The Republican period of Rome lasted from roughly 509 BCE until 44 BCE with the death of Julius Caesar. It began with the oath of Brutus after the death of Lucretia and ended with a similar oath from Brutus’s relation by the same name.
Rome was never a republic in the true sense of the word. Society was still harshly divided into economic, patriarchal classes of patrician and plebian, slave and free. Once the last King was expelled from the City, power was quickly consolidated by the patrician founding families who were able to hold the highest elected offices of the state. The powers of the King were transferred to two elected consuls, each serving a one-year term. To hold this position bestowed nobilitas on patrician families and the first person from a family to hold the position of consul was condescendingly referred to as a novus homo, or new man.
Further executive and judicial positions were added as the new constitution matured. A censor was in charge of financial matters, taxes, and public works. Praetors served as law officers and judges, overseen by the consuls. Aedile’s were more of a plebian rank that supervised markets and temples. And although the patricians had considerable power in the political arena, the plebians were able to bargain and irritate the patricians into a few concessionary positions of their own during the Republican period. The position of Tribune of the People was created to be a direct link between the Plebians and the Senate. This was an especially large win for the plebians because a Tribune carried a great deal of political power.
Militarily, the Republican era would see Rome grow into the military power we associate with red capes, standards and discipline. We left the Romans defending the city walls against the Etruscans in 509, but by 265 BCE, Romans had conquered the entire Italian peninsula south of the Arno River. They had scored a literal “Pyrrhic victory” against the Greeks and were about to embark on the first of the Punic Wars, after which Rome would emerge as a Mediterranean power.
The defeat of Carthage left Rome with new territories and provinces to maintain in Spain, Africa and the East. The Eastern Provinces were often kept as client kingdoms, but the provinces of Europe were eagerly sought after by would-be governors. Serving in the military, beginning a political career in Rome, then returning to lead an army became a typical career path for many famous Roman’s including Gaius Marius. Fame and fortune could be won in the provinces, for the generals as well as the soldiers, and increasingly, Roman soldiers were loyal not to Rome but to the commanders who awarded them for success and loyalty. Men like Lucius Cornelius Sulla were able to use their loyal veteran forces to enforce their own political agenda.
But as we get to the 2nd century BCE, things in the military begin to quiet down. Rome takes a depth breath and rests for a moment, pausing in its great expansion. As a result many of its soldiers were no longer required. They returned home and exacerbated the unemployment within the city. The bored soldiers combined with a sudden influx of newly minted Roman citizens from the provinces called for a bit of gerrymandering. The system that had served the agrarian society of the early Republic so well needed to be revised to suit a more international level.
The canary in the coalmine came in the form of the Gracchi brothers. Political reformers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi were sons of a prominent politician and military commander and Cornelia Gracchus, daughter of Scipio Africanus, hero of the Second Punic War. Patrician to the core they were each elected Tribune of the People and proposed a wide sweeping redistribution of land, and fixed grain prices to resolve the growing number of landless, urban poor. They both met violent ends for their reforms, but they proved the people were capable of challenging the Senate.
With powerful generals now eyeing Rome herself like a city for the taking, it was left to them to sort out who would enter the city in triumph. As the last century of the Republic closes in, we see Generals begin to vie for political power with their loyal legions close at hand. In 59 BCE, a forty-one year old Julius Caesar was made governor of Cisalpine Gaul, Transalpine Gaul, and Illyria. Within a decade, he had conquered Gaul, explored Britain and joined an alliance known as the First Triumvirate, the results of which we will see next.