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The constitution of the Roman Republic was a set of unwritten norms and customs, which together with various written laws, guided the manner by which the Roman Republic was governed. 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.
The Roman republican constitution can be divided into three main branches:
A complex set of checks and balances developed between these three branches. For example, the assemblies theoretically held all power, but were called and governed by the magistrates, who, controlling discussion, exercised dominating influence over them. 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.
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.
The late Republic saw an increase in the centralisation of power into the hands of provincial governors, the use of military power to enforce political changes (e.g. the Sullan dictatorship), and the use of violence, combined with exploitation of the suitably bribed or intimidated "sovereign" assemblies, to grant supreme authority to victorious commanders. 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, put it on a path to civil war and its transformation into the autocratic Roman Empire.
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. 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.
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. 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.
Some scholars doubt this traditional account, arguing instead that the monarchy evolved into a government led by elected magistrates. 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). 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.
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. 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.
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, i.e. that they were declared inviolable and that anyone could be summarily executed for violation of the sanctity of his person. 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. The people gave the tribunes, whose number is unclear, two assistants known as plebeian aediles.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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), were at first open only to patricians, but within a generation they were open to plebeians as well.
Beginning around the year 350 BC, the senators and the plebeian tribunes began to grow closer. The Senate began giving tribunes more power, and the tribunes began to feel indebted to the Senate. As the tribunes and the senators grew closer, plebeian senators began to routinely secure the office of tribune for members of their own families. 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, which probably resulted in a significant increase in the number of plebeian senators.
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. Because patricians were ineligible to run for plebeian offices, the new plebeian aristocracy actually had more opportunities for advancement than their patrician counterparts. Over time distinctions between patricians and plebeian aristocrats became less important, giving rise to a new "patricio-plebeian aristocracy" termed the nobilitas.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. That civil war, between Rome and her Italian allies, led to various laws granting citizenship and voting rights to their Italian allies. Since the Assemblies were generally weighted and consisted primarily only of those who could make the trip to Rome to vote, it can be argued that the Assembly was much more "representative" than a direct democracy.
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. 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.
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. Voters met in conventions to deliberate prior to meeting in assemblies or councils to vote.
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. 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. 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. All votes had to be completed within a single day and had to be done again if interrupted or abandoned.
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. The majority of individual votes in any century, tribe, or curia decided how that unit voted.
The Curiate assembly (Latin: comitia curiata) traditionally dates to the early monarchy, from 30 divisions of the city made by Romulus. 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. In the realm of family law, it was presided over by the pontifex maximus. However, there was considerable debate in the late Republic on whether or not a magistrate's election actually required ratification by the curiae, and by 212 BC, the Senate refrained from enforcing this quirk of precedent.
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, 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. 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. Because of its military roots, it could only be called into session by a magistrate holding imperium. 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. 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. The body was primarily called for the election of consuls, praetors, and censors; while it could hear legislation, trials, and only it could declare an offensive war, these were increasingly rare by the second century BC.
The Tribal assembly (Latin: comitia tributa) dates from time immemorial, as no ancient historian mentions its establishment. In the early Republic, there were four urban tribes and 17 rural tribes. In 241 BC, fourteen rural tribes were added, bringing the total to thirty-five. The "tribes" were not ethnic or kinship groups, but rather a district to which people were assigned. A citizen's tribe was inherited from his father, and only changed upon adoption or reallocation in the census; over time, this meant that tribal affiliation had little relationship to a citizen's home or even place of birth. The vast majority of legislation was enacted in the comitia tributa, which also elected quaestors, curule aediles, and military tribunes.
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. It elected the plebeian tribunes and aediles, and later, various other minor posts. 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. 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.
The Senate was the predominant political institution in the Roman Republic. The Senate's authority derived primarily from custom and tradition. It was also one of the few places in which free political discussion could take place. 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.
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. In the very early Republic, senators were primarily chosen due to their birth, but by the late Republic, and especially after Sulla, membership in the Senate became predicated on having previously held a magistracy. In the late 4th century BC, the consul's power to control Senate membership was transferred to the censor, exercised with considerable discretion, until laws passed in the late Republic formalised some kind of hearing before censorial decisions. 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). Before the time of Augustus, there is no evidence of any kind of property qualification. The Senate consisted of around 300 prior to the dictatorship of Sulla, but after his dictatorship, it consisted of somewhere over 500 men.
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. If a senatus consultum conflicted with a law that was passed by a popular assembly, the law overrode the senatus consultum.
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. Meetings were suffused in religious ritual. Temples were a preferred meeting site and auspices would be taken before the meeting could commence.
The presiding consul began each meeting with a speech on an issue, and then referred the issue to the senators, who discussed the matter by order of seniority. 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, with senators voting by taking a place on either side of the chamber. Any vote was always between a proposal and its negative.
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. Any proposed motion could be vetoed by a tribune, 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).
Magistrates were elected officials, serving as representatives of the people for the conduct of public business. 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. Each magistrate held potestas, the authority to exercise the office's powers conferred by custom or statute. 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.
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. 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. These consuls had the authority to call assemblies of the people. 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. The consuls also held vague religious duties inherited from the kings, 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. In the later Republic, praetors were increasingly sent out to the provinces to serve as provincial governors, especially as prorogued magistrates. 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. They were also assigned, in the late Republic, to various permanent courts with specific criminal jurisdiction.[c] 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
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. Over time, however, with increasing need for competent generals and administrators, prorogation of magistrates became the norm; and the device was used, increasingly by the assemblies, to grant imperium to popular politicians.
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. They were elected around every four or five years. After the passage of lex Ovinia, the censors were also transferred the power from the consuls to control membership in the Senate. 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.
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. 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. 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]
The aediles were in charge of various municipal tasks, e.g. the upkeep of temples, streets, and the water-supply. They were also responsible for public games, and some aspects of police work in the city. 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. In the late Republic, election to the quaestorship became the basis for a life appointment to the Senate.
There were two extraordinary magistrates: the dictator and the magister equitum (literally: master of horse). Dictators were selected by the consuls 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. The magister equitum was then appointed by the dictator as his lieutenant.[e] 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]
The dictator had maius imperium and total authority to command the state; 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. The magister equitum had similar plenary authority, with parallel and somewhat subordinate authority to the dictator.
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. 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] 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.
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. With Rome's great military victories, vast numbers of slaves were imported into Italy. 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. 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. His younger brother, Gaius Gracchus, further challenged the Senate's political preeminence by threatening it with new judicial procedures. 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.
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. 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, before leaving on a military campaign in the East. 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, 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
After securing election as consul in 80 BC, Sulla resigned the dictatorship and attempted to solidify his republican constitutional reforms. 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. Sulla passed legislation to make it illegal to march on Rome as he had, but having just shown that doing so would bring no personal harm so long as one was victorious, this obviously had little effect. 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.
Over the course of the late Republic, formerly authoritative institutions lost their credibility and authority. 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. 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, 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), 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, a war which the promagistrate governors and their troops would win, and in doing so, collapse the Republic.