Roman Law


Roman Law Essay, Research Paper

The Romans have had almost every type of government there is.

They’ve had a kingdom, a republic, a dictatorship, and an empire.

Their democracy would be the basis for most modern democracies. The

people have always been involved with and loved their government, no

matter what kind it was. They loved being involved in the government,

and making decisions concerning everyone. In general, the Romans were

very power-hungry. This might be explained by the myth that they are

descended from Romulus, who’s father was Mars, the god of war. Their

government loving tendencies have caused many, many civil wars. After

any type of government, the change has been made with a civil war.

There have also been many civil wars between rulers. But it all boils

down to wanting to be involved in government.

When the Greeks finally entered Troy after ten long years of

siege, a man named Aeneas escaped the city with his father, Anchises,

and his son, Ascanius. They went to Mt. Ida, where they were to meet

Aeneas’ wife, Creusa, but she never showed up. Saddened, Aeneas

acquired a boat and sailed around the Mediterranean. He bounced around

from Asia Minor to Greece to Crete looking for a place to found a new

Troy, but he couldn’t find a satisfactory place. As told by Homer in

the Aeneid, Aeneas was cared for by the gods. Venus, in particular,

was very worried about him. She asked Jupiter, king of the gods about

him, and he said this:

“Since you are so consumed with anxiety for Aeneas,

I shall turn forward far

The hidden pages of fate and speak of the future.

He shall conduct a great campaign for you

And conquer all Italy and its haughty peoples.

He shall impose laws on his own people

And build walled cities for them; the third summer

Shall see him rule in Latium, the third winter

Of warfare see the Rutulians [an Italian tribe] subdued.

But his son Ascanius…

It is he who shall consolidate your power-

For thirty years with all their turning months;

Then shall he move his capital from Lavinium

To Alba Longa, which he shall fortify

To the uttermost; and there a line of kings…

Shall reign and reign till Ilia [Rhea Silvia], a priestess

Of royal blood, bear twins begotten by Mars;

And one of these, Romulus, fostered by a she-wolf,

And joyfully wearing her tawny hide, shall rule

And found a city for Mars, a new city,

And call his people Romans, after his name.

For them I see no measure nor date, I grant them

Dominion without end. Yes, even Juno…

Even she will mend her ways and vie with me

In cherishing the Romans, the master-race,

The wearers of the Toga. So it is willed.”(Nardo 13)

Finally, he wound up at the mouth of the Tiber River in Italy.

He went inland up the river, which was a miracle in itself, because

the river is very swift. He found Latium, ruled by King Latinus, and

married his daughter, Lavinia. With King Latinus’ permission, Aeneas

and Lavinia founded a city called Lavinium, where they ruled side by

side for many years. When Aeneas died, his son Ascanius took over.

Ascanius founded a new city, which he called Alba Longa, and made it

his capital.

Now we advance four centuries. The king of Alba Longa is

Numitor. He had a jealous brother named Amulius, who seized the throne

and drove out Numitor. To prevent Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia,

from having children who could claim the throne, Amulius made her a

celibate priestess. While she was a priestess, Mars, the god of war,

came and visited her and she had twin boys named Remus and Romulus

(Burrell 7). When Amulius found out about the twins, he was furious.

He ordered Rhea imprisoned and the boys drowned on the Tiber. The

slave who was ordered to drown them felt pity for them, and instead

sent them down the river in a basket. When they landed, a she-wolf

found them and nursed them because her cubs had just been killed and

she was still fertile. Romulus and Remus were found by a shepherd

named Faustulus, who took them home to his wife to raise them. As they

grew up, being sons of Mars, they turned out to be very athletic and

natural leaders, especially of the local boys. When the boys grew up,

they heard the story of Numitor and Amulius. With their local friends,

they attacked Alba Longa, killed Amulius, restored their grandfather

to the throne, and freed their mother.

After restoring Numitor to the throne, the boys decided to

found a city on one of the seven hills near where their basket was

found by the wolf. This was a natural spot for a city. Accounts Livy,

“Not without good reason did gods and men choose this spot as the site

of a city, with its bracing hills, its [spacious] river by means of

which the produce of inland countries may be brought down and inland

supplies obtained; a sea near enough for all useful purposes, but not

so near as to be exposed to danger from foreign fleets; a district in

the very center of Italy, in a word, a position singularly adapted by

a nature for the growth of a city.” (Nardo, 12)

The two boys couldn’t decide between themselves which hill to start

on, so they decided that whoever saw a vulture first could pick. Remus

saw the first vulture and five others, and Romulus saw twelve. Remus

had rightfully won, but Romulus claimed he should pick since he saw

more vultures. He borrowed a plow and team, and plowed a furrow around

the Palatine hill. He told his brother that was where the city would

be, and if Remus crossed the line, he would be killed. Contemptuous

Remus immediately crossed the line, and Romulus killed him. Romulus

later said he regretted killing his brother, but life goes on. He

built his city on the Palatine Hill, and called it Rome.

When Romulus founded Rome in 753 BC, he made himself the king.

Being a brand new city, it had very few people. Romulus built up the

population by allowing anybody who wanted to live there, including

criminals who flocked to the city. This caused a shortage of women. To

get some, the Romans hosted athletic games and invited their

neighbors, the Sabines. While they were at the games, some of the

Romans sneaked off and stole the Sabine women (Burrell 14-15).

Realizing what had happened, the Sabines prepared their army.

Expecting this, the Romans were ready and the two forces lined up

preparing to fight. Surprisingly, some of the women ran into the

no-man’s-land in between the armies. This is what their leader said:

“We were just daughters a short while ago, now we are both wives and

daughters. We did not choose our husbands – they chose us. We want

this fighting to stop. If it goes ahead, many will be slain. When our

fathers are dead, we shall be orphans, but if our husbands die, we

shall be widows. We lose either way.” (Burrell, 14-15)

Surprisingly, the two armies listened and put down their weapons.

Since anyone was allowed to reside, Rome had great diversity

in its people. There were three main ethnic groups: the Romans, who

were first generation, the Sabines, and the Latins, who Romulus is

descended from. The Sabines lived in the mountains east of the Tiber

and north of the Latins. Later on, another group of people called the

Etruscans started moving in. They were unique in that their language

had no relation to any other known language, the only one like that.

Romulus established a government with a king, who was

imperium, “Over all persons and in all causes supreme” (Adcock 6).

Romulus chose one hundred fathers to form the Senate. These people and

their descendants are known as Patricians, from the Latin word pater,

meaning father. He divided the people into three tribes, mentioned

above, and each tribe was divided into smaller curiae. The succession

of kings wasn’t hereditary. The previous king appointed someone, and

that person had to show the good will of heaven. Once king he had to

keep the pax deorum, Latin for peace of the gods. Romulus created an

army that was to have three thousand infantry and three hundred

horsemen, one-third from each tribe. This was a national guard, with

people keeping their day jobs.

When Romulus died in 717 BC, the two main tribes, the Romans

and the Sabines, couldn’t decide how to pick a king. Finally it was

decided that the Romans would pick a Sabine king. They picked Numa

Pompilius. This is what Plutarch had to say about him:

“He banished all luxury and softness from his own home, and… in

private he devoted himself not to amusement… but to the worship of

the immortal gods.” (Nardo 19)

One of Pompilius’ notable achievements was rearranging the calendar so

it had twelve months instead of ten.

The third king, Tullus Hostilius, was a war monger. He

believed his subjects would grow soft if they weren’t engaged in a

war. Conquering neighboring people, including Alba Longa, he extended

Rome’s rule out to twelve miles. Supposedly the gods got angry with

him and killed him with a lightning bolt (Burrell, 12).

The fourth king, Ancus Martius, was a Sabine. He extended

Rome’s boundary to the sea and built the Pons Sublicus, the first

bridge across the Tiber. He also captured the Janiculum hill on the

far bank.

The fifth king, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, was the first

Etruscan king. He got the throne when he persuaded Martius to send his

sons away. He was an architect king. He built the capitol temple,

drained the marsh between the Paletine and Aventine Hills, built the

Cloaca Maxima, or great sewer, and designed the Circus Maximus.

The sixth king was Servius Tullius, another Etruscan. He

divided the citizens into five social classes, from richest to

poorest. All but the poorest had to provide soldiers.

The seventh, and final, king was Tarquinius Superbus. He was a

bad king. He got the throne by marrying Tullius’ daughter, Tullia. He

then pushed Tullius down a flight of stairs. He sent men to finish him

off, but Tullia ran over her father with a cisium, Latin for a light,

two-wheeled carriage. As king, he paid absolutely no attention to what

the people wanted. According to Asimov, when he was off at war with

the Volscians, the Senate voted to exile him, and he wasn’t let back

into the city. After his reign, the people vowed never to have a king

again, and a law was made where anybody who even talked about having a

king back was executed. A senator named Brutus said,

“I swear, and you, o gods, I call to witness that I will drive

[away]… Tarquinius Superbus, together with his wicked wife and his

whole family, with fire and sword and every means in my power, and I

will not [allow] them or anyone else to reign in Rome.”

(Nardo 25)

Republic is English for the Latin Res Publica, meaning the public

thing. A republic is “a country governed by the elected

representatives of the people” (Encarta “Republic”). Instead of a

president or king, the Republic has two praetors, later known as

consuls, who were elected annually. The one exception was emergency

dictators, who served for six months and six months only. The Senators

served for life. The object of the Republic was to give the people a

voice in the government, and to keep just one person from having all

the power. Noting the Greek government, the Romans created the

Centuriate Assembly of citizens. This was an assembly where citizens

discussed and voted on important issues. Many of the members were

Patricians, but there were a few Plebs, or commoners too poor to own

land. Only free Roman adult men who owned weapons were citizens. Not

long after the Republic was formed, the Patricians closed off

immigration of new patriarchal families.

In the early years of the Republic, the Patricians often made

laws unfair to the Plebs. Only Patricians could become consul, the

senate was almost all Patricians, and the Patricians controlled the

Plebs in the Assembly by giving the Plebs financial aid, who in turn

voted the way they were told. Public Officials weren’t paid, so only

wealthy people could afford to serve on a regular basis. One time, the

Plebs refused to serve in the army until they got their way. As Livy


“The Patricians dreaded the Plebians [who were striking]…. How long

could it be supposed that the multitude which had seceded would remain

inactive? And what would be the consequence if in the meantime a

foreign war should break out? No glimpse of hope could they see left

except in concord between the citizens, which must be re-established

in the state on any terms.” (Nardo 28)

In 494 BC, the Patricians gave up and allowed the striking Plebs their

own council, called the Popular Assembly, which excluded Patricians.

This assembly couldn’t make laws, but they elected ten tribunes each

year who had the power of veto. The Patricians pronounced the validity

of decisions made by the assembly. As the Republic grew older, it

became more complicated. The Assembly had to elect officials to help.

They elected eight praetors, or court judges, four aediles, who

managed public streets and buildings, two censores, who took censuses,

admitted new senators and collected taxes, and twenty five quaestores,

or financial officers. In 450 BC, the Plebs demanded that the laws of

Rome be written down so that the praetors couldn’t twist the law in

their favor. They were written down on the Twelve Tables. An example

of a law from the Twelve Tables was,

“If plaintiff summons defendant to court, he shall go. If he does not

go, plaintiff shall call witness [to this]. Then only shall he take

the defendant [to court] by force.” (Nardo 28-29)

The Tribunes of the Plebs protected the Plebs from unjustness, and the

Plebs protected them by threatening to strike. As time went on,

Patrician control over Plebians gradually decreased, until in 366 BC,

the Plebs were allowed to become consul. Soon it became a custom to

elect one Pleb and one Patrician (Nardo 28). In 287 BC, the Popular

Assembly gained the right to make laws.

Rome was ever expanding. In 496 BC, Rome conquered Latium. In

449 BC, the Sabines fell, and in 396 BC, the Etruscans. Instead of

trying to oppress conquered tribes and peoples, Rome absorbed them,

integrating them into their culture. This made them much easier to

control, because they felt like they belonged to Rome. This is what

Cicero had to say about it:

“Every citizen of a corporate town [one annexed by Rome] has, I take

it, two fatherlands, that of which he is a native, and that of which

he is a citizen. I will never deny my allegiance to my native town,

only I will never forget that Rome is my greater fatherland, and that

my native town is but a portion of Rome.” (Nardo 31)

The Senators of Rome also felt great loyalty towards the city. In 390

BC, raiders from Gaul invaded the city. Some of the Senators stayed in

the city. Livy tells what happened:

“[The Senators sat]…without fear or concern…. The Gauls, for a

great while, stood wondering at the strangeness of the sight, not

daring to approach of touch them, taking them for an assembly of

superior beings. But then one [Gaul], bolder than the rest, drew near

to one elderly senator, and… gently stroked [the Senator's] chin and

touched his long beard; the Senator with his staff struck him a severe

blow on the head; upon which the barbarian drew his sword and slew

him. This was the introduction to the slaughter.” (Nardo 32)

The Romans didn’t look kindly upon failures. After the consul Varro

lost fifty thousand soldiers in battle with Hannibal’s army, he was

ejected from office. According to Nardo, the only reason he wasn’t

executed was that he fought along side the army, and didn’t desert


In the Punic wars against Carthage, Rome had to develop naval

technology. After Carthage was defeated, Roman merchants adopted ships

to do their trading, making them more and more wealthy. Eventually,

these wealthy merchants formed a new class, called the ‘equestrian

order’. This new class competed with the patricians for power in the

government. The citizens began splitting into two parties. The

Imperialists, led by General Scipio Africanus, wanted to continue

expanding eastward. The Conservatives, led by Senator Cato the Elder,

wanted to settle down and stop expanding. As time went on, the

Imperialists increasingly prevailed. By the second century BC, the

government became more and more imperialistic, to the point that they

would attack anything with the smallest excuse. In 192 BC, the

Seleucid king Antiochus III took over a few freed Greek cities. Rome

invaded, conquered everything, and drove Antiochus III to Asia Minor.

The Roman army chased him, and conquered the territories he had in

Asia Minor.

Gaius Julius Caesar was born on July 13, 100 BC to a

prestigious Roman family. His uncle was Gaius Marius, the consul and

leader of the agrarian reform movement. In 82 BC, Lucius Cornelius

Sulla attacked the city and made himself dictator. Because Sulla was

an enemy of Marius, he ordered Caesar to divorce his wife, Cornelia.

Caesar refused, and fled the city until Sulla resigned in 78 BC.

Caesar started his reign in a triumvirate, with himself, Pompey the

Great, and Marcus Licinius Crassus. According to Nardo, this was just

a dictatorship of three. They ruled the Republic with terror, using

the army and their henchmen as muscle.(77-78) The only person who

continually voiced his opposition to the triumvirate was the famous

orator, Cicero. The triumvirate chased him into hiding. In 58 BC,

Caesar et al.’s term ended, but they kept power. Caesar boosted his

popularity by conquering Gaul and Britain. In 53 BC, Crassus died in

battle in Asia, leaving a triumvirate of two. While Caesar was away in

Britain, the senators tried to pit him against Pompey by naming Caesar

a public enemy and Pompey protector of the state. The senators were

hoping that the two would get rid of each other. Caesar was ordered to

disband his army, but he instead marched on Rome. He was just bringing

his soldiers home, but it was taken as an invasion (Nardo 83-84). In

48 BC, Caesar crossed to Greece, where Pompey had escaped to. Pompey

escaped to Egypt, where he sought shelter with King Ptolemy XIII.

Ptolemy’s advisors warned him against the wrath of Caesar, so he

killed Pompey and sent Caesar his head. In 46 BC, Caesar was named the

ten year dictator of the state. He promptly renamed himself dictator

for life. On March 15, 44 BC, a group of senators who decided that

Caesar was a danger to the Republic. Led by Brutus and Cassius, they

attacked Caesar in the senate chambers. Ironically, his body fell at

the feet of the statue of Pompey, after suffering twenty three knife

wounds. Immediately after Caesar’s death, the senate outlawed the


After Caesar’s death, his adopted grandson, Octavian, formed

the second triumvirate with Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.

Antony ruled the east, Octavian the west and Italy, and Lepidus ruled

Africa. The second triumvirate was constituted by an act of state to

reconstitute the state. They were given five years, but this was later

extended. The three crushed all of their opponents, including Brutus,

Cassius, and Cicero. Battling against Sextus Pompeius, Octavian

summoned Lepidus to Italy to help him. Upon arriving, Lepidus tried to

seize Sicily, and was subsequently kicked out of the triumvirate.

Mark Antony fell in love with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, who

was rumored to be a former lover of Caesar. Together they ruled the

eastern Empire for many years. With the growing support of the Roman

people, Octavian declared war on Antony, to secure power for himself.

The two forces, Octavian’s navy commanded by Marcus Agrippa, and

Antony and Cleopatra’s navy, met at the battle of Actium on September

2, 31 BC. Agrippa, a very capable general and a good friend of

Octavian, commanded 260 light ships, while Antony commanded 220 heavy

ships (Encarta “Actium”). The battle raged on for a very long time,

and was beginning to look like a stalemate, when the Egyptian fleet

withdrew. Agrippa’s fleet crushed the remnants of Antony’s fleet, who

survived and escaped back to Egypt with Cleopatra. Antony received a

false rumor and killed himself by falling on his sword. Upon hearing

of his suicide, Cleopatra killed herself with an asp, which was a

symbol of the eye of Ra, the Egyptian sun god (Gibson). After the war

was over, Octavian closed the Roman temple to Janus, the Roman god of

beginnings of wars. This showed that the world was at peace.

In 28 BC, Octavian and Agrippa became consuls. After one year,

they turned the state over to “the free decision of the Senate and

People of Rome” (Adcock 74). The Senate and people of Rome gave

Octavian ten years of complete control. Octavian named himself the

princeps, which is Latin for emperor. He ran the Empire as a monarchy,

although it was disguised as a Republic. They still had a senate, but

senators only made it into office with Octavian’s approval. Those

citizens who weren’t fooled kept quiet, because Octavian kept things

peaceful and governed fairly. Octavian ended the Roman tradition of

conquest, cutting the army from seventy five to twenty eight legions.

In 23 BC, Octavian gave up the consulate, but the senate forced him

to keep power over the provinces. In effect, he ran the Empire from

the background, while others were elected consul. These consuls had

power, but always did what Octavian said. On his death bed, Octavian

was advised to forgive his enemies. He responded with, “Yes father,

but how can I? I have [killed] them all” (Adcock 75). Octavian was

almost eighty when he died in 14 AD.

After Octavian came the Emperor Tiberius. His reign was

non-eventful, and he retired after plots against him were turned up.

After Tiberius came Gaius, who was better known as Caligula. During

his reign, Caligula went crazy. According to Burrell, anyone

disagreeing with him was thrown to the lions in the Arena. He also got

the Senate to name his horse consul.(49) Everyone was thankful when he

was assassinated in 41 AD. Caligula was succeeded by several emperors

who did nothing governmentally, including Claudius and Nero.

Around the second century AD, the Empire began to crumble.

Wave after wave of barbarian invaders, especially the Huns, chipped

away at the state. Eventually some of the provinces had to be

abandoned. At the end of the third century, Emperor Diocletian decided

the empire was two big, and split it in two. He ruled the east from

Turkey, and commissioned Maximian to rule the west from Milan. He

called this form of government the Dominate, from Latin dominus,

meaning master. There were two Augusti, who ruled the east and west,

and under them there were two Caesars, who were like vice-presidents.

The two Caesars of the east and west were Constantine and Galerius,

respectively. Diocletian turned his empire into something like a

feudal system, where peasants were deprived of personal freedom and

tied to the soil. He renamed citizens to subjects. In 305, Diocletian

and Maximian stepped down as Augusti, resulting in civil wars between

the old Caesars and new Augusti. Eventually, Constantine the Great

came out on top in 312. Constantine’s troops made him emperor, and he

ruled the entire Empire from Byzantium, which he renamed

Constantinople. Constantine was the first Christian ruler of the


Alaric of the Visgoths helped the emperor Theodosius crush a

rebellion. Unfortunately, Theodosius died before he could reward

Alaric. The new emperor, Honorius, cut Alaric off from Rome, which he

resented deeply. Alaric took his army to Constantinople, but found it

too well guarded. He then led his army to the city of Rome, where, in

the fifth century, sacked it.

The Empire continued to fall to barbarians. The east and west

sides of the Empire were in a virtual state of war. In 429, Vandals

conquered Africa. In 410, Britain fell. In 451, the Huns took most of

Europe. When Atilla the Hun came to Rome, Pope Leo was able to

convince him to spare the city. In 455, Vandals came and sacked Rome.

In the year 476 AD, the last emperor died, marking the fall of the

Roman Empire, one of the greatest ever. That last emperor’s name was,

ironically, Romulus.

The Roman Kingdom, Republic, Empire, Dictatorship, and others

have affected all of us. The United States government in commonly

known as a democracy, but it’s actually a Republic, almost identical

to the Roman one. The Roman government was one of the most powerful

ever, at one point ruling most of the civilized world. It is almost

certainly the best known. Ask anyone about Romulus and Remus, Gaius

Julius Caesar, Augustus, Caligula, Nero, Constantine; they’ll know who

you’re talking about. The term Caesar was used to mean ruler for

thousands of years after his death. Both the German word Kaiser as

well as the Russian word Czar are from the name Caesar and mean ruler.

Today some three-fourths of the countries are Republic, styled after

the Romans. The Romans are probably the most influential people of


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Adcock, F. E. Roman Political Ideas and Practice. Ann Arbor:

University of Michigan, 1959.

Asimov, Isaac. The Roman Republic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966.

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Caesar, Gaius Julius. Computer Software. Encarta Encyclopedia, 1996


Gibson, Elke. Personal Interview. 19 March 1997.

Nardo, Don. The Roman Republic. San Diego: Lucent, 1994.

“The Reforms of Diocletian and Constantine.” CIS: Research and

Education (16 March 1997).

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1996 ed.

“Rome, Ancient – the Empire.” CIS: http://isdup/menu/133.html;

Research and Education, Academic American Encyclopedia; Grolier’s (16

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Sabines. Computer Software. Encarta Encyclopedia, 1996 ed.


The Romans have had almost every type of government there is.

They’ve had a kingdom, a republic, a dictatorship, and an empire.

Their democracy would be the basis for most modern democracies. The

people have always been involved with and loved their government, no

matter what kind it was. They loved being involved in the government,

and making decisions concerning everyone. In general, the Romans were

very power-hungry. This might be explained by the myth that they are

descended from Romulus, who’s father was Mars, the god of war. Their

government loving tendencies have caused many, many civil wars. After

any type of government, the change has been made with a civil war.

There have also been many civil wars between rulers. But it all boils

down to wanting to be involved in government.

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