|Senatus Populus Que Romanus|
The Roman Republican system was a rather complex mix of judiciaries, assemblies, legislative bodies, major, minor magistracies and patronage. This system reinforced and influenced the various governmental processes in ways that are difficult to put forth in a post of under 1,000 words (actually 1016). This my modest attempt as a non-historian.
Rome was originally ruled by their neighbours, the Etruscans. The last Etruscan king (Tarquin the Proud) was expelled by the Romans in 509BC. [As an aside, the Etruscans are a most fascinating people worthy of a post by themselves]. Thereafter, and until the autocratic rule of Caesar (48 BC), the Romans instigated the Republican system of government. The Romans observed the political institutions of their neighbours i.e. the Greeks and Carthaginians and noted inherent drawbacks in the systems especially considering their susceptibility to the usurpation of power by a single individual or small clique. The Roman resolution was characteristically ingenious and practical and involved a tiered system of government, legislative and judicial assemblies.
First off, the Roman republic inherited a system called the ‘Centurate Assembly’ from their previous Etruscan rulers. The Assembly was composed of citizen soldiers who came together to vote outside the walls of Rome at a place called Mars field. The citizens were divided into centuries and voting was directed to military matters such as war and peace and the election of magistrates holding military office. The weight of the vote was not equal and members of the wealthier centuries exerted greater voting influence than their poorer brethren. In 241BC the system was reorganised to give more weight to the less well-off centuries and this trend would continue until the end of the Republic
The development of the Roman Republican Constitution can be seen, particularly in its early years, as a partial resolution of the conflict between the numerically few, but politically rich and powerful patricians, and the more numerous and initially disenfranchised plebeian population.
The Roman constitution evolved over several hundreds of years and most of the changes were unwritten but enshrined in custom if not empowered in law. Originally power rested with the patrician, noble class and the common folk or plebeians had no say in the run of the Republic. Thus, the legislative body of the Senate (300 senators) were recruited solely from the patrician class. The Senate decided national and international policy indirectly, as they exerted no direct power, and elected two officials, or consuls, to guide state policy for a single year. In this way, they had a powerful influence on State and international policy as mediated through the consuls. The consuls held executive power and were also expected to command armies in the field. The presence of two high officials was designed to provide a balance of power and a check on ambitious men desiring total control of the State. Each consul was invested with the power of veto. Thus, State action required sanction by both chief magistrates. A senator was not elected by the people but chosen by the consuls. Once chosen the senators were ‘elected’ for life. In times of grave peril, a dictator could be elected with supreme power to ensure swift and decisive policy. However, a dictator could only serve for a period of 6 months.
Time would show that the incumbent political system was flawed due to social inequalities. This represented an unstable political system for an agrarian society constantly at war. In 494BC, the plebeians under arms left the city and refused to fight. Under external military threat, the patricians were forced to create the office of ‘Plebeian Tribune’ with the power of veto over matters affecting the rights of plebeians. In 451BC the ‘Twelve Tables’ were formulated. It provided a code of law to work out issues between the patricians and the plebeians and formed the basis of civil law. However, the patricians were unwilling to relinquish their privileged status of power and wealth, just yet. Over the next two centuries civil strife continued and in 279BC the plebeians left the city for the final time. Further concessions inevitably followed allowing plebeians to be elected to high office and even to intermarry with members of the patrician class.
Over time patrician dominance waned and wealthy plebeians became politically influential. Toward the later years of the Republic, the distinction between patrician families and wealthy plebeian families became eroded giving rise to a patrician-plebeian aristocracy.
The middle years of the 1st century BC were marked/marred by civil unrest and conflict in Rome. With the coming of Empire, Rome underwent great internal change due to the great influx of wealth from conquered territories but this wealth remained closeted/cosseted with the few. Furthermore, there was a need to maintain a large professional army. The old middle-class militia had gone to be replaced by masses of poor soldiers who had little allegiance to the State. The consuls acted as generals and led armies in the field. Once a campaign had been completed it was incumbent upon the general to settle his soldiers with a portion of arable land. Successful generals fostered successful ex-soldiers and consequently, soldiers became highly devoted to their general. A consul commanding large bodies of soldiers developed an inordinate amount of power not traditionally invested in the office of consul. In 82BC the consul Sulla, backed by his large army, placed himself as dictator. Normally the office of dictator was to be held for a maximum of 6 months but he stretched the term to two years. This turn of events represented a dangerous precedent culminating in the seizure of power, after a civil war, by Caesar in 48BC. Caesar became dictator for life but was assassinated in the Senate by senators wanting to restore the ‘Old Republic’. But the ‘die had been cast’ and the Republic was no more. What followed was a decade of civil war. Ultimately, Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, become triumphant. The subsequent rule of Octavian (later Augustus) initiated the ‘Roman Empire’ system of autocratic rule, initially at least, based on dynastic lines, which would last until the final destruction of the Eastern Roman Empire by the Turks, in 1453 AD.