Roman Republic vs. Roman Empire and The Imperial System

Rome witnessed important changes in the shift from Roman Republic to Roman Empire, but the Imperial system was not always as different or as powerful as it may have seemed.

Mar 22, 2020By Marian Vermeulen, BA History and Philosophy
The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina in the Roman Forum
The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina in the Roman Forum


As one of the longest-lasting and most powerful civilizations in history, Rome is a fascinating kingdom to investigate. Any discussion of Rome is bound to include one particular name: Julius Caesar. Standing at the balance point from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. Interestingly enough, when digging into the differences between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, one finds that the change was a careful and complex one, and the two systems had more in common than it appears on the surface.


The Roman Monarchy

siemiradski nero torches great fire of rome
Nero’s Torches, by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1876, via the National Museum, Krakow


Though the Republic and the Empire receive the most attention, Rome was already over two hundred years old when the Republic arose. Rome’s original system was a monarchy, though quite different from the medieval monarchies that form our image of the word. Kingship in Rome was not divine or even a familial right. The previous king’s sons did have a greater chance of inheriting the throne, but the Senate made the ultimate acclamation of the monarch.

The word Senate comes from the Latin word “senex,” or “old man.” The Senate was, by design, a council of elders. As a deeply hierarchal society, the oldest families of Rome formed the powerful Patrician class, and the patriarch of each of those families served on the Senate, the advisory board for the king. When the Romans overthrew the monarchy in 509 B.C., the Senate remained the highest governmental body. Two members of the Senate were elected annually to lead both the Senate and the army as consuls.


The Formation of the Republic

Cicero Denounces Catiline by Cesare Maccari – 1840-1919
Cicero Denounces Catiline by Cesare Maccari – 1840-1919

A scene from the Republican Senate – Cicero exposing the Cataline Conspiracy to overthrow him and his fellow consul

In the early years of the Republic, Rome was more of an oligarchy than a true Republic, with power remaining in the hands of the same old families of Rome. However, in 494 B.C., the plebeians, or lower class, became frustrated with their lack of influence and organized a major strike, shutting down work and production in Rome. As a result, the Senate added three new assemblies to the government for the creation of laws, the Centuriate Assembly, the Council of Plebeians, and the Tribal Assembly. Each of these primarily covered specific areas of government; military issues, the concerns of the plebeian class, and the election of local offices, respectively.

These legislative assemblies saw the election of the consuls and other magistrates as well. Recognizing the inefficiency of the governmental system in times of serious emergency, the Republic also created a provision for the election of a dictator. This individual would hold supreme power for a designated short term in order to make decisions quickly when needed.

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Transition to Empire

The Murder of Caesar by Karl von Piloty – 1865
The Murder of Caesar by Karl von Piloty – 1865


Julius Caesar was the first man to be named “dictator for life” by the Senate, but their fear of his growing power led to a plot to assassinate him on the Senate floor.

It was the position of a dictator that allowed for the eventual transfer from Republican to Imperial government, by the naming of an individual as “dictator for life.” Once the Imperial system was solidly established, Roman emperors wielded ultimate power, commanded the army, could institute and veto laws, judge cases, and confirmed all political appointments. The Roman government shifted dramatically from a form of representative democracy to a centralized, single authority. Although the powers of the legislative bodies and the Senate decreased, the early years of the change were unstable. Beneath the power of the emperor, some of the Roman government remained surprisingly similar.


The Senate’s Power of Influence

Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus , nephew of Caesar and first emperor of Rome, c. 20 B.C. – Museo Capitolino of Rome, Italy
Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus, nephew of Caesar and first emperor of Rome, c. 20 B.C. – Museo Capitolino of Rome, Italy


Rome’s overthrow of the monarchy had left the nation with deep mistrust and hatred of kings, and the position of the emperor never really became as solid as a casual observer might think. The Senate planned the murder of Julius Caesar due to their fear of his rising power and belief that he sought to make himself king, and Julius Caesar’s nephew Octavian, later to be known as Augustus, gained his imperial power through cautious diplomatic maneuvering, always maintaining outward respect for the Senate, ostensibly receiving his powers at their hands, and carefully avoiding any direct titles that indicated kingship.


The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome
The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome


Throughout the Imperial Era, emperors held a dangerous position. Their powers were granted to them by the Senate at the beginning of their term, and if they did not hold the loyalty of the military, they could also be stripped of that power. The Senate declared Nero a public enemy and sentenced him to death by beating during the revolts that preceded his death. He fled Rome before finally commanding his private secretary to kill him rather than face capture. Imperial Rome experienced frequent upheavals and civil wars as powerful men vied for power. The support of the Senate could make or destroy those men.



The Role of the Military

Statue of Emperor Domitian in Vaison-la-Romaine, France - Domitian was murdered in a plot made by a group of high-ranking Senators
Statue of Emperor Domitian in Vaison-la-Romaine, France – Domitian was murdered in a plot made by a group of high-ranking Senators


Additionally, the Roman Army and the Praetorian Guard held major political power on the edges of their swords. Like the Senate, their support could raise men to imperial power and their dissent usually lead to their deaths. 69 A.D. is known as the “Year of the Four Emperors,” Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. Following the death of Nero, four provincial governors, and therefore military commanders, became emperor in short succession. The Praetorian Guard killed Galba and the Senate declared Otho emperor. However Otho suffered a military defeat when Vitellius brought some of the best legions of the Roman army onto the field. After the defeat, Otho committed suicide and the Senate recognized Vitellius as emperor. Finally, the legions under command of Vespasian declared him emperor, and Vitellius’s supporters slowly deserted him. Vespasian’s legions took Rome and killed Vitellius, and the Senate then declared Vespasian emperor.


Altar of the Temple of Vespasian in Pompeii, Italy
Altar of the Temple of Vespasian in Pompeii, Italy


Fortunately for Rome, the chaotic civil wars then ended, and Vespasian established the Flavian dynasty which held stable power for the next twenty-seven years. Yet the Flavian dynasty also ended in blood, when a number of Senators plotted the murder of Domitian and placed Nerva, a steady, older Senator, on the throne. He was largely a placeholder to avoid the wars of 69 A.D., and his choice of successor, Trajan, held the strong loyalty of the army, Senate and people.


Praetorian Influence

Coin depicting Didius Julianus - 193 A.D.
Coin depicting Didius Julianus – 193 A.D.


The Praetorian Guard was less enthusiastic, but did not challenge that particular line of emperors. However, as the personal bodyguard of the emperor and the unit allowed to carry weapons in Rome, they maintained a unique threat to the emperor and the Senate, and as such could also decide the fate of Rome. In fact, in 193 A.D., the Praetorian Guard auctioned off the position of emperor, essentially selling the Empire. A wealthy senator named Didius Julianus purchased the position for 6,250 drachmas per soldier. However, Didius did not fare well either. The Senate sentenced him to death after only 66 days of rule and a Praetorian executed him in his own palace.


Roman Republic vs. Roman Empire

Digital Reconstruction of a Roman Bathhouse from Cassinomagus - modern day Chassenon, France
Digital Reconstruction of a Roman Bathhouse from Cassinomagus – modern-day Chassenon, France


When the Imperial system held stable, during the reign of emperors like Augustus, Tiberius, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, and others of their kind, the difference between the Republic and the Empire was a massive political shift. Yet there remained an undercurrent of the Republican system that made the position of the emperor a precarious one. Rome never entirely rejected her Republican roots. Furthermore, the government was not the only area to see changes in the shift from Republic to Empire. Roman religion added Imperial cults to their worship, as the Senate declared most of the deceased emperors to be gods.


Roman gladiators depicted on a mosaic currently in the Galleria Borghese in Rome
Roman gladiators depicted on a mosaic currently in the Galleria Borghese in Rome


Roman culture also saw changes from Republic to Empire. Centralized power and the rapid expansion of Roman territory and foreign trade led to an increase of wealth in Rome. The early Romans were quite proud of their reputation as practical, hard-working, and self-sacrificing individuals. Though this ideal remained in the collective psyche, influx of money and goods lead to the development of a much more luxurious lifestyle, particularly in the city of Rome itself and the surrounding resort cities of the Italian countryside. High society in Rome consisted largely of lavish bathing and dining and public entertainment and spectacles grew ever more ostentatious.



Collapse and Lessons

Mosaic from a gymnasium in Ostia Antica – the port city of Rome
Mosaic from a gymnasium in Ostia Antica – the port city of Rome


This prosperity allowed for increased production in literature, architecture, and art. Both private homes and public buildings were liberally adorned with beautiful artwork, including statues, frescoes, and intricate mosaics. Wealthy Romans enjoyed abundant comforts and pleasures, yet that prosperity would also contribute to the eventual downfall of Rome. The empire sent more and more of its stable value in gold and silver into foreign markets in exchange for expendable luxury goods and earned public funds mainly from taxation of those foreign imports.

When foreign economies collapsed, Rome found herself in dire financial straits. Coupled with increasing unrest, the instability of the governmental system, and violent barbarian raids, the Western empire slowly disintegrated. The track of ancient Rome in the cultural, economic, and political progression is one which several modern nations are now busy to follow, and as such is deserving of close attention and analysis so that they might avoid making the same mistakes.

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By Marian VermeulenBA History and PhilosophyMarian has been a devoted student of the ancient world since primary school. She received her BA in History and Philosophy from Hope College and has continued researching and writing on topics of ancient history from the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire and everything in between. She enjoys dabbling in historical fiction, but generally finds the actual true individuals of history and their stories more fascinating than any fictional invention. Her other passion is horses, and in her spare time she enjoys starting young horses under saddle and volunteer training for the local horse rescue.