"Now we trace the history in peace and war, of a free nation, governed by
annually elected officers of state, and subject not to the caprice of individual
men, but to the overriding authority of law" -Livy
The Roman Republic
In 509 BC. the Romans rebelled against their Etruscan
overlords replacing kingship with a republic (A country governed by the
elected representatives of its people) and the Patricians
organized the government of the republic into an executive branch and
legislative branch. (see Rome's Development of a Constitution
Two patrician officials known as the consuls (because they had to consult each
other before acting), were the chief executive officers and ran the cities
daily affairs. They were elected to serve in office for one year terms. Each
consul could veto (Latin word meaning "to forbid") the others decisions. The consuls
maintained order among the executive officials (praetors, judges, censors, tax
collectors, etc.). They presided over the Senate
and were commander in chief during wartime. They were also supreme judges.
When Rome was in a time of crisis they would temporarily appoint a dictator
(one whose word was law), and only he could override the decision made by the
The Senate were also a body of patricians, 300 citizens from the wealthiest
families of Rome.They also maintained the treasury as well as foreign policy and
they served for life. They outweighed the Assembly
of Centuries and advised the consuls, proposed laws, and approved new
construction of roads, temples and military defenses. They were supposedly an advisory
body but in actuality they were the center of all policy decisions concerning
foreign affairs, military matters, finances, public land, and state religion.
Checks and Balances
The consuls were in charge of government and also of the army. The 300 citizen
Senate advised them at all times. In the history of the Roman Republic the
Senate was always the most powerful group. Only the Assembly could approve or
disapprove of one of their laws and only the assembly elected Candidates for the
office of consul. There was always a basic concept of checks and balances.
The modern US constitution is based on these basic concepts of checks and
balances within the ancient government of the Roman Republic. Whether it be the
President, the Congress, or the courts, none can dominate the government. Each
branch has a way to check the actions of the other and the actions of each branch
balance the others.
The Middle Class and Poor
The middle class and poor were represented in 2 assemblies:
The Assembly of Centuries
There was also a body of patricians within the legislative branch known as the
Assembly of Centuries (named for a military formation of 100 men "centum") and
these were elected into office. They could declare war.
The Assembly of Tribes
A legislative assembly of elected officials called tribunes and questors who
passed laws and conducted minor trials.
There were also 2 Censors (ex-consuls) who took the census, assessed the
taxes, named senators, etc.
Aediles and Quaestors
4 Aediles served as mayors of the city and 8 Quaestors acted as treasurers.
The plebeians felt that they did not have any real power in the new republic
and in 494 BC they went on strike, threatening to leave the army and start a new
republic of their own. The patricians then agreed to hear the voice of the Tribunes
The 10 Tribunes, elected by the Plebeians
, protected the rights of the people from the decisions made by the senate.
They had power to veto any government decision. The Plebeians' demanded that the
patricians would hear the tribunes and because of the fear of losing their
military and labor forces the patricians agreed. They became so protected that
anyone injuring a Tribune could be put to death.
The Judiciary Branch of Government
The judiciary branch of government were the 6 Praetors (elected for 2 years)
who were the high judges.
The 12 Tables of Law
The Plebeians still felt inferior because they really never knew exactly what
the laws were. The laws had never been put into writing and were only known by
the patricians. The Plebeians insisted that the government write down the laws.
Finally in 451 BC the patricians agreed to engrave the laws on 12 bronze
tablets and to set them in the Forum for all to see. These 12 Tables became the
basis for all future Roman law.
The Plebeians had soon won the right to serve in some public offices and in
287 BC they won a great victory, they were given the right to make laws for the
republic in the Assembly of Tribes. Rome was close to becoming a true democracy.
But by the 2nd Cent. BC. more power was in the hands of the senate and they
were becoming corrupt. (see Moving Toward Democracy