he government of ancient Rome went through three major phases: monarchy*, republic, and empire. While the monarchy lasted some 250 years, both the republic and the empire lasted much longer—each about 500 years. Some of the major features of Roman government overlapped these three periods. For example, the Senate existed in all stages of Rome’s history, although it was most powerful in the republic.

* monarchy nation ruled by a king or queen


From 753 to 510 B.C., Rome was ruled by a series of kings. The kings of Rome, unlike those of Greece, did not inherit their title nor claim to descend from the gods. Instead, they were appointed on the basis of their achievements. However, once appointed, they remained in office for life. A king served as the chief religious figure of the state and commander in chief of the armed forces. He was responsible for foreign relations, state finances, and the enforcement of the law.

The king ruled with the support of a senate. The Senate counseled and advised the king and was almost as old as the monarchy itself. Senators were chosen by the king from among upper-class families. Although the Senate had no formal power, its advice was taken seriously. The Senate also played an important role in the selection of successive kings. From among its members, the Senate chose a temporary head of state, called the interrex, which means “one who holds office between the death of one king and the appointment of a successor.” The interrex served for only five days, and his sole function was to name the next king. (Similarly, later on in the republic, the interrex would serve after the death or resignation of the consuls, until elections for new consuls could be held.)

Starting in the early 600s B.C., the kings who ruled Rome became increasingly cruel and oppressive. Under the Tarquinian dynasty*, the throne became hereditary, and the power of the monarchy increased at the expense of the Senate. In 510 B.C., a coup* led by wealthy nobles drove the third Tarquinian king, Tarquinius Superbus, from Rome, and the monarchy collapsed.

* dynasty succession of rulers from the same family or group

* coup sudden, and often violent, overthrow of a ruler or government


With the collapse of the monarchy, the government became a republic. The republic was a form of government in which leaders were elected by an assembly of male citizens, and a senate, consisting at first of patricians*, held most of the power. Although the republican form of government was not formalized by a written constitution, it functioned remarkably well for over five centuries.

* patrician member of the upper class who traced his ancestry to a senatorial family in the earliest days of the Roman Republic

Consuls and Assemblies. In the new republican government, the power that was formerly held by the king shifted to two elected leaders, called consuls, who shared the power equally. The consuls were drawn from the Senate, and each served for one year. The consuls were appointed to command the army as well as to act as the heads of state, with the authority to propose new laws and to control state funds.

Assemblies elected the consuls and other leaders each year. The Romans never had the principal of one man, one vote. Rather, they had representative voting by units (similar to the electoral college in the United States). During the time of the kings, the original people’s council, called the comitia curiata, consisted of 30 wards, 10 from each of the three original tribes of Rome. As Rome expanded and organized, the comitia centuriata, or Centuriate, largely assumed the duties of the first council. The centuriata was an assembly of representatives from military units, or centuries. At this time, the military consisted only of Roman citizens, who comprised the body of eligible voters. There were 193 centuries, and Roman citizens were assigned to a century according to their means. The centuriata met outside the city, since it was illegal for an army to enter the city, except when a general celebrated a triumph. At first, the centuriata was dominated by voters in the top two property bands of society, but in the 200s B.C.,more influence was given to the less wealthy classes. The centuriata elected all senior state officials, declared war and made peace, and occasionally made decisions in life and death appeals. A third assembly, the comitia tributa, or Tribal, consisted of 35 tribes, or districts, and met inside the city. It elected minor officials and passed most legislation not dealing with war and peace.

Although the assembly was supposed to represent all adult male citizens, in reality it was controlled by the wealthy landowners in each assembly. One reason for this was that a person had to vote in person and only in Rome. The poorer country people could rarely afford to take a whole day to go to Rome, and since there was no absentee voting, they did not vote. As a result, consuls continued to be drawn from the upper classes of society. The assembly could only pass legislation proposed to it. It could vote for government officials, but it could not nominate candidates for office. The assemblies merely voted on a proposal or a candidate—there was no discussion.

An important office in the Roman Republic, created in 494 B.C., was tribunus plebis (tribune of the plebeians*). A tribune protected the rights of individual plebeians against abuses by patrician magistrates. He could convene popular assemblies and present the people’s complaints to the consuls or the Senate. A tribune had considerable power—he could veto resolutions made by the Senate—and he was protected by law. Anyone who attempted to harm a tribune could be put to death.

Roman Magistrates. To make the affairs of government run smoothly, the Romans had many positions of leadership. Almost all leaders, or magistrates, served for one year and were elected by popular assemblies. They were not paid. The censor was in charge of censuses and tax rolls. The quaestor assisted the consuls, mostly in financial matters. The praetor also assisted the consuls, but his main responsibility was the administration of civil law in Rome. More praetors were added later, as needed, to handle the increase in legal business and as promagistrates to govern Rome’s provinces*.

Another way of meeting the increasing administrative needs of the republic was the establishment of the promagistracy. A promagistrate was a former magistrate who was appointed by the Senate to act in place of a consul or praetor. Although promagistrates could not exercise their power in Rome itself, many were appointed to govern overseas territories.

In the mid-300s B.C., plebeians won the right to hold offices formerly held only by patricians, including the consulship. Two new plebeian aediles were created, in addition to the two that existed. Aediles were given several important responsibilities, including control of the urban food supply, supervision of public buildings and property, and management of the police and fire services.

* plebeian member of the general body of Roman citizens, as distinct from the upper class

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

Any magistrate could veto a colleague (someone at his own level), as well as all magistrates ranked below him. The only exception to this rule was the position of dictator. This was an ancient office, dating back to early Roman times when one commander was appointed over the armies of several city-states*. A dictator was a leader who had much more power than a consul, but who was limited to no more than six months in office. The purpose of this position was to provide strong leadership in times of crisis. Once the position of dictator was established, it was used repeatedly over a period of almost three centuries to meet a variety of emergencies that regular government officials were unable to handle.

The Senate. Election to the quaestorship brought a man into the Senate, the seat of real decision-making power in the republic. There were about 300 members of the Senate. Once a senator, a man remained so for life, unless he was thrown out for misconduct by the censors. The Senate, in theory, was merely advisory. It advised the magistrate, usually a consul, who convened it. The Senate could not convene itself. While only popular assemblies could pass laws and magistrates could ignore the Senate’s advice, they seldom did because most of their political career was spent in the Senate. The single years spent as an elected magistrate were not many in number. So, if one offended one’s fellow senators, one would become an outcast and might not be asked to speak henceforth. (One had to get permission to speak in the Senate.) Moreover, if one offended the Senate in the course of one’s magistracy, the Senate could retaliate in one of several ways, including withdrawing state funding. The Senate therefore became quite powerful, both because it exerted heavy influence on its members and because it was the only body that actually discussed issues and gave policies longterm, continuing effect. It controlled both foreign and domestic policy as well as state finances. The Senate commanded great respect, both from the consuls and from the people. The chief weakness of the Senate was that, in the final analysis, it could be ignored. The magistrates could go directly to the people for support. In this way, Tiberius Gracchus sought reforms for the plebeians in the 130s B.C., and Julius Caesar gained power in 48 B.C.

Late Roman Republic. In the 100s B.C., the republican government began a period of decline. The economic gap between rich and poor had widened. To alleviate the situation, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, who were Roman tribunes, proposed a plan to the Senate that would give state-owned land to the poor. The Senate responded by declaring a state of emergency, and both brothers and many of their followers were killed.

In 83 B.C., Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a Roman general who had been victorious in Asia, returned to Rome, defeated Gaius Marius and other leaders, and declared himself dictator. Sulla was the first Roman general to use his army against his political enemies in Rome. As dictator from 82 B.C. to 79 B.C., Sulla reorganized the government. He greatly weakened the power of the tribunes and gave the Senate control of Rome. Although Sulla’s reforms were gradually eroded after he retired, he had given the government a stability it had lacked and Romans a taste of one-man rule.

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding area

Another civil war broke out in 49 B.C. between Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known as Pompey, and Julius Caesar, a general who had distinguished himself in his military campaigns in Gaul. In 48 B.C., Caesar defeated Pompey and seized power. Caesar named himself dictator for life, following Sulla’s example, and assumed more powers than any other individual had possessed before him. He took over authority for appointing senior officials of the state and also the traditional decision-making powers of the Senate. In addition, he transferred some of the administrative functions of the Senate to government officials, making the government more bureaucratic and more subject to central control.

The speed of the changes that Caesar introduced and the threat they posed to the republican form of government led a group of conspirators to assassinate him in 44 B.C. Caesar’s great-nephew and heir, Octavian, gained power, supported by Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. These three men formed a powerful triumvirate*. They swept aside the conspirators who killed Caesar, reestablished the power of the military, and dominated the government.

* triumvirate ruling body of three


In 31 B.C., after a war against Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen, Octavian became the sole ruler of Rome. He soon took the title Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire. Rome’s emperors would rule for the next 500 years.

Under the empire, the assemblies quickly disappeared, but the Senate survived, as did most of the magistrates. Some of the early emperors, including Augustus, were capable rulers who brought peace and stability to the empire and spread Roman culture throughout the region. Later emperors became increasingly tyrannical, ignoring the traditional role of the Senate. Eventually, to justify their excessive power, the emperors claimed to rule by the will of God.

First Roman Emperor. Augustus not only commanded a vast army— much of it inherited from Caesar—but he was also popular with the people because he was Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son. Both factors gave him an advantage when he undertook reform of the government. Augustus took special care to avoid Caesar’s mistake of changing too much too quickly, and he tried to find a basis for his actions in the earlier traditions and practices of the Roman Republic. For example, he did not make himself dictator for life as Caesar had done, because this went against the republican tradition of a short-term dictatorship to deal with specific emergencies.

Augustus was able to increase his power by expanding the republican tradition of the promagistracy. In 31 B.C., he was elected consul, and this gave him military and legislative authority. In 27 B.C., he took the title imperator, or emperor. Imperator was the title given by troops to a victorious general, and it became part of Octavian’s official name. As emperor, the Senate gave him command of more than half the overseas territories of the empire, including almost all of those that had armies. In 23 B.C.,


During the Roman Republic, men of ambition could work their way up through the ranks to high-level government positions. Even plebeians could rise to positions of power in this way. A man who wanted a career in politics typically started out in the army, where he would serve for perhaps ten years. He would then pass through several different government offices in an orderly progression, starting with quaestor, which had a minimum age requirement of 28 years. If he was a plebeian, he might become a tribune and then possibly an aedile. Once he reached the age of 40, he could be elected praetor, and after age 43, he was eligible to become consul.

Augustus gave up the office of consul but continued to control his provinces as proconsul*.

Augustus’s accumulated power was very great. He held almost total control of the Senate and even overshadowed the consuls. However, he governed with a great deal of tact and diplomacy. In this way, the Senate and consuls appeared to retain more of their former republican powers than they actually did. As a result, they continued to support him. Augustus is also credited with making government more efficient by transferring many responsibilities from elected officials to appointed officials with the best skills for the job.

Augustus made only one sharp break with republican tradition. He reduced the power of the assembly by transferring its law-making authority to the Senate. He also weakened the assembly’s time-honored function of electing magistrates, including consuls. Later emperors were to eliminate the assembly’s importance altogether.

Senate Loses Authority. When Augustus died in A.D. 14, his successors continued many of the changes he had begun. However, they did not have his tact, and they used their extensive power much more openly. Eventually, no important decision could be made or action taken without their approval. As a result, the Senate lost much of its power.

Authority for the office of emperor had originally come from the Senate, so the weakening of the Senate also threatened the authority and position of the emperor. Nonetheless, the empire continued to thrive because many emperors after Augustus were men of ability and achievement who had the loyalty and respect of the military, and it was the support of the armies that really guaranteed their power. Several of the early emperors were also childless and adopted heirs to be their chosen successors. This practice, begun by Augustus, who adopted Tiberius as his successor, came into greatest prominence in the second century A.D., beginning with Nerva’s adoption of Trajan in A.D. 98.

When the emperor Nero was assassinated in A.D. 68, civil war broke out once again over control of the empire. Vespasian soon restored the peace and established the Flavian dynasty, which ruled the empire until A.D. 96. The Flavian emperors took even more power for themselves, making the Senate weaker still.

From A.D. 96 to 180, the empire was ruled by a series of emperors called the Five Good, or Adoptive, Emperors. They included Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. The rule of these five emperors was the longest continuous period of peace in Roman history.

Middle and Late Empire. In A.D. 180, Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his son, Commodus, who abused his power and was assassinated in A.D. 192. Commodus’s death plunged the empire once more into civil war. In less than 100 years following Commodus’s death, 26 different emperors came to power, few of whom managed to stay in power for long. Many of these emperors acted openly like tyrants*, ignoring tradition and holding themselves above the law.

When Diocletian came to power in A.D. 284, he tried to prevent future conflicts over succession by introducing the concept of shared power.

* proconsul governor of a Roman province

* tyrant absolute ruler

Through his efforts, the Roman Empire was eventually divided into two independent parts, the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire. According to Diocletian’s plan, each part of the empire was to have a senior and a junior emperor. The senior emperors were to serve for ten years, at which time they were to be succeeded by the junior emperors, who in turn, would name new junior emperors.

Diocletian also tried to make the office of emperor more secure by introducing the concept of theocracy, which is a government whose leader rules by divine right. Earlier emperors had derived their authority from the Senate, but with the Senate virtually powerless, Diocletian claimed to have divine power. He wore purple robes and a crown and declared himself lord and god. He served as emperor until A.D. 305.

Christian Period. When the emperor Constantine came to power in A.D. 307, he followed in Diocletian’s footsteps by claiming that he had a divine right to rule. In Constantine’s case, however, the authority came from the Christian god, and Constantine’s rule is associated with the beginning of the Christian period of the Roman Empire. In A.D. 330, Constantine created a second capital of the Roman Empire at Byzantium (modern Istanbul), which he renamed Constantinople after himself. This move helped assure the survival of the Roman Empire in the East (as the Byzantine Empire) for another thousand years.

The new concept of divine power, first introduced by Diocletian and later adopted by Constantine, did not succeed in restoring total harmony to the empire. However, it did reestablish the emperor as a focus for the loyalty of all Roman citizens to a degree unknown since the earliest days of the empire. In the eastern part of the empire, the concept of divine power continued to support the authority of emperors. In the western part of the empire, the concept of divine power survived the attacks of barbarians* and the decline of the empire itself to reemerge later as the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages.

The last emperor of the Western Roman Empire was Romulus Augustulus, who was emperor for only a year, from A.D. 475 to 476. In the mid-500s, Justinian briefly unified the empire one last time until his death in A.D. 565. (See also Law, Roman; Rome, History of; Rulers, Worship of.)

* barbarian referring to people from outside the cultures of Greece and Rome, who were viewed as uncivilized

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