The Roman Government
The Romans have had almost every type of government there
is. They've had a kingdom, a republic, a dictatorship, and
an empire. Their democracy would be the basis for most
modern democracies. The people have always been involved
with and loved their government, no matter what kind it
was. They loved being involved in the government, and
making decisions concerning everyone. In general, the
Romans were very power-hungry. This might be explained by
the myth that they are descended from Romulus, who's father
was Mars, the god of war. Their government loving
tendencies have caused many, many civil wars. After any
type of government, the change has been made with a civil
war. There have also been many civil wars between rulers.
But it all boils down to wanting to be involved in
When the Greeks finally entered Troy after ten long years
of siege, a man named Aeneas escaped the city with his
father, Anchises, and his son, Ascanius. They went to Mt.
Ida, where they were to meet Aeneas' wife, Creusa, but she
never showed up. Saddened, Aeneas acquired a boat and
sailed around the Mediterranean. He bounced around from
Asia Minor to Greece to Crete looking for a place to found
a new Troy, but he couldn't find a satisfactory place. As
told by Homer in the Aeneid, Aeneas was cared for by the
gods. Venus, in particular, was very worried about him. She
asked Jupiter, king of the gods about him, and he said this:
"Since you are so consumed with anxiety for Aeneas,
I shall turn forward far
The hidden pages of fate and speak of the future.
He shall conduct a great campaign for you
And conquer all Italy and its haughty peoples.
He shall impose laws on his own people
And build walled cities for them; the third summer
Shall see him rule in Latium, the third winter
Of warfare see the Rutulians [an Italian tribe] subdued.
But his son Ascanius...
It is he who shall consolidate your power-
For thirty years with all their turning months;
Then shall he move his capital from Lavinium
To Alba Longa, which he shall fortify
To the uttermost; and there a line of kings...
Shall reign and reign till Ilia [Rhea Silvia], a priestess
Of royal blood, bear twins begotten by Mars;
And one of these, Romulus, fostered by a she-wolf,
And joyfully wearing her tawny hide, shall rule
And found a city for Mars, a new city,
And call his people Romans, after his name.
For them I see no measure nor date, I grant them
Dominion without end. Yes, even Juno...
Even she will mend her ways and vie with me
In cherishing the Romans, the master-race,
The wearers of the Toga. So it is willed."(Nardo 13)
Finally, he wound up at the mouth of the Tiber River in
Italy. He went inland up the river, which was a miracle in
itself, because the river is very swift. He found Latium,
ruled by King Latinus, and married his daughter, Lavinia.
With King Latinus' permission, Aeneas and Lavinia founded a
city called Lavinium, where they ruled side by side for
many years. When Aeneas died, his son Ascanius took over.
Ascanius founded a new city, which he called Alba Longa,
and made it his capital.
Now we advance four centuries. The king of Alba Longa is
Numitor. He had a jealous brother named Amulius, who seized
the throne and drove out Numitor. To prevent Numitor's
daughter, Rhea Silvia, from having children who could claim
the throne, Amulius made her a celibate priestess. While
she was a priestess, Mars, the god of war, came and visited
her and she had twin boys named Remus and Romulus (Burrell
7). When Amulius found out about the twins, he was furious.
He ordered Rhea imprisoned and the boys drowned on the
Tiber. The slave who was ordered to drown them felt pity
for them, and instead sent them down the river in a basket.
When they landed, a she-wolf found them and nursed them
because her cubs had just been killed and she was still
fertile. Romulus and Remus were found by a shepherd named
Faustulus, who took them home to his wife to raise them. As
they grew up, being sons of Mars, they turned out to be
very athletic and natural leaders, especially of the local
boys. When the boys grew up, they heard the story of
Numitor and Amulius. With their local friends, they
attacked Alba Longa, killed Amulius, restored their
grandfather to the throne, and freed their mother.
After restoring Numitor to the throne, the boys decided to
found a city on one of the seven hills near where their
basket was found by the wolf. This was a natural spot for a
city. Accounts Livy,
"Not without good reason did gods and men choose this spot
as the site of a city, with its bracing hills, its
[spacious] river by means of which the produce of inland
countries may be brought down and inland supplies obtained;
a sea near enough for all useful purposes, but not so near
as to be exposed to danger from foreign fleets; a district
in the very center of Italy, in a word, a position
singularly adapted by a nature for the growth of a city."
The two boys couldn't decide between themselves which hill
to start on, so they decided that whoever saw a vulture
first could pick. Remus saw the first vulture and five
others, and Romulus saw twelve. Remus had rightfully won,
but Romulus claimed he should pick since he saw more
vultures. He borrowed a plow and team, and plowed a furrow
around the Palatine hill. He told his brother that was
where the city would be, and if Remus crossed the line, he
would be killed. Contemptuous Remus immediately crossed the
line, and Romulus killed him. Romulus later said he
regretted killing his brother, but life goes on. He built
his city on the Palatine Hill, and called it Rome.
When Romulus founded Rome in 753 BC, he made himself the
king. Being a brand new city, it had very few people.
Romulus built up the population by allowing anybody who
wanted to live there, including criminals who flocked to
the city. This caused a shortage of women. To get some, the
Romans hosted athletic games and invited their neighbors,
the Sabines. While they were at the games, some of the
Romans sneaked off and stole the Sabine women (Burrell
14-15). Realizing what had happened, the Sabines prepared
their army. Expecting this, the Romans were ready and the
two forces lined up preparing to fight. Surprisingly, some
of the women ran into the no-man's-land in between the
armies. This is what their leader said:
"We were just daughters a short while ago, now we are both
wives and daughters. We did not choose our husbands - they
chose us. We want this fighting to stop. If it goes ahead,
many will be slain. When our fathers are dead, we shall be
orphans, but if our husbands die, we shall be widows. We
lose either way." (Burrell, 14-15)
Surprisingly, the two armies listened and put down their
Since anyone was allowed to reside, Rome had great
diversity in its people. There were three main ethnic
groups: the Romans, who were first generation, the Sabines,
and the Latins, who Romulus is descended from. The Sabines
lived in the mountains east of the Tiber and north of the
Latins. Later on, another group of people called the
Etruscans started moving in. They were unique in that their
language had no relation to any other known language, the
only one like that.
Romulus established a government with a king, who was
imperium, "Over all persons and in all causes supreme"
(Adcock 6). Romulus chose one hundred fathers to form the
Senate. These people and their descendants are known as
Patricians, from the Latin word pater, meaning father. He
divided the people into three tribes, mentioned above, and
each tribe was divided into smaller curiae. The succession
of kings wasn't hereditary. The previous king appointed
someone, and that person had to show the good will of
heaven. Once king he had to keep the pax deorum, Latin for
peace of the gods. Romulus created an army that was to have
three thousand infantry and three hundred horsemen,
one-third from each tribe. This was a national guard, with
people keeping their day jobs.
When Romulus died in 717 BC, the two main tribes, the
Romans and the Sabines, couldn't decide how to pick a king.
Finally it was decided that the Romans would pick a Sabine
king. They picked Numa Pompilius. This is what Plutarch had
to say about him:
"He banished all luxury and softness from his own home,
and... in private he devoted himself not to amusement...
but to the worship of the immortal gods." (Nardo 19)
One of Pompilius' notable achievements was rearranging the
calendar so it had twelve months instead of ten.
The third king, Tullus Hostilius, was a war monger. He
believed his subjects would grow soft if they weren't
engaged in a war. Conquering neighboring people, including
Alba Longa, he extended Rome's rule out to twelve miles.
Supposedly the gods got angry with him and killed him with
a lightning bolt (Burrell, 12).
The fourth king, Ancus Martius, was a Sabine. He extended
Rome's boundary to the sea and built the Pons Sublicus, the
first bridge across the Tiber. He also captured the
Janiculum hill on the far bank.
The fifth king, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, was the first
Etruscan king. He got the throne when he persuaded Martius
to send his sons away. He was an architect king. He built
the capitol temple, drained the marsh between the Paletine
and Aventine Hills, built the Cloaca Maxima, or great
sewer, and designed the Circus Maximus.
The sixth king was Servius Tullius, another Etruscan. He
divided the citizens into five social classes, from richest
to poorest. All but the poorest had to provide soldiers.
The seventh, and final, king was Tarquinius Superbus. He
was a bad king. He got the throne by marrying Tullius'
daughter, Tullia. He then pushed Tullius down a flight of
stairs. He sent men to finish him off, but Tullia ran over
her father with a cisium, Latin for a light, two-wheeled
carriage. As king, he paid absolutely no attention to what
the people wanted. According to Asimov, when he was off at
war with the Volscians, the Senate voted to exile him, and
he wasn't let back into the city. After his reign, the
people vowed never to have a king again, and a law was made
where anybody who even talked about having a king back was
executed. A senator named Brutus said,
"I swear, and you, o gods, I call to witness that I will
drive [away]... Tarquinius Superbus, together with his
wicked wife and his whole family, with fire and sword and
every means in my power, and I will not [allow] them or
anyone else to reign in Rome." (Nardo 25)
Republic is English for the Latin Res Publica, meaning the
public thing. A republic is "a country governed by the
elected representatives of the people" (Encarta
"Republic"). Instead of a president or king, the Republic
has two praetors, later known as consuls, who were elected
annually. The one exception was emergency dictators, who
served for six months and six months only. The Senators
served for life. The object of the Republic was to give the
people a voice in the government, and to keep just one
person from having all the power. Noting the Greek
government, the Romans created the Centuriate Assembly of
citizens. This was an assembly where citizens discussed and
voted on important issues. Many of the members were
Patricians, but there were a few Plebs, or commoners too
poor to own land. Only free Roman adult men who owned
weapons were citizens. Not long after the Republic was
formed, the Patricians closed off immigration of new
In the early years of the Republic, the Patricians often
made laws unfair to the Plebs. Only Patricians could become
consul, the senate was almost all Patricians, and the
Patricians controlled the Plebs in the Assembly by giving
the Plebs financial aid, who in turn voted the way they
were told. Public Officials weren't paid, so only wealthy
people could afford to serve on a regular basis. One time,
the Plebs refused to serve in the army until they got their
way. As Livy said,
"The Patricians dreaded the Plebians [who were
striking].... How long could it be supposed that the
multitude which had seceded would remain inactive? And what
would be the consequence if in the meantime a foreign war
should break out? No glimpse of hope could they see left
except in concord between the citizens, which must be
re-established in the state on any terms." (Nardo 28)
In 494 BC, the Patricians gave up and allowed the striking
Plebs their own council, called the Popular Assembly, which
excluded Patricians. This assembly couldn't make laws, but
they elected ten tribunes each year who had the power of
veto. The Patricians pronounced the validity of decisions
made by the assembly. As the Republic grew older, it became
more complicated. The Assembly had to elect officials to
help. They elected eight praetors, or court judges, four
aediles, who managed public streets and buildings, two
censores, who took censuses, admitted new senators and
collected taxes, and twenty five quaestores, or financial
officers. In 450 BC, the Plebs demanded that the laws of
Rome be written down so that the praetors couldn't twist
the law in their favor. They were written down on the
Twelve Tables. An example of a law from the Twelve Tables
"If plaintiff summons defendant to court, he shall go. If
he does not go, plaintiff shall call witness [to this].
Then only shall he take the defendant [to court] by force."
The Tribunes of the Plebs protected the Plebs from
unjustness, and the Plebs protected them by threatening to
strike. As time went on, Patrician control over Plebians
gradually decreased, until in 366 BC, the Plebs were
allowed to become consul. Soon it became a custom to elect
one Pleb and one Patrician (Nardo 28). In 287 BC, the
Popular Assembly gained the right to make laws.
Rome was ever expanding. In 496 BC, Rome conquered Latium.
In 449 BC, the Sabines fell, and in 396 BC, the Etruscans.
Instead of trying to oppress conquered tribes and peoples,
Rome absorbed them, integrating them into their culture.
This made them much easier to control, because they felt
like they belonged to Rome. This is what Cicero had to say
"Every citizen of a corporate town [one annexed by Rome]
has, I take it, two fatherlands, that of which he is a
native, and that of which he is a citizen. I will never
deny my allegiance to my native town, only I will never
forget that Rome is my greater fatherland, and that my
native town is but a portion of Rome." (Nardo 31)
The Senators of Rome also felt great loyalty towards the
city. In 390 BC, raiders from Gaul invaded the city. Some
of the Senators stayed in the city. Livy tells what
"[The Senators sat]...without fear or concern.... The
Gauls, for a great while, stood wondering at the
strangeness of the sight, not daring to approach of touch
them, taking them for an assembly of superior beings. But
then one [Gaul], bolder than the rest, drew near to one
elderly senator, and... gently stroked [the Senator's] chin
and touched his long beard; the Senator with his staff
struck him a severe blow on the head; upon which the
barbarian drew his sword and slew him. This was the
introduction to the slaughter." (Nardo 32)
The Romans didn't look kindly upon failures. After the
consul Varro lost fifty thousand soldiers in battle with
Hannibal's army, he was ejected from office. According to
Nardo, the only reason he wasn't executed was that he
fought along side the army, and didn't desert (45).
In the Punic wars against Carthage, Rome had to develop
naval technology. After Carthage was defeated, Roman
merchants adopted ships to do their trading, making them
more and more wealthy. Eventually, these wealthy merchants
formed a new class, called the 'equestrian order'. This new
class competed with the patricians for power in the
government. The citizens began splitting into two parties.
The Imperialists, led by General Scipio Africanus, wanted
to continue expanding eastward. The Conservatives, led by
Senator Cato the Elder, wanted to settle down and stop
expanding. As time went on, the Imperialists increasingly
prevailed. By the second century BC, the government became
more and more imperialistic, to the point that they would
attack anything with the smallest excuse. In 192 BC, the
Seleucid king Antiochus III took over a few freed Greek
cities. Rome invaded, conquered everything, and drove
Antiochus III to Asia Minor. The Roman army chased him, and
conquered the territories he had in Asia Minor.
Gaius Julius Caesar was born on July 13, 100 BC to a
prestigious Roman family. His uncle was Gaius Marius, the
consul and leader of the agrarian reform movement. In 82
BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla attacked the city and made
himself dictator. Because Sulla was an enemy of Marius, he
ordered Caesar to divorce his wife, Cornelia. Caesar
refused, and fled the city until Sulla resigned in 78 BC.
Caesar started his reign in a triumvirate, with himself,
Pompey the Great, and Marcus Licinius Crassus. According to
Nardo, this was just a dictatorship of three. They ruled
the Republic with terror, using the army and their henchmen
as muscle.(77-78) The only person who continually voiced
his opposition to the triumvirate was the famous orator,
Cicero. The triumvirate chased him into hiding. In 58 BC,
Caesar et al.'s term ended, but they kept power. Caesar
boosted his popularity by conquering Gaul and Britain. In
53 BC, Crassus died in battle in Asia, leaving a
triumvirate of two. While Caesar was away in Britain, the
senators tried to pit him against Pompey by naming Caesar a
public enemy and Pompey protector of the state. The
senators were hoping that the two would get rid of each
other. Caesar was ordered to disband his army, but he
instead marched on Rome. He was just bringing his soldiers
home, but it was taken as an invasion (Nardo 83-84). In 48
BC, Caesar crossed to Greece, where Pompey had escaped to.
Pompey escaped to Egypt, where he sought shelter with King
Ptolemy XIII. Ptolemy's advisors warned him against the
wrath of Caesar, so he killed Pompey and sent Caesar his
head. In 46 BC, Caesar was named the ten year dictator of
the state. He promptly renamed himself dictator for life.
On March 15, 44 BC, a group of senators who decided that
Caesar was a danger to the Republic. Led by Brutus and
Cassius, they attacked Caesar in the senate chambers.
Ironically, his body fell at the feet of the statue of
Pompey, after suffering twenty three knife wounds.
Immediately after Caesar's death, the senate outlawed the
After Caesar's death, his adopted grandson, Octavian,
formed the second triumvirate with Mark Antony and Marcus
Aemilius Lepidus. Antony ruled the east, Octavian the west
and Italy, and Lepidus ruled Africa. The second triumvirate
was constituted by an act of state to reconstitute the
state. They were given five years, but this was later
extended. The three crushed all of their opponents,
including Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero. Battling against
Sextus Pompeius, Octavian summoned Lepidus to Italy to help
him. Upon arriving, Lepidus tried to seize Sicily, and was
subsequently kicked out of the triumvirate.
Mark Antony fell in love with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt,
who was rumored to be a former lover of Caesar. Together
they ruled the eastern Empire for many years. With the
growing support of the Roman people, Octavian declared war
on Antony, to secure power for himself. The two forces,
Octavian's navy commanded by Marcus Agrippa, and Antony and
Cleopatra's navy, met at the battle of Actium on September
2, 31 BC. Agrippa, a very capable general and a good friend
of Octavian, commanded 260 light ships, while Antony
commanded 220 heavy ships (Encarta "Actium"). The battle
raged on for a very long time, and was beginning to look
like a stalemate, when the Egyptian fleet withdrew.
Agrippa's fleet crushed the remnants of Antony's fleet, who
survived and escaped back to Egypt with Cleopatra. Antony
received a false rumor and killed himself by falling on his
sword. Upon hearing of his suicide, Cleopatra killed
herself with an asp, which was a symbol of the eye of Ra,
the Egyptian sun god (Gibson). After the war was over,
Octavian closed the Roman temple to Janus, the Roman god of
beginnings of wars. This showed that the world was at peace.
In 28 BC, Octavian and Agrippa became consuls. After one
year, they turned the state over to "the free decision of
the Senate and People of Rome" (Adcock 74). The Senate and
people of Rome gave Octavian ten years of complete control.
Octavian named himself the princeps, which is Latin for
emperor. He ran the Empire as a monarchy, although it was
disguised as a Republic. They still had a senate, but
senators only made it into office with Octavian's approval.
Those citizens who weren't fooled kept quiet, because
Octavian kept things peaceful and governed fairly. Octavian
ended the Roman tradition of conquest, cutting the army
from seventy five to twenty eight legions. In 23 BC,
Octavian gave up the consulate, but the senate forced him
to keep power over the provinces. In effect, he ran the
Empire from the background, while others were elected
consul. These consuls had power, but always did what
Octavian said. On his death bed, Octavian was advised to
forgive his enemies. He responded with, "Yes father, but
how can I? I have [killed] them all" (Adcock 75). Octavian
was almost eighty when he died in 14 AD.
After Octavian came the Emperor Tiberius. His reign was
non-eventful, and he retired after plots against him were
turned up. After Tiberius came Gaius, who was better known
as Caligula. During his reign, Caligula went crazy.
According to Burrell, anyone disagreeing with him was
thrown to the lions in the Arena. He also got the Senate to
name his horse consul.(49) Everyone was thankful when he
was assassinated in 41 AD. Caligula was succeeded by
several emperors who did nothing governmentally, including
Claudius and Nero.
Around the second century AD, the Empire began to crumble.
Wave after wave of barbarian invaders, especially the Huns,
chipped away at the state. Eventually some of the provinces
had to be abandoned. At the end of the third century,
Emperor Diocletian decided the empire was two big, and
split it in two. He ruled the east from Turkey, and
commissioned Maximian to rule the west from Milan. He
called this form of government the Dominate, from Latin
dominus, meaning master. There were two Augusti, who ruled
the east and west, and under them there were two Caesars,
who were like vice-presidents. The two Caesars of the east
and west were Constantine and Galerius, respectively.
Diocletian turned his empire into something like a feudal
system, where peasants were deprived of personal freedom
and tied to the soil. He renamed citizens to subjects. In
305, Diocletian and Maximian stepped down as Augusti,
resulting in civil wars between the old Caesars and new
Augusti. Eventually, Constantine the Great came out on top
in 312. Constantine's troops made him emperor, and he ruled
the entire Empire from Byzantium, which he renamed
Constantinople. Constantine was the first Christian ruler
of the Empire.
Alaric of the Visgoths helped the emperor Theodosius crush
a rebellion. Unfortunately, Theodosius died before he could
reward Alaric. The new emperor, Honorius, cut Alaric off
from Rome, which he resented deeply. Alaric took his army
to Constantinople, but found it too well guarded. He then
led his army to the city of Rome, where, in the fifth
century, sacked it.
The Empire continued to fall to barbarians. The east and
west sides of the Empire were in a virtual state of war. In
429, Vandals conquered Africa. In 410, Britain fell. In
451, the Huns took most of Europe. When Atilla the Hun came
to Rome, Pope Leo was able to convince him to spare the
city. In 455, Vandals came and sacked Rome. In the year 476
AD, the last emperor died, marking the fall of the Roman
Empire, one of the greatest ever. That last emperor's name
was, ironically, Romulus.
The Roman Kingdom, Republic, Empire, Dictatorship, and
others have affected all of us. The United States
government in commonly known as a democracy, but it's
actually a Republic, almost identical to the Roman one. The
Roman government was one of the most powerful ever, at one
point ruling most of the civilized world. It is almost
certainly the best known. Ask anyone about Romulus and
Remus, Gaius Julius Caesar, Augustus, Caligula, Nero,
Constantine; they'll know who you're talking about. The
term Caesar was used to mean ruler for thousands of years
after his death. Both the German word Kaiser as well as the
Russian word Czar are from the name Caesar and mean ruler.
Today some three-fourths of the countries are Republic,
styled after the Romans. The Romans are probably the most
influential people of all-time.
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