From its inauspicious beginnings as a small cluster of huts in the tenth century B.C., Rome developed into a city-state, first ruled by kings, then, from 509 B.C. onward, by a new form of governmentthe Republic. During the early Republic, power rested in the hands of the patricians, a privileged class of Roman citizens whose status was a birthright. The patricians had exclusive control over all religious offices and issued final assent (patrum auctoritas) to decisions made by the Roman popular assemblies. However, debts and an unfair distribution of public land prompted the poorer Roman citizens, known as the plebians, to withdraw from the city-state and form their own assembly, elect their own officers, and set up their own cults. Their principal demands were debt relief and a more equitable distribution of newly conquered territory in allotments to Roman citizens. Eventually, in 287 B.C., with the so-called Conflict of the Orders, wealthier, land-rich plebians achieved political equality with the patricians. The main political result was the birth of a noble ruling class consisting of both patricians and plebians, a unique power-sharing partnership that continued into the late first century B.C.
During the last three centuries of the Republic, Rome became a metropolis and the capital city of a vast expanse of territory acquired piecemeal through conquest and diplomacy. Administered territories (provinciae) outside Italy included: Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, Africa, Macedonia, Achaea, Asia, Cilicia, Gaul, Cyrene, Bithynia, Crete, Pontus, Syria, and Cyprus. The strains of governing an ever-expanding empire involving a major military commitment, and the widening gulf between those citizens who profited from Rome's new wealth and those who were impoverished, generated social breakdown, political turmoil, and the eventual collapse of the Republic. Rome experienced a long and bloody series of civil wars, political crises, and civil disturbances that culminated with the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and his assassination on March 15, 44 B.C. After Caesar's death, the task of reforming the Roman state and restoring peace and stability fell to his grandnephew, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, only eighteen years old, who purged all opposition to his complete control of the Roman empire and was granted the honorific title of Augustus in 27 B.C.
Department of Greek and Roman Art. "The Roman Republic". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/romr/hd_romr.htm (October 2000)
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