Roman Political Institutions

Rome contributed little to the literature of political thought. Roman political institutions and legal system, however, exerted a tremendous influence on political evolution; and for many centuries after her fall the idea of the state was based upon the institutions that Rome had established. Rome first appeared as a city-state, formed by a union of tribes living on neighboring hills. Her government was monarchic, consisting of a king, an advisory senate, and an assembly, the comitia curiata, whose chief duty was the election of the king.

At first only the patricians, a limited group of aristocratic families, had any share in political authority. Under the later kings, the remainder of the citizens, the plebeians, demanded a voice in the government, and a new assembly, the comitia centuriata, in which both patricians and plebeians took part, was added.

As in the Greek cities, the general tendency in early Rome was toward a more democratic form of government. About 500 B.c., with the expulsion of the last king, a republic was established; and for two centuries the patricians and plebeians carried on a contest for control of the state, the result of which was the fusion of the two classes into a common citizen body, having equal political and civil rights. In this process the government underwent decided changes. The civil and military authority of the king was vested in two consuls elected annually by the comitia centuriata.

Other magistrates, such as the praetors and the censors, were created later to assist in the administrative and judicial functions of the consuls, and in time of emergency provision was made for the temporary establishment of a dictatorship.

At first only patricians were eligible to these offices, but the plebeians worked steadily to secure admission. Meantime the plebeians created their own assembly, the concilium plebis, and chose their own officers, chief of whom was the tribune, who had the right to intervene on behalf of the people and to other acts of the consuls.

As the two classes were gradual esteemed the plebeian organs were fused into the government. The plebcian assembly, with name changed to the comitia tributa. The chief law-making organ. The comitia centuriata chose the  responsible for their acts in office, acted as the final court in criminal cases, and decided questions of peace and war.

The old patrician comitia curiata survived only as a formal body in control of certain religious matters, The Senate, however, retained its aristocratic character and came to be composed of those who had held high administrative office.

While in theory its functions were advisory only, in practice it exercised large powers the regulation of finances and of political and social privileges was in its hands, and through its control of foreign relations and of dealings with the allies and with subject nations, its powers increased with the growth of the empire.

After the conclusion of the contest between patricians and plebeians and the satisfactory working out of the republican government of the city, the attention of Rome was directed to foreign conquest and expansion. The Greek cities, facing east, came first in contact with older civilizations and were compelled to wage defensive wars to maintain their own existence.

Their surplus of population went out as colonists to found new cities that became virtually independent. Under these conditions the city-state remained as the typical form of government in the Hellenic world until the time of Alexander.

Rome, facing west, came first in contact with weaker peoples and easily conquered and absorbed them; and her colonists remained under the control of the home city and extended its dominion. As a result of this process, democratic development within the city ceased, and with the territorial expansion of Rome, an imperial system of government, reverting to the autocratic type, was gradually created.

The expansion of Rome began with the incorporation of the neighboring Italian states. Some of these were recognized as allies and allowed considerable autonomy in local government. Over others governing authority was vested in a group of colonists sent out from Rome, or in & Roman official called a prefect. The right to share in the government at Rome was limited to citizens residing in the capital, but a limited citizenship was conferred upon some of the allies; and in 90 B.c., after a serious revolt, practically all the peoples south of the Po were granted full citizenship.

In the wars with Carthage Rome destroyed her only rival in the west, became a naval power, and acquired over-seas dominions, By the middle of the second century b.c., a large part of the fragments of Alexander’s Graeco-Oriental empire had come under Roman control. And by the close of the first century B.c., Rome had extended her authority over the barbarians to the north and west, and governed from the Euphrates to the British Isles and from the Sahara to the Rhine-Danube frontier.

Practically the entire western civilized world was united in a single political system. Roads leading from Rome in all directions gave trade a permanent course, kept the provinces in touch with the capital, and made it possible to maintain order.

An effective system of centralized administrative control was worked out to hold the empire together. The conquered territory was divided into provinces, over each of which was placed a Roman official, known as a proconsul or a proprietor, with full powers in civil and political affairs. The right to impeach this official at Rome on the expiration of his term was the only safe-guard which the people of the provinces possessed against arbitrary authority.

Although the form of the republican city-state constitution survived at Rome, the work of Julius Caesar and Augustus, about the time of Christ, virtually set up a military despotism. This was done by securing control of the army and of the voters of Rome, and combining in the hands of one man, the emperor, the powers of the most important magistrates.

The popular assemblies ceased to have any important functions, gradually losing their criminal jurisdiction, their right to elect officers, and their voice in legislation. The senate retained an important position, its resolutions being the usual form of legislation.

However, the emperor exercised a dominant influence in determining the make-up of the senate, his proposals initiated new measures, and his decrees came finally to be recognized as law. The establishment of Latin as a common official language and the application of a general system of law over the empire marked the completion of the process of unification.

By the end of the second century A.D., Roman citizenship had been extended to the provinces, the city-state basis of the empire thus disappearing, and all members of the state were placed on an equality of subjection to the rule of the emperor. During this period the earlier legal theory that the emperor received his powers from the Roman people was challenged by the idea that imperial authority was of divine origin.

For a time the emperor was himself worshiped as a god. Later, when Christianity was adopted as the state religion, the idea survived in the belief that the emperor ruled as the agent of God’s will on earth. The administrative reforms of Diocletian and Constantine, about A.d. 300, definitely abandoned the legal fictions of republican Rome and recognized the imperial system.

Thus the democratic city-state became the autocratic world-empire, emphasis shifting from the Greek ideals of democracy, liberty, and local independence, to the Roman ideals of unity, order, universal law, and cosmopolitanism.

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