The Roman Republic's Government

Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate: Cicero attacks Catilina, from a 19th-century fresco.
Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

The Roman Republic began in  509 B.C. when the Romans expelled the Etruscan kings and set up their own government. Having witnessed the problems of the monarchy on their own land, and aristocracy and democracy among the Greeks, they opted for a mixed form of government, with three branches. This innovation became known as a republican system. The strength of the republic is the system of checks and balances, which aims to find a consensus between the desires of the various branches of government.

The Roman Constitution outlined these checks and balances, but in an informal way. Most of the constitution was unwritten and laws were upheld by precedent.

The Republic lasted 450 years until the territorial gains of the Roman civilization stretched its governance to the limit. A series of strong rulers called Emperors emerged with Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., and their reorganization of the Roman form of government ushered in the Imperial period.

Branches of Roman Republican Government

Consuls
Two consuls with supreme civil and military authority held the highest office in Republican Rome. Their power, which was shared equally and which lasted only one year, was reminiscent of the monarchial power of the king. Each consul could veto the other, they led the army, served as judges, and had religious duties. At first, the consuls were patricians, from famous families. Later laws encouraged plebeians to campaign for the consulship; eventually one of the consuls had to be a plebeian.

After a term as consul, a Roman man joined the Senate for life. After 10 years, he could campaign for consulship again.

The Senate
While the consuls had executive authority, it was expected that they would follow the advice of Rome’s elders. The Senate (senatus = council of elders) predated the Republic, having been founded in the Eighth Century B.C.

It was an advisory branch, initially composed of about 300 patricians who served for life. The ranks of the Senate were drawn from ex-consuls and other officers, who also had to be landowners. Plebeians were eventually admitted to the Senate as well. The primary focus of the Senate was Rome’s foreign policy, but they had great jurisdiction in civil affairs as well, as the Senate controlled the treasury.

The Assemblies
The most democratic branch of the Roman Republican form of government were the assemblies. These large bodies — there were four of them — made some voting power available to many Roman citizens (but not all, as those who lived in the outreaches of the provinces still lacked meaningful representation). The Assembly of Centuries (comitia centuriata), was composed of all members of the army, and it elected consuls annually. The Assembly of Tribes (comitia tributa), which contained all citizens, approved or rejected laws and decided issues of war and peace.The Comitia Curiata was composed of 30 local groups, and was elected by the Centuriata, and served mostly a symbolic purpose for Rome’s founding families. The Concilium Plebis represented the plebeians. 

Resources
Roman Law
Roman government and law.


The evolution of the Republican form of mixed government in Rome, from one where the aristocrats had the controlling influence, to one where the plebians could have enforced democratic policies were it not for landlessness and urban poverty.