Early history of Italy (Till Second Punic War)

Way back around 700 BC historical era started Italy. Italy was already inhabited at that time by peoples from different cultures speaking different languages. Majority of natives of the country lived in villages or small towns, were dependent on agriculture or animal husbandry for livelihood (Italia means “Calf Land”), and conversed in an Italic dialect belonging to the Indo-European language family. Umbrian and Oscan were very closely related Italic dialects spoken by the people living in Apennines. The other two Italic dialects, Latin and Venetic were two other closely linked italic dialects used for conversing respectively by the Latins of Latium (a plain of west-central Italy) and the inhabitants of north-eastern Italy (near modern Venice). Messapii and Iapyges were inhabitants of south-eastern coast. The Po valley of northern Italy (Cisalpine Gaul) was inhabited by Gallic tribes during the 5th century BC. Gallic tribes conversed in Celtic. The Etruscans were the only inhabitants of Italy who did not speak an Indo-European language. They are regarded as were the first highly civilized people of Italy. By 700 BC quite a few Greek colonies were established along the southern coast. Both Phoenicians and Greeks were trading with the Italian natives. Rome’s early development happened in a multicultural environment and was hugely influenced by the advanced civilizations of the Etruscans and the Greeks. Influence of the beliefs and practices of the Etruscans was paramount on Roman religion. The Romans borrowed alphabet from the Etruscans who themselves had borrowed and adapted alphabet from the Greek colonies of Italy.

Historical sources on early Rome

The regal period (753–509 BC) and the early republic (509–280 BC) are very poorly documented eras of Roman history because writing of historical accounts of Rome started much later. Greek historians ignored Rome until the Pyrrhic War (280–275 BC). Rome’s first native historian, Quintus Fabius Pictor, lived and wrote during a later war called Second Punic War (218–201 BC). Historical writing at Rome did not start before Rome completed its conquest of Italy and emerged as a major power of the ancient world. Fabius Pictor’s history commences with the city’s mythical Trojan ancestry and narrates events up to his own day. 16 other Romans wrote similarly inclusive narratives during the last 200 years BC. These works are now called “the Roman annalistic tradition”.

The regal period (753-509 BC)

Romulus, Rome’s first king, was invented and conceptualised by later ancient historians. His naming was intended to explain the origin of Rome’s name. His fictitious reign was full of deeds expected of an ancient city founder and the son of a war god. Thus he was given the credit of establishing the Rome’s early political, military, and social institutions. It was said that he waged war against neighbouring states. Romulus was also believed to have shared his royal power for some time with a Sabine named Titus Tatius. It is possible that Titus Tatius was authentic ruler of early Rome, possibly Rome’s first real king. His reign was lumped together with that of Romulus though because nothing was known about him in later centuries. Names of the rest six kings are authentic and were remembered by the Romans, but little reliable details were known about their reigns. According to ancient tradition, successor of Romulus was the Sabine Numa Pompilius. Succesor of Numa was Tullus Hostilius, Tullus was succeeded by Ancus Marcius.  Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (Tarquin the Elder), Servius Tullius, and Lucius Tarquinius Superbus were the last three kings of Rome and are given credit for urban transformation of Rome.

Early centuries of the Roman Republic

Foundation of the republic

The ancient historians portrayed Rome’s first six kings as just and benevolent rulers but the seventh and last one as a cruel tyrant who murdered his predecessor Servius Tullius, grabbed the kingship, intimidated the Senate, and oppressed the common people. He allegedly was overthrown by a popular uprising triggered by the rape of a virtuous noblewoman, Lucretia, by the king’s son. According to ancient tradition, soon after the Romans had expelled their last king who was tyrannical, Rome was attacked and besieged by king Lars Porsenna of the Etruscan city of Clusium. The city was gallantly defended by Horatius Cocles and Mucius Scaevola. Impressed supposedly by Roman heroism, Porsenna allegedly made peace with Rome and withdrew his army. One popular modern view is that the Roman monarchy was incidentally terminated through military defeat and foreign intervention. Rome may have been involved in a war against King Porsenna at the end of the 6th century, Porsenna may have routed the Romans, captured the city, and expelled its last king. But before he could establish himself as monarch in real terms, he may have been forced to withdraw, leaving Rome kingless. Rather than restoring exiled Tarquin, the Romans supposedly replaced the kingship with two annually elected magistrates (originally called praetors, later consuls).

The struggle of the orders

According to the annalistic tradition, political struggle was rampant between two social orders, the patricians and the plebeians. This struggle supposedly began during the first years of the republic and lasted for more than 200 years. Initially, the patricians were allegedly enjoying a monopoly of power (the consulship, the Senate, and all religious offices), while the plebeians began with nothing except the right to vote in the assemblies. During the course of the struggle the plebeians supposedly gradually won concessions from the patricians through political agitation and confrontation, and ultimately plebeians attained legal equality with patricians.

The consulship

The later Romans regarded the abolition of the kingship and its replacement by the consulship as apparent sign of beginning of the republic. A priest-king (rex sacrorum), who held office for life, henceforth performed king’s religious functions. Military power (imperium) of the king was bestowed upon consuls (two annually elected magistrates). The consuls were basically generals who led Rome’s armies in war. So, they were elected by the centuriate assembly (the Roman army organized into a voting body). Equal powers were bestowed on both consuls.

The dictatorship

Despite the pluses of consular collegiality, in military crises unity of command was sometimes essential. Rome’s innovative solution to this problem was the appointment of a dictator in place of the consuls. The office was completely constitutional and shouldn’t be confused with the late republican dictatorships of Caesar and Sulla. The dictator held supreme military command for maximum six months. He was also called the master of the army (magister populi). A subordinate cavalry commander, the master of horse (magister equitum) was appointed by him.

The Senate of ancient Rome

The Senate may have already existed under the monarchy and served like an advisory council for the monarch. As the name suggests, senate originally comprised of elderly men (senes), whose age and knowledge of traditions must have been valued a lot in preliterate society. During the republic, members from the leading families composed the senate. According to ancient sources, number of members in senate during the middle republic was 300Size of senate during the early republic is unknown. Senate offered advice to both magistrates and the people.

The popular assemblies

During republic era, the centuriate assembly (comitia centuriata) and the tribal assembly (comitia tributa) were the two distinct assemblies that elected magistrates, exercised legislative power, and made other important decisions. The centuriate assembly (comitia centuriata) was military in nature and while the tribal assembly (comitia tributa) was non-military civilian assembly. Tribal assembly met within the pomerium (boundry of the city) while the centuriate assembly due to its military character had to meet outside the pomerium.

The plebeian tribunate

According to the annalistic tradition, one of the most significant happenings in the struggle of the orders was the formation of the plebeian tribunate. In 494 BC the plebeians seceded in a body from the city to the Sacred Mount, positioned three miles from Rome. There they put up camp and elected their own officials for their future protection. As the state was threatened with an enemy attack, the Senate was compelled to allow the plebeians to have their own officials (the tribunes of the plebs). From 2 initially, number of tribunes of the plebs went up to 10 in 457 BC.

The Law of the Twelve Tables

After the creation of the plebeian tribunate, the next major episode was first systematic codification of Roman law, as per the annalistic version of the struggle of the orders. The law code inscribed upon 12 bronze tablets was publicly displayed in the Forum. It’s wide ranging provisions concerned legal procedure, paternal authority over children, debt foreclosure, inheritance, property rights, funerary regulations, and various minor and major offenses. The Law of the Twelve Tables formed the basis of all succeeding Roman private law.

Roman expansion in Italy

At the end of the 5th century, the Romans started expanding at the expense of Etruscan states. Ancient Roman historians maintained that Rome waged just wars in self-defence only and wrote accordingly distorting facts very often. In fact Rome often provoked neighbours to fight them in self-defence. Rome’s fought with Fidenae between 437–426 BC. This is regarded as the first major war of Romans against an organized state. Next Rome fought a long and precarious war against Veii, a significant Etruscan city.

The Samnite Wars

In the 40 year period after the second treaty with Carthage, Rome rose rapidly to a position of hegemony in Italy south of the Po valley. Three wars against the Samnites happened during this period. The First Samnite War (343–341 BC) led to the major addition to the Roman state of the rich land of Campania. The second Samnite war (326–304 BC) and the third Samnite war (298–290 BC) was also won by Romans.

The Pyrrhic War, 280–275 BC

Pyrrhus reached southern Italy in 280 BC with 20 elephants and 25,000 highly trained soldiers. He thoroughly defeated the Romans at Heraclea and stirred up revolt among the Samnites. After this he offered peace terms meant to confine Roman power to central Italy. Senate persuaded Romans to continue fighting. Pyrrhus again routed the Romans in 279 at Asculum. He lost 7,500 (almost one-third of his entire force) in the two battles. This kind of victory has since been referred to as Pyrrhic victory. Pyrrhus left Italy to eventually return but was defeated by the Romans in 275 BC at Beneventum. Rome was now the undisputed master of Italy.

The middle republic (264–133 BC)

The first two Punic Wars

Rome’s rapidly growing sphere of hegemony brought it almost instantly into conflict with non-Italian powers. In the south, the key opponent was Carthage. Rome crossed the straits of Messana (region between Italy and Sicily) to embark on war against Carthage. The Romans called the Carthaginians Poeni [Phoenicians] and hence Rome’s wars against Carthage are known as the “Punic Wars”. First Punic War (264-241 BC) ended in 241 BC with defeat of Carthaginians at the hands of Romans. Carthaginians agreed to pay indemnity to Romans and also vacate Sicily. In the Second Punic War (218–201 BC) Carthaginians led by Hannibal were defeated by Romans.

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