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Formation of the Roman Republic: Offices, Institutions and History

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  • 0:05 Lessons Learned from…
  • 1:41 The Consul
  • 2:34 Patrician Power
  • 3:38 Shared Power
  • 5:26 Plebeian Power
  • 7:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson covers the formation of the Roman Republic. We start by identifying the underlying causes of the Republican revolution. We then examine how the Romans instituted and expanded upon their system of checks and balances, starting with patrician assemblies and ending with the Plebeian Council.

Lessons Learned from the Republican Monarchy

In 509 BCE, the Roman people were tired of kings. Their king, Tarquin the Proud, had alienated himself from most of the population. He'd murdered his political opponents, making enemies of the aristocracy. He'd also run out of money to buy the love of the commoners and led a disastrous campaign against some of Rome's neighbors. Worst of all, Tarquin's son, Sextus, had raped a noblewoman named Lucretia.

Tired of kings, the Roman people exiled King Tarquin in 509 BCE and formed a republic.
Forming the Roman republic

This last offense was too much for the Romans. Led by Lucretia's widowed husband, the Romans drove the terrible Tarquin king and his horrid princes into exile. Since they'd just gotten rid of their old king, the Romans were none too keen on getting a new one.

Rome would no longer be the plaything of kings. Instead, Rome would be a public thing. That is what the word 'Republic' means. 'Res' is a general word meaning 'thing or matter,' and 'publica' means 'public.' Res Publica, the public thing.

To ensure that this new republican government was accountable to the public, several reforms slowly transformed the old Roman monarchy into a republic. At the heart of these reforms lay a single core concept: checks and balances. Romans wanted to make sure that no individual could ever wield the sort of power their kings once had. Instead, they wanted every official to be held accountable to the public and the state. This concern would provide the main motivation for pretty much all of the reforms of the Roman Republic.

The Consul

The first thing the Romans needed to do was replace their king with some sort of executive. The warlike Romans knew that command could not be handled by a large group. Leadership, especially in war, offers little opportunity for debate. It requires split-second decisions and unquestioned authority.

At the same time, the Romans didn't want to give that sort of unquestioned authority to a single man, and they certainly didn't want anyone holding such power for very long. So, the Romans came up with a novel solution: They'd take the responsibilities of the king and split them between two people, called consuls. That way, neither consul had absolute power, since the other consul could veto him. And, to make sure no consul was able to cause too much trouble, they limited the consul's term to one year and required them to wait 10 years before serving a second term.

Patrician Power

Splitting up the authority of the king was just the first step the Romans took to check the power of their government. They also greatly increased the power of the Senate. The Senate was a council of Roman aristocrats, called patricians, that used to advise the Roman kings. Under the Republic, the Senate gained control of public funds. This added another effective check to the power of the consuls, since whatever the consuls decided to do, the Senate could always deny them the money to do it. The patricians of Rome also found another outlet for power in the Assembly of the Curia.

The Curia were the 30 foremost patrician families of Rome. In the early republic, these families would send representatives to an assembly, which voted on legislation, tried capital court cases, and most importantly, elected the consuls. Between the Senate and the Assembly of the Curia, the patricians of Rome now held far greater sway than they had under the king. However, the common people of Rome, known as plebeians (or just plebs), still felt as powerless as they had ever been.

Shared Power

The new republic saw an attempt at shared power in the form of assemblies.
Assemblies

A few decades after the foundation of the republic, efforts were made to increase the voice of the plebs. Another assembly, the Assembly of Centuries, came to the forefront. This assembly, made up of Roman soldier divisions, called Centuries, had supposedly been around since the time of Roman kings. In the Republic, this Assembly of Centuries gained much authority, eventually taking many of the powers of the Assembly of the Curia. Eventually, they got the right to elect consuls, as well as some other new positions, like censors, who were in charge of measuring the Roman population and adding new members to the Senate.

Finally, only the Assembly of the Centuries could declare war. The Assembly of the Centuries was neither purely plebeian nor purely patrician. It was a mixed bag. However, the superior number of the plebs were outweighed by the fact that the weight of one's vote in the Assembly was determined by the amount of property one owned. Thus, the richest members of Rome still controlled most of the voting power.

Another new assembly was the Assembly of Tribes. The Assembly of Tribes came about as the result of a reorganization of the Roman population. Instead of being divided by lineage and relationship to a patrician family, the Tribes of Rome were instead divided by geographical location. The resulting tribes formed an assembly, which voted on legislative matters. They also elected public officials, such as quaestors, who were the police of the time. The assembly was also a mixed bag of patricians and plebs. Unlike the Assembly of the Centuries, the weight of one's vote was not dependent on one's property or wealth. However, since each tribe had but one vote, and since patricians were rich and influential, the aristocratic patricians were still calling the shots.

Plebeian Power

Though the plebs now had the right to vote, and though they outnumbered the patricians by a large margin, they still found their political power rather limited. Patricians got the first vote in the Assembly of Centuries, and their votes counted for more. Patricians also seemed to get their way in the Assembly of Tribes more often than not. Moreover, all the highest positions of authority were reserved for members of the patrician class. A patrician consul, elected by a patrician assembly and accountable only to his fellow patricians, was unlikely to show much respect to the plebs beneath him.

In 494 BCE, the poor plebians started a strike that gained them a voice in the new republic.
Rise of the plebians

Eventually, the plebs got fed up with this abuse. They were the ones who fought in Rome's army. They were the ones who produced all the food. Why shouldn't they have a voice? In 494 BCE, the plebs had had enough. In the middle of a war, the plebs dropped their weapons, left the city of Rome en masse, and threatened to start their own city nearby and leave the patricians to figure out how to fight the enemy as well as how to feed and clothe themselves. The plebs refused to return until they had been given the power to elect their own officials. This mass strike had the desired effect.

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