Constitution of the Roman Republic


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This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
Ancient Rome

The Constitution of the Roman Republic was a set of guidelines and principles passed down mainly through precedent.[1] The constitution was largely unwritten and uncodified, and evolved over time. Rather than creating a government that was primarily ademocracy (as was ancient Athens), an aristocracy (as was ancient Sparta), or a monarchy (as was Rome before and, in many respects, after the Republic), the Roman constitution mixed these three elements, thus creating three separate branches of government.[2] The democratic element took the form of the legislative assemblies, the aristocratic element took the form of the Senate, and the monarchical element took the form of the many term-limited consuls.[3]

The ultimate source of sovereignty in this ancient republic, as in modern republics, was the demos (people).[4] The people of Rome gathered into legislative assemblies to pass laws and to elect executive magistrates.[5] Election to a magisterial office resulted in automatic membership in the Senate (for life, unless impeached).[6] The Senate managed the day-to-day affairs in Rome, while senators presided over the courts.[7] Executive magistrates enforced the law, and presided over the Senate and the legislative assemblies.[8] A complex set of checks and balances developed between these three branches, so as to minimize the risk of tyranny and corruption, and to maximize the likelihood of good government. However, the separation of powers between these three branches of government was not absolute; and moreover, several constitutional devices that were out of harmony with the Roman constitution were used frequently.[9] A constitutional crisis began in 133 BC, as a result of the struggles between the aristocracy and the common people.[10] This crisis ultimately led to the collapse of the Roman Republic and its eventual subversion into a much moreautocratic form of government, the Roman Empire.[11]

Constitutional history (509–133 BC)[edit]

At one time, Rome had been ruled by a succession of kings.[12] The Romans believed that this era, that of the Roman Kingdom, began in 753 BC, and ended in 510 BC. After the overthrow of the monarchy, and the establishment of the Roman Republic, the people of Rome began electing two Roman consuls each year.[13] In 501 BC, the office of “Roman Dictator” was created. In the year 494 BC, the plebeians (commoners) seceded to the Mons Sacer, and demanded of the patricians (the aristocrats) the right to elect their own officials.[14][15] The Patricians agreed, and the plebeians ended their secession. The plebeians called these new officials “Plebeian Tribunes“, and gave these tribunes two assistants, called “Plebeian Aediles“.[16]

In 449 BC, the Senate promulgated the Twelve Tables as the centerpiece of the Roman Constitution. In 443 BC, the office of “Roman Censor” was created,[17] and in 367 BC, plebeians were allowed to stand for the Consulship. The opening of the Consulship to the plebeian class implicitly opened both the Censorship as well as the Dictatorship to plebeians.[18] In 366 BC, in an effort by the patricians to reassert their influence over the magisterial offices, two new offices were created. While these two offices, thePraetorship and the Curule Aedileship, were at first open only to patricians, within a generation, they were open to plebeians as well.[16]

Beginning around the year 350 BC, the senators and the Plebeian Tribunes began to grow closer.[9] The senate began giving tribunes more power, and, unsurprisingly, the tribunes began to feel indebted to the senate.[9] As the tribunes and the senators grew closer, plebeian senators began to routinely secure the office of tribune for members of their own families.[19] Also around the year 350 BC, the Plebeian Council (popular assembly) enacted a significant law (the “Ovinian Law“)[6] which transferred, from the consuls to the Censors, the power to appoint new senators. This law also required the Censors to appoint any newly elected magistrate to the senate,[6] which probably resulted in a significant increase in the number of plebeian senators.[20] This, along with the closeness between the Plebeian Tribunes and the senate, helped to facilitate the creation of a new plebeian aristocracy.[20] This new Plebeian aristocracy soon merged with the old patrician aristocracy, creating a combined “patricio-plebeian” aristocracy.[21] The old aristocracy existed through the force of law, because only patricians had been allowed to stand for high office. Now, however, the new aristocracy existed due to the organization of society, and as such, this order could only be overthrown through a revolution.[22]

In 287 BC, the plebeians seceded to the Janiculum hill. To end the secession, a law (the “Hortensian Law”) was passed, which ended the requirement that the patrician senators consent before a bill could be brought before the Plebeian Council for a vote.[23] This was not the first law to require that an act of the Plebeian Council have the full force of law (over both plebeians and patricians),[24] since the Plebeian Council had acquired this power in 449 BC.[24] The ultimate significance of this law was in the fact that it robbed the patricians of their final weapon over the plebeians. The result was that the ultimate control over the state fell, not onto the shoulders of democracy, but onto the shoulders of the new patricio-plebeian aristocracy.[25] The Hortensian Law resolved the last great political question of the earlier era, and as such, no important political changes occurred over the next 150 years (between 287 BC and 133 BC).[26] The critical laws of this era were still enacted by the senate.[27] In effect, the democracy was satisfied with the possession of power, but did not care to actually use it.[27]


Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate: Cicero accusesCatiline. From a 19th-century fresco

The Roman Senate was a political institution in the Roman Republic. The Roman senate’s authority derived from precedent, custom, and the personal moral example of the senators.[28] The Senate’s principal role was as an advisory council to the two Roman consuls on matters of foreign and military policy,[29] and as such, it exercised a great deal of influence over consular decision-making. The senate also managed civil administration within the city. For example, only the senate could authorize the appropriation of public monies from the treasury,[29] unless a consul demanded it. In addition, the senate would try individuals accused of political crimes (such as treason).[29]The senate passed decrees, which were called senatus consulta (singular senatus consultum). While this was officially “advice” from the senate to a magistrate, the senatus consulta were usually obeyed by the magistrates.[30] If a senatus consultum conflicted with a law that was passed by a popular assembly, the law overrode the senatus consultum.[31]

Meetings could take place either inside or outside of the formal boundary of the city (the pomerium), and were usually presided over by a consul.[32] Meetings were suffused in religious ritual; Temples were a preferred meeting site and auspices would be taken before the meeting could commence. The presiding consul began each meeting with a speech on an issue,[33] and then referred the issue to the senators, who discussed the matter by order of seniority.[34] Unimportant matters could be voted on by a voice vote or by a show of hands, while important votes resulted in a physical division of the house,[34] with senators voting by taking a place on either side of the chamber. Any vote was always between a proposal and its negative.[35] Since all meetings had to end by nightfall,[30] a senator could talk a proposal to death (a filibuster) if he could keep the debate going until nightfall.[33] Any proposed motion could be vetoed by a tribune,[36] and if it was not vetoed, it was then turned into a final senatus consultum. Each senatus consultum was transcribed into a document by the presiding magistrate, and then deposited into the building that housed the treasury.[30]

Legislative Assemblies[edit]

The Roman assemblies were political institutions in the Roman Republic. There were two types of Roman assembly. The first was the Committee,[37] which was an assembly of all Roman citizens.[38] Here, Roman citizens gathered to enact laws, elect magistrates, and try judicial cases. The second type of assembly was the Council, which was an assembly of a specific group of citizens.[38] For example, the “Plebeian Council” was an assembly where plebeians gathered to elect Plebeian magistrates, pass laws that applied only to Plebeians, and try judicial cases concerning Plebeians.[39] A “convention”, in contrast, was an unofficial forum for communication, where citizens gathered to debate bills, campaign for office, and decide judicial cases.[37] The voters first assembled into conventions to deliberate, and then they assembled into committees or councils to actually vote.[40] In addition to the Curia (familial groupings), Roman citizens were also organized into “Centuries” (for military purposes) and “Tribes” (for civil purposes). Each gathered into an assembly for legislative, electoral, and judicial purposes. The Century Assembly was the assembly of the Centuries, while the Tribal Assembly was the assembly of the Tribes. Only a bloc of voters (Century, Tribe or Curia), and not the individual electors, cast the formal vote (one vote per bloc) before the assembly.[41] The majority of votes in any Century, Tribe, or Curia decided how that Century, Tribe, or Curia voted.

The Century Assembly was divided into 193 (later 373) Centuries, with each Century belonging to one of three classes: the officer class, the enlisted class, and the unarmed adjuncts.[42][43] During a vote, the Centuries voted, one at a time, by order of seniority. The president of the Century Assembly was usually a consul.[32] Only the Century Assembly could elect consuls, Praetors, and Censors; only it could declare war;[44] only it could ratify the results of a census.[45] While it had the power to pass ordinary laws, it rarely did so.

Chart showing the checks and balances of the Constitution of the Roman Republic

The organization of the Tribal Assembly was much simpler than the Century Assembly, since its organization was based on the thirty-five Tribes. The Tribes were not ethnic or kinship groups, but rather geographical divisions (similar to modern electoral districts or constituencies).[46] The president of the Tribal Assembly was usually the consul,[clarification needed][32] and under his presidency, the assembly elected Quaestors, Curule Aediles, and Military Tribunes.[47] While it had the power to pass ordinary laws, it rarely did so. The assembly known as the “Plebeian Council” was identical to the Tribal Assembly with one key exception: only plebeians (the commoners) had the power to vote before it. Members of the aristocratic patrician class were excluded from this assembly. In contrast, both classes were entitled to a vote in the Tribal Assembly. Under the presidency of a Plebeian Tribune, the Plebeian Council elected Plebeian Tribunes and Plebeian Aediles, enacted laws called “plebiscites“, and presided over judicial cases involving Plebeians.

Executive Magistrates[edit]

The Roman Magistrates were elected officials of the Roman Republic. Each Roman magistrate was vested with a degree of power.[48] dictators had the highest level of power. After the dictator was the censor, and then the consul,[citation needed] and then the Praetor, and then the Curule Aedile, and finally the Quaestor. Each magistrate could only veto an action that was taken by a magistrate with an equal or lower degree of power. Since Plebeian Tribunes (as well as “Plebeian Aediles“) were technically not magistrates,[49] they relied on the sacrosanctity of their person to obstruct.[21] If one did not comply with the orders of a Plebeian Tribune, the tribune could ‘interpose the sacrosanctity of his person[31](intercessio) to physically stop that particular action. Any resistance against the tribune was considered to be a capital offense.

The most significant constitutional power that a magistrate could hold was that of “Command” (Imperium), which was held only by consuls and Praetors. This gave a magistrate the constitutional authority to issue commands (military or otherwise).

Once a magistrate’s annual term in office expired, he had to wait ten years before serving in that office again. Since this did create problems for some magistrates, these magistrates occasionally had their command powers extended, which, in effect, allowed them to retain the powers of their office as a Promagistrate.[50]

The consul[clarification needed] of the Roman Republic was the highest ranking ordinary magistrate.[32][51] Two consuls were elected every year, and they had supreme power in both civil and military matters. Throughout the year, one consul was superior in rank to the other consul, and this ranking flipped every month, between the two consuls.[52] Praetorsadministered civil law, presided over the courts, and commanded provincial armies.[53] Another magistrate, the censor, conducted a census, during which time they could appoint people to the senate.[54] Aediles were officers elected to conduct domestic affairs in Rome, and were vested with powers over the markets, and over public games and shows.[55]Quaestors usually assisted the Consuls in Rome, and the governors in the provinces with financial tasks.[55] Two other magistrates[contradiction], the Plebeian Tribunes and thePlebeian Aediles, were considered to be the representatives of the people. Thus, they acted as a popular check over the senate (through their veto powers), and safeguarded the civil liberties of all Roman citizens.

Gaius Gracchus, tribune of the people, presiding over the Plebeian Council

In times of military emergency, a “dictator” was appointed for a term of six months.[56] Constitutional government dissolved, and the dictator became the absolute master of the state.[57] The Dictator then appointed a “Master of the Horse” to serve as his most senior lieutenant.[58] Often the dictator resigned his office as soon as the matter that caused his appointment was resolved.[56] When the dictator’s term ended, constitutional government was restored. The last ordinary dictator was appointed in 202 BC. After 202 BC, extreme emergencies were addressed through the passage of the decree senatus consultum ultimum (“ultimate decree of the senate”). This suspended civil government, declared martial law,[59] and vested the consuls with dictatorial powers.

Constitutional instability (133–49 BC)[edit]

By the middle of the 2nd century BC, the economic situation for the average plebeian had declined significantly.[60] 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, creating a situation that made it impossible for the average farmer to operate his farm at a profit.[60] Masses of unemployed plebeians soon began to flood into Rome, and thus into the ranks of the legislative assemblies, where their economic status usually led them to vote for the candidate who offered the most for them. A new culture of dependency[need quotation to verify] was emerging, which would look to any populist leader for relief.[61][need quotation to verify]

Cornelia, mother of the future Gracchi tribunes, pointing to her children as her treasures

In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus was elected Plebeian Tribune, and attempted to enact a law to distribute land to Rome’s landless citizens.[21] Tiberius’s law was vetoed by an aristocrat named Marcus Octavius. In an attempt to force Octavius to capitulate, Tiberius tried to turn the mob against Octavius by enacting a blanket veto over all governmental functions, which, in effect, shut down the entire city and precipitated rioting. While the land law was enacted, Tiberius was murdered when he stood for reelection to the tribunate. In 123 BC, Tiberius’ brother Gaius was elected Plebeian Tribune. After passing a series of laws which were intended to weaken the senate, Gaius Gracchus was murdered by his supporters.[21][need quotation to verify] The people, however, had finally realized how weak the senate had become.

In 88 BC, an aristocratic senator named Lucius Cornelius Sulla was elected consul,[62] and soon left for glory in the east. When a tribune revoked Sulla’s command of the war, Sulla brought his army back to Italy, marched on Rome, secured the city, and left for the east again.[63] In 83 BC he returned to Rome, and captured the city a second time.[64] In 82 BC, he made himself dictator, and then used his status as dictator to pass a series of constitutional reforms that were intended to strengthen the senate.[65] In 80 BC he resigned his dictatorship, and by 78 BC he was dead. While he thought that he had firmly established aristocratic rule, his own career had illustrated the fatal weakness in the constitution: that it was the army, and not the senate, which dictated the fortunes of the state.[66] In 70 BC, the generals Pompey Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus were both elected consul, and quickly dismantled Sulla’s constitution.[67]

In 62 BC Pompey returned to Rome from battle in the east, but found the senate refusing to ratify the arrangements that he had made. Thus, when Julius Caesar returned from his governorship in Spain in 61 BC, he found it easy to make an arrangement with Pompey.[68] Caesar and Pompey, along with Crassus, established a private agreement, known as the First Triumvirate. Under the agreement, Pompey’s arrangements were to be ratified, Crassus was to be promised a future Consulship, and Caesar was to be promised the Consulship in 59 BC, and then the governorship of Gaul (modern France) immediately afterwards.[68] Caesar became consul in 59 BC, and, when his term as consul ended, he took command of four provinces. Eventually, the triumvirate was renewed, and Caesar’s term as governor was extended for five years. In 54 BC, violence began sweeping the city.[69] The triumvirate ended in 53 BC when Crassus was killed in battle. In 50 BC, near the end of his term as governor, Caesar demanded the right to stand for election to the Consulship in absentia.[clarification needed] Without the protection afforded to him by the Consulship or his army, he could be prosecuted for crimes he had committed. The senate refused Caesar’s demand, and in January 49 BC, the senate passed a resolution which declared that if Caesar did not lay down his arms by July of that year, he would be considered an enemy of the republic.[70] In response, Caesar quickly crossed the Rubicon with his veteran army, and marched towards Rome. Caesar’s rapid advance forced Pompey, the Consuls and the senate to abandon Rome for Greece, and allowed Caesar to enter the city unopposed.

The transition from Republic to Empire (49–27 BC)[edit]

By 48 BC, after having defeated the last of his major enemies, Julius Caesar wanted to ensure that his control over the government was undisputed.[71] He assumed these powers by increasing his own authority, and by decreasing the authority of Rome’s other political institutions. Caesar held the office of Roman dictator, and alternated between the Consulship (the chief-magistracy) and the Proconsulship (in effect, a military governorship).[71] In 48 BC, Caesar was given the powers of a Plebeian Tribune,[72] which made his person sacrosanct, gave him the power to veto the Roman Senate, and allowed him to dominate the legislative process. In 46 BC, Caesar was given the powers of censor,[72]which he used to fill the senate with his own partisans. Caesar then raised the membership of the senate from 600 to 900,[73] which robbed the senatorial aristocracy of its prestige, and made it increasingly subservient to him.[74] 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 Plebeian Tribunes in 42 BC.[73][clarification needed] This, in effect, transformed the magistrates from being representatives of the people, to being representatives of the dictator.[73]

After Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, Mark Antony formed an alliance with Caesar’s adopted son and great-nephew, Gaius Octavian. Along with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, they formed an alliance known as the Second Triumvirate,[75] and held powers that were nearly identical to the powers that Caesar had held under his constitution. In effect, there was no constitutional difference between an individual who held the title of dictator and an individual who held the title of “Triumvir“. While the conspirators who had assassinated Caesar were defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, the peace that resulted was only temporary. Antony and Octavian fought against each other in one last battle in 31 BC, at the Battle of Actium. Antony was defeated, and in 30 BC he committed suicide. In 29 BC, Octavian returned to Rome as the unchallenged master of the state. He eventually enacted a series of constitutional reforms, the most important of which occurred in 27 BC, which overthrew the old republic. The reign of Octavian, whom history remembers asAugustus, the first Roman Emperor, marked the dividing line between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. By the time this process was complete, Rome had completed its transformation from a city-state with a network of dependencies into the capital of a world empire.[76]


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