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6-08-2015, 15:09

The Government and Economy

When the Roman Republic overthrew the king
and took power in 509 BCE, a new system
of government began. Instead of one monarch
ruling Rome, the Senate became the most powerful
governing body.

The Senate had 300 to 600 senators.1 The number fluctuated over time.
Senators, always men, were former magistrates, or government officials. In
order to become a senator, a man first had to serve as a military officer. The
next step was to be elected as a quaestor, or financial official. Once a man
was elected quaestor, the lowest position in the Senate, he became part of
the Senate for life, unless the other senators expelled him. The next position
was aedile, or a public works official. He could then hold a higher office
within the Senate: the position of praetor, or judicial official.
These positions could not be held one right after the other. Magistrates
would hold each office for one year, after which they would return to their
private lives for one year. Each year, two consuls were elected to head the
government and command the army in times of war. Because these positions
were unpaid, only the wealthy could afford to serve as consuls.
Initially, only patricians could serve in government. By the 300s and
200s BCE, plebeians gained a degree of power after serving in the military
to help fight wars. They banded together and formed their own assembly,
the Concilium Plebis. They did not have power over the Senate, but they did
confirm magistrates to their position within the Senate. The assembly also
provided a discussion forum in which the people could voice their concerns.

The assembly elected its own leaders, called tribunes, who fought for
causes in the working class. In 287 BCE, plebians succeeded in winning the
right to have decrees they passed carry the force of law. Finally, in matters of
politics and religion, they were equal with the patricians. The tribunes had
the power to veto any law the Senate made. Still, the real control of power
remained with the richest families serving in the Senate.


When members of the Senate killed Caesar in 44 BCE, they did so to keep the
republic functioning as the government of Rome. While they succeeded in
killing Caesar, they failed in achieving their goal. After a civil war, Octavian
brought peace to Rome. He became the first emperor of the Roman Empire in
27 BCE and took the name Augustus. After nearly 500 years of functioning as
a republic, Rome had one ruler.
Augustus’s rise to power ushered in a new form of government. The
Senate continued and retained some power, but the emperor could overrule
its decisions. The emperor had supreme authority, including control of the
army, the ability to create new laws, and the authority to nominate consuls.
He relied on personal advisers to help him make laws and head the army.
The emperor also chose senators and consuls. Elections continued, but
the emperor nominated the candidates, ensuring his preferred people would
be elected. The Senate lost a considerable amount
of power.


Rome’s legal system developed with the city,
republic, and empire. In 451 BCE, the Roman
Republic published Lex XII Tabularum, “Law of the
Twelve Tables,” which was the empire’s first code
of law. Ten commissioners wrote it for the sake of
plebeians, who believed court decisions were made
from unwritten laws based on custom and were
known only to a small group of patricians. The
Twelve Tables did not establish new laws. Rather, the
group put existing laws in writing that could be read
and understood by everyone. The plebeians believed
laws should be established and set in writing for all
to know, so they could protect themselves against
patricians abusing their power. All Romans respected
the Twelve Tables as a prime source of legal rules.
With time, the code became more complex, and
ancient Rome became the first Western society to have professional lawyers.
Citizens also elected judges.
Over time, a set of legal principles called the ius gentium, “law of nations,”
arose. It took a more common sense approach to the law and focused on
fairness, as opposed to the ius civile, “citizen law,” laws that were specific to
the political community of Rome. In 438 CE, a group of legal experts working
under the orders of Emperor Theodosius II created the Theodosian Code.
This and the Digest, a collection of law cases and decisions that Emperor
Justinian collected in the 500s CE, provide much of what is now understood
about the system of Roman law.


The Roman Empire provided a common market for a vast area of land and
millions of people. Most people living in the western portions of the empire
could speak Latin, which facilitated commerce. Traders moved goods by sea
and on roadways. Regular shipping trade routes crossed the sea between
Rome and Egypt. Imports aplenty came into the city of Rome from around
the world.
With an ever-growing population, the city of Rome had a substantial
need for food. Each year, Rome imported more than 400,000 short tons
(300,000 metric tons) of grain from Africa, Egypt, and Sicily.2 Spain provided
a variety of goods, including black wool, honey, olive oil, red dye, wax,
and wine. France supplied wine, while Syria provided glassware and cloth.
Greece was a source for clothing items, such as shoes. Merchant ships also
brought precious natural resources from beyond the empire’s borders:
marble from North Africa and Asia, silks from the Far East, and gemstones
from India. Rome was a bustling, thriving metropolis.


The Roman Forum began as a cattle market in Rome’s early days. It was
situated at the center of the city. Over time, it became a central meeting
place. Markets continued in the Forum, which was simply an open space.
It also became the center of civic life. Street vendors mingled with
magistrates in the bustling locale.
The courts of law, the Senate House, and offices of the city’s important
businessmen and bankers were arranged around the Forum. Temples also
occupied space in the
Forum’s perimeter. Every
day, senators met in
the Forum. Over time,
the place grew to be
quite crowded. Pieces
of the Forum’s various
structures remain today.