This is the first of a planned five-part series looking at the structure of the Roman Republic as another example of civic governance structures in antiquity, to match our series on the Greek polis. As with that series, we’re going to start by defining our community and its constituent parts in this part, before moving through the elements of its government in subsequent essays in this series.
Discussing the Roman Republic after already looking at the normal structure of a polis offers an interesting vantage point. As we’ll see, the Roman Republic has a lot of the same features as a polis: a citizen body, magistrates, a citizen assembly, all structured around a distinct urban center and so on. On the other hand, as we’re going to see, the Romans have some different ideas about the res publica (that’s their phrase which gives us our word ‘republic’). They imagine the republic differently than a polis and that leads to some meaningful differences in its structure and nature, even though it seems to share a lot of ‘DNA’ with a polis and in some sense could be described as an ‘overgrown’ city-state.
Which leads into the other major difference: size. We’re going to be taking a snapshot of the Roman Republic, necessary because the republic changed over time. In particular what we’re going to look at here is really a snapshot of the republic as it functioned in the third and second centuries, what Roman historians call the ‘Middle Republic’ (c. 287-91BC). Harriet Flower defines this period as part of “the republic of the nobiles” which as we’ll see is an apt title as well.
But even by the beginning of this period, the Roman Republic is enormous by the standards of a polis. While a polis like Athens or Sparta with total populations in the low hundreds of thousands was already very large by Greek standards, the Roman Republic was much bigger. We know that in Italy in 225 there was something on the order of three hundred thousand Roman citizens liable for conscription, which implies a total citizen population right around a million. And that massive polity in turn governed perhaps another two million other Italians who were Rome’s ‘socii’ (‘allies’), perhaps the social category at Rome closest to ‘resident foreigners’ (metics) in Greek poleis. This is in Italy alone, not counting Rome’s ‘overseas’ holdings (at that point, Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia). In short, the Roman Republic may in some ways be shaped like a polis, but it was a full order of magnitude larger than the largest poleis, even before it acquired provinces outside of Italy. As you may imagine, that has implications!
But before we get to those implications, as always if you want to become a citizen of the ACOUP Republic, you can support this project on Patreon and even join the ACOUP Senate! Of course, socii readers are always welcome, but will have their comments judged under the ius gentium rather than the ius civilis. If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings, assuming there is still a Twitter by the time this post goes live.
(Bibliography Note: This is going to be a just-the-highlights sort of note as this is the central topic of study for the history of the Roman Republic. The standard reference work on the structure of Roman politics is A. Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic (1999). A good introduction to how these systems changed during the early and middle republics is H.I. Flower, Roman Republics (2010). The debate about the nature of the republic, particularly if it was a democracy, has been quite active, see especially F. Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (1998) and then in response to Millar, H. Mouritsen, Plebs and Politics in the Late Roman Republic (2001) and R. Morstein-Marx, Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic (2004). The pre-Millarian views are perhaps best summarized and discussed in J. North, “Democratic politics in republican Rome” Past & Present 126 (1990).1 Another key reference work I want to mention here, though it is mostly for specialists, is T. Broughton, Magistrates of the Roman Republic (1951, 1960), known simply as the MRR, a comprehensive reference list of every known Roman office holder from 510 to 30 BC, with summaries of all of their careers. A lot of the subsequent work on the Roman nobiles is dependent on this monumental resource (and unlike it’s imperial-era counterpart, the PIR, it’s not in Latin!). Last but not least, when it comes to textbook treatments, I think the Boatwright, Gargola, Lenski and Talbert, The Romans: From Village to Empire (2011) does the best job of any in actually explaining the system in its full complexity. It’s the textbook I teach from.)
What is a Republic?
We can start with how the Romans defined their own republic, before we get into the constituent parts as they understood them. The Latin term for the republic was, naturally enough, res publica (from which the modern word republic derives). Res is a very common, earthy sort of Latin word whose closest English equivalent is probably ‘matter,’ with that wide range of possible meanings. Res can mean a ‘thing’ more generally, ‘matter’ in the scientific sense, but also in an abstract sense it can be an interest, a cause, a court case or other set of events, or property generally. Meanwhile publica means ‘public,’ in the sense of something held in common or collectively or done for the collective good or interest. That gives res publica a wonderful kaleidoscope of meaning – it is the collective property (the ‘commonwealth’) of the citizenry but also the communal affairs, the matters of collective concern, the actions undertaken for the public benefit and indeed even the public benefit itself.
It is the things held in common. That ambiguity of meaning actually matters quite a bit because what the res publica was and what was important about it was different for different people. But naturally for some res to be publica, that meant other res needed to be privata; much like the polis was a collection of oikoi (and thus its ability to reach within the oikos as a unit was limited) so too the res publica was a collection of familiae (a word we’ll come back to, because it is complicated; it does not neatly mean ‘family’), the affairs of which were privatae, private.
What I think is worth noting as one of those subtle differences is how this contrasts with the Greek conception of the polis: a polis was fundamentally a collection of politai (citizens) whose institutions were their politeia (government, state). But the res publica is not a collection of citizens (Latin: cives), it is something distinct from them, held in common by them.
We can see this principle in the interesting phrase the Romans used to represent the senate: senatus populusque Romanus, “The Roman Senate and People” – usually abbreviated to SPQR.2 The division there is striking: there is a Roman People (the populus Romanus) and a Roman Senate and in some sense these are non-overlapping groups that together compose the republic. The Senate is not some sub-group of the populus but a distinct one with is a co-equal element of the republic with the populus.
Not only is the res publica thus not simply a collection of citizens, but it is in a real sense understood as a shared interest of different groups in the community, of which the populus is only one group. The Romans, more comfortable with open hierarchy among the citizens, can understand the republic as a balancing act between the interests of the political and social elite (the exact composition of which changes over time, but their mouthpiece is the Senate) and the people. The elite do not represent the people, they are not a select group of the people, but instead a distinct interest within the state which has its own legitimate expression, balanced against the expression of the people.
If all of that doesn’t make much sense, don’t worry: we’ll see these principles work themselves out in the way the res publica works and is structured.
But for this week, we want to provide a baseline overview of the components of the republic, which we’ll break up three different ways: the types of people, the organs of the state and finally the physical layout of the republic as a place.
Omnes in Ordinem
Let’s start with people. One of the themes that is going to become really clear here over time is that the Romans are a lot more comfortable with open status distinctions among the citizenry as compared to the Greeks. A Greek polis might restrict the number of politai down to a very small number, but the expectation was that there was at least some nominal equality within that number. The Roman citizen-body is much larger, Roman citizenship is substantially more open to new entrants, but the Romans are also a lot more comfortable with status distinctions within the citizenry.
This isn’t, by the by, that the republic was more hierarchical than any polis; many poleis were more oligarchic in practice than the Roman Republic – they simply restricted the number of actual participating politai down to a tiny number. Rather the Romans were a lot more comfortable with open hierarchy and status distinctions among the citizenry (who at least notionally had full civic participation) and so those distinctions were public and formalized (though often then politely obscured in regular conversation) in ways that would have been socially unacceptable in a Greek polis. Roman law still shows a lot of concern for protecting the basic dignity of free citizens, but once that baseline is guarded, it is a lot more OK with some free citizens being ‘big men’ and other being ‘small men.’
Naturally the first distinction is between citizens – cives – and non-citizens. While as we noted, Greek thinking tends to understand the politai as an exclusively male, self-replicating ‘club’ of families, Roman citizenship is more expansive. For one, while it is ambiguous if women were considered citizens of Greek poleis, it is very clear that Roman women were cives, albeit cives with heavily restricted civic rights. There is thus no need in Rome for a class of ‘women of citizen status,’ because Roman women were simply citizens and could, in the right circumstances, pass on that citizenship to children. That has all sorts of follow-on implications: Roman women were valid targets of wills and bequests, they could own and inherit property, they could act as witnesses in court, bring court cases and indeed even argue such cases themselves (though that was rare), because those were the prerogatives of citizens. Which Roman women were. That said, political participation was limited to adult citizen males, with most offices having age requirements to serve.
That said, much like Greek political thought imagines the politai of the polis to be made up of oikoi, Roman legal and political thought understands the cives to be made up of familiae (singular familia). Familia is one of those dangerous Latin words because you want to translate it as ‘family’ (and sometimes can), but it has a bigger meaning than that. Put simply, a familia is the household of a free, adult male with no living male ancestors (the pater familias), including his wife (the mater familias), any sons they may have (married or unmarried) or unmarried daughters3, any children those children may have and all property – including enslaved people – owned by all of those individuals. An enslaved servant was thus a member of the familia, but not a ‘member of the family.’ Roman law understands the legal power of the pater familias within the familia to be absolute, to the point of being able to put any member to death (this seems to have almost never happened, but it was legally permitted). One could argue the state and Roman law exists between, but not within, these familiae: within the familia the pater familias is absolute and it is only outside the familia that his authority is balanced with the law or the state.4
A larger unit than the familia is the gens, which we might translate as ‘clan.’ This was an extended family unit composed of patrilineally related familiae. It is the name of the gens which is the Roman’s nomen, the middle name of the three-part Roman name (the trinomen). Which, given that a Roman has three names, a praenomen (fore-name), a cognomen (after-name) and a nomen (name) and the gens forms the nomen – this was an important part of identity. Thus Publius Cornelius Scipio’s nomen is Cornelius because he is of the gens Cornelia (by far the largest of the Roman gentes); the cognomen Scipio indicates a branch of that very large gens, while Publius (the praenomen) is his personal name. The bonds of the gens seem to have been very tight in the early republic, where individual gentes even sometimes went to war on their own, but by the Middle Republic, this had loosened. Still, there does seem to have been a general expectation that gentes or branches of them stuck together; you’d expect Scipiones to support each other politically, for instance.
Outside of the cives, there are Latini (‘Latins,’ non-Romans under the ius latinum, “the Latin right.” by the late third century these are rarely ethnic Latins who mostly have Roman citizenship at that date, but other communities of socii or residents of the ‘Latin colonies’ (see below)), socii (allies whose communities have a relationship with Rome, but are not Latins), peregreni (foreigners whose communities have no alliance with Rome) and servi (slaves). And we shouldn’t leave this merely implied: Rome was very much a slave society with a large enslaved underclass who were on the whole very poorly treated; enslaved people probably made up something like 15-20% of the population of Roman Italy in this period. There is also an odd category, cives sine suffragio, ‘citizens without the vote,’ who were members of Italian communities who couldn’t participate in Roman politics but who had the valuable legal rights of Roman citizens (under the ius civilis) rather than the more limited rights of foreigners (under the ius gentium). We’ll deal with these distinctions more when we get to the courts (and I may write a general side-bar on the socii-system). Finally, another odd category are liberti, freedpersons. These were enslaved people freed by Roman masters; such individuals gained Roman citizenship but with a few disabilities, like the inability to hold major magistracies or generally to serve in the army (but their children would be freeborn Romans with no such limitations).
Instead lets stay focused here on the cives. Some readers may be familiar with at least some of the formal distinctions among citizens that existed among Roman citizens, particularly the patrician/plebeian distinction and concept of an ordo senatorius (‘Senatorial order’)and an ordo equester (‘the Equestrian order’). I am going to now politely ask you to scrap what you think you know so we can start over, because these concepts are often so badly mangled in popular treatments and even in survey courses as to be unhelpful.
So let’s start with patricians and plebeians. This was a formal legal distinction; one was by birth one or the other. At the dawn of the republic, the leading families in Rome at the time, who sat in the Senate when it advised the kings (and who thus founded the republic itself) where the patricii, a title derived from senators being called patres (‘fathers,’ often patres conscripti). And in the early decades of the republic, political offices were restricted to members of these key families. Everyone else – the vast majority of Rome’s households – were plebeians. The thing is, from the mid-fourth century to the early third century (the Lex Hortensia of 287 marks the end of this process) the legal distinctions between the two groups largely collapsed as rich plebeian families successfully pushed to be ‘let in’ to full participation in Roman government. Consequently, by the mid-third century the distinction between patrician and plebeian is mostly politically unimportant. It does matter for religious purposes and being a patrician from a famous family is a nice status marker to have, but elite plebeian families are not rare in the Middle Republic.
So, repeat after me: the patrician/plebeian distinction is not particularly meaningful in the Middle Republic. There are rich plebeian families in the Middle Republic who are influential in politics.5 Do not anachronistically forward-project the political struggles of the fifth-through-early-third centuries onto the struggles of the late-second or first centuries. Plebeian is not a synonym for ‘poor.’
Meanwhile, the idea of a senatorial ‘order’ is entirely anachronistic for this period. There is a Senate (and we’re going to discuss it in some depth). It has roughly 300 members (all male), whose membership confers no legal status in this period on their families. The ordo senatorius as an actual thing only comes into existence with Augustus, after the end of the republic. There is a senate and senators but no ‘senatorial order.’
What there are are what our sources call nobiles, a term of the Late Republic which (among others) H.I. Flower uses to define the system of the Middle Republic – usefully so. To be nobilis was to be ‘well known,’ – the word comes to give us our word ‘noble’ but it doesn’t mean that yet, it means ‘notable.’ Families that got into high elected office in repeated generations (these are going to be very wealthy families; politics is not a game for the poor in Rome, as we’ll see) joined this informal club of nobiles. The exact borders of this club shifted, though generally only slowly, with small but significant numbers of new entrants as older families faded into relative obscurity (sometimes to surge back into prominence). But the movement is slow: from one generation to the next, most of the families of the nobiles remain the same, in part because Roman voters fairly clearly assume that the sons of great politicians will be great like their fathers.
Finally we have one more system of hierarchy to discuss here: clientela and patrocinium (two sides of the same coin), or as we’d say in English, patronage. At Rome as in many societies it was common for less wealthy, less influential citizens to entrust themselves to the protection of more powerful families in a reciprocal exchange. These sorts of patronage relationships were common in many societies, but they often carried a strong social stigma (as in Greece, for instance). In Roman Italy, however, patronage relationships of this sort were much less stigmatized and even elite Romans might, early in their career, be the clients of older, more established Roman politicians.
The basic exchange was as followed: the cliens agreed to support their patronus politically (to vote and canvass for him) and militarily (to volunteer to serve when he commanded an army if he needed trustworthy men) and in exchange the patronus agreed to protect his cliens legally (representing him in court, using his influence) and financially (being a source of emergency loans). There were social expectations too: clientes were expected to visit their patronus in the morning at least some of the time and might accompany him to the forum (see below), so the patronus would benefit from the status gained by his crowd of clientes. At the same time, neither cliens nor patronus will call the relationship that in public unless the status divide between them is extremely wide: instead they will insist they are amici (‘friends’) whose relationship is amicitia (‘friendship’), politely disguising an obviously hierarchical relationship as an equal one to avoid injuring anyone’s honor.
As you may well imagine these different lines cross: the nobiles were generally patroni (although up-and-coming politicians, even those from nobiles families, might still also be the clientes of yet more established politicians, while simultaneously having clientes of their own), whose network of clients formed a political ‘base’ of support in Roman politics. No one had enough clientes to simply win elections on that basis, but the network of clientes (and their clientes, this system can be nested) provided the durable foundation of political power for the nobiles, as patronage relationships were assumed to be inherited from one generation to the next.
But it also meant that many cives existed in a web of explicit (if politely obfuscated) obligations: members of the familia to the pater familias, that pater familias as a members of a gens but also as a cliens to his patronus and so on. The households of the cives are thus not atomized free-radicals, but understand to be interconnected by obligation and hieararchy. They are not the res publica, rather the res publica is what they all share together: those webs of obligation, at the top of which are the patres of the whole community, the patres conscripti of the Senate, who are of course also the biggest patrons and the patres familias of the most noble (nobilissimae, while we’re doing Latin) families.
There is a real ‘everyone with a place, everyone in his place’ vibe to all of that (though social mobility in this system is low, it is not zero), but the Romans seem broadly to have been pretty comfortable with these forms of hierarchy.6
A Mixed Constitution
The Romans, at least by the Late Republic, understood their form of government to be a ‘mixed constitution,’ an idea that appears first in Aristotle but was first applied to the Roman Republic, in so far as we can tell, by Polybius (Polyb. 6.11ff). Cicero adopts the same framework to understand the res publica in, appropriately enough, De re publica (‘On the Republic’). What that meant for both Polybius and Cicero was that power was balanced between monarchic, oligarchic and democratic elements in the constitution (which was, to be clear, unwritten). As Polybius puts it:
The three kinds of government that I spoke of above [monarchy, aristocracy, democracy] all shared in control of the Roman state. And such fairness and properity in all respects was shown in the use of these three elements for drawing up the constitution and in its subsequent administration that it was impossible even for a native to pronounce with certainty whether the whole system was aristocratic, democratic or monarchical. This was indeed only natural. For if one fixed one’s eyes on the power of the consuls, the constitution seemed completely monarchical and even royal; but if on that of the Senate, it seemed again aristocratic; and if one contemplated the authority of the many, it seemed clearly to be a democracy.7
Readers of the series on the polis will immediately note the basics of polis government: magistrates (the consuls, though more as we’ll see), plus a gerousia (the Senate) and the ‘authority of the many’ which you might guess – correctly – to be vested in popular assemblies. And that is indeed the basic structure by which the res publica governs itself; in this way it resembles a polis quite a lot, but as we’ll see there are some important differences in how each of the organs functions.
First, we have the magistrates. Polybius has simplified this quite a bit to merely the most senior magistrates, the consuls, but the Romans had a whole system of elected magistrates, a progression of offices in a ‘career path’ they called the cursus honorum. Much like many (but not all) Greek magistracies, these are not boards of officials but rather each official is fully empowered to act in his own sphere during his time in office. We’ll get into these fellows in more depth later, but the high magistracies of the res publica were (in ascending order of importance) the quaestors (treasury officials), the aediles (public works officials), the tribunes of the plebs (a tricky magistracy we’ll discuss in more depth), the praetors (mostly handling courts) and the consuls.
The praetors and the consuls (and dictators) had a power called imperium, which is what is the vast authority that leads Polybius to say they are nearly monarchs. We’ll get into imperium more later, but for now, imperium – literally the power of command – is the power to use legitimate violence on behalf of the state, either in the form of raising armies (external violence) or organizing courts (internal violence). While the imperium of a consul was superior to that of a praetor (so one could order the other), imperium itself was indivisible: you could not be a court official without also being able to command armies and vice-versa. These were, you may recall, powers that most poleis split up, but in Rome they come together, stuck together by the fact that to the Romans this was one power. That made the consuls – of which there were always two, each with the power to block the actions of the other – very powerful magistrates, almost absurdly so, compared to most Greek magistrates.
But Rome has a Senate, and oh boy does Rome have a Senate. The Senate has existed before the republic (and would exist after it) as an advisory body to the king, consisting of the heads of all of the most important elite families (who, after all, the king would want to listen to if he intended to stay king). And so it persisted into the republic as an advisory body to the magistrates, so that any magistrate looking to take an action might first ask the Senate if it seemed a good idea. The Senate has – and say it with me now (I make my classes chant this) – the Senate has no formal powers. Not a one. It cannot raise taxes, levy war, make laws, hold trials, nothing. It only advises, issuing opinions which are called senatus consulta.
But remember, this is a system where the Senate is composed of the heads of all of the most influential families. Who hold sway over their large gentes. And all of their clients. If a Roman politician wanted to ever have any future at all for himself or the careers of his family, he had to work with the Senate. Consequently, while the Senate only advised the magistrates, the advice of the Senate was almost always obeyed, giving it a tremendous guiding power of the state. This particular sort of influence has a name, the auctoritas Senatus – the Authority of the Senate. In the republic, the way one becomes a member of the Senate was to win election to lower office and then gain the – usually pro forma – approval of the censors (officials elected every five years to take the census), so the Senate was effectively a body ex-magistrates, the most notable and successful of the nobiles. Thus the combined auctoritas of the Senate was immense indeed.
Finally, never to do things by half, Rome has not one or two but four popular assemblies, though one (the Comitia Curiata) might as well not exist by our period. The remaining three assemblies (the Comitia Centuriata, the Comitia Tributa and the Concilium Plebis) all can pass laws, they can all have a rare judicial function and they all elect magistrates (but different ones). Assemblies are pretty tightly controlled: they can only meet when convened by the right magistrate and can only vote on the proposal the magistrate puts to them (and cannot modify it or deliberate on it; up or down vote). That makes them seem quite weak except that they’re the only way to elect magistrates, the only way to pass laws (remember: the Senate cannot legislate, repeat until numb), the only way to declare war or ratify a peace treaty.
We’ll get into the complicated current arguments over just how democratic these assemblies really were, but I think Polybius here is owed some deference. While the assemblies were often just a consensus mechanism getting the people lined up collectively behind a decision reached by the magistrates and the Senate, so long as there were divisions in the oligarchy – and there were almost always divisions in the oligarchy – there was potentially a lot of power for assemblies to express. Though as we’ll see, the assemblies are not democratic in the ‘one person, one vote’ sense.
If the res publica was not simply a gathering of citizens nor was it – as we’ll see – a place (though it was in a place), it was these institutions and their balancing. These were, after all, things in common – res that were publica and it seems no accident that when writing on de re publica it is these things (along with law and the ideal sort of citizen) that Cicero writes.
The Republic in Place: Romae, Domi and Militiae
(Quick fun exercise for Latin students: what case are those Latin words in? Answer to follow!)
Of course the Roman Republic also existed in physical space. But whereas a polis could be understood as a place with a set of component spatial parts, the res publica was not a place or spatial designation itself. Instead, the republic existed in a specific place and that place was Rome. The Athenians could imagine moving the citizen body out of Attica and thereby re-founding Athens somewhere else (and indeed, explicitly threaten to do so, Hdt. 8.62), because the polis was the politae and went where they went. At the same time, as we’ve noted, in Greek the word polis could simply mean the urban core of the community; it could be a synonym of astu (‘town’).
Neither is true for the Romans. While in Greek the polis was both the place and the state (the word could mean both things), that synonymy doesn’t exist in Latin: the urbs is not the res publica, rather the res publica operates within the urbs. At the same time, Rome cannot move and the res publica can operate nowhere else, something the Romans understood to be a divinely ordained fate, a fundamental fact about the universe (the idea shows up in both Vergil’s Aeneid, of course, but also Cicero’s De re publica, inter alia). And so the res publica isn’t composed of component geographical spaces so much as it operates in or controls geographical space. Whereas the polis consisted of an urban core (the astu) and its hinterlands (the chora) in a real sense the Roman Republic lived only in Rome and just so happened to also control a countryside. Put another way, a polis was understood as being both the house and the yard, both equally specific to the politae; the Roman Republic was a thing that exclusively existed in the house, but exercised jurisdiction over the yard, which was outside of it. Once again this is a fine distinction I don’t want to overstress, but I think it is also a meaningful one.
Nevertheless, physical space does matter and it is worth discussing so let’s do so in two quick movements, first working outward from the edge of the city and then inward.
Rome itself was ritually defined by a sacred boundary, the pomerium around the city itself; the phrase means something like ‘beyond the [city] wall’ but in practice the pomerium might only imperfectly match the city’s actual defensive wall at any given time. The larger point is that this sacred boundary covered only the urban core: no part of Rome’s hinterland was within it; indeed as the city grew, large portions of the urban core were outside of it. The pomerium was a ritual boundary but one with legal significance. Weapons were banned within the pomerium and the powers of certain magistrates (those with imperium, a concept we’ll return to) were diminished within it, while the powers of other magistrates (the tribunes of the plebs) did not extend beyond it. Roman armies could only operate, legally, outside the pomerium so war was an activity that, by definition took place outside this zone (which is why the later stages of the dilectus must happen on the campus Martius, the ‘Field of Mars,’ which sits just outside the pomerium).
Outside of the pomerium was the ager Romanus, ‘the Roman field,’ a term which designated the territory directly controlled by Rome and inhabited by Roman citizens in Italy. By the third century, this was no small amount of territory but encompassed around a third of peninsular Italy, as the Romans tended, when they won wars, to strip defeated communities of some of their land, annexing it into the ager Romanus. Much of this territory was relatively close to Rome but some of it was not. Often the Romans founded colonies of Roman citizens in restive parts of Italy to serve effectively as garrisons or security bulwarks; some of these colonies retained Roman citizenship, while in others the colonists instead took citizenship in the new community and status as ‘Latins’ in Rome (thus leading to the situation that, by the late second century, most of the ‘Latin colonies’ are in fact transplanted Romans, not Latins, which goes some way to explaining their loyalty to Rome in a crisis). There were also municipia [towns] cum suffragio, that is towns that were locally self-governing but whose citizens were also Roman citizens and could participate in Roman governance.
Then of course there was the rest of Italy, which the Romans understood, by our period (starting 287 BC) to be under the imperium populi Romani (‘the control of the Roman people,’ though imperium in this sense gives us our word ’empire’). The non-Roman communities of Italy were bound by treaty to support Rome in an ‘alliance system’ that was a thinly disguised system of imperial domination. We’ll talk more about this system in a separate post, but we should note that the Romans understand these as distinct communities under the imperium of the Roman people, not as constituent parts of the res publica.
Likewise, moving further out, beginning in 241, Rome begins establishing permanent control of territories overseas in what come to be the provinciae or provinces. Initially the word provincia simply indicated an assignment, a job for a Roman magistrate – generally a consul or praetor – to take an army somewhere and either wage war or ‘keep the peace.’ Over time those assignments became routine as Roman power expanded, leading to the understanding of the provinces as permanent administrative a geographical divisions. But fundamentally a province (at least, during the period of the republic) was a sphere of Roman foreign policy, to which a magistrate was sent with an army to administer.
One way to understand this is through a common binary opposition in Roman language: domi (‘at home’) vs. militiae (‘at military service’).8 If you weren’t domi (‘at home’) then you were militiae (‘at military service,’ sometimes also rendered as belli, ‘at war’). Much of Italy might be a grey area that could be both domi or militiae depending on circumstances (though sometimes Romae, ‘at Rome,’ replaces domi in the opposition, making it rather more specific), but the provinces were always militiae, a sphere of activity and service, a place the res publica exerted its imperium, but not a place it inhabited itself. As such in this period provinces have fuzzy, rather than defined outward borders: assuming a province isn’t an island, it can always be pushed further through more military activity. After all, military activity is what the provinces are for.
Moving instead inward into the city of Rome, the city itself sat along the Tiber; in this period it was not quite yet divided by it, but instead occupied the seven hills (and the lower ground between them) of the southern bank of the river. The seven hills, of course, are the Capitoline, Palatine, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, Viminal and Quirinal. The Capitoline hill (or Capitolium, which might also just refer to the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the hill) was the Roman equivalent of an acropolis and was where Rome’s most important temples were, particularly the aforementioned temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximums, “Jupiter, the Greatest and the Best.”9 The Palatine hill, the central hill of the bunch, was the traditional seat of Rome’s upper-class, where the wealthiest families would have their houses. In the imperial period, it would become the normal site for the imperial residence itself, eventually leading to our word ‘palace.’ The Aventine hill, unusual in the bunch, sat outside the pomerium and seems both to have been associated with the plebeians as a sort of mirror to the patrician Palatine, as well as an association with foreign elements (both people and gods) transitioning into membership in the Roman community.
In the space between the six northern hills, hugging the slopes of the Capitoline and Palatine, was the forum Romanum. Originally a swampy, lowland space, it was drained in the seventh century creating a common space for the communities that had developed on Rome’s hills an probably marking the beginning of Rome’s coalescence into a single community. By the Middle Republic, it was the long-established center of Roman political life. It featured both key political and religious buildings. Of particular political import was the comitium, initially the site of Rome’s public assemblies (though by this point some of those have moved) as well as the curia Hostilia, the Senate’s primary meeting point (though it might meet elsewhere as well). Also on the forum was the rostra (literally ‘beaks’ or ‘rams’) a large speaker’s platform decorated with six warship rams (rostra) captured in 338 BC, which was the standard place for political events like speeches. The courts also operated in the forum.
It is difficult to overstate the centrality of the forum to Roman political life and thus the res publica. As we’ll see, Rome’s system of government is a face-to-face one, where basically all functions must be done in person. The forum was where that happened and political writers – especially Cicero – routinely stress the importance of being in the forum, of being seen in the forum and being heard in the forum as part of the job of one of the nobiles and indeed of course the thing that made one nobilis – notable, known – in the first place.
Also of note was the campus Martius, the ‘Field of Mars,’ which sits just outside the pomerium in the bend of the Tiber river to the north-west of the city. The campus Martius originated as Rome’s muster field where the army was drawn up at the start of the campaigning season. It was also where the Roman census took place (we’ll talk about this more when we get to magistrates). It was also a big, open assembly place and so as Rome grew larger, the most complex of Rome’s voting assemblies, the comitia centuriata, moves out into this space because it no longer really fit in the forum. In the Late Republic this space, no longer as essential as a military muster point, begins to be the site of building, both of temples and eventually private residences; in the imperial period it is wholly built up. But during the Middle Republic, this is mostly an open space, with just a few major structures.
All of which seems like too short an introduction to this tangled, messy thing called the res publica, but this post is already overlong and overdue, so it will have to serve. If anything, putting this series together in a messy, ad hoc manner is fully in character for the Roman Republic; as we’ll see it too is the result not of some deliberate plan or grand moment of foundation so much as the product of one messy ad hoc bandaid solution laid over another, over another.
- We’ll come to this later, but I think there is a tendency online for a lot of folks to essentially pronounce the Millarian-view of the republic as ‘dead,’ but this is not my experience among Roman historians, where often Millarian views, in weakened, modified forms, persist beyond Mouritsen and Morstein-Marx’s assaults. Of course we can’t write about this because you must have a last name starting with the letter M in order to write on Roman politics, by ancient custom. As we’ll see, I am a bit more Millarian, but for different reasons: I think some deference is owed to how Polybius understands the system he is observing to work and despite being very skeptical of democracy and desiring to be very approving of the Roman constitution, he feels the need to stress that its democratic elements work. I think we should believe him.
- ‘Romanus’ the adjective, modifies both senatus and populus, so both the Senate and the People are Roman. The phrase is often rendered into more idiomatic English as, “the Senate and People of Rome” to make that clearer.
- Simplification note: the place of married daughters in the familia gets very complex very fast and isn’t something to delve into here. Maybe we can deal with Roman marriage law in a later post.
- But in practice, custom and social expectations seem to have significantly restrained the actions of the pater familias. In particular the absolute power to kill or disinherit seems to have been exercised so rarely that it mostly belonged to legends (except for infant exposure, which does appear as a more regular practice in our sources; we are not well enough informed about the practice to estimate its magnitude. Exposed infants seem often to have been taken in and raised by other households as slaves. While older scholarship often assumed extensive sex-selective exposure, the gender ratios we see in our evidence doesn’t support that; likewise the evidence we have for marital fertility patterns suggests that exposure may have been rare for children born in wedlock and may have been more typical for children born out of wedlock, on this see Frier, “Demography” (2000), 803-4).
- But not many poor patrician families. Wealth and power in the republic tend to be sticky.
- When we do see conflict is when families which are notable cannot engage in politics (the Struggle of the Orders) or when families which ‘ought’ to be respectable free-holding farmers struggle to maintain that status (part of the crisis of the Late Republic).
- Polyb 6.11, trans. Paton rev. Walbank and Habicht with slight modifications by me.
- That’s right, Latin students: these were locative case nouns!
- It is the most defensible of the hills, but not actually the tallest (the Quirinal is higher).