Roman Politics in the First Century


Overview back to top

Rome was founded in the 8th Century BC and it became a Republic in the 5th Century BC. In order to keep their conquered provinces under Roman authority; the emperor instituted rulers within the territories. The highest officials in the provinces were proconsuls who were accountable to the Roman senate. Twelve praetors, or judges, were appointed to uphold Roman law. The last group of officials was twenty quaestors who were responsible for the financial affairs of the Empire.

Roman citizenship was a highly prized possession in the 1st Century. Originally citizenship could only be obtained through birth, but as the empire expanded citizenship was issued to those who had accomplished some task for the empire or to those who could purchase their citizenship. A Roman citizen had 3 names, a forename, a family name and an additional name. While traveling throughout the empire, a Roman citizen enjoyed the protection and special privilege of special rights established by Roman law. The first of these laws was set up under the Valerian Law at the institute of the Republic in 509 BC. A citizen's rights included a fair public trial, exemption for execution, and protection from specific disgraceful public punishments.

Government in Judea had a separate and distinct existence from the other political institutions in the Empire. In AD 6 Judea was adopted as an official Roman province. The Roman Empire appointed a governor who regulated peace in the region and guaranteed the collection of all taxes. The high priest and a council of seventy elders (Sanhedrin) governed the internal concerns of the Jews. Roman rule always maintained the supreme authority in all matters. Jews were required to pay double taxes as one share went to the Roman Empire and their tithe to the temple. As a result of their separate religion and government, Jews remained among the least assimilated group in the Roman Empire.


Governmental Structure back to top

The Romans never had a written constitution, but their form of government from the 3rd Century BC forward roughly parallels the divisions set up in the American model: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches.


EXECUTIVE BRANCH: The Elected Magistrates. With the exception of the dictatorship, two men held all offices (collegial). All members of a college were of equal rank and could veto acts of other members; higher magistrates could also veto the acts of lower magistrates. With the exception of the dictatorship (6 months) and the censorship (18 months), the term of office was limited to one year. The rules for holding office for multiple or successive terms were a matter of considerable contention over time.

CONSULS (2): the chief civil and military magistrates. They convened senate, curiate, and centuriate assemblies.

PRAETORS (2-8): their main functions were military commands and the administration of civil law in Rome.

AEDILES (2): could be plebian (plebian only) and curule (plebian or patrician). They were in charge of religious festivals, public games, temples, upkeep of city, regulation of marketplace, and grain supply.

QUAESTORS (2-40): financial officers and administrative assistants in both civil and military functions. They were also in charge of the state treasury at Rome and in the field they served as quartermasters and seconds-in-command.

TRIBUNES (2-10): they were charged with the protection of lives and property of plebeians. Their persons were considered inviolable, they had the power of veto over elections, laws, decrees of the senate, and the acts of other magistrates (except dictator), convened tribal assembly and elicited plebiscites.

CENSORS (2): elected every 5 years to conduct census, enroll new citizens, review roll of senate, controlled public morals, and supervised leasing of public contracts. They ranked below Praetors and above Aediles, but in practice this position was the pinnacle of the senate career and carried enormous prestige and influence.

DICTATOR (1): in times of military emergency he was appointed by consuls. He appointed a Master of the Horse to lead the cavalry. His tenure was limited to 6 months or the duration of the crisis whichever was shorter. He was not subject to veto.


SENATE: this was originally an advisory board composed of the heads of the leading families. It came to be an assembly of former magistrates. It became the most powerful organ of the Republican government and the only body of state that could develop consistent long-term policy. Decrees of the Senate had no formal authority, but often decided matters in practice. The senate was aware and had its hand in virtually all aspects of Roman society, but its most important areas of competence were in foreign policy and financial administration.


LEGISTRATIVE BRANCH: 3 citizen assemblies constituted this. All 3 assemblies included the entire electorate, but each had a different internal organization. These assemblies were made up of voting units correlating to our own electoral colleges where the single vote of each unit was determined by a majority of the voters in that unit. Measures passed by a simple majority of the units.

CURIATE ASSEMBLY: this was the oldest of the three and was made up of 30 members. This assembly became obsolete as a legislative body but preserved functions of endowing senior magistrates and witnessing religious affairs. The head of each unit was at least 50 and was elected for life; patricians controlled this assembly.

CENTURIATE ASSEMBLY: this was the most important assembly. There were 193 centuries and this was based on wealth and age. Originally this was a military unit whereby membership was based on one's capacity to furnish armed men in groups of 100. This assembly elected censors and magistrates. It was the proper body for declaring war. They passed some laws and served as the highest court of appeal in cases involving capital punishment.

TRIBAL ASSEMBLY: its original purpose was for the election of tribunes and deliberation of plebeians. The make up of this assembly was based upon place of residence. These assembly members had to go to Rome to cast any ballot. This assembly was controlled by the landed aristocracy and eventually became the chief law making body. Roman Religion Culture Home Home.