The American Revolution is considered one of the most important events of modern history, especially given its far-reaching impact beyond the shores of North America. Yet aside from its implications for the following two centuries of world history, the rapid and fluid march from the late colonial period to the early American republic (with the revolutionary turmoil in between) is also noteworthy. This is particularly true because it was ultimately successful.
In both spirit and material circumstance, there are many similarities between Ancient Rome’s transition from kingdom to republic and the formative years of the nascent United States.
The timeline is compressed in America’s case, and the monarchy lay overseas, but the commonalities are striking nonetheless. With the benefit of hindsight, we also know that these two societies shared an ascendancy in global affairs that validated—up until collapse, at least—the virtue of the respective society’s culture, military, rule of law, and general prosperity.
Patricians and Plebeians
Both the American colonies’ revolt against the British Crown and the coup that sparked Rome’s overthrow of the king were justified by high-minded ideals like liberty triumphing over tyrannical government. As effective—and true—as this democratic spirit was in fueling both efforts to throw off the yoke of monarchy, it wasn’t initially well-represented in either of the two societies’ immediate post-revolutionary order.
George Washington had to decline a proposal to be made king after defeating the British; the first president also voluntarily established the tradition of limited terms, which did not become a Constitutional imperative until the 22nd Amendment was passed in 1947. By comparison, the Romans of the early republic were even more suspicious of executive power and rule by a king. Among other Roman authors, Plutarch (long after the fact, however) tells of an oath Roman citizens took against ever submitting to the rule of a king again in his biography of Poplicola. (This was probably wise considering that the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, continuously tried to regain his throne—to no avail—for decades after being exiled!) Still, both republics were set up with various checks and balances that served as bulwarks against highly concentrated power and its arbitrary use.
Nevertheless, the political and social order that replaced Tarquinius¹ was dominated by the great families of the city. Essentially, aristocratic rule emerged. Despite their reservations about tyrant rulers, the founders of the republic were perhaps equally wary of popular rule. Rome’s well-established, landowning families (i.e. those born into nobility) were a social class known as patricians, and they did not share political power with the much larger population of common citizens known as plebeians.
Likewise, the framers of the early United States were virtually all from the wealthiest class and held similar fears about democracy and “mob rule.” The patricians who deposed the king and established a new republican system were not unlike the well-to-do signers of the Declaration of Independence and delegates to the Continental Congress. Initially, they determined that only white, landowning males were eligible to vote in America. (This remained true in practice for most of the next two centuries.) Rome, like the U.S., did eventually respond to public demands by extending greater rights and representation in government to the rest of the population.
Succession of the Plebs
Just as the reorganization of Roman laws and society in the wake of the monarchy took shape over years and decades, the democratization of civil rights under the Roman Republic unfolded gradually. The process began with the First Succession of the Plebs, the beginning of the broader Conflict of the Orders between the patricians and plebeians.
The time period referred to as the “Patrician Era” spanned between the overthrow of Tarquinius (509 BCE) and the reforms that allowed plebeians to serve as consuls (367-366 BCE), the highest office in the republic. Executive power was split between two consuls. They could only serve a one-year term, and could not serve successive terms. Later laws would mandate that one consul come from the patrician class and the other must come from the plebeians.
However, even early on, the far more numerous plebeians negotiated a seat at the table in the Roman Republic’s government. In 494 BCE, a strike of plebeian laborers and warriors amid a military conflict proved successful in leveraging the patricians.² The plebeians were subsequently allowed their own legislative assemblies known as tribunes. The tribunes eventually grew more and more cooperative with the Senate. By 287 BCE, a statute known as Lex Hortensia made laws passed by the plebeian assembly binding for all of Rome’s citizens.
Over this long span, the plebeians would fight (in a way, sue) for greater privileges and political power. These class tensions did remain present during the late republic. Keep in mind that during this formative period, there was not necessarily a wide gap between the wealth of the two classes in Rome; some plebeians were richer than patricians. The difference between them was status under the law.
One key milestone was the introduction, around 450 BCE, of a new code known as the Laws of the 12 Tables. Although these 12 Tables—originally 10 bronze tablets inscribed with the laws, with two more added thereafter—were not representative of the entirety of Roman law, they codified important protections for civil liberties and prescribed fair behavior between citizens as well as among foreigners.³ They also allowed plebeians to hold certain government offices previously not open to them.
It is only speculative that the longer struggle of the plebeians for full citizenship rights led to the passage of the Laws of the 12 Tables, as their complaints and strike had done before, but the intertwined influence of these developments is undeniable. The bronze tablets were reported to have been publicly displayed, but because none still exist, even the exact language of the laws inscribed upon them are a mystery. Only secondhand accounts and paraphrases from centuries later survived, leaving the 12 Tables shrouded in historical mystery and aggrandizement.
One could compare the spirit of the plebeians with the labor movement later in United States history, where (mostly) peaceful insubordination and leverage allowed American workers to secure a far more equitable deal from big industries. Despite the hierarchical rigidity of Ancient Rome, down to the color and style of dress worn by various professions or classes, income and social status gradually became more fluid and malleable ideas.
However, the far more important and overarching similarity with the U.S. is in the functioning of its laws and hierarchy. The Romans introduced the legal concept of torts, which makes up a huge body of law to this day. The notion of federalism, where representative assemblies shared governing responsibilities with a central authority, was also born in Ancient Rome and underpins the structure of contemporary governments in the U.S. and U.K. These two countries, in fact, see themselves as inheritors of Rome’s legacy as the dominant culture of Western society: the upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords, resembles the Roman Senate; the upper house of the U.S. Congress even borrows the same name.
In the Roman Republic, as has happened throughout the history of the U.S., distinguished military service often led to political office. From George Washington on down to Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant, this type of leadership has traditionally been valued by both cultures. It’s no accident that the last U.S. president who had never held prior political office, Dwight Eisenhower, was the Supreme Commander of the victorious Allied forces in World War II, making him a military hero. This sort of pattern was even more prevalent in Rome.
It should become increasingly clear how certain British and American institutions and cultural values about government are based on the models set by the Romans. While the classical writings of Greek and Roman authors were rediscovered in medieval times by scholars in Central Asia and Europe, it seems Great Britain and the U.S. have hewed to these values more than any other nation.
Two of these ideas in particular may surprisingly have roots in the Roman Republic: pluralism and the separation of church and state.
Even before republicanism gave way to empire in Rome, conquered territories and peoples were assimilated into the Roman way of life. Yet the conquering Romans typically allowed these nations to retain their identity and customs while being taxed as citizens. They didn’t force Latin to be spoken, as many Romans also spoke Greek, the lingua franca (international language of business) of antiquity since at least the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE.
In terms of religious pluralism, Rome is often remembered for its persecution of Jews and Christians during the time of the empire. However, as a republic, Rome did not force its pantheon of pagan gods (borrowed directly from the Greeks) on the new territories it annexed, either. Rather, the Roman pantheon came to incorporate and absorb the deities of the foreign nations it conquered as another way to grease the wheels of assimilation.
The Roman Republic even saw an early attempt to define boundaries between religion and government—by relative historical stands, that is. Upon the deposition of Rome’s last king, a separate office for the execution of religious duties, rex sacrorum, was established. These duties had originally been vested in the monarch, but the Romans perceived value in dividing these responsibilities. America was founded upon the principle of religious liberty, pluralism, and a government that endorses no single sect or denomination. Compare this to whom the American colonists rebelled against, King George III: Like his predecessors, he was the head of the Anglican Church, at least in a ceremonial capacity.
What became of the Roman Republic? What accomplishments did it contribute to future civilizations? How did it become an empire? We’ll explore all of these questions in the next installment of “A Tale of Two Empires”!
- F. Cavazzi, “The Revolt against King Tarquin” in “The Early Roman Republic.” Illustrated History of the Roman Empire. 2012. <www.roman-empire.net>
- Donald L. Wasson, “Roman Republic.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. <www.ancient.eu> 7 April 2016.
- Steven Kreis, “The Laws of the Twelve Tables, c.450 B.C.” The History Guide: Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History. 2001. <www.historyguide.org>