Ancient Rome

The first great European empire created institutions for conflict resolution that continue to influence the modern world.
How do agrarian civilizations differ from archaic societies in their mechanism for resolving conflicts?

For a case study we take the most centralized culture in the ancient world: Rome.
"Of course Rome was so influential," says Jean-François Rioux, professor and director of the Conflict Studies program at Saint Paul. It impacted Europe and spread its influence through colonialism and commerce and the arts. "But today we're looking at it as one example of an integrated agrarian society – we could look at certain African or Asian societies and see the same things happening."

Jean-François wants to remind us that although Rome is looked to as a society ahead of its time, with modern features for resolving conflicts like senates and legislative assemblies and law systems and courts, they still coexisted with traditional mechanisms common to the era. But before we get to that, he wants to tell us just what he means when he describes Rome as 'agrarian.'

Agrarian Societies

When we speak about the degree to which a society's agrarian, we're talking about whether they live a settled life on the land, supported by agriculture, as compared to the lifestyle of the hunter-gatherers we discussed last week.

We're talking about large-scale agriculture and herding, and with that usually comes the division of labour and a social hierarchy with people on the top and the bottom and in between. Private property is widespread, and large estates already exist. Religion is no longer a matter of shamanism or magic – it's a polytheist worship structure. The family is now primarily patrilinear, with children raised by their biological father, taking his name and inheriting his wealth.

There are different ways these societies were organized, with Aristotle listing up to 150 of them. These include chiefdoms, not unlike the polynesian societies mentioned last class. Or patrimonial regimes where families held power. There could also be kingdoms with large aristocratic classes and vast territory, or tyrannies where someone came to power by force or ruse. Aristocratic regimes are led by a small number of large families, and empires are monarchies that have invaded other cultures and rule over different peoples.

Conflict and war, at this point, are widespread. Large-scale violence among archaic people is a topic of debate, but agrarian violence is not. We have cultures with centralized command structures, professional armies and additional sources of conflict because there's plenty more to fight over.

But they've also developed new forms of conflict resolution, two of which are law and politics. These existed in archaic societies but were not formalized, written or standardized. Law as a system regulating human behaviour only took effect with agrarian societies, along with politics as the exercise of power necessary to control large groups of people.

But innovations like law and politics result from a phenomenon of what Max Weber calls political domination. In archaic societies you don't have top-down organizations where some possess the privilege of command and others follow orders. Power, in hunter-gatherer tribes, is intermittent and conditional – a chief is powerful because he led a big war, and he can't pass on his status. He'll have to defend it as time goes on, or seek alliances.

The domination emerging from agrarian societies creates institutions like bureaucracies and armies and courts of law that will basically be instruments of this domination. But traditional forms of authority, like family and religion, remain and continue to hold power especially in the village or countryside. But while most people still lived a rural life, cities slowly became the center of power.

And, for a good thousand years, one city dominated most of the western agrarian world.


We're taking Rome not only as an example of an agrarian society, but of an integrated agrarian society. It's centralized, something that would be lost after the empire fragmentation (our theme next week will be nonintegrated agrarian societies). These features are important, because they impact what kind of conflict resolution mechanisms developed and how they influenced later ages.

Some history might be important.

One thing we have to deal with whenever we're talking about Rome is this idea of the glorious past, this progressive society hemmed in on all sides by barbarism. While there are many things that did make Rome special, we're still going to have to consider it as a human society with tis strengths and weaknesses. It doesn't do us much good to romanticize it out of historical recognition.

There are three periods that we normally talk about, the Monarchy (which lasted roughly 250 years), the Republic (lasting about 500 years, nearly up to the birth of Christ) and then the Empire (which lasted another 500 years after that).

The monarchy developed when the city was merely one village among many on the Italian peninsula. It was replaced by an aristocratic regime approximately 510 years before Christ, and in a revolution that pitted the monarchy against a group of influential aristocrats combined with the majority of the plebes (common people). The aristocrats and plebes defeated the royal family and set up a regime in which powerful families would rule the emerging city.

These families were very powerful, but the plebes were able to wring some compromises from them and so developed the notion of the citizen as well as institutions like the senate and the courts. The citizens, however, didn't have the same access to these institutions that the aristocracy did, and the history of the republic reads somewhat like a long line of alliances, plots, assassinations and civil wars, punctuated by periods of stability and prosperity.

At this time, the republic would expand to cover most of the Mediterranean sea, and in the final years of its existence they finally conquer Egypt and England – these were campaigns led by famous figures like Marc Antony and Julius Caesar. But civil war after civil war broke out, and the forces of a man named Octavius won out against Marc Antony (and Cleopatra) and he crowned himself emperor under the name Augustus. Rome had now become an Empire.
Under Augustus, the empire expanded from the Persian Gulf to Scotland to the Caspian sea. Central and Eastern Europe had never been part of the empire, though, despite the attempts of many emperors to conquer the Germanic tribes. They never established a strong presence behind the Rhine and Danube rivers, and so they formed the traditional frontier of the empire. In the end, it would be these very tribes that would dismantle Rome as we know it.

But before that point it would last for half a century – it would also split in two. The eastern part would form the Byzntine empire, centered around the city of Byzantium (later named Constantinople and then Istanbul), and it would last for a thousand years. But, unfortunately for them, not without shrinking dramatically from its original size before being taken by the Ottomans.

Roman Society

Ancient Roman society, despite what the movies say, was not organized like contemporary Europe. They had families, but they branched out into extended networks. They had citizens, but that was an entirely different concept back then. Some citizens had more rights than others, and it entirely depended on what order you were born into.

Order here isn't exactly like class – it might be similar to a caste, but without the religious overtones. Mobility was highly limited and the chances of moving from one order to another were very small. The highest order was that of the aristocrats, and these were divided into the patricians (high aristocracy) and the knights (low aristocracy). Each order comes with its duties, and the aristocrats were meant to furnish the army with commanders and soldiers. They didn't have enough men, however, and so invited members of the lower orders (who had money and a horse) to join the low aristocracy as knights. The knights could also service in the public service as civil servants or members of the courts.

From there you had the plebes, who were considered citizens and had a certain amount of access to protection or representation in assemblies. After that you had the foreigners (who could not be naturalized into citizens) and then, at the bottom, there were the slaves. The slaves were often taken from peoples subjugated by war, and would be used to work the land or the forests or the mines. They might also be sent to work on villas, which was more of an estate than a fancy house.

It should be mentioned that slavery was not a permanent condition: people could make enough money to purchase their freedom. They had opportunities to earn or to trade, and many of them had gardens of their own as a source of income.

But when looking at how Roman social structure worked in terms of conflict resolution, you can't escape the family.
The family is like a pyramid with the paterfamilias at the top. He is the head of the family: always male, in charge of the cult of the ancestors, makes sure special lamps are burning at all times. He was something of a mini-priest, and sometimes his powers extended to life and death within the bounds of his family.

From there you have the first-born son, who will become paterfamilias when his father dies, and then the mother and other children. From there you get other dependents, like cousins and older uncles or grandmothers. At the bottom are the slaves, and they are considered part of the family in the sense that they are under the paterfamilias' authority.

And that authority is important, because he would be able to mediate informal dispute processes that are within the family. But he would also represent everyone among other families, and his peers would be organized into different ranks called the gens and then the curia and ultimately the civitas. These acted like clannic, tribal structures, and each one had their colours and their symbols and their loyalties. Loyalty was important, because different families and family structures would sometimes war with each other and would have to be mediated by their peers or by members of the next civil hierarchy level.

These extended, clannic family structures have mostly disappeared in Western Europe, with the exception of south Italian mafia networks and Montenegro's tribal system. It's another example of an ancient system we don't normally associate with the progressive image we have of Rome.

Sources of Conflict in Rome

Rome had similar issues that led to conflict as did archaic societies, like issues of marriage and the paternity of children. But they also had to deal with problems rising from divorce, property, business, commerce, conflicts between the orders, disputes over political influence, issues with foreign people and more.

Relations with foreigners was no small thing. First there were the foreign powers that could be allies or subjects of trade or war, like the Germanic tribes of Persia. There were many foreigners who were conquered and had to be subjugated from time to time – they lived within the Roman Republic or Empire, but they didn't have the same privileges as citizens. Some people would rebel, as the Jews did in Palestine from time to time.

As Roman culture spread through the conquered lands, particularly in the Italian peninsula, the question of citizenship was raised time and again. At first it was about those whose ancestors were born in the seven hills of Rome, but soon many people would dress the same, worship the same, speak the same language and ask why they weren't also citizens – this would lead to various conflicts. In one famous example, the Gracchus brothers led a campaign to naturalize all conquered peoples, but they were eventually killed.

Eventually, however, this naturalization did occur. This allowed for greater numbers to enter the army and the civil service, particularly from among the Spaniards and the Gauls and the Britons.

Slave relations would also lead to conflict, as many of them led awful lives. There were two major slave rebellions in the republic, the more famous of which was led by a man named Spartacus. His group defeated a Roman legion and conquered part of southern Italy, shaking the republic's sense of itself until they were defeated.

Religion could also be a source of conflict. For the most part there was a large degree of tolerance, especially as their pantheon of gods was taken from the Greek tradition. They didn't impose their religion on the conquered peoples. They weren't Roman, the logic went, and so why should they worship the Roman gods? They asked that some would attend ceremonies or go to the temple from time to time, and for many people this was no issue.

This did cause controversy among the Jews and, later, the early Christians, who were both monotheists. They refused to attend the parades or make sacrifices and, combined with the rebellions in Palestine, this could add up to trouble. As the Christian population grew, and as they continued to pay homage to the Roman gods, they were persecuted until the point where the empire was Christianized.


In terms of political institutions, the senate is the first major innovation that comes to mind. The senators were all male, all aristocrats – all top aristocrats, actually. And the senate was the place where they did their dealing, their plotting, their damage control. There were no political parties, but different family groups or tribes would form coalitions to gain more power or influence. These coalitions would change over time as interests shifted, but they were mostly kept in check by the senate structure.

This was important because when the system did fail the families would use force against each other and the republic would descend into civil war. Which means that one large function of the senate, officially or unofficially, was to prevent this from happening. Since it was a court of peers, they would use mediation and other mechanisms to prevent chaos.

Unity was important to stave off conflicts, and it would be facilitated by local assemblies where the plebes would be able to participate and have some kind of say or representation. There would also be special assemblies, organized once or twice a year, where all citizens could join in with their clan and wear their colours and insignias and vote on general issues. The latter assembly would have more symbolic power than legislative, but it served to generate good will and the impression of direct democracy.

When the emperors came to power, these institutions were weakened. They continued to exist but were mostly limited to advisor roles – in the event of a weak emperor, though, there was more space for ambitious senate members to exert power.
There were a number of bureaucratic roles that served in the system, like aediles and quaestors and praetors and censors and so on, and positions like these formed a kind of currency. People fought over them, as they gave access to prestige or, sometimes, influence.

During extraordinary times, like war or drought, the senators would elect a dictator. He would have special powers, but every hear the senate would have to renew his position. He would be able to go beyond the divisions among the families to impose solutions or decisions. The most famous dictator was Julius Caesar, and his eventual assassination was due to the suspicion that he was not going to let go of his power lightly. But what was an attempt to keep power out of the hands of a single man turned into the first in a series of civil wars that led to the emergence of the emperor.

Augustus, on becoming the first emperor, claimed even greater powers. He was not only the head of the army and the civil service, he was also the supreme priest. He headed all major ceremonies and his legitimacy (for life, of course) was said to be divine.

While these institutions ultimately failed, both to preserve the public and to hold the later empire together, their role was to keep the peace. To resolve conflict as it came up. To mediate between the interests of the powerful or, at times, to give voice to the powerless. While things did come down to a crashing halt, the fact that these structures existed for centuries is no small feat.

Law and Informal Conflict Resolution

Rome has become famous for its legal system, one that has had major influence across the world. But the actual codification of that law in a professional, systematized form didn't happen until the later Byzantine Empire – until then, there was a mix of oral traditions, presidents, and the effective constitution laid out in the Twelve Tables.

These tablets didn't contain much text, but they formed the fundamental law of Rome – it outlined the agreement made between the people and the aristocrats at the beginning of the republic. The notion of citizenship, and basic rights, started there.

There weren't a lot of other written sources for then the Byzantine emperor Justinian decided to compile his three famous law books: the Codex, the Digest and the Institutes. All three are fairly unreadable if you're not a specialist, because they were assembled from huge amounts of diverse accounts of laws used over the previous centuries.

But it was perhaps this ambiguity that led to the flexible nature of Roman law as well as its mechanisms for conflict resolution. This flexibility lead to a lot of leeway for judges to make all sorts of pronouncements (some of which contained conflicts of interest), but it also allowed for settlements to be made outside of court using mediation (informal negotiations with the assistance of a third party) or arbitration (giving legal power to someone outside the court system to give a judgement). These were in contrast to adjudication, which was a direct appeal to legal power.

All three modes could be used in one case, depending on the circumstances, and professionals would feel free to swap between them depending on what the situation required.

Another major thing to be aware of was the existence of two different kinds of law: res publica (public) and res private (private). Public law touched on anything having to do with the state, and private law was everything else. Jus civile and jus gentium were sections of public law that were dedicated to citizens and foreigners respectively, and if you broke these laws you were at the mercy of the public courts.

Even major crimes that didn't have to do with official bodies, like the killing of a man in a tavern, would be relegated to private law, and these disputes could be easily settled out of court by asking for blood money. Compensation was preferred to jail (which was reserved for terrorists, rebels and other state criminals). And because there was a reluctance for state courts to interfere with private matters, non-professional officials would serve as mediators or arbiters.

These officials would come from the aristocratic bureaucracy, and they could swap between hard-line adjudications and unofficial arbitrations in an afternoon. Different aristocrats would swap in and out of these roles, and it was up to the emerging lawyer profession to keep track of presidents and rulings and such. But while writers like Cicero would pen accounts of famous cases, we don't have records from informal hearings that were mostly held behind closed doors.

Conquered peoples would be allowed to have their own versions of private law, but Roman public law would extend to all regions of the empire. A classic case of this was the case of Jesus: when he was taken before Pontius Pilate by the temple officials, Pilate said he could do nothing to him because it was a matter of private law. It was only when the officals claimed he spoke against Caesar that Pilate was forced to interevene and, thus, make the death penalty by crucifixtion a possibility.
The role of the paterfamilias was also important when it came to conflict resolution. He had the power of a mild authoritarian in the context of his family, and when he decided to punish, reward or put to death there was little appeal. Complaints against a paterfamilias' verdict would never make it to court – it was not unlike a mafia situation, with the paterfamilias being the don.

While his peers wouldn't interfere in matters concerning his own family, the community of paterfamilias could intervene to prevent conflict between clans. There were numerous semi-professionals whose role was to diffuse conflicts before they got out of hand – and when you had entire networks of family members behind you (to say nothing of the greater clans), things could escalate quite easily. Again, these processes would happen behind closed doors and we don't have a lot of documentation.

While we imagine the Romans as having had the rigid structures we associate with modern law, they were still only one step ahead of the archaic societies we studied last week – formal and informal ways of resolving conflicts would be mixed according to the situation, and individual arbiders would have power to make special rulings. This could either lead to biased, tyrannical results or tailor-made solutions to everyday problems.

Some of these rulings would emerge into entirely separate law systems (like the lex mercatoria, which influenced the Law of the Sea today), while others would eventually become codified in Justinian's texts. Only once they were codified could their influence spread to Europe and then the rest of the world, providing models for how to settle disputes and conflicts before they escalated to civil wars.
Jean-François Rioux is the director of Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied conflict and ethics at St. Paul University in 2020.
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Further Reading
Roman Law
Lawson, F.H.
in Balsdon, J.P.V.D.,
Roman Civilization, London, Penguin, 1965, pp.103-126.
The World of the Citizen
Nicolet, Claude,
in Republican Rome, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1980, pp.317-341.
Law & Empire
Harries, Jill
in Late Antiquity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 235p., pp172-190.