Political Institutions

"When a commonwealth, after warding off many great dangers, has arrived at a high pitch of prosperity and undisputed power, it is evident that, by the lengthened continuance of great wealth within it, the manner of life of its citizens will become more extravagant, and that the rivalry for office, and in other spheres of activity, will become fiercer than it ought to be." -Polybius, Histories

Because the Romans began as a conquered people under the rule of the Etruscans, they created political institutions to help protect themselves from someone rising up as a dictator and taking over.

When they finally became a free people they decided to give all the power to two groups: the Assembly and the Senate even though there were kings.

The Assembly

The Assembly consisted of all male citizens of military age. They would agree and approve on certain decisions and they could veto any important decision made concerning war, peace and justice.

The Senate

The Senate was a council of elders who were chosen as members because of how important their family was. They were mainly very conservative, very privileged, very wealthy, and owned lots of land. They would choose who should be the next king, and they would protect the Law of Custom, in case of any danger from a king or a decision made by the assembly.

This was the method of checks and balances that made up the Roman government when Rome first became free in 509 BC when the Etruscan kings were finally cast out for good.

Democratic Rome

Since 509 BC the Roman government was under the control of two consuls. By the middle of the 4th century BC one of those consuls had to be a plebeian (see The Republican Government).

The Consuls

By the third century the consuls had similar authority as the early kings except for the fact that they could only serve in office for one year. This would put a limit on the possibility of a dictatorship. In fact if one consul thought the other was getting too powerful he could veto the other consul's actions. We get our word "veto" from the Latin word which means "I forbid."