Your guide to the Roman Republic

Before the Roman Empire, there was the Republic. Philip Matyszak explains how it came about, how the Senate worked, and why the whole mighty edifice came crashing down...

Roman republic

Q: How and when did the Roman Republic first come about?

A: The Roman Republic actually went through a series of phases, which historians usually refer to as the early, mid and late Republic. The early Republic began in 509 BC, when a group of Roman aristocrats got together and overthrew the last king of Rome – Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud). These aristocrats needed the support of the people in order to maintain this new Republic, and so you ended up with a rather odd contrast of a democratic republic that was run by aristocrats. This basically set the tone for the Roman Republic from then on.

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It’s hard to tell which Roman legends from the early Republic are actually based in fact, and which are essentially self-aggrandising stories made up by the Romans to convince themselves about their own history later on. But by the time we got to the mid Republic, which is basically about the time of the Punic Wars [a trio of wars fought between Rome and Carthage from 264 BC–146 BC], we started getting what you could call verifiable history. And, of course, in some parts of the late Republic, thanks to people like Cicero, we can actually almost follow events from day to day. This means we have a clear idea of how the Republic operated and what its constitutional functions were.

Q: How was the Republic structured?

A: Well, you had the Senate – in theory not a legislative, but a purely consultative body – which actually ran the show, and was comprised of men from the aristocratic (patrician) class. And you also had a lot of democratic forums that, as the Republic evolved, become more meaningless. The highest positions of government were held by two consuls who were themselves elected from the Senate, and it was the Senate that passed the laws.

But the early Republic experienced huge issues of social strife – known as the Conflict of the Orders – and a political struggle as ‘ordinary’ Romans (plebeians) struggled with the patricians for political equality. Reconciling the dual goals of these two sections of Roman society is probably the defining feature of the early Republic.

Image by BBC History Revealed
Image by BBC History Revealed – click to enlarge

Q: What was the difference between plebeians and patricians?

A: Patricians were, if you like, the original aristocratic class of Rome, and had certain ranks in the Roman aristocracy that were reserved only for them. They got married by particular religious rites, which were separate from those of the general population, and they tended to represent the top families in Rome.

This is only really true of the early Republic, though. In the later Republic, the plebeians started to gain more rights.

Q: How did the Senate operate?

A: The Romans had something which they called the Cursus Honorum, meaning ‘course of honour’ – this meant you started at the bottom as a quaestor, the most junior member of the Senate.

A quaestor’s role tended to be looking after the financial affairs of a Roman general in the field, supervising the treasury, or some sort of administrative role in financial matters. After this, you could move up the ladder a bit, depending if you were a pleb or a patrician. The next step up was to become an aedile – these were the people who staged the Roman Games, looked after public buildings and the regulation of things like restaurants, taverns and brothels. By the 5th-century BC, the roles of tribuni plebis (tribunes of the plebeians) had been introduced; their job was essentially to represent and protect the plebeian class – it was the first political position to be open to the plebeians.

Other roles included the praetors, whose job was partly legal – an urban praetor, for example, would have been in charge of keeping law and order in the city. Praetors could also take charge of military affairs if a consul was away fighting, which they often were. And then we get to the consuls themselves and this was, of course, the rank that every Roman patrician was gunning for.

The first secessio plebis of 494 BC
494 BC witnessed the first secessio plebis – a general strike in which the plebeians ceased working; it led to creation of the role of the tribuni plebis, the first political posts open to their class. (Photo by Getty Images)

Consuls were, by and large, war leaders; a consul would come in, get elected, sort out legislative affairs in his first few months, and then take his army out and try to conquer somebody. Two consuls were elected each year with each able to veto the other – the rule of Roman government was that if people couldn’t get on then nothing could happen at all.

Then, every five years, two censors were elected. This was a job normally given to an older, experienced politician who had been through the mill. His job was firstly, as the name suggests, to keep a count of the number of Roman citizens. But secondly, he was also in charge of the morals of the state.

It was the censor’s job, for instance, to throw out any senators who exhibited ‘unbecoming’ conduct. Cato the Elder, who was elected to the censorship in 184 BC, famously threw out a man for kissing his wife in front of his daughter. That’s perhaps a rather extreme example, but it’s from trying to prevent this kind of a lascivious behaviour that we get the modern word censorship. Censors also oversaw aspects of state financing, including major contracts.

Idealism to dictatorship

Five key dates in the five and a half centuries from the last king to first emperor…

509 BC

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the seventh and last king of Rome, is overthrown in an uprising led by his own nephew, Lucius Junius Brutus. The king goes into exile and a republic is established, with Brutus as one of its first consuls.

451–50 BC

A struggle between the patricians (ruling class) and the plebeians (‘common’ people) results in the introduction of the Law of the Twelve Tables, designed to protect the legal, social, and civil rights of Roman citizens.

264–146 BC

A series of three conflicts – known as the Punic Wars – are fought between the Roman Republic and the Carthaginian (Punic) Empire. The Third Punic War (fought between 149–146 BC) saw Carthage defeated, the city destroyed and its territory – about 5,000 square miles – become a Roman province under the name of Africa Proconsularis.

95 BC

The Lex Licinia Mucia is passed, a law ordering the ‘investigation’ of Latin and Italian allies on Rome citizen rolls – and allowing the prosecution of anyone found to be falsely claiming Roman citizenship. The law is held as a major cause of the devastating Social War of 91-88 BC.

44 BC

Roman dictator Julius Caesar is assassinated at the Theatre of Pompey, in a bid by more than 60 high-ranking Romans to restore the power of the Senate. His death triggers a series of civil wars that will eventually see Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian become Augustus, Rome’s first emperor.

Q: How did the actions of the Senate affect the average Roman citizen?

A: Roman law is the edifice upon which most European law has been built, and was based upon a very early set of laws known as The Twelve Tables. These were 12 statutes which formed the basis for the laws accumulated over the years.

Despite its bloody reputation, Roman society was in some ways very civilised – particularly in the city of Rome. There was a rule, for example, that stated a butcher was not to go more than three steps away from his stall while holding a knife. And an actor could sue his audience for injury to his feelings while booing. So plebeians did actually have a great deal of legal protection.

The problem was that Rome had what we might call a strong society and a weak state. Scythian philosopher Anacharsis summed it up nicely when he said: “Laws are spiderwebs, which catch the little flies, but cannot hold the big ones.” So, Roman laws were good at containing ordinary Roman citizens, but the rich and powerful could brush through them as though they didn’t exist.

Image by BBC History Revealed
Image by BBC History Revealed – click to enlarge

Q: How did women fit into the Roman Republic?

A: When we look at the role of women, there are two things to bear in mind. The first is that Rome was an intensely patriarchal and militaristic society. The other, is that it’s evident from what we know of Roman history, that women bought into this pretty much 100 per cent; there just wasn’t a feminist movement in Rome. Roman wives were meant to be virtuous, obedient and produce the next generation of Romans.

Although there are some signs that not all Roman woman fitted so neatly into that picture – Hortensia, daughter of the 1st-century BC Roman orator Quintus Hortensius, herself earned a reputation as a skilled orator – women generally had a very limited role in public life and could not hold any official position of political responsibility. The lives of working-class women in the Republic, however, were completely different to those of the aristocratic woman we know about, and lower-class women would have worked for a living.

A Roman woman
Upper-class women played no role in public life; the lower classes (and slaves) worked. (Photo by Getty Images)

Q: Why did the Republic ultimately fail and end?

A: If I could give you a definitive answer on why the Roman Republic failed, I could probably walk into a tenured professorship tomorrow – there are so many differences of opinion. But I can share my own theory.

The Comitia Centuriata – one of four separate peoples’ assemblies, which sat below the Senate – met annually to elect the consuls and praetors for the next year. In the early years of the Republic, this was a military assembly, which saw the Roman army vote for the consuls, essentially choosing their war leader for that year. Since the consul would be the person to lead the armies into battle, it’s quite reasonable in a democratic republic that the army should choose him.

But in the later Republic, we start to see a disconnect between the consuls and the army, because by that time, they had started fighting in places like Syria, Spain and North Africa, meaning that the peasant soldiery could not get back to Rome to vote. This meant that it was the Roman citizens who were voting for what the army was going to do and who would command it.

Fundamentally, it was the Roman army that held the most power in Rome, so it didn’t take long for politicians like Sulla and Julius Caesar to try and win the army over, offering it an alternative to what other politicians wanted it to do. And the result of this is the Roman Empire, which was basically a military dictatorship.

Q: How democratic was the Republic?

A: Again, this is fiercely debated. Some people argue that it was extremely democratic; others point out that the democratic institutions of the Roman Republic had been captured by the aristocracy, and the result is that it wasn’t very democratic at all.


On this podcast, Asa Bennett explores the lessons that 21st-century politicians could learn from their Roman forebears:


Q: How did Roman citizenship work?

A: Citizenship was a major innovation of the Romans. Athenians believed that to be an Athenian, you had to be born an Athenian – you could no more become an Athenian than a cat could become a dog. The Romans, however, worked on the opposite principle.

Quite often, after conquering a city they’d get the locals together in the smoking ruins of their homes and say: “Congratulations and welcome to Rome, fellow citizens.” So, the Romans were not only inclusive, but at times forcibly inclusive.

They also came up with the interesting innovation that you could be a citizen of your own city and simultaneously a citizen of Rome; this wasn’t an idea that hadn’t occurred to anyone before. Rome was actually built by conquering the peoples of Italy and later of Gaul and Asia Minor, making them part of the population and turning them into models of themselves until they became more Roman than the Romans themselves. The Italian Social War of 91-88 BC was triggered by Rome’s refusal to grant citizenship to its Italian allies. It’s the only recorded case in history of the opposite of a war of independence.

The Republic was also ruthlessly expansionist, far more so than the Roman Empire that followed. When the Republic was formed, Rome was fighting Veii, an Etruscan city so close it now sits in the suburbs of modern Rome. By the time the Republic ended, it stretched from the banks of the Euphrates all the way to the coast of modern-day Portugal.

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This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine