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The Roman Constitution The Romans Chapter 2 Case Study.

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1 The Roman Constitution The Romans Chapter 2 Case Study

2 Plans like this one are helpful in illustrating the ‘due process’, but if one expects to find ‘due process’ carried out in every instance (in ancient or modern government), one will most certainly be disappointed. It is better to use this as a guide to judge what actually happens during specific events in Roman history. Does the diagram match the progression of events? ‘Roman constitution’ by Anihl - based on a work by User:RomanHistorian at Wikipedia. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons:

3 Questions of constitutionality In the following three historical examples consider the following questions: Were the powers of the tribune of the plebs sacrosanct (inviolate)? Was a dictator necessary? Who has imperium (the power to kill a Roman citizen)? Are the outcomes of these events consistent with the checks and balances set out in the Roman constitution?

4 Is it constitutional? Example 1: Spurius Maelius (c. 429 BC) Maelius, an aspiring second-class citizen is cheekily handing out grain to generate popular support. 1. The official grain distributor goes to the consul. Constitutional? 2. The consuls claim they lack the power to punish Maelius. Constitutional? 3. Consuls propose a dictator. Constitutional? 4. Dictator sends his master of the horse, who kills Maelius for attempting to leave (though he has called upon the tribune of the plebs). Constitutional? 5. Dictator Cincinnatus declares the murder justified on account of Maelius’ audacity at selling corn and trying to court favour among his betters. Constitutional?

5 Is it constitutional? Example 1: Spurius Maelius (ca. 429 BC) Maelius, an aspiring second-class citizen is cheekily handing out grain to generate popular support. 1. The official grain distributor goes to the consul. Constitutional? Yes. 2. The consuls claim they lack the power to punish Maelius. Constitutional? Er yes, but consuls are the most powerful officials in Rome. The only thing they cannot do is kill someone. 3. Consuls propose a dictator. Constitutional? Yes, but is it necessary? 4. Dictator sends his master of the horse, who kills Maelius for attempting to leave (though he has called upon the tribune of the plebs). Constitutional? Not really: the master of the horse does not have imperium (right to kill a citizen), especially one who has invoked the protection of the tribune of the plebs 5. Dictator Cincinnatus declares the murder justified on account of Maelius’ audacity at selling corn and trying to court favour among his betters. Constitutional? Seriously?

6 Is it constitutional? Example 2: Tiberius Gracchus (133 BC) 1. Tiberius’ proposal of a land reform is vetoed by his fellow tribune Marcus Octavius. Constitutional? 2. Tiberius gains a majority vote (according to Appian) in 18 of 35 tribes to remove Octavius from office. Constitutional? 3. Misinterpreting Tiberius’ gesture of fear (pointing to his own head) as a call for a crown, an irate pontifex maximus grabs a club and kills Tiberius on the steps of the Capitol. Constitutional?

7 Is it constitutional? Example 2: Tiberius Gracchus (133 BC) 1. Tiberius’ proposal of a land reform is vetoed by his fellow tribune Marcus Octavius. Constitutional? Yes, but quite unusual: tribunes seldom vetoed each other’s proposals. 2. Tiberius gains a majority vote (according to Appian) in 18 of 35 tribes to remove Octavius from office. Constitutional? It seems so. Other accounts say that Tiberius had Octavius personally removed after Octavius vetoed a vote to remove him from office. This is an unusual scenario, and it is not clear that there was a ‘due process’ for this type of stalemate. 3. After misinterpreting Tiberius’ gesture of fear of personal as a call for a crown, an irate pontifex maximus grabs a club and kills Tiberius on the steps of the Capitol. Constitutional: No. Neither the Senate nor the pontifex maximus possessed imperium. While the murder of Tiberius was not a formally legitimized act, it was followed by a formal inquiry in which his supporters were formally charged and killed. So much for the sacrosanctity of the tribunes of the plebs (both of them)!

8 Is it constitutional? Example 3: The Catiline Conspiracy, 62 BC 1.After a series of events (including the attempted assassination of the consul Cicero), five incriminating letters are read to the Senate, illustrating a conspiracy against the Roman state. The authors of the letters are arrested. Constitutional? 2. After a debate, the Senate empowers Cicero with the senatus consultum ultimum, ‘the Senate’s ultimate decree’, to kill all five men. Constitutional?

9 Is it constitutional? Example 3: The Catiline Conspiracy, 62 BC 1.After a series of events (including the attempted assassination of the consul Cicero), five incriminating letters are read to the Senate, illustrating a conspiracy against the Roman state. The authors of the letters are arrested. Constitutional? Yes, evidence submitted to the Senate that these men are guilty of treason certainly merited their arrest. 2. After a debate, the Senate empowers Cicero with the senatus consultum ultimum, ‘the Senate’s ultimate decree’, to kill all five men. Constitutional? The Senate believed their ultimate decree was constitutional but many Romans (including Julius Caesar) were not convinced. The constitution did not grant the power to kill a Roman citizen (imperium) to the senate. ‘Due process’, as in the case of Maelius, required the appointment of a dictator (though this office was a bit tarnished after Sulla). While some hailed Cicero, as Cincinnatus had hailed his master of the horse, a ‘saviour of the republic’, this unconstitutional act would blemish his career for the rest of his life.

10 Conclusions on the Roman constitution The flexibility of the Roman constitution allowed it to evolve and adapt significantly over nearly 500 years. However, Rome’s empire and her social structure outgrew the bounds of the small agrarian society that created it. The very flexibility that allowed the Roman constitution to grow also made it subject to the machinations and manipulation of individuals and governing bodies (e.g. the Senate), who pushed their powers to the limits (and, some would say, beyond). The evolution of the Roman constitution demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses inherent in a system of checks and balances. The subsequent manipulations of the Roman constitution by various offices and individuals present a series of lessons in politics that could be applicable to a number of modern constitutions, particularly those inspired by the Roman model.


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