The constitution of the Roman republic was a stable system of government that lasted from the middle of the republic until the transition to the Empire in the last century BC (Robinson, “The Sources of Roman Law” 3). The constitution consisted of three major elements: Magistrates, the senate and the legislative assemblies of the Roman people. The senate was the prevailing element. The approval and support of the senate was required to carry out the functions of both the magistrates and the legislative assemblies (Mousourakis, “The Historical and Institutional Context of Roman Law” 70).
The senate began with approximately 300 chosen members; exclusively patricians. Later the occupants of the higher offices of the state could become a senator. The senators were selected first by the consuls and in later years by the censors. If a senator were to pass away or needed to be removed from the senate for any reason, the censors were responsible for their replacement. During the later republic senators were also chosen from the most prestige citizens. In the third century BC non-plebeian magistrates could be enrolled as a senator.
The right to a “lifelong” (Robinson, “The Sources of Roman Law” 8) seat in the senate for ex-magistrates made the censors’ role more negative than positive. By this point the majority of the senate was made up of ex-magistrates, so the censors removed more senators than they enrolled. The majority of day-to-day aspects of the government during the republic were carried out by the senate. It controlled the money, details of foreign policy and the administration of Italy (Lintott, “The Constitution of the Roman Republic” 65). The Senate had no outlined legislative functions, but it advised the magistrates of the state.
Resolutions made by the magistrates and assemblies could not acquire full force of the law without passing through the Senate. The Senate was the most important element of the Constitution. Linott stated, “The senate was the true government of Rome, not merely an advisory body like the judicial consilia of magistrates” (66). The Senate answered the questions on war and peace; formally the centuriate assembly played an important role, but it was “the Senate and People of Rome” (Robinson, “The Sources of Roman Law” 8) that authorized peace treaties.
During this time the senate did not pass anything legislative concerning private law. Any magistrate who needed to appoint the senate for any reason had to summon it formally to carry out the proceeding. The reasoning for summoning the senate was not necessarily required for the meeting and discussion to be carried out. The meeting of a senate would take place in a templum (Roman Temple). Each meeting, Lintott states, “Was preceded by both sacrifice and the taking of the auspices” (72). Depending on the issues to be discussed in the meetings the location would change.
Senators were expected to be available whenever summoned and could not venture to a point past Rome where they would be unable to return in the same day. Only five senators were allowed to be absent from Rome at the same time. The only place in Rome where free political discussion could take place, to an extent and aside from public speeches to an audience, was the senate. The senate held a tightly controlled debate. The magistrate would refer to the senate and share the outlined problem(s) and information.
The debate started with the senior senator, who was elected by the censors, and then a senator was required to answer. The senator could simply agree with the previous speaker, or share his own thoughts on the subject. The lower ranked would normally agree with a previous speaker because they had neither the courage nor competence to do otherwise. Lintott noted, “Even before they spoke, the lower ranks were accustomed to show their inclinations by walking across the senate to stand by a speaker whom they supported” (79).
The meeting would go further if a letter abroad, report or a foreign embassy asked for help or for terms of peace. The senators were free to ask questions and to make informal comments on the issues. Frequently the result of such events ended in the demand from the floor of the senate for a relatio (Lintott, “The Constitution of the Roman Republic” 81). “These resemblances to a modern parliament do not entail that the senate of the Roman Republic ever became a supreme legislative body” (Lintott, “The Constitution of the Roman Republic” 87).
The executive power of the state was held by two magistrates known as consuls. They were elected by the centuriate assembly, which was summoned by the past consuls. The power that both consuls share include: overall military command, jurisdiction, the proposal of business to an assembly or the senate and whatever else was necessary (Robinson, “The Sources of Roman Law” 5). The military matters usually led to confusion with shared power. To prevent this, consuls would alternate monthly control over the military.
In the early stages of the constitution matters involving jurisdiction became the job for the praetor, to relieve the consuls of this duty. The praetor was elected the same way as the consul, but their actions could be vetoed by the consuls. Later on during the republic a second praetor was elected to deal with matters involving foreign jurisdiction. Both the consuls and the praetors held annual positions and where classified as the higher ranked magistrates. There were two appointed censors who were also higher ranked magistrates along with the consuls and the praetors.
The censors were responsible for determining the amount of property tax each citizen had to pay as well as the class of each citizen. The censors were one of the most important offices in the state, because only previous consuls could be considered for this position. They held extreme power; they determined the political and social position of each and every citizen of Rome. In the later years of the republic the censors filled the vacant seats of the senate. The censors were also elected the same way as consuls and praetors.
The censors came to have more and more power as the republic went on and were recognised as “supervisors of public morals” (Mousourakis, “The Historical and Institutional Context of Roman Law” 91). They had power over Roman citizens because they had control over private and public land, and controlled personal taxes in Rome. The aediles were next in rank of the magistrates. There were two types: the curule aediles and the plebeian aediles. They shared the same duties, but the curule aediles were deemed superior to the plebeian aediles.
They were originally in charge of supervision of the temples and other religious sites, as well as the care of public money and records. Later in the republic they supervised the maintenance of public roads and buildings. They were in charge of the supply of essential goods to Rome and organization of public games. They became supervisors of Rome’s market place, had criminal jurisdiction over minor cases and had the authority to punish those who disobeyed orders. Lastly in the hierarchy of the magistrates were the quaestors. The quaestors were the first step to gaining higher offices in the state.
Like the aediles they were only minor (lower ranked) magistrates. They had the right to attend meetings of the senate and were eligible to be elected to the senate; however, priority was given to those who held higher ranks. The quaestors assisted the consuls of Rome in dealing with the persecution of criminal offences before the assembly of centuries. They were also appointed to aid the consuls in matters of administration of public finance. Two quaestors started and that number increased many times over the years and they were assigned to consuls to perform different tasks.
During the reign of Julius Caesar there were forty quaestors that assisted with primarily financial matters. The tribunes were not classified as magistrates but they had powers and had a strong impact on the community. They consisted of exclusively plebeians. The tribunes acted as representatives of the people. They had the power to invalidate the acts of magistrates by simply vetoing over them in the meetings of the senate. This gave them the power to prevent specific bodies of the magistrate from functioning. The consuls held the highest rank of the ordinary magistrates.
However, outside of this hierarchy there was a special magistrate know as the dictator. The dictator had the entire concentrated power of the state in his hands. Only in the state of emergency was a dictator nominated by a consul. During his six-month period in power the dictator was superior to all other magistrates, the senate and the roman people. Dictatorships, for example, Julius Caesar, were outside the Roman constitution and were based primarily on military force. The majority of the other Roman citizens were members of popular assemblies. The first popular assembly of the Roman people was the curiate assembly.
This dates back to the period of the kings. The curiate assembly was divided into thirty curiae, or “brotherhoods of men” (Mousourakis, “The Historical and Institutional Context of Roman Law” 102), whose members were tied together through blood relation. Later, during the start of the Republic, the curiate assembly was obsolete due to the emerging new political body. During this time the curiate assembly was split into two assemblies: assembly of the centuries (comitia centuriata) and the assembly of the tribes (comitia tribute), which accounted for the whole citizen body of Rome.
These assemblies could only meet when summoned a higher magistrate. The reason they were summon was for the magistrate to consult the people of Rome. The assembly of the centuries was said to be the more prevalent of the popular assemblies. It contained citizens organized by class and property basis. The class was determined by the amount of property the citizen possessed and the armour he was able to equip himself with. This assembly was responsible for electing magistrates with supreme power (Consuls, censors and praetors).
The election was done by vote of hand and in order of seniority by class. It also formally authorized peace treaties and declarations of war. The assembly had the power to pass law but it rarely did so. The assembly of the centuries carried out the legislative, judicial and political functions. The assembly of the tribes was originally sorted by area. It consisted of four tribes corresponding with the four divisions of Rome. During Rome’s expansion in later years these four tribes were added to a number of rural tribes, totalling 31 tribes during the mid-republic.
The assembly of the tribes was responsible for basic administrative purposes for citizens corresponding to the tribe they were assigned. The assemblies registered the citizens their property and took care of things such as property tax, military levies and other responsibilities. They were also assigned to elect the lower magistrates. They were summoned formally like the assembly of centuries, but their matters dealt much more with individual civil purposes, where as the assembly of centuries dealt with more issues of Rome as a whole.
There was also an assembly of the plebeians (concilium plebis). They acted much like the assembly of the tribes but they dealt with matters involving plebeians and elected their leaders. The constitution of the Roman Republic was stable from the mid-republic until the transition to the Roman Empire. Caesar had won his last major wars and wanted to ensure total control over the Roman government. He held the position of Roman Dictator and had the power to veto the senate.
This power allowed him to totally dominate the government and destroyed the legislative process which formally ended the constitution of the Roman Republic; that had been believably, the most stable form of government in ancient Rome.
Robinson, O. F. The Sources of Roman Law. London: Routledge, 1997. Mousourakis, George. The Historical and Institutional Context of Roman Law. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003 Lintott, Andrew. The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Harries, Jill. Law and Crime in the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.