of the monarchy, the Romans were governed by two Consuls elected from year to year. These exercised primarily executive powers, while legislative powers were in the hands of the Senate which, in the event of extreme danger, could elect a dictator for a period not exceeding six months. A Praetor was responsible for passing judgment upon quarrels between citizens, while the Courts of the Plebeians, created in 494 BC, with their veto power prevented abuse by the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. In 451 BC it was decided to compile written laws valid for both patricians and plebeians. These were known as the "Twelve Tables" and are the basis of Roman law. At the beginning of the third century BC, there was no longer any difference between patricians and plebeians; for some time the latter had enjoyed the privilege of becoming consuls (from 366 BC) and they could marry women belonging to the patrician class (from 444 BC). Rome had become a democratic republic, but this internal evolution was obtained at the price of civil struggles.

However, this did not interfere with the external expansion of the city, which united when danger threatened. At the beginning of the fourth century BC Rome was the ruling city of Latium, having vanquished all the neighboring peoples and beaten back( in 387 BC) a dangerous invasion by the Senonian Gauls. The Samnites were its first and strongest adversaries in three wars lasting for a period of fifty years. Then came the turn of Tarantum, which called for the help of a foreign state, Epirus, whose king, Pyrrhus, was initially successful in overcoming the Romans by using elephants. But eventually he was completely defeated. With the conquest of Tarantum, the Romans, at the beginning of the 4th century BC, found themselves masters of all of Italy, from the Marches and Tuscany to Calabria. Not only did they prove themselves to be masters in the art of war, but they also succeeded in ad ministering the conquered regions wisely, gradually conceding them political and civil rights.

Having-reached the Straits of Messina. Rome now clashed with the might of Carthage, situated along that part of the North African coast. which today belongs to Tunisia. At that time, Carthage possessed a large. part of Sicily. The Carthaginians were sailors and merchants and they tried in vain to transform themselves into land troops to defeat Rome. But Rome, which was a state of soldiers and farmers, was also able to make itself strong on the seas, and in the space of a hundred years -- after three cycles of war -- managed to destroy completely its rival (146 BC). In this period, the Roman Republic lived some very critical moments, especially during the Second Punic War when Hannibal, a valiant Carthaginian general, led his army over the Alps, and more than once defeated the Romans. But Hannibal was not successful in inducing the Italian cities to rise against Rome. Tired, his supply routes cut, he was finally defeated at Zama by a Roman army under Scipio Emilianus, who destroyed the enemy army.

In the interval between the second and the third Punic Wars, Rome turned to the conquest of the East, protecting the weaker powers against the powerful kingdoms of Macedonia and Syria and finally overcoming both. By the end of the second century BC, its dominion was unchallenged. Rome extended along the Mediterranean coasts, from Spain to Africa - to the Eastern Adriatic, Greece, Asia Minor and Syria, while in Italy it had already taken possession of the Po Valley (Cisalpine Gaul) and all the islands.

After this era of continuous victories, Rome went through a period of internal disorder and bloody struggles between the aristocracy and the people. The victorious wars and conquests had only served to make the rich more powerful. The people, guided by the "tribunes", sought to obtain 'a division of the arable lands. An "agrarian law" was promised, but the two tribunes who fought for it, Tiberius and Caius Graccus, were both killed in street fighting.

The internal struggles were influenced by the external wars. Consuls who had commanded victorious armies sought to impose their authority within the Republic, now favoring the people, now the aristocracy. The defense of the frontiers made permanent armies necessary, and this furnished military commanders the instrument necessary to satisfy their ambition for power. The clash between the factions inevitably brought an end to the democratic Republic: and the advent of empire, after a century of civil strife in which Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey, Octavius and Anthony were the protagonists. Marius, who came from the people, overcame the Numidians (Africans) and saved Rome from the invasions of the Cimbrians and the Teutons (102 and 101 BC), exterminating them at the battles of Aix-les-Bains and Vercelli. Sulla, an aristocrat, put down a rebellion of the Italici, who demanded Roman citizenship, and defeated Mithridates, king of Pontus in Asia Minor, who had taken advantage of the rebellion of the Italici to invade Macedonia and Greece. Sulla was the first to use an army entrusted to his command to impose a dictatorship on Rome (87 BC). The following year, while Sulli was in the East, Marius turned the tables on him, but died almost immediately afterward. Sulla, having retired to Italy, was dictator until 79 BC, when he retired voluntarily before his death. His reforms were abolished and the Italici peacefully obtained the rights previously denied them, but new civil strife between Pompey and Caesar was in the offing.

Neither the Roman people nor their rulers had received any education to fit them for an imperial policy. Administrative ability there was in plenty. There had been tactical knowledge to win battles without any strategy to plan campaigns. Higher education was confined to the "Scipionic circle." Hence it resulted that the common people degenerated rapidly into a vulgar mob, pursuing solely its material pleasures, and the dominant classes, when vast opportunities of wealth and power were thrown into their hands, did not resist even for a generation the seductions of the world and the flesh, and became steeped in such luxury and vice as the Greeks had not reached in a decadence of centuries.

The Greek historians Polybius (c. 204-122 BC), and Diodorns Siculus [c. 90-21 BC] speak of these things in terms almost identical. They mention the rapid rise in the prices of luxuries at Rome—how a jar of wine came to cost 100 drachma, a jar of Euxine sardines 400, a good slave cook 4 talents,2 and worse ministrants to worse pleasures higher still . Both authors do not, indeed, omit to point out that the great traditions of Roman dignity and virtue still survived. Diodorus quotes a number of instances of righteous Roman governors, and Polybius in an earlier generation speaks of the Scipios as the recognised models of civic excellence. But we feel that these good men were rare exceptions, and that the apparent peace of the Roman world was a delusive calm, to be interrupted, if not from without, at least by violent eruptions from within.

Pompey, consul for the first time in 70 BC, and at first restorer of democracy, conducted various victorious military campaigns in Asia Minor and Syria, while in Rome, Caesar, consul for the first time in 59 BC, began to attract attention. On the return of Pompey from the East, the two men came to an agreement between themselves and Crassus for the peaceful division of power (the First Triumvirate - Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus - 60-54 BC), but Caesar asked for, and obtained, command of the Gallic provinces. He extended these provinces, bringing Rome such prizes as Gaul (France), Belgium, part of Germany, and advanced as far as Britain (58-51 BC). With the death of Crassus in 53 BC, the Senate declared Caesar a rebel. But Caesar did not abandon the command of his legions, and defeated Pompey in Italy, Spain and Greece. After the First Triumvirate ended, the senate supported Pompey, who became sole consul in 52 BC. When Pompey was assassinated in Egypt, Caesar became dictator for life, but was later killed by plotting patricians (mid-month Ides of March, 44 BC). He was equally great as a soldier, orator and a politician. Following his death, however, the plotters did not succeed in getting into power.

Instead, a triumvirate was formed by Anthony, Caesar's righthand man, Lepidus and Octavius, the heir and great-nephew of Caesar (Second Triumvirate - Anthony, Lepidus and Octavius - 44-31 BC). The three defeated the plotters on the battlefield and divided power (Lepidus in Africa, Anthony in the East, Octavius in Rome). Lepidus was eliminated from the struggle for supremacy by his own ineptitude; Anthony and Octavius fought each other and Anthony was defeated at Actium (31 BC). Octavius remained in power and governed with great wisdom until 14 BC, assuming the title of Augustus and founding the Empire.

The Republican Constitution was not formally cancelled with the creation of the Empire. But the Emperor (Imperator, the title originally was given to victorious generals) assumed all administrative, military and legal powers (plus the right to propose laws and advise the Senate) as well as the duties of pontiff. He represented the supreme dignity of the Roman State and his person was sacred and inviolable. The Senate ceased to have its: original importance; the people's meetings were no longer allowed. The army became the arbiter of power and a special imperial bureaucracy was created to administer the great State. With such powers, an Emperor endowed with humane and political qualities could do a great deal for the people. If, however, he did not possess such qualities, or had totally negative ones, there was no recourse other than plotting his overthrow. But he legions always had the final say. The title of Emperor was not even, hereditary. The Emperor could designate his successor, but proclamation was by the army, and the Senate merely gave formal approval.

Some of the Roman emperors were wise law-makers: Vespasian (69-79), who extended city life and citizenship by urbanizing the provinces; Hadrian (117-138) who pronounced the famous "Perpetual edict"; Aatoninus Pius (138-161) and Marcus Aurelius (161-180). Caracalla (211-217) granted citizenship to all subjects of the empire; and Constantine, in 313, recognized Christianity with the Edict of Milan, after the Christians, from the time of Claudius, and especially under Diocletian, had suffered terrible persecution. After the short apostasy of Julian (known as the "Apostate"), Theodosius (379-395) proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the State.

Under its Emperors, many of whom were good, while others were of the worst type, Rome extended still further and consolidated its power. Claudius conquered South Britain and Palestine, Trajan gained possession of Dacia (Rumania), Armenia, Assyria and Mesopotamia (97-117 AD). But very soon the Empire was compelled to concentrate on the defense of its frontiers, and with Diocletian (284-305 A.D.), it was divided into a Western Empire and an Eastern Empire, with two Emperors. Constantine (306-337) assumed both offices but moved the Imperial, Court to Constantinople; Julian the Apostate (361-363) had a last offensive spark, defeating the Persians and going beyond the Tigris.

But after the year 400, barbarians violated the frontiers in many places, and installed themselves in various countries (the Visigoths in Spain, the Pranks and the Burgundians in Gaul, the Vandals in Africa). In Italy, the last Western Emperor of an empire reduced to Italy alone" was Romulus Augustus, who was deposed in 476 AD by Odoacer, commander of the barbarian mercenary militia.

Edward Gibbon, a man of cold, calculating character, but eagerly ambitious for fame, was deeply imbued with the sceptical tone of the French society, with which he found himself most at home. His chief work, the " History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," he wrote mainly in Lausanne (about 1785), adopting in it the ironical tone of Voltaire's historical works, regarding and estimating earlier times uniformly from the standpoint of the present. Still, he based his work on much more comprehensive and accurate sources than it was Voltaire's habit to do, and consequently made it much more conscientious and reliable than one would be apt to conclude from its rhetorical manner of representation. The bitterest hostility to religion pervades Gibbon's whole book.

Because of its relative objectivity and heavy use of primary sources, at the time, Gibbon's methodology became a model for later historians. Gibbon writes with pessimism and detached use of irony. Gibbon offers an explanation for why the Roman Empire fell, a task made difficult by a lack of comprehensive written sources, though he was not the only historian to tackle the subject. Most of his ideas are directly taken from what few relevant records were available: those of the Roman moralists of the 4th and 5th centuries.

According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens. They had become weak, outsourcing their duties to defend their Empire to barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were able to take over the Empire. Romans, he believed, had become effeminate, unwilling to live a tougher, "manly" military lifestyle. He further blames the degeneracy of the Roman army and the Praetorian guards. In addition, Gibbon argued that Christianity created a belief that a better life existed after death, which fostered an indifference to the present among Roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for the Empire. He also believed its comparative pacifism tended to hamper the traditional Roman martial spirit. Finally, like other Enlightenment thinkers, Gibbon held in contempt the Middle Ages as a priest-ridden, superstitious, dark age. It was not until his own age of reason and rational thought, it was believed, that human history could resume its progress.

Gibbon saw the primary catalyst of the empire's initial decay and eventual collapse in the Praetorian Guard, instituted as a special class of soldiers permanently encamped in a commanding position within Rome, a seed planted by Augustus at the establishment of the empire. As Gibbon calls them at the outset of Chapter V: The Praetorian bands, whose licentious fury was the first symptom and cause of the decline of the Roman empire. He cites repeated examples of this special force abusing its power with calamitous results, including numerous instances of imperial assassination and demands of ever-increasing pay.

There is little that is of more practical value than the history of Rome. How a village kingdom became a mighty republic, how the republic became a world-embracing empire, how that empire, the dread and pride of its millions of subjects, fell so low as to become the sport of its own soldiers — all this is, indeed, a tale of marvel. But the history of Rome is more than a mere story. Many of the difficulties and many of the advantages of the Roman Republic are akin to those of today. Other problems will arise in the future. Roman history is a mighty object lesson.

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Page last modified: 31-10-2019 16:43:48 ZULU