When the Etruscans took over Rome, the people they conquered were apparently Latins, descendants of prehistoric inhabitants of the peninsula. Under its Etruscan kings, Rome prospered during the sixth century B.C. The Etruscans built new stone structures and drained and paved what eventually became the Forum. But the Roman population joined with other Latin tribes in a large-scale rebellion. The traditional date for the expulsion from Rome of the last Etruscan king, Tarquin the Proud, is 509 B.C. What he left behind was an independent Latin city-state, still including some Etruscan nobles, much smaller than Athens or Sparta, sharing Latium with other city- states. Yet in less than 250 years, Rome would dominate the entire Italian peninsula.
We can understand this success best by examining Roman institutions. Once they had ousted Tarquin, the dominant aristocratic forces of Rome set up a republic. Only the well-established landowning families, the patricians, perhaps not more than 10 percent of the population, held full citizenship. The remaining 90 percent were plebeians who included those engaged in trade or labor, the smaller farmers, and all those who were debtors as the result of the economic upheaval that followed the expulsion of the Etruscans. The plebeians had no right to hold office; they could amass as much money as they pleased, however, and wealthy plebeians would eventually lead a campaign to gain political emancipation for their class.
The patrician class supplied two consuls, who governed jointly for a term of a year, enjoying full imperium, or “supreme political power.” Each had the right of veto over the other. Ordinarily they were commanders of the army, but in wartime this power was often wielded for a period not longer than six months by an elected dictator, a commander who had obtained his authority constitutionally and had to surrender it when his term was over.
The consuls usually followed the policies decided on by the Senate, a body consisting of about three hundred members, mostly patricians. It wielded such prestige that it came first in the Roman political emblem—SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanorum, that is, the Senate and the People of the Romans. The reigning consuls, who were themselves senators, appointed new senators. The Romans had another deliberative body, the Centuriate Assembly, based on the century, the smallest unit (one hundred men) of the army. Although plebeians were included, the patricians also dominated the deliberations of this body. It enjoyed less actual power than the Senate, although it elected the consuls and other officials and approved or rejected laws submitted to it by both the consuls and the Senate.
Before a man could be chosen consul, he had to pass through a succession of lesser posts. The job that led directly to the consulate was that of praetor. Elected by the Centuriate Assembly for a term of a year, the praetor served as a judge; he also often commanded an army and later governed a province. While at first there was only one praetor, the number later rose to eight. Men seeking election as praetor or consul wore a special robe whitened with chalk, the toga candida, from which comes our word candidate. From among the ex-consuls, the assembly elected two censors, for an eighteen-month term, who took a census to determine which of the population was qualified for army service. They also secured the right to pass on the moral qualifications of men nominated for the Senate, barring those they thought corrupt or too luxury loving.
The plebeians naturally resented their exclusion from political authority. As early as the 490s they threatened to withdraw from Rome and to found a new city-state of their own nearby. And when this tactic won them a concession, they continued to use it at various times with great effect during the next two hundred years. In 494 B.C. they gained the right to have officials of their own, the tribunes of the people, to protect them from unduly harsh application of the laws; by 457 there were ten such tribunes. In 471 the plebeians also gained their own assembly, the Tribal Assembly (named because of the subdivision of the plebeian population into tribes), which chose the tribunes and had the right, like the Centuriate Assembly, to pass on new laws. Next they complained that the patrician judges could manipulate the law for their own purposes because it had never been set down for all to read. So in 451 the consuls ordered the laws engraved on wooden tablets—the Twelve Tables.
In the early Republic, being in debt meant that a plebeian farmer would lose his land and be forced into slavery. As a result, property steadily accumulated in the hands of the patrician landowners. In a significant advance, the plebeians were able to change the laws affecting their economic relationship with the patricians. They obtained legislation limiting the size of an estate that any one man might accumulate, abolishing the penalty of slavery for debt, and opening newly acquired lands to settlement by landless farmers. Still, the farmer-debtor problem, though eased, continued to plague the Romans even during the fifth and fourth centuries, when the plebeians won the right to hold all the offices of the state, including that of consul (366 B.c.). The plebeians also forced the repeal of the laws that forbade their intermarriage with patricians. The fusion of wealthy plebeians and patricians formed a new class, the nobiles.
Life for women in Rome did not differ greatly from the life of women in the Greek city-states. There was, however, more emphasis on family planning. The upper classes practiced both contraception and abortion. To reduce the size of families, infants (usually girls) were abandoned and died. Poor women often had large families and turned to prostitution to feed them. Roman households included female slaves who acted as midwives, nurses, and kitchen help. Freedwomen were part of the working class, often as independent shopkeepers and artisans, especially in wool. Women were expected to remain at home, bear children, and avoid public life.