Ancient Roman Government for Kids - Under the Kingdom, Republic, Empire Illustration

Roman Government
Kingdom, Republic, Empire

Rome as a Kingdom:

When Rome began, it was a kingdom. Early Rome was ruled by a series of kings for about 200 years. As Rome grew and started to expand, they needed a reason that their king should be in charge of other villages. What gave them the right to rule others?  Since they all believed in the same gods, and all believed they needed to worship their gods and obey their gods, the Romans invented a myth to explain why they had the right to rule everyone else, the myth of Romulus and Remus. Their myth worked. Their kings - not so much. Some were good. Some were not.

The last king of Rome was an especially bad king. Tarquin the Proud was a tyrant and the people hated him. History is not clear about how the ancient Romans got rid of Tarquin, but historians do know the people were finally free to form a new government. 

After they kicked out the last king, they knew they needed some way to govern themselves. But no kings! Never again. They were quite sure about that.

SPQR Rome as a Republic:

 It was very important to the ancient Romans that their new government be a fair government, and that all laws applied equally to all the citizen Rome, be they rich or poor. That was the beginning of the Roman Republic or the age of SPQR - the Senate and the People of Rome. It was a new form of government, a republic. A republic is a type of government whereby people elect officials to represent them in government.  (The United States is a republic. Over 2,000 years ago, so was ancient Rome.)

The Roman Republic was run by large group of men.  They called themselves members of the Senate.  The people of Rome elected the two top Senators.  These two top Senators were called consuls.  The consuls selected senators from qualifying patricians.  You could only be a consul for one year, then you had to be elected by the people again.  This system worked very well for hundreds of years.

Many of the laws created under the new government by the Senators were not new laws. But the laws were written down clearly, and applied to all citizens equally. Some new laws were added. One new laws was that you were innocent until proven guilty of any crime. Another law provided every citizen had the right to challenge their accusers in court. The law gave judges the power to set aside unfair laws. The new Roman Republic wanted to make sure that every citizen knew the laws. They engraved the laws on tablets of metal and put them in the Forum in Rome for everyone to read. These laws were called the Twelve Tables because there were twelve different sections.  These laws were about crime and property and family matters like marriage and inheritance. The laws, like all laws, were adjusted over time to reflect the times. But the main laws, whatever they were, were on display at the Forum throughout the entire time Rome was a Republic. Rome was a Republic for about 500 years!

As time went on, Rome had problems that the Senate did not seem able to solve, problems that kept getting worse and worse.  One of the problems was that the government kept running out of money.  They needed money to pay the military, pave roads, and do the many jobs they did.  They kept raising taxes, but the people were taxed out.  They didn't have any more money to give.  As well, Rome suffered from graft and corruption amongst elected officials.  Crime was terrible.  It was unsafe to walk the streets of Rome.  Things were rapidly spinning out of control.

Rome as an Empire:

One leader, Julius Caesar, decided the only thing was to do was to take his army into town, which was illegal. One of the laws in the Twelve Tablets stated you could not bring an army into the city of Rome. Caesar broke the law, entered the city with his army, and forced the Senate to accept new leadership, someone who could solve Rome's problems.

This new leadership was a dictatorship.  Julius Caesar's adopted son, Augustus, became the new head of government. Augustus knew the people would never accept a king. He wanted to be more powerful than a consul. So, he called himself an emperor. And the Roman Empire was born. Augustus was supported by a strong military to force change. It was not long before the Senate lost nearly all power. People still elected senators but senators could only advise the emperor. The emperor made all laws and passed all taxes. For the next 500 years, Rome was ruled by emperors, each supported by a large military. This period of time is called the Roman Empire - rule by emperor. During this period, there were 140 different emperors - some good. some bad, and some just plain crazy.

There were good things about rule by emperor in ancient Rome.  Women gained power.  Crime was reduced.  Welfare programs were established to help the poor.  Huge entertainment centers were built, and admission was free. But the Roman Empire, like the Roman Republic before it, failed, and for many of the same reasons - graft and corruption amongst elected officials, the burden of excessive taxation on the poor, lack of money in the treasury, no money to pay the military, roads in disrepair, and other problems the government did not or could not solve.

In 476 AD, a barbarian tribe from the north, the Visigoths, sacked Rome. There were many tribes attacking the outposts of the Empire. It was the Visigoths who actually made it to Rome. When the Western Roman Empire fell, Europe entered the dark ages.