Early Rome and the Issue of the 'King'

Rebel King Caractacus and members of his family, after being turned over to Roman Emperor Claudius

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Centuries before the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, when Julius Caesar ran Rome, he declined the title of rex "king." The Romans had had a terrible experience early in their history with the one-man ruler they called rex, so although Caesar may have acted like a king and might even have gotten away with accepting the title when it was, repeatedly, offered him—most memorably in Shakespeare's version of events, it was still a sore spot. Never mind that Caesar had the unique title of dictator perpetuus, making him dictator for life, instead of the temporary, emergency-only, six-month term the position was designed for.

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Romans Avoid the Title King

The legendary Greek hero Odysseus didn't want to leave his plough when he was summoned to serve in Agamemnon's army headed to Troy. Neither did the early Roman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, but, recognizing his duty, he left his plough and therefore, presumably, forfeited a harvest on his four acres of land [Livy 3.26], to serve his country when they needed him to serve as dictator. Anxious to get back to his farm, he put aside the power just as soon as he possibly could.

It was different at the end of the Republic for the urban power-brokers. Especially if his livelihood wasn't tied up in other work, serving as dictator gave real power, which was something hard for ordinary mortals to resist.

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Caesar's Divine Honors

Caesar even had divine honors. In 44 BCE, his statue with the inscription "deus invictus" [unconquered god] was placed in the temple of Quirinus and he was declared a god two years after his death. But still, he wasn't king, so the rule of Rome and its empire by the Senate and the people of Rome (SPQR) was maintained.

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The first emperor, Julius Caesar's adopted son Octavian (aka Augustus, a title, rather than his actual name) was careful to preserve the trappings of the Roman Republican system of government and to appear not to be the sole ruler, even if he held all the major offices, like consul, tribune, censor, and pontifex Maximus. He became the princess,* the first man of Rome, but first among his equals. Terms change. By the time Odoacer had ascribed to himself the term "rex," there had been a much more powerful type of ruler, the emperor.

*Princeps is the source of our English word "prince" referring to the ruler of smaller areas than a king or to the son of a king.

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Rulers in the Legendary and Republican Era

Odoacer was not the first king in Rome (or Ravenna). The first was in the legendary period that began in 753 BCE: the original Romulus whose name was given to Rome. Like Julius Caesar, Romulus was turned into a deity; that is, he achieved apotheosis, after he died. His death is suspicious. He may have been assassinated by his dissatisfied councilors, the early Senate. Even so, the rule by king continued through six more, mostly non-hereditary kings, before the Republican form, with its dual consulship as head of state, replaced a king who had grown too tyrannical, trampling on the rights of the Roman people. One of the immediate reasons the Romans revolted against kings, who had been in power for what is traditionally counted as 244 years (until 509), was the rape of a leading citizen's wife by the king's son. This is the well-known rape of Lucretia. The Romans expelled his father and decided the best way to prevent one man from having too much power was to replace the monarchy with two, annually-elected magistrates they called consuls.

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A Strongly Class-Based Society and Its Conflicts

The Roman citizen body, whether plebeian or patrician (the original use of the term connoting the small, privileged, aristocratic class of early Rome and connected with the Latin word for "fathers" patres), cast their votes in the elections of magistrates, including the two consuls. The Senate had been in existence during the regal period and continued to give advice and direction, including some legislative function during the Republic. In the first centuries of the Roman Empire, the Senate elected the magistrates, enacted legislation, and judged some minor trial cases (Lewis, Naphtali Roman Civilization: Sourcebook II: the empire). By the later period of the Empire, the Senate was largely a way of conferring honor while at the same time rubber-stamping the emperor's decisions. There were also councils composed of the Roman people, but until the lower class revolted against injustices, the rule of Rome had shifted from a monarchy to oligarchy, since it was in the hands of the patricians.

Another rape, of a lower class citizen's daughter, Verginia, by one of the men in charge, led to another people's revolt and major changes in the government. A tribune elected from the lower (plebeian) class would, from then on, be able to veto bills. His body was sacrosanct which meant that although it might be tempting to put him out of commission if he threatened to use his veto power, it would be an affront to the gods. Consuls no longer had to be patrician. Government became more popular, more like what we think of as democratic, although this use of the term is far removed from what its creator, the ancient Greeks, knew by it.

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The Even Lower Classes

Beneath the landed poor classes were the proletariat, literally the child-bearers, who had no land and therefore no steady source of income. Freedmen entered the hierarchy of citizens as proletariats. Beneath them were enslaved people. Rome's economy relied on enslavement. The Romans actually did make technological advances, but some historians claim they didn't need to create technology when it had more than enough bodies to contribute their manpower. Scholars debate the role of the dependence on enslaved people, especially in connection with the causes for the fall of Rome. Of course the enslaved weren't really completely powerless: there was always the fear of revolt by those enslaved.

In late antiquity, the period that spans both the late classical period and the early middle ages, when small landholders owed more in taxes than they could reasonably pay from their parcels, some wanted to sell themselves into enslavement, so they could enjoy such "luxuries" as having adequate nutrition, but they were stuck, as serfs. By this time, the lot of the lower classes was again as debased as it had been in during the legendary period of Rome.

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Land Shortage

One of the objections the Republican era plebeians had to the patrician behavior was what they did with land conquered in battle. They appropriated it, instead of allowing the lower classes equal access to it. Laws didn't help much: there was a law fixing an upper limit on the amount of land a person could possess, but the powerful appropriated the public land for themselves to augment their private holdings. They'd all fought for the ager publicus. Why shouldn't the plebeians reap the benefits? In addition, the battles had caused not a few self-sufficient Romans to suffer and lose what little land they had. They needed more land and better pay for their service in the military. This they gradually acquired as Rome found it needed a more professional military.

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Gill, N.S. "Early Rome and the Issue of the 'King'." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/early-rome-and-issue-of-kings-118344. Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Early Rome and the Issue of the 'King'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/early-rome-and-issue-of-kings-118344 Gill, N.S. "Early Rome and the Issue of the 'King'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/early-rome-and-issue-of-kings-118344 (accessed June 3, 2023).