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The Roman Constitution Notes

Classics Notes > Roman History 241 BC to 146 BC Notes

This is an extract of our The Roman Constitution document, which we sell as part of our Roman History 241 BC to 146 BC Notes collection written by the top tier of University Of Oxford students.

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How did Polybius see the Roman constitution?
Polybius says he felt it necessary to describe the Roman Republican system in detail to his readers because he wants to, "explain to his readers by what means and by virtue of what political institutions almost the whole world fell under the rule of one power, that of Rome, an event which is absolutely without parallel in earlier history." He gives a description of the six types of government and the progression of human society through them as they reach their pinnacle and then descend into anarchy as one aspect of society, a monarch, the aristocracy or the people, become far too powerful and abuse their position. He praises the 'mixed constitution' of the Romans because it shares power between these three elements of society and has sufficient checks and balances to ensure that one never outgrows the other two. However it must be considered whether Polybius gives an accurate reflection of the true workings of the Roman state or whether, in reality, power was concentrated in one body at the expense of another. This, then, is Polybius' account of how the Roman state combined the three types of government to make a strong constitution which was able to halt the cycle of political revolution and lay the foundations for their conquest of the entire world. The consuls, who reflected the monarchical element in the system, had supreme authority in the state and all other magistracies, except tribunes, were, according to Polybius, subordinate to them. They had the obligation to implement all decisions and decided upon the business the senate would discuss. They also had the power to call the popular assembly and then to execute the decisions made by the people in that body. Finally they had absolute military authority in times of war and were in charge of all matters including finance and discipline when on campaign. In this capacity they have the authority to spend whatever monies they deem necessary for the successful conclusion of the campaign and the quaestors have to obey all their commands with regard to finance in the field. This is contrary to what he says a few chapters later when he says that the main check which the senate has on the consuls is the ability to starve them of money for supplies and equipment; this latter statement is almost certainly the true state of affairs in the middle period of the republic because it becomes such an important issue in the late republic when men like Julius Caesar are able to act independently by funding their own men from their private resources despite the fact they have been cut off economically by the senate. The second body which made up the government was the senate; this represented the aristocratic element according to Polybius' breakdown of the constitution. They had the extremely important function of controlling the revenue and expenditure of the state; all quaestors required senatorial authorisation for any public building projects or the like. They also had a legal function in terms of dealing with cases of treason, arbitration and asylum as well as dealing with the embassies sent from foreign nations. He makes the point of stating that the common people have absolutely no say in how foreign delegations are dealt with and for this reason it would often appear to Greek states and other kings that the constitution of the Romans was an aristocratic one. Polybius makes it clear that this is where the real power in the Roman state lay and he was

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