The Government of the Roman Republic

The Roman Republic's government included features that are part of U.S. government today. Activities examine the role of government in Roman society and Roman engineering; the widespread slavery in Roman society as well of the resistance of slaves (both in the ancient world and in North America) to their oppression; and the lasting impact of the Latin language on the terms we need to know to talk about and understand the law, legal rights, government, and politics.

Standard 1.2: The Government of the Roman Republic

Describe the government of the Roman Republic and the aspects of republican principles that are evident in modern governments. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T1.2]

FOCUS QUESTION: How did the Government of the Roman Republic Contribute to the Development of Modern-Day Democracy? 

Panoramic view of the Roman Forum
The Roman Forum was the center of the public sphere in Rome. Much of Rome's political process took place here.
"Roman Forum from Palatine Hill" by Chalaph is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Roman Republic lasted from 509 to 27 BCE. Its system of government included features that are part of the United States government today, notably its processes for political decision making based on mutually agreeable compromise (Watts, 2018, p. 7). At the same time, Rome during the Republic and the Roman Empire, had many undemocratic features, including a rigid class system, slavery, and the sanctioning of everyday violence. Additionally, women could not attend or vote in political assemblies nor hold any political office. So, what did liberty, government, and democracy mean and for whom did they exist during the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire? 

Roman Forum, Rome, Italy
"Roman Forum, Rome, Italy" by Eustaquio Santimano is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Modules for this Standard Include:

1. INVESTIGATE: The Structure of Roman Government

    • Special Topic Box: Roman Engineering and Public Works Projects
    • MEDIA LITERACY CONNECTIONS: The Internet as a Public Utility
    • TEACHER-DESIGNED LEARNING PLAN: How Ancient Rome Impacts Our Lives Today
  1. UNCOVER: Spartacus and Slavery in the Roman World, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Black American Slave Revolts
  2. ENGAGE: What Latin Legal and Government Terms Should Every Student Need to Know?

    1. INVESTIGATE: The Structure of Roman Government

    The government of the Roman Republic was neither strictly a monarchy (rule by one) or a direct democracy (rule by all). It had democratic features but was essentially a "fundamentally undemocratic society dominated by a select caste of wealthy aristocrats" (Brown, 2016, para. 2).

    In drafting the Constitution and envisioning a democratic society for the United States, the American founders focused on the following features of the Roman Republic. Rome had a constitution. There were written laws. Disputes were settled in courts. There were separate branches of the government and most Roman male citizens had some voting power. Finally, there was the belief in the overriding principle of libertas (liberty). As historian Mary Beard (2005) noted, “All, or most, Romans would have counted themselves as upholders of libertas” (p. 129).

    "The Roman Republic: Checks and Balances", Public Domain

    Roman government functioned within the strict class structure of Roman society (Roman Social Order). The ruling class were known as the Patricians; the other social classes included Plebeians, Freemen, and Slaves. Patricians controlled the government. Plebeians were only granted a right to an Assembly after much conflict with the Patricians. Despite their protests, the Plebeians were granted limited rights. Like ancient Rome, the U.S. has ongoing struggles among social groups within its social, economic, and racial class structures. Topic 4/Standard 13 examines the role money plays in U.S. politics and elections.

    Rome established a code of written laws known asThe Laws of the Twelve Tables. Carved into 12 stone tablets between 451 and 450 BCE, these codes set strict rules for Roman citizens, many of which would be considered incredibly harsh or barbaric today. The Twelve Tables was part of the "struggle by plebeian citizens for full political rights and for parity with the elite, patrician citizens who were generally loath to give up their hereditary monopoly of power" (Beard, 2005, p. 146). Writing down laws so they could be applied to every citizen was a new development in Roman society. Written laws could not be changed, meaning people had certain rights that could not be taken away from them.

    The first legal codes in world history came from the ancient Middle East with the Code of Ur-Nammu being the first having predated the Code of Hammurabi,the most well-known by three centuries. The Great Tang Code was the earliest Chinese legal code that has been recorded completely. Written in 1804, the 2,281 articles of the Napoleonic Code ensured equality, universal suffrage, property rights and religious liberty to all male citizens of France. The United States Code is a collection of this country's permanent laws, but is so large that no one can for sure how many laws there are (Library of Congress, March 13, 2013).

    The government of the Roman republic had a system of checks and balances that sought to balance three forces in Roman society: 

    1. representation and participation of the poor; 
    2. the power and influence of the elite; and 
    3. the need to enact swift decision making outside of representative government.

    The U.S. adopted its own system of checks and balances to control the power of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches (check out the resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki page on The American Political System).

    The ruins of Pompeii, the city destroyed in 79 C.E. by the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius volcano, offer another and in this case media-based political connection between ancient Rome and contemporary politics. Excavating parts of the buried city, archeologists found inscriptions (like a modern-day political poster or sign) inviting people to vote for a local political candidate (Electoral Inspirations Discovered Inside a House, Archaeological Park of Pompeii, October 5, 2023). Political inscriptions were often found on the outside of buildings, but this one was inside suggesting the room was a place where events and meetings were held to support a candidate for office.

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Write Your Definition of a "Law"
      • How would you define or explain "what is a law?"
      • What do you think are the three most important laws in your life today? Why do you think so?
    • Propose a Change to Classroom Rules or School Codes of Conduct
      • The Laws of the Twelve Tables were the Roman's attempt to create a code of laws that applied to every citizen; today every classroom and school has codes of conduct that seek to create protocols for behavior that apply to every student.
      • After examining your classroom or school's rules of student conduct and propose changes or additions; Explain the reasons for your proposal.
        • What changes would you make to current procedures for beginning a class, conducting daily learning activities, and ending class for the day?
    • State Your View about School Dress Codes
      • In ancient Rome it was mandated by law that all male citizens wear togas of certain colors to public events: Plain white for ordinary citizens; Off-white with a purple border for magistrates and upper class boys; Bleached togas for politicians; Purple with gold embroidery for victorious generals and the emperor (The Romans-Clothing). Many schools today have dress codes mandating what students must wear.
        • Does your school have a dress code?
        • What are the arguments for and against school dress codes?
        • What recommendations would you make for the school's student dress code: what must students wear; what may students wear; what cannot students wear?

      Special Topic Box: Roman Engineering and Public Works Projects

      In addition to its government institutions and social class system, ancient Rome is known for its architecture, engineering, and technology: roads, bridges, arches in buildings, domes, arenas and amphitheatres, baths, central heating, plumbing, and sanitation. These innovations were government-funded public works projects intended to further the power and control of the Republic and then the Roman Empire. Still, public works projects benefited people, a dynamic that is ever-present today where local, state, and federal government in the U.S. fund a wide range of services that people need and demand.

      Ancient Roman Aqueducts

      Aqueduc romain du Mont Chemin by Sylenius is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

      Roman aqueducts delivered water over long distances using downhill gravity flows to public baths and fountains throughout cities and towns. The city of Rome had more than 480 miles of aqueducts that brought 300 million gallons of water daily. Rome today still uses an aqueduct built during the Roman Empire.

      The word "aqueduct" comes from the Latin words "aqua" meaning water and "ducere" meaning to lead or to conduit. Aqueducts transformed Roman society, one blog referred to them as the "dawn of plumbing." To learn how aqueducts function, view the video: Roman Water Supply from Science Channel.

      Watch on YouTube

      Roman aqueducts are a notable example of government-funded public works projects and government-funded technological innovations, activities that have been central to the expansion of the United States from the beginning of the nation, including:

      Latin words appear regularly in the news. Quid pro quo, meaning an exchange of something for something, became widely used during the 2019-2020 impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump’s infamous phone call with the President of Ukraine. That phone call, and its surrounding events, established that the delivery of U.S. security assistance was contingent on Ukraine announcing an investigation into Trump’s political rival - former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son. Latin is also used for mottos, including the Massachusetts state motto, Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty)and Ars gratia artis (art for the love of art), motto of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie studio.

      Media Literacy Connections: The Internet as a Public Utility

      In ancient Rome, the government provided public services such as roads, schools, waste management, and plumbing that its citizens needed and demanded. Many Americans are now debating whether the Internet, too, should be provided by the government as a public utility rather than a private service. If the Internet had been invented at the time of the Roman Republic, do you think the government of the Roman Republic would have made the Internet a public utility?

        Suggested Learning Activities

        • Build a Model of an Aqueduct
        • Propose a Modern-Day Public Works Project
          • Rome built roads, aqueducts and many other structures as government-funded public works project. What new public works project should local, state, or federal government provide for your community?

        Teacher-Designed Learning Plans: How Ancient Rome Impacts Our Lives Today

        The following learning plans were developed by Erich Leaper, 7th-grade teacher at Van Sickle Academy, Springfield Massachusetts during the spring 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. The plans offer one week of remote instructional activities and learning for students. They address both a Massachusetts Grade 7 and a Grade 8 curriculum standard as well as Advanced Placement (AP) Government and Politics unit.

        These plans can be adapted and used for in-person, fully online, and blended learning formats. Note: There are some minor spacing issues due to moving the material from Nearpod to the PDF version.

        • Massachusetts Grade 7
          • Describe the contributions of Roman civilization to architecture, engineering, and technology (e.g., roads, bridges, arenas, baths, aqueducts, central heating, plumbing, and sanitation).
        • Masschusetts Grade 8
          • Describe the government of the Roman Republic and the aspects of republican principles that are evident in modern governments.
        • Advanced Placement: United States Government and Politics 
          • Unit 1: Ideas of Democracy

        Online Resources for Roman Government, Roman Society, and Roman Engineering

        2. UNCOVER: Spartacus and Slavery in the Roman World, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Black American Slave Revolts

        Though slavery was widespread throughout the ancient world, ancient Rome was the society most reliant on slave labor with the highest number of slaves among its population. Estimates vary, but many sources estimate it was between one-fifth and one-third of the ancient Roman population was enslaved.

        Roman Collard Slaves

        Photo of "Roman collared slaves - Ashmolean Museum" by Jun is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

        The institution of slavery was interwoven into all areas of Roman life.

        Enslaved workers lived short, grim lives in brutal conditions. Archaeologists exploring the ruins of the city of Pompeii found a "bakery-prison" facility where slaves were forced to live and work, behind bars (Life for the Lowest Class in Ancient Pompeii? It was Awful. The New York Times, December 15, 2023).

        Unlike the Atlantic slave trade centuries later, Roman slavery was not based on race. Roman slaves included prisoners of war, sailors captured by pirates, and enslaved individuals purchased outside Roman territory. Impoverished Roman citizens sometimes sold their children into slavery to make money. 

        Slavery, as practiced in Rome and many other societies, contradicted the fundamental principles of freedom and liberty. It created lasting and unresolved philosophical and political problems in every democracy where it was practiced—including colonial North America and the United States before and after the Civil War.

        Throughout history slaves have rebelled against those who enslaved them. The desire to be free, to have control over one’s life, is basic to being human. Spartacus was a gladiator and leader of a lengthy, though unsuccessful, slave revolt against the Roman Republic in 73 BCE. 

        Death of Spartacus

        "Spartacus' death" by Hermann Vogel
        Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

        Toussaint L'Ouverture, who has been called the Black Spartacus, was the leader of the Haitian Revolution, an uprising of African slaves on the island of Haiti that produced in 1804 the second independent republic in the western hemisphere (the United States was the first) (learn more from resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki page Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution).

        Toussaint LOuverture

        "Général Toussaint Louverture" 
        NYPL Digital Gallery/Public Domain

        Resistance to slavery through slave revolts is a recurring theme in the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the American South before the Civil War. In the Jamaican Slave Uprising of 1760-61, one of the largest slave revolts of the 18th century, 1000 enslaved Africans rose up against their oppressors in a violent, bloody struggle. It was a powerful example of Black agency, but it is not included in many textbooks. "Masters and their captives struggled with one another continuously," noted historian Vincent Brown in his book Tacky's Revolt: A Story of an Atlantic Slave War (2020, p. 7). A more complete history demands us, in Brown's view, to "elaborate on the slaves' grievances and goals, or the connections among the various individuals and forces behind the insurrections" (2020, p. 13).

        The United States also had slave revolts, as Henry Louis Gates (100 Amazing Facts about the Negro) has recorded: the Stono Rebellion (1739), the New York City Conspiracy of 1741; Gabriel's Conspiracy (1800); the German Coast Uprising (1811), and the Nat Turner Rebellion (1831). Each is a compelling example of Black resistance to the cruelties of slavery. For as the 20th century revolutionist Frantz Fanon (1961) wrote in The Wretched of the Earth: “the famous dictum which states that all men are equal will find its illustration in the colonies only when the colonized subject states he is equal to the colonist” (p. 9). 

        Suggested Learning Activities

          Online Resources about Slave Revolts

          3. ENGAGE: What Latin Legal and Government Terms Should Every Student Need to Know?

          Why does English include so many words from Latin - a language that is hardly spoken in the United States? 

          Dictionary.com has concluded that 60% of all English words come from Greek or Latin roots; in science and technology, the figure is more than 90%. 10% of Latin words have come directly into English - terms such as chivalrous, flux, rapport, and taunt.

          Knowing the meaning of Latin words and phrases is essential in everyday life. You would not want to sign a contract that had the phrase caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) or fail to accept someone's mea culpa (it was my fault).

          The term "coronavirus" is derived from the Latin word for corona (crown-like circle of light) + virus. A coronavirus has the appearance of a solar corona when seen under an electron microscope (see Coronavirus Etymology on Wikipedia). The word quarantine comes from the Latin "quaranta giorni" meaning 40 days. Its use began in the 14th century during the plague epidemics known as the Black Death. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports could not land people or goods for 40 days (History of Quarantine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 20, 2020).

          E Pluribus Unum is a Latin phrase meaning from “out of many, one.” It was adopted as the United States' motto in 1782 and first appeared on a U.S. coin in 1795. It was intended to convey the message that the United States is one country made from many diverse peoples and places. E Pluribus Unum was replaced by “In God We Trust” as a Cold War-era statement against communism.

          E Pluribus Unum

          Apotheosis of Washington, detail E Pluribus Unum - 1865 by Michael Edward McNeil is licensed under CC BY 2.0

          Latin Words in Everyday Language

          Hundreds of Latin language words and phrases that have made their way into the English language. The word justice had its origins in Latin jus, meaning "right" or "law." The English words "citizen," "civil," "civics," and "civilization" all come from the Latin words civis (city-dweller, citizen) and civitas (city). Then there is the word pater (father) which gives English the words paternal, patriot, and patriarchy. The words segregate and desegregate come from the term segregatus meaning to "set apart" or "separate from the herd."

          Many more terms from Latin are listed in the Glossary of Educational and Legal Terms for Middle and High School Students.

          Latin words appear regularly in the news. Quid pro quo, meaning an exchange of something for something, became widely used during the 2019/2020 impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump’s infamous phone call with the President of Ukraine. That phone call, and its surrounding events, established that the delivery of U.S. security assistance was contingent on Ukraine announcing an investigation into Trump’s political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.

          Latin is also used for mottos, including the Massachusetts state motto, Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty). Ars gratia artis (art for the love of art) is the motto of the movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

          Latin Words in Law and Government

          Latin is the language of the law, courts, and government so understanding Latin is key to understanding your and everyone else's rights in political and legal systems. Do you know the meaning of affidavit (a statement given to a court that the writer swears is truthful), bona fide (a offer made in good faith); alibi (evidence one was somewhere else when a crime was committed); prima facie (clear or self-evident when looking at the facts); voire dire (meaning to "tell the truth" and used in the selecting of members of a jury for a trial) or subpoena (a command to appear in court with penalties for not doing so)?

          Learn more Latin terms using in law and government at these sites:

          What law and government Latin words and phrases do you think all students ought to know or be required to know to graduate from high school?

          What Latin terms might help students engage legally and ethically in making critically informed decisions as members of in democratic society?

          As a civic engagement activity, create a kid-friendly TikTok video, meme, or other product that responds to these two questions. 

          Suggested Learning Activities

          • Design a Coat of Arms Featuring a Motto in Latin
          • Use Latin Words in Writing
            • From a list of common Latin words and phrases (see examples below), in groups, design a video, skit, or digital story in which the characters use multiple Latin words in the narrative. We have added student-accessible definitions for each term.
              • Ad infinitum: going on for ever and ever
              • Bona fide: in good faith
              • Cum laude: with honor
              • De facto: in fact
              • Et cetera: and the rest
              • Per diem: for/by each day
              • Pro bono: for good
              • Alibi: I, she/he, them/they were elsewhere
              • Per se: In itself
              • Multi-: many
              • Quid pro quo: this for that
              • Semi-: Half
              • Verbatim: word for word
              • Versus: against
              • Affidavit: he/she/it declared under oath
          • Send a Message in Latin
            • Select a Latin phrase from this website.
            • Express the phrase creatively using paper, colored markers and pencils, or online with a meme or poster.
            • Present the Latin message to the class, explain what it means in English, and display the phrases in the classroom or on a virtual bulletin board/class website.

          Online Resources about Latin Language

          Standard 1.2 Conclusion

          The Roman Republic, like the government of ancient Athens, had political and social features that made their way into the new government of the United States. INVESTIGATE looked at the structure of Roman government and the central role that slavery played in Roman society. UNCOVER addressed the long history of slave revolts, including the roles of Spartacus, and much later, Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian Revolution, and revolts of Black slaves in the American South before the Civil War. ENGAGE asked what Latin words and phrases should every student be required to know to graduate from high school?

          This content is provided to you freely by Equity Press.

          Access it online or download it at https://equitypress.org/democracy/romanrepublic.