Roman citizenship was limited and was a vital prerequisite to possessing many important legal rights.
The constitutional history of the Roman Republic began with the revolution which overthrew the monarchy in 509 BC, and ended with constitutional reforms that transformed the Republic into what would effectively be the Roman Empire, in 27 BC. The constitution of the Roman Republic was a constantly-evolving, unwritten set of guidelines and principles passed down mainly through precedent, by which the government and its politics operated.
The senate’s ultimate authority derived from the esteem and prestige of the senators. This esteem and prestige was based on both precedent and custom, as well as the caliber and reputation of the senators. The senate passed decrees, which were called senatus consulta. These were officially “advice” from the senate to a magistrate. In practice, however, they were usually followed by the magistrates. The focus of the Roman senate was usually directed towards foreign policy. Though it technically had no official role in the management of military conflict, the senate ultimately was the force that oversaw such affairs. This was due to the senate’s explicit power over the state’s budget and in military affairs.
The power of the senate expanded over time as the power of the legislative assemblies declined, and the senate took a greater role in ordinary law-making. Its members were usually appointed by Roman Censors, who ordinarily selected newly elected magistrates for membership in the senate, making the senate a partially elected body. During times of military emergency, such as the civil wars of the 1st century, this practice became less prevalent, as the Roman Dictator, Triumvir or the senate itself would select its members.
The legal status of Roman citizenship was limited and was a vital prerequisite to possessing many important legal rights such as the right to trial and appeal, to marry, to vote, to hold office, to enter binding contracts, and to special tax exemptions. An adult male citizen with the full complement of legal and political rights was called “optimo jure.” The optimo jure elected their assemblies, whereupon the assemblies elected magistrates, enacted legislation, presided over trials in capital cases, declared war and peace, and forged or dissolved treaties. There were two types of legislative assemblies. The first was the comitia (“committees”), which were assemblies of all optimo jure. The second was the concilia (“councils”), which were assemblies of specific groups of optimo jure.
Citizens were organized on the basis of centuries and tribes, which would each gather into their own assemblies. The Comitia Centuriata (“Centuriate Assembly”) was the assembly of the centuries (i.e., soldiers). The president of the Comitia Centuriata was usually a consul. The centuries would vote, one at a time, until a measure received support from a majority of the centuries. The Comitia Centuriata would elect magistrates who had the imperium powers (consuls and praetors). It also elected censors. Only the Comitia Centuriata could declare war, and ratify the results of a census. It also served as the highest court of appeal in certain judicial cases.
The assembly of the tribes (i.e., the citizens of Rome), the Comitia Tributa, was presided over by a consul, and was composed of 35 tribes. The tribes were not ethnic or kinship groups, but rather geographical subdivisions. The order that the thirty-five tribes would vote in was selected randomly by lot. Once a measure received support from a majority of the tribes, the voting would end. While it did not pass many laws, the Comitia Tributa did elect quaestors, curule aediles, and military tribunes. The Plebeian Council was identical to the assembly of the tribes, but excluded the patricians. They elected their own officers, plebeian tribunes and plebeian aediles. Usually a plebeian tribune would preside over the assembly. This assembly passed most laws, and could also act as a court of appeal.
Each republican magistrate held certain constitutional powers. Each was assigned a provincia by the Senate. This was the scope of that particular office holder’s authority. It could apply to a geographic area or to a particular responsibility or task. The powers of a magistrate came from the people of Rome (both plebeians and patricians). The imperium was held by both consuls and praetors. Strictly speaking, it was the authority to command a military force. In reality, however, it carried broad authority in the other public spheres such as diplomacy, and the justice system. In extreme cases, those with the imperium power were able to sentence Roman Citizens to death. All magistrates also had the power of coercitio (coercion). This was used by magistrates to maintain public order by imposing punishment for crimes. Magistrates also had both the power and the duty to look for omens. This power could also be used to obstruct political opponents.
One check on a magistrate’s power was called Collega (collegiality). Each magisterial office would be held concurrently by at least two people. Another such check was provocatio. While in Rome, all citizens were protected from coercion, by provocatio, which was an early form of due process. It was a precursor to habeas corpus. If any magistrate tried to use the powers of the state against a citizen, that citizen could appeal the decision of the magistrate to a tribune. In addition, once a magistrate’s one-year term of office expired, he would have to wait ten years before serving in that office again. This created problems for some consuls and praetors, and these magistrates would occasionally have their imperium extended. In effect, they would retain the powers of the office (as a promagistrate), without officially holding that office.
The consuls of the Roman Republic were the highest ranking ordinary magistrates. Each served for one year. They retained several elements of the former kingly regalia, such as the toga praetexta, and the fasces, which represented the power to inflict physical punishment. Consular powers included the kings’ former “power to command” (imperium) and appointment of new senators. Consuls had supreme power in both civil and military matters. While in the city of Rome, the consuls were the head of the Roman government. They would preside over the senate and the assemblies. While abroad, each consul would command an army. His authority abroad would be nearly absolute. Praetors administered civil law and commanded provincial armies. Every five years, two censors were elected for an 18-month term, during which they would conduct a census. During the census, they could enroll citizens in the senate, or purge them from the senate. Aediles were officers elected to conduct domestic affairs in Rome, such as managing public games and shows. The quaestors would usually assist the consuls in Rome, and the governors in the provinces. Their duties were often financial.
Since the tribunes were considered to be the embodiment of the plebeians, they were sacrosanct. Their sacrosanctity was enforced by a pledge, taken by the plebeians, to kill any person who harmed or interfered with a tribune during his term of office. It was a capital offense to harm a tribune, to disregard his veto, or to otherwise interfere with him. In times of military emergency, a dictator would be appointed for a term of six months. Constitutional government would be dissolved, and the dictator would be the absolute master of the state. When the dictator’s term ended, constitutional government would be restored.
- Byrd, 161
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- Lintott, p. 95.
- Lintott, p. 97.
- Lintott, 113
- Byrd, 20
- Byrd, 179
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- Byrd, 24
- Abbott, Frank Frost (2001) . A history and description of Roman political institutions. Elibron Classics.
- Byrd, Robert (1995). The Senate of the Roman Republic. U.S. Government Printing Office Senate Document 103-23.
- Lintott, Andrew (1999). The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford University Press.
- Taylor, Lily Ross (1966). Roman Voting Assemblies: From the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar. The University of Michigan Press.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 12.09.2001, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.