Before entering into this enquiry of Government and law it is essential to remember that over the course of over a thousand years the Romans themselves changed. They changed as a society and as individuals.
They were once an extremely austere people but wealth and success brought an increasing desire for the refined luxuries of the East. But just to bring home what a thousand years might mean we can imagine how we might be different in 2005 from those who lived in the year 1005. Mind boggling stuff.
During the first two and a half centuries since its founding “Ab Urbe Condita“, Rome was a city-state ruled by kings. The king was supreme ruler of the city-state and his power over the citizens was consolidated by his personal hot-line with the gods. The king always made sure he retained the title as both supreme military and religious authority.
This neat government-religion lock was broken down by the people of Rome when they expelled the last king and the kingdom became a Republic. When the Republic later became an empire, Government and Religion were cleverly remarried by Emperor Augustus and his successors.Patricians were at the top, the Plebs in the middle and the slaves at the bottom of the pyramid. There were also the knights (Equites) and free merchant foreigners (“Clientes“). All those who were free could themselves be distinguished as
- Ingenui -those who were free and born of free parents
- Liberti – those who were previously slaves but had been set free
- Libertini – those who were free but born of Liberti.
Movement across social classes was indeed possible, especially during the empire. Poor plebeians might sell themselves or their children into slavery in the hope of acquiring a rich and possibly caring master. Slaves could pay their way out of slavery. A couple of generations and financial success could bring you to equestrian or even senatorial rank.
Equally you could lose your social rank by undertaking socially disgracing, albeit legally permitted professions such as acting and prostitution. An example of this is the actor of Equestrian rank Laberius. At least during the empire it was unlikely that patrician families should fall into disgrace because of financial ruin. Given that this could be deemed as reflecting badly on the ruling class it was not unheard of the emperor saving the family from financial ruin, in exchange for political favour and propaganda of course.
With time three major differences developed in society. Firstly increasing numbers of foreigners came to acquire Roman Citizenship and had to be incorporated into the existing Roman society. Secondly, women acquired increasing degrees of emancipation and freedom. A third effect was that, although slaves continued to exist, they became increasingly difficult to come by when Rome’s expansionist policies failed towards the end of the Empire.
As with most societies, the internal dynamics of society were dominated by the struggle for power and control of government. By and large power was controlled by the upper class Patricians although during the times of the Republic a two party system developed which provided for a fairer sharing of government and rights. The two parties were called the “Optimates” and “Populares” and respectively stood for the conservative Patricians versus the social reformist commoner Plebs.
Julius Caesar for instance stood for the Populares versus general Pompey the Great who championed the interests of the Optimates (although Caesar eventually did away with it all and heralded the empire’s birth).
The result of the Republican system was a degree of fairer share of power. The seats of government which at first could only be held by Patricians were now shared or new ones created to allow a more equitable balance in power across society. The Patricians had the Senate and the Plebeians had the Assembly. There were two Consuls ruling the city and with time only one could be Patrician and the other had to be Plebeian.
At this height of social equity it is interesting to note that the rank of nobility was defined by the position of government achieved (Consul, Aedile, Censor, Praetor) rather than belonging to the Patrician class per se. This is exemplified in the “ius imago”, the privilege of the nobility to preserve wax images of ancestors and for descendants to preserve and present yours at your funeral.
This general division of society was as follows:
- “Nobiles” – right to preserve and use images of the ancestors
- “Novi” – right to preserve and use his own image (at his funeral)
- “Ignobiles” – no right to images – the vast majority of the population
Subsequent emperors increasingly oscillated from wise philosopher-emperors towards out-and-out tyrannical military ruler-gods. Nonetheless they all depended on popular support and as a result free bread and circus games abounded in increasingly great quantities. Nero was known to dispense money out to the crowds and Vespasian razed Nero’s gardens to build the popular Flavian Amphitheatre aka the Colosseum.
As a replay of the olden days of the Kings, the absolutist and sometimes tyrannical emperors resumed the practice of creating a divine case for their hold on power. Within a short span of time the emperors stretched the divine association to the point of actually assuming the status of divinity whilst they were still alive. We can therefore imagine why the Christians and Jews who were monotheists and could not worship more than one god were soon seen as being anti-Roman traitors set against the state. We can picture Hadrian, the emperor-god, in the Pantheon, clothed in the sacred robes of the Pontifex Maximus and with a single shaft of sunlight beaming through the roof and onto him alone whilst issuing his new laws to all people of the Empire.
However, government is not simply made up of an individual’s hold on power. Much of it is to do with economy and well-being of the citizens. As Cicero said: “Salus Populi Suprema Lex” (the wealth of the people is the supreme law).
The economy of Rome heavily depended on the influx of wealth from new conquests and the cheap labour of (cheap) slaves. Factors such as weather and disease, change in character of the Roman people, political squabbling, pressure from barbarian populations outside the empire etc. etc. all brought an end to military conquest and this meant an end to wealth and cheap labour. By the end of the empire increasing numbers of bureaucrats and military leaders were in fact barbarians who had been “adopted”. The population began to fall, illiteracy was on the rise and the work force and money required to run the expensive state machinery was lacking.
In view of this and of the new size of the empire the political centre was shifted away from “Old Rome” to “New Rome” or Constantinople, now known as Istanbul. This brought the new capital of the empire closer to the military action and mercantile trade routes. The influence on rule was therefore increasingly eastern whilst the economical and political importance of the city of Rome declined, although as far as the Germanic barbarians were concerned it continued to maintain the aura and allure of greatness and vast treasures (which it did have).
Successive barbarian invasions, the seriously heavy economic downturn and the shift of power away from Rome meant that by the early Middle Ages – the Dark Ages – the population was less than a tenth of what it had been a few centuries earlier. Large portions of the city were literally left abandoned or quarried for building materials. The government of Rome was left to the only organisation left in the city: the Church.
Read on about the birth of Ancient Roman Law
Read on about the magistrates who governed and the senate