Roman Republic: institutions
|A military parade in Rome. The consul (on horseback)
is preceded by a guard of honor. Twelve lictors carry the insignia
of the consul's power
In the year 509 BC Tarquinius Superbus, the last king
of Rome, was driven into exile. He had been a terrible tyrant and the Romans
swore they would never again have a king. Instead they decided to have a
new form of government – a republic.
|In 1898 the ancient Etruscan town of Vetulonia was
unearthed and this iron fasces discovered. It seems they were first
introduced into Rome by King Tarquinius Priscus, who was of Etruscan
|During the assemblies of the Senate the consuls used
to sit on an ornamental chair of ivory, called a curule. To sit in
such a chair was a privilege reserved for high magistrates and leaders
who had won great victories and killed more than 5,000 enemy soldiers
with their armies
Here is what was new about the Republic: instead of a single ruler, the
Romans appointed two for the period of one year only. The two heads, who
were elected each year by an assembly of citizens, were called consuls.
If the consuls governed wisely and honestly, they could be re-elected for
the following year. The consuls had the same authority as kings: that is
to say they were the supreme heads of the State and of the army. As a mark
of distinction, they wore togas with a red border and during public spectacles
they sat in reserved areas.
The consuls had a guard of honor consisting of 12 lictors who carried on
their left shoulder a bundle of birch rods bound together by a strip of
red leather. Out of these protruded an axe. This bundle (or fasces as it
was called) indicted that the consuls had the power to punish by flogging
or even by beheading criminals and traitors.
During the period of the Republic, however, the greatest powers were in
the hands of the senators. They could intervene in all the most important
affairs of the State; they deliberated on war and peace, they received the
ambassadors of foreign countries, they signed peace treaties, they controlled
the expenses of the State, and they saw to it that the religious rites were
scrupulously observed by the citizens. The senators were therefore the real
rulers of the State. The consuls themselves were unable to take any important
decisions without first obtaining the approval of the senators.
In the early years of the Republic only the patricians, that is to say the
rich, could be elected senators; but later the plebeians, that is to say
the poor, also had the right to hold this high office. The senators remained
in office for life. Usually they were chosen from elder citizens who had
already held office in the State.
It was mainly older men then who sat in the Senate (from the Latin senex,
an old man). The Senate held its meetings in a building called the Curia
which was situated in the Forum. During the meetings, the doors of the Curia
remained open, but the people were unable to enter.
The consuls and other magistrates could call together the senators whenever
it was necessary to have their opinion. Here is the procedure that was followed
at a meeting of the Senate: in the middle of the Curia, sitting on a curule,
was the magistrate who had summoned the Senate; the senators took their
places on benches arranged on the right and on the left. After giving an
explanation of the question to be discussed, the magistrate invited the
senators one by one to give their opinions; the question was then put to
the vote. If no magistrate opposed the motion, the decision of the senators
was regarded as final.
| A consul explains a question to be
discussed by the senators in the Curia in Rome
At the time of the Republic the people had great authority. To express its
will, it met in assemblies in the Forum called comitiae, which were presided
over by a magistrate. At the comitiae the people elected the consuls and
other magistrates and approved or rejected the laws proposed by the consuls.
But in order that the decisions of the people might be valid, it was essential
that they should be approved by the Senate.
|Some important events
||Last king of Rome expelled
||Defeat of Lars Porsena, the Etruscan
||First Punic War with Carthage
||Second Punic War
||Julius Caesar conquers Gaul
||End of Roman Republic