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The Political Structure of the Roman Republic

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  • 0:05 The Republic Begins
  • 0:44 Class Structure
  • 1:37 Consuls
  • 2:17 Senate
  • 2:55 The Assembly
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson explains the political structure of the Roman Republic by highlighting the importance of social class within the system. It also explains the roles and positions of the Consuls, the Senate, and the Assembly.

The Republic Begins

When the Romans overthrew their Etruscan rulers in the year 509 BCE, they weren't just changing their political status. They were establishing a form of government that would influence politics for thousands of years to come.

Upon freeing themselves from the conquering Etruscans of the north, the Romans formed a republic, a system of government in which citizens choose representatives to govern on their behalf. With this, they established a governmental system, which was a precursor to many in our modern day world.

The Class Structure

To understand the political structure of the Roman Republic, we must first understand the importance of social class. The natural born inhabitants of the Republic, who were not slaves, were broken into two main groups. They were the patricians, members of the upper class including the nobility and the wealthy landowners, and the plebeians, or the common people of Rome.

Unlike today's society where people can move up and down the social ladder, the patricians and plebeians of Rome were completely separate and distinct. Intermarriage between the classes was forbidden. Making these social classes even more of a dividing line was whether a man was a patrician or a plebeian dictated what position he could hold within the beginning political structure of the Republic.

Consuls

If a man was a patrician, he could hold the highest position in government, known as consul. Since this position oversaw the workings of the government and its officials, while also being the commander of the army outside the city of Rome, we can draw some loose parallels to it and the American presidency. However, unlike the presidency, two patrician men ruled as consuls. They had the power to veto one another and were limited to a one year term. In times of crisis, and in order to make swift, concise decisions, one man could be elevated to dictator over the Republic.

Senate

Trying to make sure the patricians could keep control, the consuls were elected from the Senate, a group of 300 patricians who were, in essence, the law makers of Rome. They made decisions on spending, while also controlling taxation and relationships with foreign powers. Again, we can loosely compare the Roman Senate to the legislative branch of the American government. However, there are some major differences. Perhaps most obvious, the senators of Rome were not chosen by the citizens. They were chosen by the Consul, and they were elected for life.

The Assembly

The last governing body of the Roman Republic was the Assembly. The Assembly allowed plebeians, or common citizens, into its membership. Like the First Amendment right to assemble, the Assembly had the right to assemble in the forum, or the marketplace and business center of Rome.

Fortunately for the Assembly, they had one ace up their sleeve. As the Republic aged, they were in charge of choosing the consuls. Yes, the consuls were elected from the Senate, but not by the Senate. The honor of choosing went to the Assembly. Since the Assembly chose the consuls, any senator hoping to gain the highest position in government needed to win the favor of the Assembly. Just imagine, a wealthy patrician courting a common plebeian! This setup allowed the wealthier plebeians, who were not patricians no matter how much money they made, to wield substantial power. It was politics at its best!

With this setup, it's not hard to imagine why the Assembly gained power. They were also given the right to elect tribunes, a position which acted very much like a president of the plebeians. The man holding this position had the right to intervene on legal matters and veto legislation. He also held the right to summon the Senate, even making proposals for their consideration.

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