Ancient Roman Government

Roman made countless contributions to artliterature, and philosophy, but perhaps their greatest gift to future generations was the contemporary idea of government. 

While the modern concept of democracy arose from political conflicts in Athens, it was realized in the Roman Republic and survived the Roman Empire despite the emperor’s frequent meddling.

Although the modern idea of democracy has evolved significantly, its origins must be traced back to the eternal city of Rome.

How did the government promote family in ancient Rome?

The promotion of family in ancient Rome took the form of Emperor Augustus’ objecting to the decline of Roman morals and, in 18 BCE, enacting a series of laws to promote marriage, marriage fidelity, and childbirth.

What was the social class structure like in the Roman Empire?

Ancient Roman society was primarily divided into the upper-class Patricians and the working-class Plebeians. 

The shift from Monarchy towards Representation 

The Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer, 1849
The Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer, 1849

Years of living under the unforgiving constraint of a king taught the people of Rome that they needed to protect themselves from the authority, and potential tyranny, of one individual. 

The republic’s and later empire’s true sovereignty or imperium was split among three main elements: elected non-hereditary magistrates, a Senate to advise and consent, and popular assemblies.

Unfortunately for many Romans, authority was concentrated in the hands of the privileged, the old landowning families or patricians, in the early phases of the Republic. 

The plebeians, who comprised the majority of the city’s inhabitants, had little, if any, rights. This imbalance of power distribution would not last long.

The Senate

Representation of a Sitting of the Roman Senate
Representation of a Sitting of the Roman Senate

Despite later parliamentary assemblies, the Roman Senate had very little legislative authority, with popular groups wielding that power. Initially open only to patricians, the Senate wielded “indirect” executive power known as auctoritas. 

While it lacked legal authority, it exerted considerable influence as an advisory council to consuls and, subsequently, emperors. 

Representatives of this orthodox body were uncompensated and served for life unless they were found guilty of public or private wrongdoing.

Likewise, Senators were barred from engaging in banking or international trade.

Similarly, the Roman Senate was mainly the realm of the affluent for the majority of its establishment. 

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And while its capacity to shape leadership dwindled throughout time, particularly during the rule of the emperors, participation in this venerable organization shifted. 

Its composition was firmly fixed at 100 during the reign of the kings when it functioned as a council or patres et conscripti.

However, later, during the 2nd century BCE, under Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi, the Senate expanded to 300.

In like manner, Sulla, who planned to impose substantial land reforms, would triple this figure a century later when he expanded the Senate to 900 members.

While Julius Caesar would recruit another hundred members, amounting to 1,000, Emperor Augustus limited the enrollment to 600.

While the Senate lacked proper legislative authority, it did possess essential obligations that made its view critical to the operation of the Roman government. 

To begin with, senators debated internal and foreign affairs and oversaw relations with foreign countries. They also handled Rome’s monastic life and, more significantly, the state’s finances.

The Consuls

Flavius Anastasius, consul of the Eastern Roman Empire for, 517
Flavius Anastasius, consul of the Eastern Roman Empire, AD 517

Rather than a king, the new government-appointed consuls, two in total, to guard against authoritarianism. 

These persons were chosen by the Comitia Centuriata, a national assembly, rather than elected by the populace. 

As such, each consul conducted a one-year, non-consecutive term, though he might be re-elected for a second or third time. 

Moreover, consuls enjoyed absolute executive power as political and military heads of state, leading the army, ruling over the Senate, and introducing laws. 

Nevertheless, as a precaution, each consul had the option to veto the judgment of the other – an intercessio.

They wore a traditional woolen toga with a purple fringe as an emblem of their authority, sat on a unique chair or sella curulis, and were accompanied by at least six special aides of lictors. The fasces, a knot of rods and an ax, was their emblem. 

At the end of their one-year tenure, the Emperor called them to account to the bicameral legislature for any judgments or acts taken. 

Several consuls would have their responsibilities expanded by becoming proconsuls, governors of one of the numerous Roman provinces.

Traditionally, only patricians were eligible for the job of consul. Still, plebeians gained eligibility in 367 BCE, and by 342 BCE, the legislation mandated that one of the two consuls be a plebeian.

Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, Pompey the Great, and Mark Antony are notable consuls.

The Assemblies

Gaius Gracchus, tribune of the people, presiding over the Plebeian Council
Gaius Gracchus, tribune of the people, presiding over the Plebeian Council

Rather than the Senate, jurisdiction to pass laws was delegated to various leading assemblies.

The Comitia Curiata, a legislative body stretching back to the days of the monarchs that evolved into the Comitia Centuriata, was the first.

Following that, the Concilium Plebis represented the plebeians, and finally, dating back to the monarchy, there were the many minor tribe assemblies.

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While many may not consider these assemblages to be genuinely democratic, they did wield the people’s authority until the rise of the Empire. 

After the monarchy fell, the initial Comitia Curiata, which represented the three principal tribes, forfeited the ability to write laws but maintained the power of lex curita de Imperio – the authority to ratify the installation of magistrates.

Similarly, it also observed the induction of priests, adoptions, and wills.

Ultimately, it became primarily ritualistic over time, and in its place arose the exceedingly conservative Comitia Centuriata – a whole other wealth-based assembly. 

This newfound body’s membership was split into centuries (one hundred men) for a total of 373 participants. Because each century voted as a group, the more decadent centuries outvoted the “weaker” ones.

Unlike most of the assemblies, which met in the Forum, the Centuriata met outside the city on the Campus Marcus, also known as the Field of Mars.

Its responsibilities included:

  • Choosing several magistrates (consuls, praetors, and censors).
  • Passing legislation.
  • Declaring war and peace.
  • Imposing the death sentence on Romans charged with political crimes. 

The Magistrates

The Curule chair was a symbol of the power of high-ranking magistrates
The Curule chair was a symbol of the power of high-ranking magistrates

During the beginning of the Republic, the consuls discovered that they needed minor magistrates to supervise numerous administrative responsibilities. 

Thus, a few of these offices had previously existed under the king. Many people would eventually use these lower-level appointments as a stepping stone to the consulship. 

The cursus honorum was the name given to this “route.” The praetors were amongst these “lesser” magistrates.

They were the only ones outside the consuls to wield imperium power, with the jurisdiction to judge over the Senate and lead the army. 

In addition to filling in for the consuls when they were absent, their formal role was to manage the Republic’s judicial tasks, including civic and regional jurisdiction.

And then there are the quaestors, who gained the power of quaestores aerarii or command of the treasury in the Forum of Rome. They were in charge of collecting both taxes and tributes. 

Additionally, the aedile was also another significant figure.

Initially chosen to govern the temples, aedile responsibilities grew throughout the Republic’s early years (although this position disappeared with the onset of the Empire).

This official was in charge of overseeing public records, administering public works (such as roads, water, and food supply), as well as marketplaces, celebrations, and games.

The Tribunes & The Rule of Law

Roman civilians examining the Twelve Tables
Roman civilians examining the Twelve Tables

Initially, as one might expect, the patricians held the proper authority of the Republic. Nevertheless, this dominance could not, and would not, last. 

Plebians, who made up the bulk of the army and did most of the actual work, rebelled by going on strike and seeking an equal voice in the administration. 

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The Conflict of Order arose from this struggle, a class “war” that lasted from 494 to 287 BCE. 

Consequently, this conflict brought considerable change: the Concilium Plebis, a plebeian assembly. 

Through this new congress, the plebeians may vote tribunes, who governed for one year like consuls. Their significant role was to protect plebeian rights from patrician oppression.

Likewise, their responsibilities were comparable to those of consuls, but they had the authority to veto any magistrate decision affecting the plebeians. 

Subsequently, to further preserve plebian rights, the Twelve Tables, commonly known as the Ten plus the Two, were created as the first chronicle of Roman law – there had never been a written constitution in Rome. 

Indeed, by the fourth century BCE, all citizens possessed the right of provocatio populum – the right to appeal a magistrate’s judgment. 

And by 287 BCE, the Lex Hotensia established the legislation passed by the Concilium Plebis, binding on all citizens, including patricians.

The Emperors

Charles V was the last emperor of the Holy Roman Empire
Charles V was the last emperor of the Holy Roman Empire

As Rome’s borders grew northward into Gaul, eastward into Asia, and south into Africa, the Republic’s governance could not keep up, ushering in the first emperor, Augustus, and establishing an empire. 

Under the Emperor’s power, public assemblies all but vanished, and the Senate became increasingly ceremonial. 

As a result, they would only truly support the Emperor’s wishes. 

Augustus was granted supreme executive authority by the Senate and given powers beyond that of a consul or tribune – consular imperium and tribunicia potestates – including the potential to enact laws and veto laws and order army.

The Censors & Magister Populi

Pompeii depicting a multi-generational banquet
Pompeii depicting a multigenerational banquet

Finally, there was the censor, who was frequently a former consul. The job was regarded as the peak of a person’s career. 

This individual oversaw public morality under the king and later the Republic and conducted the census, registering citizens and their possessions. 

Similarly, he was voted every four to five years and was only in office for eighteen months. Many former consuls favored the stance because it provided several unique benefits. 

Aside from taking the census, he also may condemn or exclude someone from voting.


The Roman government of the old Empire had a sophisticated method of power partition that protected against tyranny by a single individual. 

A voting public held the majority of power. While it was not flawless by any means, it did give some people a say in how their government ran. 

There were elected leaders as well as a legislative body.

Considering the backdrop of ancient times and modern forms of administration and its albeit restricted representative features, Rome will remain an exceptional example of an effective ancient democracy. 

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