Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Imperial Rome vs. Roman Republic

Joel Nishimura
Honors in Rome - Summer 2005
small presentation

Historical Background of the Site or Topic

Coming from the US we have very fixed ideas about the words "republic" and "imperial". We tend to focus on the philosophical differences and thus conclude that a Republic is fair, just and upheld by some proto-conception of a social contract while an imperial system by nature is harsh, brutal and ultimately a tyranny. Our modern conceptions of these forms of government do not necessarily transfer to the times of ancient Rome, rather a look at the functional differences reveals something different. Indeed, one of the surprising things when one reads the histories of Rome is that the transition from republic to imperial changed everything and yet everything essentially remained the same.

The largest functional difference between the late republic and the early imperial government was essentially that the republic was unable to control the vast empire while the imperial system could. The key problem raised by the Roman republic’s size was it was not able to control the military, a problem that led to several rounds of civil war and political murder. By contrast the centralized autocratic powers vested in an emperor combined with a small personal army were usually enough to control the military.

While it might be expected that a republic would have a fairer and more peaceful foreign policy it is important to remember that both governments engaged in brutal wars of conquest. Indeed much of the key expansion of the Roman Empire occurred while it was still a Republic. Rome was an empire long before it was imperial.

However, perhaps the key difference that the modern viewer sees between an imperial system and a republic is one of political participation and by extension legitimacy. While it is true that the “common man” had more political power under the Republic the reality was that in both systems it was really only a select few who had the true political power. The real irony may arise from the fact that the imperial system had times when it acted far more in the favor of the “common man” than the Republic ever did. In any case it is important to remember that the average inhabitant of ancient Rome was either a woman or a slave, people who had essentially no political power (except a few vestal virgins).

This however is not to say that the forms of the governments were not different.

The Roman Republic was based off a collection of documents that collectively acted as a constitution. This constitution had several novel features that were designed to prevent autocratic rule and a general system of checks and balances. The two most notable features of the constitution were strict term limits and collegiality, where each position was held by at least two people. For the most of the Republic and parts of the Imperial ages Romans held this constitution as almost sacred, it had after all allowed Rome to become the dominant world power. In practice though the Roman Republic really operated more as a combination between oligarchy and republic than a strict republic.

The base of the political system in the Roman Republic were three different assemblies in which the male citizens of Rome would perform everything from ceremonial duties, to passing laws and electing magistrates. The three assemblies where the Curie, the Centuries and the Tribes. These assemblies were supposed to be advised by the Senate but in practice the Senate was often the real source of policy and power. The power of the Senate was largely due to the fact that it was the only permanent governing body and the only body in which debate was permitted. The assemblies by contrast only had voting capacities and could thus only approve or not approve the Senate’s policies.

The executive powers of the government were managed by a set of magistrates elected from the assemblies. The most notable positions where the two Consuls, who could introduce legislation, lead armies and where generally the head of the government. Some other positions included the Censors; who took the census and determined who were senators, the Praetors; who were essentially judges, and the Tribunes; who were supposed to protect the lower classes from the higher classes. Another position of great prestige and power was that of the Pontifex Maximus who was the head of the state religion. This one position had great political power, as it was religious omens that determined the political calendar.

The Romans understood though that in a true crisis their republic might be too slow to react so they had an emergency position, the dictator. Dictators could be elected for six months during which the constitution would be suspended and they would have complete autocratic control.

This system of government though was fraught with social tension between the two major classes of citizens. The two initial classes were the Plebeians and the Patricians. The Patrician class was an inherited status dating back to the founding of Rome while the Plebeians were everyone else. However, after successive reforms this system was abolished in favor of a fairer system based on wealth instead of blood. The wealthiest citizens were known as equestrians and were entitled to certain benefits. This however did not truly change much; there still existed a tension between the small group of superrich and the vast majority of the citizenry.

It was from this divide in the class structure of Rome that the two major political schools of thought arose. The Optimates were republican conservatives representing the short-term interests of the equestrians, while the Populares were essentially populist reformers. As problems associated with rapid expansion began appearing the tensions between these groups escalated. This combined with the decreasing ability of the Senate to control the military since the Marius reforms led to a series of civil war that finally culminated in the young Octavian becoming the first Roman emperor, Augustus.

The imperial system of government started by Augustus was notable for its attempts and success in being able to guise an authoritarian dictatorship behind a quasi-constitutional framework. The general pattern used to consolidate power was by moving power from the assemblies to the senate, packing the senate with supporters and then having the senate elect the would-be emperor to positions for life. Additionally the imperial system included a personal army, the Praetorian Guard, which was allowed to operate in Rome, where no previous army was ever allowed to occupy. The most important change to the government though was the addition of a civil service. In retrospect it is baffling how the Roman Republic was able to function without non-military government employees to manage the state.

The imperial age can roughly be divided between the Principate, and the Dominate. During the Dominate the emperors declared themselves to be what we would roughly call kings or emperors. By contrast during the Principate the emperors would not describe themselves in a way that we would consider similar to the word emperor today. Rather the earlier emperors declared themselves “princeps”, or first citizens.

Ultimately though, despite these difference both of these governments were distinctly Roman inventions. On their own the different Roman governments were incredibly successful in their own ways. Combined these governments defined an entire age as distinctly Roman.


McManus, Barbara. Roman Government; accessed 23, August 2005. romangvt.html

McManus, Barbara. Roman Social Class and Public Display; accessed 23, August 2005.
~bmcmanus/ socialclass.html

Wikipedia. Roman Republic; Roman Empire; Princeps; Principate; Dominate; Imperium; Roman Assemblies; Roman Senate; Pontifex Maximus; Augustus. accessed 23, August 2005.