From a Republic to an Empire: Rome


Romans dismantled the monarchy giving the power to the Senate and Assembly, thus, creating the Republic. Until its demise in 44 BCE, its history would be one of almost constant warfare.

They did have a constitution outlining their traditions and institutions, but it was not a written document. During the early founding of Rome the governing body consisted of two consuls, patricians, and a member of the aristocracy elite in early Republic, elected for one year. The two consuls were given the supreme power or imperium.  They also initiated legislation, were head of the judiciary and military, and were chief priests. Due to the fact that there were two, the imperium was limited; either could block the other with a veto.

In addition, a consul served on the Senate after his elected term ended, which lead to cooperation with the governing body. These limitations, however, stifled creativity. The early Republican government was conservative and careful. In 325 BCE, proconsuls, consuls whose terms were extended usually because of warfare, were added.

The Transition in Action

The imperium (supreme power) belonged to the patricians because all high Roman officers were elected from that class. Not surprisingly, the plebeians came to resent this. In a situation similar to that facing Solon in Greece, Roman peasants were falling into deep debt and were forced to sell their families into slavery. The resulting plebian protest, called The Conflict of the Orders, came when plebeians refused to participate in the military. Rome was at war, and the patricians could not fill the ranks. Between 494–287 BCE, plebeians engaged in five separate strikes led by wealthy landowners of their class, slowly earning the right to elect their leaders, called tribunes, who brought grievances to the consuls and Senate. They could also veto new laws.

According to Sayre,

In republican Rome every plebian chose a patrician as his patron, whose duty it was to represent the plebian in any matter of law.  This paternalistic relationship – which we call patronage – reflected the family’s center role in Roman culture.  The pater, “father,” protected not only his wife and family but also his clients, who submitted to his patronage.  In return for the pater’s protection, family and client equally owed the pater their total obedience – which the Romans referred to as pietas, “dutifulness.”  So embedded was this attitude that when toward the end of the first century BCE the Republic declared itself an empire, the emperor was called pater patriae, “father of the fatherland.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 78)

Furthermore, by 450BCE, Roman law was codified and displayed in public. The new governing body was called the 12 Tables, it governed public and private behavior and was “generally seen as the beginning of European law” (Hooker, 1996). According to Halsall, among the laws are the following (1998):

Let them keep the road in order. If they have not paved it, a man may drive his team where he likes. Treason: he who shall have roused up a public enemy or handed over a citizen to a public enemy must suffer capital punishment. Marriages should not take place between plebeians and patricians. Whatever the people had last ordained should be held as binding by law.

During early Roman Republic days most wars were considered defensive strategy. However, due to their experience with the Etruscans, they set out to create a buffer zone; and by 265 BCE, they controlled the entire peninsula. Over the next century from roughly 264 – 146 BCE Rome and the North African country of Carthage would engage in warfare now termed the Punic Wars. This was primarily because Carthage, to the southwest Rome, was considered a threat since they could invade Rome by sea also due to having built a powerful empire extending to Spain. After three separate wars carried out over more than a century and numerous new territories being conquered Rome would emerge victorious from the Punic Wars.  However, this time period of warfare would create a type of cultural class with Roman society.

The Punic Wars devastation of the Roman countryside, carried out by Hannibal, had dramatic results on the country. Wealthy patricians remained safe in Rome while plebeians saw their property destroyed. With ravaged land and no work, the plebeians flooded into the major cities. The entire situation was exacerbated since the wars brought in an abundance of new slaves. Around 200 BCE, most people in Italy were slaves, which eventually caused a depression of wages and opportunity. The result was a population of free but angry Romans, which erupted in civil war in 133 BCE when tribune, Tiberius Gracchus, proposed redistribution of land, legislation that was blocked by the landowning patricians via the tribune Octavius, whom Tiberius Gracchus promptly removed from office. When Tiberius stood for reelection, manifestly unconstitutional, he was assassinated by a group of senators in what was the first political bloodshed in Roman history.

Tiberius Gracchus is among the most important of Roman politicians but not for his murder. He sought political change outside cooperation with the patricians and turned to the masses creating a new kind of politician, the populace. Traditional politicians became known as optimates, meaning the best. This societal change would have a lasting impact on the Republic.

In 123 and 122 BCE, Tiberius’ brother, Gaius, was elected tribune. Enormously popular with the people, he stabilized grain prices by building storehouses for excess, which kept prices low enough so the poor did not starve but allowed small farmers to continue to sell and survive. In a law “that provoked the most opposition, he proposed citizenship be granted to all Italians (in order to increase his power base)” (Hooker, 1996). The two laws threatened the power of the patricians; and in 121 BCE, Gaius Gracchus was declared an enemy of the state by the Senate. In the final confrontation, Gaius committed suicide rather than be captured, and many of his followers were executed.

The chaos and murder continued when four generals, Gaius Marius, Sulla Crassus, and Pompey, all rose to prominence over the next 40 years. The first general rising to power, Marius, created a new situation for Rome where victorious generals with loyal armies could govern areas of Rome at will.   Sulla, on the other hand, was from an old but poor patrician family and was a committed patrician. He would eventually defeated Marius on the battlefield in 86 BCE and massacred Marius’ supporters. The Senate, fearing plebian uprising, made Sulla the dictator (traditionally a 6-month position). He alone held the imperium until his death in 78 BCE. Sulla reformed the government by cutting the power of the Assembly and handing it to the Senate in an effort to restore what he considered the original Republic. However, in doing so, Sulla continued to murder opponents provoking violent reaction. By the time of his death, the Senate faced armed rebellion.

The other two general appeared in history around 70 BCE, Crassus and Pompey. Both were ambitious generals and allied to repeal Sulla’s reforms standing against the Senate, but the alliance was tenuous. Pompey would become the most popular man in Rome because of his military victories and the expansion of territories to the East (70–63 BCE). Crassus, a millionaire, was universally unpopular. In an effort to gain more power, he allied himself with a brilliant general named Gaius Julius Caesar, who used his new ally’s money to his advantage.

Caesar came from an old patrician family and had fought extraordinary campaigns in Spain and Gaul (France). Upon his return from Spain, he demanded a triumph (victory parade), but he was refused because the Senate feared his popularity. Caesar’s ambitions would not be quashed. He quickly realized the way to power in Rome was through military conquest providing a general with loyal army, wealth, and prestige in Rome. Therefore, he took his army to Gaul seeking glory.

There was no reason for Rome to conquer northern Europe: the people there were tribal, seminomadic, and no threat. Caesar conquered them anyway bringing northern France, Belgium, and southern Great Britain into the fold. When he returned to Rome, the Triumvirate was over; Crassus was dead and Pompey, now the only consul (which was illegal), had turned the Senate against Caesar. He was declared an enemy of the state and told to hand over his governorship, provinces, and army.

Caesar’s troops were intensely loyal. In 49 BCE, they crossed the Rubicon River into Italy, breaking the law. War erupted again. Caesar defeated Pompey at Pharsalus in Greece in 48 BCE, and Pompey was assassinated shortly thereafter. Caesar turned his attention to Asia Minor in a conquest so quick he famously commented, “Vini, vedi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered). The civil war continued until 45 BCE.

As popular as Caesar may have been with the masses, he was resented by many in the Senate for his usurpation of power and arrogance. Even the greatest Roman orator, Cicero, was opposed to Caesar. About two years before his death, he reportedly said, “It is more important for Rome than for myself that I should survive. I have long been seated with power and glory; but, should anything happen to me, Rome will enjoy no peace. A new Civil War will break out under far worse conditions than the last” (Halsall, 1998).

He had ruled only 2 years, and his killers believed the Republic would return. It turned out that Caesar had been right.

Three new men stepped up to form the Second Triumvirate. They were Marc Antony (consul), Lepidus (a high official), and Octavian (Caesar’s grandnephew). Civil war again racked Rome. By 37 BCE, what little stability remained was gone. Marc Antony was married to Octavian’s sister but had also entered into some kind of marriage contract with the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, thus, defiling the important Roman familial bonds and making a bitter enemy of Octavian. Antony and Cleopatra’s navy was defeated in 31 BCE, and the couple committed suicide, forever immortalized by Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Lepidus survived but because he had supported Antony, he was stripped of most of his offices. Octavian stood as the sole master of Rome, and the Republic was, for all intents and purposes, dead.

Octavian intended to restore order and provide equity to the Empire. He changed his name to Augustus Caesar in 27 BCE, and his reforms were many. He rid the government of more dubious (e.g., anti-Augustan) men and trimmed the Senate from 1,000 to 800 members. He extended citizenship to all Italians, then rigged elections so the best candidates (often handpicked) would win. Augustus and his reforms were so popular that he was made tribunicia potestas, which means a tribune for life.

However, the reforms did not come easy. Augustus had to compromise between inherited tradition and economic, political, and social realities. In doing so, he displayed typical Roman practicality, certainly saved the Empire, but also “spelled the death of representative institutions” (Hooker, 1996).

Augustus embarked on reform. He consolidated the borders, pulling back in some areas and strengthening what remained. The army’s size was shrunk and sent to the borders and provinces. Augustus resettled soldiers on farmland and made the army a professional one, doing away with the volunteers loyal to a single general. Anyone who served more than 20 years in the military received a cash payment from the state.

However, there was one last reform. Augustus embarked on a building project of restoring temples or creating new buildings. He would famously say, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” The result was the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), which would be the hallmark of the Augustan Age and lasted nearly 200 years despite some emperors who were less than able.


History will never know if Alexander the Great could have controlled his empire, but historians know that the Romans did and how they accomplished it.   Rome did not destroy most conquered cities; the destruction of Carthage was an exception. They gave some people limited Roman rights; others received complete autonomy while still others became allies. All newly conquered territories were required to send troops for the voracious appetite of the Roman army. Roman soldiers were settled on land in conquered territories, thus, providing a local army still loyal to Rome. Any revolt was met with swift, harsh response (e.g., Carthage). In addition, Rome built high-quality roads to move soldiers and supplies quickly from one place to another – hence the term “All roads lead to Rome”. “The combination of granting conquered territories rights and citizenship (or the promise of future rights and citizenship) and the surety of a swift, harsh response to rebellion produced a lasting, peaceful empire on the Italian peninsula” (Hooker, 1996).


Ancient history sourcebook: Suetonius de vita caesarum, divus Iulius. (1998). Retrieved July 5, 2006, from Ancient History Sourcebook Web site: .

Halsall, P. (1998). Ancient history sourcebook. Retrieved July 4, 2006, from

Hooker, R. (1996). World civilizations. Retrieved June 26, 2006, from Washington State University Web site:

The Internet classics archive: Cicero by Plutarch. (1998). Retrieved July 5, 2006, from

Sayre, H.M.(2013). Discovering the humanities. (2nd. ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.


About kmjantz

My primary goal is to explore humanities existence to date as we know it. I also create works of art that search to understand and explain why humans die because of diseases has plagued humankind since the beginning of time. Until recently, artistic expression of said search was constrained by religious ideology and scientific understanding. Today modern artists have access to a multitude of scientific technological advancements and enjoy greater creative freedom. For these reasons, my projects combination of artist styles/movements, scientific discovery, folklore, and my own imagination. My overall goal is to introduce viewers to a world so small that most do not think about it until they must due to illness. This goal is accomplished by taking selected microorganisms (thought of as ugly, disgusting, and devastating annoyances) and illustrating them as beautiful symbols of humanity’s co-evolution with nature. Making art can be a way of simplifying complex thoughts and scientific findings imbedded in humanity’s narrative.
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1 Response to From a Republic to an Empire: Rome

  1. Pingback: Octavian’s Rise to Power and the Institution of the ‘Principate’ | The Leather Library

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