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The Strengths And Weaknesses Of The Roman Republican System Notes

Classics Notes > Roman History; the Roman Republic from 146 BC to 46 BC Notes

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The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Roman Republican System 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." This fact alone shows that the method of government in Rome was founded on a strong socio-political system which allowed it to reach the heights that it did and resist the decline which came afterwards. Polybius saw this decline as an inevitable result of absolute wealth and success, but it is still important to consider what flaws in the system itself allowed such decline to come about. Firstly to consider the Roman constitution as it was at the height of Republican Rome's success is a good way to recognise the strengths of what was, in principle, a very inclusive and well balanced system. Polybius admired it because it combines elements of the three main types of government, aristocratic, democratic and monarchic; more importantly it does so in such a way as to, in theory, give equal and fitting power to each element of society. The consuls, who reflected the monarchical element in the system, had supreme authority in the state and all other magistracies were 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. The second body which made up the government was the senate that 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. Lastly the people also had a significant part to play in the governance of the state, mainly because they were the ones who voted all the magistrates into office; something which Polybius describes as the power to give the "noblest rewards of virtue" in the state. Since so much in Roman society was based on honour and prestige the wishes of the people could not be ignored by any candidate or magistrate who wished to reach high office. They also had the power to decide all issues of peace and war and what alliances were to be made with which foreign nations. The influence of the people was therefore crucial to the tri-partite structure of the Roman Republican system. However when so many different bodies share power in such a way there are inevitable tensions that arise; for this reason there are a number of checks and balances in place controlling and managing the inter-relation of these various institutions in the state. This is what makes the Roman system particularly strong and makes it able to resist the problems which later arise.

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