The Roman Republic

Essential Question

How was the Roman Republic’s government organized?

Issues in Ancient Rome

Shortly after the Romans created the republic, they found themselves at war. For about 50 years the Romans were at war with other peoples of the region. For the most part the Romans won these wars. But they lost several battles, and the wars destroyed many lives and much property.

During particularly difficult wars, the Romans chose dictators-rulers with almost absolute power -to lead the city. To keep them from abusing their power, dictators could only stay in power for six months. When that time was over, the dictator gave up his power.

One of Rome's famous dictators was Cincinnatus (sin-suh-NAT-uhs), who gained power in 458 BC. Although he was a farmer, the Romans chose him to defend the city against a powerful enemy that had defeated a large Roman army. Cincinnatus quickly defeated the city's enemies. Immediately, he resigned as dictator and returned to his farm, long before his six-month term had run out. The victory by Cincinnatus did not end Rome's troubles. Rome continued to fight its neighbors on and off for many years. Enemy armies weren't the only challenge facing Rome.

Within the city, Roman society was divided into two groups. Many of Rome's plebeians (pli-BEE-uhnz), or common people, were calling for changes in the government. They wanted more of a say in how the city was run. Rome was run by powerful nobles called patricians (puh-TRI-shuhnz). Only patricians could be elected to office, so they held all political power.

The plebeians were peasants, crafts-people, traders, and other workers. Some of these plebeians, especially traders, were as rich as patricians. Even though the plebeians outnumbered the patricians, they couldn't take part in the government. In 494 BC the plebeians formed a council and elected their own officials, an act that frightened many patricians. They feared that Rome would fall apart if the two groups couldn't cooperate. The patricians decided that it was time to change the government.

Roman Government

When the plebeians complained about Rome's government in the 400s BC, the city's leaders knew they had to do something. If the people stayed unhappy, they might rise up and overthrow the whole government.

To calm the angry plebeians, the patricians made some changes to Rome's government. For example, they created new offices that could only be held by plebeians. The people who held these offices protected the plebeians' rights and interests. Gradually, the distinctions between patricians and plebeians began to disappear, but that took a very long time.

As a result of the changes the patricians made, Rome developed a tripartite (try-PAHR-tyt) government, or a government with three parts. Each part had its own responsibilities and duties. To fulfill its duties, each part of the government had its own powers, rights, and privileges.


The first part of Rome's government was made up of elected officials, or magistrates (MA-juh-strayts). The two most powerful magistrates in Rome were called consuls (KAHN-suhlz). The consuls were elected each year to run the city and lead the army.

There were two consuls so that no one person would be too powerful. Below the consuls were other magistrates. Rome had many different types of magistrates. Each was elected for one year and had his own duties and powers. Some were judges. Others managed Rome's finances or organized games and festivals.


The second part of Rome's government was the Senate. The Roman Senate was a council of wealthy and powerful Romans that advised the city's leaders. It was originally created to advise Rome's kings. After the kings were gone, the Senate continued to meet to advise consuls.

Unlike magistrates, senators-members of the Senate-held office for life. By the time the republic was created, the Senate had 300 members. At first, most senators were patricians, but as time passed many wealthy plebeians became senators as well. Because magistrates became senators after completing their terms in office, most didn't want to anger the Senate and risk their future jobs.

As time passed the Senate became more powerful. It gained influence over magistrates and took control of the city's finances. By 200 BC the Senate had great influence in Rome's government.

Assemblies and Tribunes

The third part of Rome's government, the part that protected the common people, had two branches. The first branch was made up of assemblies. Both patricians and plebeians took part in these assemblies. Their primary job was to elect the magistrates who ran the city of Rome.

The second branch was made up of a group of elected officials called tribunes. Elected by the plebeians, tribunes had the ability to veto (VEE-toh), or prohibit, actions by other officials. Veto means "I forbid" in Latin, the Romans' language. This veto power made tribunes very powerful in Rome's government. To keep them from abusing their power, each tribune remained in office for one year.

Civic Duty

Rome's government would not have worked without the participation of the people. People participated in the government because they felt it was their civic duty or their duty to the city. That civic duty included doing what they could to make sure the city prospered. For example, they were expected to attend assembly meetings and vote in elections. Voting in Rome was a complicated process, and not everyone was allowed to do it. Those who could, however, were expected to take part in all elections.

Wealthy and powerful citizens also felt it was their duty to hold public office to help run the city. In return for their time and commitment, these citizens were respected and admired by other Romans.

Checks and Balances

In addition to limiting terms of office, the Romans put other restrictions on their leaders' power. They did this by giving government officials the ability to restrict the powers of other officials. For example, one consul could block the actions of the other. Laws proposed by the Senate had to be approved by magistrates and ratified by assemblies. We call these methods to balance power checks and balances. Checks and balances keep any one part of a government from becoming stronger or more influential than the others.

Checks and balances made Rome's government very complicated. Sometimes quarrels arose when officials had different ideas or opinions. When officials worked together, however, Rome's government was strong and efficient.

Written Laws

Rome's officials were responsible for making the city's laws and making sure that people followed them. At first, these laws weren't written down. The only peoplemwho knew all the laws were the patricians who had made them. Many people were unhappy with this situation. They did not want to be punished for breaking laws they didn't even know existed. As a result, they began to call for Rome's laws to be written down and made accessible to everybody.

Rome's first written law code was produced in 450 BC on 12 bronze tables or tablets. These tables were displayed in the Forum, Rome's public meeting place. Because of how it was displayed, this code was called the Law of the Twelve Tables. Over time, Rome's leaders passed many new laws. Throughout their history, the Romans looked to the Law of the Twelve Tables as a symbol of Roman law and of their rights as Roman citizens.

The Roman Forum

The Roman Forum, the place where the Law of the Twelve Tables was kept, was the heart of the city of Rome. It was the site of important government buildings and temples. Government and religion were only part of what made the Forum so important, though. It was also a popular meeting place for Roman citizens. People met there to shop, chat, and gossip.

The Forum lay in the center of Rome, between two major hills. On one side was the Palatine (PA-luh-tyn) Hill, where Rome's richest people lived. Across the forum' was the Capitoline (KA-pet-uhl-yn) Hill, where Rome's grandest temples stood. Because of this location, city leaders could often be found in or near the forum, mingling with the common people. These leaders used the Forum as a speaking area, delivering speeches to the crowds.

But the Forum also had attractions for people not interested in speeches. Various shops lined the open square, and fights between gladiators were sometimes held there. Public ceremonies were commonly held in the Forum as well. As a result, the forum was usually packed with people.

Drawing of the Law of the Twelve Tables

The ruins of the Roman Forum

Discussion Questions

  • What is a tripartite government?

  • How did Rome's Tripartite government work?

  • How were Romen's written laws useful?

  • What were checks and balances and how were they used in Rome?

  • What is civic duty?

  • Why was the Forum such a popular place?

  • What similarities do you see between Rome's government and the American government today?

Activity 1: How was the Roman Government organized (written laws, tripartite government, checks and balances, civic duty, the Forum)?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities