Thursday, 14 February 2008

Republican Rome

Readers of my books blog will have noticed I've been reading a fair number of novels about Ancient Rome. In case you have been encouraged to read any of the books you might find the following summary of the government of Republican Rome (510 BC to first century BC) helpful. Once Rome changed from a Republic to an Empire (circs 44BC to 476 AD) these offices were altered but the change was a gradual process as Emperors assumed more and more power.

The Dictator
The office of Dictator was an occasional and extraordinary one usually created for war emergencies. Almost all military, executive and judicial powers were placed in the hands of one man for a period not exceeding six months. He was appointed by one of the Consuls on the advice of the Senate. After entering office the Dictator could appoint his own assistant called The Master of Horse. The office was last used in 216 BC.

The Senate
The Senate was a body of around 300 of the most powerful men in the state (600 after Sulla’s reign). The Senate sat in a council of debate. Its ‘advice’ had to be followed by the Magistrates.

The Magistrates
The Magistrates were the Consuls, Praetors, Aediles and Censors...

The Consuls
Two Consuls are elected each year and may not be re-elected again the following year (though some broke this rule). The highest elected office in the Republic the Consuls wielded enormous power and influence. (When Rome became an Empire the office of Consul became appointive rather than elected.)

The Praetors
Praetor was a title granted by the government of Ancient Rome to men acting in one of two official capacities: the commander of an army, either before it was mustered or more typically in the field, or an elected magistrate assigned duties that varied depending on the historical period but mostly connected with the courts and law. The praetors set down a body of legal precedents.

The Aediles
Based in Rome, the aediles were responsible for maintenance of public buildings, markets and regulation of public festivals. They also had powers to enforce public order. Half of the aediles were from the ranks of plebeians and half were patricians. The office was generally held by young men intending to follow the cursus honorum to high political office. However it was not a legal part of the cursus, merely an advantageous starting point which demonstrated the aspiring politician's commitment to public service.

The Censors
A Censor was a magistrate of high rank in the ancient Roman Republic. This position (called censura) was responsible for maintaining the census, supervising public morality, and overseeing certain aspects of the government's finances. There were two Censors elected each year. Initially both Censors were patricians but later one was a patrician and one a plebeian. Every fifth year the Censors selected from the magistrates to fill vacancies in the Senate..

The Proconsuls
A Proconsul was a promagistrate who, after serving as consul, spent a year as a governor of a province. Certain provinces were reserved for proconsuls; who received which one by senatorial appointment was determined by random choosing or negotiation between the two proconsuls.

Comitia Centuriata
The Comitia Centuriata (literally meaning Army Assmbly but not actually connected to the armed forces) was prsided over by the Consuls and held once a year. All citizens divided into 193 (Later 183) voting units called centuries that voted en bloc – one vote per unit – to elect the magistrates.

Comitia Tributa
The Comitia Tributa, the ‘Popular Assembly’, was presided over by the Tribunes of the Plebs. The Plebeian representatives were elected by the people who voted in 35 bloc units called Tribes. Meeting in the Forum or on the Capitol the people also voted for laws which applied to all citizens.

The Plebeian Representatives
The Plebs were represented by three ranks – the Tribunes, the Plebeian Aediles and the Quaestors.

The Tribunes
There were ten Tribunes elected each year. The Tribunes were surprisingly powerful as they could veto (I forbid) a law proposed to the Comitia or an action of the Senate if the Tribunes felt it to be contrary to the interests of the Plebs. As the chief representative of the Roman plebeians, the tribune's house was required to be open to all at all times, day or night. Under the popular principle of Rotation in office, an incumbent tribune was ineligible for re-election. The tribune also had the power to exercise capital punishment against any person who interfered in the performance of his duties (the favourite threat of the tribune was therefore to have someone thrown from the Tarpeian Rock). The tribune's sacrosanctity was enforced by a solemn pledge of the plebeians to kill any person who harmed a tribune during his term of office. The tribune was the only magistrate that was able to convene the Concilium Plebis and acted as its president, which also gave him the exclusive right to propose legislation before it. Also, the tribune could summon the Senate and lay proposals before it.
When Lucius Cornelius Sulla was dictator he severely curtailed the tribunes of the plebeians by invalidating their power of veto and making it illegal for them to bring laws before the Concilium Plebis without the Senate's consent. Afterwards, the tribune was restored to its former power during the consulship of Crassus and Pompey.

The Quaestors
Quaestors were originally appointed by the consuls to investigate criminal acts and determine if the consul needed to take public action. Later the Quaestors took on additional responsibilities and became elected officials of the Roman Republic who supervised the treasury and financial affairs of the state, its armies and its officers. Initially there were four Quaestors, later there were ten. After Sulla all ex-Quaestors automatically went into the Senate.

The Lictors
The lictor's main task was to attend as bodyguards to magistrates. They carried rods decorated with fasces and, outside the pomerium, with axes that symbolized the power to execute. They followed the magistrate wherever he went, including the Forum, his house, temples and the baths. Lictors were organized in an ordered line before him, with the primus lictor (the principal lictor) right on his front, waiting for orders. If there was a crowd, the lictors opened the way and kept their master safe, pushing all aside. Lictors also had legal and penal duties: they could at their master's command arrest Roman citizens and punish them. A Vestal Virgin was accorded a lictor when her presence was required at a public ceremony.

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