Rome: Empire vs Republic

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I’ve done several episodes pertaining to Ancient Rome. The reason is that so many of the foundational things in our world, from our alphabet to our calendar, to the names of our months, all can be traced back to Rome.


During these episodes, I’ve often talked about the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. 

However, many people might not realize what the difference is between the two. When did the republic become an empire, and why? 

Learn more about the Roman Republic and Empire on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

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This episode is sponsored by Audible.com.

My audiobook recommendation today is SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard.

SPQR is quite simply one of the best books on the history of ancient Rome by one of the world’s greatest Roman historians. 

Opening the audiobook in 63 BCE with the famous clash between the populist aristocrat Catiline and Cicero, the renowned politician and orator, Beard animates this “terrorist conspiracy”, which was aimed at the very heart of the republic, demonstrating how this singular event would presage the struggle between democracy and autocracy that would come to define much of Rome’s subsequent history.

You can get a free one-month trial to Audible and 2 free audiobooks by going to audibletrial.com/EverythingEverywhere or clicking on the link in the show notes.

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To understand the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, we have to take a step back even further to the Roman Kingdom. 

The Kingdom of Rome doesn’t get as much attention as the other phases of Roman history because when it was a kingdom, it was little more than a city. It was just one of many such kingdoms dotting the map on the Italian peninsula. 

According to legend, the first king of Rome was Romulus. He and his twin brother Remus were, again according to legend, raised by a she-wolf. They later fought each other on where to found a city. Romulus wanted to build on the Palatine Hill and Remus wanted to build on the Aventine Hill. 

Remus was then killed by Romulus, and Romulus founded the city which bore his name: Rome. This took place in 753 BC. 

Romulus reigned as king for years and then passed on the throne to king Numa Pompilius after his death. 

There were seven kings of Rome over a period of about 250 years. 

The last king of Rome was Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. He was accused of raping a noblewoman named Lucrecia. In the revolt which insured, a rebellion was led against the king by one Lucius Junius Brutus. 

The king was exiled, and in 509 BC,  Rome became a republic. 

Many people are confused as to what a republic is. What I often hear is that people think a republic is a representative democracy. While a republic very well might be a representative democracy, a republic is really just a country without a monarchy. 

For example, the United States, Germany, and Ireland are republics. 

Canada, Australia, Japan, Spain, and Sweden are not republics. They are monarchies. 

The rejection of a king and the creation of a republic was probably the single most defining thing in the history of Rome. The revulsion against having a king was burned deep into the Roman psyche. Trying to become a king was probably the biggest crime that someone could be guilty of. 

The system created in the republic ensured that no one person would ever be able to control Rome. Rome didn’t have a single leader. The highest position in Rome was the consul, and there were always two consuls who could veto each other. The consuls also only held power for a single year, and then couldn’t run for consul again for 10 years. 

Over the next several centuries, Rome fought with its neighbors, conquered territory, expanded, and grew. During that entire time, the norms and rules surrounding the Republic were upheld by pretty much everyone in Rome. 

This began to break down in the 1st century BC. Social problems began to develop in Rome and two civil wars broke out, leaving general Lucius Cornelius Sulla as the dictator of Rome.

Dictator was an actual, legal office in Rome. It was something given to someone during a time of emergency and it was only extended for six months. Sulla was dictator for three years. Moreover, he did things like create proscription lists where anyone on the list could be legally murdered and their property confiscated. This was was the sort of behavior of a king. 

Sulla died soon after his dictatorship ended, but the impact he left on the Republic was lasting. 

This was the beginning of the end of the Republic and the period of Roman history that most people are familiar with. Most representations of Rome from television, movies, and the stage all come from this period of time. 

The key figure in the downfall of the Republic was Julius Caesar. 

Julius Caesar was not a Roman Emperor. However, he can be considered one of, if not the last major figures of the republic. 

He was extremely ambitious, talented, and one of the greatest generals in Roman history. 

His story is far too long to detail in a show like this, but suffice it to say he became very powerful. He conquered Gaul, what is modern-day France, which was the biggest single expansion of Rome up to that time. It made him fabulously wealthy, and extremely powerful. 

He became the first Roman general who where his legions placed their loyalty to him before the Republic. 

This made everyone back in Rome jealous and frightened. They wanted Caesar arrested, and he was going to have none of that. He took a legion and did something that you just weren’t supposed to do: he marched on Rome.

Here is where we get many phrases that are still with us today, such, as “crossing the Rubicon”, and “the die is cast”. 

This resulted in another civil war. A war which Caesar won. 

As with Sulla, Caesar was named dictator. Unlike Sulla, Caesar was named dictator for life. 

You might be wondering, as did a lot of people in Rome, what’s the difference between a dictator for life and a King? 

Caesar was given tons of titles and rights. He was allowed to wear a purple toga, which was the color of royalty. He was allowed to wear a laurel on his head, which is very much like a crown. He had a golden chair installed in the senate. Not a throne mind you, just a golden chair. 

He basically did everything that a king could do, up to the point of wearing a crown and calling himself king. He was a king in all but name. 

All of this lead to a group of senators to say, enough is enough, and they assassinated Caesar to restore the republic. This assassination was lead by another Brutus, a descendent of the Brutus who removed the king almost 500 years earlier.

This lead to yet another civil war between the senatorial forces behind the assassination and the Caesarian forces lead by his right-hand man Marcus Antonious, aka Marc Antony, and his grand-nephew that he posthumously adopted in his will, Octavian. 

The Caesarians won that civil war, and then started yet another civil war, this time between Octavian and Marc Antony, which was won by Octavian. 

This left Octavian as the last man standing in Rome, and he is considered to be the first Roman emperor. …and I really just condensed a whole lot of history into a few paragraphs. This is a subject that could take up hours of 

However, there isn’t a single date we can point to where the Republic ended and the Empire began. 

Octavian was really smart. He learned the lessons from Caesar. Whereas Caesar collected titles and honors and basically rub it in everyone’s face, Octavian at least appeared to be humble.

Octavian didn’t have the title of dictator. He simply considered himself the princeps civitatis, or the first citizen. He didn’t live in a palace, he lived in a rather nice but not too opulent villa. He wore simple clothes. He rejected many of the honors which the senate wished to bestow upon him. 

This of course was just an illusion. Octavian was insanely powerful. 

He personally owned Egypt. Like, all of Egypt. That alone probably made him the wealthiest person in the world at the time. He had legions directly loyal to him personally. He personally ran several other provinces. 

He had the power of the tribune, which allowed him to veto laws. His person was declared sacrosanct. He was also the Pontifex Maximus, which was the highest religious position in Rome, a position also held by Julius Caesar. 

While all of this was happening, everything at least in theory was exactly the same as it was during the Republic. All of the positions such as consul, the tribune of the plebes, and the senate all kept going. 

It’s just that behind it all was a singularly powerful guy. He was finally given the title of Augustus, which is how he is referred to by historians. 

Most people had no problem with this arrangement. Rome had been rocked by almost a century of civil war and now, finally, there was peace. 

The term imperator was a title given to military commanders, and their authority was called imperium. This is where our word Emperor comes from. By the end of his reign, the full name that he went by was Imperator Caesar divi filius Augustus. 

Imperator came from the title given to military commanders. Caesar came from his adoption by Julius Caesar. Divi Filius means son of a god because Julius Caesar was deified, and Augustus was the honorific given to him by the senate.

All of those terms would be used by his successors as titles later on. 

Augustus wasn’t just the first emperor, he was also the longest-serving emperor. 

By the time he died at the age of 75, almost no one was around who even remembered the republic. They just assumed that one man in charge was the normal order of business. 

When he died, the powers passed to his adopted son Tiberius, who was called Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus. 

There wasn’t actually an office called Emperor. Tiberius was given a package of powers that Augustus had, and these powers were passed along to future emperors by the senate. 

For all practical purposes, they had absolute control. They could do whatever they wanted with no checks on their power whatsoever, and this led to some absolutely monstrous emperors. 

The imperial period can be further divided into two periods. The principate and the dominate. The principate was the first period where they at least kept up the appearances of the republic. The dominate came from the Latin word dominus which meant lord or master. 

The dominate began with Emperor Domitian. It was more despotic and there were usually 2 to 4 co-emperors. 

Most historians will mark the start of the Roman Empire at the year 27 BC when Octavian was granted the title of Augustus. The republic can probably be considered to be dead at the year 48 BC with the Battle of Pharsalus. 

So you can think of the Roman Republic as the period when Rome was quasi-democratic. Multiple people ruled based on laws and tradition, and there was a robust system of checks and balances. 

The Roman Empire was the period where one person ruled, but there were still the trappings of the republic. 

They are very different things and very distinct eras of history.

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