Popular Political Participation in the Late Roman Republic

Popular Political Participation in the Late Roman Republic

By Claudine Lana Earley

PhD Dissertation, Victoria University of Wellington, 2009

Abstract:┬áRoman democracy is in fashion. In particular, the publication of Fergus Millar’s The Crowd in the Late Republic (1998) has stimulated debate on the democratic elements in Roman government during this period. In this thesis I examine the nature of popular participation in the late Roman Republic. I focus on the decision-making power of the populus Romanus and popular pressure to effect reform in the favour of citizens outside the senatorial and equestrian orders. My findings are based on analysis of ancient literary and epigraphic sources, along with a critique of modern research on the topic.

The first chapter introduces the subject with a survey of current scholarly opinion and discussion of key concepts and terms. Chapter Two investigates how power was shared between senatus populusque Romanus and the distribution of power in the assemblies, concluding that participation was widespread as a result of the changing circumstances in the late Republic. As farmers and veterans moved to Rome, and slaves were freed and granted citizenship and the right to vote, the balance was tipped in the favour of the non-elite voter. Each class of the populus Romanus could participate in Roman politics, and certainly members of each did.


Having concluded my analysis of the formal avenues of participation, I move onto the informal. Chapter Three is the first of three chapters of case studies focusing on demonstrations and collective action which form the heart of this work. The first set of studies cover secession, mutiny and refusal of the draft. Chapter Four continues with studies of popular pressure to gain reforms to improve the food supply, restore tribunician power, obtain relief from crippling debt and land shortage. The final chapter of analysis, Chapter Five, investigates collective action at contiones, legislative assemblies, trials, ludi et gladiatores, triumphs, funerals, and elections.

The findings of these three chapters bring me to the conclusion that Rome was a democracy, if of a particular type. The nature of popular political participation in the late Republic resembled that of an emerging democracy with the non-elite gaining an increasing role in the decision-making process, albeit without constitutional definition. The citizens’ right to participate in the formal assemblies was augmented by their ability to take part in less formal ways also. These informal methods ranged from popular involvement in contiones through to the application of pressure on senators through the threat of secession and mutiny. Only the rise of the principate, with formalised roles for the various sectors in society under one leader, brought these developments to an end.

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