Tribunes, consuls and senators were government officials in ancient Rome. Although these political offices continued throughout the history of the Roman Empire, they wielded their greatest power during the Roman Republic, which flourished from the late sixth century B.C. through the rise of the emperor Augustus in 27 B.C. However, these positions are significant in ways that go beyond Roman history. They also served as models for the system of checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution.
According to "The Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire," the office of consul was created after the end of the Roman monarchy in 510 B.C. Consuls assumed the executive responsibilities once held by the king, exercising leadership over both military and civil matters. Nonetheless, there were significant differences. Not only was the consulship election held annually, but two consuls shared power throughout the year. In addition, notes scholar Francisco Pina Polo, during the first annual session of the Senate, the consuls delivered an address on the state of the Republic. After Augustus took power, consuls primarily managed public games and festivals.
The Senate dates back to the era of the Roman kings, but it did not emerge as a dominant political force until the Roman Republic. As "Ancient Rome: An Introductory History" observes, the Senate consisted primarily of former magistrates, including consuls, and they held lifetime terms. While the Roman Senate did not have legal authority to pass laws, it exerted considerable power in advising the magistrates currently in office. Just as the power of the consuls declined significantly when Augustus took power, the Senate likewise lost a substantial amount of its influence in imperial Rome.
As "The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome" notes, the office of tribune was created in the fifth century B.C. While other political offices were occupied by members of the noble class, which traditionally had the exclusive right to hold political or religious office, tribunes represented Rome's general population. Because the tribunes could veto the decisions of the consuls and other magistrates, the people's representatives came to be a significant check on the power of the nobility. However, after Augustus took the power of the tribune for himself, the emperor became the representative of the people and the tribuneship became a substantially ceremonial position.
Checks and Balances
The tribunes, consuls and senators of Rome served as practical examples for the founders of the American political system of checks and balances. Arguably the most important illustration of their influence can be found in "The Federalist Papers," which cites the Roman example as justification for the U.S. Constitution's establishment of the House of Representatives as a check on the power of the aristocratic Senate and the president. Practical problems in governance caused by disagreements between two consuls were also cited as a reason to have one president instead of multiple chief executives. The Roman political system would later be discussed at length by Sen. Robert Byrd in a series of speeches in which he opposed giving too much power to the president.
- Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire; Matthew Bunson
- The Consul at Rome: The Civil Functions of the Consuls in the Roman Republic; Francisco Pina Polo
- University of Chicago: The Histories of Polybius
- Ancient Rome: An Introductory History; Paul A. Zoch
- Gutenberg.org: The Federalist Papers
- The Senate of the Roman Republic: Addresses on the History of Roman Constitutionalism; Robert C. Byrd
- The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, Volume 1; Michael Gagarin, ed.
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