The Republic was characterized, in its beginnings, by a series of internal problems derived from the struggle of the plebeians for greater political rights against the senatorial oligarchy, and by the external pressure of its neighbours: Aequi, Volsci and Sabines mainly. Little by little the plebeians achieved their objectives, materializing in the creation of the Tribunate of the Plebs, and theoretically they could access the highest positions, although in reality only the richest had access to them.
While a certain social balance was achieved, the expansion of Rome began to asphyxiate its neighbours, happening conquests in Latium with the assimilation of the territories of the Latin League, and in the south of Etruria with the victory over Veii in the year 396 BC after 10 years of siege. This was the closest Etruscan city to Rome and the confrontation between them lasted more than three centuries, from the time of Romulus. Marcus Furius Camillus, of patrician ancestry, celebrated a deserved triumph and continued in campaign against the Etruscans, this time farther north: in Falerii, finally signing a peace treaty and letting pass a juicy booty for his troops composed of plebeians. Within the framework of confrontations between plebeians and patricians, things became complicated for Camillus and ended in exile.
Etruria collapsed: very weakened in the South by the Latins, little could be done to contain the Gauls from the North. A few years later (depending on the sources in 390 or 387 BC) the Gallic leader Brennus, of the Senones tribe, defeated the Romans at the battle of Allia, on the river of the same name, and he plunders Rome at will, except for the Capitoline Hill that resists while the rest of the city seeks refuge away from there. While negotiating a price for the withdrawal of the Gauls (famous episode where Brennus pronounces his «Vae Victis» or «Woe to the vanquished», after the complaint of the Romans for measuring gold with false weights) appears Camillus with a reorganized army, defeats them and puts them to flight. The legends tell what he said: «Non auro, sed ferro, recuperanda est patria» or «It is not with gold, but with steel, with what the homeland will be recovered». Here he won another triumph. Years later he repelled another gallic invasion reaching an unprecedented prestige. Perhaps he was the most important military figure of the Archaic Republic, celebrating four triumphs in total, being appointed dictator five times and tribune with powers of consul in six.
Following these strategic advances, Roman foreign policy focused on continuing to contain the threat of Gallic invasions (which would take a century to complete) and to sign treaties with the Samnites and the Carthaginians.
Anyway, it soon collided with the Samnites, who were completely defeated after successive wars, and also achieved one of the most decisive victories: Sentinum (295 BC), where it defeated a coalition of Sabines, Etruscans, Umbri and Gauls.
Rome already held the military dominance in the Italian peninsula, and began the expansionist pressure against other peoples, as is the case of Taranto (Greek colony in the south of the peninsula), who asked for help from the King of Epirus: Phyrrus, one of the best military of his time, which defeated the Romans on several occasions, but with results of little significance (from him comes the expression “Pyrrhic victory”), until finally he was completely defeated in the great battle of Beneventum.
Such was the geopolitical situation that was projected after these successive campaigns: Rome, a people of warriors and brave men fully dominated the entire Italian peninsula, its legions began to emerge as lethal tools, whose innovations began to bear fruit in the battlefields (after the sack of Brennus they forgot the system of Greek phalanges and implanted the disciplined lines of velites, hastati, principes and triarii). You could already glimpse touches of the potential that in the not too distant future Scipio, Gaius Marius and Julius Caesar were going to exploit. On the other hand, the great power of the moment: Carthage, which completely dominated the seas, with a fleet in splendor and that only centuries later Rome could overcome, an economic potential incomparable in history, with factories in both North Africa and in the South of Iberia, and with strategic possessions in numerous islands. In addition, geographical knowledge superior to that of any Mediterranean nation and an economic capacity to hire high-quality mercenary armies (the best cavalry: the Numidians, and the best infantry of the moment: the Macedonian phalanges and the Iberian warriors), governed mostly by Punic generals. Before two powers so expansive and geographically close, the conflict over the control of Sicily seemed to be the mere excuse to start the contest, and that was it: one of the most transcendental confrontations to death of all time, between the two greatest hegemonic powers of the known world. A period of wars began: the Punic wars, obsession and concern of each citizen of both nations.
The most memorable campaign of these wars belongs to those carried out by the great Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca (247-183 BC), which came from the noble Barcid family. Before his father, Hamilcar, swore eternal hatred to the Romans, coming to unleash the Second Punic War. He was proclaimed general at twenty-two and eight years later (219 BC) destroyed Sagunto that remained faithful to Rome even being in Carthaginian territory (by the Ebro treaty that divided the lands north of this river for the Romans and those of the south for the Punic). After eight months of siege he forced Rome to declare war. Immediately after, the legendary company began: he crossed the Ebro with his army of 55,000 infantrymen, 9,000 horsemen and 30 elephants, composed basically of Iberians, Libyans and a reduced force with the best of Carthage. When he prepared to cross the Alps in October, 3,000 soldiers refused to follow him and Hannibal freed another 7,000 from the compromise that had reasonable doubts. He only wanted among his men the most determined and committed to the cause. The considered Napoleon of Antiquity wanted to take the war to Italy through the inhospitable snowy peaks, something that nobody had done until then, all a strategic genius, whose rumors few believed and in Rome produced laughter in the tavern talks. In its passage he divided the army, that suffered the inclemencies of the cold and the snows, the difficulties to displace the elephants, and the constant harassment of hostile Celtic tribes.
With his depleted forces behind the pass (only 26,000 of his men and a single elephant survived), he defeated all the legions sent to intercept him on his way to the capital: the consul Scipio in the Ticinus, the consul Sempronius in Trebia, the consul Flaminius on Lake Trasimene where he annihilated the Roman army, but above all the great victory of Cannae (216 BC) where he defeated the consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus killing more than 60,000 Romans. After that, he had Rome at his mercy, but mysteriously dismissed the occupation, possibly awaiting reinforcements to consolidate the conquest. These reinforcements took nine years to arrive and were annihilated before being able to join Hannibal, in the battle of Metauro where the young brother of the general perished at the command of those troops: Hasdrubal. Even so, the Carthaginian spent five years more wandering through Italy, forging a myth of dread in the italic culture (for example, the “bogeyman” of Roman children was for centuries the leader Hannibal).
With all this time provided by the bureaucrat and myopic oligarchy of Carthage (envious of the exploits of the general and the strength of his lineage), Rome was able to rise from its ashes, and another great general of antiquity: Scipio the African (who later founded the city of Italica in Hispania), took the war to Africa, after attacking by surprise the Punic territories of the Iberian Peninsula, and the Numidian cavalry (this time on the Roman side) and a better use of the legions, he defeated Hannibal who had come from Italy, in aid of a Carthage who had been improvident, in the decisive battle of Zama (202 BC). It has been written that both generals met before the final confrontation, in one of those chosen moments of history in which two antagonists of first level can measure their strength showing mutual recognition and admiration. Winning the war was expensive: it cost the lives of no less than 300,000 Romans.
After this, Hannibal fled and served as a general to other enemy nations of Rome until, years later, cornered by the Romans, whose main obsession was to destroy the myth, he was poisoned before dying in his hands. Fate wanted him to die the same year that Scipio Africanus did it (183 BC). Curiously, like Camillus, another savior of Rome suffered an ungrateful exile, in this case until his last days.
After the three Punic Wars, Rome annexed to its territories Sicily, Sardinia, Italy to the Alps, most of the Iberian Peninsula and Illyria (to the Balkans) and Carthaginian Africa. The ambition did not stop there and the expansion continued throughout the 2nd century BC submitting as Roman provinces to a multitude of Mediterranean lands: Hispania, Gallia Narbonensis, Macedonia, part of Asia Minor, Greece and North Africa to Egypt. During this century were destroyed: Corinth (one of the last large cities fully Hellenic), Carthage (146 BC, in the third Punic War) and the legendary Numantia of the Celtiberians (133 BC, last hard core of resistance in Hispania). Carthage and Numantia fell into the hands of troops led by another Scipio, grandson of Scipio the Africanus (who had in turn been the nephew of the Scipio defeated in the Ticinus by Hannibal), and who before the spectacle of Carthage on fire, wich years ago had been the center of the known world, prophesied the fall of Rome, the eternal city, arguing that there is nothing imperishable.
The contact with Greek and Eastern cultures, as well as the dominance of the commercial routes by sea, began to modify the old customs, which the traditionalist Cato the Censor (ex-serviceman against Hannibal and who also fought fiercely against corruption), could not save in its original form. On the other hand, the administrative and political structure of the nation had become obsolete for such a wide territory and tensions and conflicts appeared in the agricultural world.
All this caused a crisis in every way, including the military, since the base of the legions was until then the rural population, free and of Roman citizenship (three requirements that increasingly fulfil less in a growing territory). The crisis resulted in unsuccessful attempts at agrarian reform, which clashed with the interests of the wealthy landlords, and with a reform of the army, which became professional and, therefore, formed by volunteers who deeply promoted loyalty to their leaders. This fact would be a breeding ground for imminent civil wars.
It is in this period, when one of the great figures of the history of the Republic appears: Gaius Marius (157 BC-86 BC), who defeated Jugurtha (king of Numidia) with an army of volunteers in 105 BC and later, in 102 and 101 BC (in Germania) to Cimbri and Teutones, in the battles of Aquae Sextiae and Vercellae, thus avenging the legions that had been annihilated in Orange (105 BC.) in the Gallic province. His support for the causes of the plebs sowed enmity with Sulla, who received the support of all the nobility, and with which he had one of the main civil confrontations in Roman history (along with those carried out by Pompey and Julius Caesar, or Octavian and Mark Antony).
Marius and Sulla had two opposing personalities: the first was a brilliant, brutal, impulsive and ingenious soldier; the second was intelligent, brave, cunning and cruel, in addition to having high ascendancy over his troops. Such confronted ingredients devastated the country after multiple vicissitudes, while an external war was fought against Mithridates (King of Pontus, a half-Greek and half-barbarian genius, with an impressive navy and army, and who aspired to dominate Greece and the East), which exterminated the Romans of Asia, and entered Greece occupying Athens (88 BC). The person in charge of expelling Mithradates from Greece was Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who stopped the aspirations of the enemy and so fast returned to the capital to devote himself to the internal conflict. The balance of this disastrous era was almost 200,000 Roman victims (a very important number for the population of that time).
When Gaius Marius and his supporters dominated the situation, he died suddenly, leaving Italy to the consul Cinna (ally and future father-in-law of Julius Caesar) and his adopted son. Sulla resumed the initiative, ending his enemies and establishing a dictatorial regime that resembled the old aristocratic regime. Finally, due to unclear causes, he retired to private life and died the following year (79 BC).
Gaius Marius, who married Julia (a high birth woman and future aunt of Julius Caesar), was appointed consul seven times, dying shortly after receiving the seventh appointment, and was hailed as the third founder of Rome (after Romulus and Camillus). His greatest contribution, apart from the triumphs against Numidians and Germanics, was his military reform (which inherited the genius of geniuses, unfortunately for the Gauls, Julius Caesar): legions open to citizens (proletarii), improved weapons and organization, divided into 10 cohorts, each of which in turn in 3 maniples and each maniple in 2 centuries (each governed by a centurion, point of reference for his men). The centuries could range from 80 to 100 men, giving a theoretical figure for a standard legion of between 4,800 and 6,000 soldiers. Without any doubt, the best army of antiquity. After this time of internal conflicts great sociopolitical changes appeared, and Pompey, another top figure of the Republic, began his meteoric career.
Two important rebellions appeared: in Hispania, Sertorius leading a revolt of the Celtiberians tried to improve the conditions of the Roman provinces and equate them in privileges to the Italics, but he was crushed. On the other hand, in Italy, Spartacus led the legendary slave rebellion, which was also severely hampered. After this, Pompey, who intervened decisively in both conflicts, continued the war in the East against Mithridates, this time going on the offensive and defeating him in the famous battle of Nicopolis, and also subjected as Roman provinces to all of Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine , which he organized administratively.
Shortly after appeared a triumvirate for the history formed by: Crassus (rich among rich), Pompey (confronted with the nobility but honoured for his campaigns in the East and the sea against the Cilician pirates) and Julius Caesar (who was also being honoured by his epic campaigns in Gaul, defeating the legendary Gallic leader Vercingetorix, as well as his incursions into the barbarians and unknown lands of Germanics and Britons).
Crassus died in the campaign against the Parthians in Carrhae, and the triumvirate was undone, leaving two men with maximum popularity and military glory. Pompey took the opportunity to sell himself to the nobility and remove from his path the only possible rival to power, inviting Julius Caesar to cede the command of his legions, which he responded by crossing the Rubicon (small river of northern Italy and border symbol of the time) with the legendary and feared 10th legion in front. His soldiers were undefeated in 10 years of continuous campaigns in numerical inferiority and adverse conditions and their loyalty to Caesar was unquestionable being willing and with blind faith in their leader to fight in another disadvantaged war against the powerful and renowned Pompey.
The campaigns carried out by the 10th legion and its allies were unstoppable, culminating in the decisive battle of Pharsalia in 48 BC, on Greek lands, where Caesar defeated Pompey, a priori, in a largely unfavourable conditions: he had half the legionaries that his adversary, almost without cavalry, in ascending terrain for him, encased between a river and the mountains, and with Labienus (brilliant general at his service in the Gallic War) on the Pompeian side. The great Julius had just secured a place of honour on the altars of glory and had taken it from Pompey in a few hours. The latter managed to flee and ended up killed in African lands.
Julius Caesar then began to plan a refoundation of the state, establishing, de facto, the Empire, self-proclaimed its ruler and using that position to improve in every way the functioning and welfare of that dream that was Rome, that unstoppable dream of civilization, inner peace, wealth, prosperity and culture. He came to plan an attack on the back to the inhospitable and unknown Germania to cut off the barbarian incursions and to ensure forever the borders of the north, surrounding the Black Sea in the East (plans that if he had had time to carry out would have drastically changed the history of Europe and the world), but a year after holding the title that in imminent future would be known as imperator (at that time called dictator) was vilely assassinated in the Senate (conspiracy led by Brutus and Cassius) in the sadly remembered idus (ides) of March of 44 BC, receiving dozens of stabs with great dignity until the last breath, as the classic authors tell us. Curiously, another Brutus would be protagonist in the transition from one political system to another.
The Roman people before the public reading of the generous testament of Caesar with the plebs and his warlike exploits cried out for revenge. The conspirators were persecuted and had no refuge in the eternal city. A funeral pyre burned with Julius and the best of Rome that was offered by its citizens in honour and as a sign of respect for the greatest man that had given their country (the place where this event happened is still preserved and can be visited in Rome).
It was inevitable. A new period of civil wars was opened, where the murderers and their supporters were definitively defeated in the Battle of Philippi (42 BC) by legions composed in part of veteran legionaries of Caesar and led by Octavian (adopted son of Julius Caesar) and Mark Antony
The peace did not come with this victory, since Octavian, who gathered the forces of the Western Empire, and Marck Antony (linked to the Egyptian queen Cleopatra) who gathered the forces of the Hellenic East, got into a fight in another personal struggle for power, finishing with the victory of Octavian in the colossal naval battle of Actium (31 BC). The winner assumed the nickname of Augustus (the one that surpasses all by competition and prestige).
Octavius Augustus preserved outwardly the republican forms, ruling with the theoretical tutelage of the Senate, but concentrated in his person almost all power, and became the first real emperor of Rome (with the permission of the year of regent sigh of Julius Caesar).
Author: Eduardo Ortiz Pardina