Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Government in the Roman Empire

Mackenzie Huth
Honors 201

Government throughout Roman history is an immense subject, ancient Rome going through many transitions evolving from a city, to city-state, kingdom, republic, and finally an empire.

Senatus Populusque Romanus
The People and Senate of Rome

As stated in The Histories, by Polybius, Government in Rome was an amalgamation of despotism, aristocracy, and democracy and could not necessarily be constricted to one way of governing (Polybius). When looking at the government before Caesar, also known as the “republic”, Rome was clearly defined by two social classes; the patricians, a smaller group made up of aristocrats, and the plebeians, the middle and working class. Within the Roman senate, only members of the patrician class were chosen to participate. Deeper inside the Roman senate was a combination of both legislature and general advisory councils both with the job of deciding and setting policy for the Consuls, the chief executives of Rome (Stout 430).
Two consuls were chosen every year from among the senate, the power placed on two to allow for a system of checks and balances. One consul was placed in charge of Rome domestically while the other could advance outside of Rome to fight in wars as well as conquer new territory (Green). One check the senate had on the consul was the general rule of a one-year term, leading into another check stating that once a person served as consul, they could not serve again for another ten years (Stout 430). While these checks were laws, they were not strictly enforced by the senate, some consuls ruling for many years in a row, which brings up the debate of whether or not Rome was a true republic before Octavian Augustus dubbed it an empire and furthers Polybius’ idea that when surveying the power of the consul it would seem as if Rome was under despotic rule (Polybius).

Veni, Vidi, Vici
I Came, I Saw, I conquered

Gaius Julius Caesar was one of the most profound leaders throughout Roman history and marks the specific transition between republic and empire.
Caesar came from a small patrician family and held positions in both the empire and the military. He rose through ranks quickly in both, was given governorship of Spain, and was elected consul in 59 BCE (Taylor 14-16). During his consulship he aligned himself with two of the most powerful and wealthy men in Rome, Crassus and General Pompey, creating the First Triumvirate, which was “marked by violence, illegality, and the arbitrary use of power” and ultimately the demise of the ‘republic’ (Millar 50).
During Caesar’s first year as consul he was able to encourage the senate to pass various laws (mainly through intimidation of Pompey’s army) and was eventually granted governorship of Southern Gaul, which he went on to conquer the rest of with his four legions (armies which came to be his main source of power) (Taylor 15). While gone on his campaigns, Crassus was killed and General Pompey became consul of Rome, where he stripped Caesar of command for containing too much power and proclaimed him an enemy of the state (Taylor 18).

Alea Iacta Est
The Die is Cast

Upon hearing of Pompey’s reign Ceasar returned with his thirteenth legion famously crossing the Rubicon onto Roman soil and took the city under his dictator and consulship (Green). After serving for five years Caesar was assassinated and Octavian Augustus, Marc Antony, and Lepidus forming the Second Triumvirate which concluded as a failure and started Rome’s second civil war where Octavian won and declared himself emperor, officially making Rome into an empire, where both the senate and the power of the people were seemingly irrelevant (Millar 52).

Omnium Rerum Principia Parva Sunt
The Beginnings of all Things are Small

Did Caesar destroy the Roman Republic?

While Caesar’s dictatorship and Octavian’s declaration of emperor marks the exact period of Rome transforming from a republic into an empire, it only counts as Caesar’s fault if he was the first person to do it. Before Caesar there were countless other leaders that had despotic rule; General Marius who raised an army of plebeians that were loyal to only him rather than the Roman state, and General Sulla, a leader who marched against Rome and proclaimed himself dictator in 81 BCE (Barlow 204). Due to the concentration of power into the hands of one individual Rome technically could have been considered and Empire for decades and even centuries before Caesar. 

Barlow, Charles. “The Roman Government and the Roman Economy.” The American Journal of Philology 102.2 (1980): 202-219. Web. 16 Mar. 2013. Accessed from
Green, John. “The Roman Empire.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 29 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.
Millar, Fergus. “Triumvirate and Principate.” The Journal of Roman Studies 63 (1973): 50-67. Web. 16 Mar. 2013. Accessed from
Polybius. “The Histories.” The Latin Library. n.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.
Stout, S. “Rotation in Office in the Roman Republic.” The Classical Journal 13.6 (1918): 429-435. Web. 16 Mar. 2013. Accessed from
Taylor, Lilly. “The Rise of Julius Caesar.” Greece & Rome 4.1 (1957): 10-18. Web. 16 Mar. 2013. Accessed from

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