The Roman Republic's 3 Branches of Government

Person standing outside the Curia Hostilia, in the Roman Forum.
The Curia Hostilia, in the Roman Forum, which was the original senate house of Rome. Leemage / Getty Images

From the Founding of Rome in about 753 BCE until 509 BCE, Rome was a monarchy, ruled by kings. In 509 (or so), the Romans expelled their Etruscan kings and established the Roman Republic. Having witnessed the problems of the monarchy on their own land, and oligarchy and democracy among the Greeks, the Romans opted for a mixed constitution, which kept elements of all three types of government.

Consuls: the Monarchical Branch

Two magistrates called consuls carried on the functions of the former kings, holding supreme civil and military authority in Republican Rome. However, unlike the kings, the office of consul lasted for only one year. At the end of their year in office, the ex-consuls became senators for life, unless ousted by the censors.

Powers of the Consuls:

  • Consuls held imperium and had the right to 12 lictores (bodyguards) each.
  • Each consul could veto the other.
  • They led the army,
  • Served as judges, and
  • Represented Rome in foreign affairs.
  • Consuls presided over the assembly known as comitia centuriata.

Consulship Safeguards

The 1-year term, veto, and co-consulship were safeguards to prevent one of the consuls from wielding too much power. In emergencies such as times of war a single dictator could be appointed for a six-month term.

Senate: the Aristocratic Branch

Senate (senatus = council of elders, related to the word "senior") was the advisory branch of the Roman government, early on composed of about 300 citizens who served for life. They were chosen by the kings, at first, then by the consuls, and by the end of the 4th century, by the censors. The ranks of the Senate, drawn from ex-consuls and other officers. Property requirements changed with the era. At first, senators were only patricians but in time plebeians joined their ranks.

Assembly: the Democratic Branch

The Assembly of Centuries (comitia centuriata), which was composed of all members of the army, elected consuls annually. The Assembly of Tribes (comitia tributa), composed of all citizens, approved or rejected laws and decided issues of war and peace.


Sometimes dictators were at the head of the Roman Republic. Between 501–202 BCE there were 85 such appointments. Normally, dictators served for six months and acted with the consent of the Senate. They were appointed by the consul or a military tribune with consular powers. The occasions of their appointment included war, sedition, pestilence, and sometimes for religious reasons.

Dictator for Life

In 82 BCE, after several battles and rebellions amounting to a civil war, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (Sulla, 138–79 BCE) named himself dictator for as long as necessary—the first in 120 years. He stepped down in 79. In 45 BCE, the politician Julius Caesar (100–44 BCE) was officially appointed dictator in perpetuo meaning that there was no set end point to his dominance; but he was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BCE.

While Caesar's death did not mean the end of the Roman Republic, the Gracci Brothers brought several reforms to the country, in the process starting a revolution. The Republic fell in 30 BCE.

Sources and Further Information

  • Kaplan, Arthur. "Religious Dictators of the Roman Republic." The Classical World 67.3 (1973–1974):172–175.
  • Lintott, Andrew. "The Constitution of the Roman Republic." Oxford UK: Clarendon Press, 1999.
  • Mouritsen, Henrik. "Plebs and Politics in the Late Roman Republic." Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 
  • Pennell, Robert Franklin. "Ancient Rome: From the Earliest Times Down to 476 A.D." Eds. Bonnett, Lynn, Teresa Thomason, and David Widger. Project Guttenburg, 2013.
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Gill, N.S. "The Roman Republic's 3 Branches of Government." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). The Roman Republic's 3 Branches of Government. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Roman Republic's 3 Branches of Government." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).