Ancient Rome was successful. I think everybody agrees on that. But when it comes to the question of why Rome was so much more successful than let`s say Sparta the answers one can find are quite thin.
Let`s look at the top 3 reasons that made Rome so much more successful and longer-lasting than other ancient realms.
The combination of integrating conquered territories to increase Rome’s military potential, a society that at least to some degree was socially permeable, and a robust political system that was able to adapt to new challenges and threats both from the inside and the outside made Rome so successful!
Let`s find out more!
I would like to start with the most important reason: Integration!
What territories did Rome integrate?
Rome was an expanding power transforming itself from a small town at the banks of the Tiber river into a global power. Now that expansion obviously didn’t occur overnight.
It took Rome from 396 to 164 BC to become a global power. Please feel free to check out my article here where I go into detail about how Rome expanded.
To sum up the article: Rome started conquering and integrating neighboring communities like for example the Etruscan city of Veii in 396 BC. While the territory of Veii was settled with poor roman families, more on that here, that tactic of populating conquered areas with Romans only led to slow growth of the population.
But it is important to remember that the roman expansion was bought at a high cost. And that high cost in roman lives was one of the reasons why just giving land to roman citizens to increase the population didn`t work in the long run.
The growth of the population was just too slow to keep up with the number of soldiers that were needed for further expansion and replacing fallen soldiers. Let`s find out more about that in the next paragraph!
Why did Rome integrate territories and hand out roman citizenships?
While Rome generally won its wars (at least in the long run) Rome did not win every battle . Quite the contrary.
The expansion of Rome was bought with immense sacrifices in roman lives!
And that is where Integration becomes important.
Early Rome was not a big city and yet it had a militia system. That meant that every Roman citizen who was wealthy enough to afford armor, weapons, and provisions for the campaign could be drafted to participate in a campaign.
Over time that led to several problems which I will discuss in my article here. One of the main problems was that due to impoverishment as a result of long campaigns and a high number of fallen roman soldiers the numbers of wealthy roman citizens who were able to be drafted declined massively.
That was bad for both the roman middle class (the small farmers and craftsmen) that provided the bulk of the Roman legions but also for the roman state since that led to the decline of military strength. A solution had to be found.
To increase its economical & military potential Rome did not only give newly conquered land to poor roman families but also often gave Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of conquered cities.
In my article here you can find more information about the different ways Rome could govern newly conquered territories and how the establishment of settlements with full roman citizenship helped to control these areas.
In the following, I will focus on settlements getting the full roman civil right. Please check out my article here for more information on why Rome handed out newly conquered land to poor roman families.
By handing out roman citizenships to newly conquered cities, Rome increased its military potential since only Roman citizens were able to serve in the Roman legions.
These measures did not only increase the number of citizens but as a direct consequence also the number of men eligible for military service.
Permeability of the roman society
Another reason for Rome’s success was the permeability of roman society. While for example spartan society was extremely rigid and closed off, more on that here, roman citizens had (at least on paper) a chance to climb the social pyramid.
And at least in theory, their value as Roman citizens did not depend on if they were members of an old family of Rome or if they were „Newcomers“. Now when it came to political offices things looked a little bit different.
Most roman politicians came from old roman aristocratic families, most of them tracking their lines back to the foundation of Rome. But even among these politicians, there were outliners like the consul Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC).
And while the story of Cicero, a man from outside of Rome becoming Consul is certainly impressive there are even more impressive careers.
Emperor Pertinax (126-193) even was the son of a freed slave.
Pertinax – the son of a freed slave as roman emperor
Now one might ask how the son of a freed slave was able to become emperor of the roman empire. Well, the answer can be found in the permeability of roman society.
The father of Pertinax was a slave who due to his talent for trade had been of great value for his owner. When he was released from slavery he was granted a small sum of money that he then turned into a large sum using his talents in trade.
That money enabled his son Pertinax to pursue a career in the military as an officer. During that time being an officer also meant becoming an Eques (a member of the order of the knights). Thanks to his military successes and the support of powerful politicians he was even appointed to Senator.
And when the Praetorian prefect Quintus Aemilius Laetus overthrew emperor Commodus in 192 BC Pertinax was acclaimed to be the new emperor.
Now his attempts to reinstall discipline among the praetorian guard got him killed only 87 days later. But hey, being a roman emperor even for only 87 days without being born into an aristocratic family is pretty impressive!
For further information on the one main difference between the mentioned terms of Senator and Eques I would like to recommend you my article here.
While slaves in ancient Greece were barely released out of slavery that practice was relatively common in Rome.
If a slave was released in Rome then he immediately became a roman citizen although he could not hold political or military offices. But the sons of released slaves had the full civil right including the right to hold political & military offices.
The permeability of the roman society made it possible that a Homo Novus, a man with roman citizenship who was born outside of Rome, like Cicero could rise to the highest political office of the roman republic and a man whose father had been a freed slave could even make it to the position of emperor.
Granted, such extraordinary careers were the exception rather than the rule. But when we look at a much smaller level than the sons of freed slaves had the full roman civil right. They could serve in the legions, start a business, or even go into politics.
The reason for that kind of social mobility goes back to the founding myth of Rome, more on that here. Since the founder of Rome, Romulus installed an asylum to populate his new settlement chances are that many of the early Romans were actually fugitive slaves.
That kind of chance to climb the social ladder didn`t really exist in ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, or even long into modern times.
By the way, social mobility did not only allow for a rapid rise but also a rapid fall. Impoverishment Senators or Eques could drop out of their social classes or rather would get dropped out by the Censor. More on the prestigious office of Censor here.
Another reason for dropping out of the Senator / Equites class was to be excluded by the censors for immoral behavior…which happened more often than one would expect.
Last but not least we also have to look at the political structure. While the roman republic saw its fair share of devastation, civil wars, and corruption the roman republic still existed from 509 to 27 BC. More information on why the romans drove out their kings in 509 BC and replaced them with a republic in my article here.
And while dictators like Sulla or conspiracies like the one Catalina attempted briefly interrupted the regular roman republic its political system proofed to be quite stable and resistant.
That in part was the achievement of men like Cicero. Men who were not part of old aristocratic families of Rome but came from cities that had had the roman civil right for decades or even centuries.
More on that and the different ways Rome could govern newly conquered territories here.
Another reason was that a system of checks and balances made sure that one man could not gain too much power.
That was achieved by subduing magistrates to the principles of annuity, collegiality, and the prohibition of iteration.
Political principles of the roman republic
- Principle of annuity: Roman magistrates during the roman republic could only hold the respective office for one year
- Principle of collegiality: Public offices of the roman republic were split among several men. There were for example always two consuls
- Prohibition of Cumulation: Politicians were not allowed to hold more than one political office at a time. So if you were consul you could not also be a praetor
- Prohibition of Continuation: Politicians were not allowed to hold a political office multiple years in a row
- Prohibition of Iteration: The prohibition of Iteration kept politicians during the roman republic to hold the same office multiple times. In the later years of the roman republic, the prohibition of Iteration was lifted for the office of Consul.
The principle of annuity, collegiality, and the prohibition of Iteration, Continuation, and Cumulation all had the goal to keep individual men from concentrating too much power in their hands and becoming a threat to the political system of the roman republic. That worked until the late roman republic.
While that paragraph barely scratched the surface of the political system, institutions, and offices of the roman republic I got another article here that goes into more depth. Please feel free to check it out.
So we just looked at 3 reasons for the success of Rome. But I think it is important to see all these 3 reasons combined.
Only the combination of the integration of conquered territories to increase Rome’s military potential, a society that at least to a degree was socially permeable, and a robust political system that was able to adapt to new challenges and threats both from the inside and the outside made Rome so successful!
Please also consider checking out my article here for more information on the different ways Rome could govern newly conquered territories to take advantage of their military and economical potential.
Do you want to learn more about the different political institutions that made the system roman republic so resistant? Then I would like to recommend you my article here where I portray the different political institutions of the roman republic.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
A. Heuß, G. Mann (Hrsg.); Propyläen Weltgeschichte. Eine Universalgeschichte, Band IV Rom – Die Römische Welt (Frankfurt a. Main 1986).