|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’.
The consulsTradition 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.
- They were elected only for a single year
- They were subject to each other’s vetoes.
- Quaestors (established 447): these were specialist financial officials
- 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.
- Praetors (established 367): they were responsible for the specialist functions of the administration of justice.
- Aediles (established 494): they were responsible for public works. As Rome expanded, this became an extremely significant post.
- Tribunes (see below).
The struggle of the orders
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.
|A candidate for election wearing the|
traditional white toga
The equestriansBy 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 citizenshipRoman 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 |
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.
- An enormously wealthy class of citizen emerged that despised the old virtues of austerity and simplicity
- Powerful generals were able to undermine the very republican institutions that had been set up to prevent one man from gaining too much power.