Law And Edict

It was at this period, moreover, that law and edict were separated. The distinction indeed had its foundation in the essential character of the Roman state; for even the regal power in Rome was subordinate, not superior, to the law of the land. But the profound and practical veneration, which the Romans, like every other people of political capacity, cherished for the principle of authority, gave birth to the remarkable rule of Roman constitutional and private law, that every command of the magistrate not based upon a law was at least valid during his tenure of office, although it expired with that tenure. It is evident that in this view, so long as the presidents were nominated for life, the distinction between law and edict must have practically been almost lost sight of, and the legislative activity of the public assembly could acquire no development. On the other hand it obtained a wide field of action after the presidents were changed annually; and the fact was now by no means void of practical importance, that, if the consul in deciding a process committed a legal informality, his successor could institute a fresh trial of the cause.

Civil And Military Authority

It was at this period, finally, that the provinces of civil and military authority were separated. In the former the law ruled, in the latter the axe: the former was governed by the constitutional checks of the right of appeal and of regulated delegation; in the latter the general held an absolute sway like the king.(15) It was an established principle, that the general and the army as such should not under ordinary circumstances enter the city proper. That organic and permanently operative enactments could only be made under the authority of the civil power, was implied in the spirit, if not in the letter, of the constitution. Instances indeed occasionally occurred where the general, disregarding this principle, convoked his forces in the camp as a burgess assembly, nor was a decree passed under such circumstances legally void; but custom disapproved of such a proceeding, and it soon fell into disuse as though it had been forbidden. The distinction between Quirites and soldiers became more and more deeply rooted in the minds of the burgesses.

Government Of The Patriciate

Time however was required for the development of these consequences of the new republicanism; vividly as posterity felt its effects, the revolution probably appeared to the contemporary world at first in a different light. The non-burgesses indeed gained by it burgess-rights, and the new burgess-body acquired in the -comitia centuriata- comprehensive prerogatives; but the right of rejection on the part of the patrician senate, which in firm and serried ranks confronted the -comitia- as if it were an Upper House, legally hampered their freedom of movement precisely in the most important matters, and although not in a position to thwart the serious will of the collective body, could yet practically delay and cripple it. If the nobility in giving up their claim to be the sole embodiment of the community did not seem to have lost much, they had in other respects decidedly gained. The king, it is true, was a patrician as well as the consul, and the right of nominating the members of the senate belonged to the latter as to the former; but while his exceptional position raised the former no less above the patricians than above the plebeians, and while cases might easily occur in which he would be obliged to lean upon the support of the multitude even against the nobility, the consul--ruling for a brief term, but before and after that term simply one of the nobility, and obeying to-morrow the noble fellow-burgess whom he had commanded to-day--by no means occupied a position aloof from his order, and the spirit of the noble in him must have been far more powerful than that of the magistrate. Indeed, if at any time by way of exception a patrician disinclined to the rule of the nobility was called to the government, his official authority was paralyzed partly by the priestly colleges, which were pervaded by an intense aristocratic spirit, partly by his colleague, and was easily suspended by the dictatorship; and, what was of still more moment, he wanted the first element of political power, time. The president of a commonwealth, whatever plenary authority may be conceded to him, will never gain possession of political power, if he does not continue for some considerable time at the head of affairs; for a necessary condition of every dominion is duration. Consequently the senate appointed for life inevitably acquired--and that by virtue chiefly of its title to advise the magistrate in all points, so that we speak not of the narrower patrician, but of the enlarged patricio-plebeian, senate--so great an influence as contrasted with the annual rulers, that their legal relations became precisely inverted; the senate substantially assumed to itself the powers of government, and the former ruler sank into a president acting as its chairman and executing its decrees. In the case of every proposal to be submitted to the community for acceptance or rejection the practice of previously consulting the whole senate and obtaining its approval, while not constitutionally necessary, was consecrated by use and wont; and it was not lightly or willingly departed from. The same course was followed in the case of important state-treaties, of the management and distribution of the public lands, and generally of every act the effects of which extended beyond the official year; and nothing was left to the consul but the transaction of current business, the initial steps in civil processes, and the command in war. Especially important in its consequences was the change in virtue of which neither the consul, nor even the otherwise absolute dictator, was permitted to touch the public treasure except with the consent and by the will of the senate. The senate made it obligatory on the consuls to commit the administration of the public chest, which the king had managed or might at any rate have managed himself, to two standing subordinate magistrates, who were nominated no doubt by the consuls and had to obey them, but were, as may easily be conceived, much more dependent than the consuls themselves on the senate.(16) It thus drew into its own hands the management of finance; and this right of sanctioning the expenditure of money on the part of the Roman senate may be placed on a parallel in its effects with the right of sanctioning taxation in the constitutional monarchies of the present day.

From the Abolition of the Monarchy in Rome to the Union of Italy Page 09

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Theodor Mommsen
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