There are a lot of Rome fans out there who are going to be upset by how many crazy important things I skip. Every year I have run-ins with my Latin students who are scandalized that I don’t think it’s particularly important that we understand the inner-workings of the Senate and patron-client relations.
For today, I’m going to focus on the few people and events in Roman history that you’ve probably heard of and thought, “Damn. I really should know more about Julius Caesar than just his pizza and salad empire.”
The Origins of Rome
First, there are some great legends about how Rome was populated. Originally there were people living there called the Etruscans and they were ruled by a king. At some point, other people show up and eventually overthrow the monarchy and set up a republic.
The myth says that the city was founded by the brothers Romulus and Remus who were raised by a she-wolf, which is the myth I prefer just based on the mental image. But there’s also a cool theory that maybe those people who showed up were the remnants of the Trojans who had been forced out of their city after the war with Greece. So maybe the Romans were actually the descendants of the people who literally looked a gift horse in the mouth.
Either way, the Roman republic gets set up in 509 BCE (for context: Darius was ruling the Persian Empire and building his Royal Road. In Greece, the last Athenian tyrant fell in 510 BCE – just one year earlier – paving the way for Athenian democracy. Considering how long history is, it’s pretty crazy that the two most forward-thinking forms of government of all time were established within just one year of each other. I wonder if the Athenians felt like the Romans stole their thunder?
Rome lasted as a republic for 500 years. While Greece and Persia are fighting their war, Rome is starting to expand its influence across Italy. About 100 years after Alexander swept through and conquered both Greece and Persia, the Romans look to establish dominance in the Mediterranean – which is somewhat of a power vacuum after the break up of Alexander’s empire.
The Punic Wars
Their main rival is a city in north Africa called Carthage and they fight a series of wars with them called the Punic Wars. I have no idea why every war in this time period starts with the letter P – Persian, Peloponnesian, Punic – but I can assure you it bothers no one more than my students who are just trying to pass the matching quiz unscathed.
The most famous military general of Carthage is a guy named Hannibal who marched an army over the Pyrenees and Alps into Italy on war elephants. What? How has there not been a movie about this? He occupied northern Italy for 15 years but was never able to conquer Rome.
The Romans, led by a guy named Scipio Africanus, launched a counterattack on his home city forcing him to return to defend Carthage. When the Romans won the Battle, they sacked and completely destroyed the city. Apparently, while the city was burning Scipio Africanus wept for his enemies because he realized that this could one day be the fate of Rome. Supposedly he recited a verse from Homer’s Iliad, “A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish, And Priam and his people shall be slain.” This is why everyone needs a liberal arts education – no matter what path your life takes you, the ability to recite classical poetry at a moment’s notice will immediately elevate you to badass status.
Chaos in Rome
So now Rome is the dominant power in the Mediterranean. And as so often happens, without a clear external enemy, chaos and division arise at home. Around 100 BCE, a guy named Gaius Marius changes the game. Across the Roman Empire, power (in the form of land) had been slowly consolidated by the rich patrician class. The lower classes – or plebeians – left for the city of Rome in droves, looking for jobs.
Marius was a general and politician and he looked around and saw this as an opportunity. He revolutionized the Roman military by implementing a lot of reforms that I don’t totally understand (something about military formations) but the thing he did that I do understand is that he started collecting these landless peasants off the street and giving them a job as soldiers, offering to pay them in land after they had served Rome. This was new and sets off a few different chains of events.
For one, Rome now has to be in a constant state of conquest to get more land to pay its soldiers – which can only work for so long. We’ll come back to this next episode. But, more immediately, the soldiers became more loyal to their general – (in this case Marius) who had given them a job and the promise of land – than the Roman republic. Ambitious statesmen started building their own personal armies that they used in power struggles over the next 100 years or so. Senators would post lists of their enemies and offer rewards to any of their soldiers who killed them. That kind of stuff.
The First Triumvirate
Amidst the chaos, there were three influential senators who decided to form an alliance – or triumvirate – to stop the chaos. These three were Crassus – a rich guy who we will never talk about again, Pompey – a senator popular with the elite, and Julius Caesar – a general who had a loyal following of soldiers.
In the years of the first triumvirate Caesar went off and conquered Gaul (essentially modern-day France). He was incredibly savvy and would write about his conquests and send them back to Rome to be read by the masses.
Obviously these were incredibly biased in his favor and he developed a celebrity status back home, especially with the lower classes. This made Pompey feel threatened and caused him to turn on Caesar (knowing that Caesar would pretty soon have turned on him, too).
Civil war between Caesar and Pompey ensued – Caesar famously took his troops across the Rubicon River into northern Italy. You were never supposed to march your troops into the city of Rome, which is why Caesar “crossing the Rubicon” was a decisive act that could not be taken back. Caesar wins the fight and Pompey flees to Egypt.
He hoped to be protected by the boy-king Ptolemy the 8th whom he had helped earlier. Ptolemy, however, was afraid of the wrath of Caesar and so he had Pompey assassinated. While pursuing Pompey, Caesar ended up in Alexandria, Egypt (one of Alexander’s cities) where he accidentally burned down the famous library that had been built by Alexander’s general. Oops.
Ptolemy was also in the middle of a civil war with his sister/queen, Cleopatra. She ended up allying with Caesar – in more ways than one if you know what I mean – and they defeated her brother and she became the sole ruler of Egypt. Besides her son, Caesarion – named after his father – who ruled for a few years, Cleopatra was the last ruler of the dynasty begun by Alexander’s general Ptolemy. She tried to have her son recognized as Caesar’s heir, and thus, heir to his power in Rome but that failed and Egypt was conquered by Caesar’s nephew, Octavian. Talk about family drama.
After he beat Pompey, Caesar returned to Rome and had himself named “Dictator for life”. This apparently didn’t go over well with some of the senators, who decided, just like Gretchen Weiners in Mean Girls, that “We should totally just STAB CAESAR!” So they did. 23 times.
The Second Triumvirate
But even though Caesar is dead there are still a lot of people left who are loyal to him. Chaos erupts as Caesar’s allies root out and murder his killers and another group of three rises and forms a second triumvirate. This is an example of history almost literally repeating itself.
The Second Triumvirate is made up of some rich guy who we won’t talk about, Mark Antony (not to be confused with J.Lo’s baby daddy Mark Anthony) and Caesar’s nephew Octavian. They unite and restore order after the assassination but each want power for himself.
A second civil war then ensued between Caesar’s general Mark Antony and Caesar’s nephew Octavian. Copy and paste the first triumvirate’s fate: Mark Antony fled to Egypt to be protected by Cleopatra – they also created an *ahem* alliance – but were ultimately defeated by Octavian’s military. Cue joint suicide – you know the story, it’s Romeo and Juliet. I prefer to picture the Claire Danes/Leonardo Dicaprio one, but I’ll leave that up to you.
After Mark Antony and Cleopatra are out of the picture, Octavian is left as Caesar’s heir and the sole ruler of Rome. And this is the moment that Rome stops being a republic and becomes an Empire.
The Roman Empire
Rome had been conquering other land for a while already so technically they were already an empire. But it’s not until they are ruled by an Emperor that we officially call them an empire – and this happens when Octavian changes his name to Augustus or, “The Revered One” (a little on the nose, right?). He is named princeps – or first citizen – of Rome and rules over the Senate.
In hindsight, we know that the republic was dead at this point because the Senate is no longer the most powerful institution in Rome – it’s Augustus. But the people living in Rome at the time, especially the senators, probably didn’t. Augustus was really smart and he let the Senate retain a lot of its power – just under his guidance. It’s not until Augustus died and named his heir that people looked around and went, Oh… so we’re doing that now?
The 200 years after Augustus’s rule are known as the Pax Romana – or Roman Peace. To be clear, it definitely was not peaceful if you were living in one of the provinces being conquered and subjugated by Rome, but there was relative calm in the Roman government. Sure, emperors were sometimes assassinated, and sometimes they killed their mom for good measure (I’m looking at you Nero). But all in all, Rome was stable and flourished.
Maybe next season I’ll do a whole episode on the crazy Roman emperors. But for now, just know that Rome was the undeniable powerhouse of the Mediterranean and beyond. But as we find with all empires, this too shall pass.