39 The Roman Republic

Early on, the Romans showed a talent for borrowing and improving upon the skills and concepts of other cultures. The Kingdom of Rome grew rapidly from a trading town to a prosperous city between the 8 th and 6 th centuries BCE. When the last of the seven kings of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, was deposed in 509 BCE, his rival for power, Lucius Junius Brutus, reformed the system of government and established the Roman Republic. (61)

Organization of the Roman Republic

The image is one of Cicero standing before the Roman Senate, denouncing the patrician Catilline for an assassination plot he planned against fellow Senators.
A fresco by Cesare Maccari (1840-1919 CE) depicting Roman senator Cicero (106-43 BCE) denouncing the conspirator Catiline in the Roman senate (Palazzo Madama, Rome). Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Conflict of Orders

Initially, after the fall of the monarchy, the Republic fell under the control of the great families, the patricians, coming from the word patres or fathers. Only these great families could hold political or religious offices. The remaining citizens or plebians had no political authority although many of them were as wealthy as the patricians. However, much to the dismay of the patricians, this arrangement could not and would not last.

Tensions between the two classes continued to grow, especially since the poorer residents of the city provided the bulk of the army. They asked themselves why they should fight in a war if all of the profits go to the wealthy. Finally, in 494 BCE the plebians went on strike, gathering outside Rome and refusing to move until they were granted representation; this was the famed Conflict of Orders or the First Succession of the Plebs. The strike worked, and the plebians would be rewarded with an assembly of their own – the Concilium Plebis or Council of the Plebs.

Magistrates and Assemblies

Although the government of Rome could never be considered a true democracy, it did provide many of its citizens (women excluded) with a say in how their city was ruled. Through their rebellion, the plebians had entered into a system where power lay in a number of magistrates (the cursus honorum) and various assemblies. This executive power or imperium resided in two consuls. Elected by the Comitia Centuriata, a consul ruled for only one year, presiding over the Senate, proposing laws, and commanding the armies. Uniquely, each consul could veto the decision of the other. After his term was completed, he could become a pro-consul, governing one of the republic’s many territories, which was an appointment that could make him quite wealthy.

In 450 BCE the Twelve Tables were enacted in order to appease a number of plebian concerns. It became the first recorded Roman law code. The Tables tackled domestic problems with an emphasis on both family life and private property. For instance, plebians were not only prohibited from imprisonment for debt but also granted the right to appeal a magistrate’s decision. Later, plebians were even allowed to marry patricians and become consuls. Over time the rights of the plebians continued to increase. In 287 BCE the Lex Hortensia declared that all laws passed by the Concilium Plebis were binding to both plebians and patricians.(65)


Roman Art During the Republic

Early Roman art was influenced by the art of Greece and that of the neighboring Etruscans, themselves greatly influenced by their Greek trading partners. As the expanding Roman Republic began to conquer Greek territory, its official sculpture became largely an extension of the Hellenistic style, with its departure from the idealized body and flair for the dramatic. This is partly due to the large number of Greek sculptors working within Roman territory. However, Roman sculpture during the Republic departed from the Greek traditions in several ways:

  • It was the first to feature a new technique called continuous narration.
  • Commoners, including freedmen, could commission public art and use it to cast their professions in a positive light.
  • Portraiture throughout the Republic celebrated old age with its verism.
  • In the closing decades of the Republic, Julius Caesar counteracted traditional propriety by becoming the first living person to place his own portrait on a coin.

In the examples that follow, the patrons use these techniques to promote their status in society. (66)


Roman Architecture During the Republic
Roman architecture began as an imitation of Classical Greek architecture but eventually evolved into a new style. Unfortunately, almost no early Republican buildings remain intact. The earliest substantial remains date to approximately 100 BCE. Innovations such as improvements to the round arch and barrel vault, as well as the inventions of concrete and the true hemispherical dome, allowed Roman architecture to become more versatile than its Greek predecessors. While the Romans were reluctant to abandon classical motifs, they modified their temple designs by abandoning pedimental sculptures, altering the traditional Greek peripteral colonnades, and opting for central exterior stairways. Likewise, although Roman architects did not abandon traditional column orders, they did modify them with the Tuscan, Roman Ionic, and Composite orders. This diagram shows the Greek orders on the left and their Roman modifications on the right. (67)

From top to bottom: Doric and Tuscan, Ionic and Roman Ionic (scrolls on all four corners), Corinthian and Composite.
Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Greek and Roman column orders: From top to bottom: Doric and Tuscan, Ionic and Roman Ionic (scrolls on all four corners), Corinthian and Composite.
The interactive box below provides more information about Roman architecture that developed during the Republic. Click on each arrow and slideshow cursor to reveal its information.


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