Rome

The Roman Kingdom


Rome
The Etruscans
   Rome was founded by an agrarian Italic peoples living south of the Tiber river. They were a tribal people and the social logic of tribal organization dominated Roman society in both its early and late histories. The date of the founding of Rome is uncertain, but archaeologists date its founding to around 753 BC, although it probably existed as a small village long before then. As the Romans steadily developed their city, its government, and its culture, they imitated the neighboring civilization to the north, the Etruscans. The Etruscans, though, as they saw the power and influence of the Latin city to their south grow, would take over the government from these new, threatening people.


Rome Glossary
Imperium
   The early Roman government was a monarchy, but it was founded on a tribal logic. The monarch was given absolute power over the people; the Romans called this power imperium . However, the monarch's relationship to the people was seen as similar or identical to the power a father had over his household; in other words, the Roman monarchy was strictly patriarchal. The relationship between a patriarch and his family is a relationship of mutual obligations, and this is how the Romans understood the monarchy. In early Roman society, however, the father exercised incredible authority over the family. The father could sell his children into slavery (or could kill them if he could justify it). This arbitrary power was limited: before a father sold or killed his children, he was required to consult with the family and with the public. While the father was not allowed to kill or sell his wife, he was allowed to divorce her; this was allowed, however, only in the most extreme circumstances. In addition, the father served as the priest of the family. In many ways, the Roman monarch followed this model of power: absolute but limited by the people, their welfare, and tradition. The monarch served as a legislator, as the head of the military, as the head of the judiciary, and as a chief priest to the people. His authority, however, was limited and controlled by a constitution which he was powerless to change.


   The monarch ruled alongside a Senate and an assembly. The Senate was a council of elders, a weak oligarchy, that was composed of the heads of various clan groups. These elders were originally clan leaders (and this function probably didn't change), so the Senate in its earliest form was a kind of clan confederacy. The Senate had the power to approve or veto the appointment of the king, so no individual could ascend the throne without the approval of the clan leaders. The Senate also judged the legislation and actions of the king to make sure that they accorded both with the constitution and with traditional custom; while the Senate seems to have ratified just about everything the king decided, they still exercised an important check on monarchical power. In this respect, the early Roman Senate served largely the same function that the Supreme Court serves in the United States.

   The assembly consisted of all male citizens of Rome; citizenship was granted only to individuals who could demonstrate that both parents were native Romans. The assembly's principle function was to grant imperium to the monarch ratified by the Senate; there was, therefore, a limited democracy in the Roman kingdom: the clan leaders approved the candidate for king and the entire male population of Rome handed the king absolute rule. The assembly was organized into thirty groups based on kinship lines; each group got a single vote, so there were a grand total of thirty votes in the assembly. Each group would base its vote on the majority decision of the group. So while the citizens had a certain amount of say in the government in the assembly, that influence was greatly diminished by its diffusion in the group vote.


   As Rome grew in power and influence, wealth began to accumulate in the hands of a few people. While we know little of the social structure of the very early Romans, by a very early period in the city's history, society was divided up into two groups: the patricians and the plebeians. The patricians were the wealthiest members of society; they controlled most of the wealth, trade, power, and the military. Only patricians could serve as clan leaders; therefore, only patricians were allowed to sit on the Senate or hold any appointed or elected offices. The plebeians were the majority of the population; they were mainly small farmers, hard laborers, and craftspeople. They worked mainly for the patricians, although some small farmers worked their own lands rather than the lands of the wealthy. The plebeians did have a small voice in government, though: the assembly was the governmental body that represented their interests, although the institution of the group vote severely watered down individual voices.


Rome Reader
The Rape of Lucretiafrom Livy, Book I
   During the monarchy, Rome greatly expanded its control over surrounding territories. The monarchy itself had been established with the express purpose of providing stability and security; the conquest of surrounding territories were undertaken with the same goals in mind. It doesn't seem that the Romans were particularly greedy for land or wealth; their conquests seem largely motivated by anxieties over the threat to their security posed by the surrounding populations. As their territorial power grew, however, they attracted the notice of the powerful Etruscans to the north who, in the middle of the sixth century BC, took over the government of Rome. From the middle of the sixth century, the Roman monarchs became Etruscan, and the Romans bitterly resented it. Finally, when an Etruscan prince of the Etruscan family that ruled Rome, the Tarquins, raped the wife of a patrician, the Romans rose up in revolt and threw the Tarquins out of power in 509 BC. While the rape of Lucretia and the overthrow of the Tarquins by Junius Brutus may be fictional (then again, it may not), the expulsion of the Etruscan monarchs began the decline in Etruscan power and civilization.


   In Roman tradition, the king ruled only because of the consent of the people and in conformity with tradition and the constitution; the Tarquins had broken that tradition. Rather than reinstall a Latin monarch, however, the Romans dismantled the institution of the monarchy entirely. The age of the Roman Republic, an age that would see the greatest expansion of Roman power and numerous wars, had been opened.

Richard Hooker



The Roman Republic

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-2-97