In 509 BC the Roman monarchy was overthrown and replaced by a republic. Early Consular and Senatorial rule of the Republic was highly aristocratic, limited to the few families that could trace their linage back to Rome's founding. However, over time, other talented and wealthy families, known as plebeians, began to achieve political dominance. Although the republic's character remained aristocratic, the power struggle did open up the government to an expanded ruling class.
The character of the Roman government was constitutional, though the constitution was based on convention and precedent and was never officially written down. It consisted of a senate, legislative bodies, and magistrates. The senate controlled day to day matters including issues of administration, finance, and foreign policy. There were a number of legislative assemblies, committees included the entire Roman citizenship and divided them into smaller voting units, and councils were composed of certain groups. All citizens participated in such activities as voting to elect magistrates, declaring war, or forming alliances. The two highest ranking magistrates, known as consuls, were elected each year. They held executive power for both civil and military affairs. During periods of military crisis, a dictator could be appointed for a term not to exceed six months. While the dictator remained in command, he held absolute power over the state and the constitution was temporarily dissolved.
Due to factors such as the separation of powers, the Roman republic was much more stable than Athenian democracy. With power divided between the executive, aristocratic, and citizen classes, it was more difficult for the interests of one individual or group to overwhelm the agenda of the state. As a form of government the Roman Republic was greatly admired by many of the founding fathers. It managed to persist for over 450 years, but eventually was destabilized by factors such as civil wars and growing class warfare. Dictators such as Marius and Sulla and populist leaders such as the Gracchi helped weaken the constitution by forcing temporary abridgements (Durant, 1944).
Towards the end of the republic, Cicero, the great Roman philosopher and statesman, wrote a number of political works. Two of these, The Republic, which imitates Plato's dialogue of the same name, and The Laws, also in dialogue form, have come down to modern times in fragmentary form.
The Republic discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the three forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Cicero believes that good government is a work of generations: "no collection of able people at a single point of time could have sufficient foresight to take account of everything; there had to be practical experience over a long period of history." He attributes the best form of government to a blending of aspects of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, similar to the form that existed in the Roman republic. This blending, he believes, helps create stability and more enduring governments.
In The Laws, Cicero works from the premise of natural law. Law is based on reason and is inherent in nature. "We are born for justice, and . . . what is just is based, not on opinion, but on nature," he states. Cicero argues that nature dictates what is just and unjust. Philosophy allows men to obtain self knowledge and discern their place in the natural order of things.
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