Ancient History & Civilisation




The establishment of the Roman Republic was due either to revolution or evolution; it was either the effect or the cause of the fall of the monarchy. The former view is that presented by tradition, the latter is a hypothesis of some modern scholars. We may here accept the traditional view that after the sudden fall of Tarquinius Superbus the monarchy was abolished and two annual magistrates named consuls (or more probably at first ‘praetors’) were established in its place.1 They continued to be appointed throughout the history of the Republic except when they were superseded once by a Decemvirate and on occasions by ‘military tribunes with consular power’. In times of crisis, however, they might be constrained to nominate a dictator, who temporarily overshadowed them.2

The consuls (or ‘praetors’) had considerably less power than the kings, but they were invested with supreme executive authority (imperium) and were the executive head of the state. They possessed full military imperium, which included powers of life and death in the military sphere. They exercised supreme criminal and civil jurisdiction and could ‘coerce’ private citizens even in peace-time. But ‘at home’ (domi) within the pomerium their criminal jurisdiction was checked by the right of every citizen to appeal (provocare) to the people against a capital sentence: a right which the Romans believed to have been coeval with the Republic (Lex Valeria).3 With their subordinate officers they were responsible for the financial and general administration of the state. This supreme executive authority, which was a basic constitutional conception, was conferred by the Comitia Curiata on those candidates who had been designated by the previous consuls and chosen by the Comitia Centuriata. It was only vested in the consuls and praetors (i.e. the original ‘praetors’ and the judicial praetors established later) or in those who took their place: the dictator, his master of horse and the interrex. Later magistrates, e.g. censors and aediles, who took over some of the consuls’ duties, did not obtainimperium.4

The great power of the consuls was limited in the religious sphere, where they had not the same prestige as the kings, by the rex sacrorum and the Pontifex Maximus. The former was the direct successor of the kings and was provided with an official house in the Forum, the Regia, but it was the Pontifex Maximus who soon became the more influential: he gained control of the calendar, nominated the Flamines and the Vestal Virgins and generally wielded great authority. In fact the nobles may well have created this office, which was held for life, in order to prevent the priesthoods, which they themselves held, from being controlled by the successor of the king, the rex sacrorum.5

The two main brakes which prevented the consuls driving the state chariot wherever they wished were the time-limit of their office and the principle of mutual control. They had to abdicate at the end of a year; continuity of government rested in the Senate, not in the magistrates. Secondly, the principle of collegiality, i.e. of investing the two consuls with equal and co-ordinate authority, enabled the one to check and nullify the acts of his colleague by right of veto (intercessio), for ‘no’ always overcame ‘yes’. Further, the consul was hampered by the theoretical sovereignty of the people, and by custom, mos maiorum; for instance, he was forced by weight of public opinion (at some point) to allow the right of appeal and, like the king, he consulted the Senate from moral, not legal, obligations. The main body of the patricians, who formed the economic and military, though not the numerical, basis of the state, was sufficient to check any consul’s aspirations to tyranny;6 and later the consul’s own power became more limited, while the Roman people found in the tribune a protector against both the patricians and any magistrate who aspired to unconstitutional power.

Beside the consuls were the quaestores parricidii, or investigators of murder, whose origin is obscure (p. 63). In historical times the quaestors were responsible for public finance under consular supervision. Probably they had been temporary assistants to whom the king had delegated authority and they were still appointed to help the consuls in criminal jurisdiction and finance. Possibly they were nominated by the consuls themselves until 447 BC, when the office was filled by popular election in the Comitia Tributa. One of their legal duties may have been to pronounce on the consul’s behalf sentences against which an appeal might be lodged, in order that the consular imperium should not be technically infringed.

In addition to the regular magistrates was the extraordinary office of dictator which superseded the others in time of internal or external danger. Appointed by the consuls for six months, the dictator had absolute power even within the city. Unlike the king or consuls who had twelve lictors, he had twenty-four. His original title may have been magister populi, and he himself nominated an assistant, magister equitum. The origin of the office is obscure. It probably does not represent a temporary reversion to monarchy, or the survival of a king with much-reduced powers, or of an auxiliary regal office. As dictators are found in other Latin towns and at the head of the Latin League, possibly Rome borrowed the conception from her kinsmen or even from the Etruscan zilath. If so, this would explain why Roman dictators were also appointed to celebrate the games and festivals, for the Latin dictator had religious duties. There is reason to doubt the historicity of many dictatorships recorded in the fifth century, but tradition may be correct in naming T. Larcius the first dictator c. 500 BC. The antiquity of the office is shown in the customs whereby the dictator was nominated at dead of night and was forbidden to mount a horse.7

Thus the Romans had provided an executive by creating a regular magistracy together with an extraordinary emergency one. This executive was expected by custom to rely largely on the Council of Elders and in practice it did. After the monarchy the ranks of the Senate were increased by the consuls, but the manner is uncertain; the numbers perhaps reached three hundred. But control remained essentially patrician and exclusively aristocratic. A few exceptional plebeians may have crept in, though no plebeian senator is recorded before 401 BC; but in any case certain privileges were reserved for the patrician members. Though the Senate was a deliberative body which discussed and need not vote on business, it had the right to veto all acts of the assembly which were invalid without senatorial ratification. Its advice need not be taken by the consuls and it was not as powerful as it became later when consular authority was weakened, but through its permanency it attained considerable prestige. Few consuls would flout its wishes, especially as they themselves were senators. Finally, of the two Assemblies of the People the Comitia Centuriata gained increasing political influence and took over many of the functions of the Comitia Curiata, which sank into the background only to emerge to confer Imperiumon the magistrates.

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