Rome/United States Constitutional Document Comparison


Menenius Speech to striking Plebeians

The plebian, or peasant, class of Rome during the early republic constituted the free (non-slave) work force of the Roman State. They served the State as laborers and soldiers, but had no representation on the Senate, which was restricted to the patrician, or noble, class. However, one of the two consuls of Rome during that period was required to be a plebian by birth, and the presence of a plebian consul in government was supposed to assure the plebians that their interests were being protected. In 503 b.c., the plebian consul was Menenius Agrippa.

At the time, the plebians were growing especially restless over their perceived ill-treatment and lack of representation, and a series of events led to an insurrection in which a large group of them left the City and camped on the Aventine Hill, where they declared their intention to form their own city.

The situation was very dangerous for both sides; the plebians feared an attack from the forces of the senate, and the senators feared economic collapse due to lack of a work force.

It is said that Menenius Agrippa was sent by the Senate to the plebians as a negotiator, and that he appeased them and brought them back into the City to work out a compromise

In the days when the organs and body parts did not all agree amongst themselves, as is now the case, but had each its own ideas and a voice of its own, the other parts thought it unfair that they should have the worry and the trouble and the labor of providing the food for the stomach, while the stomach remained quietly in their midst with nothing to do but to enjoy the good food; they therefore conspired together that the hands should carry no food to the mouth, nor the mouth accept anything that was given it, nor the teeth grind up what they received. While they sought to starve the stomach into submission, the members themselves and the whole body were reduced to the utmost weakness. Hence it had become clear that even the stomach had no idle task to perform, and was no more nourished than it nourished the rest, by giving out to all parts of the body that by which we live and thrive.



What is the purpose of this story?


Why do you think that Menenius chose this metaphor to describe the labor disputes between patricians and plebians?


Excerpts from Polybius

Polybius was a Roman historian who lived from approximately 204 to 102 BCE. He wrote about the ideas behind the structures of the Roman Republic in one of his books


There are three ways of running a government, which are kingship, aristocracy, and democracy. We regard the best government as one that partakes of all of these elements. Absolute power rests in no single body.

The consuls are closest to kingship. Our consuls, in addition to leading out the legions, are the masters of administration. In preparations for war, they have all but absolute power.

The Senate has control of the treasury and regulates all payments and receipts. They authorize payment for the care of public buildings and they try all crimes.

The people finally, are the court that decides matters of life and death and money. It is the people who bestow offices on the deserving. All citizens serve on the Assembly.





Why did Polybius feel that the power of government must be divided and how did the Romans divide these powers? Write three or four sentences justifying your answer.




The Roman Republican Constitution

The Romans never had a written constitution, but their form of their government roughly parallels the modern American division of executive, legislative, and judical branches, although the senate doesn't neatly fit any of these categories.

EXECUTIVE BRANCH -- the elected magistrates

Collegiality: With the exception of the dictatorship, all offices were collegial, that is, held by at least two men. All members of a college were of equal rank and could veto acts of other members; higher magistrates could veto acts of lower magistrates. The name of each office listed below is followed (in parentheses) by the number of office-holders; note that in several cases the number changes over time (normally increasing).

Annual tenure: With the exception of the dictatorship (6 months) and the censorship (18 months), the term of office was limited to one year. The rules for holding office for multiple or successive terms were a matter of considerable contention over time.

Imperium is the power of magistrates to command armies and (within limits) to coerce citizens.

CONSULS (2): chief civil and military magistrates; invested with imperium (consular imperium was considered greaterthan that of praetors); convened senate and curiate and centuriate assemblies.

PRAETORS (2-8): had imperium; main functions (1) military commands (governors) (2) administered civil law at Rome.

AEDILES (2): plebian (plebian only) and curule (plebian or patrician); in charge of religious festivals, public games, temples, upkeep of city, regulation of marketplaces, grain supply.

QUAESTORS (2-40): financial officers and administrative assistants (civil and military); in charge of state treasury at Rome; in field, served as quartermasters and seconds- in-command.

TRIBUNES (2-10): charged with protection of lives and property of plebians; their persons were inviolable (sacrosanct); had power of veto (Lat. "I forbid") over elections, laws, decrees of the senate, and the acts of all other magistrates (except dictator); convened tribal assembly and elicited plebiscites, which after 287 B.C had force of law.

CENSORS (2): elected every 5 years to conduct census, enroll new citizens, review roll of senate; controlled public morals and supervised leasing of public contracts; in protocol ranked below praetors and above aediles, but in practice, the pinnacle of a senatorial career (ex- consuls only) -- enormous prestige and influence

DICTATOR (1): in times of military emergency appointed by consuls; dictator appointed a Master of the Horse to lead cavalry; tenure limited to 6 months or duration of crisis, whichever was shorter; not subject to veto.


Originally an advisory board composed of the heads of patrician families, came to be an assembly of former magistrates (ex-consuls, -praetors, and -questors, though the last appear to have had relatively little influence); the most powerful organ of Republican government and the only body of state that could develop consistent long-term policy.

Enacted "decrees of the senate" (senatus consulta), which apparenly had not formal authority, but often in practice decided matters.

Took cognizance of virtually all public matters, but most important areas of competence were in foreign policy (including the conduct of war) and financial administration.

LEGISLATIVE BRANCH -- the three citizen assemblies

All 3 assemblies included the entire electorate, but each had a different internal organization (and therefore differences in the weight of an individual citizen's vote).

All 3 assemblies made up of voting units; the single vote of each voting unit determined by a majority of the voters in that unit; measures passed by a simple majority of the units.

-called comitia. specifically the comitia curiata, comitia centuriata, and comitia plebis tributa

CURIATE ASSEMBLY: oldest (early Rome); units of organization: the 30 curiae (sing: curia) of the early city (10 for each of the early, "Romulan" tribes), based on clan and family associations; became obsolete as a legislative body but preserved functions of endowing senior magistrates with imperium and witnessing religious affairs. The head of each curia ages at least 50 and elected for life; assembly effectively controled by patricians, partially through clientela)

CENTURIATE ASSEMBLY: most important; units of organization: 193 centuries, based on wealth and age; originally military units with membership based on capability to furnish armed men in groups of 100 (convened outside pomerium); elected censors and magistrates with imperium (consuls and praetors); proper body for declaring war; passed some laws (leges, sing. lex); served as highest court of appeal in cases involving capital punishment. 118 centuries controlled by top 3 of 9 "classes" (minimum property qualifications for third class in first cent. B.C.-HS 75,000); assembly controlled by landed aristocracy.

TRIBAL ASSEMBLY: originally for election of tribunes and deliberation of plebeians; units of organization: the urban and 31 rural tribes, based on place of residence until 241 B.C., thereafter local significance largely lost; elected lower magistrates (tribunes, aediles, quaestors); since simpler to convene and register 35 tribes than 193 centuries, more frequently used to pass legislation (plebiscites). Voting in favor of 31 less densely populated rural tribes; presence in Rome require to cast ballot: assembly controlled by landed aristocracy (villa owners). Eventually became chief law-making body. < criminal and civil -- BRANCH>Civil litigation: chief official-Praetor. The praetor did not try cases but presided only in preliminary stages; determined nature of suit and issued a "formula" precisely defining the legal point(s) at issue, then assigned case to be tried before a delegated judge (iudex) or board of arbiters (3-5 recuperatores for minor cases, one of the four panels of "The one hundred men" (centumviri) for causes clbres (inheritances and financial affairs of the rich)). Judge or arbiters heard case, rendered judgment, and imposed fine.

Criminal prosecution: originally major crimes against the state tried before centuriate assembly, but by late Republic (after Sulla) most cases prosecuted before one of the quaestiones perpetuae ("standing jury courts"), each with a specific jurisdiction, e.g., treason (maiestas), electoral corruption (ambitus), extortion in the provinces (repetundae), embezzlement of public funds, murder and poisoning, forgery, violence (vis), etc. Juries were large (c. 50-75 members), composed of senators and (after the tribunate of C. Gracchus in 122) knights, and were empanelled from an annual list of eligible jurors (briefly restricted to the senate again by Sulla).

Source: University of Texas Classics Department <>


Excerpts from The Federalist Papers Number 47 and 51


Number 47 - No political truth is...of greater...value, or is more stamped with the authority of liberty.The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands... may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny....The preservation of liberty requires that these great departments of power should be separate and distinct....



Number 51 - Power surrendered by the people is submitted to

the administration of a single government, and the usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments. 



Excerpt from the U. S. Constitution

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.


United States Constitution Outline



The U.S. Congress is made up of two parts, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Congress meets at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Its primary duty is to write, debate, and pass bills, which are then passed on to the President for approval.

Other Powers of Congress

   Makes laws controlling trade between states and between the United States and other countries.

   Makes laws about taxes and borrowing money.

   Approves the making of money.

   Can declare war on other countries.

Each Congress lasts for two years. When the two years are over, new Members of Congress are elected. We are currently in the 108th Congress. Congress meets once every year and usually last from January 3rd to July 31st, but in special cases, it can last longer.



The executive branch of Government makes sure that the laws of the United States are obeyed. The President of the United States is the head of the executive branch of government. This branch is very large so the President gets help from the Vice President, department heads (Cabinet members), and heads of independent agencies.

     President: Leader of the country and commands the military.

     Vice President: President of the Senate and becomes President if the President can no longer do the job.

     Departments: Department heads advise the President on issues and help carry out policies.

     Independent Agencies: Help carry out policy or provide special services.



The judicial branch of government is made up of the court system. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. Article III of the Constitution established this Court and all other Federal courts were created by Congress. Courts decide arguments about the meaning of laws, how they are applied, and whether they break the rules of the Constitution.


Discuss the similarities that existed between the ideas of government of the Roman Republic and the ideas explained in these excerpts from The Federalist Papers and the Constitution. Write one or two paragraphs that explain these similarities.