[Edited 9/27/14 and 8/30/18]


The growth of Rome from a small city state into a great empire during the period of the Roman Republic is one of the most amazing success stories in all history.  In some ways, it is surprising that Rome even managed to survive during this period.  On the other hand, close examination shows that Roman success in the days of the Republic was no accident. 

According to tradition (supported by some archaeological evidence) the republican period of Roman history began in 509 BC with the expulsion of the kings. The word “republic” comes from the Latin words “res” (thing) and “publica” (people.  The government is a thing of the people, without a king. 

During the first days of the Republic, Rome was hardly a significant city at all, not even a major power in northern Italy.  Yet within a few centuries, Rome had grown and grown until the Mediterranean was basically a Roman lake (mer nostrum—our sea—the Romans called it).  Rome grows from a small city state, perhaps not much bigger than Groton, and ends up dominating all most the entire Mediterranean. The equivalent today would be a town the size of to grow to the point where it dominated first South Dakota, then all of the Midwest, then the United States, and finally turning all of North America into the great Grotonian empire.  Quite a surprise…

And yet, not quite such a surprise as it might seem at first. A closer look at the Roman people shows that they had from their earliest days many of the qualities that make for success. 

One key to early Roman success was what the Romans themselves called VIRTUS.  “Virtus” comes from the Latin word “vir” which means “man.”  However, a better translation for us would perhaps be excellence.  The Romans strove for excellence in all that they did—and perhaps Diogenes would have been more successful in his search for a true man if he had crossed the Adriatic and looked in Rome.

What exactly constitutes this “virtus” thing?  The Africa textbook stresses fides, pietas, gravitas, and dignitas. The Wikipedia article gives a somewhat more extensive list: fides, pietas, religion, disciplina, Constantia, gravitas, parsomonia, and severitas. All these things were regarded as part of the “mos maiorum,” the ways of the ancestors.

An important part of virtus was what the Romans called Pietas, piety. The Greek historian Polybius noted the Romans were the most religious of all people, worshipping not only their own gods, but the gods of others as well. Later, there would be a “pantheon” in Rome, a place where *all* the gods were worshipped.

The Romans had a religious ceremony for every occasion—and they were convinced that they had their relationship with the gods exactly right.  The worked to maintain the pax deorum, a kind of treaty with the gods. Roman historians and poets constantly pointed to Roman religion as one of the reasons for Roman success.

“You rule the world,” said the Roman poet Horace, “because you walk humbly before the Gods.”

“We have overcome the nations because of our goodness and our heedfulness of the divine, and because of the special insights by which we have come to see the world as governed by the will of the gods,” said Cicero.

And modern historians would agree that religion was a key to Roman success. One historian rights that it was Roman religion that gave the Romans their “doggedness, and determination.”  The Romans lost battles: they never lost wars.  They always held on, always expecting that, in the end, the gods were on their side.

Roman pietas extended to their ancestors as well. The Romans preserved masks of the men (and sometimes the women) of each generation, getting out those masks for ceremonial events. Here was a constant reminder of what one was living for: to add glory, honor, and dignity to the family tradition.

Another part of virtus was gravitas.  We get our word gravity from gravitas, but a better translation is probably seriousness.  The Romans took themselves and their responsibilities seriously.  This included both family responsibility and civic responsibility. During the early Republic, adultery was rare and divorce almost unheard of. Stable families: again, a key for transmitting cultural values from one generation to the next. And as to civic responsibility, consider the Roman consul Brutus whose commitment to duty meant he was willing to pass sentence of death even on his own sons when they were found plotting against Rome.

Another key to Roman success: Roman respect for authority, symbolized by fasces. Although the Romans elected their leaders, once the leaders were elected, the Romans respected their leaders’ authority: a tricky business, but a major source of strength. 

Romans maintained their respect for authority even though the political system wasn’t particularly fair.  In the days of the monarchy, authority had been largely held by the king who exercised civil, military, and religious authority.  The king was typically a defender of the common people against abuses by the elites, although (of course) the king had to take into account the elites as well.  The king made his decisions with the advice of the “senators,” i.e., old men, representatives of the elites.

When the kings were expelled, kingly authority was divided. Chief civil and military authority was shared by two consuls.  Religious authority went to the pontifex maximus. Praetors presided over judicial affairs, while quaestors handled finances. To hold any of these offices, one had to be part of the elite.  

During the early days of the Republic, Romans were divided into two classes, the patricians and the plebeians. The patricians were the most powerful 50 or so families in Rome—about 10% of the population.  The plebeians?  Everyone else.

Initially, all power was in the hands of the patricians.  Only patricians could be consuls, the chief executive and military officers of Rome.  Only patricians could be praetors, the judicial officers of Rome.  Only patricians could be quaestors, the financial officers of Rome. And only patricians were eligible for the senate, the chief legislative body of Rome.  And since one held office only for a year but, after that, served as a senator for life, no one holding any political office had much incentive to curb the growing power of the senate: quite the reverse.

Also, the plebeians themselves worked to support the power of many of the patricians.  Why?  Because of the complex patron/client relationship that was part of the social structure of Rome. A plebeian “client” looked to his patrician “patron” for help whenever he was in financial or legal trouble.  In return, the patron could count on his client’s vote whenever elections came around.  

 Naturally, with all power in the hands of the patricians, the plebeians were often treated unjustly.  They could easily have staged an armed revolt, even wiping out the patricians as a class if they had wanted.  Instead, they used only the peaceful technique of seccessio (essentially, going on strike) to achieve their goals.  This is a key reason Rome was successful: she could solve grave internal political problems peacefully.  The great example of this: the Struggle of Orders.

The Struggle of Orders began shortly after the expulsion of the kings and continued until the adoption of the lex hortensia in 287 BC. Little by little, the Plebeians wone a series of important concessions:

1.  The right to elect 10 sacrosanct tribunes, men who could stand up and speak for others without fear of retribution of any kind (470 BC).

2.  The Twelve Tables, the first written law code for Rome (450 BC).

3.  The right to intermarry with the patricians and the right to hold offices like the consulate (444 BC).

4.  The right to hold offices like praetor, quaestor, and consul—and, as a result, to become members of the senate (366 BC)

5.  The lex hortensia (287 BC), a law which gave the plebeians the right to pass legislation binding on the Roman state in their assemblies whether or not the senate consented.  In other words, now the plebeians could make any law they wanted and had the ultimate say in any matter—at least theoretically.

The important thing to notice is that, in the long, long struggle to secure their rights, the plebeians, with very real grievances, never once used violence to gain their ends.

This served Rome well, because, had the Romans been fighting one another, they could never have won the victories that led to the growth of Roman power.

Republican Rome was constantly at war, first with Rome’s immediate neighbors, then for control of Italy, and then for control of the lands bordering the Mediterranean.   


Here’s the overall scheme of what’s going in terms of warfare:

I. Conflicts with immediate neighbors (500-300 B.C.)

            A.  Etruscans/Latins
            B.  Mountain peoples: Sabines/Aequi/Volsci
            C.  Keys to success

II. Wider conflicts throughout Italian peninsula (300-264)

            A.  Samnite wars
            B.  Italian Greeks

III. Conflicts with Carthage and Macedon (264-146)

            A.  First Punic War (264-241)
            B.  Second Punic War/First Macedonian War (218-201)
            C.  Third Punic War (149-146)
            D.  Second Macedonian War (197)
            E.  Third Macedonian War (171-168)
            F.  Fourth Macedonian War (149-146)

In the first set of these wars (Rome’s conflicts with its immediate neighbors), Rome survived (and thrived) for a couple of different reasons.  One key: Roman diplomacy.  Rome was surrounded by potential enemies, but (also) by potential allies.  Rome was seldom at war with more than one neighbor at a time, and Roman diplomats seemed to have a knack in convincing one set of neighbors to join them in a “defensive” war against a common enemy. Rome very early had the concept of just war, and a knack for making a very good case that their side was the just one. Someone (can’t remember who) said the Romans are the only people to have conquered the world in self-defense.  But certainly the Latin tribes were often glad to support Rome, a much needed bulwark against the fierce mountain peoples.

Rome occasionally behaved unjustly (as after the conquest of Veii in 396), but, for the most part, Rome developed a reputation for fairness. During the Roman war against Falerrii, for example, a schoolmaster stole away the sons of leading Falerii citizens, thinking the Romans would reward him for giving them such valuable hostages.  Instead, Camillus insisted that the Roman people send back the boys. They bound the schoolmaster and let the boys whip him all the way as they returned to Falerrii.  Shortly after, the Romans and Falerrii came to a negotiated settlement, with the Falerii saying it was better to live under Roman law than their own. 

Rome still suffered some formidable setbacks.  In 390 BC, the Gauls invaded and sacked Rome, imposing very harsh terms.  When a Gallic leader insisted on more gold than bargained for (tossing his sword on the scales so the Romans would have to provide extra gold to balance it), he replied to their objections with two word: vae victus (woe to the vanquished).

But Camillus comes to the rescue, returning from a kind of exile to lead Rome to victory. Romans attributed to him a series of military reforms including the organization of the legion. 

Legionnaires were citizen soldiers (note the famous story of Cincinnatus at the plow), and, apparently, all Roman men aged 17-65 could be called into service. With the reforms of Camillus, they became a formidable fighting force.  The legion consisted of 30 maniples of two centuries each.  The century was composed of 60 men, so the nominal strength of a legion was 3600 men.  Organization into centuries and maniples made for flexibility. 

At the same time, the army was disciplined: one got the death penalty for (say) sleeping on duty.  And if a unit didn’t follow orders, they were subject to decimation (one out of ten being killed).   

Military engineering was another strength. Roman troops built roads and complete camps wherever they moved.  Further, the Romans adopted a system of establishing military colonies in areas they were trying to control—though, when appropriate, they seem to have found it often more useful to turn a defeated foe into an ally who would later fight side-by-side with the Romans.

Control of the immediate neighborhood didn’t end the necessity (or seeming necessity) of further wars.  Rome next took on the Samnites and then the Italian Greeks.

The Samnites were of two types. Some were fierce barbarians. Others, having come into contact with the Greeks, had become more civilized, i.e., more apt to live in cities.  Both were formidable, but the Romans managed to defeat them: destroying some, turning others into allies—and incorporating some of them as citizens! 

Next, the Romans took on the Greeks of southern Italy (Magna Graecae).  The Italian Greeks hired Pyrrhus to help them.  Pyrrhus won, but he lost some many men that he had to give up anyway: hence the phrase “Pyrrhic victory,” a victory that costs so much that it might as well be a loss.

After securing control of Italy, Rome’s wars might have been at an end had it not been for a new series of conflicts with a power Rome hadn’t had much to do with before. But with a mercantile people (the Italian Greeks) now incorporated into the Roman system, Rome has to look out for the trading interests of these people, and that creates problems with the dominant naval power of the western Mediterranean, Carthage.  Rome eventually fights three wars against Carthage.  During roughly the same time, Rome is fighting a series of wars against another formidable Mediterranean power, Macedon. 

Rome’s victories in these wars show both what’s surprising and not so surprising about Roman success.  The three Punic Wars (264-241 BC, 218-202 BC, and 149-146 BC) are especially good illustrations of what’s surprising and not so surprising about Roman success.

The Punic Wars were wars against Carthage, originally a Phoenician colony (hence the name Punic).

The first Punic war was fought over control of Sicily, and, one would have thought that the Carthaginians, a seafaring power, would have a great advantage when fighting for control of an island—especially since Rome had no navy at all.  Well, the Roman got their navy.  They took a wrecked Carthaginian ship as their model and built for themselves ships just like the Carthaginian ships.  A now they are an equal to Carthage on the seas?  Well, they shouldn’t have been, but Rome found a way to overcome superior Carthaginian sailing skills and, eventually won the 1st Punic Was—though not without some major setbacks.

The Carthaginians hired Spartan mercenaries to help them on land. Regullus, the Roman commander made a mistake and ended up losing 30,000 men fighting against the Spartans.  He himself was taken captive, and the Carthaginians sent him to Rome with instructions that he negotiate a peace that would secure his release and that of the other Roman prisoners.  Though it meant certain death, Regullus (secretly) told the Romans to forget about him: fight on. Regullus returned to his captors—and was put to death in a weasel trap.

The Romans lost battles: they never lost wars. They fought on, winning the war and control of Sicily.  But the conflict with Carthage wasn’t over.

The Carthaginians established a new base in Spain. Friction with Rome over this territory (and other conflicts) eventually led to a 2nd Punic War (218-202 BC).

The second Punic War also started badly for the Romans.  Led by Hannibal, Carthage attacked Rome from the north, defeating Roman forces at Trasimene and Trebia. The dictator Fabius Maximus followed a “Fabian” strategy of avoiding direct conflict with Hannibal and trying to eliminate the Carthaginian ability to live off the land. The Romans tired of this and sent out a force to attack Hannibal—a force that was defeated at Cannae (216 BC).  The Romans lost 50,000 men in a single day in that last battle.  But the Romans lost battles: they never lost wars.  Though their commanding officers had clearly blown it, the Roman people rallied behind them and held on.

Here’s Livy’s description of the reaction to Cannae:

Livius, Titus. The History of Rome, Vol. III
Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library


Although most of the senators had relations among the prisoners, there were two considerations which weighed with them at the close of Manlius' speech. One was the practice of the State which from early times had shown very little indulgence to prisoners of war. The other was the amount of money that would be required, for they were anxious that the treasury should not be exhausted, a large sum having been already paid out in purchasing and arming the slaves, and they did not wish to enrich Hannibal who, according to rumour, was in particular need of money. When the melancholy reply was given that the prisoners were not ransomed, the prevailing grief was intensified by the loss of so many citizens, and the delegates were accompanied to the gates by a weeping and protesting crowd. One of them went to his home because he considered himself released from his vow by his pretended return to the camp. When this became known it was reported to the senate, and they unanimously decided that he should be arrested and conveyed to Hannibal under a guard furnished by the State. There is another account extant as to the fate of the prisoners. According to this tradition ten came at first, and there was a debate in the senate as to whether they should be allowed within the City or not; they were admitted on the understanding that the senate would not grant them an audience. As they stayed longer than was generally expected, three other delegates arrived-L. Scribonius, C. Calpurnius, and L. Manlius-and a relative of Scribonius who was a tribune of the plebs made a motion in the senate to ransom the prisoners. The senate decided that they should not be ransomed, and the three who came last returned to Hannibal, but the ten remained in Rome. They alleged that they had absolved themselves from their oath because after starting on their journey they had returned to Hannibal under the pretext of reviewing the list of the prisoners' names. The question of surrendering them was hotly debated in the senate, and those in favour of this course were beaten by only a few votes. Under the next censors, however, they were so crushed beneath every mark of disgrace and infamy that some of them immediately committed suicide; the others not only avoided the Forum for all their after life, but almost shunned the light of day and the faces of men. It is easier to feel astonishment at such discrepancies amongst our authorities than to determine what is the truth.

How far that disaster surpassed previous ones is shown by one simple fact. Up to that day the loyalty of our allies had remained unshaken, now it began to waver, for no other reason, we may be certain, than that they despaired of the maintenance of our empire. The tribes who revolted to the Carthaginians were the Atellani, the Calatini, the Hirpini, a section of the Apulians, all the Samnite cantons with the exception of the Pentri, all the Bruttii and the Lucanians. In addition to these, the Uzentini and almost the whole of the coast of Magna Graecia, the people of Tarentum Crotona and Locri, as well as all Cisalpine Gaul. Yet, in spite of all their disasters and the revolt of their allies, no one anywhere in Rome mentioned the word "Peace," either before the consul's return or after his arrival when all the memories of their losses were renewed. Such a lofty spirit did the citizens exhibit in those days that though the consul was coming back from a terrible defeat for which they knew he was mainly responsible, he was met by a vast concourse drawn from every class of society, and thanks were formally voted to him because he "had not despaired of the republic." Had he been commander-in-chief of the Carthaginians there was no torture to which he would not have been subjected.

A dramatization of Cannae:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IY-Hcr4bB3U

The Romans lost battles: they never lost wars. Tthe Romans learned. They copied and imitated some of Hannibal’s strategies.  They figured out how to deal with attacking elephants. And, led by Scipio Africanus, they won the 2nd Punic War as well.

A dramatizaton of Zama:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NpKkiqLJoM

And the Romans finished the job. Cato (this Cato we often call Cato the Censor to distinguish him from later Cato’s), constantly reminded the Romans of the danger Carthage posed to Rome and its culture.  He conclude all his speeches (no matter the topic) with the words “delenda est Carthago,” Carthage must be destroyed.

In these days of cultural relativism, we find it hard to identify with Cato’s view, and so hard to understand what’s going on here. But Cato clearly believed that Roman society stood for something good, that Carthage stood for something evil. And the Carthaginians were a cruel and corrupt people. Just as during WWII Americans believed they stood for something noble against the evils of totalitarianism, so Roman belief that they stood for something noble was a strength to them.  And eventually Carthage was destroyed in the 3rd Punic War (though Cato didn’t live to see it).

The 3rd Punic War coincided with a 4th Macedonian War, and, having defeated their two greatest rivals in the Mediterranean, Rome could now relax. But the years of constant warfare had taken a toll, and, while the Romans were an unmatched military power, they would soon face the most formidable enemy yet: themselves.