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UE: POL 110-HA: Democracy in Troubled Times: Roman Republic

Practical Instruction in Civic Discourse

Overview - The Roman Republic

Senātus Populusque Rōmānus ("The Senate and People of Rome")

The Roman Republic was established when the patrician class overthrew the traditional dynastic monarchy. From its very beginning the Roman Republic came in conflict with the surrounding peoples and rose to prominence on the Italian peninsula as a slowly but inexorably expanding military power. Internally, the Roman Republic was beset with continuous discord between the upper-class patricians and the lower-class plebeians, who shared rule through the Senate, on the one side, and the Tribunes, on the other.  The Roman Republic regularly employed two annually elected Consuls to lead its military forces on campaigns; but, under extreme stress, a single Dictator was appointed to direct all the affairs of state, albeit temporarily. The 15th Century realist political philosopher Machiavelli greatly admired Republican Rome, as did the 17th Century French political philosopher Montesquieu, who developed the modern notion of separation of powers. The Founding Fathers were steeped in knowledge of the history of ancient Rome, more so than classical Athens, and the influence of the Roman Republic and its leading statesmen is present in their writings and political actions.

Essential Question

Many have compared the United States to the Roman Republic and have projected its flaws and failures onto today's preeminent global power. Is the United States doomed to go the way of the Roman Republic?

Copyright © 2013 - Hudson Reynolds, Ph.D.

Roman Political Institutions {SPQR}

Three branches of government in Republican Rome


From the Founding of Rome in c. 753 B.C. to c. 509 B.C., Rome was a monarchy, ruled by kings. In 509 (possibly), the Romans expelled their Etruscan kings and established the Roman Republic. Having witnessed the problems of monarchy on their own land, and aristocracy and democracy among the Greeks, the Romans opted for a mixed form of government, with 3 branches of government.

Consuls - The Monarchical Branch of Roman Government in the Roman Republic

Two magistrates called consuls carried on the functions of the former kings, holding supreme civil and military authority in Republican Rome. However, unlike the kings, the office of consul lasted for only one year. At the end of their year in office, the ex-consuls became senators for life, unless ousted by the censors.

Powers of the Consuls

  • Consuls held imperium and had the right to 12 lictors each.
  • Each consul could veto the other.
  • They led the army,
  • Served as judges, and
  • Represented Rome in foreign affairs.
  • Consuls presided over the comitia centuriata.

Consulship Safeguards

The 1-year term, veto, and co-consulship were safeguards to prevent one of the consuls from wielding too much power.

Emergency Contingency: In times of war a single dictator could be appointed for a 6-month term.

Senate - The Aristocratic Branch of Roman Government in the Roman Republic

Senate (senatus = council of elders [related to the word "senior"]) was the advisory branch of the Roman government, early on composed of about 300 citizens who served for life. They were chosen by the kings, at first, then by the consuls, and by the end of the 4th century, by the censors. The ranks of the Senate, drawn from ex-consuls and other officers. Property requirements changed with the era. At first senators were only patricians but in time plebeians joined their ranks.

Assembly - The Democratic Branch of Roman Government in the Roman Republic

The Assembly of Centuries (comitia centuriata), which was composed of all members of the army, elected consuls annually. The Assembly of Tribes (comitia tributa), composed of all citizens, approved or rejected laws and decided issues of war and peace.


Sometimes dictators were at the head of the Roman Republic. Between 501-202 B.C. there were 85 such appointments. Normally, dictators served for 6 months and acted with the consent of the Senate. They were appointed by the consul or a military tribune with consular powers. The occasions of their appointment included war, sedition, pestilence, and sometimes for religious reasons.

Sulla was appointed dictator for an undefined period, and was dictator until he stepped down, but Julius Caesar was officially appointed dictator in perpetuo meaning that there was no set end point to his dominance.


  • The Classical World, Vol. 67, No. 3 (Dec., 1973 - Jan., 1974), pp. 172-175 Ancient/Classical History - prepared by N.S. Gill> [09/13/13]

Rome becomes an independent city

In 509 BC the Etruscan dynasty of the Tarquins was overthrown, and replaced by the republic; the term res publica means 'public business.’ The coup that overthrew Tarquin the Proud left the Romans with a hatred of kings. By c.500 BC the Roman community probably numbered about 35,000 male citizens, divided along class lines but united in its espousal of freedom and republican values.  As Cicero was to write in his sixth Philippic, ‘that the Roman people should ever not be free is contrary to all the laws of heaven’. 

In republican Rome power was divided among magistrates, according to the principle of collegiality.

The consuls
Tradition maintained that the headship of the state had immediately passed from the expelled monarch to a pair of magistrates, called consuls. Each of the consuls was invested with absolute imperium, the administrative power conferring command of the army and the interpretation and execution of the law.  They wore togas bordered with purple, the colour of the former kings, sat in a special chair of state and were accompanied by lictors, a body of twelve men, each bearing on his shoulder the fasces. When they left office, they retained their prestige through membership of the Senate.

However, there were two extremely important practical restrictions that in theory made it impossible for a consul to assume the powers of a king.

  1. They were elected only for a single year
  2. They were subject to each other’s vetoes.
The Senate
Roman government was officially described as SPQR (the Senate and the Roman people’. In the 3rd century BC Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, called the Senate ‘an assembly of kings’.

The Senate was the Republic’s advisory body, a role they had probably inherited from the kings.  From the late fourth century, senators were chosen by the censors. The Senate consisted of three hundred men from the ruling families whose members possessed a property qualification. It met frequently, perhaps forty times a year whenever summoned by the consuls, and it sat either in the Curia or in one of the several temples. It advised the elected officials on domestic and foreign policy, finance, religion, and legislative proposals.  The senators had little direct power (their decrees did not have the force of law) but enormous prestige (auctoritas). Because they were appointed for life, they were the most continuous element in the structure of the state. They wore togas with broad purple stripes and had the front seats in the theatre. They were addressed as patres conscripti. Senators were also members of the priestly colleges of Augurs and Pontiffs. The religious role of the Senate is extremely important, as it provided the principal link between men and gods. Its religious function added greatly to its prestige.

The consuls were elected, not by the Senate but by the Assembly of Roman citizens (comitia centuriata). However, the Assembly was weighted so that the better off possessed greater voting powers than the poor. Moreover, candidates to the consulship came from the senatorial classes.

The magistracies
The executive government of Rome was in the hands of magistrates elected for one year at a time on the principle of collegiality. Magistrates were unpaid, which meant that only the rich could hold office. Standing for a magistracy meant canvassing people personally, going into the Forum in a specially whitened toga, the toga candidate and persuading people to vote.

  1. Quaestors (established 447): these were specialist financial officials
  2. Censors: two censors were elected every four years for a duration of eighteen months in order to make up and maintain the official list of citizens for military purposes and taxation.  They also had a religious function – renewing the prayers of the people for the favour of the gods. The first Roman of whose historical existence we can be certain is Appius Claudius, censor in 312 BC. During his period of office he built the first of Rome’s aqueducts, the Aqua Appia, which brought water to the city from the Sabine hills in an underground tunnel (including one mile of overground conduit) and the Via Appia linking Rome to the south.
  3. Praetors (established 367): they were responsible for the specialist functions of the administration of justice.
  4. Aediles (established 494): they were responsible for public works. As Rome expanded, this became an extremely significant post.
  5. Tribunes (see below).
The struggle of the Orders

The the basic division of Roman society, one that predated the Republic, was between patricians and plebeians. The patricians monopolized the Consulship, the Senate, the inherited religious rites, and the control of the law and the calendar. During the 5th century some 53 patrician clans (gentes) are known, comprising a closed boy of not more than 1,000 families. 

However the remaining 90% of the non-slave population were the plebs.  Not all of the plebs were poor – some were wealthy traders who resented their exclusion from politics.  However, for the majority of the plebs, their grievances were economic. In 494 in a remarkable assertion of power, the plebeians marched up the Aventine Hill and swore to each other a corporate oath of mutual support.  The result was a major concession by the patricians – the creation of a new office, that of Tribune of the Plebs, one of the most important of the Roman magistracies. Ten tribunes were to be elected annually by a new Assembly, the Concilium Plebis or Comitia Tributa, the people organized by tribus, are of domicile. As with the other Assemblies, voting was by groups rather than by simple numerical majority. Tribunes were immune from prosecution. The office of tribune was the means by which an ambitious man could gain power.

The plebeians won further victories. They secured legal rights in 451 when the Twelve Tables became the basis of Roman law. In 287 BC the lex Hortensia asserted that through their assemblies the plebeians could make laws that were binding on the entire Roman people. They had thus succeeded in their basic aim of breaking the legal monopoly of the patricians. By the 2nd century Cato could assume that there were no formal barriers in the way of any citizen acquiring the highest office in the state. Any plebeian elected to the consulship became ennobled. However it is easy to exaggerate the importance of the novi homines, when all the great offices, including that of Tribune of the Plebs, were actually occupied by patricians. There was probably a property qualification for public office. 

The equestrians
By the 3rd century BC a new class had emerged – the equestrian order (the knights) as an intermediate group between the Senate and the people. They had originally been Rome’s cavalry. In this position they had many opportunities of advancement. The absence of a civil service meant that as Rome acquired her empire, she turned to these men as professional financiers and administrators.  They possessed a certain income (enough to supply a horse for the cavalry) but they were merchants and businessmen rather than politicians. The expansion of Roman territory gave the equestrians many opportunities of advancing themselves. They helped to supply the army with equipment and to convert war booty into transferable cash.

The concept of citizenship
Roman citizenship was a high honour. It was the supreme privilege to be able to say with Cicero ‘civis romanus sum’. However, in contrast to the exclusive nature of Athenian citizenship, anyone living in Rome who was not a slave was a Roman citizen. Even more importantly, to the astonishment of Greek observers, a slave freed by a Roman citizen also became a citizen. The citizens were united by a loyalty to the Republic, represented by the letters SPQR. Following the Social War of 91 BC (see later post) citizenship was extended throughout the Italian peninsula.

Cato, looking appropriately severe

The concept of citizenship was bound up with a set of republican moral values, best summed up in the career and character of Marcus Portius Cato, known as Cato the Elder (243-149BC). He was seen to embody the virtues of gravitas, frugalitas, severitas and simplicitas. These contrasted with the oriental characteristic of luxuria.

Roman values were militaristic. Citizens had to serve in the army and consuls and other magistrates were ineligible for office until they had served for ten years in the military. Aspiring politicians of senatorial rank progressed through the cursus honorum, a combination of military and political administrative posts.

As Rome was transformed from a small city state to the greatest conquering power the world had ever seen, traditional Roman values came under threat.

  1. An enormously wealthy class of citizen emerged that despised the old virtues of austerity and simplicity
  2. Powerful generals were able to undermine the very republican institutions that had been set up to prevent one man from gaining too much power.


Roman Dictator - Cincinnatus

The story of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus

By Senator Robert Carlysle Byrd (D-WV)

Oh, that we could review again the story of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who in the year 458 B.C. was called upon by a delegation from the Roman senate. And upon inquiring why this delegation had come to him to interrupt his plowing of his small farm of three acres alongside the Tiber River, he was informed that the senate had decided to thrust upon him the power of a dictator so that he could rid Rome of the threat of certain tribes to the east, the Aequians. And being the loyal patriot that he was, Cincinnatus turned to his wife Racilia and said, `We may not have enough food to live on this winter because we won't be able to sow our fields.' Nevertheless, he wiped his perspiring forehead, took on the regalia of a dictator, and loyally assumed the responsibilities and duties that the Roman senate had placed upon him. He rid the city of Rome of the threats, and he relieved the Roman legions that were being surrounded by the armies of the tribes to the east. Within 16 days, he had accomplished this mission. And he turned back the powers of dictatorship. So there was the old-fashioned model of simplicity, the old-fashioned model of one who did not seek power, who did not want power. He did not want the power thrust upon him, but he willingly gave up this power.


From the History of Rome by Titus Livius, 3.26
6.  A large body of Sabines, committing dreadful devastation, approached very close to the walls of the city. The fields were laid waste, the city was struck with terror. Then the commons cheerfully took up arms; two large armies were raised, the tribunes remonstrating to no purpose. [2]  Nautius led the one against the Sabines; and having pitched his camp at Eretum, by small detachments, generally by nightly incursions, he effected such desolation in the Sabine land, that, when compared to it, the Roman territories seemed intact by an enemy. [3]  Minucius had neither the same success nor the same energy of mind in conducting his business; for after he had pitched his camp at no great distance from the enemy, without having experienced any considerable loss, he kept himself through fear within the camp. [4]  When the enemy perceived this, their boldness increased, as sometimes happens, from others' fears; and having attacked his camp by night, when open force did not succeed well, they on the following day drew lines of circumvallation around it. Before these could close up all the passes, by a vallum being thrown up on all sides, five horsemen being despatched between the enemies' posts, brought the account to Rome, that the consul and his army were besieged. Nothing could have happened so unexpected, nor so unlooked-for. [5]  Accordingly the panic and the alarm was as great as if the enemy besieged the city, not the camp. They send for the consul Nautius; [6]  in whom when there seemed to be but insufficient protection, and they were determined that a dictator should be appointed to retrieve their embarrassed affairs, Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus is appointed by universal consent. [7]  It is worth those persons' while to listen, who despise all things human in comparison with riches, and who suppose that there is no room for exalted honour, nor for virtue, unless where riches abound in great profusion. Lucius Quintius, the sole hope of the Roman people, cultivated a farm of four acres, at the other side of the Tiber, which are called the Quintian meadows, opposite to the very place where the dock-yard now is. [8]  There, whether leaning on a stake in a ditch which he was digging, or in the employment of ploughing, engaged at least on some rural work, as is certain, after mutual salutations had passed, being requested by the ambassadors to put on his gown, and listen to the commands of the senate, [9] (with wishes) that it might be happy both to him and to the commonwealth, being astonished, and asking frequently “whether all was safe,” he bids his wife Racilia immediately to bring his toga from his hut. [10]  As soon as he put this on and came forward, after first wiping off the dust and sweat, the ambassadors, congratulating him, unite in saluting him as dictator: they call him into the city; explain to him what terror now exists in the army. [11]  A vessel was prepared for Quintius by order of government, and his three sons having come out to meet him, receive him on his landing at the other side; then his other relatives and friends; then the greater part of the patricians. Accompanied by this numerous attendance, and the lictors going before him, he was conducted to his residence. [12]  There was a numerous concourse of the commons also; but they by no means looked on Quintius with equal pleasure, considering both the extent of his authority as too great, and the man vested with such authority rather arbitrary. And during that night in deed nothing was done in the city besides posting guards.
History of Rome by Titus Livius, the first eight Books. literally translated, with notes and illustrations, by. D. Spillan.
York Street, Covent Garden, London. Henry G. Bohn. John Child and son, printers. 1857.

Cicero - the Orator & his Legacy

"A room without books is a body without a soul" – Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was a Roman lawyer and statesman who was active during the late Republic in resisting the rise of dictatorship. His polished style of writing Latin greatly influenced later generations.

Cicero is one of the best-known people of the ancient world. He was a brilliant writer. His speeches and his ninety letters to his friend Atticus have made the late Republic one of the best-known periods of Roman history. He is the subject of Robert Harris's Roman novels, Imperium and Lustrum.

He was born into the equestrian order, and none of his ancestors had held any political office in Rome. He had studied oratory in Rome and philosophy in Athens.  He served in the army during the Social War, and begun a public career as an orator in the law courts. He originally made his name by his denunciation of the corrupt provincial governor Verres, who cruelly oppressed and exploited the Sicilians under his rule. In 70 Verres was brought to trial and successfully prosecuted.

As a novus homo, Cicero lacked the extensive network of political connections that men from the senatorial families could build up over the years. As a non-noble he lacked clients. He won his election against the patrician Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline) by canvassing in the Forum and offering a populist programme of sweeping land reform and debt cancellation.

Defeated and disappointed, Catiline planned a coup. Rumours of the impending coup leaked out but the Senate was divided over what to do, and there was no actual proof. Cicero denounced Catiline in the first of four orations. When Catiline withdrew to Etruria in central Italy, Cicero, as consul, seized five of the leading conspirators and in December 63 obtained the Senate’s approval for their execution. The sentences went ahead even though they violated the Roman citizen’s basic right of appeal. Catiline died in Etruria in 62. His defeat of the conspiracy was Cicero’s finest hour, but the legality of the action was widely challenged; the Senate was not an executive body and its consent did not make the execution legal. But it had made him a powerful political figure, a major player in the complicated intrigues that were eventually to lead to the downfall of the Republic.


Six mistakes mankind keeps making century after century:
Believing that personal gain is made by crushing others;
Worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected;
Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it;
Refusing to set aside trivial preferences;
Neglecting development and refinement of the mind;
Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Visit the Cicero Homepage for much, much more about the Republican Senator.

Julius Caesar & the End of the Republic

Caesar was a politician and general of the late Roman republic, who greatly extended the Roman empire before seizing power and making himself dictator of Rome, paving the way for the imperial system.

Julius Caesar was born in Rome on 12 or 13 July 100 BC into the prestigious Julian clan. His family were closely connected with the Marian faction in Roman politics. Caesar himself progressed within the Roman political system, becoming in succession quaestor (69), aedile (65) and praetor (62). In 61-60 BC he served as governor of the Roman province of Spain. Back in Rome in 60, Caesar made a pact with Pompey and Crassus, who helped him to get elected as consul for 59 BC. The following year he was appointed governor of Roman Gaul where he stayed for eight years, adding the whole of modern France and Belgium to the Roman empire, and making Rome safe from the possibility of Gallic invasions. He made two expeditions to Britain, in 55 BC and 54 BC.

Caesar then returned to Italy, disregarding the authority of the senate and famously crossing the Rubicon river without disbanding his army. In the ensuing civil war Caesar defeated the republican forces. Pompey, their leader, fled to Egypt where he was assassinated. Caesar followed him and became romantically involved with the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra.

Caesar was now master of Rome and made himself consul and dictator. He used his power to carry out much-needed reform, relieving debt, enlarging the senate, building the Forum Iulium and revising the calendar. Dictatorship was always regarded a temporary position but in 44 BC, Caesar took it for life. His success and ambition alienated strongly republican senators. A group of these, led by Cassius and Brutus, assassinated Caesar on the Ides (15) of March 44 BC. This sparked the final round of civil wars that ended the Republic and brought about the elevation of Caesar's great nephew and designated heir, Octavian, as Augustus, the first emperor.

The death of Julius Caesar -- by Jerome

-- Copied from BBC History 9/9/13

Are We Following the Footsteps of the Late Roman Republic?


The U.S. Constitution owes a huge debt to ancient Rome. The Founding Fathers were well-versed in Greek and Roman History. Leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison read the historian Polybius, who laid out one of the clearest descriptions of the Roman Republic’s constitution, where representatives of various factions and social classes checked the power of the elites and the power of the mob. It’s not surprising that in the United States’ nascent years, comparisons to ancient Rome were common. And to this day, Rome, whose 482-year-long Republic, bookended by several hundred years of monarchy and 1,500 years of imperial rule, is still the longest the world has seen.

Aspects of our modern politics reminded University of California San Diego historian Edward Watts of the last century of the Roman Republic, roughly 130 B.C. to 27 B.C. That’s why he took a fresh look at the period in his new book Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny. Watts chronicles the ways the republic, with a population once devoted to national service and personal honor, was torn to shreds by growing wealth inequality, partisan gridlock, political violence and pandering politicians, and argues that the people of Rome chose to let their democracy die by not protecting their political institutions, eventually turning to the perceived stability of an emperor instead of facing the continued violence of an unstable and degraded republic. Political messaging during the 2018 midterm elections hinged on many of these exact topics.

Though he does not directly compare and contrast Rome with the United States, Watts says that what took place in Rome is a lesson for all modern republics. “Above all else, the Roman Republic teaches the citizens of its modern descendants the incredible dangers that come along with condoning political obstruction and courting political violence,” he writes. “Roman history could not more clearly show that, when citizens look away as their leaders engage in these corrosive behaviors, their republic is in mortal danger.”

Historians are cautious when trying to apply lessons from one unique culture to another, and the differences between the modern United States and Rome are immense. Rome was an Iron-Age city-state with a government-sponsored religion that at times made decisions by looking at the entrails of sheep. Romans had a rigid class system, relied on slave labor and had a tolerance for everyday violence that is genuinely horrifying. Then again, other aspects of the Roman Republic feel rather familiar.

The Roman people’s strong sense of patriotism was unique in the Mediterranean world. Like the United States after World War II, Rome, after winning the Second Punic War in 201 B.C. (the one with Hannibal and the elephants), became the world’s hegemon, which lead to a massive increase in their military spending, a baby boom, and gave rise to a class of super-wealthy elites that were able to use their money to influence politics and push their own agendas. Those similarities make comparisons worthwhile, even if the togas, gladiator battles and appetite for dormice seem completely foreign.

Cullen Murphy, whose 2005 book Are We Rome? makes a more head-on comparison between the fall of the Roman Empire and the U.S., argues that the changes in politics and society in Rome stemmed from one source: its growing complexity. Rome, during the Republic and Empire, had increasing and evolving responsibilities around the Mediterranean which its government constantly struggled to manage. Those challenges forced changes throughout the economy and society, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. In general terms, he sees many of the same struggles in recent U.S. history.

“I think the U.S. is experiencing this same situation—we’ve never quite recovered from our victory in World War II, which left us with the world on our shoulders; and the implications of that responsibility have skewed things in every part of our society and economy, and put our old political (and other) structures under enormous strain,” he says. “New sources of power and new forms of administration and management fill the gap—and create unease and sometimes also injustice, and at the same time create vast new sectors of wealth.”

Those types of social and economic changes also rattled the Roman Republic, leading to the moment in 130 B.C. when politics turned violent. The introduction of a secret ballot meant Roman politicians and political factions couldn’t keep tabs on (or bribe) individual voters. Instead, politicians had to build political brands that appealed to the masses, leading to something akin to modern American campaigning with big promises and populist language aimed at the poor and middle class.

Reforms to the military also meant that service was no longer reserved for the elite, who for centuries used their privilege to demonstrate their loyalty to Rome. For poorer soldiers, however, service became a path to riches. They began to count on the loot, bonuses and gifts of land they received from their often-wealthy commanders meaning that over time the loyalty of the Roman legions shifted from the empire to their generals. These changes set the stage for a new type of politics, one where whipping up the resentments of the lower classes and threatening political enemies with semi-private armies became the norm.

These trends first came to a head in 134 B.C. when Tiberius Gracchus, an elected tribune of the people, proposed a land reform bill that would benefit poorer and middle-class Romans. The way Gracchus went about his reform, however, was an affront to the norms and traditions of the Republic. He brought his law before the Plebeian Assembly without the thumbs-up of the Senate. When his fellow tribune Marcus Octavius threatened to veto the bill, which was his right, Gracchus manipulated the rules to have him stripped of his office. There were other incidents as well, but the most concerning aspect of Gracchus was his fiery, populist language, which whipped his supporters to the edge of political violence. As his power grew, Gracchus began moving through the streets surrounded by a mob of frenzied supporters, a kind of personal militia not seen in Rome before.

Rumors spread that Gracchus was angling to become a king or dictator, and some in the Senate felt they needed to act. When Gracchus stood for a second term as tribune, which was not illegal but broke another norm, a group of Senators and their supporters beat Gracchus and 300 of his followers to death.

It was just the beginning. Over the next century, Tiberius’s brother Gaius Gracchus would come into conflict with the Senate after a similar populist confrontation. The commander Sulla would march legions loyal to him on Rome itself and battle his political rival Marius, the first time Roman troops fought one another. He would then execute and punish his political enemies. In the following generation Pompey and Caesar would settle their political scores using Roman legions, Octavian and Marc Antony would field an army against the Senate before finally battling one another bringing almost 500 years of the Republic to a bloody (and confusing) conclusion.

Watts argues that while the Senate ordered his murder, it was Tiberius Gracchus who let the genie out of the bottle. “What he has to bear responsibility for is he starts using this really aggressive and threatening language and threatening postures. He never resorts to violence, but there’s always this implicit threat. ‘If not for me, things would get out of control.’ And that is different, that was never done before. What he introduces is this political tool of intimidation and threats of violence. Later thinkers say once it’s there, even if others choose not to use it, it’s there forever.”

While life in Rome, with gladiator battles, crucifixions and endless war was violent, for centuries Romans took pride in their republican system and political violence was taboo. “The Republic was free of political violence for the better part of 300 years. People who are politically engaged are not killing each other and they’re not threatening to kill each other. When they disagree with each other they use political means that were created by the republic for dealing with political conflict,” says Watts. “If you lose one of those conflicts, you don’t die and you don’t lose your property and you aren’t sent away. You just lose face and move on. In that sense, this is a remarkably successful system for encouraging compromise and encouraging consensus building and creating mechanisms whereby political conflicts will be decided peacefully.”

So what does the story of the Roman Republic mean for the United States? The comparison is not perfect. The U.S. has had its share of political violence over the centuries and has more or less recovered. Politicians used to regularly duel one another (See the Hamilton soundtrack, song 15), and in the run-up to the Civil War, the ultimate act of political violence, there was the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Bleeding Kansas, and the near murder of Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber. Joanne B. Freeman, author of Field of Blood, a history of violence in Congress before the Civil War, tells Anna Diamond at Smithsonian she found at least 70 incidents of fighting among legislators, including a mass brawl in the House, though they often tried to paper over the conflicts. “It’s all hidden between the lines in the Congressional record; it might say “the conversation became unpleasantly personal.” That meant duel challenges, shoving, pulling guns and knives.”

The better comparison, surprisingly, applies to post-WWII America. Despite periods where the U.S. political system and established political norms have been tested and stretched—the McCarthy hearings, Vietnam, Watergate, the Iraq War—partisan violence or attempts to subvert the system have been rare. But recent events, like changes to filibuster rules and other procedures in Congress as well as increasingly heated political rhetoric give Watts pause. “It is profoundly dangerous when a politician takes a step to undercut or ignore a political norm, it’s extremely dangerous whenever anyone introduces violent rhetoric or actual violence into a republican system that’s designed to promote compromise and consensus building.”

The solution to keeping a republic healthy, if Rome can truly be a guide, is for the citizens to reject any attempts to alter these norms he says. “I think the lesson I take away most profoundly from spending so much time with these materials is basically, yes, we do need to assign blame to politicians and individuals who take a shortsighted view of the health of a republic in order to try to pursue their own personal objectives or specific short-term political advantages.”

The example of the Roman Republic shows the result of not policing those norms and keeping violence in check is the potential loss of democracy. “No republic is eternal,” Watts writes. “It lives only as long as its citizens want it. And, in both the 21stcentury A.D. and the first century B.C., when a republic fails to work as intended, its citizens are capable of choosing the stability of autocratic rule over the chaos of a broken republic.”

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in DiscoverPopular ScienceOutsideMen’s Journal, and other magazines.  [3/27/2017]

ONLINE TEXTS - Roman Republic

VIDEO RESOURCES - Roman Republic

Big Ideas, Essential Questions, and Higher Order Thinking

Discussion Questions

  1. Is economic class struggle an inevitable feature of republican government?
  2. Was Rome sufficiently democratic to call it a republic?
  3. Who were the greatest heroes of Republican Rome, and what was the cause of their having become famous?
  4. Is Dictatorship a necessary consequence of violent internal conflict coupled with impending external threats? Can such an office be controlled?
  5. What kind of threats to republican government are posed by territorial expansion and foreign conquest?
  6. What ultimately led to the collapse of the Roman Republic?
  7. What lessons did the American Founding Fathers glean from studying the Roman Republic?

Lesson Activities

  1. Have students discuss the video.
  2. Have a team of students research and report on the political institutions of Republican Rome.
  3. Assign students to independently research and report on a famous early Roman [before Augustus]. Have them declare what they admire.
  4. Have students read aloud to the class portions of famous orations from Republican Rome that  highlight republican political values.
  5. Have students gather and show famous paintings of significant scenes from the history of the Roman Republic and have the class speculate as to why the painter presented the scene in the way he did.
  6. Assign a few students to research and report on Roman influence on the Founding Fathers and on  Washington, D.C.
  7. Have students report on their Internet discoveries.