The Roman Constitution: Differences of Views between Polybius And Petronius - Constitution Essay Example

The Roman Constitution: Differences of Views between Polybius

And Petronius


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            According to Polybius, the Roman Constitution has three distinct elements: 1) the Consuls, 2) the Senate, and 3) the Tribunes. The office of the consul performs the following functions: 1) introducing foreign ambassadors to the Senate, 2) executing the decrees of the Senate, 3) imposing levies to allies, 4) introducing urgent issues to the people, 5) summoning popular meetings and assemblies, 6) leading/commanding armies in times of war, and 7) dispensing public funds released by the Senate. According to Polybius, if one examines the powers vested to the office of the consul, one may think that the Roman Constitution is despotic in nature. However, this is not the case; the Roman Constitution equally divides the powers of the state to its three elements.

            According to Polybius, the functions of the Roman Senate are as follows: 1) controlling and regulating financial transactions of the state, 2) investigating crimes committed in Italy, 3) regulating public works (the Quaestors cannot release public money without a decree from the Senate), 4) negotiating for friendly and beneficial treaties, 5) declaring war to hostile nations, and 6) imposing restrictions on trade and commerce. For Polybius, if one removes the office of the consul and tribune in the Roman Constitution, the Roman Senate would appear to be aristocratic in orientation. Again, this is not the case. According to Polybius, there is very important office reserved to the people.

            The office of the tribune was created to protect the interests of the plebeians. Its main functions are as follows: 1) passing judgment on matters of life and death (acts as a court), 2) evaluating laws passed by the Roman Senate (the tribunes has the power to repeal laws that it perceive to be unjust), 3) recommending public officials for promotion, and 4) ratifying treaties (treaties approved by the Senate will be passed to the tribunes for final ratification). The office of the tribune represents the people. For Polybius, these three elements of the Roman state is in principle with the principles of equilibrium and equality. If one of the elements is lacking, the result is tyranny.

            For Petronius, the efficiency and effectiveness of the early Roman Constitution had already waned during the time of Caesar’s dictatorship. The enlargement of the Roman Republic called for a radical modification of the Roman Constitution. Julius Caesar indirectly challenged the sovereignty of the three elements of the Roman state by imposing his will and authority over the Roman state. The Banquet of Trimalcio proves this point. The slave, Trimalcio, received all the properties of his former master as reward for his ‘services’ to the Roman state (Caesar). Note that Caesar is equated with the Roman state. The dictatorship of Caesar dissolved the early set-up of the Roman government as proposed by Polybius. Implied here is the fact that during Trimalcio’s time, the Roman Republic became a despotic state. This is not a coincidence. The increasing power struggles among public officials in Rome (probably due to the enlargement of Roman power outside Italy) created an avenue for the rise of dictatorships. During Polybius time, Roman power was almost equally divided among the consuls, the senate, and the tribunes. The reason is simple. The Roman state can be efficiently managed by this set-up of government (size of the state). In any case, the character of the Roman state changed after it increased in size and power.

Work Cited

Kagan, Donald et al. The Western Heritage. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 2000.

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