Constitution of the Roman Republic

The constitution of the Roman Republic was a set of uncodified norms and customs which,[1] together with various written laws,[2] guided the procedural governance of the Roman Republic. The constitution emerged from that of the Roman kingdom, evolved substantively and significantly—almost to the point of unrecognisability[3]—over the almost five hundred years of the republic. The collapse of republican government and norms from 133 BC would lead to the rise of Augustus and his principate.[4]

The republican constitution can be divided into three main branches:[5]

  • the Assemblies, composed of the people, which served as the supreme repository of political power and had the authority to elect magistrates, accept or reject laws, administer justice, and declare war or peace;[6]
  • the Senate, which advised the magistrates,[7] acting primarily not on legal authority per se, but rather with its influence, and
  • the magistrates, elected by the people to govern the Republic in their name, exercising religious, military, and judicial powers, along with the right to preside over and call upon the assemblies.[8]

A complex set of checks and balances developed amongst these three branches. For example, the assemblies theoretically held all power, but were called and governed by the magistrates, who, controlling discussion, exercised dominating influence over them.[9] Other magistrates could also veto proceedings before the assemblies, though until the late republic, this was rare.[10] Similarly, to check the power of the magistrates, each magistrate could veto one of their colleagues and the plebeians elected tribunes who could intercede and veto the actions of a magistrate.[11]

The republic's constitution, while malleable and evolving, still had substantive entrenched norms. Institutions such as the consuls, the senate, and tribunes evolved significantly in the early republic but remained relatively stable from the fourth century BC. Starting from a period of patrician domination, the Conflict of the Orders eventually granted plebeian citizens equal political rights, while also creating the tribunate to check patrician power and empowering the plebeian assembly, an assembly composed of the plebeians of Rome, with full legislative authority.[12]

The late republic saw an increase in the centralisation of power into the hands of provincial governors,[13] the use of military power to enforce political changes (e.g. the Sullan dictatorship),[14] and the use of violence, combined with exploitation of the suitably bribed or intimidated "sovereign" assemblies, to grant supreme authority to victorious commanders.[15] The increasing legitimisation of violence and centralisation of authority into fewer and fewer men would, with the collapse of trust in the Republic's institutions,[15] put it on a path to civil war and its transformation by Augustus into an autocratic regime cloaked with republican imagery and legitimacy.[16][17]

  1. ^ Straumann 2011, p. 281.
  2. ^ Lintott 2003, p. 2.
  3. ^ Flower 2010, p. 9.
  4. ^ Flower 2010, p. 81.
  5. ^ Lintott 2003, p. vii.
  6. ^ Lintott 2003, p. 40.
  7. ^ Lintott 2003, p. 66.
  8. ^ Abbott 1963, pp. 157–65.
  9. ^ Lintott 2003, p. 202.
  10. ^ Flower 2010, p. 83.
  11. ^ Abbott 1963, p. 155.
  12. ^ Lintott 2003, pp. 121–122.
  13. ^ Abbott 1963, p. 44.
  14. ^ Lintott 2003, p. 212.
  15. ^ a b Lintott 2003, p. 213.
  16. ^ Flower 2010, p. 14.
  17. ^ Beard 2015, pp. 353–355.