Rome, in its earliest days, was governed by kings. However, Ancient Rome was to develop its own form of government that allowed the Romans to govern themselves.
In one sense, for a society that used its feared army to conquer other nations and reduced people to slavery, Rome was remarkably democratic when its own people were concerned. Citizens of Rome would gather at an assembly to elect their own officials. The chief officials of Rome were called consuls and there were two of them. The consuls governed for a year. If they did not live up to expectations, they could be voted out of office at the next election. Therefore, competence was rewarded and incompetence punished.
In addition to consuls, there were other elected officials – judges, magistrates and tax collectors being some of them. Ten “Tribunes of the People” were also elected to look after the poor of Rome.
The consuls could not be expected to know everything. They were advised by a Senate. This was made up of leading citizens of Rome and when they met, the Senate would discuss issues such as proposed new laws, financial issues affecting Rome etc. There were about 600 men in the Senate. They were usually from rich noble families and what they thought went a long way to determining Roman law.
If elections were reasonably democratic, the role of the Senate was not. Most, if not all, decisions were in favour of the rich. Only the rich were in a position to use their wealth to influence decision-making within the Senate. However, very few people in lower social classes questioned this system. Many felt that the rich were there to do the work of the Senate and that it was not the place for those less well off. Another reason to favour the Senate was the simple fact that while it existed, Rome went on to become the greatest power in the Mediterranean and in Europe. From 509 BC to 27 BC, Rome was governed as a republic – this also coincided with Rome’s vast power. Many people logically believed – why change a good thing?
When the Roman Empire started to grow and Rome became a more powerful city, a top government position became more and more attractive. Therefore, more and more ambitious men got involved in government. These men believed that Rome would be better served by one man governing the city and empire, as opposed to a group of elected officials. These sole rulers were called emperors. The story behind the first emperor involves one of Ancient Rome’s most famous stories.
Julius Caesar wanted to control all of Rome and its empire. This would have led to the end of the system of government used in Ancient Rome for many years. When making a speech in the Senate to support his belief in a one-man rule, Caesar was murdered by Brutus who wanted to keep the old way going. This murder did not stop the problem as Caesar’s supporters started a civil war to try to force their wishes onto Rome. The war was long and costly. Exhaustion led to many Romans supporting Augustus, Caesar’s nephew. To many people he seemed to obvious choice to end the chaos Rome had descended into. Augustus was seen as a strong ruler and he became emperor in 27 BC, bringing to an end the republic of Rome.