Roman Governance

According to tradition, Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BCE, by Romulus, said to have been the son of the god of Mars. Like most traditions associated with Rome’s earliest days, it is hard to disentangle truth from myth. The first settlement, atop the Palatine Hill overlooking the Tiber River, was almost indistinguishable from the area’s myriad small 8th century BCE villages. Crucially, Rome seems to have been more receptive to outside influences than its rivals, and particularly to that of the more developed Etruscan civilization that flourished in central Italy. With these influences and time, the small Roman monarchy expanded its territory through a series of localized struggles against the neighboring Latin tribe. However, the tyrannical monarchy grew unpopular and was deposed in 509 BCE by a group of aristocrats. From this point onward Rome was a republic.

The Roman Republic

When Rome became a republic in 509 BCE, it was ruled by an amorphous group of aristocratic elders, known as the Senate. The Senate of the early Republic was composed of 300 patresfamilias, or heads of households. They were joined by other prominent men, known as patricii, to form a proud nobility of about 1000 families. Magistrates in the Republic entered the Senate after serving a year in the lowest bureaucratic office. Once there, they held their seats for life. The Senate held formal powers to select candidates for magisterial office, but the informal authority and prestige that came from the Senate role to advise eclipsed all other powers during the Republic. The most important administrators were the consuls. Every year, two consuls were elected to serve together in an attempt to prevent despotism. Beneath the consuls in magisterial office were the praetors and quaestors. The praetors supervised the administration of justice and dealt with foreign diplomacy. In 496 BCE, Rome defeated a league of Latin neighbors, which created a need for provincial governments that echoed Rome’s. Provinces were led by proconsuls and supported by propraetors.

The early Republic was dominated by the conflict between two groups of citizens, the patricians (elite landowners) and the underclass of plebeians. The patricians monopolized political power, and provided all the members for the Senate. Plebeian resentment of this hierarchy led to a series of violent conflicts, which in 494 BCE resulted in the creation of a plebeian Assembly. In theory, the people of the Assembly were sovereign and had unlimited powers. In practice, they met only when summoned by magistrates and could vote, without discussion, only on measures put before them. These restrictions meant that Rome was never a democracy. This did not seem to concern the people, for they usually had little desire to guide the state. Their main interest was to be protected from unjust nobles. Amidst economic turmoil in the 5th century BCE, citizen-soldiers suffered from endless summer battles that distracted from properly tending their farms. Many poorer citizens became so heavily indebted that they became serfs. Because of these hardships, plebeians threatened to secede. As a result, they gained two elected tribunes – magistrates outside of the senate-dominated offices – who could veto any laws passed by the Senate. But instead, the tribunes formed a plebeian nobility. Tribunes, once people’s defenders, were now increasingly co-opted into the Senate, first just to listen to debates, but gradually to join the ranks. The codification of Roman laws in the “Twelve Tables” 445 BCE eased other restrictions on the plebeians, but tensions remained.

By the 3rd century BCE, Rome had expanded its influence throughout the Italian peninsula creating conflict with other powers in the Mediterranean. Most notable among these adversaries were the Carthaginians, who from their capital in present-day Tunisia, North Africa, controlled an empire in the western Mediterranean. In a series of wars known as the Punic War from 264 BCE to 148 BCE, the Romans eventually defeated Carthage and annexed its territory in Spain and North Africa. But, this newly sizeable Roman Republic faced problems.

Seeing Rome for the first time in 166 BCE, the Greek historian Polybius was struck by the apparent excellence of its government, thinking it combined the best aspects of democracy in its Assembly of the people, of aristocracy embodied by the Senate, and monarchy with the elected Consuls. And, unlike other classical cities, notably Athens, Rome fostered loyalty by generously granting citizenship to other towns – especially those in Italy. This seemingly perfect system of checks and balances made Rome’s status as ruler of the Mediterranean look well-deserved.

But, the Senate, dominated by the interests of its noble elite, failed to cope with the problems of governing an expanding territory. Without a written constitution, real power lay in informal alliances, which fostered a climate of political maneuvering rather than meeting the needs of the people. This led to civil war, the Republic’s downfall, and eventually, imperial rule.


During the 2nd century BCE, the political situation in Rome became tense. In the 80s BCE, the city was hit by a political and military struggle for power between Marius, the reformer of the Roman army, and Sulla, a politician who, after Marius’ death, became Dictator, or sole ruler in 82 BCE.That year, Sulla killed more than 500 of his opponents and packed the Senate with his supporters. After Sulla’s death in 78 BCE, another popular general, Pompey rose to power. For 15 years Pompey excelled at his political role, and bolstered his military reputation with several victories in the East. Yet, in 60 BCE, increasing factional violence led him to broker a three-way alliance, called the “First Triumvirate,” with the rich financier Crassus and a rising military star – Julius Caesar. This collapsed in 49 BCE and led to civil war between the factions of Caesar and Pompey. In 46 BCE, Caesar triumphed, becoming Dictator for life. Fearing Caesar would make himself king, a group of republicans assassinated him. However, their murderous act failed to save the Republic from collapse. After a second triumvirate and civil war, Octavian – Caesar’s adoptive son – emerged victorious, but rather than making himself Dictator as Caesar had done, he manipulated Republican politics to acquire supreme power without seeming to usurp the Senate’s authority.

The Roman Empire

In 27 BCE, Octavian was granted a special form of authority, known as proconsular imperium, for 10 years, which in effect allowed him to act as he chose in all provinces where the army was currently based. In the same year, he took title “Augustus.” In 23 BCE, Augustus acquired the permanent power of a tribune of the plebeians, making him invulnerable to legal action. Although he did not refer to himself as an emperor, this was the position he held. Under imperial rule, the Senate became increasingly ceremonial and the Assembly disappeared. By the 4th century CE, the Roman Empire was an absolute monarchy, albeit one where the emperor (at least in theory) obeyed the laws.

The empire over which Augustus assumed rule in 27 BCE was very different from the Rome of the early republic. Now ruling over territories that stretched from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to Syria and Armenia in the east – as well as large parts of North Africa – the Roman government faced far greater challenges than the old, informal systems could manage. Rome ruled its growing empire with the minimum of government by co-opting the aristocracies of other cities into ruling on Rome’s behalf. In essence, the empire became a confederation of internally self-governing cities. Defense and foreign affairs were transferred to Rome’s control, however.

At the center of Roman government, the role of the emperor remained ambivalent. Certain emperors, such as Claudius (ruled 41-54 CE), liked to flatter the old senatorial class with the fantasy that the emperor was just a superior sort of senator; others, such as Nero (ruled 54-68 CE), tended to much more direct, despotic, and capricious rule. The early empire had little in the way of public service, and many important roles, such as running the imperial treasury, were assumed by freedmen (former slaves). Provincial governors, however, who administered Rome’s imperial territories, were almost all senators. Augustus worked to restore the Senate’s dignity in running the empire. He held real power, but he allowed the Senate to retain important duties, including presiding over law courts and choosing about one-third of the provincial governors. Immediately below the Senators in social class was a group known as the equestrians. This knightly group originally supplied the cavalry for early Rupublican armies, but during imperial rule, they turned instead to making money through banking and commerce since they were excluded entirely from the sentorial order. More importantly however, emperors employed the equestrians as important counterweights to the privileges of the Senate by appointing them as governors of some provinces or as treasurers in provinces governed by senators.

The Roman government raised its revenue mainly through indirect taxes on sales or death duties. Some was spent on Roman roads, which linked the main cities of the empire, but as much as 80% was spent on the army. Augustus had inherited 80 legions, with a total manpower of around 300,000. The legions formed a formidable strike force, almost irresistible in open combat. Their engineering expertise meant they could also conduct siege warfare expertly, and take on large-scale construction projects, such as roads and fortifications. Over time the army formed its own power base, through the imperial guard (the Praetorians) based in Rome and the legionary frontier garrisons, and became as much a cause of internal instability as a guard against outside threats.

The Roman prided themselves on the excellence of their laws, with some reason, seeing law as a field in which they were superior to the Greeks. In its imposing entirety, Roman law is one of its great glories and legacies. However, it did not emerge fully formed, but instead evolved slowly as a series of overlapping precedents.

As its empire spread to the less urbanized parts of Europe, it planted colonies of Roman citizens or made existing cities into Roman colonies. These colonia were fine cities with full Roman rights, complete with theatres, baths, and forums. A grade lower were municipia with Latin rights, whose magistrates became full Roman citizens. Below these were civitates, urban settlements. The tendency was to upgrade any city that proved worthy, so the empire ended up as an agglomerate of more than a thousand cities because urbanization helped spread Roman culture around the empire.