Roman Government

Ancient Rome experienced three different types of government:

  • Monarchy
  • Republic
  • Empire

While the myth of Rome’s origins involve Romulus killing his twin brother Remus to rule Rome and name it after himself, we know that the area was ruled by the Etruscans in the seventh century B.C. This means that Rome was under the power of a monarchy in its earliest period, which is a system of government that has one ruler. Evidence points to seven different kings ruling Rome at this time.

However, sometime around 509 B.C., the citizens of Rome gained control from the Etruscans and established the Roman Republic. In a republic, the city or country becomes “public” and is no longer property owned or ruled by one person. Officials are elected, and the people all share the leadership.

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The Roman Republic, in many ways, set the standard for the future of many countries. The people began to elect magistrates, who shared power and represented the citizens of Rome. Two of the magistrates were known as consuls. The consuls had the most power and decided when to add new laws and when to go to war.

Consuls had to work closely with the Roman Senate when making decisions. The Senate consisted of men from wealthier families, and many senators held the position for life. The Senate itself began as advisors to the consuls but gained power steadily throughout the years of the Republic.

 

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Initially the office of magistrate was only open to patricians, a group of elite Roman families. Eventually, though, even plebeians (or common people) could be elected, giving most Roman citizens a voice.

Prefects were chosen to run various aspects of the city, sometimes acting as judges while also being similar to modern day police. For example, these men helped to control the marketplaces.

Tribunes were elected to represent the people, particularly the plebeians. Tribunes, like the magistrates, prefects, and even the senators, were elected by the Assembly, which was a group of people who represented each section of Rome.

 

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During the Republic, the Romans carved some of their more important laws into tablets, which became known as the Twelve Tables. Some of the laws may seem odd to us today, but they offer a great glimpse into everyday life during the Republic. One law forbade citizens to write songs that insulted other people, while another law allowed citizens to gather fruit that had fallen on someone else’s farm.

Interestingly, as Rome branched out and conquered other lands, the captured people were then invited to become Roman citizens themselves. They received all the rights of a person born in Rome and had equal voices within the Republic system.

 

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In the later years of the Republic, Rome’s senators began to fight frequently, sometimes using violence. As Rome expanded, its military leaders began to have more power, due partially to having control of Rome’s army so far away from the decision-makers in the Senate.

As a result, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, serving as a consul, was able to seize power of Rome in 83 B.C. following several successful military campaigns. Sulla assumed the title of dictator, giving him full control of the people and signaling the fall of the Roman Republic.

 

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Another leader, Julius Caesar, took control in 49 B.C. and was also named dictator, a title he kept until he was murdered in 44 B.C. Eventually Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, was the leader of Rome. He introduced a new system, known as an Empire, and became Rome’s first Emperor in 27 B.C.

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The Roman Empire kept the Senate and other positions in place, such as the consuls. However, the Emperor had ultimate control, and his word could not be denied, regardless of how his people felt or voted. Having full control of the army, it was nearly impossible for an Emperor to be overthrown.

The Roman Empire remained a powerful force for another 300 years before beginning to decline. Following the rule of Constantine, the Empire fell early in the fifth century. Many historians mark 476 as the year that the Empire ended and the Middle Ages began.

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