The rape of Lucretia, according to Livy, was the fundamental "last straw" in the overthrow of the Etruscan King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. The transition from the Etruscan monarchy to republic (510-509 BC) was not, however, a simple institutional change. In place of the King, the newly founded Republic relied upon its Senate, or patrician class families, to oversee the government and the election of various officials, including 2 shared power Consuls. This transformation from monarchy to representative style government, headed by the elite social class, would prove to have troubles of its own.
After the overthrow of the Tarquin dynasty, led by Junius Brutus, the ancient Romans avoided a true monarchal government for the remainder of their storied history (Even the later imperial government maintained forms of the republican system. While in practice it could be a system of absolute power for the Emperor, it was theoretically still checked by the Senate and other representative ideals.) This same Junius Brutus was later claimed as an ancestor by the Republican loyalist Marcus Brutus who was among the conspirators in the assassination of Julius Caesar, and shows the deeply rooted Roman aversion to Kings. It was the era of the Republic in which the great expansion of Roman civilization, power and structure set the path for European dominance. In these formative and expansive years, Rome was ruled by its Senate and its people's assemblies. The offices of power were divided among various elected officials to avoid the conglomeration of power and the re-institution of the monarchy.
These magistracies were in essence, a division of previous monarchal powers. The Romans instituted a constitution which would dictate the traditions and institutions of government for the Roman people. This constitution, however, was not a formal or even written document, but rather a series of unwritten traditions and laws. Deeply rooted in pre-Republican tradition, it essentially maintained all the same monarchal powers and divided them amongst a series of people, rather than in one supreme ruler.
Patricians and Plebeians
Discontent and political upheaval lay ahead for the fledgling Republic, since the new constitution was flawed and exclusive in nature for the general population (plebeians). Rome was surrounded by powerful external enemies, including its former Etruscan rulers, and Patrician (the hereditary aristocratic families) in-fighting with each other and the plebeian (common people) class was an immediate source of difficulty. The Romans developed a complex client system, where aristocratic families pledged allegiance and voting support to other powerful families. In exchange for political appointments and advocating of various agendas, some power groups were able to subvert the state and the will of the masses for personal gain.
The words Patrician and Plebeian have taken on different connotations of wealthy and poor in modern English, but no such distinction existed in Roman times. The two classes were simply ancestral or inherited. A citizen's class was fixed by birth rather than by wealth. Patricians monopolized all of the political offices and probably most of the wealth in the early Republic, but there were many wealthy plebeians, and conversly many patrician families had little claim to wealth or prestige other than their family heritage. The relationship between the plebeians and the patricians sometimes came under intense strain, as a result of this exclusion from political influence. In response, the plebeians on several occasions, abandoned the city leaving the patricians without a working class to support their political whims.
The Struggle of the Orders
Roman imperium, or the power of law and command, was fully concentrated in the patrician class. The consuls were elected from among the patricians, as were the quaestors, praetors and censors. The ensuing class conflicts from the domination of political power by one class over another, in a virtual transfer of power from King to Senate, was called "the struggle of the orders". In effect, it was simply the recurring pattern of the patrician class attempting to hold onto power, while the plebeians worked to rise to social and political equality. The patricians, while mostly secure in their wealth and noble foundation, were also unable to exist without the plebeians. The Plebeian class not only produced the grain and supplied the labor that maintained the Roman economy; they also formed the recruiting basis as soldiers for the Legions.
In 494 BC, only 15 years after the founding of the Republic, a secession of plebeians to the Sacred Mount outside Rome, ushered in a fundamental change to the Republican government. The Plebes formed a tribal assembly, and their own alternative government, until the patricians agreed to the establishment of an office that would have sacrosanctity (sacrosanctitas). This was the right to be legally protected from any physical harm, and the right of help (ius auxiliandi), meaning the legal ability to rescue any plebeian from the hands of a patrician magistrate. These magistrate positions were labelled as Tribunes or tribuni plebes. Later, the tribunes acquired a far more formidable, and often manipulated power, the right of intercession (ius intercessio). This was the right to veto any act or proposal of any magistrate, including another tribune, for the good of the people. The tribune also had the power to exercise capital punishment against any person who interfered in the performance of his duties. The tribune's power to act was enforced by a pledge of the plebeians to kill any person who harmed a tribune during his term of office.
In 451 BC, another Plebeian secession led to the appointment of the decemvirate, or a commission of ten men. This eventually resulted in the adoption of the bronze engraved Laws of the Twelve Tables, and raised the number of Plebeian Tribunes to 10. In 445 BC, the Canuleian law legalized marriages between patricians and members of the plebs. Along with later inter-class adoptions, plebeians were allowed additional class mobility and eventual inclusion into previous Patrician only magistracies. In 367 the plebeians gained the right to be elected consul, and in 366 the first was elected. Thereafter, the Licinian-Sextian laws demanded that at least one consul be a plebeian. After the completion of the term of consular office, the plebeian consul became a member of the Senate resulting in the disintegration of the patrician hold on the Senate. Furthermore,in 300 BC, plebeians were allowed to serve at all levels of the priesthood, thus making them religiously equal to the patricians. Finally, the greatest achievement of power for the people, in 287 BC, the decisions and legislation of the plebeian assembly, Concilium Plebis or "Council of the Plebeians", became not only binding on the plebeians, but on the entire Roman citizenry.
All power was not shifted away from the patricians, however. While still maintaining significant power through clients and the prestige of their heritage, they were also able to turn the tables. Using the plebeian adoption methodology for upward mobility, some patricians used it to adopt into the plebeian class and become available to serve as plebeian only Tribunes. While a rare occurrence, such mobility made made the entire political spectrum open to the ruling classes.
This political upheaval brought about a new aristocracy, composed of patrician and wealthy plebeian families, and admission to the Senate became almost the hereditary privilege of these families. The Senate, which in original function maintained no law making, and little administrative power, became a powerful governing force. They oversaw matters of war and peace, foreign alliances, the founding of colonies, and the handling of the state finances. The rise of this new nobilitas ended the conflict between the upper echelons of the two orders, but the position of the poorer plebeian families was not improved. In fact, a class designation of equestrian (knight), originally composed of patrician senatorial families, developed into one including plebes that signified a particular level of wealth, and further separated the plebeian elite from the common people. The decided contrast between the conditions of the rich and the poor led to struggles in the later Republic between the aristocratic party and the popular party. These struggles developed into one of several major factors in the eventual collapse of the Republican system.
The Roman Republican Constitution
As the Romans never had a written constitution it is difficult to neatly fit their government into anything that corresponds to modern systems.
However, especially from the time of the passage of the Lex Hortensia (287 BC), it is similar to that of the American division of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, as the Roman system was the basis for the American one.
The system developed into one of checks and balances with the aristocratic Patrician dominated Senate being counterbalanced by popular elections of chief magistrates and the Plebeian Tribunes.
The Three Citizen Assemblies
The three citizen assemblies or Comitia, were called the Comitia Curiata, Comitia Centuriata and the Comitia (Plebis) Tributa (or Concilium Plebis or Populi Tributa). These were composed of all Roman male citizens, requiring individuals to attend in person, in order to vote. No debate from the floor was possible, and votes were counted in groups, not individually (the vote of each group was determined by the vote of the majority of individuals in that group). All 3 assemblies included the entire electorate of citizens, but each had a different internal organization (and therefore differences in the weight of an individual citizen's vote). In essence, each voting citizen had 3 potential votes, but each carried a different weight or responsibility.
Curiate Assembly (Comitia Curiata)
The oldest unit of organization within the Roman system. The 30 curiae of the early city (10 for each of the 3 early tribes), were based on clan and family associations. The Curiate was limited to Patricians as it reflected the oldest and most distinguished of the tribes. Each member had a single vote and the majority victor within each Curiate had 1 vote. Meaning, there were 30 separate votes with in each Curiate and the the Curiata as a whole would then have 1 vote to support its majority opinion. The Curiata became obsolete as a legislative body with the rise of Plebeian assemblies and further classifications of the nobility, but preserved its functions of endowing senior magistrates with imperium and witnessing religious affairs. The head of each curia was at least 50 years in age and elected for life.
Centuriate Assembly (Comitia Centuriata)
The most important of the Comitia units of organization within the Roman political system. There were 193 centuries, divided into 6 classes based on wealth and age which were originally reflective of military units. Membership in the classes was based on the capability to furnish armed men in groups of 100 (hence century). This group was controlled by the Patrician and Equestrian as the votes were weighted in favor of land owners and wealthy. The Centuriate elected censors and magistrates with imperium (consuls and praetors), was the proper body for approving the declaration of war; passed some laws (leges, sing. lex); and served as highest court of appeal in cases involving capital punishment.
Tribal Assembly (Comitia Plebis Tributa)
The Plebeian assembly was originally intended for the election of tribunes and deliberation of plebeians. The organization consisted of 1 urban tribe and 31 rural tribes, in which the membership was based on place of residence until 241 BC. From that date on local significance was largely lost and membership was based mainly on heredity. The Tributa (and later a subassembly, the Concilium Plebis) elected the lower magistrates (tribunes, aediles, quaestors). As it was simpler to convene and register 35 tribes than 193 centuries, it was more frequently used to pass legislation (plebiscites). Voting in favor of 31 less densely populated rural tribes; with presence in Rome required to cast a ballot, the assembly was controlled by landed aristocracy. Eventually became chief law-making body, as the laws of the Tribal assembly became binding on the entire state.
Did you know...
It took the Roman historian Livy (d. 17 AD) forty years to write his 142-book History of Rome.