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Roman Government

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Although the form of government in the Roman Empire changed several times over its thousand year history, many parts remained the same and it has served as a model, inspiring the founding fathers as they created the governmental system of the United States of America almost 2,000 years later. Scattered around seven hills in the middle of the Italian peninsula, Rome began as a simple village of wooden huts. As it grew, it became governed by a monarchy, with a king having complete control. This lasted for over 200 years until the king was overthrown and a republic form of government was developed. Although controlled to a large extent by wealthy land owners and nobles, the general population was given an increasingly larger part in how the empire was run. This form of government worked well and the Roman Empire prospered. However, social unrest in the first century A.D., coupled with several military defeats, ended with Julius Caesar taking control and declaring himself dictator for life, ending the true republic form of government. Assassinated a month later, Rome then entered a period of rule by an emperor, which lasted until the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D. The Roman Empire lasted longer than any other government in the western world and it has provided the foundation upon which the government of the United States is based, along with providing valuable lessons for future generations.

According to legend, Rome was founded in 752 B.C. when Romulus ascended the throne as the first king. Unlike many monarchs, Roman kings could not pass down their crown to a relative. New kings were selected by the community leaders called patres and then had to be approved by the populous, the Roman soldiers who made up the Curiate Assembly. The patres also served as advisors to the king, helping him govern, and formed the group known as the Senate. The King had many duties, including commanding the army, handling foreign affairs, issuing laws, and serving as the High Priest. While he had ultimate power, he typically sought approval for his actions from the assemblies. This system lasted for about 200 years, ending when Tarquin the Proud, a cruel tyrant, was overthrown in 509 B.C.

With the end of the monarchy, the Romans created the Republic. The Senate took over and worked to create a government that would prevent a single person from becoming too powerful. They initially selected two leaders, called consuls, who would serve for a term of one year and would share power equally, with veto power over each other. Their most important job was to control the army. They could act as judges and they oversaw the activities of other Roman officials. The Senate was comprised of the patres, or nobles, selected by the consuls, and they served for life. Their primary duty was to advise the consuls and the assemblies on important matters. They made choices involving foreign affairs and could approve or disapprove laws made by the assembly. There were anywhere from 100 to 1,000 members in the Senate, although the optimum number was around 300. The Curiate Assembly also played a key role in the new Republic, responsible for electing many top government officials, making key decisions, and passing laws. The ordinary citizens of Rome, the Plebians or Plebs, also formed an Assembly and elected tribunes to represent them. The Assembly had limited power and could be overridden by the Senate, although it played a significant role in Roman government. All the male citizens of Rome were the part of the Assembly. Some of its members were rich, like merchants and tradesmen, and they eventually were allowed to be voted in to the position of consul. The Assembly could declare war or peace but couldn’t control what was done with the army. They also elected government officials, including the consuls and judges, debated important issues, and voted on laws suggested by Roman officials. Some Plebs were successful orators, like Cicero, who were skilled in getting their opinions across, which was important because Romans loved a good speech and accomplished speakers could often sway public opinion. The laws that were passed were supposed to be followed by everyone from the consuls to the poorest beggar. The laws were harsh but fair and didn’t protect just the rich. Similarly, the judicial system was just; a person wasn’t considered guilty until convicted in a court of law. The Republic lasted for over 400 years. Then, in the first century A.D., a civil war erupted and Caesar emerged as the self-proclaimed dictator. Although the Senate arranged for his assassination, this marked the end of the republic form of government.

To restore order after Caesar’s death, Rome needed a strong, commanding leader. In response, the Senate gave Caesar’s stepson Octavian (later named Augustus) control and he quickly took over the government and began to rule as an emperor. The Senate was able to retain some power, advising the emperor, but was never able to regain its previous influence. Elected magistrates and the assemblies lost a great deal of control and played a much lesser role in the government. The emperor’s appointed officials took over the major roles of running the government and directing the affairs of the empire. The Roman Empire was divided into provinces controlled by governors who reported back to the emperor. The governors acted as judges in their territory, they collected the taxes, and put down rebellions. Many emperors were just and fair, but others were cruel and demanding and used their power badly. Unlike the earlier monarchs, the position of emperor often passed down to relatives, creating dynasties. At the end of the empire, the emperors were very weak which is what led to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Although Roman government changed over time, much of its structure remained the same, with different groups gaining or losing power with the various changes. The concept of a Republic, which began during the monarchy and grew and matured during the middle years, provided a model for future generations to use. Even after the rule moved over to emperors, many facets of the Republic government remained. Despite the eventual collapse of the empire, the basic structure established was solid and the problems encountered provided valuable lessons for those wanting to model after the Romans. Indeed, they left us many important gifts that helped shape the United States. The Roman Senate inspired the idea of Congress, but with the members to be elected by the people. The idea of the Consuls evolved into the presidency with the election being every four years. The concept of the referendum came from the Roman practice that when government officials introduced a law, the people voted on it. The principals of the judicial system are the same as the Romans, with laws intended to protect all people. The Founding Fathers looked back at the principles developed by the Romans, expanded them, and, with a few minor changes, converted them to American law. We should be grateful for what the Romans developed because it provided the foundation on which our nation was formed. Indeed, the Roman Republic evolved into the Democratic Republic of the United States of America.

Bibliography

Burgan, Michael. Empire of Ancient Rome. New York: Chelsea House. 2009.

Carr, Karen. “Roman Government.” historyforkids.org. 21 Oct 2011. Kidipede – History for Kids. 16 Feb 2012

“Government Under the Roman Republic.” mrdonn.org. 16 Feb 2012

James, Simon. Ancient Rome. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1990.

MacDonald, Fiona. Ancient Rome. Chicago: Heinemann Library. 2005.

MacDonald, Fiona. 100 Things You Should Know About Ancient Rome. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2004.

Roberts, Paul C. Ancient Rome. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003.

Shuter, Jane. The Ancient Romans. Chicago: Heinemann Library. 2007.

Bibliography: Burgan, Michael. Empire of Ancient Rome. New York: Chelsea House. 2009. MacDonald, Fiona. Ancient Rome. Chicago: Heinemann Library. 2005. Roberts, Paul C. Ancient Rome. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. Shuter, Jane. The Ancient Romans. Chicago: Heinemann Library. 2007.

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