The Rise of Rome

How Rome emerged from obscurity

In the beginning, Rome was a small town in a favourable position on the lower reaches of the River Tiber. It was set between two larger neighbours. To the south were the Greek colonies, sent out from Greece in the seventh and sixth centuries. They were extremely successful, and because they were part of the literate Greek world, we know a lot about them and their histories; archaeology is only just beginning to throw light on the other side of the story, the natives, the non-Greek inhabitants.

To the north, were the mysterious Etruscans. Like the ancient Egyptians before them, they were obsessed by death, and the finest part of their civilisation are their tombs. But their rise paralleled that of the Greek city states, but with the major difference that they did not use money: they were not part of the market economy. Like the Greek states, they were arranged as city states – supposedly twelve of them – but though they achieved notable success in their engineering, they were eventually overrun, first by the Gauls to the north, who overwhelmed the outlying cities of Bologna and Marzabotto in the fourth century, and then by the Romans to the south.

In the 6th century, when Rome was ruled by kings, these appear to have been Etruscan kings, and it was only in 510 BC that Rome ejected its kings – though the date is highly suspicious, this being the same date as the Athenians ejected their kings.

For much of its early history, life at Rome was dominated by the Struggle of the Orders: it was still a fairly rigid kinship society, divided between the Patricians, the upper classes, and the Plebs, a term that should really be translated as the middle classes. But already the genius (if that is the right word) of Rome is beginning to emerge in that a compromise was reached: the plebs began to hold their own meetings, and chose their own spokesmen, – the tribune of the plebs – to plead their cause. A crucial stage was reached with the insistence of the plebs that the law should be written down: a commission was established who eventually in 451 promulgated the Twelve Tables of the law. There is a distinction in law between primitive law, where disputes were brought before the magistrates who adjudicated on the basis of what seemed to them to be right: and the rule of law, a term often loosely used, but which implies the promulgation of a fairly defined set of laws: if you abide by the laws you are innocent (even if ‘morally’ wrong) , if you transgress them, you are guilty (even if ‘morally’ right). (The current belief in ‘human rights’ is in fact a call for a reversion to primitive law, where judgements are made on what seems ‘right’ (in effect fashionable) and not on the basis of a written law). The Twelve Tables of the law, in effect parallel the law codes of Greece, such as that laid down by Solon in Athens in the sixth century. But they, and the establishment of the councils of the plebs laid the foundation for the future success of Rome.

The real expansion of Rome began in 396 when Rome conquered Veii, an Etruscan town just 12 miles to the north which had long been vying with Rome for the control of the left bank of the Tiber. But one step forward was followed by one step back, and in 390 Rome itself was sacked by the Gauls, the fierce warriors from France who had crossed the Alps and established themselves in along the whole of the Po valley, in northern Italy. The defending Roman army was defeated at the battle of Allia and Rome itself was sacked, the Capitol alone being saved. Those of the elders who were unable to flee, dressed themselves in their finest array, and sat still as statues on their ivory chairs in the front of their houses, till the Gauls, having discovered they were not statues by stroking the beard of one of them, slaughtered the lot.

Following the sack, the Romans defended their city with a strong defensive wall, known as the Servian Wall, but for the next generation or so, expansion ceased, with a chaotic history of battles won, battles lost. Life again was dominated by the struggle of the orders, where a compromise was reached that plebeians could be elected to the consulship and other high offices of state. There was also the constant problem of debt. It is always difficult to understand precisely what was meant by debt in such cases, for debt is essentially a monetary concept and to the purist cannot therefore exist before the advent of money. One suspects that the basic problem was over the ownership of land: how far could land be ‘owned’ by an individual? Again it seems that the solution to the problem was a further distribution of public lands to the plebs, and perhaps the new concept that loans were secured on the land, rather than on the person of the debtor, so that land could be taken in case of default, but the debtor could not be enslaved. (Though this interpretation, like much of the other discussion of ‘debt’, is a little murky).

But perhaps the most important stage of all in the development of the ‘secret’ of Rome came in the 330s. The next substantial expansion came to the south. Here there was the Latin League, a loose confederation of small towns that hemmed Rome in to the south as the Etruscans had done to the north. They were closely related to Rome, and of course they both spoke the same language. But in 338 Rome finally defeated the Latins. This is surely the crucial date in the story of the rise of Rome for it was the settlement with the Latins that formed the basis for the glue with which Rome was to bind its future empire together.

Next: Latin Rights