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The Roman constitution of 263 emerged in the imperial crisis and established the Second Republic. Its official name is "Foedera Constituenta Rei Publicae".
It was drafted in Alexandria by a group of representatives of the Plebeian Councils in the revolutionary towns and Societates Liberorum in the revolutionary countryside and by leaders of the revolutionary armed forces. The group had co-ordinated their defense and efforts at restoring the provision of cities with grain, combating a dangerous epidemics and organising relief for the victims of a series of natural catastrophes. The process of constitutionalisation emerged from the need for stabilising the pact by creating overarching federal or confederal institutions (e.g. to collect and allocate the resources for the common armed forces, and to draft and conduct foreign policies).
The constitution reflects a federalist compromise between confederalist groups with a local focus, who did not want to cede too much power, and centralists, who wanted the continuation of a strong empire capable of acting quickly and adequately.
The social forces supporting and shaping this constitution were urban working and middle classes, rebellious coloni and slaves, small peasants, and religious groups like the Christian Simonists and several Jewish groups.
With regards to political philosophy, the constitution mirrors the supreme goal of preventing the concentration of power in the hands of one or a few, which had been a problem during the constant usurpations in the last decades of the Principate. It revives some elements of the first Roman Republic, but changes their characteristics profoundly, reflecting the empire`s change from an Italy-based expanding state with still existing tribal structures and a strong polytheistic cult (in the first republic) to a large, barely defensible, post-tribal and to some degree even post-ethnic empire full of competing religious groups, which needed safety and infrastructure and thus a professional, well-functioning public service, military and law system.
Some historians have ascribed the alleged secularism and the great value attributed to the education of magistrates to Neoplatonist influences. This is debatable. Although some members of the Conventum were Neoplatonists, their arguments (e.g. in favour of active and passive voting rights for women) did not find broader support. And although the constitution guaranteed religious freedom and ended the political monopoly of the traditional Roman state cults, it did not create a secular state. The Pontificium Maximum was in charge of religious issues, in which all sorts of religious groups were represented. It drafted, for example, the common calendar and was responsible for maintaining "concordia" (not neutrality) between the religious groups.
Structure and Content
The constitution has three major parts carved into marble, and a long annex written on papyrus. In the first part, the constituent members, their relations with each other and the nature of their federation is defined. In the second part, political institutions on the federal level are defined. In the third part, republic-wide guiding principles of common law and citizens` rights are formulated. The annex consists of maps delineating the territories of civitates.
The Res Publica is a federation of civitates. The civitates are its constituent members. (This was a matter of debate because certain federations, as well as armed groups, concluded the pact as well, and had to integrate into the common framework. The definition of the Res Publica as a federation of civitates marked one important victory of the federalists.)
The names of all civitates are listed in an annex to the constitution and their territories delineated in maps, which are also part of the annex to the constitution. (The maps also showed federal lands: those held by the new federal armed forces. And they included a recognition that the Republic`s reach was not as far as the proclaimed Roman Empire under the Principate - not only because the Imperium Romanum Galliarum had broken away - : considerable spaces in what used to be Corsica et Sardinia, Moesia, Dalmatia, Thracia, Dacia, the Alpine provinces. Galatia, Cappadocia and Cillicia were left blank because nobody from the more remote parts of the lands had participated in the revolution and claimed to be a representative of the community living in these quarters.) These maps are partly bilingual (Latin and Koiné Greek) and demonstrate that the Latin word "civitas" was used synonymously with the Koiné Greek term "polis".
The civitates define their own laws and judge their citizens by them. They govern themselves autonomusly, electing magistrates in any way they see fit, levying taxes in whichever way suits them (except for customs). They can even keep their own military forces (vigilia civitatum).
With the pact that constitutes the Republic, the civitates only agree to the following things:
- that no civitas ever threatens or attacks another
- that the civitates acknowledge each other, their territories, and their equality as contractual partners
- that each civis is free to move within all civitates, including the transportation of goods without the payment of any customs
- that all adult male permanent residents are cives, equal in rights, who constitute their civitates in general assemblies (comitia), that each civis can become civis of another civitas if he permanently moves there, that nobody can become civis of more than one civitas at once, and that citizenship must not be revoked
- that all civitates agree on delegating the tasks on the second table to the institutions listed therein, and respect and implement the decisions taken by the common institutions in their own administrative practice
- and that all civitates equally contribute the resources required for the fulfillment of the common tasks in proportion to the number of cives constituting their civitas.
Thus, the civitates had far-reaching autonomy. The last point was a confederalist victory over federalists who favoured federal taxes (beside local ones): The civitates levied the resources for the federal level, too, and only the amount of taxes sent by a civitas to the federal treasury determined how many representatives they could send to the Conventum (this was defined in the second part). Civitates which wanted a strong influence on the federal level paid their taxes duly, if they could. Poorer civitates and those which had less interest in what the federal level did often reported less cives and paid less taxes. Later, this provision was modified in a federalist sense: In the 7th century, the federal Censors collected a greater degree of census information, thus limiting the leeway of a civitas.
Remnants of the Principate`s Legions and Auxiliaries as well as completely new armed forces were among the strongest and best-organised groups supporting the revolution and the constituting process. Their quasi-independent power and self-government were enshrined by the constitution.
In the legal theory of the constitution, the civitates delegate the task of maintaining the "pax Romana" to a federal corporation, the "defensores rei publicae civum foederatorum" (DRPCF). The DRPCF is a mere legal fiction, though: It nominally owns all the forts, camps, lands and estates "inherited" from the imperial Legions and Auxiliaries. Its decisions are taken unanimously by its two member units: on the one hand, the Conventum, or on its behalf the Consuls, on the other hand, the Maximum Collegium Militum: the supreme council of soldiers. The number of decisions taken by the DRPCF, i.e. those that both the political leaders AND the self-elected leaders of the soldiers must agree on, are laid down: a fair and equal admission process into the Collegium Militum for cives who want to become milites, acquisition and sale of land, and the tasks and standards for military operations (both combattive and non-combattive).
The Collegium Militum must elect its leaders (MCM) through comitia. Otherwise, it is explicitly free to structure itself: the members of the armed forces - which also include veterans who still live on the army`s estates etc. - can give themselves any inner constitution they see fit, they decide about military tactics as well as about how they spend the military budget.
The most important institutions of the Second Roman Republic are mentioned only "by the way": The federal constitution only decrees one thing about the self-government of a civitas: That it takes place in general assemblies (named comitia), and that these comitia also elect the representatives to the Conventum Romanum.
In practice, the comitia took all decisions, passed laws, levied taxes, elected magistrates in any way they saw fit, gave themselves or their magistrates budgets, condemned persons for serious penal offenses etc.
The other institutions were described on the second table, being federal institutions.
The Conventum (initially Conventum Omnium Civitatum, later Conventum Romanum) is the federal assembly of the Second Republic. Its members are delegates from the civitates, in correspondence with how many inhabitants a civitas announces that it has - which is equivalent to the amount of tax money it sends to the federal treasury. It meets every three months for nine days (beginning on the Ides of January, April, July and October), and its representatives are recompensated for their efforts from the federal budget at a rate defined by themselves but announced publicly in written form and through federal heralds as part of a session`s protocol, which was always sent to all civitates through the cursus publcus.
Members of the Conventum were thus recallable every three months - but in practice, re-election was very common and many held their offices for many years or even decades, acquiring a degree of political professionalism.
The Conventum elects the federal magistrates listed below, accords and supervises their budgets and decides about declarations of war and conclusions of peace. It also has the power to conclude new pacts - this last sentence was the most consequential, and led to the Conventum`s becoming a legislative body for the federation. The Conventum did not only conclude pacts with foreign powers; it also added to the existing pact between the civitates as laid down in the constitution, and while the Conventum was not allowed to alter the constitution itself, it could add new content at any time with the majority of its members. This meant that the Conventum could pass federal laws - and it did, beginning with the highly problematical and diffuse announcement of the "continuatio iuris communis" in 287, which made a lot of further clarifications necessary.
Quickly, the delegates of the Conventum organised themselves into different, sometimes overlapping factions, the most important among them being the Collegiales, who represented the urban professional middle classes, and the Sociales, who represented the rural cooperatives of peasants, miners etc. There has never been an amendment to the constitutional tables, though, which would specify anything about these factions, their structures, their status or their roles.
The Conventum elects the following federal magistrates, who had a growing number of quaestors and other administrative helpers and bureaucrats below them:
- 2 Consuls, elected for three years. They represented the Republic as a whole and acted on behalf of the Conventum in between sessions, especially concerning common foreign and military policies. They presided over the meetings of the Conventum and had the right of own-motion legislative initiative in all domains. Consuls must not be re-elected. (Not long after factiones came into existence, the tradition was established that the two consuls should belong to different factions. Bipartisanship was not a written norm, though, and not always respected.)
- 8 Praetors, elected for three years, who functioned as a collective Supreme Court of Appeal, where disputes between civitates were judged and complaints about judgments which allegedly violated the principles of the foedera were considered. Praetors could be re-elected indefinitely, and many distinguished juridical experts served three, four or more terms.
- (initially) 2 Censors, elected for three years. (Their number was raised later, and new responsibilities were defined.) Initially, these two were responsible for communication between federation and civitates, for the federal budget and the federal mint. The Censors kept records of citizenships, territorial delineations, the payment of taxes, the budgets of the other magistrates, the remunerations for federal tasks etc. In later centuries, when a federal fiscal administration was created and a passport system was introduced, more Censors were elected. Censors must not be re-elected.
- as well as the Aedils, whose number was never constitutionally limited and varied between six and thirty-four over the course of history. The Conventum could always create new Aedils and assign tasks to them. They oversaw tasks like the maintenance of federal infrastructure (overland roads and canals and cross-civitas aquaeducti), the post system (cursus publicus), international trade rules, tariffs and their implementation and collection, federal welfare after the establishment of a Republic-wide Cura Annonae, the containment of epidemics and later also the supervision of federal educational institutions. None of these tasks was ever mentioned in the constitution, and neither were the countless Quaestors who assisted the Aedils in their jobs.
Later amendments also regulated minor magistrates like the Pontificium Maximum, which oversaw the "libera concordia" between the religious groups, their protection and integration into the public order, and which also defined the federal Roman Calendar.
The constitution of 263 does not state much about the policies of the republic - it merely defines the terms of a pact between sovereign civitates.
But later addenda by the Conventum created, bit by bit, a framework for republic-wide structures, especially with the declaration of the "continuatio iuris communis", a very imprecise term which was meant to affirm that the common juridical traditions that had been established throughout the First Republic and the Principate and which had not been mentioned in the constitution should nevertheless continue to be valid in all civitates. This begged a lot of clarifications, especially since many provision of traditional Roman law had been turned upside down by the Revolution. Thus, in 309, a third table was added which defined guiding principles, by which all citizens in all civitates must abide, both as legislators and as magistrates. These have the status of binding fundamental laws. The principles, based on the Numina, are:
- aequitas (including equality before the law)
- concordia (declaring treason and violent unrest capital crimes)
- libertas (including individual rights. The constitution of 263 defines every person born on imperial territory, naturalised by a Comitium Civitatis or born as the child of a Roman citizen as a Roman citizen and declares eight rights pertaining to all citizens equally (life, liberty, corporal integrity, free movement and residence, fair trial, free expression, religious freedom, marriage) as well as six rights pertaining only to male citizens (property, free commerce, free choice of occupation, free choice of education, free vote, freedom to form a political party or socio-economic organisation)
- mens (defining education as a civil duty, the rights of collegia to secure their professional standards)
- virtus (no magistrate, representative or military leader was immune, they were only judged by different people than commoners, i.e. their colleagues)
- pax (limiting the rights of civitates to conduct their own military operations and defining the structures of the armed forces and stating their defensive role as "defensor imperii et civum romanorum")
- iustitia (laying down the rules for fair trials and forbidding laws ex post)
- and securitas.
Among the guiding principles, the constitution also stipulates how laws must be publicly announced - and that includes the definition that any law must be formulated at least in Latin or Greek, even if the civitas uses a different language for legislation and jurisdiction, too..
Crisis and Replacement
The constitution was repeatedly amended by the Conventum Romanum, but its core provisions held for more than a millennium.
In the class conflicts of the 14th century, though, communist majorities first undertook fundamental changes in a number of civitates, then came to dominate the Conventum for over four decades. The deep-reaching reforms implemented during this time sparked violent conflicts, which neither the quickly enlarged federal institutions nor those of the divided civitates were able to contain. After international tensions increased, too, and an economic crisis finally undermined the basis of the Communist-dominated late Second Republic, a coup led by leading members of the professional collegia and politicians influenced by one of the pre-Lysianist schools of spiritual philosophy dissolved the communist Conventum and the host of magistrates with which it had controlled most aspects of public life and decreed the constitution of 1378, which founded the Third Roman Republic.