What are the Lasting Legacies of the Roman Empire on Modern Governments?
One obvious influence of the Roman Empire is the idea of a republic, a concept of governing by elected legislative and executive systems. The system in Rome also had a judicial system that, similar to today, was considered as the primary way to uphold citizens’ rights and have checks and balances in government.
While many democracies today have based their systems on this Roman concept, the legacy of Rome has been in continuous use since the fall of the Roman Empire. It was not just the Roman Republic but also the Roman Empire, the concept of strong central government ruled by an emperor who brought order and power, that profoundly influenced Asian and European governments particularly in the centuries that followed the fall of Rome.
Monarchs and Emperors
In the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, it is commonly viewed that Europe entered a dark age, where few historical documents are known, and the Roman economic and political systems had collapsed. However, what is also obvious is that very soon after the collapse of the Roman Empire, local rulers and monarchs that arose began to emulate and adopt Roman governmental traditions and laws.
We see that the Roman Empire did continue in the form of the Byzantine Empire in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Here, the rulers titled themselves as emperors in a similar manner to the Roman Empire and saw themselves as carrying Roman traditions. In Western Europe, Charlemagne (742-814) was the first monarch to unite much of the region after the fall of the Roman Empire. The title he took as he achieved this was “Emperor of the Romans” and was crowned in Rome, symbolic of past Roman authority. Similar traditions were also present in Slavic and Germanic cultures, with the titles of Tsar and Kaiser deriving from the word Caesar, denoting an imperial title or ruler with the central authority. The ideals of an orderly state with strong central government were ideals rulers in Russia and Europe tried to emulate.
One of the biggest influences, however, came later in the Middle Ages (late 11th century) after the discovery of the Roman Digest, which was a compilation of Roman laws. This discovery led to some European countries adopting it as part of their common law that governed day-to-day matters. This discovery led to the founding of the first university in Europe, the University of Bologna, initially to study Roman law.  One example influence of Roman law is the right to return faulty purchases by buyers used today in many countries. The Napoleonic code in France is still influential today in the French government and even around the world, as it asserted individual rights about a wide range of subjects including commercial and legal areas, which at its core is based on Roman laws.
While Roman governing laws have had a profound global influence, particularly as European-based empires and governing ideas were spread to different parts of the globe in the 18th and later centuries, new forms of government appeared that included numerous Roman governing concepts. In the United States, after its founding in 1776, the political system was more influenced by Roman ideas than it was in places such as Britain, which already had a democratic system that was less influenced by Rome.
The creation of the United States government was heavily influenced by its founding leaders when they drafted their Constitution in 1787. These founding fathers were influenced by Cicero and others and developed the idea of checks and balances from the Roman concept that affects the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The Roman and United States systems both had an executive branch that is elected. The Roman legislative branches consisted of several branches, including a Senate that has since lent its name to the United States Senate. The idea of multiple legislative branches influenced what eventually becomes the Senate and House of Representatives as the two branches of legislation in the United States.
The judicial system in Rome also consisted of Praetors who also served as high judges, similar in concept to the Supreme Court. The Roman legal code acted similarly to the Bill of Rights, although the Roman code only affected freeborn male citizens. Similar to Rome, in the United States, only male citizens were initially allowed to vote and, therefore, influence government. The Judiciary system in the United States was heavily affected by Roman practices, and to this day legal terms apply Latin Roman phrases. For instance, the ideas of having a preliminary hearing, appeal, or trial by jury are Roman concepts.
Ideas and concepts from the Roman Empire, such as an absolute supreme leader or emperor in the form of Caesar, to the Roman Republic, have heavily influenced governments around the world. These have affected all branches of government utilized today, including the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The influences of Rome on the ideals of power and order were profound in the Middle Ages and later periods.
The ideals have also incorporated Roman rule and governing that form the basis of democratic systems. Works by Cicero and other Romans were held in high esteem as examples of democratic ideals and freedom, which were adopted by intellectuals in the United States in particular, and subsequently influenced the formation of many governments today.
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- For a general discussion on the Roman Republic and its governing influence see: Millar, Fergus. 2002. The Roman Republic in Political Thought. The Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures. Hanover: University Press of New England.
- For example, Roman laws influenced some Germanic tribes in governance and law practice, eventually shaping what became adopted and codified later. See: Stein, Peter. 1999. Roman Law in European History. New York: Cambridge University Press, pg. 31.
- Story, Joanna, ed. 2005. Charlemagne: Empire and Society. Manchester ; New York: Manchester University Press, pg. 53.
- Stevenson, Tom. 2014. Julius Caesar and the Transformation of the Roman Republic. New York: Rutledge, pg. 5.
- For a discussion on the Digest see: Stein, Peter. 1999. Roman Law in European History. New York: Cambridge University Press, pg. 44.
- Watson, Alan. 2009. The Digest of Justinian: Volume 3: The Digest of Justinian.Volume 3. Philadelphia, Pa: University of Pennsylvania Press, pg. 385.
- Tarr, G. Alan. 2014. Judicial Process and Judicial Policymaking. Sixth edition. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, pg. 7.
- Bederman, David J. 2008. The Classical Foundations of the American Constitution: Prevailing Wisdom. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, pg. 82.
- Madden, Thomas F. 2008. Empires of Trust: How Rome Built--and America Is Building--a New World. New York: Dutton.
- Fishwick, Marshall William. 2007. Cicero, Classicism, and Popular Culture. New York: Haworth Press, pg. 183. Also: Waelkens, Laurent. 2015. Amne Adverse. [S.l.]: Leuven University Press.
Updated January 4, 2018