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Transformation of Rome from Republic to Empire Essay

Like so many agricultural cultures, Rome began as a city-state about 600 B.C. It was founded by descendants of Indo-European invaders from central Europe who merged with earlier Italian peoples. The Roman language and many basic social patterns were inherited from the local farmers who had populated the region long before the city was founded. But the city itself borrowed from an earlier Italian civilization, the Etruscan, slightly to the north, and to a lesser extent from Greek colonies in the south. This gave form to early Roman religion and also to political structure.

Rome began as a kingdom under Etruscan rule. But about 509 B.C. the Roman aristocracy overthrew the king, and Rome became an aristocratic republic not unlike the Greek city-states. Intense local civic pride was part of this pattern, as in Greece, including a willingness to sacrifice self in the interest of the state. Heroic military action by a few individuals, such as the fabled Horatio holding the bridge over the Tiber river against an Etruscan army, gained Rome increasing independence. Roman family structure was the basis of this kind of culture. It emphasized obedience to the father, although the mother was honored as well.

Even though the aristocrats competed for power, they could unite when loyalty to the state was at stake, because they had been trained to subordinate themselves to the common good, just as children were taught to yield to family interest. Religion was another binding force, as was the consideration with which aristocrats treated the common people of the city.

In the early days of the republic there was much social tension, but uprisings gave the citizens of the lower class, whatever their wealth, their own representatives, called tribunes, to oversee their interests in the government. The first law code, the famous Twelve Tables, was introduced about 450 B.C.; this restrained the upper class from arbitrary action. By the third century B.C., citizens of the lower class, called plebeians, could be elected to public office and pass laws.

The Roman city-state was not like the Greek. The Roman people met in assemblies, but the assemblies were called and run by officers. There was no choosing of leaders by lot; two consuls were elected by the people each year to serve as executive and military leaders, and almost always these were aristocrats or wealthy plebeians.

The consuls scrutinized each other’s activities so that neither could seize power; behind the scenes the aristocracy could usually run the show. Aristocratic power was formalized in the Roman senate which was composed of anyone who had held public office and who then served as senator for life. This group had only advisory powers, but, composed of experienced and prestigious men, its influence was considerable and it lent stability to the state.

The picture of the Roman state around 250 B.C. proved so attractive to many western political theorists long after the republic was gone that it was copied, at least partially, by a host of western political governments. What was particularly appealing about the Roman arrangement was its balance.

Underwritten by definite laws which protected the rights of the citizens, the Roman government checked unlimited democracy without yielding to total upper-class rule; and it prevented executive dictatorship. The division between a popular assembly and an upper-class senate was to be imitated many times. Although legislative authority was predominant, there were separate judges and a separate executive; here was a hint of division of powers and it seemed to work well.

Based on political stability, Rome prospered and began a pattern of conquest which none of the Greek city-states had been capable of. Internally, the population increased, which is always a creative factor if properly channeled. Conquest offered the means of distributing the surplus population and of providing wealth for the masses, which helped keep them quiet. Also, Rome was well situated, being in the center of Italy, for once the Etruscans had been beaten and their culture collapsed, there were few powerful rivals surrounding Rome. Finally, the Romans were lenient rulers.

Nevertheless, over time the republic itself became unviable. The aristocratic Senate no longer provided consistent wisdom and the populace vied for favors from the rich, particularly the victorious generals. Rome had implicitly chosen between a balanced republic and an empire, in favor of the latter, and this made a military regime inevitable. By 31 B.C. Augustus had defeated his rivals. The Republic was dead, and the Roman Empire, a political structure governing Rome and all the colonies, was now to be created. The empire turned out to be Rome’s major contribution to the western arsenal of political precedents.

Not surprisingly, given the major Roman interests, formal culture remained limited until the last century of the republic, when Greek models were copied and Greek artists and writers, some of them slaves, worked directly for Roman patrons. The Romans did not blindly copy; their painting, for example, differed from what we know of the Greek, showing more realistic portrayals of nature and the human form.

Hence, Roman statuary, often busts of the great men of the day, reflects attention to individual facial traits more than the stylized approach of the Greeks. However, the central cultural contribution was to spread a Greco-Roman art and literature to the vast empire and particularly to Western Europe, where such products had never before been known.Textbook writing, increasingly important as Roman creativity waned in the later empire, helped preserve the rudiments of learning not only for the Romans themselves but for later ages.


Heitland, W. E. A Short History of the Roman Republic. Cambridge University Press, 1911.

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