Chapter 7 The Roman World

Section 2 Early Roman Society (5TH-2ND CENTURIES B.C.) 

Roman Republican Institutions

The expulsion of the last king in 509 B.C. left Roman society divided between the patricians (aristocrats by birth) and the plebeians (approximately 90% of the rest of the population). The patricians controlled every aspect of society: politics, religion, economy, military commands. They did not enjoy this absolute control for long, however. In fact, from the very beginning of the new Republic, plebeians challenged the patrician monopoly of power in what became known as the Conflict of the Orders (509 to 287 B.C.).

            Much as in Greece during the same period, poor plebeians allied with a growing number of rich plebeians in the fight for economic reforms. They especially hoped to settle problems of debts and distribution of land. Rich plebeians were interested in political equality, access to public offices and priesthoods. It took them nearly two centuries to share political power on equal terms with the patricians. In the end, a new aristocracy emerged from this conflict, a patricio-plebeian aristocracy that was no longer based on birth but based on the holding of public offices. This new aristocracy, known as the nobilitas, consisted of those families whose ancestors had been elected to the highest office of the state, the consulship. This new kind of oligarchy reflected the strong feeling for serving the state in Roman society. Although restricted in numbers and access, the Roman oligarchy was not completely closed. New members could join by being elected to the consulship. After 287 B.C., however, Roman society was no longer divided between patricians and plebeians but between an oligarchy and the rest of the citizenry.

            The new constitutional order that emerged out of the Conflict of the Orders consisted of three elements: the public offices, or magistracies; the Senate; and the popular assemblies. Access to public offices was limited to the richest members of the society. A high property qualification was required to follow a public career. After completing ten years of military service, a Roman politician would pursue his career by soliciting popular votes for a series of offices leading ultimately to the highest political office, the consulship. This career, known as the cursus honorum, was strictly regulated: there were minimum age requirements, mandatory progression from one office to another, delays between periods of holding office, and a prohibition against holding the same office more than once (except the consulship under certain emergency conditions.) Such rules insured that participants would become familiar with all aspects of the art of government: securing and distributing food supplies, organizing public games, accepting financial responsibilities, carrying out legal duties, and of course fulfilling military  functions.

The magistrates were elected by the people either in the Centuriate Assembly for the highest offices (praetors, consuls, and censors) or by the assembly of the tribes for the minor magistracies. Wealthy citizens controlled the Centuriate Assembly by monopolizing the majority of the voting units. In the tribal assembly, citizens were distributed in 35 voting units based on where they lived, without consideration of property qualifications. Even so, this assembly too was largely controlled by the oligarchy mostly because of the lack of secret ballots and the importance of patronage. If successful in all stages of the cursus honorum, a candidate might be elected to the consulship. There were always two consuls, and the office controlled the highest power in civil and military matters. The most prestigious office, the censorship, could crown an already successful career. Two censors were elected every five years for 18 months to conduct the census of the whole population and to nominate new senators. Only the richest and best connected people could hope to become censors.

The Senate was the third element of the Roman republican political system and probably the most important one. It controlled foreign policy, military operations, and public finances. It was made up of 300 members chosen from among the elected magistrates, and the tenure was for life. The Senate was the most experienced council of Rome and enjoyed prestige and authority among both the current magistrates and the people. The Senate was not a legislative body—it only gave advice—but its opinion was usually followed.

            The Roman republican system was neither democratic nor despotic. The Romans were a deferential people and  did not challenge the control of the oligarchy. In addition, the Roman patronage system - in which wealthy, powerful citizens, known as 'patrons' (from the Latin word for 'father'), protected and helped commoners, known as 'clients,' in exchange for support in political matters - insured the control of the elite. Until 133 B.C., the system worked well and the success of the Roman legions year after year may have been partially responsible for this. Roman citizens were proud of the achievement of their city and attributed it to the excellence and common-sense practicality of its institutions. As one Roman statesman explained Rome’s success: 

“The reason of the superiority of the constitution of our city to that of other states is that the latter almost always had their laws and institutions from one legislator. But our republic was not made by the genius of one man, but of many, nor in the life of one, but through many centuries and generations.” [Cato (apud Cicero De Re Pub.  II,1,2)] 

The Roman Army

Rome’s successful expansion from a city-state into a major empire was due largely to its military superiority. The manpower of Italy sustained the Roman military machine. Roman armies were made up of Roman citizens and Italian allies in equal proportions. The citizens were organized into legions, while the allies acted as auxiliaries. Between the ages of 17 and 46, Roman citizens were liable for military service: 10 years in the cavalry or 16 years in the infantry. The time need not be served consecutively, and in cases of emergency a citizen might have to serve longer. Military service required a minimum property qualification since the Romans believed that one would only fight bravely if he had some property to protect at home.

            At first the Romans used the phalanx formation but soon replaced it with a more elastic formation. They divided the phalanx into 30 units called maniples. Eventually, at the end of the 2nd century B.C., the Roman general Marius achieved a synthesis of the best elements of the phalanx system and that of the manipular system by reorganizing the legions into 10 cohorts. This system of cohorts provided both the flexibility for fighting in mountainous and broken terrain provided by the smaller maniples, as well as the power of the phalanx’s mass formation for fighting on open, flat terrain. The new cohort system remained the basic military organization of Rome until nearly the end of its imperial history.

            Well disciplined and superbly trained, the Roman army was an army of foot soldiers rather than cavalrymen. Roman strategy was based on caution, organization, resilience, and high morale, rather than dashing and inspiring tactics. Until the reforms of Marius, the army reflected the make-up of Roman society—it was made up of citizen-soldiers. Indeed, all citizens were expected to be soldiers, and military glory was a major part of the Roman ethos, both among officers and men in the ranks. Republican Rome, in short, was very much a military society. 

Republican Society

At the heart of Rome’s social structure was the family. Even the state reflected the basic structure and importance of the family in Roman life. The family in turn was like the state in small. Like other tribal peoples, the Romans were patriarchal. The head of the family, the paterfamilias, or family father, the oldest living male, had extensive powers over other members of the extended family. This included his wife, his sons with their wives and children, unmarried daughters, and the family slaves. One of the paterfamilias’s most important duties was to ensure the proper worship of the spirits of the family’s ancestors, on whom depended the family’s continuing prosperity—just as the prosperity of the state depended on the proper worship of the official gods of the state.

            Families were grouped into gentes or clans, whose members claimed descent from a common, though often mythical ancestor. Within this basic family structure, Romans emphasized the virtues of the farmer-soldier—a stubborn breed, they valued above all authority, simplicity, and piety. Most families sustained themselves more or less independently on small farms which they managed themselves.

            Roman women generally could not do anything without the intervention of a male guardian (the father, husband, son, or nearest male relative, as might be the case). Guardianship was an important legal question, even determining the kind of marriage a woman could engage in. In a marriage cum manu, for example, the guardianship passed from father to husband. However, the marriage contract might only provide for marriage sine manu, in which case the guardianship remained with the father (in which case, once her father died, the woman was actually free of guardianship and could act for herself (sui iuris) . The minimum legal marriage age was normally 12 for girls. In contrast to  upper-class Athenian women, however, upper-class Roman women were not segregated from males in the home. They were free to go outside the home without escort.

            Children were accepted in the family only if they were recognized and accepted by the father. As in Greece, the early Romans often exposed unwanted children. Adoption was an important aspect of Roman society, and adopted children, usually brought into a family to establish political alliances between families, or for the purpose of providing a strong heir to act as paterfamilias, were considered the full equals of natural children.

            Education was carried on primarily at home. For boys it consisted mostly of military training, but also included basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. Under Greek influence, during the 2nd century a more literary education became popular, particularly in rhetoric and philosophy. Rome’s eventual conquest of Greece and the Hellenistic world brought many Greek tutors into rich households as slaves. As Rome adopted Greek culture, the upper classes of Roman society became largely bi-lingual, learning both Latin and Greek.

            As Rome expanded, growing numbers of war captives became an important feature of society as slaves. As in Greece, slavery had always existed in Roman society, whether as a result of military conquest or because people had to sell themselves or their children to pay off debts. Romans were very liberal in giving freedom to their slaves, however, and freedmen also constituted a growing part of society.

            Economically, Rome remained primarily dependent on agriculture. At first, trade was marginal and industry nearly non-existent. The Romans had no independent coinage before the 3rd century. Although some wealthy aristocrats began to accumulate large estates, in the early years of the republic the economy was made up mostly of small farms managed by a family and more or less auto-subsistent. Of far more importance was the military nature of society—particularly once the Romans discovered that conquests could be profitable.

Republican Culture

Before the 2nd century, Rome was too involved in military matters to devote much energy to the arts and literature. By the second century, however, the process of Hellenization had begun to transform Rome into a Hellenistic city. Drawing on a common Indo-European religious tradition, the Romans adopted Greek mythology and identified their own gods with those of Olympus.

            Also like the Greeks, Romans viewed religion largely as a matter of state. Morality was less important than the exact performance of rituals through which both individuals and the state established the proper relationship with the gods. In fact, the Romans seem to have had a kind of contractual relationship with the gods—in exchange for the proper rituals, the gods would sustain the pax deorum, or “peace of the gods.” As one Roman statesman, Cicero, put it, “We have overcome all the nations of the world, because we have realized that the world is directed and governed by the gods.” To insure that the religious observances were done properly, the Romans established the posts of pontiffs, or priests, headed by the Pontifex Maximus, or Highest Priest, to act on behalf of the state in religious matters.

            Believing also that the gods sent signs and warnings to human beings, the Romans also paid particular respect to the priests known as augurs, who specialized in interpreting these signs. Nothing important, in either family or public life, was undertaken without first consulting the augurs to see whether the gods approved or disapproved of an action. The signs, or auspices, came from observing the flight of birds, lightning, or the behavior of certain animals.