Russell Handout


Main Conference Schedule, Abstracts, Bios

The Populus Romanus

Amy Russell

These resources are more or less the footnotes to my presentation and suggestions for further reading, rather than something you need to follow along with as I talk.

The populus Romanus

  • ‘people’
  • ‘the crowd’
  • More to think about: vs. the plebs, vs. the plebs urbana, vs. the multitude

The problem of ‘people’ vs. ‘The People’

The populus Romanus is concrete and well-defined.

  • Thermenses… amicei socieique populi Romani sunto (epigraphic law Lex Antonia de Termessibus, CILI2 589): “The Termessians are to be friends and allies of the populus Romanus.
  • populus Romanus Numantiam delevit ( Her. 1.37): “The populus Romanus destroyed Numantia.”
  • Cato the Elder wrote about ea, quae sunt rerum gestarum populi Romani (Fest. 216.20L): “the deeds of the populus Romanus
  • (E.g.) ager publicus is properly ager publicus populi Romani (so e.g. CIL I2 585, epigraphic Lex Agraria of 111 BCE) – and I think Olivia will talk about this!
  • interrex Fabius aiebat in duodecim tabulis legem esse ut, quodcumque postremum populus iussisset, id ius ratumque esset ( 7.17.12): the interrex Fabius said that in in the Twelve Tables there was a law stating: whatever the populus last ordered, this is ius and ratified.

Imperial definitions of (past) popular sovereignty

  • quod principi placuit, legis habet vigorem: utpote cum lege regia, quae de imperio eius lata est, populus ei et in eum omne suum imperium et potestatem conferat (Dig. 1.4.1pr = Ulpian 1 fr. 1916): “What the princeps decides has the power of law, since by the lex regia, which is passed about his imperium, the populus bestows to and on him all its imperium and potestas.”
  • utique quae ante hanc legem rogatam acta gesta | decreta imperata ab imperatore Caesare Vespasiano Aug(usto) | iussu mandatuue eius a quoque sunt, ea perinde iusta rataq(ue) | sint, ac si populi plebisue iussu acta essent (Lex de imperio Vespasiani = CIL 6.930, clause VIII): “And that whatever has been done, executed, decreed, or ordered by Imperator Caesar Vespasian Augustus or by anyone at his order or command, these things shall be legal and ratified, as if they had been done by order of the populus or plebs.”
  • But see Ando, Clifford. (2013), ‘The origins and import of Republican constitutionalism’, Cardozo Law Review 34: 917-35.

Senatus populusque: are senators people?

(Insert a picture of your least-favourite senator here!)

  • SPQR is not a Republican phrase, though the senatus/populus distinction is: Moatti, Claudia. (2017), ‘Res publica, forma rei publicae, and SPQR‘, BICS 60: 34-48.

Institutional history vs. political culture

  • The provocation: Millar, Fergus. (1998), The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press) – and articles in the years leading up to it.
  • The backlash: Jehne, Martin. (ed.) (1995), Demokratie in Rom? Die Rolle des Volkes in der Politik der römischen Republik (Stuttgart: F. Steiner) [= Historia Einzelschriften; 96].
  • Hölkeskamp, Karl-Joachim. (2010), Reconstructing the Roman Republic: An Ancient Political Culture and Modern Research (Princeton: Princeton University Press): clearest indictment of Millar’s institutional history approach.
  • New Institutionalism (not to be confused with New Institutional Economics, which is different); finding considerable success in Greek history.

The contested populus

  • Moatti, Claudia. (2011), ‘Historicité et altéronomie: un autre regard sur l’histoire’, Politica antica 1: 107-18; Moatti, Claudia. (2018), Res publica. Histoire romaine de la chose publique (Paris: Fayard).
  • The texts we study do not exist to be decoded with reference to some definite ‘context’ in which words and concepts have ‘true’ meanings, if only we could find them. They are historical actors, actively participating in defining, questioning, deconstructing the words and concepts they deploy. We should be more interested in the places where two authors use words differently than where they agree!

Two points already made elsewhere:

  • The populus is exactly identical to the audience of any given contio or vote (e.g. Hölkeskamp, Karl-Joachim. (2013) “Friends, Romans, Countrymen: addressing the Roman people and the rhetoric of inclusion”, in Community and Communication: Oratory and Politics in Republican Rome, ed. C. Steel and H. van der Blom: 11-28. Oxford.) I find this most prominent in speeches to the people, and I align it with Mommsen’s populus als Volksversammlung, with Clodian-style radical popular sovereignty, and with the vernacular political theory I’m searching for. The concrete populus.
  • The populus is singular and indivisible (Russell, Amy. ‘The populus Romanus as the source of public opinion’, in Communicating Public Opinion in the Roman Republic, ed. Cristina Rosillo López, Historia Einzelschrift 256, Franz Steiner 2019: 41-56). I find this most prominent in elite histories and treatises, and I align it with Mommsen’s populus als Staat. Cicero leans heavily on it when he tries to make the populus more abstract, but it’s important to note that it’s also key to vernacular political theory – but in the vernacular version 1. and 2. can be simultaneously true. The abstract, idealised populus.

Select extra bibliography

Arena, Valentina. (2016), ‘Popular sovereignty in the late Roman Republic: Cicero and the will of the people’, in Bourke, R. and Q. Skinner (eds), Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 73-95.

Catalano, Pierangelo. (1970), Populus Romanus Quirites (Turin: Giappichelli).

Connolly, Joy. (2014), The Life of Roman Republicanism (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Connolly, Joy. (2007), The State of Speech: Rhetoric and Political Thought in Ancient Rome (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Flaig, Egon. (2013), Die Mehrheitsentscheidung. Entstehung und kulturelle Dynamik (Paderborn: Schöningh).

Hammer, Dean. (2015). Were the people sovereign in the Roman Republic? Working paper, retrieved from

Hodgson, Louise. (2017), Res Publica and the Roman Republic: ‘Without Body or Form’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Hölkeskamp, Karl-Joachim. (1995), ‘Oratoris maxima scaena : Reden vor dem Volk in der politischen Kultur der Republik’, in Jehne, M. (ed.), Demokratie in Rom? Die Rolle des Volkes in der Politik der römischen Republik (Stuttgart: F. Steiner) [= Historia Einzelschriften 96], 11-49.

Grilli, Alberto. (2005), ‘Populus in Cicerone’, in Urso, G. (ed.), Popolo e potere nel mondo antico (Pisa: Edizioni ETS), 97-123.

Jehne, Martin. (2014), ‘Das Volk as Institution und diskursive Bezugsgrösse in der römischen Republik’, in Lundgreen, C. (ed.), Staatlichkeit in Rom? Diskurse und Praxis (in) der römischen Republik (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner), 117-37.

Momigliano, Arnaldo. (1969), ‘The origins of the Roman Republic’, in Singleton, C. S. (ed.), Interpretation: Theory and Practice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 1-34.

Peppe, Leo. (1990), ‘La nozione di populus e le sue valenze’, in Eder, W. (ed.), Staat und Staatlichkeit in der frühen römischen Republik (Stuttgart: Steiner), 312-45.

Rosillo Lopéz, Cristina. (2017), Public Opinion and Politics in the Late Roman Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Russell, Amy. (2020) ‘The economic world of the populus Romanus’, Journal of the History of International Law, 1-29.

Straumann, Benjamin. (2016), Crisis and Constitutionalism: Roman Political Thought from the Fall of the Republic to the Age of Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press).

Detail of the arch of Constantine, panel thought to be recut from a relief of the time of Marcus Aurelius. Public Domain.