Constitution of the Roman Republic

The constitution of the Roman Republic was a set of unwritten norms and customs, which together with various written laws,[1] guided the procedural governance of the Roman Republic. The constitution emerged from that of the Roman kingdom, evolved over the almost five hundred years of the Republic, and was transformed into the constitution of the Roman Empire.[2]

The Roman republican constitution can be divided into three main branches:[3]

  • the Assemblies, composed of the people, which served as the supreme repository of political power and had the authority to elect magistrates, accept or reject laws, administer justice, and declare war or peace;[4]
  • the Senate, which advised the magistrates and the state,[5] acting primarily not on legal authority per se, but rather with its influence, and
  • the magistrates, elected by the people to govern the Republic in their name, holding religious, military, and judicial powers, along with the right to preside over and call upon the assemblies.[6]

A complex set of checks and balances developed between these three branches.[7] For example, the assemblies theoretically held all power, but were called and governed by the magistrates, who, controlling discussion, exercised dominating influence over them.[8] Similarly, to check the power of the magistrates, each magistrate could veto one of their colleagues and the plebeians elected tribunes who could intercede and veto the actions of a magistrate.[9]

The Republic's constitution slowly evolved over time. Starting from a period of patrician domination, the Conflict of the Orders eventually granted plebeian citizens equal political rights, while also creating the tribunate to check patrician power and empowering the Plebeian Council, an assembly composed of the plebeians of Rome, with full legislative authority.[10]

The late Republic saw an increase in the centralisation of power into the hands of provincial governors,[11] the use of military power to enforce political changes (e.g. the Sullan dictatorship),[12] and the use of violence, combined with exploitation of the suitably bribed or intimidated "sovereign" assemblies, to grant supreme authority to victorious commanders.[13] The increasing legitimisation of violence and centralisation of authority into fewer and fewer men would, with the collapse of trust in the Republic's institutions,[13] put it on a path to civil war and its transformation by Augustus into an autocratic empire cloaked with nothing more than the veneer of Republican legitimacy.

Development of the constitution

Capitoline Brutus Musei Capitolini MC1183
The "Capitoline Brutus", a bust of Lucius Junius Brutus (d. 509 BC), traditionally the first consul of the Republic, dated to the 4th or 3rd centuries BC

The early republican constitution was dominated by the patricians, who monopolised all control of the magistracies, the Senate, and the voting blocs of the assemblies. Generally, it slowly developed with a tendency towards greater popular representation at the expense of the patrician class.[14] The main historical sources for the origins of the Roman political system, Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, relied heavily on the Roman annalists, who supplemented what little written history existed with oral history. This lack of evidence poses problems for the reliability of the traditional account of the republic's origins.[15]

According to this traditional account, Rome had been ruled by a succession of kings. The Romans believed that this era, that of the Roman kingdom, began in 753 BC and ended in 510 BC. After the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the Republic, the people of Rome began electing two consuls each year.[16] According to the consular fasti, a list of the consuls going back to the foundation of the Republic, the first consuls were chosen in 509 BC.[17]

Some scholars doubt this traditional account, arguing instead that the monarchy evolved into a government led by elected magistrates.[18] Remnants of the monarchy, however, were reflected in republican institutions, such as the religious office of rex sacrorum ("king of the sacred") and the interregnum (a period of time presided over by an interrex when the offices of consul, praetor, and dictator were all vacant).[19] There, is, however, certainly evidence that the early Republic was a time of violent change, with the word rex carrying the same connotations as tyrant and laws which declared forfeit the life and property of any man who plotted to install himself as a king or tyrant.[18]

The first assemblies of the Republic emerged during the Kingdom, with their use to ratify regal elections and the repurposing of the comitia centuriata to elect the first consuls.[18] This regime was dominated by the patricians, and the sources on the early Republic overwhelmingly focus on the conflicts between the patricians and the plebs, in what is known as the Conflict of the Orders.[20]

The early years of the Republic were a time of external strife and periodic popular unrest. In 494 BC, under harsh measures from patrician creditors, during a military campaign, the plebeians under arms seceded to the Mons Sacer outside the city and refused to fight in the campaign without political concessions. With the pressure of an external threat, the patricians were forced to create the office of plebeian tribune (Latin: tribuni plebis) who were declared sacrosanct,[20] i.e. that they were declared inviolable and that anyone could be summarily executed for violation of the sanctity of his person.[21] This was the basis of the tribune's ability to veto (literally translated as "I forbid") any political act or to protect any individual from an injustice committed by a magistrate, known as intercessio and auxilium, respectively.[22] The people gave the tribunes, whose number is unclear,[20] two assistants known as plebeian aediles.[23]

Later, again under pressure from the plebs, a political compromise was reached in which the consuls and tribunes would give place to a commission of ten men, the decemviri, who would be empowered to publish a code of laws for all Rome, the Twelve Tables.[24] According to Livy, it codified all public and private law, but its promulgation did not grant further political rights to the plebs, as it enshrined into the tables a law banning intermarriage between plebeians and patricians.[25] With a short attempt to establish a tyranny by the decemviri, they were overthrown by the second secession of the army, restoring the old republic and preventing the creation of a new constitution based on the ten-man commission.[26]

In 446 BC, quaestors, administrators with wide terms of reference, were first elected; and the office of censor was created to administer the census in 443 BC.[26][27] However, the creation of the censors also was concurrent with the practice of electing military tribunes with consular authority, which, while open to the plebs, stalled efforts to reform the consulate itself.[28]

In 367 BC, plebeians were allowed to stand for the consulship, and this implicitly opened both the censorship as well as the dictatorship to plebeians.[29] Around this time, the practice of electing military tribunes with consular authority was dropped. In 366 BC, in an effort by the patricians to reassert their influence over the magisterial offices, two new offices were created. These two offices, the praetorship and the curule aedileship (so-called because its holder, like consuls and praetors, had the right to sit in a curule seat),[30] were at first open only to patricians, but within a generation they were open to plebeians as well.[23]

Beginning around the year 350 BC, the senators and the plebeian tribunes began to grow closer.[11] The Senate began giving tribunes more power, and the tribunes began to feel indebted to the Senate.[11] As the tribunes and the senators grew closer, plebeian senators began to routinely secure the office of tribune for members of their own families.[31] Also, this period saw the enacting of the plebiscitum Ovinium, which transferred the power to appoint new senators from the consuls to the censors. This law also required the censors to appoint any newly elected magistrate to the Senate,[32] which probably resulted in a significant increase in the number of plebeian senators.[33]

As the privileged status of the old patrician elite eroded over time, a plebeian aristocracy developed whose status was theoretically based on merit and popular election rather than birth.[33][34] Because patricians were ineligible to run for plebeian offices, the new plebeian aristocracy actually had more opportunities for advancement than their patrician counterparts.[35] Over time distinctions between patricians and plebeian aristocrats became less important, giving rise to a new "patricio-plebeian aristocracy" termed the nobilitas.[33]

In 287 BC, the plebeians again seceded. To end the secession, the lex Hortensia was passed, which required that plebiscites, laws passed by the Plebeian Council, be binding on the whole Roman people.[14] The Hortensian law resolved the last great political question of the earlier era; the electoral and legislative sovereignty of the assemblies was confirmed and would remain part of the constitution until the demise of the Republic.[14] As a whole, the outcome of the political struggles of the early republic was to eliminate the privileged status of patricians in the constitution and grant the plebs recognition of their own officers.[34] The institution of the Senate was also now arguably stronger, as it became a repository of former magistrates rather than a body of hereditary nobles.[34]

The Assemblies

Roman constitution
Chart showing the checks and balances of the Constitution of the Roman Republic

In Roman constitutional law, the assemblies were a sovereign authority, with the power to enact or reject any law, confer any magistracies, and make any decision.[4] In fact, with a single law, they held the authority to override the norms and precedents of the Republic as well as ancient laws long unchanged.[36] There were two necessary components to any assembly: (1) the convening magistrate and (2) the citizens in the assembly itself. Assemblies did not participate or discuss matters laid before them, they heard the speakers put forth by the presiding officer. And after such discussion, the presiding officer could call for a direct up or down vote.[37] Without a magistrate, there would be nobody to legally call upon the assembly; and without the citizens, there is naught but a magistrate.

Assemblies did not consist of the whole Roman people (Latin: populus Romanus) as only adult male citizens were permitted to participate. Until the Social War around 90 BC, Italian non-Romans were prohibited from voting as well.[38] That civil war, between Rome and her Italian allies, led to various laws granting citizenship and voting rights to their Italian allies.


There were three types of gatherings, the comitia, the concilium, and the contio or conventio. The first two were formal gatherings where legal decisions were made. The first, the comitia (or comitiatus), was an assembly of all Roman citizens convened to take a legal action, such as enacting laws, electing magistrates, and trying judicial cases.[39][40] The second type of legislative meeting was the council (Latin: concilium), which was a gathering of a specific group of citizens. For example, the concilium Plebis, or Plebeian council, was for meetings of plebeians only.[41]

The third type of gathering, the convention (Latin: contio or conventio), was an unofficial forum for communication where citizens gathered to hear public announcements and arguments debated in speeches as well to witness the examination or execution of criminals. In contrast to the formal assembly or council, no legal decisions were made by the convention.[41] Voters met in conventions to deliberate prior to meeting in assemblies or councils to vote.[42]

Assemblies and councils operated according to established procedures overseen by the augurs. They could only be convened by magistrates, and citizens only voted on matters proposed by the presiding magistrate.[4][41] Over the years, laws were passed which mandated a written ballot, attempted to reduce voter intimidation, and established procedures to watch over voting and prevent voter fraud.[43] For elections, it was not a matter of who received the most votes, but rather who could first be approved by a majority of the voting blocs.[44] All votes had to be completed within a single day and had to be done again if interrupted or abandoned.[45]

Assembly types

Roman citizens were organized into three types of voting units: curiae, centuria, and tribus or tribes. These corresponded to three different kinds of assemblies: the Curiate Assembly, the Centuriate Assembly, and the Tribal Assembly. Each unit (curia, century or tribe) cast one vote before their assembly.[44] The majority of individual votes in any century, tribe, or curia decided how that unit voted.[44]

The Curiate assembly (Latin: comitia curiata) traditionally dates to the early monarchy, from 30 divisions of the city made by Romulus.[45] By the middle Republic, it served only a symbolic purpose. At some point, the 30 curiae ceased to actually meet and were instead represented by 30 lictors. This assembly had authority over some elements of family law and ratified the imperium of elected magistrates and promagistrates through a lex curiata de imperio.[45] In the realm of family law, it was presided over by the pontifex maximus.[46] However, there was considerable debate in the late Republic on whether or not a magistrate's election actually required ratification by the curiae,[47] and by 212 BC, the Senate refrained from enforcing this quirk of precedent.[48]

The Centuriate assembly (Latin: comitia centuriata) was formed under the monarchy, and widely seen by the ancients as a means of allotting voting privileges in proportion to military duties demanded of the citizenry,[49] disproportionately granting voting power to the richest in society, as at the time of its formation, the wealthiest were also expected to contribute the most to the military.[49] By the middle Republic, the connection between voting power and military service had long ceased, turning into a system to suppress the voting power of the poor.[50] Because of its military roots, it could only be called into session by a magistrate holding imperium.[46] Originally divided into 193 voting blocs, these blocs were further subdivided into five classes and a class of equites by wealth, each further subdivided by age into a junior and senior bloc. The first class and the equites held 98 of the 193 voting blocs, an absolute majority.[51] This was later reformed around 241 BC, into an assembly of 373 voting blocs with each class having the same number of votes, though the wealth requirements necessarily meant that the wealthier classes were composed of fewer people.[52] The body was primarily called for the election of consuls, praetors, and censors;[53] while it could hear legislation, trials, and only it could declare an offensive war,[54] these were increasingly rare by the second century BC.[53]

The Tribal assembly (Latin: comitia tributa) dates from time immemorial, as no ancient historian mentions its establishment.[55] In the early Republic, there were four urban tribes and 17 rural tribes.[53] In 241 BC, fourteen rural tribes were added, bringing the total to thirty-five.[53] The "tribes" were not ethnic or kinship groups, but rather a district to which people were assigned.[56] A citizen's tribe was inherited from his father, and only changed upon adoption or reallocation in the census;[57] over time, this meant that tribal affiliation had little relationship to a citizen's home or even place of birth.[58] The vast majority of legislation was enacted in the comitia tributa,[49] which also elected quaestors, curule aediles, and military tribunes.[59][60]

The Plebeian council (Latin: concilium plebis) was identical to the Tribal assembly with one key exception: only plebeians had the power to vote in it.[61] It elected the plebeian tribunes and aediles, and later, various other minor posts.[62] It also had the ability to enact laws called plebiscites, which in the early Republic, only applied to plebs, but after the passage of lex Hortensia, applied to all Romans.[14] In the early Republic, the council also had some judicial functions, but by the middle Republic, much of these functions were transferred to permanent courts.[63]


Artist's impression of the Senate in session, Cicero delivering his oration Catiline, from a 19th-century fresco.

The Senate was the predominant political institution in the Roman Republic. The Senate's authority derived primarily from custom and tradition.[5] It was also one of the few places in which free political discussion could take place.[64] The Senate's principal role was as an advisory council to the consuls on matters of foreign and military policy, and it exercised a great deal of influence over consular decision-making.[65]

During the Kingdom, the Senate consisted of persons selected to the position by the King, a power which the consuls inherited after the end of the monarchy.[66] In the very early Republic, senators were primarily chosen due to their birth,[67] but by the late Republic, and especially after Sulla, membership in the Senate became predicated on having previously held a magistracy.[68] In the late 4th century BC, the consul's power to control Senate membership was transferred to the censor,[66] exercised with considerable discretion, until laws passed in the late Republic formalised some kind of hearing before censorial decisions.[69] In line with the censor's duty to protect morals, senators were required to be of good character, not have been found guilty of a criminal offence, and not be a person tainted with ignominy (e.g. bankrupts, former gladiators, prostitutes, or deserters).[70] Before the time of Augustus, there is no evidence of any kind of property qualification.[71] The Senate consisted of around 300 prior to the dictatorship of Sulla, but after his dictatorship, it consisted of somewhere over 500 men.[67]

A decree from the Senate was called senatus consultum (plural senatus consulta). While this was formally "advice" from the Senate to a magistrate stating the Senate's position on some topic, the senatus consulta were usually obeyed by the magistrates.[72] If a senatus consultum conflicted with a law that was passed by a popular assembly, the law overrode the senatus consultum.[73]

Meetings could take place either inside or outside of the formal boundary of the city (the pomerium), though the official meeting place, or curia was at the centre of the Roman forum. The president of the Senate was normally one of the consuls, but it could be called to meet by any of the praetors or tribunes, both of whom had the authority to call the Senate, though praetors rarely did so unless the consuls were away and the tribunes almost never did so.[74] Meetings were suffused in religious ritual. Temples were a preferred meeting site and auspices would be taken before the meeting could commence.[69]

The presiding consul began each meeting with a speech on an issue,[75] and then referred the issue to the senators, who discussed the matter by order of seniority.[75] Unimportant matters could be voted on by a voice vote or by a show of hands, while important votes resulted in a physical division of the house,[76] with senators voting by taking a place on either side of the chamber. Any vote was always between a proposal and its negative.[77]

Since all meetings had to end by nightfall, a senator could talk a proposal to death (a filibuster) if he could keep the debate going until nightfall.[75] Any proposed motion could be vetoed by a tribune,[35] and if it was not vetoed, it was then turned into a final senatus consultum. Each senatus consultum was transcribed into a document by the presiding magistrate, and then deposited into the aerarium (the public treasury).[78]

Executive magistrates

Toga (PSF)
The toga praetexta, the dress of magistrates from the aedile to the consul.[79]

Magistrates were elected officials, serving as representatives of the people for the conduct of public business.[80] There were two broad categories of magistrates, the ordinary magistrates such as the consuls, products of the republican constitution, and the extraordinary magistrates such as the dictators, remnants of the monarchial constitution and reserved primarily for emergencies.[80] Each magistrate held potestas, the authority to exercise the office's powers conferred by custom or statute.[81] The most powerful magistrates, such as the extraordinary magistrates, consuls, and praetors, held a kind of authority known as imperium, the authority to command in a military or judicial sense.[82]

Ordinary magistrates

Of the ordinary magistrates, there were two further divisions: the higher magistrates, composed of consuls, praetors, their prorogued equivalents and the censors; and the lower magistrates, composed of the tribunes, aediles, quaestors and other minor positions.[3] All higher magistrates were elected by the Centuriate Assembly.

The most powerful ordinary magistrate was the consul, of which there were two,[a] who served for the period of one year.[84] These consuls had the authority to call assemblies of the people.[85] In the early Republic, they held judicial duties until these responsibilities were moved to the praetors and later to permanent courts; similarly, they held financial responsibilities until these duties were transferred to the quaestors.[86] The consuls also held vague religious duties inherited from the kings,[87] along with their more important military functions, serving as the commander-in-chief of Rome's armies.

The next magistrate was the praetor, who increased in number over the course of the Republic[b] and were primarily judges.[89] In the later Republic, praetors were increasingly sent out to the provinces to serve as provincial governors, especially as prorogued magistrates.[89] In Rome, there were primarily two kinds of praetor, the praetor urbanus and the praetor peregrinus, in charge of suits involving citizens and foreigners, respectively.[90] They were also assigned, in the late Republic, to various permanent courts with specific criminal jurisdiction.[c][91] When the consuls were away, the praetors were empowered to command armies and serve in the place of the consuls, and thus also held authority to call assemblies and introduce legislation[92]

Over time, as Rome's empire grew, the two annual consuls ceased to be enough to command its many armies in the field or administer its many provinces. To solve this problem, it became normal to prorogue the authority of current consuls and praetors beyond their normal terms so they could continue to command in the field.[93] Over time, however, with increasing need for competent generals and administrators, prorogation of magistrates became the norm;[94] and the device was used, increasingly by the assemblies, to grant imperium to popular politicians.[94]

The censor was appointed specifically to conduct the census. This involved counting the Roman people, assessing their property, and assigning them to their appropriate centuria and tribus.[94] They were elected around every four or five years.[95] After the passage of lex Ovinia, the censors were also transferred the power from the consuls to control membership in the Senate.[67] Along with the main responsibility of dealing with the census, the censors also dealt with property disputes, public contracts, and the management of public lands.[96]

Gaius Gracchus Tribune of the People
Gaius Gracchus, tribune of the people, presiding over the Plebeian Council, in an artist's impression from 1799.

The lower magistrates included the tribune of the plebs, who was elected by the Plebeian Council, and the aediles and quaestors, elected by the Tribal Assembly. The tribune was sacrosanct, i.e. declared inviolable, with summary execution for violators of his sanctity.[21] It was on this basis that the tribune could veto any political act or to protect any individual from an injustice committed by a magistrate, known as intercessio and auxilium, respectively.[22] This power was used increasingly to block public business in the later republic, and was only limited in that a tribune could not oppose the will of the people as a whole.[d][98]

The aediles were in charge of various municipal tasks, e.g. the upkeep of temples, streets, and the water-supply.[99] They were also responsible for public games,[99] and some aspects of police work in the city.[100] The quaestors were elected administrators, which could be put in charge of the treasury, the granaries, or various administrative postings in Italy, with the consuls, or in the provinces.[101] In the late Republic, election to the quaestorship became the basis for a life appointment to the Senate.[102]

Extraordinary magistrates

There were two extraordinary magistrates: the dictator and the magister equitum (literally: master of horse).[103] Dictators were selected by the consuls[104] to resolve some crisis threatening the Republic and served for a term of around six months before they were expected to resign and return their powers to the ordinary magistrates.[105] The magister equitum was then appointed by the dictator as his lieutenant.[e][106] The dictatorship was only used in the early and middle Republic, before falling out of fashion after the end of the Second Punic War only to be revived during the time of Sulla as an extraconstitutional measure, not to defeat some foe or quell unrest, but rather, to bring stability to the political order.[f][105][93]

The dictator had maius imperium and total authority to command the state;[104] however, since the dictator generally tried to maintain order, this did not conflict with the responsibilities of the other magistrates, who continued to function during a dictatorship.[104][108] The magister equitum had similar plenary authority, with parallel and somewhat subordinate authority to the dictator.[106]

In the middle and later Republic, with the office of dictator falling out of fashion, the need for dictatorial authority was not granted to some extraordinary magistrate, but rather, to the consuls, through a senatus consultum ultimum, or final decree.[93] This decree took the form of a recommendation from the Senate to the consuls to take whatever actions were necessary to defend the Republic.[g][110][109] Due to its general vagueness, however, its use was hotly contested in the late Republic and is still debated among scholars today, as in a strict legal sense, the final decree did not grant legal authority to the consuls, but rather, served as an urging from the Senate to ignore the laws to protect the state.[111]

Constitutional instability

Sulla Glyptothek Munich 309
A bust of Sulla, the first dictator and general to march on Rome of the late Republic,[112] who marched on Rome with his troops in 88 and 82 BC.[113]

After the Second Punic War, there was a great increase in income inequality. While the middle class was drafted to serve in increasingly long campaigns, their farms and homesteads fell into bankruptcy.[114] With Rome's great military victories, vast numbers of slaves were imported into Italy.[114] In the middle of the second century BC, the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus led to a breakup of the long-standing norms of the republican constitution.[115] Graccus' legislation effectively established a parallel administration challenging the socio-political power of the old aristocracy and establishing a precedent that the popular assemblies could vote themselves whatever they wanted.[115] His younger brother, Gaius Gracchus, further challenged the Senate's political preeminence by threatening it with new judicial procedures.[115] The Senate's violent reaction against both the Gracchi, which led to their deaths, also served to legitimise the use of violence for political ends.[116]

Sullan constitution

Later populist attempts to introduce similarly broad-reaching redistributive legislation enlisted the support of Gaius Marius, a great general, who was then elected to a string of unprecedented consecutive consulships.[117] This violated Roman law, which mandated a decade between consulships, and further weakened the primarily norms-based constitution. The attempts to recall the general Sulla led to his marching on Rome in 88 BC, installing two new consuls and forcing major reforms of the constitution at sword-point,[117] before leaving on a military campaign in the East.[118] This further strengthened the precedent that the Republic's constitution was malleable.

After various violent political turnovers while Sulla was on campaign in the East, he returned in 82 BC. After winning a second civil war and purging the Republic of thousands of his "enemies" (many of which were targeted for their wealth), he forced the Assemblies to make him dictator for the settling of the constitution,[119][93] with an indefinite term. Sulla attempted to concentrate political power into the Senate and the aristocratic assemblies, whilst trying to reduce the obstructive and legislative powers of the tribune and Plebeian council.[120]

To this end, he required that all bills presented to the Assemblies first be approved by the Senate, restricted the tribunician veto to only matters of individual requests for clemency, and required that men elected tribune would be barred from all other magistracies.[119] Beyond stripping the tribunate of its powers, the last provision was intended to prevent ambitious youth from seeking the office by making it a dead end.[119]

He also doubled the size of the Senate, restored its judicial powers,[h] and formalised the cursus honorum by clearly stating the progression of office and associated age requirements.[119] Next, to aid administration, he doubled the number of quaestors to 20 and added two more praetors; the greater number of magistrates also meant he could shorten the length of provincial assignments (and lessen the chances of building provincial power bases) by increasing the rate of turnover.[119] Moreover, magistrates were barred from seeking reelection to any post for ten years and barred for two years from holding any other post after his term ended.[119]

After securing election as consul in 80 BC, Sulla resigned the dictatorship and attempted to solidify his republican constitutional reforms.[119] However, many of his changes were not to last. With significant popular unrest, the tribunate's powers were quickly restored by 70 BC by Sulla's own lieutenants': Pompey and Crassus.[12] Sulla passed legislation to make it illegal to march on Rome as he had,[121] but having just shown that doing so would bring no personal harm so long as one was victorious, this obviously had little effect.[12] Sulla's actions and civil war fundamentally weakened the authority of the constitution and created a clear precedent that an ambitious general could make an end-run around the republican constitution simply by force of arms.[119]

Collapse of the Republic

Jean-Léon Gérôme - The Death of Caesar - Walters 37884
A depiction of the death of Caesar, from The Death of Caesar, Jean-Léon Gérôme, painted in 1867

Over the course of the late Republic, formerly authoritative institutions lost their credibility and authority.[13] For example, the Sullan reforms to the Senate strongly split the aristocratic class between those who stayed in the city and those who rose to high office abroad, further increasing class divides between Romans, even at the highest levels.[122] Furthermore, the dominance of the military in the late Republic, along with stronger ties between a general and his troops, caused by their longer terms of service together and the troops' reliance on that general to provide for their retirements,[116] along with an obstructionist central government, meant a huge number of malcontent soldiers willing to take up arms against the state. Adding in the institutionalisation of violence as a means to obstruct or force political change (e.g. the deaths of the Gracchi and Sulla's dictatorship, respectively),[116] the Republic was caught in an ever more violent and anarchic struggle between the Senate, assemblies at Rome, and the promagistrates. It would only be resolved by civil war,[13] a war which the promagistrate governors and their troops would win, and in doing so, collapse the Republic.

See also


  1. ^ This stayed the case until the late Republic, a time when the constitution was increasingly ignored, when Pompey was appointed by the Senate as sole consul for 52 BC to quell riots in Rome.[83]
  2. ^ In the middle Republic, there were one or two. By the late Republic, during the dictatorship of Caesar, this had ballooned to 18.[88]
  3. ^ One court, specifically mentioned by Lintott, is the quaestio perpetua de repetundis, set up by lex Calpurnia to investigate extortion by Roman magistrates.[91]
  4. ^ An example of this is Tiberius Gracchus' securing of the removal of Marcus Octavius for opposition to his land reform policies, by vote of the people.[97]
  5. ^ Lintott writes, 'Once chosen, he could not be deposed, but his office ceased with that of his superior. In many respects he might function in parallel to the dictator, like a second consul, rather than as a direct subordinate. However, more spectacular stories about the office show that his subordination was a major issue'.[106]
  6. ^ The differences between the early dictatorships and the later dictatorships is quite clear. The lex Valeria of 82 BC created Sulla dictator for the revision of the constitution, with practically unlimited powers.[107] Caesar took a similar dictatorship in the early 40s BC as well. These were fundamentally political posts, with the right to name magistrates, change the membership of the Senate, exercise plenary judicial authority, and control public lands.[107]
  7. ^ For clarification, Lintott explains that, 'It was not clear, for example, whether it was simple recommending a limited use of force to restore the rule of law or the extermination of those who are thought to have disturbed the peace'.[109]
  8. ^ Permanent courts, such as the extortion court established by the lex Calpurnia, had been established in the middle Republic primarily to try crimes against the state and extortion of the populace. Over time, the jury pool of these courts was enlarged to include equestrians, before shutting out Senators entirely. One of the Sullan reforms was to restrict the pool of these courts back to the Senatorial class.[119]


  1. ^ Lintott, Andrew (2003). The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 2. ISBN 0-19-926108-3.
  2. ^ Abbott, Frank Frost (1963). A History and Descriptions of Roman Political Institutions (3 ed.). New York: Noble Offset Printers Inc. p. 270.
  3. ^ a b Lintott 2003, p. vii.
  4. ^ a b c Lintott 2003, p. 40.
  5. ^ a b Lintott 2003, p. 66.
  6. ^ Abbott 1963, pp. 157-165.
  7. ^ "Polybius observed that it was impossible to tell whether the Roman constitution was aristocratic, monarchical, or democratic": The City of Rome: From Republic to Empire, by John R. Patterson, The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 82 (1992), pp. 186-215.
  8. ^ Lintott 2003, p. 202.
  9. ^ Abbott 1963, p. 155.
  10. ^ Lintott 2003, pp. 121-122.
  11. ^ a b c Abbott 1963, p. 44.
  12. ^ a b c Lintott 2003, p. 212.
  13. ^ a b c d Lintott 2003, p. 213.
  14. ^ a b c d Lintott 2003, p. 38.
  15. ^ Lintott 2003, p. 27-28.
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  101. ^ Lintott 2003, p. 133.
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  111. ^ Lintott 2003, p. 92.
  112. ^ Ridley, R. T. (2016). "The Fall of the Roman Republic". Agora. 51 (1): 66.
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  116. ^ a b c Ridley 2016, p. 66.
  117. ^ a b Lintott 2003, p. 210.
  118. ^ Abbott 1963, p. 103.
  119. ^ a b c d e f g h i Duncan, Mike (24 October 2017). The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic (1st ed.). New York: Hachette Book Group. pp. 252–257. ISBN 978-1610397216.
  120. ^ Lintott 2003, pp. 210-211.
  121. ^ Lintott 2003, p. 211.
  122. ^ Steel, Catherine (2014). "The Roman Senate and the post-Sullan res publica". Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. 63 (3): 328.

Further reading

  • 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. vol. 1 (Translated from the original, with Dissertations and Notes in Two Volumes By Francis Barham, Esq ed.). London: Edmund Spettigue.
  • Goldsworthy, Adrian (2010). In the Name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire. Orion Books, Ltd. ISBN 0-297-86401-7.
  • Ihne, Wilhelm (1853). Researches Into the History of the Roman Constitution. William Pickering.
  • Johnston, Harold Whetstone (1891). Orations and Letters of Cicero: With Historical Introduction, An Outline of the Roman Constitution, Notes, Vocabulary and Index. Scott, Foresman and Company.
  • Mommsen, Theodor (1888). Roman Constitutional Law.
  • Polybius (1823). The General History of Polybius: Translated from the Greek. Vol 2 (Fifth ed.). Oxford: Printed by W. Baxter.
  • Polybius. The Histories; Volumes 9–13. Cambridge Ancient History.
  • Tighe, Ambrose (1886). The Development of the Roman Constitution. D. Apple & Co.
  • Von Fritz, Kurt (1975). The Theory of the Mixed Constitution in Antiquity. Columbia University Press, New York.

Primary sources

Centuriate Assembly

The Centuriate Assembly (Latin: comitia centuriata) of the Roman Republic was one of the three voting assemblies in the Roman constitution. It was named the Centuriate Assembly as it originally divided Roman citizens into groups of one hundred men by classes. The Centuries originally reflected military status, but later reflected the wealth of their members. The Centuries gathered into the Centuriate Assembly for legislative, electoral, and judicial purposes. The majority of votes in any Century decided how that Century voted. Each Century received one vote, regardless of how many electors each Century held. Once a majority of Centuries voted in the same way on a given measure, the voting ended, and the matter was decided. Only the Centuriate Assembly could declare war or elect the highest-ranking Roman Magistrates: "'Consuls", "Praetors" and "Censors". The Centuriate Assembly could also pass a law that granted constitutional command authority, or "Imperium", to Consuls and Praetors (the lex de imperio or "Law on Imperium"), and Censorial powers to Censors (the lex de potestate censoria or "Law on Censorial Powers"). In addition, the Centuriate Assembly served as the highest court of appeal in certain judicial cases (in particular, cases involving perduellio), and ratified the results of a Census.Since the Romans used a form of direct democracy, citizens, and not elected representatives, voted before each assembly. As such, the citizen-electors had no power, other than the power to cast a vote. Each assembly was presided over by a single Roman Magistrate, and as such, it was the presiding magistrate who made all decisions on matters of procedure and legality. Ultimately, the presiding magistrate's power over the assembly was nearly absolute. The only check on that power came in the form of vetoes handed down by other magistrates. Any decision made by a presiding magistrate could be vetoed by a magistrate known as a "Plebeian Tribune". In addition, decisions made by presiding magistrates could also be vetoed by higher-ranking magistrates.

Conflict of the Orders

The Conflict of the Orders, also referred to as the Struggle of the Orders, was a political struggle between the Plebeians (commoners) and Patricians (aristocrats) of the ancient Roman Republic lasting from 500 BC to 287 BC, in which the Plebeians sought political equality with the Patricians. It played a major role in the development of the Constitution of the Roman Republic. Shortly after the founding of the Republic, this conflict led to a secession from Rome by Plebeians to the Sacred Mount at a time of war. The result of this first secession was the creation of the office of Plebeian Tribune, and with it the first acquisition of real power by the Plebeians.

At first only Patricians were allowed to stand for election to political office, but over time these laws were revoked, and eventually all offices were opened to the Plebeians. Since most individuals who were elected to political office were given membership in the Roman Senate, this development helped to transform the senate from a body of Patricians into a body of Plebeian and Patrician aristocrats. This development occurred at the same time that the Plebeian legislative assembly, the Plebeian Council, was acquiring additional power. At first, its acts ("plebiscites") applied only to Plebeians, although after 339 BC, with the institution of laws by the first Plebeian dictator Q. Publilius Philo, these acts began to apply to both Plebeians and Patricians, with a senatorial veto of all measures approved by the council.

It was not until 287 BC that the Patrician senators lost their last check over the Plebeian Council. However, the Patricio-Plebeian aristocracy in the senate still retained other means by which to control the Plebeian Council, in particular the closeness between the Plebeian Tribunes and the senators. While this conflict would end in 287 BC with the Plebeians having acquired political equality with the Patricians, the plight of the average Plebeian had not changed. A small number of aristocratic Plebeian families had emerged, and most Plebeian politicians came from one of these families.

Constitutional reforms of Augustus

The Constitutional reforms of Augustus were a series of laws that were enacted by the Roman Emperor Augustus between 30 BC and 2 BC, which transformed the Constitution of the Roman Republic into the Constitution of the Roman Empire. The era that began when Augustus (then named Imp. Caesar Divi Filius, but often called Octavian by historians) defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the final war of the Roman Republic in 30 BC, and ended when the Roman Senate granted Augustus the title "Pater Patriae" in 2 BC.

Constitutional reforms of Julius Caesar

The constitutional reforms of Julius Caesar were a series of laws pertaining to the Constitution of the Roman Republic enacted between 49 and 44 BC, during Caesar's dictatorship. Caesar died in 44 BC before the implications of his constitutional actions could be realized.

Constitutional reforms of Sulla

The constitutional reforms of Lucius Cornelius Sulla were a series of laws enacted by the Roman Dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla between 82 and 80 BC, which reformed the Constitution of the Roman Republic.

In the decades before Sulla had become dictator, a series of political developments occurred which severely weakened aristocratic control over the Roman Constitution. Sulla's dictatorship constituted one of the most significant developments in the History of the Constitution of the Roman Republic, and it served as a warning for the coming civil war, which ultimately would destroy the Roman Republic and create the Roman Empire. Sulla, who had witnessed chaos at the hands of his political enemies in the years before his dictatorship, was naturally conservative. He believed that the underlying flaw in the Roman constitution was the increasingly aggressive democracy, which expressed itself through the Roman assemblies, and as such, he sought to strengthen the Roman Senate and reduce the power of the plebeian tribunes. He retired in 79 BC, and died in 78 BC, having believed that he had corrected the constitutional flaw. His constitution would be mostly rescinded by two of his former lieutenants, Pompey Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus, less than ten years after his death. But what he did not realize was that it was he himself who actually had illustrated the underlying flaw in the Roman constitution: that it was the army, and not the Roman senate, which dictated the fortunes of the state. The precedent he produced would be emulated less than forty years later by an individual whom he almost had executed, Julius Caesar, and as such, he played a critical early role in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.

Curiate Assembly

The Curiate Assembly (comitia curiata) was the principal assembly during the first two decades of the Roman Republic. During these first decades, the People of Rome were organized into thirty units called "Curiae". The Curiae were ethnic in nature, and thus were organized on the basis of the early Roman family, or, more specifically, on the basis of the thirty original Patrician (aristocratic) clans. The Curiae formed an assembly for legislative, electoral, and judicial purposes. The Curiate Assembly passed laws, elected Consuls (the only elected magistrates at the time), and tried judicial cases. Consuls always presided over the assembly. While Plebeians (commoners) could participate in this assembly, only the Patricians (the Roman aristocrats) could vote.

Since the Romans used a form of direct democracy, citizens, and not elected representatives, voted before each assembly. As such, the citizen-electors had no power, other than the power to cast a vote. Each assembly was presided over by a single Roman Magistrate, and as such, it was the presiding magistrate who made all decisions on matters of procedure and legality. Ultimately, the presiding magistrate's power over the assembly was nearly absolute. The only check on that power came in the form of vetoes handed down by other magistrates, and decisions made by presiding magistrates could also be vetoed by higher-ranking magistrates. In addition, after 493 BC, any decision made by a presiding magistrate, including one concerning the Curiate Assembly, could be vetoed by a magistrate known as a plebeian tribune, or tribune of the plebs.


The epulones (Latin epulōnēs, sing. epulō; "feasters") arranged feasts and public banquets at festivals and games (ludi) They constituted one of the four great religious corporations (quattuor amplissima collegia) of ancient Roman priests.

History of the Constitution of the Roman Republic

The history of the Constitution of the Roman Republic is a study of the ancient Roman Republic that traces the progression of Roman political development from the founding of the Roman Republic in 509 BC until the founding of the Roman Empire in 27 BC. 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 509 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 and the ordinary citizens.

The Roman aristocracy was composed of a class of citizens called Patricians (Latin: patricii), while all other citizens were called Plebeians (Latin: plebs) . During the first phase of political development, the Patrician aristocracy dominated the state, and the Plebeians began seeking political rights. During the second phase, the Plebeians completely overthrew the Patrician aristocracy, and since the aristocracy was overthrown simply through alterations to the Roman law, this revolution was not violent. The third phase saw the emergence of a joint Patricio-Plebeian aristocracy, along with a dangerous military situation that helped to maintain internal stability within the republic. The fourth phase began shortly after Rome's wars of expansion had ended, because without these wars, the factor that had ensured internal stability was removed. While the Plebeians sought to address their economic misfortune through the enactment of laws, the underlying problems were ultimately caused by the organization of society. The final phase began when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon river, and ended with the complete overthrow of the republic. This final revolution triggered a wholesale reorganization of the constitution, and with it, the emergence of the Roman Empire.

Legislative assemblies of the Roman Republic

The legislative assemblies of the Roman Republic were political institutions in the ancient Roman Republic. According to the contemporary historian Polybius, it was the people (and thus the assemblies) who had the final say regarding the election of magistrates, the enactment of Roman laws, the carrying out of capital punishment, the declaration of war and peace, and the creation (or dissolution) of alliances. Under the Constitution of the Roman Republic, the people (and thus the assemblies) held the ultimate source of sovereignty.

Since the Romans used a form of direct democracy, citizens, and not elected representatives, voted before each assembly. As such, the citizen-electors had no power, other than to cast a vote. Each assembly was presided over by a single Roman Magistrate, and as such, it was the presiding magistrate who made all decisions on matters of procedure and legality. Ultimately, the presiding magistrate's power over the assembly was nearly absolute. The only check on that power came in the form of vetoes handed down by other magistrates.

In the Roman system of direct democracy, two primary types of gatherings were used to vote on legislative, electoral, and judicial matters. The first was the Assembly (comitia), which was a gathering that was deemed to represent the entire Roman people, even if it did not contain all of the Roman citizens or, like the comitia curiata, excluded a particular class of Roman citizens (the plebs). The second was the Council (concilium), which was a gathering of citizens of a specific class. In contrast, the Convention was an unofficial forum for communication. Conventions were simply forums where Romans met for specific unofficial purposes, such as, for example, to hear a political speech. Voters always assembled first into Conventions to hear debates and conduct other business before voting, and then into Assemblies or Councils to actually vote.

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.

Plebeian Council

The Concilium Plebis (English: Plebeian Council or Plebeian Assembly) was the principal assembly of the ancient Roman Republic. It functioned as a legislative assembly, through which the plebeians (commoners) could pass laws, elect magistrates, and try judicial cases. The Plebeian Council was originally organized on the basis of the Curia. Thus, it was originally a "Plebeian Curiate Assembly". The Plebeian Council usually met in the well of the comitium and could only be convoked by the Tribune of the Plebs. The assembly elected the Tribunes of the Plebs and the plebeian aediles, and only the plebeians were allowed to vote.

Quindecimviri sacris faciundis

In ancient Rome, the quindecimviri sacris faciundis were the fifteen (quindecim) members of a college (collegium) with priestly duties. Most notably they guarded the Sibylline Books, scriptures which they consulted and interpreted at the request of the Senate. This collegium also oversaw the worship of any foreign gods which were introduced to Rome.

Originally these duties had been performed by duumviri (or duoviri), two men of patrician status. Their number was increased to ten by the Licinian-Sextian Law in 367 BC, which also required for half of the priests to be plebs. During the Middle Republic, members of the college were admitted through co-option.

At some point in the third century BC, several priesthoods, probably including the quindecimviri, began to be elected through the voting tribes.

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.

Roman Republic (19th century)

The Roman Republic was a short-lived state declared on 9 February 1849, when the government of the Papal States was temporarily replaced by a republican government due to Pope Pius IX's flight to Gaeta. The republic was led by Carlo Armellini, Giuseppe Mazzini, and Aurelio Saffi. Together they formed a triumvirate, a reflection of a form of government seen in the ancient Roman Republic.

One of the major innovations the Republic hoped to achieve was enshrined in its constitution: all religions could be practiced freely and the pope was guaranteed the right to govern the Catholic Church. These religious freedoms were quite different from the situation under the preceding government, which allowed only Catholicism and Judaism to be practiced by its citizens. The Constitution of the Roman Republic was the first in the world to abolish capital punishment in its constitutional law.

Roman province

The Roman provinces (Latin: provincia, pl. provinciae) were the lands and people outside of Rome itself that were controlled by the Republic and later the Empire. Each province was ruled by a Roman who was appointed as governor. Although different in many ways, they were similar to the states in Australia or the United States, the regions in the United kingdom or New Zealand, or the prefectures in Japan. Canada refers to some of its territory as provinces.


The Rostra (Italian: Rostri) was a large platform built in the city of Rome that stood during the republican and imperial periods. Speakers would stand on the rostra and face the north side of the comitium towards the senate house and deliver orations to those assembled in between. It is often referred to as a suggestus or tribunal, the first form of which dates back to the Roman Kingdom, the Vulcanal.It derives its name from the six rostra (plural of rostrum, a warship's ram) which were captured during the victory at Antium in 338 BC and mounted to its side. Originally, the term meant a single structure located within the Comitium space near the Forum and usually associated with the Senate Cūria. It began to be referred to as the Rostra Vetera ("Elder Rostra") in the imperial age to distinguish it from other later platforms designed for similar purposes which took the name "Rostra" along with its builder's name or the person it honored.

Senate of the Roman Republic

The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic. It was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a Roman magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic appointment to the Senate. According to the Greek historian Polybius, our principal source on the Constitution of the Roman Republic, the Roman Senate was the predominant branch of government. Polybius noted that it was the consuls (the highest-ranking of the regular magistrates) who led the armies and the civil government in Rome, and it was the Roman assemblies which had the ultimate authority over elections, legislation, and criminal trials. However, since the Senate controlled money, administration, and the details of foreign policy, it had the most control over day-to-day life. The power and authority of the Senate derived from precedent, the high caliber and prestige of the senators, and the Senate's unbroken lineage, which dated back to the founding of the Republic in 509 BC. It developed from the Senate of the Roman Kingdom, and became the Senate of the Roman Empire.

Originally the chief-magistrates, the consuls, appointed all new senators. They also had the power to remove individuals from the Senate. Around the year 318 BC, the "Ovinian Plebiscite" (plebiscitum Ovinium) gave this power to another Roman magistrate, the censor, who retained this power until the end of the Roman Republic. This law also required the censors to appoint any newly elected magistrate to the Senate. Thus, after this point in time, election to magisterial office resulted in automatic Senate membership. The appointment was for life, although the censor could impeach any senator.

The Senate directed the magistrates, especially the consuls, in their prosecution of military conflicts. The Senate also had an enormous degree of power over the civil government in Rome. This was especially the case with regards to its management of state finances, as only it could authorize the disbursal of public monies from the treasury. In addition, the Senate passed decrees called senatus consultum, which was officially "advice" from the Senate to a magistrate. While technically these decrees did not have to be obeyed, in practice, they usually were. During an emergency, the Senate (and only the Senate) could authorize the appointment of a dictator. The last ordinary dictator, however, was appointed in 202 BC. After 202 BC, the Senate responded to emergencies by passing the senatus consultum ultimum ("Ultimate Decree of the Senate"), which suspended civil government and declared something analogous to martial law.

Tribal Assembly

The Tribal Assembly (comitia populi tributa) was an assembly consisting of all Roman citizens convened by tribes (tribus).

In the Roman Republic, citizens did not elect legislative representatives (such as congressmen or MPs). Instead, they voted themselves on legislative matters in the popular assemblies (the comitia centuriata, the tribal assembly and the plebeian council). Bills were proposed by magistrates and the citizens only exercised their right to vote.

In the Tribal Assembly, citizens were organized on the basis of 35 tribes: four urban tribes of the citizens in the city of Rome, and 31 rural tribes of citizens outside the city. Each tribe voted separately and one after the other. In each tribe, decisions were made by majority vote and its decision counted as one vote regardless of how many electors each tribe held. Once a majority of tribes voted in the same way on a given measure, the voting ended and the matter was decided.The Tribal Assembly was chaired by a magistrate, usually a consul or a praetor. The presiding magistrate who made all decisions on matters of procedure and legality. His power over the assembly could be nearly absolute. The only check on his power came in the form of vetoes by other magistrates. Any decision made by a presiding magistrate could be vetoed by the plebeian tribunes. The Tribal Assembly elected the quaestors, and the curule aediles. It conducted trials for non-capital punishment cases. However, the Roman Dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla reassigned this to special jury courts (quaestiones perpetuae) in 82 BC. There are disagreements among modern historians regarding the number and nature of the tribal assembly (see below).


A triumvirate (Latin: triumvirātus) is a political regime ruled or dominated by three powerful individuals known as triumvirs (Latin: triumviri). The arrangement can be formal or informal. Though the three are notionally equal, this is rarely the case in reality. The term can also be used to describe a state with three different military leaders who all claim to be the sole leader.

In the context of the Soviet Union and Russia, the term troika (Russian for "group of three") is used for "triumvirate". Another synonym is triarchy.

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