When the Romans overthrew Tarquin the Proud, they entered a new phase of history
called the Roman Republic. The word republic comes from the Latin phrase respublica, which simply means “public affairs.” In a republic, citizens elect representatives to
run the nation for them. However, while the Romans certainly had a republic, they did not have a democracy. All citizens did not share the right to vote and other political rights. In fact, in the Roman Republic, various groups struggled for power, sometimes resorting to violence. The Roman Republic lasted almost 500 years, and during this time Rome became the leading power in the Mediterranean region. Though the Romans eventually replaced their republic with an empire, it was the republican system that was responsible for Rome’s success as a civilization.
Structure of the governmentWhen the republic first began, since the Romans wanted
to prevent one person from taking too much control (remember the kings of earlier times),they divided political power among different branches of government, much as we do today in the United States. You might ask yourself the following question: Does splitting the power among a number of institutions really prevent one branch or person from taking control?
Read the essay’s next paragraph carefully.
In that paragraph how do the words monarch,
aristocracy, and democracy relate to
the execu- tive and legislative branches in our
By about 275 B.C., Roman writers boasted that Rome had achieved a balanced government. By mixing several forms of government, the Romans created a system that was:
Partly a monarchy (rule by a king or queen),
Partly an aristocracy (rule by the rich people who
owned the land),
and partly a democracy (rule by the common people).
The first branch of the Roman Republic consisted ofseveral ruling officials or magistrates. The most important were called the consuls, who were
elected for one year. In some ways they were like little kings. However, two rules limited
their power: First, a consul’s term was only one year long, and the same person could not be elected consul again for 10 years. (This situation would change later in the republic. Marius served as consul for seven terms.) Second, one consul could always overrule, or veto, the other’s decisions. (In Latin, “veto”means “I forbid.”) The consuls administered the laws and controlled military affairs. Under the consuls were judges called praetors, who defined and interpreted the laws. Under the praetors were officials called censors, who collected taxes. In times of emergency, the republic could turn to another type of political leadership, the dictator. Once named dictator, a man had absolute power to make laws and command the army. Such a man, however, could only hold power for six months. Consuls chose the dictators followed by a Senate election.
The second branch—Senate
The second major branch of the government was the Senate. The aristocracy of Rome—the patricians—controlled this branch of government. Roman tradition suggests that the first king, Romulus, named 100 outstanding citizens to advise
him, thus creating the first Senate. Gradually, the number of senators increased to 300,
and membership was eventually extended to plebeians as well as patricians. Membership was for life. Therefore, the senate provided continuity and stability in the government. It had the power to decide foreign policy, approve contracts for building temples and roads, propose laws, and handle the daily problems of government.
The third branch—Assembly
The democratic branch of the Roman government was the Assembly.
of the republic, the assembly had little power in comparison to the consuls and the Senate. The Assembly met infrequently and could not propose laws, only vote to approve or reject them. Over the years, however, the powers of the Assembly increased, and eventually its decisions gained the force of law. In essence, much of the history of the early republic was the struggle between Rome’s social classes—
the patricians and plebeians—for control of the government.
Roman social classes
Not all people were equal in Roman society. Although all male Roman citizens could take part in politics, a small group of families dominated the city.
Romans of this ruling upper class claimed that their ancestors had been patres—fathers—who founded Rome. The specially privileged families were known as the patricians. They claimed that their ancestry gave them the authority to make laws for Rome and its people. The common farmers, artisans, and merchants
were known as plebeians. The plebeians were free citizens with a number of rights, including the right to vote. However, they had far less power than the patricians, who held nearly all important political offices. Since birth alone—not merit or wealth—determined every Roman’s social and political status, the line between the patrician and plebeian classes was extremely rigid. In the earliest days of the republic, for example, the law forbade marriage between the two classes.
Struggle between classes
For centuries, Roman coins bore the letters SPQR, which
stood for Senatus Populusque Romanus—the Senate and People of Rome. Together,
these two groups were the heart of Roman government. This simple phrase ignored
years of bitter struggle between the patricians(who controlled the Roman Senate) and the plebeians (who constituted the majority of the population).
The plebeians had little power, but they had one great advantage—numbers. As the republic grew, the patricians had to rely more and more on plebeians to fill the ranks of the army. Remember, in this early period, Rome did not have a professional army, but rather a volunteer force. By threatening not to fight
unless reforms were granted, the plebeians were able to win many rights.
The plebes strike
Finally, in 494 B.C., thousands of unhappy plebeians walked out
of the city and camped on a neighboring hillside. They refused to fight in the Roman
army unless patricians agreed to grant them a greater role in the government. As a result of this “walkout,” the plebeians were able to force the creation of a new assembly called the Council of Plebeians to represent their interests. This council elected officials—at first two, and eventually 10—called tribunes.
These men were able to veto any acts of the Senate or of the consuls that directly affected the plebeians. Between 494 and 287 B.C. the
plebeians used the walkout strategy several times. Each time, they won new rights.
A written code of laws
One of the greatest victories of the plebeians was the creation of a written code of
law. Roman law had rested heavily on custom. When laws were unwritten, patrician
officials often interpreted them to suit themselves. Consequently, plebeians demanded
that the laws of Rome be published. The laws were collected and written down on
12 bronze tablets displayed in the Forum. The Twelve Tablets, as these legal codes were called, made it possible for all to know and understand the laws. Plebeians
finally won the right to hold many political offices that had once been open only to patricians. Laws that discriminated against plebeians were slowly abolished. Plebeians and patricians could now marry one another and, because both sides were willing to compromise, the result was a government in which power was somewhat shared.
Not a democracy Despite all their gains, the plebeians did not change Roman government significantly. The aristocracy (patricians) continued
to control the government because the Roman Republic always remained relatively
undemocratic. Unlike the Greek polis, Roman politics were neither direct nor participatory, but representative instead. Most citizens had no direct say in political decisions. Unlike the Athenians, Romans generally believed, according to one historian, that the people “were not to govern but to be governed.” In practice the Senate would rule with great authority for much of the republican period. When they finally lost power, it would not be to the people, but rather to a series of very powerful persons.
Were Americans as committed
to democracy in the late 18th
century as they are today?
Statue of a magistrate.
Questions: Structure of Government_________________________________________________________
1. The Roman Republic began around _______________ .
2. Republic means ______________ _______________ where citizens elect
___________________________ to run the government.
3. How did the Romans attempt to prevent one person from taking control? __________