The rise and fall of the Roman Republic explained

Assassination of Julius Caesar

The Roman Republic was one of the most influential and powerful empires in the world, lasting for almost 500 years before it was replaced by the Roman Empire.


In this article, we will provide an overview of the Roman Republic, including its history, its government, and its culture. We will also discuss some of the most important events in Roman Republican history.

Mythical founding of Rome

According to legend, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BC by Romulus, after killing his twin brother, Remus.


The two boys were believed to have been raised by a she-wolf. This story is the most well-known version of the mythical founding of Rome, but archaeological evidence tells a different story.


The city of Rome is thought to have grown from a series of small villages on the banks of Tiber River over a series of centuries.


By around the 6th century BC, there is evidence that the separate villages were already working together to form a larger community.


This is probably the real origins of the city.

The Etruscans

Much of the early cultural influences on the Romans came from the nearby people called the Etruscans.


The Etruscans were a powerful people who ruled over much of the modern region of Tuscany, which is located to the north of Rome.


The Etruscans were skilled warriors and master builders, who appeared to have been heavily influenced by Greek culture themselves.


As a result, the Romans adopted modified forms of Etruscan gods that may have been based upon Greek originals.


For example, the Roman god Jupiter appears to be the same as the Greek god Zeus.


The Etruscans were in trading contact with Greek colonies in the south of Italy. It is assumed that it is by these connections that they discovered the Greek alphabet.


Over time, the Etruscans developed their own writing system based upon the Greek original, and this influenced what would later become the Roman alphabet, and the Latin language.

The seven kings of Rome

In its earliest history, Rome was a kingdom, which meant that it was ruled by a monarch with absolute power.


Romulus was believed to be the first king, followed by Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, and finally Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.


Each of these kings were thought to have contributed something significant to the cultural identity and infrastructure of the Roman state.


However, each one also became progressively more corrupt and despotic, which fostered resentment of the kings among the people of Rome.


The Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC, after the end of the Roman Kingdom, when Rome’s last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown by the Roman people.


The first consul of the Republic was Lucius Junius Brutus.

Republican government

The Roman Republic was founded on the idea of representational government. This meant that the people of Rome would elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. 


The Romans were incredibly proud of their republic, and it became a central part of their identity. 


This system of government helped to prevent any one person or group from having too much power.


In the Roman republican system, rather than a single king holding all of the power, authority was divided among a number of different institutions.


The two most important of these were the Senate and the Assembly. The Senate was a group of wealthy landowners who had inherited their positions from their ancestors. 


The Assembly was a group of citizens who elected officials and passed laws.


The most important officials were the consuls. The two consuls were elected by the people and held office for one year.


They were responsible for leading the army.


However, people could also be elected to other positions every year including aedile, Tribune of the Plebs, plus many more.


Since there were only a limited number of positions available every year, competition was fierce to be elected to these roles.


As time went on, people resorted to underhanded means to achieve success in the elections.

The Punic Wars

The Punic Wars were a series of wars fought between Rome and Carthage, two powerful empires in the western Mediterranean.


The First Punic War began in 264 BC, when Rome and Carthage fought for control of Sicily.


The Second Punic War began in 218 BC, when Hannibal, a Carthaginian general, invaded Italy.


The Third Punic War began in 149 BC, after which the Romans finally destroyed the city of Carthage in 146 BC. 


By the end of the Punic Wars, Rome had become one of the most powerful empires in the world. It controlled all of Italy and much of Europe and North Africa.


During this conflict, Rome had rapidly developed more effective systems of military and economic dominance.


It was thanks to the lessons learned through the Punic Wars that Rome was able to rapidly expand further eastward and conquer Greece by the end of 146 BC as well.

Political problems

Following Rome's successful military expansion, several negative consequences occurred. 


Many of Rome's allies began to resent its power, and some even rebelled. In addition, the Senate became increasingly corrupt.


Senators began to use their positions of power for personal gain, rather than for the good of Rome. This led to increased social unrest among the people of Rome. 


A significant social divide appeared between the plebeians and the patricians. The plebeians were the common citizens of Rome, while the patricians were the wealthy landowners.


The plebeians began to feel that they were being treated unfairly by the government. This led to civil unrest.


Eventually, the patricians were forced to grant more equality to the plebeians and by the time of the Third Punic War, the two social classes were generally equal in economic, political and social standing.

However, this led to a different social divide. This time, it was around who really held the political power in Rome.


Was it the wealthy elite, which was now both plebeians and patricians, or was it the common people of Rome? 


Traditionally, the Senate, which was dominated by the rich aristocratic nobles, was seen as the real power, as they are the ones who created and enforced laws.


However, there was a growing movement that suggested that the common people really held the power, as they were the ones who voted on who would hold which political office every year, and they usually voted on which laws to adopt.


This disagreement developed into severe tensions that threatened to tear Roman society apart if the Senate did not recognise the power of the common people.

The Gracchi brothers

In an effort to address these problems, two reformers named Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were elected to the position of Tribune of the Plebs in 133 and 123 BC respectively.


Tiberius proposed a law that would have given land to poor farmers.


However, his law was opposed by the Senate, and he was eventually assassinated for threatening to take power away from them.


Gaius then took up his brother's cause ten years later. He proposed a series of reforms that would have helped the poor.


However, his laws were also opposed by the Senate. Gaius was also hunted down and killed. 


Following their time as tribunes, the ideological divide created two competing factions within the Senate itself. 


The two groups were called the optimates (meaning the 'best men') and the populares (meaning 'the popularisers').

The optimates were the senators who believed that political power resided with the Senate, while the populares believed that the citizens of Rome should have the final say in political decisions.


Politicians who favoured either side began to clash in open conflict with each other.


Powerful generals and politicians on either side rose to prominence in Rome over the next fifty years.


Men like Marius and Pompey had the support of the populares, while those like Sulla were on the side of the optimates.


Each of these leaders gradually relied upon the support of their armies to enforce their version of politics in Rome.


One of the most famous examples of how far this could go was the life of Sulla. On two separate occasions, Sulla marched his army on the city of Rome itself.


Once in control of the city, he hunted down politicians who disagreed with him and had them killed.


The example set by Sulla would both be used as a warning of what could go wrong in Rome, but it was also used as a precedence for what could be done if all other options had failed a person in their attempt to achieve their goals.

The First Triumvirate

The political turmoil in Rome culminated with a powerful political alliance between three men: Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus. 


This alliance was known as the First Triumvirate, and it was founded in 60 BC. This alliance allowed these three individuals to illegally dominate the entire political system.


When the Senate realised what the First Triumvirate had done, they sought to bring them to justice, particularly Caesar.


Crassus and Pompey avoided punishment for their part in the alliance. Crassus eventually died in 53 BC while on military campaign in the east, and Pompey switched political allegiance to the optimates.


As a result, Caesar was left to take the full blame for what had occurred.


Caesar tried to use every political tool he had available to avoid being charged with his illegal actions.


In particular, he was able to have himself awarded a ten-year military campaign in Gaul.


As long as he had the position of commander, he was technically immune from prosecution by the Senate.

His command was due to expire at the end of 50 BC, and Caesar knew that he would have to return to Rome.


Aware that this would mean a legal trial and punishment, Caesar asked Pompey to help him out.


However, by this time, Pompey was on the side of the Senate and was not willing to intervene.


Having to choose between the end of his political career or follow Sulla's example, Caesar called for the support of his army.


In 49 BC, Caesar led his legions across the Rubicon River in northern Italy and attacked Rome itself.


This act started a civil war between Caesar and Pompey. This was a direct challenge to the Senate's authority.


The Senate then declared Caesar an enemy of Rome. 


Caesar quickly gained control of Italy and then defeated Pompey. Caesar was then declared the dictator of Rome.


He ruled for over three years before he was assassinated by a group of senators in 44 BC who feared that he wanted to become a new king of Rome.

Second Triumvirate

After Caesar's assassination, a new civil war broke out. This time, the main combatants were Julius Caesar's nephew Octavian and two of Caesar's former generals, Mark Antony and Lepidus, who swore to hunt down and kill Caesar's assassins.


The three men formed an alliance known as the Second Triumvirate in 43 BC.


This alliance was successful, and the last of Caesar's assassins were defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.


However, this success meant that there was once more an alliance of three powerful men who dominated the Roman republic.


Just like the First Triumvirate, the Second Triumvirate threatened to lead to another civil war between its members to decide who would ultimately lead the Roman world. 


The Second Triumvirate was eventually dissolved after Antony began a relationship with Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt.


Octavian proactively hunted down Lepidus and forced him into retirement after attempting to seize control of Sicily, a region under Octavian's authority.


Then Octavian's forces defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Following his defeat, Antony returned to Egypt where he and Cleopatra committed suicide.

Therefore, Octavian emerged as the sole ruler of Rome, just as Julius Caesar had done.


To recognise his dominance, he took the name 'Augustus' in 27 BC, which means "the exalted one", and became the first Roman emperor.


For all intents and purposes, Augustus was the king of Rome. However, both he and the Senate avoided using the word 'king' due to its negative connotations in Roman history.


However, the Roman people now looked to Augustus to guarantee peace after a century of constant civil war and strife.


The position of emperor now became the most important role in the entire Roman world, and it superseded all other political powers, including the consuls.


As a result, modern historians consider the life of Augustus to be the end of the Roman republican system.


The new system, which revolved around who was emperor, became known as the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire

The Roman Republic came to an end, and Rome became an empire ruled by one man, the emperor.


Augustus ruled for over 40 years and oversaw a period of peace and prosperity known as the pax Romana, or "Roman Peace."


Under the emperors, Rome became a huge empire that stretched from Britain in the west to Syria in the east.

Further reading