The Roman Republic

In 509 BCE, the Romans overthrew the Etruscans, who had ruled over the Romans for hundreds of years. The Romans then established a republic, a government in which citizens elected representatives to rule on their behalf. A republic is quite different from a direct democracy, in which every citizen takes an active role in governing the state.

The aristocracy (wealthy class) dominated the early Roman Republic. The aristocrats were known as patricians. The highest positions in the government were held by two leaders, called consuls. A senate composed of patricians elected these consuls. Lower-class citizens, or plebeians, had no voice. Both men and women were citizens in the Roman Republic, but only men could vote.

The patricians and plebeians were strictly separated; marriage between the two classes was prohibited. Over time, the plebeians elected their own representatives, called tribunes, who gained the power to veto measures passed by the senate. Gradually, the plebeians obtained more power until they could also hold the position of consul. Despite these changes, the patricians could still use their wealth to buy control and influence over elected leaders.

Occasionally, an emergency situation (such as a war) required the decisive leadership of one individual. The Senate and the consuls could appoint a temporary dictator to rule for a limited time until the crisis was resolved. The position of dictator was very undemocratic in nature. Indeed, a dictator had all the power, made decisions without any approval, and had full control over the military. The best example of an ideal dictator was a Roman citizen named Cincinnatus. During a military emergency, the Roman Senate called Cincinnatus from his farm to serve as dictator and to lead the Roman army. When Cincinnatus stepped down from the dictatorship and returned to his farm only 15 days after he successfully defeated Rome's enemies, the republican leaders resumed control over Rome.

One of the innovations of the Roman Republic was the principle of equality under the law. In 449 BCE, government leaders carved important laws into the Twelve Tables. Although the laws were rather harsh by today's standards, they guaranteed every citizen equal treatment under the law.

The Romans took a unique approach to the lands that they conquered. Rather than rule the people as conquered subjects, the Romans invited them to become citizens. The new citizens thus became a part of Rome, rather than enemies fighting against it. They received the same legal rights as other Romans.

Sample Laws from the Twelve Tables:

  • Females shall remain in guardianship (except Vestal Virgins).
  • A spendthrift is forbidden to control his own goods.
  • It is permitted to gather fruit falling on another man's land.
  • Anyone who sings or composes a song that slanders or insults another person shall be clubbed to death.

Source: The Roman Republic
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