The Constitution of the Roman Republic was a live document, a set of unwritten, frequently edited and developed laws and principles that dictated everything from war to behavior in the society. These laws were under constant scrutiny by those who made them and whom they governed.
The equestrians – equites – were those in the citizen community who could afford to bring horses to war as part of their military obligations. They were the principal source of the cavalry of the early Roman army with small horses and light armor. Roman equites, though the wealthiest group within early Roman society, owned comparatively small estates and large farms worked by slaves. The senior officers of the Roman army (military tribunes) were drawn from the equestrian class.
The Senate was the principal political institution in ancient Rome. The senate passed decrees, which were called senatus consulta. These were, on paper, the senate’s advice to the magistrates, in reality though, the magistrates almost always followed them. The senate, in addition to formulating the foreign policy and everyday laws, had extensive powers over the state’s budget and in military affairs. The power of the senate expanded over time as the power of the legislative assemblies declined.
Senators were drawn from the ranks of equites, belonging to the wealthy land-owning group within society. They were initially appointed by the consuls and later by the censors. Nepotism was a common practice when it came to election to the senate. However, every once in a while a few able and ambitious “New Men” or Novi Homines, managed to become senators. The senators formed a distinct, practically hereditary, class within Roman society. The further elite in this class produced the consuls generally.
Citizens were organized on the basis of centuries and tribes, which would each gather into their own assemblies.
The Comitia Centuriata
The Comitia Centuriata also called the Centuriate Assembly was the assembly of the centuries (the soldiers) that elected censors and magistrates who had imperium (consuls and praetors). It served as the highest appellate court for many judicial disputes. The president of this assembly was generally the consul. The centuries would vote, one by one, till a majority was reached. Only this assembly could declare war, and ratify the results of a census.
The Comitia Tributa
The Comitia Tributa was the assembly of the tribes (i.e., the citizens of Rome consisting 35 tribes) that elected quaestors, curule aediles, and military tribunes.
The tribes were based on geographical subdivisions only. They would take vote seldom to pass laws, in an arbitrary fashion, till a majority was reached after which voting would stop. The assembly was presided over by a consul.
The Plebeian Council
The Plebeian Council was identical to the assembly of the tribes, minus the patricians and passed most laws. The assembly could also act as a court of appeal. It elected its own officers, tribunes and aediles. A plebeian tribune presided over the assembly.
The Senate assigned every magistrate a provincia or the jurisdiction for a geographical or constitutional sphere. The powers of a magistrate came from the people of Rome. Magistrates had the power of coercitio (coercion) to maintain public order by penalizing crimes. Magistrates also had both the power and the duty to look for omens to ensure stability in the Republic.
Every magistrate’s office was held by two people at a time to keep a check on the misuse of powers (the check was called Collega or collegiality). Another such check was provocatio. All citizens, when in Rome, were protected from coercion, by provocatio, which followed the pattern of due process. Once a magistrate’s one-year term of office expired, he could not hold that office again for the next ten years.
The consuls of the Roman Republic were the highest-ranking ordinary magistrates. They adopted the former regalia of Rome’s kings to represent their own office, such as the toga praetexta and the fasces, which represented the power to inflict physical punishment. They also retained the kings’ power to command or imperium and selection of new senators. The consul’s authority outside the walls of Rome was absolute.
Praetors administered civil law and commanded provincial armies. Two Censors were elected for an 18-month term after every five years to conduct a census. They could enroll or remove citizens in the senate. Aediles were officers elected to conduct domestic affairs in Rome, such as managing public games and shows. The Quaestors would usually assist the consuls and governors in financial matters.
The Tribunes of the plebeians were considered sacrosanct, so much so, that the plebeians would take oaths and pledges to kill any individual who harmed them or interfered with their office. It was a capital offense to harm a tribune, to disregard his veto, or to otherwise interfere with him.
As Rome grew in power from a single city-state, its constitution also expanded its horizons by adapting and accommodating the new citizens the Republic brought under its folds. The changes were brought all too often as a result of dissent and conflict between the various divisions of the people. No matter how it changed, the basic ideology and practice of the constitution that dictated the government remained the same at least in principle. Though, by its very end, these foundations had eroded because of years of exposure to corrupt magistrates and greedy individuals.