Italia-America: Legislative Structures

In today’s fast paced world, it is easy to get lost in the moment, forget about the past, and neglect the future. This post aims to do the exact opposite by creating a connection between the Roman Republic and the United States – two of the greatest civilizations to have ever existed. This post will place special focus on the legislative systems of each great society, allowing the reader to understand the roots of the concepts and institutions often taken for granted.

The Roman Republic’s and the United States’ legislative systems, though hundreds of years apart, bear considerable similarities while being discernibly different. Both consist of a multi-tier legislative system with some form of executive overseeing it all. The Roman system consisted of the Assemblies, the Senate, and the Consuls and other magistrates with veto power.[i] The American system consists of the House,[ii] the Senate,[iii] and the President[iv] and his cabinet. Unlike the Roman system in which any one of the institutions could create and pass laws,[v] the American system has a hierarchy in which laws start in the House of Representatives, move to the Senate, and then are approved by the President.[vi] Needless to say, the United States took a myriad of the concepts first used by Romans in their government and applied them in theirs.

To fully understand how any legislative system works, it is crucial to understand how each position is filled and who is responsible for filling it. Therefore, it is best to explain it from the grassroots to the elite, from elected officials to appointed ones, from the Assemblies to the Senate.

Roman Assemblies & American House of Representatives

The Assemblies in Classic Rome were made up of the people, they indirectly elected the magistrates, accepted or rejected laws, administered justice, and declared war.[vii] It is important to understand that for the Romans, at least initially, this was the most important branch of the legislative, as they selected a number of officials with substantial veto power. When discussing the role of these assemblies in the legislative structure of Rome there are three that must be discussed: the Centuriate Assembly, the Tribal Assembly, and the Plebian Council. Each of these had a key role in the creation and adoption of laws and was composed of different sections of the populace.

One of the most powerful institutions of Rome was the Centuriate Assembly (Comitia Centuriata). This committee, as its name suggests, was originally composed of all Roman citizens, which at the time were soldiers, divided into groups of 100. To reach a decision, each group of 100 would vote within itself and the decision from each group would be recorded, each group received 1 vote and whenever a side received a majority of the vote the matter was settled, and voting was no longer necessary. The Centuriate Assembly was so powerful because it was the one that selected and empowered the highest-ranking Roman Magistrates, including: Consuls, Praetors, and Censors, who were crucial in the legislating process.[viii] After a while, the groups were no longer divided into 100 Roman citizens but rather they were divided by social status and wealth, meaning that those in the upper rungs of society had a disproportionate effect on the outcome of elections.[ix]

Another important Assembly was the Tribal Assembly (Comitia Populi Tribute). This committee worked very similarly to the Centuriate Assembly when voting on legislative issues. It was composed of all Roman citizens divided into Tribes, each one of the 35 tribes would vote within itself and then report the majority of the vote; each tribe had one vote and whenever one side of the matter received a majority of the votes it was no longer necessary to continue. The Tribal Assembly was noticeably weaker than the Centuriate Assembly because it did not elect any Magistrates and its decisions could easily be vetoed by a number of other actors. [x]

Lastly, the Plebeian Council (Concilium Plebis) must certainly be discussed when talking about Rome’s legislative structure. Unlike any of the other Assemblies listed above, the Plebeian Council was composed exclusively of the commoners also referred to as plebeians. This Council was originally not very powerful, but slowly grew to be one of the most powerful institutions in Rome. It could adopt laws which applied only to Plebeians at first, but later to all Roman citizens, it elected a number of key magistrates with veto power, and could try specific judicial cases.[xi]

As explained earlier, the American system employs a number of ideas from Roman times. A very clear example of this is the multi-tier legislative system. Like the Roman Assemblies which divided the people into sections, asked them vote within those sections, and report the majority votes to decide the outcome of several decisions. The American founding fathers employed this very same system as the basis for the American voting system and later on the election of House of Representative members.[xii] Like in Roman times, American voters are divided into equal groups based on censuses done every 10 years; each group gets to vote for a representative in the House of Representatives.[xiii] This way – one could argue – the people are indirectly choosing which legislation they support and which one they oppose by voting for someone with similar ideals to theirs. Separately, and very similarly to Roman Assemblies when electing Magistrates, [xiv] these sections of voters play an essential role in legislating by electing who will run the executive and have veto power on a series of matters.[xv] Unlike Romans, who selected each Magistrate separately, Americans select only the President, who then has leeway to choose his Cabinet.[xvi]

Roman Magistrates & American Executive

Now let’s move to analyze the Magistrates of Rome and their role within the policymaking structure. Generally, Magistrates in Rome were elected by the citizens of Rome to rule in their name and held a series of powers over certain religious roles, the military, the judicial system, and could call assemblies to vote and preside over them.[xvii] Some of them played a very important role in the legislating structure of Rome, namely the Consuls, the Censors, the Plebeian Tribunes, and in extreme situations the Dictators. These offices, except that of the Censors, are essential in legislating because of the veto power they hold. This means that unless they agree with a proposed law being passed, the law will never come into force. Among these, special attention must be brought to the Plebeian Tribunes who were elected by the Plebeian Council and whose role was to protect the interests of the plebeians by vetoing any legislation that was likely to be negative for them.[xviii] Lastly, the Censors had a special role in legislating. Aside from conducting the censuses and censoring public behavior, the Censor’s role included appointing the members of the Senate in the early Republic – this role was then overtaken by the Consuls. The power of appointing Senators allowed the people to indirectly select who would be part of the Senate and implicitly what the future of Rome would look like.[xix]

The American system’s counterpart to the Magistrates would be the Executive, but like in Rome, the powers that these elected officials hold is substantially limited. For starters, only one actor – the President – is elected and has veto power over legislation, and this power is not absolute as that of Roman Magistrates as it can be undone with a supermajority of the Senate or by Judicial decisions.[xx] This branch of government definitely shares most of the roles and powers that Roman Magistrates had, but with regards to policymaking its power has become more limited.

Roman Senate & American Senate


Lastly, the most important and most powerful institution in the Roman Republic was the Senate. This institution evolved, as did all others, from being composed entirely of patricians to being composed of plebeians as well.[xxi] Senators were appointed for life, first by the Censors and then by the Consuls, and in theory they could only advise the Magistrates and indirectly propose legislation. However, the Senate’s advice was followed, making them the de-facto leaders of Rome. Separately, the Senators controlled the finances and foreign policies of Rome, allowing them the most control over the lives of Romans. Furthermore, the Senate had the exclusive right to appoint a Dictator for a short period of time and could suspend civil government and rule Rome by itself.[xxii]  

The American system has its own Senate, but it is definitely different than the one seen in Rome. First of all, American Senators are elected, though they do serve long terms in office in what seems to be a lifetime position, they can be removed if the people will it so. Secondly, the American Senate has a larger influence in legislating since they are one of the two chambers of Congress that need to approve every law by having a majority vote in favor. Lastly, American Senators alone do not control the finances or have power to elect a dictator, though they can vote to remove a sitting president from office and must agree, alongside with the House of Representatives and the President, on the country’s budget.[xxiii]

Roots of the Systems

Both systems have the same underlying root of anti-monarchical sentiment but have adapted to remain practical. Romans had overthrown the last king of the Roman Monarchy and were determined to never have another totalitarian ruler;[xxiv] this is the reason they had such a strong and effective checks and balances system.[xxv] Separately, Romans used a rough idea of what would later be known as federalism when they conquered new lands and allowed them to maintain fragments of their own culture and often many laws.[xxvi] Nonetheless, they realized that a system of checks and balances would be impractical when dealing with war and other urgent matters – this is the reason why the Romans created a way to consolidate power into one individual, a Dictator, to effectively deal with the situation at hand.[xxvii] Romans also realized that the prestige, wealth, and power of its elite families could be used for the benefit of Rome and therefore allowed them to wield influence over policymaking and foreign policy by being part of the Roman Senate.[xxviii] Lastly, to combat monarchy, Romans created the Assemblies in which the people indirectly voted on laws and elected Magistrates as describes above. It is in this way that the Roman legislative structure took the best from monarchies, oligarchies, and democracies in order to work efficiently.

Similarly, Americans had declared their independence from the British Monarchy and won their Revolutionary War. Like the Romans, the founding fathers sought to never have the United States ruled by a monarch and they did so by instituting very similar checks and balances to that of the Romans and used the principle of federalism in which each state could have its own set of freedoms which included choosing a religion and enacting its own laws.[xxix] Similarly to the Roman system, the American one sought to be democratic with a concealed oligarchy by restricting who could vote and be part of government.[xxx] Nonetheless, as the system has evolved, it has become markedly more democratic and liberal.

Functional Checks and Balances

Ancient Romans and Americans both discovered that the best way to prevent tyranny and totalitarianism was to distribute power to prevent any one person or branch of government from becoming too powerful. Both systems achieved this through a complex system of checks and balances. The Roman system had twelve veto players: any of the ten Plebeian Tribunes could veto legislation unfavorable to the Plebeian class[xxxi]  and the two Consuls could veto any legislation as well.[xxxii] The power was balanced among the institutions named above in which each was responsible for a section of any process, ensuring that no institution grew too powerful.[xxxiii] An example of this can be seen within the legislating process: the Senate can only advice Magistrates on what legislation they believe should be passed, these in turn take that advice to the Assemblies and call for a vote, then a number of other minor Magistrates must enforce it if it is within their scope of power.

The founding fathers faced a similar concern, they feared that if they did not establish a sound system with effective checks and balances they would soon be back to monarchical rule.[xxxiv] Loosely basing the system on Rome’s, the founding fathers balanced the system by dividing it into three branches (Legislative, Executive, and Judicial) with equal power and different roles in every government action. They also gave these branches veto power, allowing them to veto any legislation they thought was in violation of the Constitution.[xxxv] Another distinction between the systems is that of the Judicial branch; unlike in ancient Rome where either the people via Assemblies or Magistrates were in charge of administering justice, the founding fathers created a separate Judiciary to ensure that laws were applied to all equally.[xxxvi]

Something that makes both systems stand out in very similar ways is the practicality of its legislative systems. Early on both realized that the effective checks and balances would likely yield the best laws and policies for the people and the state but failed to work efficiently in times of crises. For this reason, both Romans and Americans were very pragmatic and had a solution in place for this very problem. The Roman Senate could appoint a Dictator – the highest office in Ancient Rome – until his task was complete or for 6 months, whichever came first. This individual would be given 24 fasces which meant he had supreme authority over all matters regarding the problem he was assigned to solve (usually it was war) – including capital punishment without trial – and all other legislative institutions were only allowed to veto his actions in very extreme cases.[xxxvii] The American system has something similar in place, whenever the country has found itself in times of war or economic troubles, the executive has been given almost unchecked power in order to solve the issue with the legislative bodies cooperating and rarely vetoing the President’s actions. This is evident when the roles of the American President are analyzed: the office holds the power over all foreign policy and can deploy a limited number of troops anywhere in the world without Congressional approval.[xxxviii]

This individual would be given 24 fasces which meant he had supreme authority over all matters regarding the problem he was assigned to solve (usually it was war) – including capital punishment without trial – and all other legislative institutions were only allowed to veto his actions in very extreme cases.[xxxvii] The American system has something similar in place, whenever the country has found itself in times of war or economic troubles, the executive has been given almost unchecked power in order to solve the issue with the legislative bodies cooperating and rarely vetoing the President’s actions. This is evident when the roles of the American President are analyzed: the office holds the power over all foreign policy and can deploy a limited number of troops anywhere in the world without Congressional approval.[xxxviii]

Social Status

Another similarity that both systems have is the social statuses of each position. In the Roman system, like the American one, each position in the legislative structure brought with it an implied status. In both systems there was an implied idea that the legislative system, as well as the political one, was akin to a ladder with each position being a rung which would allow the individual to climb socially and politically.

In the Roman system, Senators were definitely the ones with the highest status: they were appointed for life, were usually rich or became rich via their position, and usually their families were part of the elite or became a part of the elite after their appointment as senators. Senators were usually chosen from previous consuls, who in turn had been Praetors, Aediles, and Tribunes before having the position. It was rare to see someone being appointed Senator without either a family history of Senators or a long history of public service as elected Magistrate.[xxxix]

Similarly, in the American system, there is a generally agreed upon norm where people climb up the metaphorical ladder. Like in ancient Rome, Senators are the most respected ones and tend to either be wealthy or become wealthy during their tenure in office. These usually come from the House of Representatives or from high state offices such as Governor. The system is quite similar within each state with the slight difference that it is seen as the beginning of a politician’s career rather than its climax. However, unlike in Rome, the highest office is arguably that of President. Past Presidents have historically climbed up the ladder and been elected public servants or military generals before being elected into office.[xl]

The Evolution of the Systems:

The government and especially the legislative structures of Rome evolved like those of no other civilization before it. They overthrew the monarchy and established what can only be classified as an early Republic, guaranteeing great liberties, protection, and civic participation to its citizens.[xli] By today’s standards it was by no means democratic or liberal but at its time it was incredibly forward thinking. Rome was the hegemon of its time, a civilization all other civilizations have studied and will continue to study for millennia to come. That is not to say that they were a flawless civilization. The Roman Republic was plagued by issues which became evident as it evolved. The most noticeable one was the disproportionate amount of power the aristocracy had. Whether it was because they were the original members of the Senate or because nothing was ever done without them knowing about it, one thing is certain – they were simply too powerful. This issue came to its climax when Julius Caesar declared himself dictator for life and effectively ended the Republic and though most legislative institutions continued to exist they were only a façade to keep the people from overthrowing another king.

If looked at in a timeline, the Roman Republic existed for 464 years according to most historians, and once it morphed into the Roman Empire it lasted an additional 430 years ruled by emperors. The United States has existed for less than 250 years. This begs a series of questions, where is America headed? Will the United States give in to authoritarianism? Will its carefully designed system of institutions persevere and keep democracy alive forever? What is the future of American democracy? As similar as the United States is to Rome and as many great empires have fallen in the past foreshadowing a very ominous future for the United States, I believe that the home of the free and the land of the brave will never stop functioning in such a democratic way, if anything, its slow and gridlock-prone legislative system will build a better future for all in ways we are currently unable to imagine.


  • [i] Wasson, Donald L. “Roman Government.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 29 Nov. 2015, https://www.ancient.eu/Roman_Government/.
  • [ii] U.S. Constitution. Art. I, Sec. 2.
  • [iii] U.S. Constitution. Art. I, Sec. 3.
  • [iv] U.S. Constitution. Art. II, Sec. 1.
  • [v] Bringmann, Klaus. “Rome and Italy: The constitution of the classical Republic.” A History of the Roman Republic, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2007, pp. 37-48.
  • [vi] Schoolhouse Rock! “I’m Just a Bill.” YouTube, written by David Frishberg, 27 Mar. 1976, https://youtu.be/FFroMQlKiag?t=15.
  • [vii] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. V: The Assemblies.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 40-65.
  • [viii] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. V: The Assemblies.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 49-61.
  • [ix] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. V: The Assemblies.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 61-63.
  • [x] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. V: The Assemblies.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 49-65.
  • [xi] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. V: The Assemblies.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 49-65.
  • [xii] U.S. Constitution. Art. I, Sec. 4-5.
  • [xiii] U.S. Constitution. Amend. XVII.
  • [xiv] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. VII: The Higher Magistrates and Pro-Magistrates.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 94-105.
  • [xv] U.S. Constitution. Art. II, Sec. 1.
  • [xvi] U.S. Constitution. Art. II, Sec. 1.
  • [xvii] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. VII: The Higher Magistrates and Pro-Magistrates.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 94-105.
  • [xviii] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. VIII: Tribunes, Aediles, and Minor Magistrates.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 121-129.
  • [xix] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. VI: The Senate.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 65-72.
  • [xx] U.S. Constitution. Art. I, Sec. 7.
  • [xxi] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. VI: The Senate.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 65-72.
  • [xxii] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. VI: The Senate.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 86-89.
  • [xxiii] U.S. Constitution. Art. I, Sec. 1-3.
  • [xxiv] Cornell, Tim J. “Ch. 9: The Beginnings of the Roman Republic.” The beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000 – 264 BC). Oxford: Routledge, 1995, pp. 215-236.
  • [xxv] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. XI: The Balance of the Constitution.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 191-214.
  • [xxvi] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. VII: The Higher Magistrates and Pro-Magistrates.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 104-121.
  • [xxvii] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. VII: The Higher Magistrates and Pro-Magistrates.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 109-113.
  • [xxviii] Byrd, Robert C. “Ch. 8: Erosion of Senate Authority,” The Senate of the Roman Republic: Addresses on the History of Roman Constitutionalism. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995, pp. 93-105.
  • [xxix] Hamilton, Alexander, or Madison, James. Federalist No. 51: The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments. New York Packet, 8, Feb. 1788.
  • [xxx] Crews, Ed. “Voting in Early America.” The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Spring 2007, https://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/spring07/elections.cfm.
  • [xxxi] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. VIII: Tribunes, Aediles, and Minor Magistrates.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 121-129.
  • [xxxii] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. VII: The Higher Magistrates and Pro-Magistrates.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 104-121.
  • [xxxiii] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. XI: The Balance of the Constitution.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 191-214.
  • [xxxiv] Hamilton, Alexander, or Madison, James. Federalist No. 51: The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments. New York Packet, 8, Feb. 1788.
  • [xxxv] U.S. Constitution. Art. I, II, III.
  • [xxxvi] Madison, James. Federalist No. 47: The Particular Structure of the New Government and the Distribution of Power Among Its Different Parts. New York Packet, 1, Feb. 1788.
  • [xxxvii] Lintott, Andrew. “Ch. VI: The Senate.” The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 86-89.
  • [xxxviii] Edelson, Chris. “Exploring the Limits of Presidential Power.” American Constitution Society. 2, Dec. 2013, https://www.acslaw.org/acsblog/exploring-the-limits-of-presidential-power/
  • [xxxix] “Roman social and political structures.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, 27, Dec. 2016, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/world-history/ancient-medieval/roman-empire/v/roman-social-and-political-structures.
  • [xl] Makse, Todd. “Foundation of American Democracy.” Florida International University, POS 2041, 21-28 Aug. 2017.
  • [xli] Cornell, Tim J. “Ch. 9: The Beginnings of the Roman Republic.” The beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000 – 264 BC). Oxford: Routledge, 1995, pp. 215-236.

Leave a Reply