What is the Roman Republic?

C. K. Lanz

The Roman Republic denotes a particular epoch of Roman history that began in 509 BC when the Roman monarchy was overthrown by Junius Brutus and a republican form of government was established. This new form of government headed by two elected consuls emphasized a system of checks and balances and the establishment and separation or autonomy of three branches of government: the executive, legislative and judicial. A senate and an assembly were also established under the Roman Republic. Rome’s republican government endured for nearly 500 years until a series of civil wars resulted in the Principate or the initial era of the Roman Empire in approximately 27 BC.

Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor after the republic.
Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor after the republic.

The most powerful politicians in the Roman Republic were the two consuls who controlled the Roman army and who were elected to one-year terms by the assembly. Consuls were members of the senate as well as patricians or members of Rome’s noble elite. The consuls selected all members of the Roman senate and essentially administered all aspects of the government by supervising other officials and representatives. Consuls not only could act as judges but also had the power to chose and install a dictator for a six-month term if necessary. As a check on the authority of the consuls, any decisions made had to unanimous since both had the power of veto.

Much of the symbolism and structure of the U.S. Senate was based on the senate of the Roman Republic.
Much of the symbolism and structure of the U.S. Senate was based on the senate of the Roman Republic.

All 300 members of the Roman Republic’s senate were patricians like the consuls. Senators were appointed for life by the consuls and approved by the other members as seats opened. Only the consuls could remove a senator from power. The Roman Senate managed the Republic’s budget and finances and was concerned with foreign policy. The senate issued decrees called senatus consultum that served as advice for the consuls who frequently followed these mandates.

The Roman Republic began around 509 BC.
The Roman Republic began around 509 BC.

In addition to the senate, the Roman Republic also included an assembly that included any plebeian citizen. A plebeian was anyone born into Rome’s lower or non-noble classes. The assembly, unlike the senate, did not have its own building but instead the plebeians would gather in the Forum or principal business center and marketplace to argue for or against a cause and also to vote on the issues of the day. Although the senate could block most of the assembly’s decisions including whether or not to declare war, it was the assembly that chose the two senators who would serve as consuls. As a result, any senator who desired to be consul had to gain the support of and express sympathy with the plebeians.

The Romans used aqueducts to transport water to major urban centers.
The Romans used aqueducts to transport water to major urban centers.

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Discussion Comments


@robbie21 - You make an interesting analogy. I've always noticed parallels, myself, between the fall of the Roman Republic and the fall of the Galactic Republic in the Star Wars series! Both were bloated republics that couldn't seem to get anything done. They lacked a strong leader and went too far in the other direction.

Americans, on the other hand, have perhaps an unusually strong leader for a republic/democracy. We have one president (not two) and he (so far) is elected for four-year terms, not one. Obviously, there are pretty serious limits on his power, as we do not have an elected monarchy, though these seem to vary from one administration to the next. But I wonder if already having a strong single leader in place would help prevent a slide from republic to dictatorship.


I think the important think to notice about the Roman Republic's place in history is that it fell. I think Americans in particular tend to think that our way of life will continue unchanged indefinitely and that there's basically nothing that could come along to change it, but the Romans show us otherwise.

Their republic had a long history--nearly five hundred years--and it, too, seemed entrenched. And yet within a span of a couple generations, it had been replaced by a de facto monarchy. Oh, sure, it was gradual. Julius Caesar was just "dictator for life" and Augustus Caesar was just the "first citizen." But the senators and plebians let it happen.

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