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A Brief History Of The Roman Empire, Part 2: The Public Thing

“Republic” has become something of a political catch-all in the modern era — of the 200 odd states on planet Earth, most are or at least claim to be some form of republic.

This was not the case for the vast majority of human history and it was completely unprecedented in 509 BC when Rome cast out its king. Monarchy or tyranny of some kind had been the rule for all of recorded history.

The system they constructed over the centuries was convoluted and sometimes contradictory, but a familiar idea was at its core — that power should never again be concentrated in the hands of one man, and that government should be of the people, by the people, and for the people.

They called it “Res publica”: public matters, or more literally, “the public thing.”

Exactly what that thing and who that public was would shift over the centuries, but it would lay the groundwork for millennia afterwards.

The Mixed Constitution

Political theory was still in its infancy, but the Greeks, who were in contact with the Romans, and running their own experiments in their various city-states, put governments into three broad categories.

Monarchy — rule by the one

Aristocracy — rule by the few

Democracy — rule by the many

The Roman system confounded them, and as Rome conquered Greece its philosophers pondered the mongrel state that was master of the Mediterranean. Polybius — a historian and hostage of the Roman government for 17 years, described it thusly:

“As for the Roman constitution, it had three elements, each of them possessing sovereign powers: and their respective share of power in the whole state had been regulated with such a scrupulous regard to equality and equilibrium, that no one could say for certain, not even a native, whether the constitution as a whole were an aristocracy or democracy or despotism.”

If that sounds familiar — three rival parts of government with different powers balanced against one another — it’s because Polybius’s observations were incredibly influential on Enlightenment theorists and the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

But where our republic separated the executive, legislative, and judicial powers into different branches, Roman institutions were separated by their structure and source of power.

The Magistrates

The magistrates were the “despotic” element of the government. The senior officials — the consuls — oversaw elections, could call and dismiss the senate and the public assemblies, could propose legislation, and got to speak first in any public debate. They were also senior military leaders who held absolute authority in the field — symbolized by special weapons their bodyguards carried called “fasces” — and held a special legal status known as “imperium.”

Imperium in the broadest sense meant the official embodied the Roman state and had unfettered authority within their legal jurisdiction — commanders and provincial governors would be given imperium over certain units, theaters, or territories while senior officials held imperium more generally. Imperium also meant that all Roman magistrates, from consuls to the lowliest quaestors, were immune from legal prosecution during their term in office — a very useful perk in the extremely litigious Rome.

This legal immunity will be of vital importance during the reign of Gaius Julius Caesar.

This level of authority seems almost autocratic, but the Romans had some safeguards built into the system.

For one thing, instead of serving for life, like a king, all magistrates only held office for a single year. For most of the Republic’s history, there were strict limits on how many years a candidate had to wait before running for the same office twice, and in some eras, they were barred from doing so for life, although over the centuries and especially towards the end of the Republic those restrictions could be hand waved away. This prevented any official from consolidating too much power during their term — and there was only so much damage a person could do in a year.

Secondly, a magistrate might have been immune from prosecution while he was in office, but that immunity immediately expired once he became a private citizen. Rome might have been willing to let its leaders bend or even break the rules in a crisis, but the full weight of her legal system would come down on them afterwards, and every official knew it.

Finally, each consul was checked by the other consul. Every magistrate could veto any action of any official at or below his rank. This put rival consuls in a “mutually assured destruction” situation where they could unilaterally block each other’s agenda. To avoid gridlock the consuls had to defer to one another to some extent, but neither could push the other too far — if one of the consuls overstepped the other could reign him in.

The Senate

The senate was originally an advisory body composed of the noblest men in the city, and when the monarchy was abolished that did not change. From its inception, the senate was an old boy’s club — the word “senate” comes from the Latin “senex,” meaning old (senile has the same root, fittingly enough). A citizen was granted lifetime membership in the Roman Senate after they were elected to high office (although they could be impeached by another officer, a censor, under certain circumstances) and the theory was that the old and wizened men would guide the newer officials.

Catiline Orations 63 BC : at roman senate, Cicero denounces plot organized by Catiline to take the power, mural painting by Cesare Maccari, 1882-1888. (Photo by Apic/Bridgeman via Getty Images)

In practice, politicians were drawn from a small group of noble families — electioneering was expensive. Roman politics were built around a patronage system, where very wealthy men would provide cash and benefits to poorer clients, in return for their political support. Secret ballots were introduced in the 2nd century BC to try and stamp out corruption and voter intimidation, but like most anti-corruption measures in Rome, its success was limited.

During the early days of the Republic, most high offices were restricted to those of patrician blood. There was no separation of church and state and political offices were also religious offices — Rome’s founding myth said that the common plebeian was descended from brigands and rapists so it would be sacrilegious to allow them to hold high office. Only the offspring of those pious few who Romulus himself had singled out were eligible — and just to be safe intermarriage between patrician and pleb was forbidden.

This proved unsustainable.

As it happened, the majority of the Roman population was plebeian, meaning the majority of its army was plebeian. During the early days of the Republic, there were several occasions where the common soldiers refused to fight unless they were granted political concessions — this multi-century-long political slugfest is known collectively as the Conflict of the Orders.

Simultaneously, however, some plebeian families became wealthy and successful, while other patrician families inevitably fell on hard times. Political marriages, where the plebs traded wealth for the prestige of a patrician name, were advantageous to both parties, but were still illegal, which created plenty of incentive to amend that law.

By the 3rd century BC, the distinction between patrician and plebeian had faded into comparative irrelevance, although a small number of wealthy families still dominated the senate, and vicariously, Roman political life. Political dynasties were extremely powerful — a young man could easily win election to a junior office by pointing out that his father had been a consul.

The magistrates may have held considerable power, but the senate had control over the state treasury. They appointed provincial governors and steered Rome’s foreign policy, they deliberated over legislation and could amend or kill most bills.

Speaking order in the senate was dictated by seniority: whatever official summoned the senate (sitting a consul, praetor, or tribune of the plebs) spoke first, followed by the sitting consuls, and then the former consuls, then the sitting praetors, and then the former praetors, etc. By the late Republic, there were two consuls and eight praetors elected every year, so for logistical reasons debate seldom went below former praetors. Most of the senate would have been composed of “back-benchers” who had only held junior positions within the government and could go years without being allowed to speak — they were called “pedarii” or walkers, as votes in the senate resembled a caucus — at the end of a debate senators would walk over to whoever’s position they agreed with.

What this meant in practical terms was that the senate was dominated by a relative handful of what was already the highest echelon of Roman society, which is why the body was generally regarded as the “aristocratic” part of the constitution. Technically magistrates could circumvent the will of the senate — bills could be passed by the public assemblies with or without their consent — but bypassing them meant snubbing the most powerful men in the city.

The senate also had prestige and peer pressure to keep the current magistrates in line — the senate was the oldest institution in Rome, dating back to the legendary founding of the city, and it was also the social network most Roman officials would spend most of their lives in. A magistrate would hold office for a year at a time, but membership in the senate was for life — stepping on too many toes during your year in power would make the rest of your political career substantially more difficult.

But for all its centrality and influence, the senate, in theory at least, did not have absolute political authority.

The Public Assemblies

Gaius Gracchus Tribune of the people. Wikimedia Commons.

The core of the Roman state was SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus — the Senate and People of Rome, and while the senate shaped policy the citizens got the final say. Quoting Polybius again:

“It is the people who bestow office on the deserving, which are the most honorable rewards of virtue. It has also the absolute power of passing or repealing laws; and most important of all, it is the people who deliberate on the question of peace or war. … These considerations again would lead one to say that the chief power in the state was the people’s, and that the constitution was a democracy.”

Of course, Roman democracy was hardly egalitarian and was extremely messy and convoluted, but it did form the basis of the state. Citizens voted through multiple bodies called “the public assemblies.”

The Assembly of the Centuries was arguably the most important, and it elected Rome’s highest officials — consuls, praetors and censors. The “century” was a basic Roman military unit that consisted of roughly 100 men. The assembly was composed of all men of military age, and was divided up into voting blocs based on wealth and age. These blocs voted collectively and sequentially — with the First Class blocs voting first, Second Class second, and so on.

The Roman Republic did not have a professional army for most of its history and was comprised of part time citizen soldiers — consuls and praetors could command armies so the assembly was in effect voting for its commanding officers. They were also the only body capable of declaring war.

However, the upper classes were given a disproportionate share of the voting blocs and the poorest citizens — the proletarii — were given hardly any representation. This was a feature, not a bug; Roman soldiers were expected to provide their own equipment; since wealthier citizens could afford better gear and contributed more to the war effort they were given more influence. 

Voting order also mattered — the election was over once a candidate had reached a majority so if the wealthier blocs could come to a consensus a winner could be decided before the poorer blocs even got to cast a ballot.

The censors had no command authority but had the all important task of tallying the population and its wealth, and assigning each voter to his appropriate class. They also could censure citizens and civil servants in the name of public morality. (Giving rise to both ‘“censorship” and the “census.”)

The Tribal Assembly elected junior officials and, like the other assemblies, could ratify certain laws. Voting was also done in blocs, although these blocs were called “tribes” and were based on geography and ancestry rather than wealth.

However, the Tribal Assembly was also biased in favor of the wealthy: by the time of the late Republic four of its 35 tribes were given to the inhabitants of the city of Rome and the other 31 were set aside for rural residents across Italy. Traveling to the city to vote was often expensive so often only a handful of well off citizens could afford to come to the polls.

While the other assemblies were deliberately tilted to favor the upper classes, the Plebeian Assembly was created as a counterbalance to patrician influence — only plebs could vote in it. The most important office they controlled was the Tribune of the Plebs — who had veto power, even over the consuls, and who was meant to check state abuse against the common Roman. While most of the magistrates of Rome were aristocratic in interest and background, the Plebeian Assembly created a constituency where populist firebrands could make a name for themselves and the office would regularly be at the center of controversy — more on that later.

Each of the assemblies could pass various kinds of legislation, but unlike the senate there was no debate — the bill was read and the assembly was given an up or down vote. 

Roman Law

While Roman politics can seem foreign and somewhat byzantine to modern eyes, Roman law is actually quite recognizable. Roman citizens had a right to a public trial and a jury of their peers, a right to legal counsel, a right to face their accusers in court, and the corpus and structure of Roman law would influence both subsequent major branches of the western legal tradition (common law and civil law).

While praetors could command armies in a pinch, if a consul was unavailable, their primary responsibility was to act as judges in Roman courts, which were very busy — any Roman citizen could sue or prosecute any other Roman. That sort of power was usually wielded by kings, so the fact that the Romans delegated it to their elected officials — junior elected officials — was a major innovation.

Many politicians also made their names as advocates in court — trials were open to the public and law was something of a spectator sport — supporters of a politician might go to see him argue his big murder case — and, obnoxiously, the crowd could get rowdy on occasion.

There were still kinks that needed to be ironed out — unlike the U.S. Constitution, Rome had no protections against ex post facto laws or bills of attainder (laws that make actions retroactively illegal or target a specific individual).

For one instructive example: in 58 BC a populist tribune of the plebs named Clodius introduced a bill that would exile anyone who had ever executed a Roman citizen without a trial. Cicero, one of Clodius’s most bitter enemies, had done exactly that during his tenure as consul in 63 BC. Normally that would have been illegal, but the people he executed had been exposed as collaborators in the Catiline Conspiracy — an attempt by disgruntled politicians to assassinate key political rivals and then, when that failed, raise an army to overthrow the government. The senate had declared martial law and given Cicero total authority to do whatever was necessary to save the Republic — they had even approved the executions when he consulted them (even with absolute power Cicero wanted to be certain the senate was on his side).

After the executions, the rebellion promptly dissolved and Cicero was celebrated as a hero at the time, but five years later, the political winds had shifted. Clodius’ bill passed, and Cicero was forced out of the city and his home was seized by the state.

In America, by contrast, no politician could ever pass a law that automatically imprisoned anyone who had served as president while owning hotels, for example, no matter how much they might like to.

One other key innovation was the 12 tables of Roman Law. Early on in the Republic’s history, laws and previous decisions were not written down, and rulings in court would often be arbitrary and capricious. By the middle of the 5th century, Rome’s citizens agitated for a consolidation of the legal code so that all laws would be written and publicly displayed, and in 451 the entire Roman government ground to a halt as 10 officials (the Decemviri) dedicated the year to making it so.

The Decemvirs framing the Twelve Tables. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

By the end of the process, Roman legal principles from marriage to property ownership to court procedure had been standardized and made available to all people. While other written law codes — such as Hammurabi’s — had existed before, the 12 Tables they created would be the foundation of Roman law for over 1,000 years. It was a major accomplishment and moved the Romans closer to their treasured ideal of the rule of law over the rule of men.

Of course, that legacy is only slightly complicated by the fact that the Decemviri refused to step down and hold elections after their terms were up, meaning Rome’s great lawgivers almost immediately triggered a major constitutional crisis and tried to rule as a dictatorship of 10. But, again, baby steps.

The Dictatorship

Speaking of crises and unusual constitutional arrangements, we come to the most peculiar and fatal of Roman offices — the dictatorship.

Contrary to our modern equivalents, the Roman dictatorship was an elected and temporary position — a dictator would be chosen by the senate under the most dire of circumstances and would serve for six months or until the emergency had passed, whichever was shorter.

Gridlock was built into the Roman system, but the Romans believed that when annihilation was on the table quick and decisive action was necessary — for most of its early history Rome was not the master of the Mediterranean but a small city state surrounded by enemies. When the enemy was at the gates, Rome felt it needed a leader who was unencumbered by votes or vetos — a single commander whose word was law.

That office, by its nature, seems to invite tyranny and abuse, but what is most remarkable about it is that the dictators stepped down.

Cincinnatus receiving the Roman Senate, fresco by Giorgio Berti (1794-1863), Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy, 19th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Cincinnatus — who was an inspiration to George Washington — is perhaps the most famous example but dozens of Roman citizens took absolute power and then gave it up without major incident, centuries before the likes of Sulla and Julius Caesar declared themselves dictators for life.

You could chalk it up to a loss of civic virtue, but perhaps it was merely a loss of consequences. One of the earliest Roman laws, dated back to the dawn of the Republic, was that any man who tried to establish absolute power for himself should be killed: “anyone who should create a magistrate from whom there was no appeal, should be scourged and beheaded.”

Rome’s institutions were imperfect, but the Republic endured because its people believed in it and were tenacious beyond belief. Roman aversion to one-man rule was so strong that even when Augustus took power he had to couch it behind a republican veneer — the first Roman emperor was merely the “first citizen.” Rome’s republic was so strong that even with all its corruption it took almost a century of convulsions and civil wars to bring it down.

RELATED: A Brief History Of The Roman Empire, Part 1: The Founding Of Rome

RELATED: A Brief History Of The Roman Empire, Part 3: Land Reform And The Era Of Gracchi


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