The Roman Republic: Part One
Rome is believed to have been founded in 753 BCE, through a merging of the descendants of those who had fled the carnage of the Trojan War and another group in the area known as the Latins, with the Latin language being adopted as the language of the city. From that point on, Rome came under the rule of seven kings, the first of which was Romulus (at least according to mythology). Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last of the seven kings, who ruled as a heavy-handed dictator, was overthrown in 509, either by a popular uprising, foreign invasion, or a combination of both.
It was then that Rome became governed as a republic. The ruling power of the monarchy – known in Latin as imperium – was divided between two elected officials first known as praetors and eventually, as consuls. These officials were elected to serve one-year terms, alternating in the holding of imperium on a monthly basis. During their time in power, they were in charge of a large range of legislative and judicial functions and had the ability to veto the other’s actions.
Now, one of the main things that really spurred on the evolution of Rome’s constitution was the conflict between the groups known as patricians and plebeians. Patricians were the descendants of the original Roman senators from the time of Rome’s founding. These people were landholders, whose land brought many of them considerable wealth.
Plebeians were simply the people who weren’t patricians. They were generally known as the “common people” who did not have nearly as much wealth as the patricians. Over time, there were groups of plebeians who did amass wealth, and by the end of the 4th century BC, the Senate consisted of wealthy members of both the patricians and plebeians.
All of the members of these two groups were Roman citizens, and–if they were male– enjoyed the same protections under Roman law. They could vote in the assemblies and elections, run for public office, serve in the army, own property, and have a final say in commercial agreements. Roman women had no political rights, such as voting and holding office, but did have private legal rights, such as owning and selling property, having a will, filing for divorce, etc. By 450 BC, the Romans had their first published law code, known as the Twelve Tables. These bronze tablets went up for public display in the Roman Forum and formed the basis for subsequent Roman civil law. By the latter part of the 3rd century BC, the institutions and laws of the Roman Republic had reached a certain high point. Let’s take a closer look at how this republic actually functioned.
The government was a mixture of tripartite authority, meaning there were three branches of authority, similar to the current United States government, which was largely based upon the Roman system. The three authorities here were the consulate, a monarchical element; the senate, an aristocratic element; and the people’s assembly, which was a democratic element. When not leading Roman legions on military campaigns, the two consuls governed from Rome as the ultimate heads of the government, superior to the vast majority of the other leaders.
The senate was made up of a group of 300 leading men who advised the consuls. The consuls had the official right to decide the agenda for debate in the senate, execute its laws, and introduce foreign diplomats into its presence. They also had the duty to call popular votes when such votes were required to approve certain measures, and to implement the decisions of the majority.
The praetors, who had become their own group separate from the consuls, took over some of the consul’s judicial functions. One type, known as the praetor peregrinus, acted as judges, examining disputes between citizens and non-citizens, while the praetor urbanus took charge of Rome’s judicial administration when the consuls were away on campaign. On top of these powers, the praetors could raise armies, wage war, and administer certain territories when the consuls were occupied elsewhere.
The democratic element of the government also held considerable power. The people’s assembly decided matters relating to the giving of honors and the issuing of punishments. They also had responsibility for deciding cases that involved large sums of money and cases in which high officials themselves were on trial. Tasked with approving all legislation prior to it becoming law – or otherwise rejecting it – the people had three assemblies under the Republic composed of citizens, known respectively as the Tribal Assembly, the Centuriate Assembly, and the Plebeian Council.
In its totality, the Roman Republic held a dynamic range of constitutional power, which evolved as Rome’s expansion demanded a more developed society. As the Romans conquered territory, they began to amass wealth, recruit allies, and bring their laws to incorporated lands. They would eventually extend the franchise of Roman citizenship throughout Italy and beyond, though not without some challenges.
The first real challenge to Rome’s territorial expansion was the city of Carthage. There were three major conflicts, known as the Punic Wars, fought between the Romans and Carthaginians. The first was won by Rome, who acquired Sicily in the process. The second war effort resulted in the great Carthaginian military general Hannibal retreating from Italy back to North Africa to defend Carthage. In 146, at the end of the third Punic War, the city of Carthage was finally destroyed.
Now, before we finish up this first part of our overview, let’s look at a couple of quick review questions to test your memory.
Which of the following describes the Plebeians?
a. The descendants of the original Roman senators from the time of Romulus
b. People who were simply not Patrician
c. The citizens of Carthage
The correct answer is B. The only real difference between plebeians and patricians was based purely on birth.
What were the three sections of the tripartite authority that governed the republic?
a. Consulate, senate, and popular assembly
b. Senate, praetors, and popular assembly
c. Tribal Assembly, Centuriate Assembly, and Plebeian Council
The correct answer is c. The Tribal Assembly, Centuriate Assembly, and the Plebeian Council were all factions of the popular assembly.
That’s all for part one of our review of the Roman Republic! In part two, we’ll see how the republic handled its continuing expansion as new leaders rose to power, and how the republic eventually shifted to become an empire.
Thanks for watching, and happy studying!