Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


‘Republic’, the conventional translation for the Latin ‘res publica’, is a modern term loaded with political implications, and, as many have hinted to, far removed from the meaning of res publica. The complex relationship between these two cognates is at the centre of this thesis, which aims to provide a novel insight into the Roman understanding of res publica, and ultimately into some aspects of the Roman political taxonomy.

The Introduction sets out to explore preliminarily the semantic equivalence between res publica and ‘republic’, showing that while scholarly practice has endorsed this convention, in many instances it causes misunderstanding. It also provides an overview of those works that have questioned this equivalence, singling out research trends and carving out those questions that were left unanswered.

Chapter One works as the pars destruens in the thesis’ argument, aiming to remove the false impression that res publica and ‘republic’ are synonyms. It does so by tracking the semantic shifts that, over centuries, distantiated the meaning of the former from the meaning of the latter. While the English term ‘republic’ is currently linked to a species of government where sovereignty resides in the people, in the past centuries its cognates served as vehicles for a number of meanings, referring to different aspects of the political life of a community as well as to a variety of constitutional setups rather than to a specific one.

Chapter Two is the argument’s pars construens and offers renderings for res publica that are alternative to ‘republic’. It does so by means of a semasiological enquiry of the different contexts which the Latin phrase is used across a wide range of Classical Latin sources. While drawing on previous scholarship on the subject, the chapter argues in favour of a polysemic reading of res publica, seeking to go beyond an etymological rendering of res publica as ‘property of the people’, inspired by Cicero’s definition of the term in Rep. 1.39, and and surpassing the conventional literal meaning vs. figurative meaning fracture.

On the basis of this newly discovered polysemy of res publica, Chapter Three and Four seek to redefine the twofold nature of the political concept of res publica and explore the ways it shaped Roman political taxonomy.

Chapter Three suggests that the meaning of res publica as ‘political order’ does not refer to a specific organisational set-up of the Roman state, e.g. it does not refer to the ‘Roman Republic’. Res publica is instead consistently used to describe periods of civic peace and institutional stability under monarchy, republic, and principate alike.

Chapter Four, finally, focuses on the understanding of res publica that is most frequent in Classical Latin, and yet the furthest from our understanding of ‘republic’. Res publica is understood as ‘political activity’ and conceptualised as a duty and obligation - munus and officium – only bestowed upon a limited group of individuals. Ultimately, it is the style of leadership in handling the res publica, rather than the constitutional type of the res publica, to inform the Roman political taxonomy.
Date of Award1 May 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorHenrik Mouritsen (Supervisor)

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