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Rome - Governmental Structure

Representative Government

In basic structure the Roman government differed little from that of Athens or Sparta, its Greek counterparts. It included a popular assembly (or assemblies) and an aristocratic body - called the Senate - in the case of Rome. The assembly represented the most democratic element of Roman government and yet, because it was unwieldy, allowed the Senate to assume a more prominent role in governing. The Senate was similar, in its origins and functions, to the Athenian Council of the Areopagus or the Spartan Council of Elders (Gerusia).

The Roman Senate

The Roman Senate, in its rise to prominence, had to overcome one serious handicap - it did not have the authority to enact legislation. That power was reserved for the assembly. At the same time, the Roman assemblies suffered from the same problem as those of Athens and Sparta - individual members could only vote "yes" or "no" on measures prepared for them. They were too unwieldy to draft laws. The Senate, by preparing legislation, could thus determine what was included in the final legislation. The plebs got their own version of the Senate in the tribuni plebis, which consisted of 10 tribunes, elected for one-year terms, to represent the interests of the plebs.

The Senate also had the advantage of an elite and wealthy membership. If not formally allowed to defy the assemblies, their wealth gave Senators a measure of influence. The Senate had also been authorized to act in two specific areas. First, it could issue decrees, which empowered magistrates to carry out the Senate's will. Second, the Senate administered Rome's finances and controlled foreign policy. The Senate, in size, had begun with a membership of 100, which was expanded to 300. In 80 B.C., Sulla increased it to 600 members. Julius Caesar would increase it to 900.

The Magistracy

The magistracy was the equivalent of the modern "executive" branch of government. The magistracy was, in some ways, a general description for a number of administrative titles held at various levels of government. The highest ranking magistracy in Rome was that of consul. It was, in fact, divided between two individuals each year. Magistrates were ordinarily granted whatever powers were necessary to execute the duties of their office. The consuls were granted extraordinary powers, which included command of the army and the authority to pass death sentences. Despite this supreme authority, or imperium, the consuls sometimes requested a special decree, the senatus consultum maximum, from the Senate. This was a normal procedure in the case of civil insurrection.

The Popular Assemblies

The popular assembly, was actually not a single assembly, but three separate assemblies. The concilium plebis, or council of plebeians, represented the poorest citizens. (The plebs grew in power over time, even gaining their own "council," the tribuni plebis, which was a "Senate-like" body representing the plebs. The comitia tributa, or assembly of the tribes, was a step above the concilium plebis. Representing the 35 tribes of Rome, it served as an appeals court in non-capital cases and elected some of the magistrates. The comitia centuriata, had more authority than the comitia tributa, but it was convened only in rare circumstances. It had the power to declare war, served as a court of appeals in capital cases, and elected the higher magistrates.

Roman Social Classes

In some ways, Rome had only two social classes, the rich and the poor. The rich were represented by the patricians, the large landowners who had led Rome at the time of the overthrow of the Etruscans. The poorer classes were called plebeians. Mostly laborers, they were attracted to Rome by the jobs offered. While many found it impossible to move up, a few managed to find opportunities. They were finally recognized as a distinct class, the equites or knights.