After the overthrow of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus in 509 BC, the Romans decided to get rid of monarchy altogether and become a republic. Whereas one person rules the whole nation under a monarchy, all of the people take part in government in a republic. The Roman Republic is very different from the Athenian democracy in some important ways, but what they had in common was a concern that all citizens have the opportunity to have their voice heard and to help make decisions.
Not everyone was considered equal, however, and some people played a bigger role in governing Rome than others. Under the Roman Republic, there were two main social classes. They were called the patricians and the plebeians.
The patricians were the wealthy and powerful upper class of Rome. They claimed to be the descendants of the 100 men whom Romulus had chosen to help him rule the new city after he founded it. Only patricians could hold the highest and most powerful positions in Rome.
The other social class, called plebeians, was made up of all of the common people. Not all of the plebeians were poor, but almost none were as rich as the patricians. And none at all were more powerful than the patricians. The plebeians participated in the government under the Roman Republic by voting for their leaders.
The government of the Roman Republic had three layers. At the top were the consuls. Under the Republic, two elected consuls shared the highest and most powerful position in government. Consuls were members of the Senate who had been elected to serve one year terms as consul. The consuls’ most important power was that they controlled the army. No decision could be made by one consul without the other consul agreeing to it. Both consuls held the right to veto the decisions of the other.
The Senate consisted of 300 men, all of whom were from the patrician class. Senators were appointed by the consuls and, once appointed, served as senators for life. The senators were the lawmakers of the Roman Republic. They controlled all spending and approved other decisions made by the consuls.
The largest layer in the government of the Roman Republic was the Assembly. The Assembly was composed of all the plebeian citizens of Rome. The Assembly did not have a building to meet in like the Senate. Instead, the plebeians who wanted to vote gathered at the Forum, an open area near the center of the city of Rome. For the most part, the Assembly’s power was very limited. They could vote for or suggest laws, but the Senate could block their decisions. The Assembly could also vote to declare war but the Senate could override them on this also.
The Assembly did, however, have one right that made them very powerful. It was the members of the Assembly who voted each year on which two members of the Senate would serve as consuls. As a noble, if you wanted to rise to the level of Consul, the highest position in government under the Republic, you needed to gain the support of the plebeian class. Since it was the Consuls who filled empty seats in the Senate, if the Assembly chose their consuls well, they could slowly gain power in government by putting people in charge who were sympathetic to their needs. As a result, plebeians gained more rights over time and some of them even became very powerful and wealthy. A few plebeians were even able to become members of the patrician class!
Above all else, what made a person powerful and influential in Rome their ability to speak well. The Romans loved a good orator more than almost anything else. When the Assembly met at the Forum, many speeches were going on at the same time. One speaker might say, “Rome’s roads need repair!” Another speaker might say, “We need to stop crime in the streets.” If you wanted your speech to have an impact, it did not matter how rich or poor you were. What mattered was how persuasive you were as a speaker.
1. What were the two social classes of the Roman Republic? Describe each social class.
2. What were the three layers of government under the Roman Republic? What was the job of each?
Orator – a public speaker, especially one who is eloquent or skilled.
Veto – Latin word meaning “I forbid;” the power to stop the enactment of a law