The Ancient Roman Republic and Its Military Might

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

The ancient Roman Republic was neither technologically nor tactically superior to its foes, and its army was really only a citizen militia. However, unusual military strategies, along with sheer determination, enabled Rome to win many battles, and eventually victory, over Greece.

Fight scene on a relief of the Arch of Constantine, Rome, Italy

The Roman Empire: Entering a New Era

The story of the Roman Empire begins with a man surveying the chaotic aftermath of a ferocious naval battle. The time is around 4:00 pm on the afternoon of September 2, 31 B.C.

The place is a stretch of open water off the western coast of Greece at the point where the Ambracian Gulf opens onto the Ionian Sea. The man is an ambitious 31-year-old Roman politician named Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, commonly referred to as Octavian.

The event will be recorded in history as the Battle of Actium, and its outcome has just made Octavian the ruler of the known world.

Ancient sources offer details of what Octavian saw as he stood on the deck of his flagship late on that September afternoon. A steadily strengthening offshore wind whipped up the surface of the water into choppy waves that hindered the efforts of the weary survivors to secure their battered ships, and to rescue the thousands of men still struggling in the water.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Hundreds of wooden warships had been either destroyed or damaged in a fairly small space during the course of the battle, and their broken and half-sunk hulls littered the sea. Dozens of these wrecks burned or smoldered because Octavian’s crews had used flaming missiles hurled from ballistae in the later stages of the battle in order to subdue their remaining opponents.

Tens of thousands of men had been killed during the clash, slain by arrows or swords in hand-to-hand combat; crushed when an enemy warship smashed into their vessel with a bronze ram; burned to death on ships set afire by the flaming missiles; or probably most commonly, drowned in the Ionian Sea when their warship was destroyed or disabled.

Their corpses bobbed in the rough waters alongside other detritus from the battle, such as broken oars, shattered timbers, and torn sails. The Battle of Actium was a decisive turning point in world history because it brought about the end of one major phase and denoted the start of another.

The battle marked the final collapse of the Roman Republic, and resulted in the creation of the Roman Empire.

Octavian’s victory at Actium was the culmination of more than half a century of destructive civil wars that had torn apart the Roman Republic and undermined its institutions.

Learn more about Rome’s transition from a Republic to an Empire

Democracy in Early Rome

The Roman Republic had come into being 500 years earlier, when the then-small, and honestly rather insignificant, city-state of Rome had overthrown the last of its kings and established in their place a form of government that shared political power among a group of citizens.

A Scene in Ancient Rome. Albert Tschautsch  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Officials were elected to their positions, but only wealthy, influential citizens held office.

The important offices in the government were filled by annual elections in which all citizens cast votes for their favorite candidates. While this might sound quite democratic, real power was concentrated in the hands of a set of influential, wealthy families from whose ranks almost all of the elected magistrates were chosen.

Nevertheless, the Roman system was far more egalitarian than the monarchies, which were the standard political structure of the time, and it succeeded in harnessing the abilities and energy of a broad segment of the citizen body. Although not all citizens were truly equal, Roman citizenship did convey significant benefits and protections as well as responsibilities, most notably service in the military.

Rome liked to think of itself at this time as a nation of tough and pragmatic farmer-citizen-soldiers, and there is a fair amount of truth to this stereotype.

As is usually the case in the ancient world, however, it is worth keeping in mind that even in the relatively radical political structure of the Roman Republic, large segments of the populace, such as women and slaves, were excluded from full participation in this system and had an inferior legal and social status.

Rome’s Unique Military Strategies

Over the next several centuries, the city of Rome gradually conquered its neighbors and expanded its territory, first in central Italy, and then throughout the peninsula. In these early wars, Rome was neither technologically nor tactically superior to its foes, and its army was really only a citizen militia.

But the Roman people did display a dogged resilience and determination, so that even when they suffered repeated military defeats and outright disasters, they simply regrouped and came back until they finally won.

Fight scene on a relief of the Arch of Constantine, Rome, Italy
By the end of the Punic Wars, the Roman military would prove superior to any contemporary military.

Rome also pursued an unusual policy with regard to its defeated enemies in Italy. Rather than enslaving the conquered people, Rome more typically shared with them gradated degrees of membership in the Roman system, bestowing full citizenship on a few favored elites, awarding half-citizenship to some, and giving others the status of allies.

Each of these categories came with a distinct level of rights and responsibilities, but all had the effect of incorporating and Romanizing these former enemies. The one universal requirement for all was to provide troops to the Roman army, a practice which encouraged further conquests, and gave Rome a decisive edge in battle by affording them nearly inexhaustible manpower reserves.

By about 250 B.C., Rome had brought the entire Italian peninsula under its sway, and then immediately launched into a series of wars with overseas foes. The greatest and most dangerous of these were the Punic Wars, fought against the up-and-coming rival empire of Carthage.

Under the inspired leadership of Hannibal, one of history’s great military geniuses, Carthage nearly defeated Rome; but, in the end, the Romans prevailed, and emerged from the crucible of the Punic Wars hardened, and with a formidable, well-trained, and semi-professional military that would prove superior to any contemporary Mediterranean opponents.

Learn more about the dawn of the Roman Empire

Rome Conquers Greece

At the beginning of the 2nd century B.C., by which time Rome had established hegemony over the western Mediterranean, it was the eastern half that was in reality the more affluent, more urban, and far more culturally sophisticated area.

The east was the Hellenistic world, ruled by a set of powerful kingdoms which were formed out of the breakup of Alexander the Great’s empire, and dominated by erudite Greek culture. To the wealthy and refined peoples of the east, the Romans seemed like uncouth and crude brutes.

Although the Romans may have been culturally unsophisticated, they were dynamic and possessed a highly efficient military, and they burst onto the Hellenistic world like an explosion. In a few decades, they smashed their way across the eastern Mediterranean, toppling one proud Hellenistic kingdom after another.

These conquests came as quite a shock to the Greeks, but there was little they could do to resist the Roman juggernaut.

When Rome moved outside of Italy, it adopted a new policy toward conquered regions, becoming less generous in bestowing degrees of citizenship, and instead treating these areas as subjugated zones, organized administratively into tax-paying Roman provinces under the rule of a Roman governor.

The vanquishing of the Hellenized eastern Mediterranean had several long-term effects on Rome. First, Rome acquired riches on a vast scale.

The income of the Roman state was multiplied many times over, and certain individuals, particularly members of the ruling elite, became wealthy as well. Second, the Romans adopted much of Greek culture and incorporated it into their own.

Roman society was intensely competitive, and Roman aristocrats were constantly vying with one another for prestige and status. Greek culture offered yet another arena for competition, and so upper-class Romans learned to speak Greek, ostentatiously dropped quotations from Greek authors into their speeches and letters, tried to amass the largest collection of stolen Greek vases and statuary, and strove to outdo each another in their knowledge of and facility with Greek culture.

In this process, however, the needs of the people got neglected. This would result in mass social unrest, and eventually, civil war.

From the lecture series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome, taught by Professor Gregory Aldrete

Keep Reading
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The Role of Women in Ancient Rome—Piecing Together a Historical Picture
The Influence of Ancient Rome on the Italian Renaissance

Image courtesy of: A Scene in Ancient Rome. Albert Tschautsch  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons