The World of the Ancient Romans
Senatus Populusque Romanus 509 BC–27 BC - "The Senate and People of Rome"
The Roman Republic was the phase of the ancient Roman civilization characterized by a republican form of government; a period which began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, c. 509 BC, and lasted over 450 years until its subversion, through a series of civil wars, into the Principate form of government and the Imperial period.
The Roman Republic was governed by a complex constitution, which centered on the principles of a separation of powers and checks and balances. The evolution of the constitution was heavily influenced by the struggle between the aristocracy, or the patricians, and other talented Romans who were not from famous families, the plebians. Early in its history, the republic was controlled by an aristocracy of individuals who could trace their ancestry back to the early history of the kingdom. Over time, the laws that allowed these individuals to dominate the government were repealed, and the result was the emergence of a new aristocracy which depended on the structure of society, rather than the law, to maintain its dominance. Thus, only a revolution could overthrow this new aristocracy.
Rome also saw its territory expand during this period, from central Italy to the entire Mediterranean world. During the first two centuries, Rome expanded to the point of dominating Italy. During the next century, Rome grew to dominate North Africa, Iberia, Greece, and what is now southern France. During the last two centuries of the Roman Republic, Rome grew to dominate the rest of modern France, as well as much of the east. By this point, however, the republican political machinery was replaced with imperialism.
The precise event which signaled the end of the Roman Republic and the transition into the Roman Empire is a matter of interpretation. Towards the end of the period a selection of Roman leaders came to so dominate the political arena that they exceeded the limitations of the Republic as a matter of course. Historians have variously proposed the appointment of Julius Caesar as perpetual dictator in 44 BC, the defeat of Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, and the Roman Senate's grant of extraordinary powers to Octavian under the first settlement in 27 BC, as candidates for the defining pivotal event ending the Republic.
Many of Rome's legal and legislative structures can still be observed throughout Europe and the rest of the world by modern states and organizations. The Romans' Latin language has influenced grammar and vocabulary across Europe and the world.
According to the more or less legendary traditional accounts, Rome's republican era began after the overthrow of the last Roman King of the Tarquin monarchy by Lucius Junius Brutus in 509 BC. The republic of Rome was then ruled by the Senate and its assembly which were put in place as far back as the beginning of the monarchy.
The Roman Republic was governed by a largely unwritten complex constitution, which centered on the principles of a separation of powers and comprised a host of checks and balances. The evolution of the constitution was heavily influenced by the struggle between the aristocracy and the other prominent Romans who were not from the nobility. Early in its history, the republic was controlled by an aristocracy, the patricians, who could trace their ancestry back to the early history of the kingdom. Over time, the laws that allowed these individuals to dominate the government were repealed, and the result was the emergence of a new aristocracy which depended on the structure of society, rather than the law, to maintain its dominance.
Rome also saw its territory expand dramatically during this period, from central Italy to the entire Mediterranean world. During the first two centuries, Rome's influence expanded to cover the whole of Italy. During the next century, Rome's military muscle and developing economy dominated North Africa, Spain, Greece, and what is now southern France. During the last two centuries of the Roman Republic, Rome overcame resistance across the rest of modern France, as well as much of Anatolia and Syria.
The Senate's ultimate authority derived from the esteem and prestige of the Senate. This esteem and prestige was based on both precedent and custom, as well as the high caliber and prestige of the Senators. The Senate passed decrees, which were called senatus consultum. This was officially "advice" from the Senate to a magistrate. In practice, however, these were usually obeyed by the magistrates. The focus of the Roman Senate was directed towards foreign policy. Though it technically had no official role in the management of military conflict, the Senate ultimately was the force that oversaw such affairs. The senate also managed the civil administration in the city and the town. The requirements for becoming a senator included having at least 100,000 denarii worth of land, being born of the patrician (noble aristocrats) class, and having held public office at least once before. The rest of the senatus would vote on your acceptance.
It was the People of Rome - and thus the assemblies - who had the final say regarding the election of magistrates, the enactment of new laws, the carrying out of capital punishment, the declaration of war and peace, and the creation (or dissolution) of alliances. There were two types of legislative assemblies. The first was the comitia ("committees"), which were assemblies of all citizens. The second was the concilia ("councils"), which were assemblies of specific groups of citizens.
Magisterial powers, and checks on those powers
Each republican magistrate held certain constitutional powers. Only the People of Rome (both plebeians and patricians) had the right to confer these powers on any individual magistrate. The most powerful constitutional power was imperium. Imperium was held by both consuls and praetors. Imperium gave a magistrate the authority to command a military force. All magistrates also had the power of coercion. This was used by magistrates to maintain public order. While in Rome, all citizens had an absolute protection against coercion. This protection was called provocatio (see below). Magistrates also had both the power and the duty to look for omens. This power would often be used to obstruct political opponents.
One check over a magistrate's power was his collegiality. Each magisterial office would be held concurrently by at least two people. Another check over the power of a magistrate was provocatio. Provocatio was a primordial form of due process. It was a precursor to habeas corpus. If any magistrate was attempting to use the powers of the state against a citizen, that citizen could appeal the decision of the magistrate to a tribune. In addition, once a magistrate's annual term in office expired, he would have to wait ten years before serving in that office again. Since this did create problems for some consuls and praetors, these magistrates would occasionally have their imperium extended. In effect, they would retain the powers of the office (as a promagistrate), without officially holding that office.
Consuls, praetors, censors, aediles, quaestors, tribunes, and dictators
The consul of the Roman Republic was the highest ranking ordinary magistrate. Consuls had supreme power in both civil and military matters. While in the city of Rome, the consuls were the head of the Roman government. They would preside over the senate and the assemblies. While abroad, each consul would command an army. His authority abroad would be nearly absolute.
Praetors would administer civil law and command provincial armies. Every five years, two censors would be elected for an eighteen month term. During their term in office, the two censors would conduct a census. During the census, they could enroll citizens in the senate, or purge them from the senate. Aediles were officers elected to conduct domestic affairs in Rome, such as managing public games and shows. The quaestors would usually assist the consuls in Rome, and the governors in the provinces. Their duties were often financial.
Since the tribunes were considered to be the embodiment of the plebeians, they were sacrosanct. Their sacrosanctity was enforced by a pledge, taken by the plebeians, to kill any person who harmed or interfered with a tribune during his term of office. All of the powers of the tribune derived from their sacrosanctity. One obvious consequence of this sacrosanctity was the fact that it was considered a capital offense to harm a tribune, to disregard his veto, or to interfere with a tribune.
In times of military emergency, a dictator would be appointed for a term of six months. Constitutional government would dissolve, and the dictator would become the absolute master of the state. When the dictator's term ended, constitutional government would be restored.
The constitutional history of the Roman Republic can be divided into five phases. The first phase began with the revolution which overthrew the monarchy in 510 BC. The final phase ended with the revolution which overthrew the Roman Republic, and thus created the Roman Empire, in 27 BC. Throughout the history of the republic, the constitutional evolution was driven by the struggle between the aristocracy and the ordinary citizens.
The patrician era (509-367 BC)
According to legend, the last king was overthrown in 510 BC. The historical monarchy, as the legends suggest, was probably overthrown quickly, but the constitutional changes which occurred immediately after the revolution were probably not as extensive as the legends suggest. The most important constitutional change probably concerned the chief executive. Before the revolution, a king would be elected by the senators for a life term. Now, two consuls were elected by the citizens for an annual term. Each consul would check his colleague, and their limited term in office would open them up to prosecution if they abused the powers of their office. Consular political powers, when exercised conjointly with a consular colleague, were no different from those of the old king. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the senate and the assemblies were as powerless as they had been under the monarchy.
In the year 494 BC, the city was at war with two neighboring tribes. The plebeian soldiers refused to march against the enemy, and instead seceded to the Aventine hill. The plebeians demanded the right to elect their own officials. The patricians agreed, and the plebeians returned to the battlefield. The plebeians called these new officials "plebeian tribunes". The tribunes would have two assistants, called "plebeian aediles". In 367 BC a law was passed, which required the election of at least one plebeian aedile each year. In 443 BC, the censorship was created, and in 366 BC, the praetorship was created. Also in 366 BC, the curule aedileship was created. Shortly after the founding of the republic, the Comitia Centuriata ("Assembly of the Centuries") became the principle legislative assembly. In this assembly, magistrates were elected, and laws were passed.
During the fourth century BC, a series of reforms were passed. The result of these reforms was that any law passed by the Plebeian Council would have the full force of law. This gave the tribunes (who presided over the Plebeian Council) a positive character for the first time. Before these laws were passed, the only power that the tribunes held was that of the veto.
The Conflict of the Orders (367-287 BC)
After the plebeian aedileship had been created, the patricians created the curule aedileship. After the consulship had been opened to the plebeians, the plebeians were able to hold both the dictatorship and the censorship. In 337 BC, the first plebeian praetor was elected.
In 342 BC, two significant laws were passed. One of these two laws made it illegal to hold more than one office at any given point in time. The other law required an interval of ten years to pass before any magistrate could seek reelection to any office.
During these years, the tribunes and the senators grew increasingly close. The senate realized the need to use plebeian officials to accomplish desired goals. To win over the tribunes, the senators gave the tribunes a great deal of power and the tribunes began to feel obligated to the senate. As the tribunes and the senators grew closer, plebeian senators were often able to secure the tribunate for members of their own families. In time, the tribunate became a stepping stone to higher office.
Around the middle of the fourth century BC, the Concilium Plebis enacted the "Ovinian Law". During the early republic, only consuls could appoint new senators. The Ovinian law, however, gave this power to the censors. It also required the censor to appoint any newly-elected magistrate to the senate. By this point, plebeians were already holding a significant number of magisterial offices. Thus, the number of plebeian senators probably increased quickly. However, it remained difficult for a plebeian to enter the senate if he was not from a well-known political family, as a new patrician-like plebeian aristocracy emerged. The old nobility existed through the force of law, because only patricians were allowed to stand for high office. The new nobility existed due to the organization of society. As such, only a revolution could overthrow this new structure.
By 287 BC, the economic condition of the average plebeian had become poor. The problem appears to have centered around widespread indebtedness. The plebeians demanded relief, but the senators refused to address their situation. The result was the final plebeian secession. The plebeians seceded to the Janiculum hill. To end the secession, a dictator was appointed. The dictator passed a law (the "Hortensian Law"), which ended the requirement that the patrician senators must agree before any bill could be considered by the Plebeian Council. This was not the first law to require that an act of the Plebeian Council have the full force of law. The Plebeian Council acquired this power during a modification to the original Valerian law in 449 BC. The significance of this law was in the fact that it robbed the patricians of their final weapon over the plebeians. The result was that control over the state fell, not onto the shoulders of voters in a democracy, but to the new plebeian nobility.
The plebeians had finally achieved political equality with the patricians. However, the plight of the average plebeian had not changed. A small number of plebeian families achieved the same standing that the old aristocratic patrician families had always had, but the new plebeian aristocrats became as uninterested in the plight of the average plebeian as the old patrician aristocrats had always been.
The supremacy of the new nobility (287-133 BC)
The great accomplishment of the Hortensian Law was in that it deprived the patricians of their last weapon over the plebeians. Thus, the last great political question of the earlier era had been resolved. As such, no important political changes would occur between 287 BC and 133 BC. The critical laws of this era were still enacted by the senate. In effect, democracy was satisfied with the possession of power, but did not care to use it. The senate was supreme during this era because the era was dominated by questions of foreign and military policy. This era was the most militarily active era of the Roman Republic.
The final decades of this era saw a worsening economic situation for many plebeians. The long military campaigns had forced citizens to leave their farms to fight, only to return to farms that had fallen into disrepair. The landed aristocracy began buying bankrupted farms at discounted prices. As commodity prices fell, many farmers could no longer operate their farms at a profit. The result was the ultimate bankruptcy of countless farmers. Masses of unemployed plebeians soon began to flood into Rome, and thus into the ranks of the legislative assemblies. Their economic state usually led them to vote for the candidate who offered the most for them. A new culture of dependency was emerging, which would look to any populist leader for relief.
From the Gracchi to Caesar (133-49 BC)
The prior era saw great military successes, and great economic failures. The patriotism of the plebeians had kept them from seeking any new reforms. Now, the military situation had stabilized, and fewer soldiers were needed. This, in conjunction with the new slaves that were being imported from abroad, inflamed the unemployment situation further. The flood of unemployed citizens to Rome had made the assemblies quite populist. The ultimate result was an increasingly aggressive democracy.
The period of transition (49-29 BC)
The era that began when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC and ended when Octavian returned to Rome after Actium in 29 BC, saw the constitutional evolution of the prior century accelerate at a rapid pace. By 29 BC, Rome had completed its transition from being a city-state with a network of dependencies, to being the capital of a world empire.
With Pompey defeated and order restored, Caesar wanted to ensure that his control over the government was undisputed. The powers which he would give himself would ultimately be used by his imperial successors. He would assume these powers by increasing his own authority, and by decreasing the authority of Rome's other political institutions.
Caesar would hold both the dictatorship and the tribunate, but alternated between the consulship and the proconsulship. In 48 BC, Caesar was given permanent tribunician powers. This made his person sacrosanct, gave him the power to veto the senate, and allowed him to dominate the Plebeian Council. In 46 BC, Caesar was given censorial powers, which he used to fill the senate with his own partisans. Caesar then raised the membership of the senate to 900. This robbed the senatorial aristocracy of its prestige, and made it increasingly subservient to him. While the assemblies continued to meet, he submitted all candidates to the assemblies for election, and all bills to the assemblies for enactment. Thus, the assemblies became powerless and were unable to oppose him.
Near the end of his life, Caesar began to prepare for a war against the Parthian Empire. Since his absence from Rome would limit his ability to install his own consuls, he passed a law which allowed him to appoint all magistrates in 43 BC, and all consuls and tribunes in 42 BC. This, in effect, transformed the magistrates from being representatives of the people to being representatives of the dictator.
Caesar's assassination and the Second Triumvirate
Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. The motives of the conspirators were both personal and political. The assassination was lead by Gaius Cassius and Marcus Brutus. Most of the conspirators were senators, many of whom were angry that Caesar had deprived the senate of much of its power and prestige. Others believed he was a tyrant, abusing his power and clearing a path to absolute rule as a king. The senators took it upon themselves to destroy Caesar before he made himself invulnerable, and they stabbed Caesar to death in the senate chamber on March 15 (44 BC). A civil war followed that destroyed what was left of the republic.
After the assassination, Mark Antony formed an alliance with Caesar's adopted son and great-nephew, Gaius Octavian. Along with Marcus Lepidus, they formed an alliance known as the Second Triumvirate. They held powers that were nearly identical to the powers that Caesar had held under his constitution. As such, the senate and assemblies remained powerless, even after Caesar had been assassinated. The conspirators were then defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. Eventually, however, Antony and Octavian fought against each other in one last battle. Antony was defeated in the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC, and he committed suicide with his love, Cleopatra. In 29 BC, Octavian returned to Rome as the unchallenged master of the empire and later accepted the title of Augustus-"Exalted One" .