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What Does "Res Publica" Mean?

"Res Publica," a Latin term, translates to "public affair" and is the root of 'republic.' It signifies a state where citizens hold power. Intrigued? Discover how this ancient concept shapes modern governance and your role within it.
Renee Booker
Renee Booker

The roots of words and phrases used in modern-day politics and law can often be traced back to ancient Rome. One such phrase is "res publica." The phrase "res publica," loosely translated means "public issue" or "public matter." The term is also thought to be the origin of the word "republic," which is used to refer to a state where the supreme power lies in the people via elected representatives, as opposed to a monarchy which is ruled over by a royal family.

The phrase can be found in many manuscripts dating back to ancient Rome, although its precise meaning is somewhat unclear. As a rule, scholars translate the phrase as referring to something of public concern. The phrase is also occasionally translated to mean "public politics" in ancient Roman treatise or texts.

Woman posing
Woman posing

Cicero's treatise entitled De re publica is an example of the use of the phrase from Roman times. Not only is the phrase the subject of the treatise, but the phrase is used several times within the body of the text. The work was written between 54 and 51 B.C., and is a Socratic dialogue about the state of political affairs in Rome at the time.

Although many scholars believe the phrase is the origin of the word "republic," a more common translation of the phrase itself is "commonwealth." The word commonwealth is essentially a modern-day version of the word "republic" and refers to a state which is governed by the people. Scholars tend to prefer this more universal translation due to the fact that the phrase "res publica" is found in ancient texts and treatise that refer to the period of time when Rome was ruled both as a republic and the time it was under imperial rule.

The phrase "res publica restituta" in another derivative of the original phrase that appeared sparingly in ancient Roman texts. The meaning of res publica resituta is also open for debate. Some scholars argue that the correct translation is "the state was restored to health" while another interpretation is "the system of republican government was restored."

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