The Roman Variant of Indo-European Social Organization: Militarization, Aristocratic Government, and Openness to Conquered Peoples. Part 1

A Critical History of Early Rome:  From Prehistory to the First Punic War
Gary Forsythe
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005 

Gary Forsythe, associate professor of history at Texas Tech University, has written a critical history of the early Roman republic — critical in the sense that he casts grave doubts about a considerable amount of the received wisdom of the period. Nevertheless, the picture that remains provides a most welcome portrait of a critically important variant of the Indo-European legacy that is so central to understanding the West. The picture presented is of Rome of the republic as intensely militarized, with a non-despotic aristocratic government. Roman society during this period (509BC–264BC) permitted upward mobility and was open to incorporating recently conquered peoples into the system, with full citizenship rights. This openness continued into the later republic and the empire. 

Indo-European Roots of Roman Civilization: The Military Ethos of Rome

Forsythe is well aware of the Indo-European roots of Roman culture. Essentially, the Mediterranean city-states established by I-E peoples were more settled, organized versions of basic I-E social organization based on mannerbunde. He describes “war bands” as common throughout the Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Germanic world, dedicated to raiding and fighting neighbors (i.e., the mannerbunde) (199). Leadership was based on military ability, followers sworn to fight to the death. In the early republic, aristocratic clans may well have been mannerbunde in the classic sense: the “current view,” which Forsythe is skeptical of, is that the battle of Cremera in 478 BC (a major Roman defeat at the hand of Veii, an Etruscan city, that occurred 30 years after the founding of the republic) was essentially undertaken by an aristocratic clan (the Fabians, who held consulships during the period) prior to the complete takeover by the state in organizing for war (200). In other words, at that time during the early republic, these clans operated with some independence from the Roman state.

Presumably reflecting this mannerbunde organization, patron-client relationships were very typical, with less wealthy people tied via reciprocal obligations to wealthy, powerful individuals. This is likely a holdover from Indo-European culture where war lords and their followers had mutual obligations. Forsythe notes that this mitigated social and economic disparities (216). One could be patron to another but also client to a wealthier individual. “Thus later Roman society was loosely bound together by a vast interlocking network of such relationships (216). Reflecting the non-despotic nature of Roman society (see below), patrons could be “accursed” for injustice against clients and thus either killed or ostracized.

A hallmark of Indo-European culture is that military glory is prized above all else. Thus Forsythe notes that around 311 BC, “Rome was a young and vigorous state headed by ambitious and energetic aristocrats, who were eager to utilize the state’s growing strength to enhance their own personal prestige and to further Rome’s influence and power” (307).

Various data … present the picture of a Roman aristocracy self-conscious of their power and that of the Roman state, ambitious for and reveling in military glory, and eager to advertise and catalogue their achievements for their contemporaries and posterity. … [Among aristocratic families, there was] a strong sense of family pride, tradition, and continuity. (340)

The Roman aristocracy was pervaded by a military ethos, according to which the greatest honor was won by victory in war, either by individual feats of valor or by commanding  successful military operations. This ethos was not only maintained but even fueled by the competitive rivalry which characterized the Roman elite.. … Many of Rome’s Italian allies likewise possessed a well-established military tradition, so that the profitability of successful warfare (slaves and booty) bound the Roman elite, the Roman adult male population, and Rome’s allies together into a common interest in waging wars. The Roman state was therefore configured to pursue an aggressive foreign policy marked by calculated risk taking, opportunism, and military intervention. Consequently during republican times there were few years in which Roman curule magistrates were not leading armies and conducting military operations. (286).

Indeed, it is a noteworthy comment on human self-deception that Rome developed moral rationales for many of their wars—that, for example, they had come to the aid of a beleaguered city threatened by a powerful neighbor (285). Later Roman historians in describing the causes of various wars usually magnified, if not actually fabricated, the culpability of the enemy  and suppressed or distorted any wrongdoing on the part of the Romans. … The Roman senate is seen to have been well-versed in foreign wars and quite capable of manipulating situations or of out-maneuvering enemy states so as to have a just cause for war to buttress an expansionist policy (286–287).

Because of the prestige of a military career, aristocratic families tended to avoid the tribunate (composed of plebeians and dealing with intra-urban rather than military affairs), although lower-level aristocrats did become tribunes.

Forsythe also describes the fundamentally I-E social organization of the Gauls who occupied Rome in 390 BC. The Gauls were more loosely organized than Romans or other Mediterranean city states, but they had a warrior elite dedicated to raiding:

Celtic marauding and overpopulation went hand in hand in enlarging the territorial extent of Celtic settlement and culture. Raids into new areas offered fresh opportunities for Celtic chieftains and their war bands to enrich themselves and to win prestige. At the same time, their plundering incursions often paved the way for more peaceful immigration and settlement; the Po Valley of northern Italy is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon. (251)

This intense commitment to a military ethic can be seen in Rome’s typical posture after a defeat. After the defeat at the hands of Greek king Pyrrhus, the Romans “respond[ed] with even greater effort to overcome the setback,” rather than sue for peace (253; examples on p. 254). When they eventually defeated Pyrrhus, Rome had arrived on the international scene, receiving an ambassador from Egypt.

Roman Religion

Religion was “deeply embedded” in early Roman culture, and the patricians had “special religious knowledge” (167).  Data point to “an early nexus involving priesthoods, the senate, the patriciate, and religious authority” (166). However, Rome gradually became more secular, so that the connections between patrician families and religion gradually disappeared  and plebeian aristocrats were able to hold high religious office — an aspect of the general rise of plebeians to power and status in the republic. The senate likely had a majority of priests before the second half of the fourth century BC, but after that “the increase in the number of magistracies is likely to have led to the secularization of the senate, as the prestige and importance of the priestly body of patres were eroded, and there was an influx of senators with political and military backgrounds” (169).

It’s interesting that, writing of the late empire, Larry Siedentop characterizes Roman religion as being entirely family-oriented — based on veneration and obligations to ancestors, rather than public.[1] This was certainly not the case in the republic, especially the early republic. One suspects that the decline of a public religion made the Romans more open to the public religion of Christianity which opposed strong family obligations in favor of establishing a universalist moral community. 

Aristocratic Non-despotic Government

By all accounts, the early history of Rome prior to the republic is shrouded in prehistory. Nevertheless, Forsythe notes that during the period when kings ruled, there is no indication of a hereditary principle (98). Indeed, the Roman historian Livy wrote:

Kings once ruled the city. Nevertheless, it happened that they did not pass it on to members of their own house. Unrelated persons and some foreigners succeeded them, as Romulus was followed by Numa who came from the Sabines, a neighbor to be sure, but a foreigner at that time. … [Tarquinius Priscus] was prevented from holding public office in his own hometown due to his tainted blood because he was the offspring of Demaratus the Corinthian and a woman of Tarquinii, well-born but poor, so that she had to accept such a husband by necessity; but after he migrated to Rome, he obtained the kingship. (102)

It’s particularly interesting that Tarquinius Priscus was prevented from advancement because of “tainted blood” in his hometown, but he achieved the kingship in Rome; Livy provides a similar case of Servius Tullius, an Etruscan who became king after migrating to Rome, “to the greatest advantage of the state” (103).

This is important because it indicates — consistent with other Indo-European cultures — that kings achieved their position on the basis of ability, probably as a result of being elected by their peers, not heredity. As noted elsewhere, I-E society was a free market system rather than a strongly kinship-based system.[2] Leaders of mannerbunde were able to recruit followers because of their ability to successfully wage war. Followers would be rewarded for their efforts, but they would defect to other mannerbunde if they thought there were better opportunities elsewhere.

Roman kings were not igenerally despots, although there is some speculation that the last two kings were tyrants (106), perhaps resulting in rejecting the kingship in favor of republican institutions. For the most part, the king was “first among equals” — labeled by Ricardo Duchesne “aristocratic egalitarianism”;[3] he was advised by other aristocrats and, as noted, likely elected by them.

By the end of the sixth century, just prior to the republic, Rome had a tripartite government—people, senate, and king. The people were divided into three geographically-based (not kinship-based) tribes, each with 10 curiae that formed the basis for the earliest political and military structure of the city-state. They served as the basis of military recruitment and voting. In early Rome, aristocrats advised the king; after the kings, it became a body in its own right, the senate. The senate elected interim kings “until the people were summoned to a meeting of the comitia curiata [a military assembly; see below] at which time a candidate proposed by the presiding interrex received the affirmative vote of the people (lex curiata) and the endorsement of the senate (partum auctoritas)” (110).

Although it may not have been as neat and tidy as this, the two consuls established by the republic essentially inherited the military and judicial powers of the king, while the rex sacrorum inherited the king’s religious duties. Consuls had power to raise troops and command troops in war. Consuls were partners, each of whose actions could be blocked by the other.  “Disagreement resulted in inaction” (150). However, in times of crisis a dictator could be appointed by one of the consuls in response to a decree of the senate, and probably ratified by the comitia centuriata. Unlike the consuls with their one-year term, dictators only had a 6-month term.

With the establishment of the republic, Rome became dominated by the aristocracy. The highest offices, consuls and praetors with military and judicial functions, were elected by the comitia centuriata, a convocation of the military, divided in centuries, where people with property had the majority of the vote (people were assigned to a century depending on 5 classes of property ownership, with the lower classes having decreasing influence; the election was typically decided by the time the lower classes could vote). The comitia centuriata had great power to legislate laws, declare war, and ratify treaties; it served as a high court in capital cases (111).

The tribal assemblies were a completely different way of cutting up the Roman population—on the basis of geographical residence as assigned by censors. Censors assessed each head of household’s property and assigned him to one of the property-based divisions of the comitia centuriata, as well as to a geographically-based tribe and to an economic class. The tribal assemblies (comitia tributa) elected the plebeian tribunes who could enact legislation and adjudicate non-capital litigation. They also had the power to veto the actions of the senate and other magistrates, including the consuls; however  this power was rarely used until the late republic. Forsythe suggests that in general, the consuls and plebeian tribunes were complementary offices: plebeian tribunes were concerned with issues within the city, whereas the consuls were more oriented to external affairs, especially war (176).

Tribunes of the plebs were the most important office after the consuls. Their duties were confined to running the city —“legislative and judicial business before the assembled people” (170). “In later Roman political thought the plebeian tribunes were regarded as public watchdogs and the protectors of citizens’ rights” (171). Most laws were enacted by these tribunes, but this was “usually pursuant to a decree of the senate” (170).  In the later republic beginning with the time of the Gracchi (131–121BC), there was more conflict with the senate; Forsythe notes “seditious tribunes promoting popular issues in opposition to the senate” (171).

Although the patriciate wielded considerable power, even by the late fifth century BC, around a century after the founding of the republic, they were unable to monopolize power. “Although during the latter part of the fifth century an inner group of aristocrats succeeded in defining themselves as patrician by reason of their birth, wealth, and presumed special relationship with the divine, their attempt to monopolize the consulship was relatively short-lived and was abandoned about two decades after the Gallic catastrophe [of 390 BC]” (367).

Forsythe attaches particular importance to the political settlements of 367 and 338 BC which launched Rome on to spectacular success. These settlements reinforced the separation of powers so central to Roman political structure. “Political power was distributed among the magistrates, the senate, and the assembly of citizens so as to form the mixed constitution which Polybius praised so highly in his sixth book.”

Another historian, Andrew Lintott, summarizes the separation of powers at Rome as follows:

At Rome it appears that the senate is the focus of politics. It is here that not only issues of foreign policy are debated but also matters like the quarrel between the praetor and the pontifex maximus.  The senate is an accepted sounding board between the authority of the members of the executive , who would also for the most part be members of it.

However, it would be wrong to think of it as a unique or supreme authority. Indeed, it is characteristic of the Republic that there were multiple points of legitimate decision-making, which were normally not to be overturned by some higher authority (something that was to largely disappear under the monarchy of the Caesars). The magistrates — including the aediles, tribunes, questors … and the commissioners for the founding and refounding of colonies— owe their position to the people in an assembly. … The popular vote might be subject to what were considered improper influences, but it also shows that such influences were not necessarily decisive. [4]

The Greek historian Polybius ( c. 200 – c. 118 BC) suggest that Roman success resulted partly from having gradually evolved and changed as a result of experience rather than having been laid down by a lawgiver.

Go to Part 2.

[1] The Church in European History: Review of Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Westerrn Liberalism, The Occidental Quarterly 16, no. 4 (Winter, 2016-2017), 92–114.

[2] Kevin MacDonald, “The Indo-European Genetic and Cultural Legacy in Europe.” The Occidental Quarterly 17, no. 1 (Spring, 2017): 3-33.

[3] Ricardo Duchesne, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

[4] Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 14.


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