One of the most powerful, influential, and just generally impressive civilizations of all time created a massive empire, covering a HUGE chunk of real estate that stretched from Scotland to the Middle East, and surrounded the entire Mediterranean Sea. They’re called the Romans, and today we’re taking a look at Rome before it was The Roman Empire. Everyone knows Rome wasn’t built in a day, but how was it built? How did it get started? How did it become so powerful?
Well before it was an empire, it was a republic.
The republic was born with a revolution in 509BC. Rome had been ruled by kings ever since its creation, and the last one was a tyrant and all-around bad dude named Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin The Proud. He assassinated his predecessor, killed people without trial, and worked the people of Rome to the bone. His family was ruthless as well, to the point that a nobleman’s daughter was raped by the king’s son, Sextus. After this the people of Rome said enough is enough. There was an uprising of the people; they abolished the monarchy, and swore that Rome would never again be ruled by one man!
(A great idea for the moment, but stay tuned for more on this)
So with the monarchy gone the people of Rome had the freedom to set up their own government. At this point in time Rome was still just its own little self-governed city and controlled about this much territory:
At this stage the wealthy and influential citizens of Rome put their heads together and said, “Well, giving one guy all the power was a terrible idea. Let’s put two guys in charge, so if one of them gets power hungry, the other can keep him in line. And they can only be in charge for one year, so they can’t royally screw anything up. And they’ll be elected by the people!”
These two yearly leaders were called consuls.
The consuls were the head of the government, but they weren’t alone. They also had the Senate. The Senate was a group of old rich men (literally, the word senate comes from the Latin word senex, which means “old man”) who had influence over foreign policy, military conflicts, Rome’s finances, and loads of other governmental duties. The Senate was around during the time of the king, but they were mostly advisors. Now, during the republic they gradually attained more power and influence within Rome.
Their numbers fluctuated, but the institution started with about 300-500 senators.
The senators weren’t elected. They were appointed by the consuls, and it was a lifetime position, so once you’re in, you’re in. But as the Roman people mentioned when they were making the republic, the consuls were elected. In order to vote you had to be a male, free-born (not a slave) Roman citizen. (The definition of a citizen would change over time, but originally just meant you were born in Rome) Voters were grouped according to their land holdings and wealth. They would vote within their groups, then the results of each group would be counted to form a final election result. Wealth and status played a huge role throughout all of Roman society, so the results of the wealthiest group counted for a lot more than the poorest group.
And with that, we have a government! Rome used this template of government for hundreds of years. The two consuls elected each year acted as the leaders, and made most of the decisions. And the senate filled out the rest of the government, in a supporting role, but gradually gained more and more power over time. There were minor changes throughout the republic, but this system was pretty well adhered to.
So we now have a solid understanding of the political structure of Rome, but you can’t invade half the known world with just a bunch of old men. In order to expand and conquer you’re going to need an army!
The Roman Legions
Rome is famous for its legions. They were organized, disciplined, and well-equipped. But how were they so successful? How did Rome get to have such a large army?
In the early days of the republic, there were about 9,000 men in the army. About 6,000 were heavily armoured infantry (regular soldiers), 2,400 were light infantry (soldiers who couldn’t afford the fancy armour), and 600 cavalry (soldiers on horses). That was then divided into 2 legions, and at the head of each legion were our friends the consuls!
To make sure their numbers didn’t dwindle, Rome used forced conscription. Any male aged 16-46 could be selected by ballot, and the mandatory service was 6 years. However, they did not just let anyone join the army. There was a minimum land ownership requirement in order to be eligible, and if you did get in, you needed to bring your own equipment! That meant that your rank in the army (like everything else in Rome) depended on your wealth. Can’t afford a horse? Looks like you’re not part of the cavalry…
In battle, the Romans used a phalanx system, where soldiers are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder to create a shield wall in the front, with rows of soldiers in behind to support. You protect the guy to your left with your shield, and the guy to the right does the same for you. If someone in the front row is killed, then the soldier behind him steps forward to take his place and fill the gap.
Cavalry units were placed on each side of the phalanx to ensure they wouldn’t be flanked and attacked from the side. The structure of this system only works if the front line stays strong and complete. If the shield wall starts to fall apart, or worse, retreat, then the entire strategy falls into anarchy. So to prevent that, behind the front line were rows and rows of troops that would support them by shoving Roman troops forward and using spears to attack the enemy from further back. With anywhere from 8-15 rows of men behind you, you can’t run away no matter how scared you are.
Got the battle plan down? Good. Let’s put it into practice and go conquer some territory…
With an organized political system and a really big army it’s kinda tough not to invade everything around you. And Rome didn’t wait until it was an empire to start invading other people’s land! They got busy doing that early on…
Rome was surrounded by various other civilizations on the Italian Peninsula, and it set its sights on their wealth and land one-by-one. Using their coordinated military tactics, and their unparalleled ability to call upon a large number of organized men to fight, Rome was able to conquer nearby territory piece by piece.
And with the conquered territory came the spoils of war! Rome’s armies would sack and plunder the cities of the defeated peoples as they went. The new-found wealth was spread amongst the soldiers and sent back to Rome itself. This made a career in the military a very appealing prospect, and contributed to Rome’s ability to call upon a seemingly endless number of troops, as well as making the city itself a very rich place.
But Rome was by no means undefeated! There were lost battles in every war, but what made the Roman armies so great was their ability to learn from their mistakes and call upon more and more men to fight whenever the need came up.
For example: as the Romans were fighting a war in the South of Italy to complete their takeover of “the boot” they had lost the first two battles, but managed to inflict massive casualties on the enemy AND call upon more Romans to help fight. The enemy commander is quoted as saying, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”
The expansion continued for about 200 years, until Rome had eventually extended its sphere of influence across the entire Italian Peninsula by 264BC. And THAT is how they started to create the ultimate powerhouse of the ancient world! We’re going to leave the republic here for now, with the map looking a little something like this:
Next Article: Rome’s rise to power hasn’t gone unnoticed, and there’s an empire within the Mediterranean that is going to clash with a very powerful Rome in not one, but THREE massive wars. And these guys are bringing their war elephants…