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The History of the Roman Constitution

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn all about the Roman Constitution, the foundation of Roman law, and how it's inspired our own U.S. Constitution. Then take the follow-up quiz to see what you've learned.

Romulus: First King of Rome
Romulus

Overview of the Roman Constitution

What do you think of when you hear the word 'constitution'? Most likely, the first thing that comes to mind is our own U.S. Constitution, a document based on its authors' knowledge of Greek, Roman and period British governments. The U.S. Constitution is a formal, written document that established the parameters of our three branches of government. By comparison, the Roman Constitution never existed as a physical document. Instead, it was an adaptable, unwritten set of historical guidelines and precedents based upon a system of checks and balances and the separation of powers that served the Roman government as it transitioned from a monarchy, to a republic, and ultimately an empire.

As a historical tradition, rather than a written document, the Roman Constitution helped the Romans establish institutions and offices, formalize the rights of citizens, and process laws. Historical precedents were implemented by the different branches of government and their officials, including consuls or magistrates, legislative assemblies, and senators.

Let's take a look at some of the constitutional changes that occurred throughout Roman history.

Origins of the Constitutional Tradition

One of the defining characteristics of the Roman government was its system of checks and balances. Legend has it that in the city-state's earliest days, Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome, picked the 100 best men, or patricians, in the city to be members of his Senate for as long as they lived. While the seven kings of the monarchy ruled, the Roman Senate made the laws and elected the kings. When the Roman Kingdom, which lasted from 759-509 BC, came to an end, Rome transitioned into a republic with executive offices who served as generals and judges and built public works.

Constitutional Traditions in the Republic

During the days of the Roman Kingdom, the its residents and rulers learned about the downside of allowing one person to have too much power, so they found several ways to limit the authority of a leading executive officer, or consul. First, two consuls always served together at any one time, so each was able to overrule the other. As a second check on their power, consuls had to request any money from the Senate.

The comita elected the consuls, who served 1-year terms. Once elected, they took orders from the Roman Senate. When their terms were up, both consuls were given governorships of provinces outside of Italy.

The comitia became more powerful after the Conflict of the Orders, a class struggle between the wealthy patricians and the poor plebeians that lasted from 494-287 B.C.E. During the conflict, the plebeians forced the patricians to accept a new office that was independent of the consuls and the Senate: the Tribune of the People. As a result of a series of laws, the comita had the power to make laws, ratify treaties, and even declare war.

The Tribune of the People was a unique office. It was created to give the poor people some control over what was going on in their government and to prevent the wealthy from taking advantage of them. The tribunes of the people had the authority to veto any actions taken by consuls or the Roman Senate. But the tribunes themselves were also limited: membership changed every year, and the number of members varied.

During the Roman Republic, senators remained patricians chosen for life. Although they gave orders to the consuls, they could only make requests to the comitia. They were also responsible for developing foreign policy, collecting taxes, and issuing decrees.

Constitutional Traditions in the Empire

As Rome transitioned from a republic to an empire, Julius Caesar acted to increase his power at the expense of other branches of the government. For example, he assumed the position of Roman Dictator, as well as the authority of the Tribune of the People, which made him a key player in the legislative process with the power to veto the efforts of the senators. After he appointed his own consuls, tribunal members, and senators, they no longer represented the people, but instead represented Caesar.

As a result, the Roman Senate was reduced to an advisory group, which destroyed the systems of checks and balances. Although he was later assassinated, Caesar served as the bridge between the Roman Republic and Empire, which was later run by a series of emperors until its demise in 476 AD.

A Snapshot of the Roman government at the end of the Republic
The Roman Government

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