When discussing ‘ancient’ Rome in this essay I will be referring to the Republic period of ancient Rome (509 – 27 BCE). In order to understand the social structure and the rights afforded to citizens of Rome and the Empire, it is imperative to have some understanding and knowledge of the structure of the legal system in Rome.Before the Patrician Era (509 – 367 BCE ) Rome was ruled by a succession of monarchs who were elected by a senate. After the uprising in 509 BCE by Lucius Junius Brutus to overthrow the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, what is now known as the Roman Republic – due to its political structure – was established. The patrician era was characterized by the rule of the patrician class, who unlike the plebeians were able to hold offices in the consulship, Senate and all religious offices. The Patricians would also elect two magistrates annually (who were known as consuls) to be in charge of what would have been the king’s military power (imperium); each consult acting as a form of check on the other in order to balance their power, similar to the division of the branches of Government. The king’s religious roles were handled by a ‘priest-king’ (rex sacrorum) who served a life long term, although they were mostly ceremonial. This clear distinction between the Patricians and the Plebeians led to what is known as the ‘Conflict of the Orders’, (367 – 287 BCE) a time during which a number of laws were introduced that gave more rights to plebeians and allowed them to become more politically involved. Some of the assemblies that were created due to this conflict were the Tribal assembly and then the Plebeian tribunate.Firstly, it is important to discuss the first assembly created in Republic era Rome, the centuriate assembly (comitia centuriata) and its own similarities with British politics. Prior to the creation of the plebeian tribunate, the centuriate assembly would have been the only assembly which plebeians could have joined since it was made up of Roman soldiers from all classes. The assembly voted on military matters as well as electing all magistrates that had the power of imperium, such as consuls; and before the creation of criminal courts in the late republic, it also served as a high court and sometimes exercised capital jurisdiction. In regards to voting and electing magistrates, whilst all member could vote, not every vote was equal, with the assembly being specifically designed to maintain the unjust status-quo. This was done by separating all voting citizens into five different social classes based on wealth. Each social class was given a certain number of votes (known as centuries), with the total number of centuries being 193; the first and wealthiest class was given 80 centuries, with the second, third and fourth being given 20 each, and the fifth class, constituting of the poorest members of society, was given 30 centuries. An additional 18 centuries were given to knights – men wealthy enough to afford a horse – who voted along with the first class (the first class then having a total of 98 centuries) and the final five were given to proletarii, landless men too poor to join the army. This system was specifically designed to enforce the social hierarchy and give wealthier men more power. Similarities can then also be drawn from this and the British system prior to 1911, with the political system being specifically designed to give more power to wealthier men; one could even argue that the recent plan to redraw the constituency boundaries by the 2017 Conservative Government is similar to this, as the new boundaries would have given a perhaps unfair advantage to the Conservatives in future elections.However, it would be more accurate to compare the current voting system and constituency boundaries in the UK with the more representative system used for tribal assemblies (comitia tributa). The tribal assemblies elected magistrates who did not have the power of imperiumĀ and often voted on legislation, as well as serving as a court for serious public offences, usually involving money. This, once again highlights more similarities between the tribal assemblies and the UK political system, with the House of Lords serving not only as a legislative body but also (prior to the 2005/9 Constitutional Reform Act) as a court.There was a total number of 35 assemblies which were divided geographically into what were known as tribes, much like constituencies in the UK, or states in the U.S. They passed legislation by randomly selecting tribes to vote on the issue, once a majority of the tribes had voted, the law would then be enacted, or rejected. The arguably most important reform passed, was one that allowed the plebeians to create their own assembly – commonly known as the plebeian tribunate. The plebeian tribunate was created around 494 BCE, where after being worn down from bad economic positions and the harsh debt law in Rome at the time, along with other social injustices, the plebeians decided to elect their own representatives/officials, to which the Senate agreed to due to an enemy threat to attack Rome. Although at first there were only 2 plebeian tribunes, this number increased to 10 by 457 BCE and gave the plebeians increasing power. The plebeian tribunes were unimpeachable and whoever physically harmed someone in a plebeian tribune could be killed with impunity; this power was granted to them because they became the representatives of the plebeians when discussing matters at Senate, or even against a consul, and a transgression against a member of the tribunate was seen as an act against plebeians themselves. They could also invoke the tribal assembly and submit bills to them for legislation, as well vetoing decisions passed in other tribunes, and even prosecuting magistrates for misconduct in office. One of the more notable legislation passed by the plebeian tribunate was the “Ovinian law” (Plebiscitum Ovinium) which firstly, gave the power to elect senators to censors, instead of the consuls, and secondly, made it so that any newly appointed magistrate would also be given a place in the Senate, allowing for much greater representation of the plebeians at higher levels of office. Whilst this did give power to the plebeians, it was often young populist aristocrats, seeking to make a name for themselves who were elected for the tribunes, rather than ‘working class’ plebeians; similar to the house of commons before the Parliament Act of 1911 (which gave income to MP’s allowing for greater representation from all working classes). Similarly, the Ovinian law could be compared to the Equal Franchise Act of 1928; whilst the Ovinian law did not allow for women to vote, it is similar in the sense that thanks to it, a greater percentage of the population saw fairer representation, and also that it paved the way for a more democratic government. Another way in which the political climate of ancient Rome mirrors that of the UK – although more accurately the one in 1800’s – early 1900’s – is the fact that only Roman citizens, that is to say, Roman men were allowed to vote and elect their representatives in tribunates,and only Roman men could stand for office.

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