A Look at Roman Government under the Republic

The Roman government is a chain of offices leading to the most important office consul. One has to work his way up this chain over twenty or more years. Politics is a lifetime career.

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Let us start by looking at the Senate before it's reform in the Republican era. Then we will study the sequence of offices that create the government of the Republic.

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As you see above, the Roman Senate exists before the rebellion in Rome ends the practice of having kings. The Patricians stage this revolt. They decide they will no longer give one man the powers kings have had any more.

Some of the king's powers are taken by the Senate. The Senate is now the institution that makes the laws for Rome in place of a king. It's a matter of the patricians bargaining among themselves until the can create a law they can all agree upon. The Senate:

  • makes the laws for Rome
  • decides how Rome will treat other city states
  • declares war
  • approves treaties with other city states
  • runs Rome's economy
  • spend money
  • sets taxes
  • is the body of patricians who can fill other government offices

The Senate is more important than just being a law making body, what many think of it today. Being appointed for life to the Senate is the beginning of every Roman's political career. It is from within the Senate that individuals are chosen to fill the offices in the Magisterium. The Magisterium is the part of the Republic's government that carries out the day-to-day work of running the government.

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The highest and most powerful office in the Magisterium is the office of consul. Each year, two consuls are chosen. They can serve only one year. They cannot be re-elected to the office of consul. They preside at the meetings of the Senate. They command the legions in the field and the city's guard. The two consuls are the top men in the Roman government. Since the Romans did not trust anybody, they elected two men. Each man has the power to stop the other from taking any political, economic, or military action. This power to block any political, economic, or military action is called the veto.

In times of war or great danger, you cannot have two men squabbling over what to do. In emergencies, the Senate has the power to appoint a dictator. A dictator has total power for six months. During those six months, what the dictator say go. No questions. No appeals. At the end of the six months, the guy is out of office. He returns to being a regular citizen.

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus

A dictator has all the political and military power to himself. He is all powerful for six months.

Rome's most famous early dictator is Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. The Roman Armies are defeated. Rome's enemies are approaching the city. The consuls have failed to lead the legions to victory. The Senate turns to a large property owner -- a patrician -- and appoints him dictator. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus takes command of what remains of the Roman army. He rallies the legions. Together, they score a smashing victory over their enemies. Weeks later, the war is over. Rome is victorious and safe. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus promptly resigns (gives up his position as dictator). He returns to farming his estate. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus becomes the model of what a Roman dictator should do -- get Rome through the crisis and immediately quit.

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There are more positions in the magisterium than consul and dictator. There is the position of praetor. This office is usually the job people hoping to be elected consul must have held before their name goes up for consul. There are eight praetors. The praetors are the senior judges. They decide cases of life and death. They decide cases in which harsh punishments could be handed down. Judges powers in the days of the Roman Republic are much greater than they are today in American. You have to think of eight guys who get to make all the law decisions on all disputes. In a pinch, they can command armies.

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There are four Aediles. They hold an office that is responsible for

  • maintenance of Rome's temples
  • municipal government services
  • purchasing and distributing the free grain for the poor
  • setting up and carrying out the religious festivals.

The festivals is the big part of the job. These had to be larger with lots of free games and mountains of free food. Plenty of wine too. You are throwing huge parties for all the people of Rome. This takes money. The budget for the festivals is small. Aediles often spent fortunes or borrowed and spent fortunes on the festivals. Why? Because a well remembered festival is a good start on becoming a praetor. Moving up in Roman politics requires money. If you can make it to the top -- praetor and especially consul, you can easily make all that money back plus several additional fortunes across the coming years.

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Quaestor is the starting point for the young Roman politician. Being elected to this position puts you in the Senate. It puts you on the back benches. There you will sit silently for years. You must work your way up the ladder of political positions before you are advanced to the front benches of the Senate where you may be able to speak. Years of work in various offices in the provinces or as officials in Rome lay ahead if you are to succeed. And of course it will take money. Money to get nominated. Money to get elected. Money to pay for festivals and public events. Money to woe the poor of Rome. Money to pay political spies. Money for bribes. Sometimes money for your own personal bodyguards.

Being well-born and having money is a start. It will likely get you a quaestorship. From then on, it is a combination of money and personal talent.

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Created By
Robert Brady
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