The Roman Republic : Government and Society




The early Republic

Evolution of the system

Roman Law

Roman warfare

The Army

The Navy

Roman society


509 BCE – traditional date for the founding of the Roman Republic
494 BCE – 1he 1st Secession of the Plebs
451-449 BCE – The writing of the 12 Tables of Laws
396 BCE – the Romans take the important Etruscan city of Veii
390 BCE – traditional date for the sack of Rome by the Gauls
343-341 BCE – the 1st Samnite War
340-338 BCE – the Latin War
326-290 BCE – the 2nd and 3rd Samnite Wars (326-304 and 298-290 BC)
285-275 BCE – the war against king Pyrrhus of Epirus
264-241 BEC – the 1st Punic War (war against Carthage)
218-202 BCE – the 2nd Punic War (war against Carthage)
149-146 BCE – the 3rd Punic War (war against Carthage)
133 BCE – the murder of Tiberius Gracchus
112-105 BCE – the war against Jugurtha, king of Numidia
105-101 BCE – the war against the Teutones and Cimbri
91-88 BCE – the Social War
88-81 BCE – The struggle between Marius and Sulla
73-71 BCE – Spartacus’ slave revolt
67 BCE – Pompey’s wars against the pirates and then Mithridates
63 BCE – the Cataline conspiracy
60-54 BCE – the 1st triumvirate between Pompey, Licinius Crassus and Julius Caesar
58-50 BCE – the Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul
49-45 BCE – the Civil War between Julius Caesar and Pompey
45-44 BCE – Julius Caesar’s dictatorship
43-42 BCE – the Civil War between the 2nd triumvirate and Caesar’s assassins
32-31 BCE – the Civil war between Antony and Octavian
31 BCE – the battle of Actium leaves Octavian as the master of the Roman world
27 BCE – Octavian takes on the name Augustus, and 
establishes himself as the first of the Roman emperors.


Throughout the period of the Republic, Roman government involved a mix of different institutions – magistrates, headed by two annually elected consuls; a council called the senate; and a number of popular assemblies. These institutions evolved as the Roman state changed from covering a single city-state to being responsible for an enormous empire.

The early Republic

From the very early days of the Republic, Rome’s governing leading institutions – magistracies, senate, popular assemblies – were all in place, at least in embryo.


With the expulsion of the kings and the founding of the Republic, the king’s powers were divided between two magistrates, called consuls (some scholars think that this arrangement took some time to come about, but by the time Rome’s story emerges into the full light of history the consulate was an established fact of Roman government). These were, in effect, the chief executives of the Roman state. They were elected annually, which meant that no one person could hold such a powerful office on a long-term basis; and the fact that there were two of them ensured that each consul acted as a check on the other’s power.

Roman Consul accompanied by 2 Lictors.
Reproduced under Creative Commons 2.5

The consuls were Rome’s most senior military commanders in time of war, and were the leading law makers and policy makers. In the early Republic they also acted as chief judges.

Throughout the long history of the Roman Republic, holding a consulship was the crown and glory of a senator’s political career. In the early Republic, consuls all belonged to the Patrician order, that elite class of aristocratic landowners who dominated Roman society at that time. The Patricians monopolized political and priestly offices in the state. The overwhelming proportion of consuls in fact belonged to just a few patrician clans: the Claudii, the Cornellii, the Fabii, the Valerii and the Aemilii.


The power of the consuls was further circumscribed by the existence of a permanent institution of great prestige and authority. This was the Roman senate, which, if it did not start out as such, soon became the central political institution of the republic. The senate was a council of the leading men of Rome; it was already in existence under the kings, functioning as an advisory council; and it theoretically continued as the advisory council to the consuls after the establishment of the Republic. However, the fact that it was composed of men of long experience, including all the ex-consuls still alive, meant that a consul had to have very good reasons for going against its swishes.

By tradition the senate was composed of three hundred members, though in the early Republic this figure may well have been smaller. Most senators were members of the leading families in Rome, which in early times meant that they were Patricians.

Popular assemblies

A third element in the government of Rome were the popular assemblies. These were where the  Roman citizens (free adult male Romans) met together as a body. In the early Republic there were three different assemblies, which fulfilled three different functions. All citizens were eligible to attend all these assemblies.

When the citizens met together as the Comitia Curiata, they were organized according to clan groups. As the Comitia Centuriata they were organized along military lines, in groups of 100.  The Tribal Assembly was where the citizens met in their tribes – originally kinship groups but which later became artificially-designated location-base divisions of the citizenry. Each assembly had different powers, but all were involved in electing the magistrates (which in early times meant only the consuls), approving laws put to them by the magistrates and the senate, and deciding major legal cases.

These popular assemblies gave ordinary citizens a collective voice, which they use to goo defect on numerous occasions. It meant that if the senators and magistrates ignored the wishes of the people too blatantly or for too long, there would be cost to pay. most of the time, however, the people were content to follow the lead of the senators. The way that the voting took place in these assemblies gave weight to the wealthier citizens within their ranks. Thus those who had a greater stake in the Roman state and the land had a larger voice than the poorer sections of the community.

Other elements in government

Religion played a crucial part in Roman government, and in the early days only Patricians could fill the priesthood. These will be discussed below.

One final element in Roman government should be mentioned here, and that was the small body of officials who assisted the consuls in their duties, such as lictors (who were armed attendants of the consuls) and public scribes. These men were recruited from amongst freed slaves.

Evolution of the governing system under the Republic

As Roman power expanded and Roman society became more sophisticated, the demands on government grew.

New magistrates

The number of magistrates expanded. The two consuls were joined by first one, then two praetors, to act as their assistant in judicial matters: in fact, the praetors took on most of the consuls’ former judicial responsibilities.

Quaestors were appointed to assist both consuls and praetors, so that there were four in number.

All these magistrates were elected by one or other of the citizens’ assemblies, and all, like the consuls, held office for one year only.

These magistracies were originally the preserve of the Patricians. However a fierce and long-drawn-out struggle between the mass of ordinary Roman citizens, the Plebeians, and the small group of elite families, the Patricians, eventually opened the door to Plebeians entering the senate and holding magisterial office. In due course Plebeians were regularly holding consulships, the highest office in the state.

New Plebeian institutions

The struggle between the Plebeians and Patricians produced a new citizens’ assembly, the Plebeian Assembly, from which Patricians were excluded; this was presided over by an entirely new kind of magistrate, the tribunes, ten in number, who were elected by the new assembly. Their job was to defend the interests of Plebeian citizens against abuse of power by Patrician magistrates.

Aediles and censors

Other new magistrates were the aediles, who were elected to look after the day-to-day administration of the city of Rome – sewers, roads, water supply and so on. There were four of these, two Patricians and two Plebeians.

A final office-holder to mention were the two censors, elected every five years and to hold office for 18 months (the only exception to annual terms). Their job was to take census of the Roman citizenry, so that it was clear who was legible to serve in the army, and in what capacity, and so on. They were elected from amongst the most senior statesmen still living, always ex-consuls.

A changing senate

At some point, membership of the senate became 300 in number (traditional accounts held that number had been reached by the end of the monarchy, but this is most unlikely). It came to be composed, as we have seen, of both Patricians and Plebeians. As Rome’s power grew and many communities were absorbed into the Roman state, leading families from these communities – first from Latium, then from further afield in Italy – began to contribute members to the senate.

A representation of a sitting Senate from a 19th century Fresco

A new aristocracy grew up as leading Plebeian and Patrician families intermarried with one another, and came to dominate the highest magistracies on the Roman state. The great majority of consuls came to be drawn from twenty or so leading families, which were both Patrician and Plebeian; these families came to be called the nobiles. These families contributed members to the senate almost on an hereditary basis, and lesser “senatorial” families, who could expect to hold the lesser magistrates, did so as well.

This senatorial elite represented the wealthiest group within Roman society. Its members had the leisure and the contacts to pursue a political career, and, because of their family histories, name-recognition amongst the wider Roman citizen-body gave them a head start when seeking elected office. The great patricians clans were joined by famous Plebeian families such as the Domitii, the Caecilii and the Aurelii.

The impact of expansion in Italy

As the city of Rome extended its power throughout Italy it became necessary for Roman armies to keep the field for more than one year at a time. That, and the fact that on occasion more than two major (or consular) armies had to be put into the field, meant that consuls had sometimes to remain with their commands beyond the end of their election year. To deal with this situation, consuls’ terms of office were when necessary extended for more than one year, with the commanders involved being termed pro-consuls.

Otherwise, the expansion of Roman power in Italy had remarkably little impact on the  formal structure of Roman government. The only magistracies specifically created to deal with the new situation was a new praetor to preside over cases between Romans and citizens of Allied communities, and his quaestor.

Map showing expansion of Roman Republic into Italy

The Roman Confederation

The Italian communities which were brought under Rome’s domination in the 4th and 3rd centuries became part of the growing alliance system (which modern scholars label the Roman confederation).

This proved to be an Alliance of great strength and endurance. The members of the Roman confederation had different kinds of relationship with Rome, depending on their size and geographical proximity to Rome.

Smaller cities near Rome were simply absorbed into the Roman state, with their citizens becoming full Roman citizens.

The larger cities, or ones further away from Rome but still in central Italy, were given a form of “half-citizenship” (called “Latin right”) – their citizens had equal rights with Roman citizens in Roman courts, but did not have voting rights in the people’s assemblies of Rome, nor were they able to stand for election as Roman magistrates or become members of the Roman senate.

Finally, those cities further from Rome, or whose alien culture made it difficult for the Romans to forge a close relationship with them (for example the Greek cities of southern Italy, or the Etruscan cities of central Italy), were given the status of Allies of Rome. Their citizens were neither full- nor half-Roman citizens, but foreigners; nevertheless over time even these cities acquired a close bond with the Romans.

Apart from these cities which had origins separate from Rome’s, the Romans themselves planted colonies of citizens in different parts of Italy. They also organized the establishment of “Latin colonies”, which were composed of a mixture of Roman and Latin (or half-Roman) citizens.

Of whatever status, the relationship between Rome and each member of her confederation was defined by a treaty between the two cities. In other words, the legal relationship between a city was not with any other city, or any group of cities, but with Rome alone. This treaty always specified that Rome had control over the other city’s foreign affairs. They were not put under tribute, but they had to provide troops for service in Rome’s wars when called upon to do so. However, their internal institutions were left alone and they retained control over their internal affairs.

The impact of overseas expansion

When Rome started acquiring territories beyond Italy, however, the Roman system had to evolve significantly to deal with the state’s new responsibilities.

After the First Punic War, two new praetors were elected, one to govern the island of Sicily, the other the islands of Sardinia and Corsica. After the Second Punic War, the number of magistrates was expanded as “Nearer” and “Further” Spain were added. The field of responsibility of a magistrate was called his provincia, so that all these overseas territories came to be called provinces. By the later second century Rome’s empire included eight provinces. With eight annually-elected praetors to govern them (including two whose provinciae lay in Rome itself), praetors were regularly having to have their year of office extended. Propraetors had become a normal part of the Roman political landscape.

The same was true for proconsuls. From the mid-third century Rome was frequently fighting more than one major campaign at the same time, and often three or four, at long distances from Rome. Consuls regularly had to extend their terms of office beyond their elected year, and the appointment of proconsuls was no longer an occasional expedient but had become a regular occurrence.

All these consuls and proconsuls, and praetors and propraetors, had quaestors to assist them, so that the total number of these magistrates climbed to ten or more.

The Cursus Honorum

In the second century BCE the lower age limits for holding the quaestorship, the praetorship and the consulship were set by law, and this created a typical senatorial career (cursus honorum, or “race of honors”) which saw an active senator serve as a quaestor, usually in one of the provinces; then as a tribune of the plebs (if a Plebeian) or aedile (whether Plebeian or Patrician); then after the age of 39, as a praetor, again usually as a provincial governor; then, with his term as governor extended, as a propraetor; and in his 40s as a consul and then proconsul. By then he would be a n elder statesman, and might serve as a censor.

In the first century, this scheme was altered somewhat as a result of the dictator Sulla’s attempts to make the system more suited to govern a large empire. The two consuls and eight praetors were required to serve their elected year in Rome itself, as policy-makers and senior judges. Provincial governors and commanders-in-chief were then selected from amongst the ex-consuls and ex-praetors. The number of quaestors was expanded to twenty, so that each senior magistrate at Rome and proconsul and propraetor in the provinces had an assistant; and the membership of the senate was expanded to 600, so that there were enough senators to fill the increasing number of posts.

Roman Law

The Greeks had developed legal codes, and the Romans followed their example. In the mid-fifth century BCE they published 12 tables of laws, which were put up for public display in the Forum. From these early laws there developed, over the centuries, a huge body of law, dealing with every aspect of public and private life.

Roman law guaranteed all citizens a fair trial. There were several courts, each presided over by different magistrates and each dealing with different kinds of cases, some civil, some criminal. In some courts, juries, made up of ordinary citizens, could by 100-strong. In criminal cases, it was up to the victim to bring an accusation of wrongdoing, there being no public prosecutor. Punishments for the most serious crimes were execution, and for lesser ones, flogging.

The law protected a whole range of basic rights for citizens. The Romans developed the principle that all citizens were equal in the eyes of the law, and that their persons and property were protected from arbitrary demands by the state.

New courts

The only new element which was introduced, as a measure to provide some kind of check on governors’ misuse of their powers, were courts made up of equites, not senators, with the specific task of hearing cases brought against governors by provincials. If our sources are to be believed, these courts were not a success, and were discontinued after a period of time.


Consuls and Proconsuls acting as commanders-in-chief in Spain or Africa or the Balkans or Asia Minor enjoyed enormous powers within their own provinces, dealing on equal (in fact, superior) terms with kings and cities. To assist them in this task they were given no regular staff. Instead they had to use friends as advisors and lieutenants (legates), and their own personal secretaries as their secretariat.

Meanwhile back in Rome the body of public scribes remained the only administrative cadre available to the magistrates; and as for the provinces, much of the work of public administration, such as supplying armies or raising taxes, had to be contracted out to private companies of businessmen.

Roman warfare

The Army

Early Rome

The early Roman army was much like the armies of other city-states of the period. In the late spring of each year (Rome was at war most years) a portion of the adult male citizens were chosen for military service and, after a short period of training – which for the majority with previous military experience must have been a kind of refresher course – off they went to war.

Early legions

The army fought as a phalanx, a single mass of several thousand men. The soldiers brought their own armor, and were divided into different groups, according to how much armor they could afford. The well-off farmers who could bring a full set of armor were placed at the front of the phalanx; those who could afford fewer items were placed next, with those who could just afford a whiled and sword were placed at the back. Behind them were those who had no armor, but fought as slings men and scouts.

As well as the infantry formation described above there was a much smaller body of cavalry. This was made up of those able to afford to bring horses, and all that went with them (probably including a groom), to war. The cavalry played only a subordinate role in the warfare of the period, with most battles being decided by the infantry.

Colour sketch of a Roman infantryman as shown in the Ahenobarbus relief

The infantry phalanx had very limited maneuverability, and in battles fought between such armies victory normally went to the heavier side.

The formation (in Latin, a legion) was originally commanded by the two consuls, each taking it in turn day by day to act as commander-in-chief. They were assisted by a group of officers called tribunes, who, like the consuls, were elected by the citizens.

The conquest of Italy brought about radical changes to the Roman army. For a start, the number of legions multiplied, so that by the third century Rome was fielding ten or more legions a year, divided amongst several armies (of normally two legions each, plus matching forces of Allied troops), under consuls, proconsuls, praetors and propraetors.

The emergence of the true Roman Legion

The legions themselves underwent major changes. They came to contain about 4000 men each, and were divided up into centuries of 100 men each. These were under officers called centurions, men of long military experience who were given a great deal of leeway in their leadership of their men. This gave the legion a flexibility unknown to the large formations of other nations.

The rise of a professional army

Especially after Roman armies began campaigning overseas, many legions and their soldiers were required to remain on campaign for many years at a time. This had a high social cost, and may well have contributed to a decline in numbers of the well-off independent peasantry, on whom this army system depended.

At the end of the second century this system had to be abandoned. In its place arose one in which soldiers were provided with armor by the state. This did away with the different ranks of infantry soldier according to property qualification (see above) and opened recruitment to men of all levels of wealth. Soldiering became more long-term and more professional.

The Navy

Throughout its existence Rome was essentially a land power. However, once it started going to war with overseas enemies, particularly the maritime power of Carthage, it was forced to equip itself with fleets.

These were made up of oared galleys, as were all the Mediterranean navies of the time, and were manned mostly be Allied soldiers. The crews were composed mostly of oarsmen, but each had a small group of marines to storm across to enemy ships when they got the opportunity. The Romans are said to have developed a hooked bridge to all their soldiers to cross more easily, thus making up for their lack of seagoing experience, but scholars tend to not give this idea credence any longer.

Despite the fact that the Romans always placed more emphasis on land warfare than on naval warfare, sea power was very important to the expansion of Roman power throughout the Mediterranean world. It enabled them to defeat Carthage in the First Punic War; to prevent Carthaginian armies from crossing by sea to Italy in the Second Punic War; and later to stamp out piracy in the Mediterranean. This last development was one of the great blessings of the Pax Romana; it was with good reason the Romans came to describe the Mediterranean as Mare Nostrum: “Our Sea”.

Society under the Roman Republic

Ancient Roman society changed out of all recognition as the Romans conquered first Italy and then the Mediterranean world, and the very notion of what it was to be a Roman came to embrace all the peoples of the empire.

As in all pre-modern societies the economic base of the Roman society at all stages of its history remained agriculture; but on top of this an ever-more elaborate social organization grew up, to create one of the largest and most complex societies in the pre-industrial world.

The society of early Rome

Roman society originally grew out of several small farming communities in central Italy. Under a line of kings, and under the heavy influence, if not the outright political domination, of the advanced civilization of the Etruscans, to the north, the Romans formed themselves into a city-state, probably in the 7th or 6th centuries BCE.

The early city-state of Ancient Rome, under the kings and early Republic, was composed of a small urban hub, consisting of a central area of temples, forum (central square), public buildings, and a few streets bordered by shops, craft workshops and fast-food premises. Here were also the houses of the wealthier and more important families. The huts of poorer folk, the traders and craftsmen, would have surrounded this core, and so too would the dwellings of many farmers, who worked plots both outside and inside the city walls. These walls would have enclosed a much greater area than the size of the city’s population would have required, as its footprint would have been chosen for defensive purposes, utilizing the lie of the land.

Small farming communities would have been scattered throughout Rome’s territory, which would have encircled the small city to between five and ten miles away. These hamlets housed those whose land was too far from the city core to walk to and from on a daily basis.

A divided citizenship

Early Roman society was dominated by a divided within its citizen body, between a tiny minority of Patrician families, on the one hand, and the rest, the Plebeians, on the other.

The Patricians

The Patricians were the original aristocracy of Rome. They formed a small group of probably less than a hundred families. Small in number though the group was, it was immensely powerful. The Patricians held all the high offices of state – the magistracies and the priesthoods, and in the earliest days at least probably monopolized membership of the senate.

The Patricians were also the leading landowners in Roman society – though, given the small size of the early Roman state, this probably meant that they owned modest estates, which many of them may have farmed themselves, with the aid of a few slaves.

As time went by, the Patricians lost their exclusive hold on the offices of state and on membership of the senate.  Even their numbers dwindled over the centuries. Nevertheless, right to the last years of the Republic, the Patrician families held a disproportionately high number of high offices, such as consulships and proconsulships, and it is no surprise that the early emperor were all drawn from some of the oldest patrician families in Rome – the Julii, the Claudii, the Valerii and the Aemilii (the later two families through marriage with the first two).

The Plebeians

The Plebeians made up the rest of the citizen body. Most of them were peasant farmers, either cultivating their own fields or leasing fields from richer landowners. Even in the early days of the Republic, however, there were also some traders and craft workers. Their involvement with the state was confined to serving in the army, and to voting in the popular assembly on important proposals put to them by the (Patrician) magistrates, such as whether or not to go to war.

Ordinary citizens

The bulk of the Roman citizens were independent farmers, owning the land they farmed. By the time of the early Republic, all male citizens had to do military service in the army, and the variable size of their farms is reflected in the citizens’ military obligations. Some had to provide full armor for themselves, a considerable expense. These formed the elite vanguard of the early Roman army, standing in the front line of battle. To go with this more dangerous position was a privileged position in the citizen body: for example they had a disproportionately more effective voice in Rome’s popular assemblies.

Other citizens had lesser military obligations, implying ownership of smaller farms, right down to the landless proletariat – poor day-laborers in town or countryside but still full citizens – who brought no armor and served as scouts and slingsmen rather than in the line of battle.

A small group of craftsmen and traders worked in the urban center. Many of these urban workers were probably freedmen, whose family roots lay in other communities in Italy, and even beyond – brought to Rome in Greek, Etruscan or Phoenician ships. As citizens they too would have had to take their place in Rome’s many wars.

Slavery in early Rome

Slavery was an important institution in Roman society from its earliest days, as it was in all Mediterranean communities of the time. Most slaves were war captives, while others were former free citizens who had sold themselves (or had been sold by their families or creditors) into slavery for poverty or debt. Convicted criminals were also often enslaved.

In early Rome, slaves were mostly employed as farm hands. Even the smaller farms required a great deal of work, and each would have had one or two slaves. These would have lived with their owner’s family. On larger farms, more slaves would have been required, working under the supervision of a slave or freedman manager; they would have lived in their own accommodation, probably sheds near the family’s farmhouse. In wealthier households slaves were also employed as domestic servants, secretaries and tutors. Slaves who showed a particular skill as a craftsmen were often set up by their master in a workshop and put to work, sharing the income of his work. This was a sound form of investment for wealthier Romans.

The conditions under which slaves worked of course varied with the kind of masters and mistresses they had. Under Roman law at this time, masters had complete control over their slaves’ lives. They were able to punish them exactly as they saw fit, even to the point of death (though it has to be said here that the early Roman father had life-and-death authority over his wife and children too).

Freedmen and freedwomen

Many slaves were treated well, and after some years received their freedom. They then joined a distinct class in Roman society called freedmen and freedwomen. These were full Roman citizens, with all the legal protection that that afforded them, except that they did not have the vote and could not stand for election as a magistrate. Their offspring became full Roman citizens in every respect.

Some former slaves also became quite wealthy. In some respects, they were better placed for success than ordinary citizens: if they had been slaves in the household of a wealth family they had contacts who could invest in their businesses, or lend them money on good terms; and often they received sizable inheritances when their former masters died.

Traders and craftsmen

Early Rome was not a major center of international trade, such as Athens, Syracuse or Carthage, or indeed some of the wealthier Etruscan cities to its north. In economic terms it was essentially a local market town, trading in local produce. Nevertheless, from an early date it was larger than many of its neighbors, and our sources mention wealthy merchants (who attracted the ire of their fellow-citizens by selling grain at high prices in hard times – a traditional lament in pre-industrial societies).  Even the richer merchants, however, were not accepted as equals by the landowning class which ruled Rome. They could join the equestrian class (see below), but without land there was no hope of them joining the senate.

The landowning class

These two groups, the equestrians and, at the top, the senators, formed the ruling class of Rome. They were landowners, whose farms were larger than the plots of ordinary Romans but which were nothing like the huge landed estates which came later. There are tales of distinguished Roman senators working their land themselves with the help of a few slaves. Indeed, the territory of a single city-state like Rome was not large enough to include large estates, unless the rest of the citizens were to be squeezed off the land – and they had too much power to allow this to happen.

The equestrians

The equestrians – equites – were those in the citizen community who could afford to bring horses to war as part of their military obligations. The word equites is often translated as knight, and they formed the cavalry of the early Roman army. They were nothing like the knights of medieval times: their armor was much lighter, they seldom took a pivotal part in battle, and their horses were smaller. Unlike medieval knights, who required a large amount of land to support them, Roman equites at this time owned comparatively small estates: large farms worked by several slaves.  They were, however, the wealthiest group within the early Roman community, as being able to pay for and maintain horses was beyond the means of most citizens.

The senior officers of the Roman army (military tribunes) were drawn from the equestrian class: in later times they had to have served ten years in the cavalry before they became eligible to be appointed a military tribune. Since serving as a military tribune was almost a prerequisite for standing for higher office, all those equites wishing to follow a political career in the senate had to aim for this position.

The senators

Senators were drawn from the ranks of equites, thus belonging to the wealthier land-owning group within society. The word “senator” is derived from the word for “elder”; by long tradition a man had to have reached the age of 30 before becoming a member of the senate. In the early days men were appointed to the senate by the consuls, and later by the censors.

Theoretically any equestrian could aim for the senate. However, most new entrants to the senate had had fathers and grandfathers in the senate. In each generation a few able and ambitious “New Men” – Novi Homines – did manage to become senators, but the odds were stacked against those whose ancestors had not done so.

The senators thus formed a distinct, virtually hereditary, class within Roman society. Within this class, a small group of senatorial families provided consuls generation after generation. It was very rare indeed for a “New Man” to rise to the consulship (but it did happen: famous Roman statesmen such as Cato, Marius and Cicero were such). The families which produced the bulk of the consuls were known as the nobiles, the creme de la creme of Roman society.

The social impact of the expansion of Roman power

The Romanization of Italy

The most obvious result of Roman expansion was the Romanization of Italy. This can be seen in the archaeological evidence, as former Etruscan, Greek and Italian towns gradually became remodeled along more Roman lines. Roman forums and Roman-style temples can be distinguished from what came before by subtle differences, but what tells a clear story is the gradual replacement of Etruscan, Greek and Samnite inscriptions with Latin ones.

This process was accompanied by the spread of Roman citizenship in Italy, and then abroad. Rome planted numerous colonies of Roman citizens throughout the Italian peninsula, at first tiny (300 settlers), later much larger (several thousand). Many smaller Italian towns, especially in central Italy, were incorporated into Roman territory, their inhabitants becoming full Roman citizens. Many larger towns were granted “Latin Rights”, a form of half citizenship which effectively gave their inhabitants all the rights of citizenship except the right to vote for Roman magistrates and stand for Roman public office. Sizable “Latin” colonies were also founded up and down Italy. These Roman and Latin towns and colonies were centers of Romanization. Even those Latin towns which had not originally had a large Latin or Roman component gradually became Romanized, with Latin becoming the predominant language.

Some inhabitants of allied cities which had not been granted Roman citizenship were rewarded with such citizenship for faithful service to Rome; however, the majority of Italians were not Roman citizens until after the “Social War” in the early first century. This war led to the grant of Italian citizenship to all free Italians. The exception to this was the Cisalpine country of northern Italy, which had only been conquered properly in the second century); this received the Roman citizenship under Julius Caesar, in the mid-first century.

Expansion of the senatorial and equestrian classes

As citizenship spread throughout Italy, the landowning classes expanded enormously, as the elite classes of the Italian communities were absorbed into the Roman upper classes.  In effect, the Roman ruling class expanded to become the ruling class of Italy. By the end of the second century BCE the equestrian class was drawn from towns throughout all Italy, and the senate too now included many members whose family origins lay in towns other than Rome. Because membership of the senate was a great deal more exclusive than that of the equestrian class, senators tended to come from towns and cities not too far from Rome; the towns of Latium especially contributed a large share of Roman senators.

With the expansion in the number of magistrates to cope with the increasing responsibilities of the Roman state, senators were increasingly drawn from the ranks of ex-magistrates rather than being appointed to the senate by consul or censor. Competition for these magistrates therefore intensified, but it was the traditional families of nobiles who still predominated in holding the consulships.

Increasing wealth

Many of the landowning class also found their wealth multiplying many times over. When Rome annexed a slice of territory, it often set aside some of the conquered territory as public land. Some of this was then parceled out to ordinary citizens, who settled it as colonists, but much of it was leased out to individual landowners, whether Roman or Italian. These landowners either sub-let individual plots to ordinary farmers or formed them into estates worked by slaves. In this way some families built up landholdings throughout Italy. It is easy to see that the families with the best contacts and most influence within the Roman government – the senators, and above all the nobiles – were best placed to benefit most from this practice.

Growing inequality

From the the second century, Rome’s many foreign conquests led to massed waves of war captives flooding the slave-markets of Rome and Italy (see more on the growth of slavery, below). Slave labor became cheaper than before, and this, coupled with new, more efficient (and ruthless) methods of utilizing slave labor to work the large estates, made them much more productive than before. As a result, the produce from such estates was cheaper than than that from the small farms of ordinary citizens.

A new proletariat

These developments enriched the estate owners while squeezing the smaller farmers, many of whom had to sell up and become landless workers in the big cities, above all Rome. The last two centuries of the Republic saw the emergence of a huge proletarian class in Rome, on a scale not to be seen again until the industrial towns of modern times. Crowded tenement buildings took over whole districts of the city. These are often shoddily built; they regularly collapsed, killing the apartment holders and any unwary passers by. Fires were a common hazard in the congested streets. Private fire brigades emerged. Organized crime took hold, with the rise of gangs, linked to unscrupulous politicians, terrorizing Romans both rich and poor. It was in this period that the practice began of ambitious politicians organizing free bread to be doled out to supporters, and organizing gladiatorial combats and wild animal spectacles to curry favor with the masses.

Many Romans, both inhabitants of Rome and throughout Italy (and beyond), served with the army, often for many years at a time. In the second century this began to have a serious effect on poor farming families by robbing them of valuable manpower to work their farms, and may have contributed to the failure of many small farms. At the end of the second century soldiering became much more of a long-term career than it had been before, relieving the pressure on the citizen-body as a whole, at least for a time. With the rise of the great armies of the civil wars, however, hundreds of thousands of citizens could be under arms at any one time. Many of these were probably raised from non-Roman populations in the provinces, and hurriedly given citizenship on recruitment; however, the existing Roman citizens will have borne the brunt of the fighting, and a high proportion of adult male Romans must have spent many long years at war.

Roman citizenship spreads overseas

The spread of Roman citizenship was not limited to Italy. Roman citizens came to be found in all the lands under Roman domination.

Latin and Roman colonies were a major instrument of Romanization. The first overseas Latin colony, Italica, was founded in Spain at the end of the Second Punic War, for wounded veterans of the great campaigns there. Over the next two centuries colonies for Roman veterans were founded in Gaul, Greece, North Africa and Asia Minor.

Native tribal and civic leaders who had shown pro-Roman sympathies were rewarded with Roman citizenship. Roman and Italian businessmen settled in overseas cities to trade, taking advantage of the tremendous opportunities opened up for them by Rome’s conquests. Tax farming, military contracting, slave trading, mining operations, grain importing and the trade in war booty all provided lucrative work for those with the right contacts in Rome and the provinces. These contacts gave Roman and Italian businessmen an important commercial advantage over native merchants, and this frequently made them unpopular. However, as time went by they forged working relationships with local business communities, and during the first century BCE a pan-Mediterranean commercial network had grown up. Along with business dealings there also came exposure to Roman ways.

Roman interests were not limited to commerce. Senatorial and other landowners acquired overseas estates, notably in North Africa which, after Carthage’s downfall, became a major granary for the expansing population of Rome.

The social impact of the Civil Wars

In many cases the Roman soldiers’ years of service ended with being granted a farm in a new colony, either in Italy (where many communities were disrupted by the arrival of hundreds or even thousands of army veterans, with farms taken from the inhabitants handed over to them); or in the provinces. Numerous veteran colonies were founded all over the Roman world, in what must have been one of the more spectacular land-grabs in history.

The civil war period which brought the curtain down on the Republic was one in which many lost all they possessed, while others rose spectacularly in wealth and status. Many throughout the Mediterranean world were deprived of land and livelihood; Roman veterans on the other hand were granted new lands to settle. Their officers did even better. Centurions, who had originally joined the army as common soldiers, became the leaders of the new colonies and founded landowning families of their own.

In the upper classes, the ups and downs of fortune could be just as dramatic. Equestrian businessmen made fortunes, but many Italian landowners lost some or all of their estates to new colonists. Senatorial politicians and generals became fabulously wealthy from their generous share of the booty of conquest, but if the wheel of political fortune turned against them their enemies could grab their wealth and their lives from them (as in the struggle between Marius and Sulla or the proscriptions of Antony and Octavian after Julius Caesar’s assassination). These years saw the disappearance of famous Roman families which had produced consuls generation after generation; in their place appeared many new men of obscure origin, from all over Italy.

The rise of a Roman commercial class

Early Rome had not been a major commercial center; the expansion of Roman political power, however, went hand in hand with an expansion of Roman commercial interests. During the second century Rome became the leading commercial and financial center in the Mediterranean world.

The great expansion in Roman rule did not lead to a corresponding expansion in the personnel or organization of the Roman state (except the army). As a result, much of the work of governments was contracted out to private companies. These companies were organized by equestrian businessmen in Rome (it was frowned upon for senators to dirty their hands in business, and during the second century it became illegal for them); they became active in tax-farming and military contracting, as well as in other, more traditional branches of commerce – the shipment of slaves, wine, grain and other commodities. Roman and Italian merchants came to dominate the international maritime trade of the Mediterranean, which reached a level of activity not seen again until the 19th century.  Industrial enterprises also grew in size and scope, with brick-making and mining operations laying the foundations of some dazzling family fortunes.

The financial sector grew in size and sophistication along with the expansion in commerce. Groups of equestrian businessmen formed banks which channeled investments to trading and contracting companies, and a remarkably modern-style market in stocks and shares seems to have grown up.

Expanding Slavery

It was in the last two centuries BCE that ancient Rome became one of the most slave-based societies in world history. Roman conquests led to hundreds of thousands of captives being taken in chains to Rome and Italy; and the disruptions the wars caused, in lands all around the Mediterranean Sea, left communities vulnerable to raids by slave-raiders and pirates. In the early first century piracy, feeding off and stimulated by the slave trade, had become a major menace to sea travelers and dwellers on coasts and islands.

The slave markets of Rome and Italy did a flourishing trade, and the estates of wealthy landowners were stocked with cheap slaves working in chain gangs. Conditions were brutal. In early Rome, the law gave masters complete control over the lives of their slaves, but the simpler circumstances of those times meant that slaves often lived almost as members of the family – indeed the Roman idea of a family included slaves as well as the family itself. In the large estates which had now grown up, no such familiarity prevailed, and life for many slaves working was hopeless indeed. It is no wonder that the second and first centuries saw three great slave rebellions, the last of which (led by the gladiator Spartacus) caused panic in Rome itself. The ferocity with which it was put down is a measure of the fear that gripped society.

In fact, this rebellion (and the fact that the slaves were able to defeat several Roman armies sent against them) seems to have caused enduring changes in the attitude of Romans to their slaves. The law put a limit of the cruelty with which masters could treat their slaves, and Roman masters began to pride themselves in dealing with their slaves in a humane manner. External conditions played their part as well. Piracy was put down in the 60s BCE, and this must have reduced the supply of new slaves. Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul probably led to a temporary glut, but the long-term trend was down as the great conquests gradually gave way to more stable frontiers. This had a major impact on slavery in the Roman empire.


Further study

TimeMaps Resources:

Articles on Ancient Rome and related topics:

The Civilization of Ancient Rome

The Rise of the Roman Empire

History of the Early Roman Empire

History of the Later Roman Empire

The Society and Economy of Ancient Rome

Ancient Carthage

Etruscan civilization

History of Ancient Europe at the time when ancient Roman civilization flourished.

History of the Ancient Middle East, showing the role the Roman empire played in that region.


Ancient Europe, showing the rise and fall of the Roman empire in the context of European history

The Middle East, showing the impact of the Roman empire on that region

The World when ancient Roman civilization flourished


Subscribe for more great content – and remove ads