It's the law

In any complex society, the provison of and the maintenance of law is essential. The codification of Roman laws – represented by the Twelve Tables – was probably the most significant development of government during the early republican period.

The Twelve Tables were drawn up by a committee of patricians but were the result of sustained pressure from the plebs. They contained merits and deficiencies. While citizens were now
safe from arbitrary judicial sentences and could
appeal legal decisions, plebs were barred from
marrying into the patriciate, closing the door on
upward mobility. This archaic statute was
superseded within five years, although in practice
marriage between the orders was rare until the
imperial era, and even then social standing – as it
can do today – maintained a class structure.

From 450 the Tables were engraved on copper
tablets and displayed in the Forum. Now
everyone, from patrician to pleb, could read
the laws and learn the consequences of
disobeying them.

In the main, the Twelve Tables encompassed a
progressive outlook for the era, befitting an
up-and-coming world power. Indeed, some of its provisions remained in force for eight hundred years, until the end of the western empire. One of the keys to its success was its inclusivity. Many classes of men from allied or client-states were given citizenship and the sons of freed slaves became Roman citizens. This benefitted Rome by strengthening and rejuvenating the population and, more importantly, the army. Citizenship was a necessary qualification for the Roman army.

With citizenship came the right to vote – but Rome was far from being a modern democracy. Only magistrates could summon and address the various comitia, and citizens had no right to debate or amend proposals. Neither did Roman citizenry encompass everyone (see Citizens' Rights). Women and slaves could never be citizens, and often foreigners and provincials were ruled out. Mostly it was men who bore arms who were franchised.

Further, to cast a vote – or to appeal a legal decision – meant a trip to Rome. Since only a select few in the rural tribes could afford to do so, the urban pleb was better placed in the democratic process than his country-dwelling cousin.

In an increasingly politicised world, the Romans were not immune to the appeal of charismatic leaders. One such was Appius Claudius Caecus (the Blind), credited with building the first major paved road, the Appian Way, and the nine-mile aqueduct known as the Aqua Appia, c.310. While he was censor, he commissioned these projects without consulting the Senate. He pandered to the plebs to gain an unassailable power base, allowing sons of freed slaves to become senators and gave voting rights to rural tribes who did not own land. He refused to give up the post of censor and even tampered with the composition of the senate, earning the enmity of aristocrats but the undying loyalty of plebs. He was the first political personality to galvanise all Rome — but far from the last.

The Roman Confederacy in 241 BC, also showing the battles of the Pyrrhic War.
Click map for larger, downloadable image.


The growth of the road network, 312—107 BC.
Click map for larger, downloadable image.


A section of the via Ostiensis, which connected Rome to the port of Ostia. Roman roads were primarily constructed for military purposes — to move infantry as fast as possible between the main centres — but they greatly benefitted trade as well.


Click the button to find out more about Roman roads, how they were constructed and where they went

You are viewing the text version of this site.

To view the full version please install the Adobe Flash Player and ensure your web browser has JavaScript enabled.

Need help? check the requirements page.

Get Flash Player