Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Republican Rome: the structure of goverment

An imaginative reconstruction of the Senate in action

In 509 BC the Etruscan dynasty of the Tarquins was overthrown, and replaced by the republic; the term res publica means 'public business.’ The coup that overthrew Tarquin the Proud left the Romans with a hatred of kings. By c. 500 BC the Roman community probably numbered about 35,000 male citizens, divided along class lines but united in its espousal of freedom and republican values.  As Cicero was to write in his sixth Philippic, 
‘that the Roman people should ever not be free is contrary to all the laws of heaven’. 
In republican Rome power was divided among magistrates, according to the principle of collegiality.

The consuls

Tradition maintained that the headship of the state had immediately passed from the expelled monarch to a pair of magistrates, called consuls. Each of the consuls was invested with absolute imperium, the administrative power conferring command of the army and the interpretation and execution of the law.  They wore togas bordered with purple, the colour of the former kings, sat in a special chair of state and were accompanied by lictors, a body of twelve men, each bearing on his shoulder the fasces. When they left office, they retained their prestige through membership of the Senate.

A consul surrounded by two lictors

However, there were two extremely important practical restrictions that in theory made it impossible for a consul to assume the powers of a king.

  1. They were elected only for a single year
  2. They were subject to each other’s vetoes.

The Senate

Roman government was officially described as SPQR (the Senate and the Roman people’). In the third century BC Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, called the Senate ‘an assembly of kings’.

The Senate was the Republic’s advisory body, a role they had probably inherited from the kings.  From the late fourth century, senators were chosen by the censors. The Senate consisted of three hundred men from the ruling families whose members possessed a property qualification. It met frequently, perhaps forty times a year whenever summoned by the consuls, and it sat either in the Curia or in one of the several temples. It advised the elected officials on domestic and foreign policy, finance, religion, and legislative proposals.  The senators had little direct power (their decrees did not have the force of law) but enormous prestige (auctoritas). Because they were appointed for life, they were the most continuous element in the structure of the state. They wore togas with broad purple stripes and had the front seats in the theatre. They were addressed as patres conscripti. Senators were also members of the priestly colleges of Augurs and Pontiffs. The religious role of the Senate is extremely important, as it provided the principal link between men and gods. Its religious function added greatly to its prestige.

The consuls were elected, not by the Senate but by the Assembly of Roman citizens (comitia centuriata). However, the Assembly was weighted so that the better off possessed greater voting powers than the poor. Moreover, candidates to the consulship came from the senatorial classes.

The magistracies

The executive government of Rome was in the hands of magistrates elected for one year at a time on the principle of collegiality. Magistrates were unpaid, which meant that only the rich could hold office. Standing for a magistracy meant canvassing people personally, going into the Forum in a specially whitened toga, the toga candidate and persuading people to vote.
  1. Quaestors (established 447): these were specialist financial officials
  2. Censors: two censors were elected every four years for a duration of eighteen months in order to make up and maintain the official list of citizens for military purposes and taxation.  They also had a religious function – renewing the prayers of the people for the favour of the gods. The first Roman of whose historical existence we can be certain is Appius Claudius, censor in 312 BC. During his period of office he built the first of Rome’s aqueducts, the Aqua Appia, which brought water to the city from the Sabine hills in an underground tunnel (including one mile of overground conduit) and the Via Appia linking Rome to the south.
  3. Praetors (established 367): they were responsible for the specialist functions of the administration of justice.
  4. Aediles (established 494): they were responsible for public works. As Rome expanded, this became an extremely significant post.
  5. Tribunes (see below).

The struggle of the orders

The the basic division of Roman society, one that predated the Republic, was between patricians and plebeians. The patricians monopolized the consulship, the Senate, the inherited religious rites, and the control of the law and the calendar. During the fifth century some 53 patrician clans (gentes) are known, comprising a closed boy of not more than 1,000 families. 

However the remaining 90 per cent of the non-slave population were the plebs.  Not all of the plebs were poor – some were wealthy traders who resented their exclusion from politics.  However, for the majority of the plebs, their grievances were economic. In 494 in a remarkable assertion of power, the plebeians marched up the Aventine Hill and swore to each other a corporate oath of mutual support.  

The result was a major concession by the patricians – the creation of a new office, that of Tribune of the Plebs, one of the most important of the Roman magistracies. Ten tribunes were to be elected annually by a new Assembly, the Concilium Plebis (Plebeian Council) the voters organized by tribus, their area of domicile. As with the other Assemblies, voting was by groups rather than by simple numerical majority and the system was heavily weighted towards the wealthy. Tribunes were immune from prosecution, and the office of tribune was a means by which an ambitious man could gain power.

The plebeians won further victories. They secured legal rights in 451 when the Twelve Tables became the basis of Roman law. In 287 BC the lex Hortensia asserted that through their assemblies the plebeians could make laws that were binding on the entire Roman people. They had thus succeeded in their basic aim of breaking the legal monopoly of the patricians. By the second century Cato could assume that there were no formal barriers in the way of any citizen acquiring the highest office in the state. Any plebeian elected to the consulship became ennobled. However it is easy to exaggerate the importance of the novi homines, when all the great offices, including that of Tribune of the Plebs, were actually occupied by patricians. And no-one could stand for election without passing a financial test. Rome was not a democracy - but those holding political office needed the votes of the people.

A candidate for election wearing the
traditional white toga
(toga candida)

The equestrians

By the 3rd century BC a new class had emerged – the equestrian order (equites, the knights) as an intermediate group between the Senate and the people. They had originally been Rome’s cavalry. In this position they had many opportunities of advancement. The absence of a civil service meant that as Rome acquired her empire, she turned to these men as professional financiers and administrators.  They possessed a certain income (enough to supply a horse for the cavalry) but they were merchants and businessmen rather than politicians. The expansion of Roman territory gave the equestrians many opportunities of advancing themselves. They helped to supply the army with equipment and to convert war booty into transferable cash.

The concept of citizenship

Roman citizenship was a high honour. It was the supreme privilege to be able to say with Cicero ‘civis romanus sum’. However, in contrast to the exclusive nature of Athenian citizenship, anyone living in Rome who was not a slave was a Roman citizen. Even more importantly, to the astonishment of Greek observers, a slave freed by a Roman citizen also became a citizen. The citizens were united by a loyalty to the Republic, represented by the letters SPQR. Following the rather oddly named Social War (see later post) citizenship was extended throughout the Italian peninsula.

Mary Beard writes in SPQR:
'In extending citizenship to people who had no direct territorial connections with the city of Rome, they broke the link which most people in the classical world took for granted, between citizenship and a single city. In a systematic way that was then unparalleled, they made it possible not just to become Roman, but also to be a citizen of two places at once; one's home town and Rome…so that [citizenship] was no longer an ethnic identity but a political status unrelated to race or geography.'

Cato, looking 
appropriately severe
The concept of citizenship was bound up with a set of republican moral values, best summed up in the career and character of Marcus Porcius Cato, known as Cato the Elder (243-149 BC). He was seen to embody the old virtues of gravitas, frugalitas, severitas and simplicitas. These contrasted with the oriental characteristic of luxuria that Rome was picking up from its contacts with the (allegedly) decadent peoples of the eastern Mediterranean.

Roman values were militaristic. Citizens had to serve in the army and consuls and other magistrates were ineligible for office until they had served for ten years in the military. Aspiring politicians of senatorial rank progressed through the cursus honorum, a combination of military and political administrative posts.

As Rome was transformed from a small city state to the greatest conquering power the world had ever seen, traditional Roman values came under threat. 

  1. An enormously wealthy class of citizen emerged that despised the old virtues of austerity and simplicity
  2. Powerful generals were able to undermine the very republican institutions that had been set up to prevent one man from gaining too much power.