Re-examining History with the Romans

Re-examining History with the Romans

Introduction

It is common to observe Rome’s profound influence on modern institutions within the modern world, whether they be through the religious diffusion of Christianity, the legal principles codified in the Corpus Juris Civilis, or the majority of our words which derive from Latin. Though this influence is the source of pride for many Europeans, and also a source of envy (take the wannabe “Holy Roman Empire,” for instance), Roman history is often romanticized to a fault.

Take the Roman Republic, which the Republican Western world so admires. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly things to admire about it, and the Romans did themselves. Cicero in his post-political career wrote De Re Publica, in which he argued through a series of dialogues that the beauty of the Republic was its ability to pursue justice and truth. 

Meanwhile, the historian Polybius commended the Republic for its stability, which he attributed to its mix of democracy, monarchy, and aristocracy. The Republic was so integral to Roman culture that Libertas (“liberty”) became its underpinning principle, Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR – “the Senate and the People of Rome”), became its underpinning motto, and the concentration of power in one ambitious man to become Rex, or king, became its underpinning taboo. 

The principles of liberty and the separation of powers are where modern admiration derives from today, but these abstractions are where our similarities end. 

The Roman Republic was inherently broken. It reserved the right to vote in elections by tribe, meaning the voice of the people was more so the voice of the elite. The Senate, a largely unelected body of wealthy patrician men, was corrupted by bribes and quid pro quos, distorting any mandate of the people to a mandate of money. It was governed by tradition rather than rules––tradition which fractured once factionalism seeped its way into everyday politics. As much as we remember the conviction and integrity of statesmen such as Cicero, there was only one Cicero, and many Caesars, Sullas, and Clodius’. 

So then, why do we resonate so much with Rome’s Republic––a Republic which barely resembles our own, and a Republic that fractured after a century of civil war and was then diluted to symbolism for the rest of its imperial history? 

The answer is simple, and it doesn’t just pertain to Rome. 

The Problem with Roman Historiography, and History in General

History isn’t written by the victors as much as it is written by agendas. It’s why a typical high-school history class organizes eras by ‘Great Men,’ from Columbus to Washington to Roosevelt. It’s how the Lost Cause movement sustains in the American South through historical revisionism, perpetuating a dubious narrative of northern aggression. For Cicero, he wrote De Re Publica, a series of books which today many believe exemplify his grace, but a personal image of grace that he himself created. 

Cicero isn’t an isolated incident either: In fact, he’s a rather mild example. 

For instance, Caesar wrote his own histories, detailing his military prowess against what was probably exaggerated odds, and notably skipping over gruesome or details, such as how the women and children of Alesia starved between Gallic and Roman lines, or how his army slaughtered the entire city of Avaricum, which was a refuge for displaced Gauls. He wrote what would sell himself to the Roman people, and although he did that very well, our primary accounts of the Gallic Wars are mostly distorted because of it. 

Roman historians were aware of how external influences could manipulate history, and for some this was a source of credibility. A great example of this kind of historian is Tacitus, the Roman senator who wrote the Annales and prided his commentary on being independent from monetary or political forces. 

This, of course, doesn’t mean that he is a neutral source, but rather suggests that his commentary is entirely of his own opinion in an age where histories were commissioned with some sort of motive. In the Annales, Tacitus recounts the Julio-Claudian dynasty for the purpose of exposing what was wrong about both the gilded Republic and the tumultuous transition into the Roman Empire as an attempt to advise future emperors on pragmatism and stability. 

Even the purest histories that existed from that time had an ulterior purpose, and even modern historians still distort Roman history for their own narrative. 

Paul Burton, a professor at Australian National University and author of Pax Romana/Pax Americana: Perceptions of Rome in American Political Culture, criticizes how during the Cold War, when the Western world was engaged with the Soviet Union in an intense geopolitical struggle, Rome was characterized in academia as brutal realists who succeeded as a civilization by always distrusting other states in an anarchic world, taking any preemptive actions necessary to ensure their security and tilt the balance of power in their favor. Perhaps this narrative was constructed by the geopolitical climate of the time, but it’s also possible that historians constructed this narrative to justify constant great power interference. 

This perversion of history does a disservice not only to curious students today, but to the ancient individuals who are often misrepresented and forgotten. We know a lot about the lifestyle of the wealthy, and the traditions of the political elite, but the details about everyone else is comparatively unknown, lost or unrecorded. 

What makes history beautiful is that everyone is involved in the making of it, contributing a unique piece which completes the puzzle. However, understanding everyone’s contributions to history becomes difficult when it is revised to suit those who write it. 

The purpose of this research is to understand the contributions that the overlooked made to Roman history. Not just the rich and wealthy, but the poor, the slaves, and the peoples Rome interacted with. 

So how do we try and find a more holistic view of Rome? One which better accounts for the Romans and non-Romans that are more than often forgotten? 

Understanding Rome’s Legitimacy 

There are multiple methodologies that can be used to approach the question, but the one I chose was to dissect the legitimacy of the Roman state in the eyes of the Plebeians, Patricians, and non-Romans. Though imperfect, understanding the social contract between the state and these different groups, how this social contract evolved over time, and how these groups reacted is a way to analyze their impacts on Rome, and thus their political contributions to its history. 

How Roman Culture Influenced Expansion and Political Progression

Before analyzing how these groups of people fit into history, first, it’s important to analyze how Rome itself fits into history. Though shrouded in myth, the city itself was founded by Ionian (people from modern day Turkey) refugees after the Trojan War and by Italian outcasts, criminal or otherwise. 

From its inception, Rome was a melting pot of Greek and Etruscan influences, while also taking the language of the Latins. Part of Rome’s culture included honor, both in the form of Nobilitas (where nobility had to be inherited by proving one’s excellence) and in general respect. The other pillar was Iustitia (where actions had to be pragmatic or with justification so as not to anger the Gods). 

It are these two principles that followed Rome throughout its history, both in how it interacted with other states and also how it internally evolved. They both impacted Rome’s organization, responsible for creating an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean and across Mesopotamia, but they also both clashed with each other, fueling the divisions and ambitions which undermined Rome and brought about its demise. 

However, initially, these principles complemented each other, and this is demonstrated by the first major expansion of political rights in the city. 

Though Rome overthrew a monarchy and then endowed itself with the principles of Libertas, it’s unclear just how revolutionary that change was, as the Senate had a precedent of assembly during the monarchy, and the political rights—which are admirable about the Roman Republic—did not exist with the removal of Rex. Plebeians were treated as second-class citizens, fighting Rome’s wars while being burdened by Rome’s debt (and then subsequent debt bondage). 

With no laws to protect them, the Plebeians revolted, demanding that the privileges of Libertas be expanded and their citizenship be made worth something more than just a second-class. Instead of violently suppressing the revolts, Rome decided to meet the demands of the people, fulfilling its obligation to stability and pragmatism as is required by Iustitia. The Plebeians started being represented by the powerful Tribune of the Plebs, they became enfranchised both in the right to vote and participate in high political office such as consul, they acquired their own Centuriate Assembly to have a say in public affairs, and, most importantly, they became equal and accountable to the same codified law––the Twelve Tables. 

Iustitia and honor didn’t just provide Rome with the impetus to expand political rights, but also the ability to expand itself. 

Rome was certainly a powerful military state, but brute force alone doesn’t sustain an empire; what is more essential is how empires integrate annexed territory, and in this respect, Rome did this well. 

In its pursuit of pragmatism and respect, and in replicating the success of the Persian Empires, Rome tried to keep a territory’s autonomy after it was annexed. Classified as municipia, local administrations continued under local leadership, with the only change being that the province or town pay tribute and offered soldiers for the Roman military. Typically this tradeoff was seen as beneficial; annexed peoples got to keep most of their independence while being integrated into a peaceful and rich superstate, even acquiring Roman citizenship as a bonus (if they were local elite, that is). 

For this reason, most of Rome’s expansion wasn’t just caused by impactful events such as the Punic or Macedon wars, but by states offering themselves to Rome in a practice called deditio (where independence is temporarily forfeited for protection and then alliance). What governed Rome’s foreign policy wasn’t just the military expansion that it’s remembered for, but the principles of amicitia, or friendship. 

It’s almost odd how the era of the early Republic, probably the least reliably recorded part of Roman history, is where we can find Rome’s legitimacy be established, both in the paradigms of Plebeian political freedom and the freedom of conquered peoples. 

Rome’s evolution into the Republic was created by its efforts in maintaining stability and responding to instability caused by inequity; in turn, we find the influence that Plebeians and non-Romans had in Rome’s foundational institutions. 

In this regard, Rome deserves to be respected from a modern viewpoint; however, Rome’s legitimacy wasn’t static, and this proved especially true in times of crisis. 

How That Culture and Tradition Clashed – The Fall of the Republic

Constructs constantly change to respond to the external world, and this is especially true with Rome’s Libertas

Rome’s unprecedented expansion after the Punic Wars created the most rigid inequality in its history, and its effects on society were dramatic. An elite class of Romans was able to capitalize on the large influx of slaves, thereby creating a large influx of personal wealth. Exploiting economies of scale, they invested in commercialized agricultural plantations which then displaced the Roman middle class from their farms––the same middle class which fought the wars which brought the slaves. The economic crisis caused resentment, and this resentment metamorphosed into the populism which ascended the Gracchi brothers to power, which in turn created fear among Patricians about land redistribution.

What followed was an intensifying polarization that gripped the Republic and brought about its demise. Factionalism through the Optimates (the elite faction, literally meaning “the best” of the Romans) and the Populares (the reform faction, typically exploited by demagogues) degraded the Republic, creating a political environment where virtually every tradition meant to protect the integrity of public service was broken. Bribery thrived, Senate gridlock became more common, and political violence increased. Both of the Gracchi brothers were killed and tossed into the Tiber, Sulla used a series of proscriptions to exterminate his political enemies, and by the time of Caesar and Pompey’s civil war, the political street gangs of Clodius and Milo terrorized Rome. 

It’s in this time of crisis where Roman culture began to fight itself. On one hand, the demand for greater political representation after the Social War lead to the expansion of citizenship to all Italians, in a move still supporting the pursuit of Iustitia in the lens of integrating Rome’s jurisdictions, but the concepts of Nobilitas, inheriting honor by having to prove personal excellence, lead to a generation of ambitious politicians willing to do anything to acquire power, even if challenging the norms which kept the Republic stable. That’s where people like Caesar come into play. 

Even when we remember the Populares, the reform faction which supposedly had the will of the people, what we know is the personal pursuits of rich men searching for power and how they got other rich men to support their political bids, rather than how the Plebeians were able to wield power to advance their own cause, as they did in the early fifth century BCE. The Populares and even some Optimates passed reforms which had the support of the common people, but they did so for power, and not by conviction. The true voice of the Plebeians becomes lost, and it didn’t reemerge.

Understanding a New Libertas

The constant crises which resulted from factional turmoil led to the fall of the Republic and the rise of a single man who could maintain order, the Princeps. The “first citizen” of Rome was, in reality, the Roman Emperor, but the title of Princeps was more humble, avoiding any conflation to monarchy. It didn’t dilute the principle of Libertas, but changed it. Instead of giving a platform for the mob, liberty was defined as peace, stability, order, and representation, though this representation wasn’t powerful enough for ambitious men to hijack the reins of government. It was a Republic, but a more restrained version where the Emperor had the final say over all legislation. Offices such as Consul and the Tribunes of the Plebs were still elected, but without the ability to veto which made them so powerful. Having citizenship and the right to vote was therefore not as coveted as it used to be since the officials they elected had no power.

The Legitimacy of the New Libertas: What We Know, and What We Don’t

But where this new Libertas lacked in the political freedom enjoyed in the Republic, it thrived in protection, stability, and wealth. It was a tradeoff. The next recorded era of Roman history, Pax Romana, was characterized by unprecedented peace and prosperity; no more were the days of unrelenting civil war, but the days where citizens could partake in new robust trade networks without the worry of political unrest. For a Republic which was so degraded, the instituting of Princeps to protect Libertas, which was more of an identity which Rome cherished rather than a principle at this point, was a natural and pragmatic occurrence. 

This development is supported when looking at what Libertas meant for non-Romans during Pax Romana. In addition to the limited provincial oversight and respect for local jurisdictions, Libertas was enshrined by Rome’s protection of Ius Gentium, or laws which were considered so self-evident as to apply to everyone, and then Rome’s expansion of Ius Civile, or laws that defined the rights of Roman citizenship, which became universal in 212 CE. Pax Romana’s promise of wealth spread throughout the empire: even in Dacia, a province which could be assumed to be the least influenced by Rome due to its brief existence under Roman jurisdiction, hosts tombs housing Roman pottery, jewelry, coinage, and Christian relics. 

However, this narrative of this era in Roman history is probably the most impacted by the wealthy, or the regularly commissioned works meant to glorify the Princeps in pursuit of fulfilling their own Nobilitas, or proving inherited excellence. For instance, on integration, we know lots about how the Dacian elite fit into the Empire’s prosperity, but not of the Dacian masses. We know a lot about how the Patrician class benefited from the Empire’s tranquility, but we don’t know about any economic pressures on the Plebeian class, who no longer had political representation with any real power to impact Rome’s development. Of course, we can assume there might have been similarities in how Plebeians and Patricians thought: it was certainly a benefit to live in a stable empire past its tendency to deteriorate to civil war every decade, but at the same time we can’t assume that everyone had a Hobbesian worldview where the prosperity of new Pan-European trade networks and the assurance of protection was enough to legitimize the new political regime of the Augusti. 

Revolts

The fact is, wealth and protection didn’t seduce everyone into Rome’s protection. Rome’s expansion, after all, wasn’t bloodless. Particularly near the fall of the Republic, and in the years after, Rome began to forget its principles of iustum bellum (justified war, in accordance with general Iustitita so the Romans had the favor of the Gods) in order to constantly expand to fulfill the Nobilitas of politicians. 

Some of these politicians were Republicans; take Caesar, who ascended to the consulship at all costs, did some less-than-legal actions as consul to pass his agenda, and then needed to prolong and extend his governorship to keep legal immunity. To do this, he united Gaul against Germanic incursions, but then proceeded to subjugate Gallic tribes as tributary states even when they didn’t consent to Roman oversight. The subsequent Gallic revolts led by Ambiorix and Vercingetorix, and Caesar’s repression of these revolts, created an independence movement in a clear challenge to Rome’s legitimacy. 

Other politicians were men trying to legitimize their position of Princeps. Take Caligula, an emperor so vain that he required statues of himself to be put in every temple. His attempt at divination was clearly overstepping, but it’s controversy varied; for the syncretic polytheistic religions of the Western half of the Empire, public worship and politics were intertwined, but for the more private and monotheistic religions of the East, such as Judaism, it was a sacrilege. This, on top of Rome supporting tyrannical kings and excessive taxes, pushed Judaea to continuous revolts, eventually resulting in Jerusalem’s sacking and the subsequent Jewish Diaspora. The treatment of the Jews is notably different from how Rome tried to integrate other peoples, and this gruesome outcome challenges Rome’s principles of respect and autonomy which were supposedly so integral to the Empire’s identity. 

Caligula was unpopular, so he was assassinated. The Emperor who replaced him, remembered as Claudius, also had to fulfill his Nobilitas to restore respect to the position of Princeps. To do this, he invaded Britannia, but the pacification and integration of the territory became violent. Boudicca, a princess of a kingdom that decided to integrate into Rome, was flogged. Her daughters were raped, and her people were extorted. For her kingdom, the Romans didn’t bring the supposed peace and tranquility that they promised, but only a tyrannical harassment, so she led one of the largest revolts in Classical history, massacring 70,000 of the Romans and their allies. 

Though Rome is remembered in this time of history as the enforcer of peace, for the stories of many non-Romans, it was the opposite. This doesn’t invalidate Rome’s methodology of decentralization, as its combination of citizenship, identity, and autonomy was one of the most unique and successful approaches to Empire in world history. Nor does this necessarily mean that all Empires, no matter how tolerant or wealthy, will fracture. What we can learn from these revolts is that the Empire under Princeps was imperfect and that the change in the construct of Libertas to mean something more about security rather than liberty was not universal for everyone, or at least wasn’t sustainable.

The Fall of Rome

Besides, the new Libertas of protection and security didn’t last. Pax Romana didn’t sustain past a couple of centuries, even though the Princeps did. By this time, Nobilitas corrupted even that powerful position which was originally meant to stop ambitious men from corroding the government. Commander after commander laid claim to being Princeps, assuming their own imperium. This became the most dangerous in the Third Century Crisis, where Rome wasn’t just engaging in several external wars, but also dealt with succession crises from the Gallic and Palmyrene Empires, both lead by Roman generals seeking their own power and seceding from the Empire. Even reforms such as Diocletian’s Tetrarchy, in a last-ditch attempt of pragmatism and Iustitia, couldn’t save the Empire from corruption, which only exacerbated without the limited political accountability of the Republic. 

The inability of Rome to ensure protection halted trade, isolating local jurisdictions to defend themselves against invading Gothic tribes and the Huns. With the lack of wealth and prosperity which incentivized participation in the Empire, and with localities assuming the power to protect their own Libertas, which was still defined by security, the framework for feudalism was established in the centuries to come, and Rome fell. 

What We Can Learn About History

History records what the historians want remembered, and in the case of the Romans and the Roman elite, it was a Roman exceptionalism to how they shared power, how they expanded their empire, how they tolerated others, and how the Empire ended. However, there is always more to history, and it’s essential that modern historians try to piece out information of everyone (and not just the Patricians) to coalesce a greater understanding of the Romans and of the world. 

Of course, taking a closer look at history isn’t to disparage the Romans. Their civilization, though perhaps overly romanticized, is respectable for their idea of citizenship and for their experimentation with Republican institutions. However, when we seek to understand the impact of those institutions, or compare them to ours, or even seek to understand how our own Republic might evolve, we have to understand how Plebeians, non-Romans, and the margins of Roman society contributed to the evolution of those institutions, and also how those institutions kept legitimacy. 

What we can find is that these groups qualify the narrative which is remembered about Rome, and had a substantial impact on Rome’s reform and longevity. On one hand, it was the Plebeians who universalized the rights of Roman citizenship, but it was also their struggle which compounded with the ambition of elite demagogues that destroyed the Republic. On one hand, it was how non-Romans demanded citizenship and integration which created one of the largest mercantile empires of the Classical Era, but on the other, it was the tributary system and military expansion which sparked revolutions against Rome’s control, challenging the decentralized principles which Rome was so proud of. On one hand we can admire principles such as Libertas, but on the other hand we can identify the unsustainability when the construct of Libertas evolved to complement Nobilitas

This research is only a brief examination of these influences on Roman society, and how non-Romans fit into the greater picture of the Empire. By no means is this collection a complete understanding, but only a first step toward it; though we may never get a complete understanding of the peoples which made up the Roman civilization, it is imperative that we keep pursuing their stories to create a more accurate and holistic history. 

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Thomas Goldstein is a senior at Westlake High School, where he is the Secretary-General of Operations on the Model UN Team and the Principal Bassist of the Orchestra. He is currently the Lead Political-Journalism Editor for Austin Youth Artists United, and is addicted to chocolate milk.