The Roman Political System
The Roman political system evolved significantly between the city’s founding and the end of the Republic in 27 BCE, particularly between 753 and 287 BCE. Several factors played a major role in this evolution, leading to the basic structure of a Republican government that would later be adopted by other countries, specifically the United States.
Romulus and Remus established Rome in central Italy as a monarchy, consisting of an elective or non-dynastic king and a Senate. The Senate was comprised of “distinguished male members of Rome’s elite families” (Seekins) and advised the king, acting more as a privy council rather than a legislature. The monarchy lasted from 753 to 509 BCE, when Tarquinius Superbus ([the] “arrogant”), a tyrant, was driven out of power for his cruelty and oppression.
In 509 BCE, the king was replaced with two consuls, who were “chosen in pairs annually by the patricians and exercised executive power” (Seekins). Within this new structure, the consuls could not serve consecutive terms and alternated in authority to prevent any one individual from taking power. Moreover, under this “res publica” the Senate became the “most powerful body” and its measures held the force of law in addition to it seizing responsibility for state finances during peacetime.
Senate soon became the “bastion of the social-economic elites,” (Seekins) leading to the establishment of three comitia, or assemblies, as a part of the government in 494 BCE. These assemblies included the “comitia curiata,” “comitia centuriata,” and “comitia plebis tributa.” The curiata assembly represented members of each of the geographical subdivisions, called “curiae,” of Roman citizens and was open to any of them. The centuriata assembly was divided into “centuries”, or military units, and was open to all Roman citizens eligible for military service within these centuries, though it favored those units whose members were wealthy. Lastly, the plebis tributa assembly was for the plebians, or common people.
In 494 BCE, the plebians, feeling oppressed by the aristocrats, held the “first secession,” or strike, on Aventine Hill. This pushback led to the appointment of the “Tribunes of the Plebians” under the plebis tributa assembly. The tribunes were elected officials that enjoyed legal immunity but that were charged with “protecting the rights and interests of the poorest and least influential citizens.”
Shortly after the formation of the comitia, the first systematic code of law, the “Twelve Tables” were put in place between 451 and 450 BCE. This act provided the foundation of the legal profession and by the late Republic-early Imperial period, “lawyers” emerged.
Gaining traction and voicing their needs, the common people soon brought about an overhaul of the Roman republic in the form of reformation laws to grant them equal rights from 445 to 287 BCE. Chief among these were five: the Lex Canuleia, the Leges Luciniae Sextiae, the Law of Publius Philo, the Lex Ogulnia, and perhaps most importantly, the Lex Hortensia. The first of these granted them the right to marry above them in the social ladder. The second and third allowed them to serve in the highest offices, including that of consul and censor. The fourth opened up priestly offices and the final one provided the “measures adopted by the plebian assembly the force of the law, and guaranteed equal rights in court to all Roman citizens” (Seekins).
In brief, in a little under 500 years Rome went from a monarchy to a republic, to encompassing a mixed form of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy and emulating the first concept of “checks and balances,” leaving a lasting impression on current societies and those to come.
Seekins, Donald M. "Monarchy and Republic: the Political Evolution of Early Rome."