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.
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 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.
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.
The new republic saw an attempt at shared power in the form of 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.
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.
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.
The plebs formed the Plebeian Council, which was organized just like the Assembly of Tribes, except that it excluded the patrician class from its ranks. This council started out with just one form of real power. They could elect a plebeian tribune.
The tribune was an enormously powerful political position. Though he could not make laws or execute them, he had the power to veto the proposals of any other political body in Rome, including the consuls and the Senate. With this veto, the tribune could protect the plebs from oppressive taxes and unfair prosecution by patricians.
As time went by, the Plebeian Council gained more and more power. They gained the right to make laws. At first, these laws applied only to plebs and could be vetoed by the Senate. However, as time went by and the common people gained greater power, the Senate lost the power to veto pleb laws, and eventually, laws passed by the Plebeian Council applied to patricians and plebs equally.
To review, after the expulsion of its last king, the people of Rome decided to found a republic. The goal of the Republic was to mitigate the authority of any one person through an increasingly complex system of checks and balances. The first set of checks and balances involved the election of two consuls, who would exercise the same authority that the king used to wield. Since there were two of them, one could always veto the other.
Another check on the power of the consuls was the Senate, which controlled the state treasury and thus, could control the consuls by denying them funds. However, the Senate and consuls were all members of Rome's upper class, called patricians. These patricians used to run Rome's only assembly, the Assembly of the Curia, which elected the consuls, made laws, and judged cases. The common people, or plebs, wanted to make sure that there were checks on patrician power as well.
A series of new assemblies came to the fore, each increasing the power of the plebs. First, the Assembly of the Centuries gave plebs the right to vote. However, the vote of a rich man counted for much more than the vote of a poor man in this assembly, so the patricians still ran the show.
Next, the Assembly of the Tribes made pleb votes equal to that of patricians. But, because the whole tribe only got one vote, and because patricians were still rich and powerful, the Assembly of the Tribes still tended to vote as the patricians wanted.
Finally, after a mass strike, the plebs finally got the power they desired. They got their own council, the Plebeian Council, which had the right to elect a plebeian tribune. The Tribune's main authority was his ability to veto the acts of any other part of the Roman government, including the once-supreme consuls. Over time, the Plebeian Council slowly gained the power to make laws, first for the plebs, then for all of the Roman Empire.
After completing this lesson, you may be able to:
- Recite the circumstances that led to the formation of the Roman Republic
- Grasp the core concepts of the Republic
- Summarize the roles of the consuls, the Senate and the Assembly of the Curia
- Recount how the plebs eventually gained the power to make laws for the Roman Empire