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Traditionally the following stages are counted for the political order of the Ancient Rome:

  • Kingdom
  • Republic
  • Empire (subdivided into Principate and Dominate)

The "kingdom" is usually regarded as monarchy, the "republic" as the republic in modern meaning and "principate" and "dominate" as either monarchy or military dictatorship (with dominate more often regarded as monarchy).

I would question the claim that political order had changed sufficiently in ancient Rome from the era of Romulus until at least the reign of Heraclius.

Just some facts.

  • The Roman state was always called "res publica" both in the times of the kingdom and later until Latin language ceased to be used. Even the Catholic Church, centuries later, used this term to refer the Christian world. The terms "regnum" and "imperium" were also widely used under the Republic, later and before.

  • The Roman rex was an elected public magistrate. He was suggested by the senate and elected by the people of Rome via the Curiate Assembly for a fixed term of 6 years (they extended the term with legal tricks via formal adoption). Then a special law should be passed to grant him imperium. His power was not hereditary and was restricted by the senate and the assemblies. On one occasion when Romulus freed some prisoners on his own will the senators became very discontent.

Thus it is quite difficult to see how the Roman kingdom was not somewhat like a modern presidential republic.

  • The event known as expelling the kings was in fact redistribution of powers between the magistrates. The very office of the king (a ceremonial one from then on) remained for the duration of the Republic until the rule of Theodosius, who abolished it.

Thus it is inevident how the Roman republic was not a "constitutional monarchy" with a ceremonial king alike medieval Japan.

  • Under the republic, some new offices were raised that were not less powerful than that of rex. Those were of military tribunes and dictators. Arguably the Roman dictator was even more powerful than a rex (he even had twice the number of lictors than a rex).

  • Under the republic (and possible under the kingdom as well) the title "Imperator" was quite frequently used to refer to military leaders. For example Sulla was proclaimed Imperator in 86 B.C. Multiple imperators at the same time were all under the republic, under principate and under dominate.

  • The power of the state leader under principate was due to the office of popular tribune which had veto power. Those now called "emperors" actually had different sets of public offices. Tiberius, for example, never was proclaimed Imperator.

  • The title of consul continued well into the Empire period although the title fell in prestige because it had no veto power unlike that of tribune. Still the rule of Heraclius started from being proclaimed consul (along with his father).

  • Under dominate order it was theorized that there should be four emperors at a time, a practice unusual for a monarchy. The practice of several emperors at a time (although usually relatives) was continued till the end of the Byzantine empire. This followed the previous tradition of two consuls or two military tribunes at a time. The term of office of an emperor under dominate was theoretically set at 8 years.

Thus it is difficult to see how the Dominate as was envisaged by Diocletian was more autocratic than principate as often asserted

  • The senate always retained theoretical power for electing new emperors and disposing the ruling ones. For example Phocas was disposed by the senate and Heraclius was elected instead.

Summing the above up, it can be said that through the whole period from Romulus to at least Heraclius

  • The positions of supreme magistrates were not hereditary, although often occupied by relatives or people of the same clan
  • The supreme ruler could be elected and disposed by the senate
  • The source of power theoretically belonged to the people and the senate
  • The supreme office had a fixed term in theory with some exceptional cases
  • There were always possibilities to acquire dictatorial powers even without changing the state political system, and this was in fact often done throughout the whole of Roman history.
  • The real power of a leader mostly depended on his personal qualities rather than on the title of his office and epoch.

So what are the reasons to ascribe certain periods in Roman history to monarchy and certain to republic? Was not the political regime always the same with only names of the offices changing?

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  • 3
    The word 'theory' runs in various forms through your whole exposition. But there is a world of difference between theory and practice, between rhetoric and actual actions. Dec 27, 2012 at 17:07
  • Several points: First, the Romans -- in spite of their almost unparalleled pragmatism -- were huge believers in formal systems: Kingdoms have kings and if there's no king, there's no kingdom (even if one man rules for life). Augustus restored the Republic (in spite of running things himself wherever he chose). Second, Roman governance changes much more gradually than the Romans' own histories suggest. It's difficult to see any point of abrupt, significant change between 250BC and 400 AD. Thirdly, we know little for sure of Rome before about 300BC, so be careful.
    – Mark Olson
    Mar 9, 2023 at 20:05
  • "res publica" means "the public interest". SPQR was the state. Also, consider that early Rome was an elective monarchy, and that's not similar to a presidential republic.
    – James
    Mar 10, 2023 at 15:15

4 Answers 4

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The major change from the Republic to the Empire was the decision to keep for life as the head of state first Caesar then Augustus. Thus it put the top job in the hands of one man as long as that man was alive. There was no peaceful way to remove the Emperor at this point and since they controlled the army (or they would not be emperor) they had military power over the rest of society.

The change from Kingdom to Republic was maybe more subtle but put two men in charge instead of one. Thus allowing for a balance of power at the top. Again, this is a break with the previous regime.

In a similar way, you could say that the 4th of 5th French Republics are the "same": president, prime ministers, ministers, parliament, elections, yadda. Or that the French and English prime minister have the same function. Overall, you would not be too wrong but the devil is in the details. Thus why we refer to the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantium Empire as different beasts even though they are all called "empires" and come from the same root.

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  • 5
    You possibly confused something, but Augustus was never proclaimed dictator. Even more, the office of dictator completely went out of use after Caesar and was never used again.
    – Anixx
    Feb 10, 2012 at 15:42
  • Abolishment of the dictator's office was one of the features of the coming principate.
    – Anixx
    Feb 10, 2012 at 15:48
  • Must not have enough coffee today... Feb 10, 2012 at 15:58
  • 4
    The change from Kingdom to Republic was not as subtle, as it happened via a revolution, and ended in the exile of the ruling dynasty. It even led to a series of wars (one of them nearly destroyed Rome) when the exiled rulers, the Tarquinii, tried to return to power by inciting neighboring cities (and the Gauls) to attack Rome.
    – vsz
    Mar 7, 2014 at 20:26
  • 2
    Also, the king was elected for life, while consuls served for one year only. And the last couple of kings dispensed with election by the Curiate Assembly.
    – Spencer
    Jun 23, 2022 at 20:24
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I believe that the main difference in these epoches is not the formal powers of involved offices or titles, but which social layers have what influence in politics.

In line with that I would say that the creation of the tribunates was a result of the conflict between plebejans and patricians. Due to the expansion of the Empire between 300 and 0, the raise of slavery etc., these social classes ceased to be the ones that defined Roman society.

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You are comparing a small city state and a big empire in the timespan of about one thousand years. The difference between what was Rome in the beginning and what was eventually the empire is too big.

When Rome was a kingdom it is obvious that the kings could not be too powerful. The small population and the productivity of the primitive agriculture of that age could not support a big bureaucratic machine and a big army. The king was a little bit more than village chief. Directly in contact with the population.

Thus it is quite difficult to see how the Roman kingdom was not somewhat like a modern presidential republic

Small Rome back then was quite different from a modern republic where a complex system of check and balances is required and often is not enough to keep in check the big bureaucratic machine.

The event known as expelling the kings was in fact redistribution of powers between the magistrates.

Of course. Back then there wasn't the level of organisation we reached today.

Under republic some new offices raised that were not less powerfull than that of rex. Those are of military tribunes and dictators. Arguably Roman dictator was even more powerful than a rex.

The story of the Republic was not uneventful, they went through period of revolts and periods that we might call of martial law. Due to the long wars, but also the internal instability.

Under republic (and possible under kingdom as well) the title "Imperator" was quite frequently used to refer to military leaders.

When Rome never became formally an empire, it reused the titles used during the republic and even during the empire the emperors formally where the chiefs of the army. Nonetheless the concentration of power was in practical manner was very different.

Under dominate order it was theorized that there should be four emperors at a time, a practice unusual for a monarchy.

In China they used to say the emperor is far away and the mountains are high. The size of the empire with the slow communications of the age rendered the control very difficult. So, it was just an expedient to shorten the command chain, but it didn't work very well since co-emperors often fought for supremacy.

The senate always retained theoretical power for electing new emperors and disposing the ruling ones.

Most of the times when the emperor and the Senate confronted each other the legions sided with the emperor. The number of times that the senate had to accept and vote in an emperor proclaimed by the army is much greater. Again, there is a big difference between the formal structure and who holds de facto the power and also this changed frequently in and empire (the Western) that lasted about four centuries.

So what are the reasons to ascribe certain periods in Roman history to monarchy and certain to republic?

The practical situation on the ground.

What is the evidence ... ?

The sequence of events showing where the power was. E.g. Few lines above I pointed out the most of the times the emperor was proclaimed by a legion and the senate vote was just a formality.

But mind you, don't assume that the roles were starkly defined. Often senators acted as counsellors of the emperor and some of them used the position to become quite powerful.

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Interesting question but ultimately the answer is no. There are also various continuities between Muscovite Russia, Peter's Empire, the Soviet Union, Yeltsinite Russia and Putin's Russia but they are really not all the same thing.

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  • A number of years ago I came across one commentator who described the current presidential system in Russia as a Tsarist command system, with a different name.
    – Fred
    Mar 14, 2023 at 14:25

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