20 September 2015
#History of World Civilization, Day Twenty
The Roman Empire
How did the struggle between patricians and plebeians influence the development of the Roman Republic?
The early Roman Republic recognized a sharp class distinction, reckoned by birth, between patricians, or the wealthy ruling class, and plebeians, the ordinary folk. Patricians held more power in Roman assemblies, despite being outnumbered by plebeians, since a patrician’s vote counted more than a plebeian’s did. By coordinated effort, the patricians could attain a voting majority on any issue, regardless of plebeian votes. Originally, plebeians were not allowed to be priests, which were offices of significant religious and political influence. The plebeians felt justifiably marginalized. By 494 BC, they had had enough and plebeian soldiers refused to march against the Italic tribes with which Rome was at war. This began a period known as the Conflict of the Orders, as the plebeians sought political equality. Over a period of more than 200 years, they gradually gained additional rights, including the right to hold political offices, which granted them access to the Roman Senate. In 367 BC, a law was passed allowing plebeians to hold the consulship, a two-person office that was the highest political office in the Republic. In 342 BC, the Genucian law required that at least one of the consuls be a plebeian. By the end of the Conflict, being a patrician was mostly and honorary title. Despite this seeming gain in political power for the ordinary citizen, the practical effect was that a few plebeian families gained additional wealth and power, dominating the elected offices, while most plebeians remained ordinary, second-class citizens with little influence. Intentionally or not, they had simply created a parallel plebeian aristocracy, often no less wealthy than the patricians. This situation would remain until the revolution of Julius Caesar in 49 BC, when he ignited a civil war by marching his army across the Rubicon River (even in modern times, to “cross the Rubicon” means “to pass a point of no return”). Caesar’s victory ended the Roman Republic and founded the Roman Empire.
What were the repercussions of Rome's foreign conquests for the internal development of the Republic?
At its height, Rome controlled the entire Mediterranean Basin, Anatolia, most of modern day Western Europe, the Balkans, and about half of modern Britain. Rome needed to develop communication and trade routes to manage its far-flung holdings, and Roman road building is legendary. Strong, disciplined armies kept the peace. They also built a strong navy to protect the sea-lanes traders used to crisscross the Mediterranean Sea, which was essentially Lake Rome. Internal strife arose between the ruling aristocracy, known as patricians, and the (supposed) representatives of the common people, known as plebeians. It took a few hundred years, but the plebeians eventually achieved political equality.
The assimilation of diverse conquered ethnic and religious groups into Roman culture was eased by generous and lenient policies imposed by the Romans. As long as they paid their taxes and did not ally with Rome’s enemies, local groups were allowed great leeway in managing their affairs. Roman desire for order and justice led to the codification of Roman law, including concepts still practiced in the modern world, such as the right to a trial before a judge, and presumption of the innocence of the accused. Excellent roads also helped Rome achieve efficient taxation of outlying areas, which made Rome extremely wealthy. Unfortunately, this wealth exacerbated the problem of class differences, and Rome gradually discovered that a strong central administration could impose its will upon its lands easier than a representative republic. The republic died of impotence and the Roman Empire was born.
What were the economic and social changes brought about by the growth of the Roman Empire?
Economically, Rome became extremely wealthy. The Mediterranean Sea was effectively a Roman lake, through which uncountable tons of goods passed between all parts of the Mediterranean Basin. Ports along these coasts connected traders to further networks of land-based trade routes. Roman roads were the finest of the classical world, and they bore huge caravans of traders laden with the silks of China and spices of India and Southeast Asia headed west, and metals, grain, olive oil, wine, textiles and a host of other products headed east. Rome collected an Emperor’s ransom of taxes in this cornucopia. Private merchants also prospered as new markets opened ready to receive their wares. A strong military presence maintained the Pax Romana (Peace of Rome), making travel safer and more reliable, which reduced the risk of long distance transportation and the cost of doing business. Religious and political ideas spread as their evangelists travelled from one end of the empire to the other.
Unfortunately, this vast trade network was not without its downsides. Rapidly growing wealth created a rapidly growing gap between the wealthy elites and the common folk, although unlike China, many of Rome’s “peasants” were still Roman citizens, and even those of humble means enjoyed a standard of living a Chinese peasant would have considered positively decadent. Unequal distribution of wealth also meant unequal distribution of political power, even in an ostensibly representative republic. Bitter political battles ensued between aristocratic patricians and elected commoners (plebeians), resulting in hundreds of years of political conflict that gradually levelled the playing field somewhat.
Traders also carried unseen and uninvited guest with them, as well. Various communicable diseases at different times spread like wildfire amongst previously unexposed populations without natural immunities, who were defenseless against these invisible invaders. Epidemics raged, decimating whole villages, and leading to a significant decline in the population of the empire. Fewer people mean less trade, and less trade means less tax revenue. The wealth of Rome attracted other, more visible invaders, too. The Visigoths began making inroads in the Balkans. Rome’s once mighty military was increasingly reliant on foreign mercenaries and pacified tribes to supplement its highly trained, highly disciplined legions. The problem with mercenaries is they are, well, mercenaries, and not only were they militarily inferior to Roman legionaries, but those who can be bought can be bought again by someone else. The quality of Rome’s armies declined, beginning an irreversible trend of defeats that eventually cost Rome most of its territorial empire.