Did Rome ever consider a return to republicanism?

Nov 2016
Surely the bloodletting before and after each dynastic succession and in particular the reigns of Caligula, Nero and Commodus were much worse than anything the Tarquin Kings did..... why didn’t Rome ever return to republicanism?

The senate still existed, educated Romans were aware of their own history etc etc. Sucession by adoption worked for a century or so..... until Marcus Aurelius ruined everything.

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
The republic was broken beyond repair since Sulla. As soon as a demogogue realised that all he needed to do to take power was to get enough of the army on side, the republic was finished.


Forum Staff
Aug 2016
Correct me if I'm wrong, but my sense is that Roman aristocrats enjoyed holding office in the imperial civil service at least as much as they enjoyed sitting in the Senate. In the Senate a man was only one voice among many. As a civil servant, a man had considerable control over his own area of authority - no negotiations or compromises required.
Nov 2016
Do you think that BEFORE the republic, the power structures than benefitted the elites were not so ingrained... so the republic could only emerge then?
Were there any writers/ philosophers in the period of empire that raised the possibility of a return to republicanism?
Would they have been executed for 'thought-crimes' against the emperor?
My understanding is that the Romans were constantly looking back in history to their 'golden days'...Romulus etc..... just surprising to me that after horrible emperors nobody thought to bring back the republic?
Oct 2018
By the time of Caligula the rule of a princeps had become the norm. It would have helped that Augustus was in effective control of the entire empire for 45 years, and in control of a good chunk of the empire for longer. By the time of Augustus' death, few people would have still been alive who had lived through the Republic, and their memory of the Republic would have been one of civil war, proscriptions and factional strife. Writers such as Lucan and Virgil fostered the idea that the civil wars were a terrible time and that Augustus (and what followed) represented a golden age.

It should also be noted that whereas civil war effected the empire at large, the executions conducted by emperors like Caligula were confined to the elite. It made little difference to the common people and the soldiers, and the soldiers in particular are who mattered most for securing any return to the Republic. The imperial administration established by Augustus managed the realm competently, regardless of how Caligula chose to terrorize the senators. The senate of the late republic had failed to secure land for the soldiers and food for the people of Rome, unlike Augustus. The praetorians gained financially from protecting an emperor, and especially from installing him on the throne in the first place - thus Claudius - after Caligula had worn out his welcome with the praetorians.

And while talk of restoring the Republic would have been treasonable, by the time of Tiberius senators were anyway already competing with one another to prove who was most loyal to Tiberius (and Sejanus) and to out rivals as traitors, a way of winning rewards and removing enemies. As Tiberius noted, the senators had showed themselves 'fit to be slaves'.

By the time of Commodus and probably long before, any talk of restoring the Republic would have been viewed as novel and archaic (and of course treasonable). For all Rome's love of looking back on their history and venerating the ways of old, their trajectory shows that they were moving forward. Take the example of Diocletian. He couched his reforms in the language of restoring old virtues, but he was playing a major role in the establishment of what came to be understood by scholars as the Byzantine Empire.
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Oct 2011
In their view, they never abandoned it. You see, while we are today concerned primarily with form of government, Romans were concerned with function. To banalize, if today you took engine out of an automobile, and had it be pulled by horses, we would still call it automobile. But Romans would call it a chariot, as it would no longer be self-propelled. Similarly, we today call government democratic / republican if it has certain institutions, but generally care little for what those institutions are really doing (personally, I would never call EU a democratic system). It is a rather shallow view.

To Romans, res publica means literally "common good". As long as common good was being fulfilled, and people had impact on policy-making, system was still republican, regardless of specifics. What we today call Byzantine Empire was actually Roman Republic. In their view (and writings), basileia was merely one aspect, one part of politeia; and politeia is merely translation of Roman term res publica into Greek. Emperor had duty to care for, consider needs and beliefs of, the general public. When Leon VI lists parts of the politeia, he lists basically everyone, from the Emperor himself to farmers, and states that all of them have duty to contribute to the common good of politeia.

And if you look at Byzantine history, you can see that it was very politically unstable, which is one of hallmarks of democratic / republican governance. With the exception of Justinian, it is hard to find an emperor that even attempted to disregard wishes of the "masses", let alone had done so successfully.


Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
More accurate to say Rome became an Empire long before the point in time that Historians mark as the end of the Republic. That was the core problem. A government designed to rule a city state wasn't well suited to ruling an Empire, and the transition to having an Empire would have needed to be masterful to prevent the eventual end of Republican rule (to the extent Rome still was a republic in the last centuries/decades of the republic). In essence what happened was that a series of potential flaws were realized, and where the solution to them could have been embraced, instead it was either rejected or half measures were adopted; laying the seeds for Rome's doom, in ways that were totally not foreseeable at the time.

Usually the fatal flaws were created as a result of solving a necessary problem. Allow me to illustrate:

Problem: The army has been losing a lot of men because too many of the generals are not chosen for their competence, if this continues Rome won't have enough armies to survive. The loss of these armies is also killing small hold farms, who produce the lifeblood of Roman prole citizenry.
Correct (but not politically viable) solution: Only send competent Senators to lead armies in future, not corrupt ones who will start/cause wars to line their pockets, or just be incapable of good governance.
Actual (barely politically viable) solution: Start recruiting men from the lowest classes to join the army, which will now become truly professional, and settle them on colonies when their service is over, so we don't release an army of men trained to kill back onto the streets of Rome, with nothing to do with themselves. Now the army can weather more losses, is of a higher quality, and the propertied Roman lower middle class isn't destroyed.
Problematic side effect: Armies are now loyal only to generals, who they are relying on for their pensions, because they're no longer composed of politically conservative men of property who want to go home.

Of course, if the Senate had managed to set up guaranteed pensions and set terms of service, like Augustus managed to, then this problematic and unintended side effect could have been greatly reduced. Unfortunately, the Senate had no interest in doing this because they were shortsighted and stupid, and by the time of Augustus the genie was out of the bottle and X many civil wars later it was far too late.
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