For much of the Republican period, we know very little about the dynamics of Roman political life. Our information increases for the last century of the Republic. Our sources are predominantly elite and tend to have an aristocratic and conservative approach.
It is clear that Roman politics was often personalised: it was a struggle between individuals who competed for offices and influence. The elite was also very closely knit. Many of the senators knew each other from childhood. They married into each other’s families. They served together in military capacities. They socialised together. They thought of each other as friends.
The result was that there was no great social or ideological divide in the senate. There were no parties. Political alliances were often fragile and co-operation short-lived. Such a loose political system managed to survive for a very long period and enjoy remarkable success.
Perhaps one reason it did so was the political culture of Rome. It was an aristocratic and hierarchical culture. The Romans were not innovators and tended to look to tradition to provide answers. They tended to value political experience and defer to their elders. They favoured, but were not always able to achieve, a consensual approach to political life.
This was how the senate was able to exercise influence. It had little constitutional power, but a magistrates would take its advice. A magistrate who ignored the senate might find himself politically isolated after his short term of service (normally one year) came to an end.
Politics was embedded into the culture of the city. Rome had a reasonable small wealthy elite. That elite provided political leadership. The political leaders were also the generals. Younger members of the elite officered the army. The elite held priesthoods and represented the community to the gods. They paid for public buildings and entertainments. They were judges.
They represented their status as being natural and acquired over a considerable length of time, showing the busts and masks of their ancestors. The hierarchy was part of the traditions of Rome and adherence to the hierarchy was the Roman way.
Two consequences flowed from the political structure with its emphasis on consensus.
- There was a reluctance to accept new ideas, new people, and new approaches. It is difficult to find any figure in the late Republic or the Augustan period who offers an agenda of innovation. Reform were nearly always presented as a way to restore an old order.
- When the consensus failed or an individual was seen as a threat to the consensus, the reaction tended to be extreme. Anyone who did not bow to the consensus could be portrayed as an enemy of all that was Roman.
- Serious political divisions could quickly become a division over the nature of Rome. Differences of opinion escalated so that they could be seen as existential threats to the political community. Such threats justified extreme rhetoric and eventually extreme violence.
Although there were broad similarities in the aristocrats’ approach to political issues, it would be a mistake to ignore underlying ideological divisions. Some of the issues concerned the status of Roman citizens.
- To what extent was the Roman state required to look after its citizens?
- To what extent did the Roman state need to maintain a healthy and prosperous citizen body?
- To what extent did the Roman state belong to the Romans citizens collectively?
- What obligations did a Roman citizen have towards the Roman state?
It is very easy to assume that the answers to these questions are obvious and shared across ancient and modern societies. But our nation states are fundamentally different from ancient city states. The relationship of the individual to the state and the ideological ties between individual and state are also very different.
When we talk about the Roman Republic, we are actually talking about the Res Publica populi romani: the Public Things of the Roman People. Quite literally, the Roman citizens owned the state.
This creates certain characteristics which would seem idiosyncratic and potentially revolutionary in a modern context.
- Public property belonged to the citizens not to a state. Public property could thus perfectly properly be distributed to citizens.
- The power exercised by magistrates was as representatives of the people.
- If the people did not benefit from the state, it is not obvious that they had obligations to the state.
- The state had a primary responsibility to its citizens, since it was the property of its citizens.
This was combined with other Roman characteristics
- A highly developed understanding of private property, which defined one of the functions of the state as to allow persons to enjoy their private property.
- Strong local and regional attachments, but ‘national’ feeling is less easily seen.
- A commitment to military service, which was paid, and for which the soldiers deserved reward.
Some of the political issues that shaped Roman politics turned on the exercise of rights and obligations. Some would see the obligation to abide by the hierarchies of Roman politics and society as fundamental to the membership of the political community: citizens should obey their magistrates. Others thought the magistrates should take care of the political community by making provision for the people: this would ensure their obedience and the operation of consensus within Roman society.
Key flash-points tended to be around the distribution of public property. The more conservative senators opposed the distribution of land to the Roman people. Others claimed that the provision of land was necessary for the Roman citizens to support themselves and fulfil their citizen obligation to serve. The provision of grain at reduced rates was a similar issue. Some saw this as an essential means of supporting and protecting the citizens and reinforcing their rights. Others saw it as a populist bribe.
Roman politics in the late Republic was an odd mix.
- Ideologically, Romans practised the politics of consensus in which all reasonable men would agree.
- Political disputes were often violently resolved.
- The people were sovereign in most aspects of Roman political life.
- Roman politics was largely control by a narrow hereditary wealthy elite.
- The state was the property of the people and had an obligation to benefit its people.
- The state was dependent on the guardianship of the elite and honouring the hierarchies of Roman society, including its disparities of wealth of power, was fundamental to Roman values.
- Rome was a very traditional society, which saw its values as coming down to contemporaries from a distant history.
- Romans were very conscious of the changing social and economic world in which they operated and, in particular, of the vast benefits brought by empire.