Was Rome really democratic?

During the Roman Republic, politics (supposedly) followed the constitutional ‘cursus honorum’, which was basically a list of political jobs which people had to progress along in the correct order to eventually reach the highest position, being consul. Due to the nature of Roman politics, one needed a good reputation to be successful in elections, which is most cases occurred by having lots of money to spend on food and entertainment for the public. Money was therefore had a huge part to play in Roman politics, as to attend political gatherings and stand for office, one must have had enough money to be able to afford to miss days of work and business, or be able to afford to not work at all.  It is fair to say that ancient Roman politics was dominated by the male aristocracy; women had virtually no political role, and the poor had no way of exerting any influence over the public.


The plebeians arguably had no real power until the result of the Struggle of the Orders, a political struggle which occurred between the plebeians and the aristocratic patricians during the early republic. The plebeians desired a political role which was somewhat more equal to the aristocrats whom they lived alongside. As a result of this, the constitution was altered so that the plebs eventually had a very important political role- they were able to occupy the office of tribune, in which they had the power to propose laws, or veto laws which the senate were passing.

In the very early Republic, almost everything was passed by a senate majority, through ‘optimates’ politics- this was a method of making political decisions which involved members of the senate, which opposed ‘populares’ politics, a method which appealed to the plebeians- people, rather than just the rich, which was increasingly successful with the rise of the Gracchi brother during the second century B.C. The Gracchi used tribunes to pass their laws, rather than the senators themselves. Unsurprisingly, this did not go down particularly well with the very-rich-and-powerful senators, and Tiberius Gracchus was murdered for showing this new way of doing politics.

The constitution of the Roman republic was all but simple; unlike to the modern day, not everyone had an equal vote. The assemblies, in which people were able to vote for magistrates, in addition to accepting or declining legislation, were made up of the masses of people in Rome. Alongside these, were the senators, and the magistrates themselves who governed Rome and its provinces, and commanded armies with imperium. Despite people having a vote, the politics of Rome largely worked in favour of the rich, rather than the masses of plebeians, indicating that although Rome was constitutionally democratic, their society was more of an oligarchy, or even a tyrannical dictatorship if one was to look at the reigns of Sulla and Caesar.

Rome did have the potential to be a democratic society, however, there was far too much corruption within the government itself for this to really happen.  With countless voting scandals, a society which was too poor to be political engaged, Rome was much more of an oligarchy than a democracy.


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