Civilization: Roman Republic – Government and war under the Roman Republic




The early Republic
Evolution of the system

Roman warfare
The army
The navy

Further study


509 BC – traditional date for the founding of the Roman Republic
494 BC – 1st secession of the Plebs
451-449 BC – The writing of the 12 Tables of Laws
396 BC – the Romans take the important Etruscan city of Veii
390 BC – traditional date for the sack of Rome by the Gauls
343-341 BC – the 1st Samnite War
340-338 BC – the Latin War
326-290 BC – the 2nd and 3rd Samnite Wars (326-304 and 298-290)
285-275 BC – the war against king Pyrrhus of Epirus
264-241 BC – the 1st Punic War (war against Carthage)
218-202 BC – the 2nd Punic War (war against Carthage)
149-146 BC – the 3rd Punic War (war against Carthage)
133 BC – the murder of Tiberius Gracchus
112-105 BC – the war against Jugurtha, king of Numidia
105-101 BC – the war against the Teutones and Cimbri
91-88 BC – the Social War
88-81 BC – The struggle between Marius and Sulla
73-71 BC – Spartacus’ slave revolt
67 BC – Pompey’s wars against the pirates and then Mithridates
63 BC – the Cataline conspiracy
60-54 BC – the 1st triumphirate between Pompey, Licinius Crassus and Julius Caesar
58-50 BC – the Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul
49-45 BC – the Civil War between Julius Caesar and Pompey
45-44 BC – Julius Caesar’s dictatorship
43-42 BC – the Civil War between the 2nd triumvirate and Caesar’s assassins
32-31 BC – the Civil war between Antony and Octavian
31 BC – the battle of Actium leaves Octavian as the master of the Roman world
27 BC – Octavian takes on the name Augustus, and 
establishes himself as the first of the Roman emperors.


Throughout the period of the Republic, Roman government involved a mix of different institutions – magistrates, headed by two annually elected consuls; a council of state called the senate; and a number of popular assemblies. These institutions evolved as the Roman state changed from covering a single city-state to being responsible for an enormous empire.

The early Republic

From the very early days of the Republic, Rome’s governing leading institutions – magistracies, senate, popular assemblies – were all in place, at least in embryo.


With the expulsion of the kings and the founding of the Republic, the king’s powers were divided between two magistrates, called consuls (some scholars think that this arrangement took some time to come about, but by the time Rome’s story emerges into the full light of history the consulate was an established fact of Roman government). These were, in effect, the chief executives of the Roman state. They were elected annually, which meant that no one person could hold such a powerful office on a long-term basis; and the fact that there were two of them ensured that each consul acted as a check on the other’s power.

Roman Consul accompanied by 2 Lictors.
Reproduced under Creative Commons 2.5

The consuls were Rome’s most senior military commanders in time of war, and were the leading law makers and policy makers. In the early Republic they also acted as chief judges.

Throughout the long history of the Roman republic, holding a consulship was the crown and glory of a successful political career. In the early Republic, consuls all belonged to the Patrician order, that elite class of aristocratic landowners who dominated Roman society at that time and which monopolised political and priestly office in the state. The overwhelming proportion of consuls in fact belonged to just a few patrician clans: the Claudii, the Cornellii, the Fabii, the Valerii and the Aemilii.


The power of the consuls was further circumscribed by the existence of a permanent institution of great prestige and authority. This was the Roman senate, which, if it did not start out as such, soon became the central political institution of the republic. The senate was a council of the leading men of Rome; it was already in existence under the kings, functioning as an advisory council; and it theoretically continued as the advisory council to the consuls after the establishment of the Republic. However, the fact that it was composed of men of long experience, including all the ex-consuls still alive, meant that a consul had to have very good reasons for going against its swishes.

By tradition the senate was composed of three hundred members, though in the early Republic this figure may well have been smaller. Most senators were members of the leading families in Rome, which in early times meant that they were Patricians.

Popular assemblies

A third element in the government of Rome were the popular assemblies. These were where the  Roman citizens (free adult male Romans) met together as a body. In the early Republic there were three different assemblies, which fulfilled three different functions. All citizens were eligible to attend all these assemblies.

When the citizens met together as the Comitia Curiata, they were organised according to clan groups. As the Comitia Centuriata they were organised along military lines, in groups of 100.  The Tribal Assembly was where the citizens met in their tribes – originally kinship groups but which later became artificially-designated location-base divisions of the citizenry. Each assembly had different powers, but all were involved in electing the magistrates (which in early times meant only the consuls), approving laws put to them by the magistrates and the senate, and deciding major legal cases.

These poplar assemblies gave ordinary citizens a collective voice, which they use to goo defect on numerous occasions. It meant that if the senators and magistrates ignored the wishes of the people too blatantly or for too long, there would be cost to pay. most of the time, however, the people were content to follow the lead of the senators. The way that the voting took place in these assemblies gave weight to the wealthier citizens within their ranks. Thus those who had a greater stake in the Roman state and the land had a larger voice than the poorer sections of the community.

Other elements in government

Religion played a crucial part in Roman government, and in the early days only Patricians could fill the priesthood. These will be discussed below.

One final element in Roman government should be mentioned here, and that was the small body of officials who assisted the consuls in their duties, such as lictors (who were armed attendants of the consuls) and public scribes. These men were recruited from amongst freed slaves.

Evolution of the governing system under the Republic

As Roman power expanded and Roman society became more sophisticated, the demands on government grew.

New magistrates

The number of magistrates expanded. The two consuls were joined by first one, then two praetors, to act as their assistant in judicial matters: in fact, the orators took on most of the consuls’ former judicial responsibilities.

Quaestors were appointed to assist both consuls and praetors, so that there were four in number.

All these magistrates were elected by one or other of the citizens’ assemblies, and all, like the consuls, held office for one year only.

These magistracies were originally the preserve of the Patricians. However a fierce and long-drawn-out struggle between the mass of ordinary Roman citizens, the Plebeians, and the small group of elite families, the Patricians, eventually opened the door to Plebeians entering the senate and holding magisterial office. In due course Plebeians were regularly holding consulships, the highest office in the state.

New Plebeian institutions

The struggle between the Plebeians and Patricians produced a new citizens’ assembly, the Plebeian Assembly, from which Patricians were excluded; this was presided over by an entirely new kind of magistrate, the tribunes, ten in number, who were elected by the new assembly. Their job was to defend the interests of Plebeian citizens against abuse of power by Patrician magistrates.

Aediles and censors

Other new magistrates were the aediles, who were elected to look after the day-to-day administration of the city of Rome – sewers, roads, water supply and so on. There were four of these, two Patricians and two Plebeians.

A final office-holder to mention were the two censors, elected every five years and to hold office for 18 months (the only exception to annual terms). Their job was to take census of the Roman citizenry, so that it was clear who was legible to serve in the army, and in what capacity, and so on. They were elected from amongst the most senior statesmen still living, always ex-consuls.

A changing senate

At some point, membership of the senate became 300 in number (traditional accounts held that number had been reached by the end of the monarchy, but this is most unlikely). It came to be composed, as we have seen, of both Patricians and Plebeians. As Rome’s power grew and many communities were absorbed into the Roman state, leading families from these communities – first from Latium, then from further afield in Italy – began to contribute members to the senate.

A representation of a sitting Senate from a 19th century Fresco

A new aristocracy grew up as leading Plebeian and Patrician families intermarried with one another, and came to dominate the highest magistracies on the Roman state. The great majority of consuls came to be drawn from twenty or so leading families, which were both Patrician and Plebeian; these families came to be called the nobiles. These families contributed members to the senate almost on an hereditary basis, and lesser “senatorial” families, who could expect to hold the lesser magistrates, did so as well.

This senatorial elite represented the wealthiest group within Roman society. Its members had the leisure and the contacts to pursue a political career, and, because of their family histories, name-recognition amongst the wider Roman citizen-body gave them a head start when seeking elected office. The great patricians clans were joined by famous Plebeian families such as the Domitii, the Caecilii and the Aurelii.

The impact of expansion in Italy

As the city of Rome extended its power throughout Italy it became necessary for Roman armies to keep the field for more than one year at a time. That, and the fact that on occasion more than two major (or consular) armies had to be put into the field, meant that consuls had sometimes to remain with their commands beyond the end of their election year. To deal with this situation, consuls’ terms of office were when necessary extended for more than one year, with the commanders involved being termed pro-consuls.

Map showing expansion of Roman Republic into Italy

The Italian communities which were brought under Rome’s domination in the 4th, 3rd and 2nd centuries retained their own institutions and self-government. They became part of a growing confederation under Roman leadership in which their relations with all other states were under Rome’s direction, but in which their internal institutions were left alone and they retained control over their internal affairs. The expansion of Roman power in Italy had remarkably little impact on the  formal structure of Roman government. The only magistracies specifically created to deal with the new situation was a new praetor to preside over cases between Romans and citizens of Allied communities, and his quaestor.

When Rome started acquiring territories beyond Italy, however, the Roman system had to evolve significantly to deal with the state’s new responsibilities.

The impact of overseas expansion

After the First Punic War, two new praetors were elected, one to govern the island of Sicily, the other the islands of Sardinia and Corsica. After the Second Punic War, the number of magistrates was expanded as “Nearer” and “Further” Spain were added. The field of responsibility of a magistrate was called his provincia, so that all these overseas territories came to be called provinces. By the later second century Rome’s empire included eight provinces. With eight annually-elected praetors to govern them (including two whose provinciae lay in Rome itself), praetors were regularly having to have their year of office extended. Propraetors had become a normal part of the Roman political landscape.

The same was true for proconsuls. From the mid-third century Rome was frequently fighting more than one major campaign at the same time, and often three or four, at long distances from Rome. Consuls regularly had to extend their terms of office beyond their elected year, and the appointment of proconsuls was no longer an occasional expedient but had become a regular occurrence.

All these consuls and proconusls, and praetors and propraetors, had quaestors to assist them, so that the total number of these magistrates climbed to ten or more.

The Cursus Honorum

In the second century BC the lower age limits for holding the quaestorship, the praetorship and the consulship were set by law, and this created a typical senatorial career (cursus honorum, or “race of honours”) which saw an active senator serve as a quaestor, usually in one of the provinces; then as a tribune of the plebs (if a Plebeian) or aedile (whether Plebeian or Patrician); then after the age of 39, as a praetor, again usually as a provincial governor; then, with his term as governor extended, as a propraetor; and in his 40s as a consul and then proconsul. By then he would be a n elder statesman, and might serve as a censor.

In the first century, this scheme was altered somewhat as a result of the dictator Sulla’s attempts to make the system more suited to govern a large empire. The two consuls and eight praetors were required to serve their elected year in Rome itself, as policy-makers and senior judges. Provincial governors and commanders-in-chief were then selected from amongst the ex-consuls and ex-praetors. The number of quaestors was expanded to twenty, so that each senior magistrate at Rome and proconsul and propraetor in the provinces had an assistant; and the membership of the senate was expanded to 600, so that there were enough senators to fill the increasing number of posts.

New courts

The only new element which was introduced, as a measure to provide some kind of check on governors’ misuse of their powers, were court made up of equites, nit senators, with the specific task of hearing cases brought against governors by provincials. If our sources are to be believed, these courts were not a success, and were discontinued after a period of time.


Consuls and Proconsuls acting as commanders-in-chief in Spain or Africa or the Balkans or Asia Minor enjoyed enormous powers within their own provinces, dealing on equal (in fact, superior) terms with kings and cities. To assist them in this task they were given no regular staff. Instead they had to use friends as advisors and lieutenants (legates) and their own personal secretaries as their secretariat.

Meanwhile back in Rome the body of public scribes remained the only administrative cadre available to the magistrates; and as for the provinces, much of the work of public administration, such as supplying armies or raising taxes, had to be contracted out to private companies of businessmen.

Roman warfare

The Army

The early Roman army was much like the armies of other city-states of the period. In the late spring of each year (Rome was at war most years) a portion of the adult male citizens were chosen for military service and, after a short period of training – which for the majority with previous military experience must have been a kind of refresher course – off they went to war.

The army fought as a phalanx, a single mass of several thousand men. The soldiers brought their own armour, and were divided into different groups, according to how much armour they could afford. The well-off farmers who could bring a full set of armour were placed at the front of the phalanx; those who could afford fewer items were placed next, with those who could just afford a whiled and sword were placed at the back. Behind them were those who had no armour, but fought as slings men and scouts.

As well as the infantry formation described above there was a much smaller body of cavalry. This was made up of those able to afford to bring horses, and all that went with them (probably including a groom), to war. The cavalry played only a subordinate role in the warfare of the period, with most battles being decided by the infantry.

Colour sketch of a Roman infantryman as shown in the Ahenobarbus relief

The infantry phalanx had very limited manoeuvrability, and in battles fought between such armies victory normally went to the heavier side.

The formation (in Latin, a legion) was originally commanded by the two consuls, each taking it in turn day by day to act as commander-in-chief. They were assisted by a group of officers called tribunes, who, like the consuls, were elected by the citizens.

The conquest of Italy brought about radical changes to the Roman army. For a start, the number of legions multiplied, so that by the third century Rome was fielding ten or more legions a year, divided amongst several armies under consuls, proconsuls, praetors and propraetors. The legions were accompanied by a matching forces of Allied troops.

The legions themselves underwent major changes. They came to contain about 4000 men each, and were divided up into centuries of 100 men each. These were under officers called centurions, men of long military experience who were given a great deal of leeway in their leadership of their men. This gave the legion a flexibility unknown to the large formations of other nations.

Especially after Roman armies began campaigning overseas, many legions and their soldiers were required to remain on campaign for many years at a time. This had a high social cost, and may well have contributed to a decline in numbers of the well-off independent peasantry, on whom this army system depended.

At the end of the second century this system had to be abandoned. In its place arose one in which soldiers were provided with armour by the state. This did away with the different ranks of infantry soldier according to property qualification and opened recruitment to men of all levels of wealth. Soldiering became more long-term and more professional.

The Navy

Throughout its existence Rome was essentially a land power. However, once it started going to war with enemies it was forced to equip itself with fleets. These were made up of oared galleys, as were all the Mediterranean navies of the time, and were manned mostly be Allied soldiers. The crews were composed mostly of oarsmen, but each had a small group of marines to storm across to enemy ships when they got the opportunity. The Romans are said to have developed a hooked bridge to all their soldiers to cross more easily, thus making up for their lack of seagoing experience, but scholars tend to not give this idea credence any longer.

Despite the fact that the Romans always placed more emphasis on land warfare than on naval warfare, sea power was very important to the expansion of Roman power throughout the Mediterranean world. It enabled them to defeat the great maritime power of Carthage, and later it allowed them to stamp out piracy in the Mediterranean, one of the great blessings of the Pax Romana. With good reason the Romans came to describe the Mediterranean as Mare Nostrum: “Our Sea”.

Further study

Click here for the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire in maps

Click here for a Timeline on Ancient Roman civilization

Articles on Ancient Rome:

The Civilization of Ancient Rome

The Roman Empire
Government and Warfare under the Roman Empire
The Society and Economy of Ancient Rome

See also:


– of Ancient Europe, showing the rise and fall of the Roman empire in the context of European history
of the Middle East, showing the impact of the Roman empire on that region
of the World when ancient Roman civilization flourished


Click here for an overview of Etruscan civilization.
Click here for an in-depth history of ancient Europe at the time when ancient Roman civilization flourished.
Click here for an in-depth history of the ancient Middle East, showing the role the Roman empire played in that region.

Click here for Sources and Further Reading on Ancient Rome

Click here for more resources on Ancient Rome

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