The city and its growing empire were ruled by elected magistrates, advised by a senate, and laws were voted on by the people. This was not as democratic as it might sound; all magistracies were exclusively held by those wealthy enough to join the senate, and in reality the people had little power. Autocratic rule by one man was considered an evil to be avoided at all costs. The Republican system of government was designed to prevent any one individual from gaining too much power and influence; Rome was a civilisation that throughout its history had traditionally hated kings.
Roman politics now tended to revolve around two factions: the traditionalist aristocrats (optimates) and the populares leaders, men who gained their power through appealing to the masses of urban poor. As Imperium opens, Sulla’s reforms are still in effect and the advantage seems to rest very much with the aristocrats. But men like Pompey and Caesar loom on the horizon, and things in Rome are soon set to change.
Ancient Rome was a city in central-west Italy on the river Tiber, built on seven hills: the Capitoline, Aventine, Caelian, Palatine, Esquiline, Viminal, and the Quirinal. The modern city was built on top of the ancient one; some landmarks and ruins remain, and more are discovered with each new excavation.
Houses in Rome would range from the luxurious villas atop the hills to the modest townhouses and insulae (blocks of flats) crowded in the city, and the slum blocks of the very poor. Rome’s main food markets included the Forum Boarium and the Emporium; shops, businesses and bars will have lined the streets of these areas. Rome’s main port city was Ostia. The Forum Romanum was an open square between the Capitoline and Palatine hills where business, public meetings and the law courts were held. The Games (public entertainment) were held in the Circus Maximus. Outside the city walls was the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) where the public voting was held. During Cicero’s time this field would have been mainly open land, but was later the site of extensive building work and monuments.
Walking around Rome in the 1st century BC, a visitor would see many small temples to various Roman gods. These were usually dedicated by individuals or families as personal acts of piety. Larger public temples such as the Temple of Vesta, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, and the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitol would also be visible. The streets of Rome would have been narrow, lined with blocks of flats or two-storey townhouses. They had a raised pavement for pedestrians, with a central channel for carts and horses. At intervals, stepping stones across would allow people to cross the street without having to tread in the dirt and animal excrement in the road. Above all, Rome would be a busy, bustling place – the powerful capital of a growing empire.
The Forum Romanum is where much of the action in Imperium takes place. The building labelled Curia is the Senate House, the basilicas are where important business and law courts were held, the Carcer is the prison of Rome, and the Rostra is the platform for public speaking.
As one of the main sources of grain for Rome (the others being North Africa and Egypt), Sicily was an important Roman province. Sicily supported both Phoenician and ancient Greek colonies, with Greek cities established on the east side of the island, Phoenician cities on the west, and the original inhabitants such as the Sicani pushed into the centre of the island. Gradually the original tribes were absorbed into the colonised settlements. Sicily by Cicero’s time was a fairly diverse place, with Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans, as well as their various cults, temples and gods, all mingling together.
The Roman Republic was governed by elected magistrates, all drawn from the senate, a group of Roman citizens rich enough to meet the high property qualification. The magistrates with the highest imperium (power) were the two consuls; they had the authority to make important decisions and, if necessary, to declare war. Underneath the consuls were the praetors, who presided over the law courts. Next came the aediles, responsible for public buildings, festivals and games, and finally the quaestors, the junior magistrates who aided the provincial governors. This was the typical career ladder (cursus honorum) that Roman politicians would work their way up.
Roman lawyers were not paid for their services. Instead, educated men seeking to make a name for themselves, or politicians wishing to gain influence and renown, would represent their clients in court. There was no prosecution service; it was up to the individual to bring his grievances to trial. Trials were held in the Forum, in temples or basilicas or out in the open. Since Sulla’s reforms, the jury would be made up entirely of senators, who would cast their votes at the end of the hearing. A praetor presided as judge over each court. Each case would usually involve long speeches from both sides, a chance for the lawyers to show off their skills in rhetoric and oratory. Nothing was prohibited from these speeches; the lawyer was free to slander and insult his opposition as much as he liked, with every possible past discretion or rumour dragged humiliatingly in front of the court.
Roman religion was a complex mix of gods and cults taken from conquered lands, or grafted onto their own existing deities. Old Roman gods include Vesta, goddess of the hearth, Janus, god of gates, doors and beginnings and endings, Terminus, god of boundaries, Saturn, god of crops and the harvest, and Quirinus, the deified Romulus. Romulus was a son of Mars and the mythical founder of Rome. Through increased contact with Greece came the influence of Greek mythology and attributes on the Roman gods; the Greek pantheon of gods all had a Roman equivalent, with Jupiter (Zeus – king of the gods) and Mars (Ares – god of war) being two of the most important. Others were:
Juno (Hera – marriage, queen of the gods)
Minerva (Athena – wisdom)
Mercury (Hermes – messenger, trade)
Venus (Aphrodite – love)
Apollo (light, culture, prophecy, healing)
Diana (Artemis – hunting, moon, chastity)
Ceres (Demeter – crops, fertility)
Neptune (Poseidon – sea, earthquakes)
Pluto (Hades – death)
Vulcan (Hephaestus – volcanoes, the forge)
Victory or Victoria (Nike – victory)
In addition to these, the household gods (the lares and the penates) were very important. The Romans also believed in spirits or souls called genii, that inhabited every person, place or thing.
Ancient Rome was a slave society, with slavery seen as a natural part of civilisation. Slaves were used in almost every aspect of life, from farm labour to clerical or administrative positions. Even the tutors of Roman children were often slaves, with Greek slaves being the most valued in this position. It was possible for slaves to earn their freedom, and in fact Rome was fairly unique in terms of the rights it offered to its ex-slaves. A freed slave would become a freedman, gaining citizenship with some limits, and full citizenship for his children. He would be expected to treat his ex-master as his patron, offering his assistance whenever needed. Many slaves were even permitted to hold money in order to save up and buy their freedom. A lot of Roman masters chose to free loyal slaves in their will.
Roman values included the superiority of being a Roman citizen, and of being a man. Women were not the equals of men, could not stand for office, had no vote, and their role was very much within the home, though they did enjoy more liberties than their Greek counterparts. Some of the more powerful women who were married or related to important men could even influence Roman politics from behind the scenes. The Romans were traditionally supposed to value modesty and moderation, but in reality they loved to show off, treasuring the art and luxuries brought in from all over the empire. All Romans were expected to show respect to the gods and to the head of their household (paterfamilias), usually the father or eldest male. The Romans prided themselves on their laws, justice and civilisation.
The Class Divide
The earliest class division in Rome was between the patricians and the plebeians. The patricians could trace their ancestry to one of the founding patriarchs of the city. By Cicero’s time, this distinction was largely meaningless, as some plebeians were very influential and some patricians had sunk into debt and obscurity. Prejudice against the plebeians amongst the old patrician families was still common, however, and plebeians could find it harder to make a name for themselves in politics. Another class divide was formed by wealth, with the senators at the top, the equestrians (wealthy non-senators) below, and the masses of the Roman poor at the bottom.
Roman names generally follow the same pattern. They are made up of three parts, the first being a personal name, the middle the gens or ‘clan’ name, and the last the name of a family line within that gens. So, Marcus Tullius Cicero comes from the gens Tullia, the extended Tullia ‘clan’, and from the family line of Ciceros. It was common for a father to name his son after himself, which can be very confusing for modern historians! A daughter would take the name of her gens and her family. So Cicero’s daughter is Tullia Ciceronis.
On the Republic:
Michael Crawford (1992) The Roman Republic. Fontana Press
Maps and History:
Chris Scarre (1995) The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome. Penguin Books
Works of Cicero:
(trans.) Michael Grant (1971) Cicero: Selected Works. Penguin Classics