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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Power and Political Institutions in Ancient Rome

You could find a clear concept of executive authority in Ancient Rome, embodied in their word imperium, "the right to command." Invested with imperium, the chief magistrates of the Roman state exercised a supreme power that was restricted only by extraneous means-officials held office for a limited term could be tried for offenses committed in office once their term ended. While political institutions changed, the concept of imperium did not, and it is the one factor that gives Roman constitutional history continuity and community.

The chief executive officers of the Roman Republic were the consuls and praetors. The Centuriate Assembly chose two consuls annually, and the age of these consuls was typically forty-four. The consuls had the power of command, administered government proceedings, and also had the power to declare war and peace. As consul you would most likely have to fight a war, thus allowing you to collect tribute money. In 366 B.C., a new office, that of the praetor, was created. Praetors were thirty-nine years of age when they took this office. The praetor possessed imperium and could govern Ancient Rome when the consuls were away from the city and could also lead armies. These military forces were called consular armies. By law, the praetor could command four legions of citizens plus four auxiliary legions. As a praetor you own all of the wealth you capture during war, thus allowing you to pay off your debts. The praetor was the most influential office in terms of length in the Roman state. At the beginning of year, the chief coming in posted publicly the procedures of his court, since the praetor was in charge of judicial procedures. Therefore, he was in charge of the civil law as it applied to Roman citizens.

In 242 B.C., additional praetors were established to govern the newly conquered provinces, but as the number of provinces continued to grow, the Romans devised a new system in which ex-consuls and ex-praetors who had served their one-year terms were given the title of proconsul and pro-praetor, respectively, and sent out as provincial governors. This meant that they were government officials, most often they were Publicani (private individuals and companies), but they did have the ability to enforce new taxes on territories, while making sure everything ran smoothly in the province. They were typically invited into senate and would try to outbid one another like contractors. Whoever bids the most or makes the most, goes to the province and collects the money. If you vowed to collect a certain amount, and you did not, you would have to pay the difference. At the end of your year, the Roman senate would send you off to govern territory. This could have been the province of Sicily, Corsica, or Sardinia. In the event that consul resigned or in the face of conflict, a dictator with unlimited power would be chosen to run the state. This office was supposed to last only for the duration of the emergency, the usual limit being six months.

The Roman state also had administrative officials with specialized duties. The office of the quaestor was a new office made under the Valero-Horatian Laws. The quaestor assisted consuls and praetors in the administration of financial affairs. He does not have imperium as the Tribal Assembly elects him. In that aspect he is the lowest of the state officers. However, during war he serves as a logistics officer. If the general dies in war, he takes full control of the army. The Tribal Assembly elected aediles annually. Their responsibilities included management of the infrastructure of the city including roads and sewers, public entertainment, chariot races, circus, theater, gladiators, thermae, and more importantly, they watched over the grain supply of the city.

The powerful position of censors was typically filled every five years and was responsible for making an assessment of the population on the basis of age and property for purposes of taxes, military service, and office holding. Essentially, consuls insured that money kept coming in. There were several conditions to the censorship including: you had to be sixty years of age, an ex-consul, be elected by the Centuriate Assembly, take a census, access taxes, and collect, serve for eighteen months, and then go back to being a normal citizen.

The Roman senate came to hold an especially important position in the Republic. The senate or council of elders was a select group of about three hundred men who served for life. The senate consisted of the wealthy and powerful, therefore they were in charge of state finances and foreign policy. The senate, however, was not a legislative body and could only advise the magistrates. They could not make law, but by the third century, they had virtually the force of law. The senate met continuously, while the chief magistrates changed annually and the popular assemblies operated slowly and met only periodically. There were a number of popular assemblies in the Roman Republic. The Curiate Assembly was the principal legislative assembly. It was divided into three tribes with ten units. Its primary purpose was to elect new kings, and it also possessed rudimentary legislative powers. The Curiate Assembly was involved with matters of religion and had imperium or the power to command an army. When the king wanted to go to war he summoned the army. The army breaks up into units. The king goes to the senate and allows them to decide on the war. The approval for war is reached and then the Curiate Assembly gives final consent. They ask whether they should go to war by opening an animal and examining the liver.

Shortly after the founding of the Roman Republic, the principal legislative authority shifted to two new assemblies, the Plebeian Tribal Assembly and the Centuriate Assembly. The Centuriate Assembly was by far the most important, which ruled over the Roman army. The Centuriate Assembly was organized by social class, and it was structured in such a way that the wealthiest citizens always had a majority . The Centuriate Assembly was here to create law, however, in addition to this they had the power to declare war and peace. They elected generals because they had power of command. It was odd, however, because the assembly was picking their own general each year. Equestrians would vote first, then the seniors of the 1st, then juniors, meaning the voting protects the interest of the wealthy. It rarely falls to the 2nd group or lower. The Centuriate Assembly elected the chief magistrates and passed laws. It is important to remember, however, that the Romans passed few statutory laws and simply left much governance to magisterial authority.

As a result of the struggle between the orders, another assembly, the council of the plebs, came into being in 471 B.C.. It was considered more of a shadow government and served as a quasi assembly. After the war, the Plebs had the leverage to have their assembly recognized legally. It was reorganized on the basis of the tribes; thus, it became a Plebeian Tribal Assembly. The Tribal Assembly was not entirely based upon property. Senators owned property in countryside where they had control over their clients. They made up thirty-one of the rural tribes. The urban tribes consisted of the people that lived in Rome. Voting was dominated by the wealthy. Power was legislative, but with the multitude of assemblies, who made the laws? The assembly that passed the last law made the law.

The Roman Republic consisted of three major elements. Two consuls and later, other elected officials served as magistrates and ran the state. An assembly of adult males (the Centuriate Assembly), controlled by the wealthiest citizens, elected these officials, while the senate, a small group of large landowners, advised them. Thus, the Roman state was an aristocratic republic controlled by a relatively small group of privileged people .

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  1. Dandrow, Dr. Edward. Ancient Rome Class Notes, 2012.
  2. Spielvogel, Jackson J, Western Civilization. 7th Edition, (Belmonst: Thomson Higher Education, 2009), 117.

Axelrod, Lauren A. Ancient Digger, "Power and Political Institutions in Ancient Rome ." Last modified 15 March 2012. http://www.ancientdigger.com/2012/03/power-and-political-institutions-in.html.


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