Constitution of the Roman Kingdom

The Constitution of the Roman Kingdom was an unwritten set of guidelines and principles originating mainly through precedent.[1] During the years of the Roman Kingdom, the constitutional arrangement was centered on the king, who had the power to appoint assistants, and delegate to them their specific powers. The Roman Senate, which was dominated by the aristocracy, served as the advisory council to the king. Often, the king asked the Senate to vote on various matters, but he was free to ignore any advice they gave him. The king could also request a vote on various matters by the popular assembly (the "Curiate Assembly"), which he was also free to ignore. The popular assembly functioned as a vehicle through which the People of Rome could express their opinions. In it, the people were organized according to their respective curiae. However, the popular assembly did have other functions. For example, it was a forum used by citizens to hear announcements. It could also serve as a trial court for both civil and criminal matters.

Constitutional history

The period of the kingdom can be divided into two epochs based on the legends.[2] While the specific legends were probably not true, they were likely based on historical fact. It is likely that, before the founding of the republic, Rome had actually been ruled by a succession of kings. The first legendary epoch spans the reigns of the first four legendary kings. During this time, the political foundations of the city were laid,[3] the city was organized into "curiae", the religious institutions were established, and the Senate and the assemblies evolved into formal institutions. The city fought several wars of conquest, the port of Ostia was founded, and the Tiber River was bridged.[3] The early Romans were divided into three ethnic groups:[4] the Ramnes (Latins), Tities (Sabines), and Luceres (Etruscans). The original "patrician" families belonged to these ethnic groups. In an attempt to add a level of organization to the city, these patrician families were divided into units called "curiae".[3] The vehicle through which the early Romans expressed their democratic impulses was known as a "committee" (comitia or "assembly"). The two principal assemblies that formed were known as the "Curiate Assembly" and the "Calate Assembly". The two assemblies were designed to mirror the ethnic divisions of the city and, as such, the assemblies were organized according to curia. The vehicle through which the early Romans expressed their aristocratic impulses was a council of town elders,[2] which became the Roman Senate. The elders of this council were known as patres ("fathers"), and thus are known to history as the first Roman senators. The populus ("people") and the elders eventually recognized the need for a single political leader,[2] and thus elected the rex (king). The populus elected the rex, and the elders advised the rex.[2]

Aeneas' Flight from Troy by Federico Barocci
Aeneas, whom the Romans believed Romulus and Remus descended from and is depicted in the Aeneid, fleeing from the burning city of Troy

The second epoch spans the reigns of the last three legendary kings. This epoch was more consequential than the first, which was due partly to the significant degree of territorial expansion that occurred.[2] Regardless of whether these legends are true, it is likely that, as the legends claim, a series of conquests did occur during the late monarchy. As a result of these conquests, it became necessary to determine what was to be done with the conquered people.[2] Often, some of the individuals whose towns had been conquered remained in those towns,[5] while some others came to Rome.[5] To acquire legal and economic standing, these newcomers adopted a condition of dependency toward either a patrician family, or toward the king (who himself was a patrician).[5] Eventually, the individuals who were dependents of the king were released from their state of dependency, and became the first "plebeians".[5] As Rome grew, it needed more soldiers to continue its conquests. When the plebeians were released from their dependency, they were released from their curiae. When this occurred, they were freed from the requirement to serve in the army, but they also lost their political and economic standing.[6] To bring these new plebeians back into the army, the patricians were forced to make concessions.[7] While it is not known exactly what concessions were made, the fact that they were not granted any political power[7] set the stage for what history knows as the Conflict of the Orders.

To bring the plebeians back into the army, the army was reorganized. The legends give credit for this reorganization to King Servius Tullius.[8] Per the legends, Tullius abolished the old system whereby the army was organized on the basis of the hereditary curiae, and replaced it with one based on land ownership.[9] As part of his reorganization, two new types of unit were created; the army was divided into "centuries", and later reorganizations made the army more efficient through the use of "tribes".[10] The centuries were organized on the basis of property ownership, and any individual, patrician or plebeian, could become a member of a century.[8] These centuries formed the basis of a new assembly called the "Centuriate Assembly", though this assembly was not immediately granted any political powers.[11] In contrast, four tribes were created that encompassed the entire city of Rome, and while new tribes were to be created later, those tribes would encompass territory outside of the city of Rome. Membership in a tribe, unlike that in a curia, was open to both patricians and plebeians without regard to property qualification.


The Roman Senate was a political institution starting in the ancient Roman Kingdom. The Latin term, "senātus," is derived from senex, which means "old man". Therefore, senate literally means "board of old men." The prehistoric Indo-Europeans that settled Italy in the centuries before the legendary founding of Rome in 753 BC[3] were structured into tribal communities.[12] These communities would often include an aristocratic board of tribal elders.[13] The early Roman family was called a gens, or "clan".[12] Each clan was an aggregation of families under a common living male patriarch, called a pater (Latin for "father"), who was the undisputed master of his clan.[2] When the early Roman gentes were aggregating to form a community, the patres from the leading clans were selected[14] for the confederated board of elders (which later became the Roman Senate).[2] Over time, the patres came to recognize the need for a single leader. Therefore, they elected a Roman king (rex),[2] and vested in him their sovereign power.[15] When the king died, that sovereign power would naturally revert to the patres.[2] The senate of the Roman Kingdom held three principal responsibilities: it functioned as the ultimate repository for the executive power,[16] served as counsel to the king, and functioned as a legislative body in concert with the people of Rome.[17]

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres 019
Romulus, Victor over Acron, hauls the rich booty to the temple of Jupiter, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

During the years of the monarchy, the Senate's most important function was to select new kings. The period between the death of one king and the election of the next, was called an interregnum.[16] When a king died, a member of the Senate (the "interrex"') would nominate a candidate to replace the king.[18] After the Senate gave its initial approval of the nominee, he would then be formally elected by the people,[19] and then receive the Senate's final approval.[18] So while the king was officially elected by the people, it was effectively the Senate's decision. The Senate's most significant role outside of royal elections was as an advisory council to the king. While the king was not bound by the Senate's advice, the growing prestige of the Senate made its advice increasingly impolitic to ignore. Technically, the Senate could also make laws, though it would be incorrect to view the Senate's decrees as legislation in the modern sense. Only the king could decree new laws, although he would often involve both the Senate and the Curiate Assembly (the popular assembly) in the process.[17]

Legislative Assemblies

The legislative assemblies were political institutions in the ancient Roman Kingdom. While one, the Curiate Assembly, had some legislative powers,[20] these involved nothing more than a right to symbolically ratify decrees issued by the Roman King. The functions of the other, the Calate Assembly ("Comitia Calata"), were purely religious. During the years of the kingdom, all of the People of Rome were divided among a total of thirty curiae,[20] the basic units of division in the two popular assemblies.[21] The members in each curia would vote, and the majority therein would determine how that curia voted before the assembly. Thus a majority of the curiae (at least sixteen of the thirty) was needed during any vote in either the Curiate Assembly or the Calate Assembly.

The Curiate Assembly (Comitia Curiata) was the only popular assembly with any political significance during the period of the Roman Kingdom,[20] and was organized on the basis of the thirty curiae.[22] The king presided over the assembly, and submitted decrees to it for ratification.[22] On the calends (the first day of the month), and the nones (the fifth or seventh day of the month), this assembly met to hear announcements.[22] Appeals heard by the Curiate often dealt with questions concerning Roman family law.[23] During two fixed days in the spring, the assembly was scheduled to meet to witness wills and adoptions.[22] The assembly also had jurisdiction over the admission of new families to a curia, the transfer of families between two curiae, and the transfer of individuals from plebeian to patrician status (or vice versa).[22]

Executive Magistrates

Platner - Ancient Rome city growth
Growth of the city region during the Kingdom

Executive Magistrates were elected officials of the ancient Roman Kingdom. During the period of the Roman Kingdom, the king was the principal executive magistrate.[7] He was the chief executive, chief priest, chief lawgiver, chief judge, and the commander in chief of the army.[7][23] His powers rested on law and legal precedent, and he could only receive these powers through the political process of a democratic election. In practice, he had no real restrictions on his power. When war broke out, he had the sole power to organize and levy troops, to select leaders for the army, and to conduct the campaign as he saw fit.[23] He controlled all property held by the state, had the sole power to divide land and war spoils, was the chief representative of the city during dealings with either the gods or the leaders of other communities, and could unilaterally decree any new law.[23] Sometimes he submitted his decrees to either the popular assembly or to the Senate for a ceremonial ratification, but a rejection did not prevent the enactment of the decree. The king chose several officers to assist him,[14] and unilaterally granted them their powers. When the king left the city, an "urban prefect" presided over the city in his stead.[14] The king also had two quaestors as general assistants, while several other officers assisted the king during treason cases. In war, the king occasionally commanded only the infantry, and delegated command over the cavalry to the commander of his personal bodyguards, the tribune of the Celeres.[14] The king sometimes deferred to precedent, often simply out of practical necessity. While the king could unilaterally declare war, for example, he typically wanted to have such declarations ratified by the popular assembly.[14][22]

The period between the death of one king and the election of the next was known as an interregnum.[13] During the interregnum, the Senate elected a senator to the office of interrex[18] to facilitate the selection of a new king. Once the interrex found a suitable nominee for the kingship, he presented this nominee to the senate for an initial approval. If the Senate voted in favor of the nominee, that man (women were excluded as nominees) stood for formal election before the People of Rome in the Curiate Assembly (the popular assembly).[18] After the nominee was elected by the Curiate, the Senate ratified the election by passing a decree.[18] The interrex then formally declared the nominee to be king. The new king then took the auspices (a ritual search for omens from the gods), and was vested with legal authority (imperium) by the popular assembly.[18]

The end of the monarchy

The first Etruscan King of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus, succeeded king Ancus Marcius. It has been suggested that Rome had been conquered by the Etruscans,[9] but this is unlikely. The city was located in an easily defensible position, and its rapid growth attracted people from all over the region. The city's liberal policy of extending citizenship probably created an opportunity for a skillful leader to gain the throne.[24] The reign of the first four kings was distinct from that of the last three. The first kings were elected. Between the reigns of the final three kings, however, the monarchy became hereditary,[16] and thus the Senate became subordinated to the king. The fact that the monarchy became hereditary is obvious from the kinship among those three kings, as well as from the lack of interregna.[16] The fact that the auspices did not revert to the Senate upon the deaths of those kings constituted a serious erosion of the Senate's authority, because it prevented the Senate from electing a monarch of its choosing.[16] This violation of the Senate's sovereignty, rather than an intolerable tyranny, was probably what led the patricians in the Senate to overthrow the last king.[16] The king may have sought the support of the plebeians, but the plebeians were no doubt exhausted from their continued military service and from their forced labor in the construction of public works, and were probably also embittered by their lack of political power. Therefore, they did not come to the aide of either the king or the Senate.[16]

See also


  1. ^ Byrd, 161
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Abbott, 6
  3. ^ a b c d Abbott, 3
  4. ^ Abbott, 5
  5. ^ a b c d Abbott, 7
  6. ^ Abbott, 7-8
  7. ^ a b c d Abbott, 8
  8. ^ a b Abbott, 20
  9. ^ a b Abbott, 9
  10. ^ Abbott, 4
  11. ^ Abbott, 21
  12. ^ a b Abbott, 1
  13. ^ a b Abbott, 12
  14. ^ a b c d e Abbott, 16
  15. ^ Byrd, 42
  16. ^ a b c d e f g Abbott, 10
  17. ^ a b Abbott, 17
  18. ^ a b c d e f Abbott, 14
  19. ^ Byrd, 20
  20. ^ a b c Abbott, 18
  21. ^ Byrd, 33
  22. ^ a b c d e f Abbott, 19
  23. ^ a b c d Abbott, 15
  24. ^ Abbott, 9-10


  • Abbott, Frank Frost (1901). A History and Description of Roman Political Institutions. Elibron Classics (ISBN 0-543-92749-0).
  • Byrd, Robert (1995). The Senate of the Roman Republic. U.S. Government Printing Office, Senate Document 103-23.
  • Cicero, Marcus Tullius (1841). The Political Works of Marcus Tullius Cicero: Comprising his Treatise on the Commonwealth; and his Treatise on the Laws. Translated from the original, with Dissertations and Notes in Two Volumes. By Francis Barham, Esq. London: Edmund Spettigue. Vol. 1.
  • Lintott, Andrew (1999). The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-926108-3).
  • Polybius (1823). The General History of Polybius: Translated from the Greek. By James Hampton. Oxford: Printed by W. Baxter. Fifth Edition, Vol 2.
  • Taylor, Lily Ross (1966). Roman Voting Assemblies: From the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar. The University of Michigan Press (ISBN 0-472-08125-X).

Further reading

  • Ihne, Wilhelm. Researches Into the History of the Roman Constitution. William Pickering. 1853.
  • Johnston, Harold Whetstone. Orations and Letters of Cicero: With Historical Introduction, An Outline of the Roman Constitution, Notes, Vocabulary and Index. Scott, Foresman and Company. 1891.
  • Mommsen, Theodor. Roman Constitutional Law. 1871-1888
  • Tighe, Ambrose. The Development of the Roman Constitution. D. Apple & Co. 1886.
  • Von Fritz, Kurt. The Theory of the Mixed Constitution in Antiquity. Columbia University Press, New York. 1975.
  • The Histories by Polybius
  • Cambridge Ancient History, Volumes 9–13.
  • A. Cameron, The Later Roman Empire, (Fontana Press, 1993).
  • M. Crawford, The Roman Republic, (Fontana Press, 1978).
  • E. S. Gruen, "The Last Generation of the Roman Republic" (U California Press, 1974)
  • F. Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World, (Duckworth, 1977, 1992).
  • A. Lintott, "The Constitution of the Roman Republic" (Oxford University Press, 1999)

Primary sources

Secondary source material

History of the Constitution of the Roman Kingdom

The History of the Constitution of the Roman Kingdom is a study of the ancient Roman Kingdom that traces the progression of Roman political development from the founding of the city of Rome in 753 BC to the overthrow of the Roman Kingdom in 510 BC. The constitution of the Roman Kingdom vested the sovereign power in the King of Rome. The king did have two rudimentary checks on his authority, which took the form of a board of elders (the "Roman Senate") and a popular assembly (the "Curiate Assembly"). The arrangement was similar to the constitutional arrangements found in contemporary Greek city-states (such as Athens or Sparta). These Greek constitutional principles probably came to Rome through the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia in southern Italy. In the centuries before the legendary founding of the city of Rome, Greek settlers had colonized much of the Mediterranean world. These settlers carried Greek ideals with them, and often kept in contact with the Greek mainland. Thus, the superstructure of the Roman constitution was ultimately of Greek origin.

History of the Roman Constitution

The History of the Roman Constitution is a study of Ancient Rome that traces the progression of Roman political development from the founding of the city of Rome in 753 BC to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD. The constitution of the Roman Kingdom vested the sovereign power in the King of Rome. The king did have two rudimentary checks on his authority, which took the form of a board of elders (the Roman Senate) and a popular assembly (the Curiate Assembly). The arrangement was similar to the constitutional arrangements found in contemporary Greek city-states (such as Athens or Sparta). These Greek constitutional principles probably came to Rome through the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia in southern Italy. The Roman Kingdom was overthrown in 510 BC, according to legend, and in its place the Roman Republic was founded.

The constitutional history of the Roman Republic can be divided into five phases. The first phase began with the revolution which overthrew the Roman Kingdom in 510 BC, and the final phase ended with the revolution which overthrew the Roman Republic, and thus created the Roman Empire, in 27 BC. Throughout the history of the republic, the constitutional evolution was driven by the struggle between the aristocracy (the "Patricians") and the ordinary citizens (the "Plebeians"). Approximately two centuries after the founding of the republic, the Plebeians attained, in theory at least, equality with the Patricians. In practice, however, the plight of the average Plebeian remained unchanged. This set the stage for the civil wars of the 1st century BC, and Rome's transformation into a formal empire.

The general who won the last civil war of the Roman Republic, Gaius Octavian, became the master of the state. In the years after 30 BC, Octavian set out to reform the Roman constitution, and to found the Principate. The ultimate consequence of these reforms was the abolition of the republic, and the founding of the Roman Empire. Octavian was given the honorific Augustus ("venerable") by the Roman Senate, and became known to history by this name, and as the first Roman Emperor. Octavian's reforms did not, at the time, seem drastic, since they did nothing more than reorganize the constitution. The reorganization was revolutionary, however, because the ultimate result was that Octavian ended up with control over the entire constitution, which itself set the stage for outright monarchy. When Diocletian became Roman Emperor in 284, the Principate was abolished, and a new system, the Dominate, was established. This system survived until the ultimate fall of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in 1453.

Outline of ancient Rome

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to ancient Rome:

Ancient Rome – former civilization that thrived on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to become one of the largest empires in the ancient world.

Roman Constitution

The Roman Constitution was an uncodified set of guidelines and principles passed down mainly through precedent. The Roman constitution was not formal or even official, largely unwritten and constantly evolving. Having those characteristics, it was therefore more like the British and United States common law system than a sovereign law system like the English Constitutions of Clarendon and Great Charter or the United States Constitution, even though the constitution's evolution through the years was often directed by passage of new laws and repeal of older ones.

Concepts that originated in the Roman constitution live on in both forms of government to this day. Examples include checks and balances, the separation of powers, vetoes, filibusters, quorum requirements, term limits, impeachments, the powers of the purse, and regularly scheduled elections. Even some lesser used modern constitutional concepts, such as the bloc voting found in the electoral college of the United States, originate from ideas found in the Roman constitution.

Over the years, the Roman constitution continuously evolved. By the late 5th century BC, the Constitution of the Roman Kingdom had given way to the Constitution of the Roman Republic. By 27 BC, the Constitution of the Roman Republic had transformed into the Constitution of the Roman Empire. By 300 AD, the Constitution of the Roman Empire had been reformed into the Constitution of the Late Roman Empire. The actual changes, however, were quite gradual. Together, these four constitutions formed four epochs in the continuous evolution of one master constitution.

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