In 500 BC, in a relatively obscure kingdom in Italy, a noblewoman was raped by the son of the king. 2,200 years later, the American Constitution was enshrined into law after the success of the American Revolution. If you believe in the butterfly effect, you may think that the latter might have never happened without the former. The assailant in this story, a man named Sextus Tarquinius, could not have known the impact of his actions when he decided to force himself upon the object of his entitled desires, a woman named Lucretia. But Lucretia was so ashamed of her violation that she martyred herself, invoking an anger in the noblemen of Rome so strong that they overthrew the corrupt monarchy and founded the Roman Republic, a political institution whose legacy seems impervious to the passage of time. The Roman Revolution became a symbol of integrity and virtue that predominated the Roman Republic and shaped the course of history in its effect on later revolutions.
Tarquin the Proud, the king of Rome in 509 BC, was not known for his clemency. While all ancient narratives are tenuous in their provenance, Roman historians such as Livy, Cassius Dio and Diodorus of Halicarnassus agree with some certainty that his reign was violent, brutish, and characterised by the suppression of the Roman Senate and disrespect for Roman tradition and customs. Roman historians recount that while discontent with Tarquin’s regime simmered among aristocrats, the catalyst for the revolution came from an incident during which the tyranny of the monarchy was personified. Sextus Tarquinius, Tarquin’s son, raped the noblewoman Lucretia, who was famed for her moral character and devotion to her husband. Lucretia, unable to bear the shame of her defilement, disclosed what had happened to her husband and then committed suicide. Struck with grief and outrage, the noblemen of Rome took up arms immediately and banished the Tarquin family, taking over control of Rome and fending off counter-attacks from the monarchy. While the specific story of Lucretia has since been disputed, it still serves to reinforce the idea that the Romans saw significance in their revolution’s resistance to injustice and tyranny, and venerated Lucretia as a symbol of this.
After their success, the leaders of the revolution founded the Roman Republic to replace the
monarchy. The Republic embodied the spirit and principles of the revolution: never again allow one man to hold too much power, nor allow the populace to be subject to such mistreatment as they had suffered under the Roman kings. The government of the Republic guaranteed liberty and justice by representing all adult male citizens in the Senate by way of democratically elected officials, giving the population a voice in politics which they had been previously denied under the kings of Rome. This system evolved throughout the Republic to become even more representative, and the plebeian classes were allowed to vote and hold office by 400 BC. Rome’s commitment to this ethos of populism is most easily seen in its emblem ‘the Senate and People of Rome’ (SPQR), where the masses are afforded equal prominence with the leaders, and the supremacy of one citizen over another is explicitly rejected.
Protesters of corrupt monarchies throughout history, aspiring to a free and fair government, have looked to the Republic as a precedent of how a nation could thrive without a king. The Founding Fathers of America saw themselves as disciples of the Romans, pursuing a similar goal of liberty and justice to that which drove the Roman Revolution. Jay, Madison, and Hamilton even used the pen name ‘Publius’ when writing the Federalist Papers to promote the Constitution in reference to one of the founders of the Roman Republic, Publius Valerius Publicola. In building their new country, the Founding Fathers actively endeavoured to emulate the Republic, placing their senate on Capitol Hill next to the Tiber. Many features of American democracy are also inspired by the Republic, like the meeting of committees and the use of vetoes. Likewise, the proponents of the French Revolution took inspiration from the ethos of the first republicans, and paid similar homage to them in their reformed constitutions. French revolutionaries even adopted the Roman symbol of the fascis, an axe in a bundle
of wood which signified the power of the magistrates. Brutus, the first consul, had monarchical
sympathisers beaten with fasces during the revolution as a symbol of the triumph of justice. These are only a select few examples: throughout history, the Roman Revolution has been used as a blueprint for resistance; most notably, an honourable resistance in which the rights and liberty of the people in the face of autocratic corruption are valued above all else.
The Roman Revolution should be remembered as an unprecedented development in the history of democracy, whose legacy is integral to the tradition of resistance and rebellion in modern history. Not only did the Romans abide by the values of their rebellion throughout the 500 years that the Republic lasted, but these principles also informed revolutions which have shaped the nature of the world we live in today. There are worthwhile lessons to be learnt from a study of the Roman Revolution. Its dedication to the liberty of the people and opposition to tyranny are a valuable example of how to govern successfully and democratically without a monarch.
By Laura Wilkinson