The Roman Republic was designed to combine forms of monarchy, democracy and aristocracy, dispersing power through multiple governing bodies representing different social and economic classes. There was no formal constitution, but a series of laws, precedents and traditions. The “Twelve Tablets”, engraved in bronze and displayed permanently in the Forum, stated the Republic’s laws dealing with property, contracts, debt, taxes, marriage, inheritance, etc.; these laws assured all Roman citizens of equal treatment in legal disputes, and became the basis for future Roman law.
Roman society was complex, consisting of strictly ranked social classes. The “Patricians” represented the wealthy, ruling aristocracy who were major landholders; these constituted the pool of public office holders. The “Equestrians” were a class of property owners, merchants, bankers and traders. The “Plebeians” were craftsmen and common laborers. “Freedmen” were former slaves who had earned or been released by their owners; they could be granted citizenship. “Slaves” were foreign laborers brought to Rome and treated as property. All “Citizens” were male, paid taxes and allowed to vote; women and slaves were precluded from citizenship. Residents of provinces on the Italian peninsula were granted graduated rights under Roman law and governance up to full citizenship; those in outlying provinces paid taxes but could not vote or become citizens.
The “Assembly”, consisting of all qualified Citizens, met annually to pass laws and to elect the Consuls, Magistrates and Tribunes. The main “Tribal Assembly” decided elections and passed legislation; a subset of the Assembly with military experience, the “Centuriate”, decided war, peace and other military matters. Two elected “Consuls” led the government, with executive authority over civil and military powers, based on laws passed by the Assembly and advisory decrees of the Senate. The elected “Magistrates” administered the courts, public finances, and other government functions. The “Tribunes” represented the Plebeians, with power to initiate legislation, and, critical, to veto decisions of the Magistrates. Only Patricians, and, as exceptions, the wealthiest Equestrians, could hold public office. Public officials were elected by the Citizens for one year terms, and Consuls could not be re-elected for ten years afterward, ensuring that all public offices changed frequently; exceptions were rare and at direction of the Senate. Consuls could be granted dictatorial powers for six months by the Senate in case of war or insurrection.
The Senate in theory had no formal legal authority, providing advice in the form of “Decrees”, but in practice it wielded enormous power based on the collective prestige of its members, its legal control of the Treasury, and full authority over foreign and provincial affairs. Senators were not elected, but by tradition were primarily wealthy aristocrats and major landowners appointed after serving in other high public offices. The Senate’s influence increased with the Republic’s territory and wealth, so that this body eventually came to effectively control the actions of the Republic’s government.
Politics in the Republic reflected the complexity of its structure; the interlocking authority of its governing bodies; and the rigidity of its social caste system. The political system was highly competitive, producing frequent turnover of Consuls and Magistrates, alongside the long term stability of membership of the Senate. The need to persuade others in order to accomplish legislative objectives made skilled public oratory essential. Thus access to high public office generally required family prominence, wealth, education, military experience, political influence, fame, and extensive favor-granting. The government’s first priority was maintaining the security of Rome from foreign invasion and internal insurrection, both representing realized threats over time; thus the combination of military and civilian roles of its senior public officials, especially its Consuls. Military conquest of tribal lands on the Republic’s borders offered an accelerated path to high public office.
The Republic’s government was based on law; was designed to ensure diffusion and transition of power; and was balanced in its representation of Roman society.