There are three definite periods which mark the growth of the Roman State. First, there was the monarchic City-State. The royal period lasted from the foundation of Rome about 753 B.C. to 510 B.C. At the head of the State was the king who was at once the hereditary and patriarchal chief of the people, the chief priest of the community, and the elected ruler of the State. On the death of the King, the sovereignty of the State reverted to the Council of Elders.
The Elders appointed a temporary King for five days who, in his turn, nominated another Elder. This Elder actually named the new King subject to the approval of the assembled people. “The vote of the people was ratified by the approval of the gods, as given in the ceremony of inauguration.”
The powers of the King were described as “emporium” and were technically unlimited, both in times of peace and war. But there were two customary limitations to these powers. First, the King was expected to consult the Council of Elders and to follow their advice. Secondly, all cases involving capital punishment were submitted to the people for their final decision.
During the monarchical period only the nobility, called the patricians, had a share in political authority. The landless, property less common people, known as the plebeians, had no share in the governance of the country and they enjoyed no political rights. But later on they acquired some privileges.
Monarchy in Rome came to an end in 510 B.C. in the same way as when the Greeks expelled their “tyrants.” It was substituted by a Republic. Civil and military powers were vested in two officers called the Consuls, elected annually. But it did not mean equal political rights for all citizens.
The plebians were subject to political, economic and social disabilities. They could not hold any public office. The patricians had entire control of the administration of law. The public land and pastures were allotted only to them. The plebians were also legally prohibited from marrying among the patricians.
The former struggled for the removal of their disabilities and they eventually succeeded in getting all the three disabilities removed one by one. The constitution of the Republican Rome rested on four principles: divided authority; a short tenure of office for magistrates; the people were the final authority on all important matters; and the military authority of all magistrates was limited. But by the middle of the second century these principles were very often violated and the Republic came into disrepute.
Division of authority disappeared and despotism began to reign. By this time Rome had extended her dominions over vast and distant lands. The Republic gave way to an Empire and the form of government adapted to a City-State was found incongruous with the administrative needs of the time.
The Roman Empire at one stage extended over England, France, Germany, Spain, Austria, the Balkans, Grece, Asia Minor, the whole of the Mediterranean coast and its hinterland. The governors sent to rule the distant parts of the Empire enjoyed wide discretionary powers and were practically independent of the Home Government. The only check on their authority was the possibility of impeachment at home on retirement. But it was just a nominal check.
In Rome itself despotism of the extreme type was established. The Emperor became all-powerful and his word was law. The popular assemblies ceased to function and the old political maxim that the ruler received his power from the people gave place to the Divine Origin Theory.
The authority of the Emperor was interpreted to have divinely originated and for a time he was worshipped as God. When Christianity was accepted as State religion, the Divine Origin Theory was explained to mean that the Emperor was the deputy of God on earth and unflinching obedience to his authority was obedience to God.
In this way, the Republican Roman City-State became the centralised autocratic world- empire, thereby shifting the emphasis from the Greek ideals of liberty, democracy, and local independence to the Romans’ ideals of unity, order, universal law, and cosmopolitanism.
The World Roman Empire at the height of its political glory made some very important contributions to political institutions. The Romans were not a brilliant people. They did but little work in art and philosophy, but they possessed in full measure the practical qualities in which the Greeks were deficient.
They were patient, methodical, and skilful in arranging compromises and in devising legal forms. The Greeks pursued their ideal of “liberty and equal laws” disregarding authority and discipline. The Romans held fast to authority, in the family and in the State. At the same time, they were ready to concede rights to all kinds of subject persons by extending to them the right of full Roman citizenship.
While they were reducing one country after another to subjection and order, they were also developing their law on rational principles. The Romans studied the institutions and customs of the heterogeneous people over whom their authority extended and found a common element of equity and convenience for all.
This Law of Nations, as they called it, was a great step forward, which widened the notions of lawyers and statesmen. They also applied the Greek notion of the Law of Nature to their legal system.
But the Roman Empire could not endure long. Among the causes which led to her decline and downfall “were the sacrifice of individual liberty for the sake of securing unity, the soulless efficiency which characterised her administration, the moral depravity of the upper classes, devastating pestilence, the unsound economic basis of the empire, failure to make rules for the succession of emperors, religious disintegration, and the invasion of barbarian hordes.”
In a word, the weakness of the Roman Imperial system was that “it remained too Roman, too centralised, too much dominated by the desires and interests of Rome, too dependent on the personality of the emperor of the day.”
Though Rome fell, yet she gave to the world the first well-organised and well-governed State. She also contributed importantly too many systems of law and her influence may be seen in the development of international law and world organization like the United Nations. Colonial administration is another contribution of the Roman Empire.