by Steven Muhlberger
The period of Greek expansion (800-300 B.C.) was also the period when the Roman Republic was founded and beginning its rise to empire. If Rome was far more successful in building an empire, it is in large part due to their creation of a more inclusive ideology of citizenship than achieved by any Greek city. There were other factors. The Romans were, of course, very good soldiers, who in Rome's early centuries lived by a very severe standard of public virtue. Citizens sacrificed themselves in war for the good of the community and profited and gloried in common success. But the key to Roman expansion was the willingness of the citizens to share the benefits of citizenship with others.
This can be seen in the unusual Roman attitude to slavery. Romans, like Greeks and everyone else, kept slaves, for service around the house, to extend the productive power of the household, for dirty and dangerous work like mining. In most ancient cultures, slaves were slaves until death. The Romans, however, were willing to free their most useful servants; not only free them, but grant them citizenship, a share in public affairs (res publica). The power of enfranchisement of one's slaves was vested in every Roman citizen. The slaveowner, by freeing his slave, did not lose much, because the freed man was still his client, morally (and usually economically) obliged to support his old master, his patron. Yet the freed man gained for himself and his descendants a share in the Roman res publica. The Roman state gained a new taxpayer and soldier.
Such calculated generosity was paralleled in the field of foreign relations. Success at war allowed Rome to annex territory, and plant citizens on it, thus expanding the state. But early Rome did not have the population or resources to overrun its neighbors, or subject them to direct rule. So Rome constructed alliances, alliances in which it was the dominant partner, but which presented benefits to the allies. Later, Rome took a further step: citizenship was offered to the most useful of its allies. In some beneficiary towns, all local citizens became Roman citizens; in others, only the leading oligarchy of a city was given full political rights. But, as in the case of emancipation, the Roman state gained important support in defending and expanding its hegemony.
The inclusiveness of the Roman republic was its strength. Adding to the politically privileged and military obligated citizen body in a measured manner enabled a single unremarkable Italian city to build a huge empire and hold onto it. During some periods the Romans were very greedy, ignoring the rights of allies and treating whole provinces as fields for untrammeled exploitation. But sooner or later they returned to their original strategy. Selected cities or their leaders were coopted by the grant of citizenship. Where there were no cities, cities - not just urban centers, but also the political communities of which they were the focus -- were founded to be Rome's surrogate in a given area. A privileged body of citizens would rule the district for Rome, and the most important of them would become Roman citizens.
Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including this copyright notice, remain intact.