What Role Did the Senate and Popular Assemblies Play in the Roman Republic?

Aditya Chakravarty

3 mins

03 Jul 2019

Polybius, a Greek historian, praised the Roman Republic for its “mixed constitution”. The classical theory of governments had three basic forms — monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.

The Roman system during the Republic was a mixture of all three elements:

The monarchical was represented by the consuls, who retained imperium — executive authority, the aristocratic was represented by the Senate, and the democratic by the people, represented through popular assemblies and the Tribunes of the Plebs.

Each of the three could be just and effective, however they were all liable to corruption, tyranny, oligarchy, or mob rule.

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Polybius praised this system for its stability, with each element keeping the others in check. The power of the consuls was tempered by the authority of the Senate, and both answered to the populace via the voting assemblies.  

The Republic had a complex internal structure. Existing for over 5 centuries, it is not surprising that there were changes in the institutions and their relations to one another.

The following versions of the Senate and popular assemblies are from the “Classic” Republic: the incarnation of the Republic that existed from c.287 BC (after the “Struggle of the Orders”) to c.133 BC (with the re-emergence of political violence).

The Senate

The Ancient Roman senate

A 19th century fresco of the Senate, depicting Cicero attacking Catiline.

The Senate was an assembly of elite Romans who represented the aristocratic in Polybius’ analysis.

They were closely linked with the magistrates, with most members of the Senate being ex-magistrates. This is how political elites were able to maintain influence after their single year terms in office.

The actual structure of the Senate was informed by the magistracies; the higher the office gained, the more senior the senator. This ranking determined the course of proceedings; ex-consuls spoke first, the ex-praetors second, and so on.

What may seem strange is that the Senate had very little formal power. They could not pass laws, or propose them to an assembly. They could not elect officials, and they did not sit as a judiciary court.

What they did have was a huge informal influence.

They could make suggestions to the magistrates, through Senatorial decrees. They discussed a wide range of policy. From foreign policy, to all financial matters, to the command of legions, all this would effectively be decided by the Senate. Crucially they controlled the allocation of resources for imperial purposes.

Whilst magistrates could, and did, defy the Senate, it was rare.

The Popular Assemblies

The uncontested sovereignty of the Republic belonged to the people. The very name res publica meant “the public thing”. All laws had to be passed by one of the various popular assemblies, and they were the voters in all elections.

Legitimacy lay with the people. Of course, practical power was a different story.

The Roman “Constitution”, showing the relations between the Assemblies, Senate, and Magistrates. Image Credit / Commons.

There were a number of popular assemblies, effectively subdivisions of the populace, based on various criteria.

For example, the comitia tributa was divided by tribe (each Roman citizen was a member of one of 35 tribes, assigned either by birth or legal act). In these groups citizens would either elect an official or vote to pass a law. 

However, these assemblies could only be called by certain magistrates. Even then the magistrates had the power to dismiss the assembly at any time.

No popular proposals could be raised by the assemblies, and debate took part in separate meetings to the voting ones. These too were called, and presided over, by a magistrate.

The magistrates even had the power to refuse to accept the vote of an assembly. This happened on at least 13 recorded occasions. 

Nonetheless, the sovereignty of the populace was never challenged. Whilst they were passive, they were still required to confer legitimacy on any proposal or law. How much power the populace actually exercised is a matter of debate.  

The overall system

Overall, the Senate acted as the central policy and decision maker, whilst the magistrates exercised the actual power to implement these. The assemblies were required to ratify laws and elect officials, and act as a source of legitimacy.

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This system was supposed to keep all the institutions in check, however throughout most of the Republic’s history, power truly lay with the leading families who comprised the magistrates and the Senate.

The system lasted for 5 centuries, although there were internal conflicts and changes.

The system eventually broke down and by the end of the republic civil war waged, allowing Augustus to establish the Principate and become the first Roman Emperor.

Featured image credit: SPQR banner, emblem of the Roman Republic. Ssolbergj / Commons.