The significance of the Roman Constitution and the people’s role in it, together with the power executed by the Consul and the Senate, are discussed by Augustus in The Deeds of the Divine Augustus and Polybius in The Histories. The historical significance of both texts is in their somewhat similar approach to the understanding of power and its execution. It first may appear that Augustus and Polybius describe the people’s role in a similar fashion, emphasizing their direct role in lawmaking and war-waging.
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However, a more in-depth analysis of both texts indicates that the people’s role might have been smaller than described. Was it true that people in the Roman Empire had a direct influence on lawmaking, questions of war and peace, and lived in a democracy? Although both Augustus and Polybius claimed that Roman people could directly affect the deeds of the Empire, in reality, its citizens could barely change the military plans of the authorities, control the contracts and obligations, or protest against decisions of higher authorities that they find unfair or unconstitutional.
The People and Military Plans
The influence of people on military campaigns was scarce. Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor, described his accomplishments and deeds in the document Res Gestae, translated as The Deeds of the Divine Augustus (Augustus). When describing people’s role in the military, Augustus indicates that five hundred thousand citizens “were sworn to me” (Augustus). Describing their role, he does not mention whether they had any influence on the war plans; he only points out that while some of them return to the Empire, others were sent to colonies, and the majority of them received money for their service.
Polybius indicates that it is the people who “deliberate the question of peace and war” (Polybius 289). However, he also mentions that the Consuls have absolute power in administrating a military campaign. This statement is supported by Augustus, who writes “I often waged war, civil and foreign, on the earth and sea” (Augustus). There is no indication of whether the people of the Empire played a part in deciding how and why the war should start; Augustus describes them as faithful soldiers, who later proposed him to be their Consul (again) or even become a Dictator.
The people’s control over contracts heavily depended on the Senate. When describing the role of the Senate in financial transactions that were necessary for repairs of buildings or their construction, Polybius points out that depending on the case, the Senate can either give an extension of time to some of the transactions or even remove some of the obligations that the contractors have (290). According to Polybius, the Senate could also decide whether some of the contractors had to suffer from considerable hardships or, on the contrary, enjoy indulgencies (290). The process of coming to such decisions is not described, which obscures the clarity of the Senate’s decision to grant indulgences to some.
Another point that makes the financial transactions in the Empire doubtful and raises questions about the influence of money on the Senate’s decisions is Augustus’ notion that he helped the Senate with his money so that the military treasury could be founded (Augustus). While the role of the military treasury could be seen as democratic (it granted rewards to war veterans), the process of transactions between the Senate, the Consul, and the people remain unclear. Furthermore, Polybius also does not mention whether the Senate could impose hardships on the Consul, while it certainly could do so in terms of the Empire’s citizens.
The Right to Protest
While there are hints on the lack of the protest among the citizens of the Empire in Augustus’ text, Polybius’ texts give an explicit notion that protests against the Senate’s and the Consuls’ will be unfavorable. When describing his deeds, Augustus’ mostly indicates that his actions were met with support, and the people of the Empire even suggested he (alone) become a curator of laws (an honor he refused from) (Augustus). Polybius is more open about the people’s ability to protest: “…men do not rashly resist the wishes of the Consuls, because one and all may become subject to their absolute authority on a campaign.” (290). Thus, people could resist the decision of the Consul, but the consequences of such resistance could be regrettable.
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It should also be noted that the Senate’s members also became judges in public and private trials, which is why citizens were “at its [the Senate] mercy” (Polybius 290). Thus, the people’s actual ability to protest was difficult to realize due to Consul’s authority in the military and the Senate’s role in finance. If the power of both sides was that big, it is difficult to imagine what an actual protest would cost the Empire’s citizens.
The Tribunes’ Role
It would be incorrect to believe that citizens of the Empire did not have any rights to protest, especially in lawmaking. According to Polybius, the Senate could not execute a penalty if it was not ratified by the Tribune (289). Furthermore, the Tribune also had the right to veto a law or a decree; if the veto was interposed, the Senate could not even hold meetings (formal and informal) because they were prohibited by the people will (Polybius 290).
The people’s rights are thus not non-existent but highly limited and depend heavily on the Senate’s and the Consul’s decisions. At the same time, as Polybius argues, the power of the Senate and the Consul in certain areas such as the military and finance exceeds significantly that of the people. This way, the system of checks and balances does exist, but the people’s power remains severely limited compared to the power of the other two sides. Moreover, Polybius’ argument that people are at the Senate’s (and Consul’s) mercy indicates that an explicit opposition to these forces can have a negative impact on citizens.
As can be seen from the analysis, the people in the Roman Empire had an insufficient influence on the questions of lawmaking, war, and finance. Even though Polybius argues the Constitution is a democratic one, the authority of the Senate the Consul is much more prominent compared to that of the Tribune (289). Similar notions about the people’s role in executing the power provided by Augustus and Polybius show that during that time the understanding of a democracy and people’s involvement in governmental affairs was remarkably different from the modern one.
The significance of the thesis is that it points out why it would be incorrect to label the Roman Empire as a democracy, although it is the term that the prominent citizens of that Empire used. Further study should focus on the role of power in the Empire, how it was executed, what limitations it had, and how it could be restricted by the Senate, the Consul, and the people.
Augustus. “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus.” The Internet Classics Archive, n.d. Web.
Polybius. The Histories. Oxford University Press, 2010.