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Roman Republic

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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The king was initially a military and religious leader. He levied taxes and drafted men into the army. Yet his power was diluted by state institutions. Roman society was always a patriarichal system, and many aspects of the law were governed by paterfamilias. There was a senate (advisory board composed of men with highest authority and reputation) and assembly of free Roman citizens.

Monarchy ended when Rome could no longer endure King Tarquinius Supertus' tyranny. To prevent kingship from ever again arising, the royal power (imperium) was divided between two elected magistrates, the consuls. 509 BC is considered the republic's beginning. This is symptomatic to the Lucretian legend, about how officer Collatinus' wife was raped by Sextus Tarquinius (son of king Tarquinius Superbus). In response, her husband Collatinis and his best friend Lucius Brutus armed citizens and ld them against the king to drive him and his family out of Rome. I 509 Collatinus and Brutus were the first consuls of Roman republic to be establishd.

The constitution of Roman Republic was like one of the Greek city-states, not a written document. Ancient Rome operated under a traditional constitution which was the product of precedent, consensus, and a series of compromises between the various power blocks and interest groups of the population. It was based with something real and strong, the mos majorum (custom of our ancestors) had he same force as "unconstitutional" has in the modern world.

Polybius and the "Balance of Power"

One of the most important sources for shaping the Roman Republic structure is the description of the Greek historian Polybius (201 - 120 BC) who wrote the history of Rome. The structure was complex. In essence, the government consisted of 3 components which chcked and balanced each other. Polybius believed that each one of these elements worked as one of the three basic types of government: the senate, represented by aristocracy (oligarchy); the magistrate, wielding the administrative power of the king (monarchy); the sovereignty, was vested in the assembly of the people (democracy).

The Greeks believed that each of these forms of government had advantages and disadvantages. Monarchy: the very best individual is chosen to be the king, the king rules justly and in the common interest, royal family becomes selfish and rules for its own benefit and becomes oppressive. Oligarchy: the rule of a small upper class. Democracy: it has benefits in the beginning but after some time different problems, which result in stasis (governmental paralysis), appear such as: demagogue, where people with oratorical skills lead the others to violence and self destruction; the tyranny of the majority, oppressive acts of the majority towards the minority.

Polybius attributed the great success of Rome to its consitution, which he perceived to be an almost perfect combination of the 3 types of government: the Senate, the Magistrates and the Assembly.


Consisted of all present and past magistrates. There were 450 members, all of whom served for life unless removed by the senate. The senate was the advisory body for financial, religious, domestic and foreign policy; it made legislative proposals. It was called into session by a magistrate. The senate performed 6 major factors which could be overturned or asumbed by the assembly or the magistrates:

  1. they assigned the duties of the elected magistrates (provincia or province)

  2. approved legislative proposals

  3. authorized the size of the army

  4. controlled the state treasury, supervised the rate of taxation, regulated the coinage

  5. controlled foreign affairs, made decision to go to war

  6. issued a "senatus consultum ultimum" which suspended civil rights and empowered the consuls to take extraordinary action against enemies of the state


The magistrates were elected by the populus Romanum and people invested them with imperium (power of the state). There were 6 constitutional offices (held for 1 yr, except the censors):

  1. curus honorum (course of honor) worked their way up the ladder

  2. consuls: the 2 consuls were the supreme civil and military magistrates. They were elected annually, had equal imperium, and could veto eachother as well as magistrates except the tribunes of a dictator. When extended in their commands they became proconsuls.

  3. proctors: administered justice, appointed governors of minor provinces by the senate after their terms of office (proproctors), lowest ranking magistrates

  4. aediles: elected 8 yearly, they assisted consuls, administered public buildings, supervised street maintenance, provided public games financed out of their own pockets resuting to gain publicity (eg Julius Caesar)

  5. quaestors: supervised the archives and treasury, served as assistants to the councils, military tribunes and provincial governors. Lowest rank of full government magistrate. Elected 30 yearly in the late republic while earlier the number had varied

  6. tribunes: elected 10 yearly by the plebs, elected by plebs to protect them from governmental abuse, they had the right of veto against all except the dictator, they could call the assembly into sessions, they sat as members of the senate

Assembly (comitia)

The sovereignty of the Roman state was vested in the Roman people who expressed that sovereignty through their assembly (comitia). They did not vote directly but in blocks, wards, districts. The assembly elected aediles and quaestors and passed legislation. The people were assembled in different configurations for diferent purposes, and there were thus several different assemblies:

  1. comitia curiata: it conferred imperium on consuls and proctors, the vote of the wealthier citizns would carry more weight (self-suported in the army and had more to lose)

  2. comita centuriatta: for voting purposes the citizen body was divided into 5 classes plus the equites, craftsmen and proleterati.

  3. comitia tributa: 35 tribes, only 3 urban tribes, so as the population grew the assembly was biased in favor of the conservative rural citizens.

  4. concilium plebis: composed of plebs, protected plebeian cause, elect tribunes (in the late Republic), had authoirty to pass binding legislation, most laws were submitted tot eh comitia tributa (which represented all the people)