Res publica

:"This article is about the Latin phrase. For the historical state, see Roman Republic; for the dialogue by Cicero, see De re publica; for the former Estonian political party, see Union for the Republic - Res Publica." "Res publica" is a Latin phrase, literally meaning "public thing" or "public matter". It is the origin of the word 'republic', though translations vary widely according to the context.Fact|date=August 2008

Res publica in Ancient Rome

Dictionary lists the following meanings: "the common wealth, a commonwealth, state, republic" (cf. civitas)"; also, civil affairs, administration, or power, etc.", which are elucidated below:

Basic meaning(s)

"Public property"

"Res publica" usually refers to a thing that is not considered to be private property (or, in Latin: "res privata", the private matters of the society), [Haakonssen, Knud. "Republicanism." "A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy." Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit. eds. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995. pg. 569.] but which is rather held in common by many people. For instance a park or garden in the city of Rome could either be "private property", or managed by the state, in which case it would be (part of the) "res publica".

"The state" - "The Commonwealth"

Taking everything together that is of public interest leads to the connotation that the "res publica" in general equals "the state". For Romans this equalled of course also the Imperium Romanum, and all its interests, so "Res Publica" could as well refer to the "Roman Empire" as a whole (regardless of whether it was governed as a "republic" or under imperial reign). In this context scholars suggest "commonwealth" as a more accurate and neutral translation of the term, while neither implying "republican" nor "imperial" connotations, just a reference to the state as a whole. But even translating "res publica" as "republic" when it clearly refers to the Roman Empire "under Imperial reign" occurs (see quotes below).

"The (Roman) Republic"

Roman authors would also use the word "res publica" in the sense of the "epoch" when Rome was governed as a republic, that is the epoch between the Roman Kingdom and the Roman Empire. So in this case "res publica" does distinctly "not" refer to the Roman "Empire", but to what is generally described as the Roman Republic.

"Public affairs" - "state organisation system" - "politics"

"Res publica" could also be used in a generic meaning, referring to "public affairs" and/or the general system of government of a state. In this usage "res publica" translated the Greek concept "politeia" (which originally meant the state organisation of a "city"-state).

Also, for a Roman politician engaging himself in the "res publica", a translation can often be the even more generic "being occupied in "politics".

Other uses

Even when limited to its "political" connotations, the meanings of the term "res publica" in ancient Rome are diverse and multi-layered, and differing from the Greek "politeia" in many ways (that is: from the several interwoven meanings the word "politeia" had). However, it is also the customary Latin translation of "politeia"; the modern name of Plato's "The Republic" comes from this usage.

In some contexts the "state organisation system" meaning of "res publica" derives into something like "constitution", although "constitution", properly speaking, is a much more modern concept. Ancient Romans would use the expression "Twelve Tables" instead of "res publica", when referring to their constitution at the time of the "republic", and the "inalterable laws installed by the divine Augustus", for their equivalent of a constitution in the era of the early Empire.

After the Roman Empire collapsed in the West, the idea of "res publica" disappeared, as foreign to the barbarians of the Migrations Period: whenever Gregory of Tours refers to "res publica", it is the Eastern Empire of which he is speaking. [Noted by Michel Rouche, "Private life conquers state and society", in Paul Veyne, ed. "A History of Private Life: I. From Pagan Rome to Byzantium" (Harvard University Press) 1987:419.]


The translations of the quotes below are copied without alteration from existing non-copyrighted material. Other translations might differ, but they all serve to illustrate the many aspects of the "res publica" concept in Ancient Rome. The Latin original texts are given concurrently with the translations, in order to show that only the "context" of the text allows to interpret the "res publica" concept in each instance.

From these examples it also follows that probably there was also a gradual shift of meaning of the "res publica" concept throughout the Roman era: the "(Roman) Republic" connotation of "res publica" is something that rather occurs "with retrospect" to a closed period (so "less" appararent in Cicero's time, who never knew the era of the Emperors, and could only compare with the epoch of the Kings); on the other hand the "translation of the Greek "politeia" concept" appears to have nearly completely worn of in late antiquity.


Cicero's "De re publica", a treatise of the 1st century BC in Socratic dialogue format, takes the "res publica" as its subject. The differing interpretations and translations of the "title" of that work are discussed in the "De re publica" article. The expression "res publica" is of course used several times throughout the work too. The quotes below aim at demonstrating that "within any translation" of Cicero's work differing English translations of the term "res publica" need to be used, according to "context", in order to make sense. The quotes are taken from [ the Latin text at "The Latin Library"] (chapter numbering follows this text), from [ C. D. Yonge's translation at] (2nd column) and from [ Francis Barham's translation at "The Online Library of Liberty"] (3rd column).

When Cicero refers to the Greek authors (pointing at the "politeia" concept)::When under an "Emperor", that is Vespasian or his predecessors, Pliny was not talking about the Roman Republic, but used "commonweale"/"republic" in the meaning of "the state". Of course the ambiguity of Rome still considering itself formally, or just "pro forma", a republic throughout the era of the principate, when a monarchic rule had already de facto been established, adds to the complexity of translating "res publica" in this context.


As another example of the complexities of the meaning of the word "res publica" one can cite Tacitus, who in the early 2nd century described in his "Annals" how the first Emperors, like Tiberius in the year Augustus had died (AD 14), sought to preserve all institutions of the "Res publica" completely intact ( [ Latin and translation as available at the Perseus Project] )::Note that in this quote Augustine does "not" use the expression "imperium Romanum" ("the Roman empire") as a synonym to "the era when Rome was governed by emperors". Compare also to the 2nd quote from Tacitus above: there an expression "different" from "res publica" and "imperium Romanum" is used for referring to "the (Roman) State" in general.

Meaning "the Roman Republic" as "era" with a distinct form of state organisation, from the same book::


Later calques of "Res publica", some of which originated in the Renaissance, include:
* Commonweale/Commonwealth (English - 2nd meaning as indicated above)
* Rzeczpospolita (Polish)



*Haakonssen, Knud. "Republicanism." "A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy." Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit. eds. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995.
*"A Latin Dictionary" Founded on Andrews' edition of Freund's Latin dictionary, revised, enlarged, and in great part rewritten by Charlton T. Lewis, and Charles Short. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879. Various 20th and 21st century re-publications under ISBN 0198642016

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