“The Rise of the Roman Empire” by Polybius

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The Roman Constitution

The Roman Constitution has three interdependent elements: monarchy (The Consuls), aristocracy (The Senate) and democracy (The Tribunes of the People). Their respective share of power in the whole state are regulated with a scrupulous regard to equality and equilibrium. This, according to Aristotle, is the golden mean of the form of government. Polybius attributes the original conception of this type of constitution to Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver, and argues that it is by virtue of their constitution that Sparta and Rome became long-lasting empires, and in the case of Rome, supreme power of the known world. He also argues that the forms of government necessarily rotate: monarchy is superseded by aristocracy, which in turn is superseded by democracy, which reverts to monarchy. His prediction proved prescient seventy years after his death.

The Consuls are supreme masters of the administration. All other magistrates, except the Tribunes, are under them and take their orders. They introduce foreign ambassadors to the Senate, bring matters requiring deliberation before it, and see to the execution of its decrees. If there are any matters of state which require the authorisation of the people, it is their business to summon the popular meetings, and carry out the decrees of the majority. In the preparations for war also, in the entire administration of a campaign, they have all but absolute power.

The Senate has first of all the control of the treasury, and regulates the receipts and disbursements alike, and the largest and most important expenditure, namely, the contracts for the repair or construction of public buildings. All crimes committed in Italy requiring a public investigation, such as treason, conspiracy, poisoning, or willful murder, are in the hands of the Senate. If it is necessary to send an embassy to reconcile warring communities, or to remind them of their duty, or to impose requisitions upon them, or to receive their submission, or finally to proclaim war against them,—this too is the business of the Senate.

The people is the sole fountain of honour and of punishment; it is by these two things and these alone that human society are held together. The people are the only court to decide matters of life and death; and even in-cases where the penalty is money, if the sum to be assessed is sufficiently serious. It is the people who bestow offices on the deserving. It has also the absolute power of passing or repealing laws, and deliberate on the question of peace or war.

Whether a Consul shall bring any undertaking to a conclusion depends entirely upon the Senate: for it has absolute authority at the end of a year to send another Consul to supersede him, or to continue the existing one in his command. The Consuls cannot celebrate triumphs with proper pomp, or in some cases celebrate at all, unless the Senate concurs. When laying down their office, the Consuls have to give an account of their administration before the people.

In the case of a law diminishing the Senate’s authority, or depriving senators of certain dignities and offices, or even actually cutting down their property,— even in such cases the people have the sole power of passing or rejecting the law. But most important of all, if the Tribunes interpose their veto, the Senate not only are unable to pass a decree, but cannot even hold a meeting at all.

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5 thoughts on ““The Rise of the Roman Empire” by Polybius

  1. Ah, the Roman constitution. This was one of the selections we had to read in Greek for my M.A. program at U of T. Polybius thinks this is the cause of Rome’s great success. He may not be wrong.

    1. A solid classical training you have. 🙂

      Polybius seems to be the more objective among the ancient historians. In contrast, Tacitus sounds like a psychiatrist.

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