It is therefore covered over a number of separate articles such as Roman society, Roman governement, society in Pompeii, class and social structure, evolution of the Roman empire, changes in the meaning of “Romans”, Roman women and so on. This article spans a number of these more detailed articles.
The Republican period developed and evolved a more “just” system of rule than that which had existed during the preceding period of Kingdom and Tyranny. The Patricians controlled the Senate and through it they controlled the Magistrates and Consuls. At first the Senate acted as advisor to the Magistrates but later it actually ordered them about.
The Plebeians managed to enforce their own assembly through which they elected Tribunes. These had the power to defend the individual against the state (defend the Plebeians against the power of the Patricians and Senate). They also managed to enforce a number of laws which were more just and equal, for example permitting intermarriage between social classes.
A number of social battles and laws followed, the most significant of which is probably the right to cut price grain for the poor and needy. This lead to the well known motto of “Bread and Circus” – so long as the rulers of Rome managed to keep Plebeian bellies full and their minds entertained so long they would be sure to maintain peace and social unrest at bay.
The Gracchi brothers stood for social reform and were the prime instigators of the social reforms in favour of the Plebeians. They continue to be an inspiration to all revolutionaries of Social inclination for the land and social reforms they instigated and for which they ended up being murdered.
By degrees the Plebeians obtained the right to name Tribunes with Military Powers – something very close to a Consul (but not quite) and eventually the right to having a Plebeian sit as one of the two ruling Consuls (elected by vote).
Structure of the State during the Empire
With the advent of the Roman Empire there was further evolution in structure. The first emperor, Augustus made sure his subjects didn’t see in him an autocrat as he knew this could well lead to the same reaction which had caused Caesar’s murder. However he cleverly managed to take power whilst at the same time seemingly preserved the republican system of State. To all intents and purposes the Emperor had power over military and war concerns whilst the Senate managed day to day running of bureaucracy and law. In reality Augustus held the reins of power in every aspect of life.
Successive emperors reduced the Senate’s power until by the end of the empire it was little more than a local council. Perhaps the greatest blow to the Senate’s power was dealt by Julius Caesar, who ensured that the proceedings of the Senate should be made public every day through what is perhaps the first daily newspaper. Hitherto much of the Senate’s prestige had laid in its secrecy and Caesar’s move dealt a blow from which the Senate would never recover.
Later emperors were increasingly autocratic and the form of rule shifted towards military tyranny and on to ostentatious emperor-gods such as Nero or Diocletian. In the style of Oriental rulers these later emperors expected their subjects to regard them as superior beings. They removed themselves from the common man by interposing deeper and deeper layers of bureaucrats. Emperor Constantine went as far as moving the capital of the Empire eastward to Byzantium (Istanbul) renaming it Constantinople. Not surprisingly the power of the Senate was by this time reduced to little more than that of a local government.
However, in spite of his absolutist approach Constantine is remembered as “Constantine the Great” for his many successful reforms and above all for providing the fertile ground on which the Christian faith grew throughout the empire. Rome became the recognised centre of the Catholic church with the Pope (Pontifex Maximus) at its head. Once the city was all but abandoned to the chaos of the Dark and Middle Ages the church was the only remaining (organised) institution capable of managing local government.
The prominent “SPQR” Senatus Populusque Romanus, meaning Belonging to the Senate and People of Rome, had once symbolised the power of Rome and its institutions. By the Middle Ages it came to be popularly known to stand for “Solo i Preti Qui Regnano”: only priests rule here.
The structure of society in Rome | Evolution of Social Structure in Rome | society after the fall of the roman empire