Rome

The Roman Republic


   After the overthrow of the Tarquin monarchy by Junius Brutus in 509 BC, Rome does not revert back to a monarchy for the rest of its history. The era of the great expansion of Roman power and civilization is the era of the Roman Republic, in which Rome is ruled by its Senate and its assembly, which were institutions formed at the beginning of the monarchy. The history of the Republic is a history of continuous warfare; all of the historical stories which the Romans will use as stories of Roman virtue and values date from this tumultuous period of defense and invasion.


   The Romans had at the beginning of the Republic a constitution which had laid down the traditions and institutions of government; this constitution, however, was not a formal or even a written document, but rather a series of unwritten traditions and laws. These traditions and laws were based on the institution of a monarchy, so while the Romans did not revive the monarchy, they still invested enormous amounts of power in their officials. At the top were the consuls, who were two patricians elected to the office for one year. These patricians exercised imperium in much the same way the kings had in the Roman monarchy. These consuls initiated legislation, served as the head of the judiciary and the military, and served as chief priests to the nation. They even dressed as monarchs, by wearing purple robes and sitting on the seat traditionally reserved for the monarch: the ivory chair.


   However, the power of the consuls were severely limited. First, they only served for one year, at which point they would have to be re-elected or enter into private life again. Second, there were two consuls; either consul could effectively prevent any action or decision by the other consul by simply vetoing him. No consul could act without the other consul in agreement. Third, the consuls would have to serve on the Senate after their term in office; this led them to cultivate assiduously the cooperation of the senate. So the consuls exercised absolute power, imperium , but their power was severely hamstrung by the circumstances of their office. As a result, the consuls did not exercise much initiative or creativity, so Roman government tended to be highly conservative and cautious. This, however, was the intent of the consular system. In 325 BC, however, the consul system was changed to allow for proconsuls, who were consuls whose terms in office were extended because of military campaigns.

   Beneath the consuls were two financial officers called quaestors, and as the Republic evolved, an officical called the praetor was invented. The praetorship was originally a judicial office, but later became a military office; the praetors were essentially the central generals of Rome. The praetorship, like the consulship, was a one-year appointment, but like the consulship could be extended in times of war. In addition, the task of classifying citizens according to wealth and tax status, which was a consular duty, eventually fell to a new pair of officials called censors. It was the job of the censor to draw up the roll of citizens (somewhat like our modern day census; census is the Latin word from which "censor" is derived) and to fix their tax status. As you might imagine, the censors had all kinds of opportunities for bribery and corruption since they were setting tax rates, so after a while the office fell only to the most incorruptible and virtuous men of the Republic: former consuls. Eventually, the office of the censor acquired great powers, such as the power to dismiss senators from the Senate not merely for financial reasons, but any reason at all. By the time of the late Republic, the censors had become some of the most powerful politicians in Rome.


   It is immediately evident that the imperium was fully concentrated in the hands of the patricians. The consuls were elected from the patrician class, as were the quaestors and the praetors; the censors, by definition, were always patricians. Because the consul reverted to the Senate, the Senate, composed only of patricians, became the principle power in Rome. The Republic in its early form was largely a transfer of power from the monarch to the wealthiest classes in Rome, and this dominance of Roman law, finances, and foreign policy by the patricians instantly produced resentment among the plebeians; from its inception in 509 BC to its demise at the hands of Caesar in the middle of the first century BC, the political history of the Roman Republic is a tumultuous, chaotic, and often violent conflict between the two classes in Rome vying for political power.


   This conflict was called "the struggle of the orders" (the orders of society) and is largely about the patrician class attempting to hold onto power while the plebeians attempted to achieve social and political equality. The patricians found themselves unable to exist without the plebeians: not only did the plebeians produce the food and supply the labor that kept the Roman economy going, they also supplied the soldiers for the Roman military. If the plebeians could act as a group, they could effectively shut down the Roman economy and military; the latter was especially important since Rome was in continual military conflict during the age of the Republic.

   In Roman historical tradition, in 494 BC the plebeians withdrew from Rome and occupied the Sacred Mount. There they declared an alternative government. They formed a tribal assembly, modelled after the Roman assembly, which would be headed by tribunes who were heads of their tribes. They declared that these tribunes could veto any decision by a Roman magistrate or official, and could veto any decision or legislation by the Senate. The assembly itself, like the former assembly, voted by tribe, and the decision of the assembly was binding on all plebeians. In other words, the plebeians had won for themselves the right to author their own legislation. Their decisions, however, were not binding on non-plebeians.


   In 450 BC, the struggle of the orders produced the Law of the Twelve Tables, which simply formalized and codified Roman law and its constitution. The Romans, however, saw it as a victory for the rights of the citizen for it gave them an instrument to know where they stood as far as the law is concerned. In 445 BC, plebeians acquired the right to marry a patrician, and in 367 the plebeians gained the right to be elected consul, when the first plebeian consul was elected. The Licinian-Sextian laws demanded that at least one consul be a plebeian. After the completion of the term of consular office, the consul became a member of the Senate, so the patrician hold on the Senate had, in part, been broken when the plebeians gained full access to the office of the consul. In 300 BC, plebeians were allowed to serve at all levels of the priesthood, thus making them religiously equal to the patricians. Finally, in the greatest victory of all in terms of power and influence, in 287 BC, the decisions and legislation of the plebeian assembly were not only binding on the plebeians, but on the entire Roman citizenry. These reforms were purchased without any civil war or internal bloodshed; they would not resolve the struggle, but they certainly prevented out and out civil war.


   The Romans, then, reformed their government as the need arose rather than pursuing any particular plan of reform or development. At the same time, the Romans built their territorial power with the same lack of planning and purpose. Originally, the wars which the Republic fought were largely defensive wars; the expulsion of the Tarquins provoked many attacks by their allies and by Etruscans. Soon, however, the Romans were moving to gain control over neighboring territory in order to neutralize the threat of attack. Their logic was that control over these territories would obviate any potential attack from the people occupying those territories and at the same time provide a buffer region between themselves and potential attackers. Roman conquest, then, was pursued largely for Roman security; the end result of this process would be, first, the conquest of the entire Italian peninsula by 265 BC, and then the conquest of the world. The Roman Empire was an accident, so to speak; it was formed in the pursuit of other policies, namely, security. Only in its later stages was the Roman Empire a deliberate objective.

Richard Hooker



The Conquest of Italy

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-2-97