This is the second of our planned five-part look (I) at the nature and structure of the Roman Republic, particularly the governing institutions of the Middle Republic, the period of the republic’s height from c. 287-100 BC. Last time we discussed the component parts and nature of the res publica as a whole. This week, we’ll start a deeper look at Rome’s political institutions, beginning with Rome’s most democratic element, the popular assemblies.
Rome’s popular assemblies – for unlike most poleis, Rome has not one but four major assemblies, three of which matter – are the subject of something of a paradox in Roman political history which has in turn served as the hub around which a fairly active debate on the nature of Roman politics has rotated now for decades. The paradox is this: on the one hand, legally the Roman assemblies are sovereign. Their decisions, once rendered, are final and cannot be overridden by any other part of the res publica. That would seem to make Rome quite democratic, but to the contrary: apart from a few very notable exceptional moments, the assemblies are largely the dog that did not bark. They have vast power, but in part because of the traditional conventions of Roman politics (the mos maiorum, the ‘customs of the ancestors’) and in part because of how they are structured, the power of the assemblies often sleeps.
And today we’re going to look at why it is that the assemblies never roar quite so often as you’d expect and in the process begin developing the arguments of perhaps the central scholarly debate currently about the Roman Republic: how democratic was it really?
As always, if you would like to roar in a popular assembly, you can do so in the comments, but real power is reserved to the assidui of the ACOUP Patreon and especially the patres et matres conscripti of the ACOUP Senate. Socii of the blog are encouraged to share it in accordance with the formula togatorum. If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings, assuming there is still a Twitter by the time this post goes live.
Comitia, Concilia and Contiones
We should start by outlining some of the basic rules for the political process as it pertains to all of the assemblies equally, before we get into the nuts and bolts of what each assembly can do and how it does it. All of the three important assemblies have a few key tasks: they pass laws, elect magistrates and can serve as venues for trials under rare circumstances. Different assemblies elect different magistrates and pass different laws; with one notable exception the voters in each kind of assembly are the same people, what changes is procedure and how the votes are counted.
No assembly can convene itself; instead different magistrates have the right to convene different assemblies. Magistrates with imperium (consuls and praetors) can convene the comitia centuriata and the comitia tributa, while the tribunes of the plebs can convene the concilium plebis (also called the comitia plebis tributa, but I’m going to call it the concilium plebis from here on). Once convened, the assembly does not have an ‘open’ agenda, rather it is convened for a specific purpose: to approve (or not) a specific action proposed by that magistrate. The assembly does not debate, but instead offers and up-or-down vote (or chooses from a set of candidates if the agenda item for the assembly is ‘hold an election’) and the decision offered is final.
All of this must be conducted in person in a single day. Votes may not be cast in absentia and the presiding magistrate must also be present in person. Candidates standing for office generally also must be present in person; dispensation to stand for election in absentia does happen but it is very rare. The requirement that the business be concluded in a single day is important and in this case religious in origin: the voting of an assembly is surrounded by religion: every assembly opens with a prayer and requires that the auguries (divining the will of the gods through the flights of birds) be taken before hand to ensure the gods are favorable. These sorts of things are for a specific assembly on a specific day and so the business must be completed on that day.
Instead, magistrates trying to get a big, important law passed will generally spend the weeks leading up to the scheduled assembly on the topic trying to effectively ‘build hype’ for the law through informal political gatherings and speeches called contiones. Rome is a face-to-face society, so this means standing up, typically in the forum, and giving a big, loud speech on why the law you want to get passed is a great idea. You might have other influential politicians (who, remember, will have sway over their clients and other political supporters) also give speeches. Personal influence (auctoritas) carries a lot of weight in Roman politics, so getting influential political figures to stand up for your law will sway parts of the public. And of course politicians opposed to the law might also give contiones, arguing against it. The Senate has a role to play here too: while the Senate cannot bind an assembly to vote one way or another, the assemblies usually vote as the Senate recommends and it is traditional (that mos maiorum) for magistrates to seek senatorial approval for any major legislation (the Senate does not, however, weigh in on elections). Legislation recommended by the Senate and thus carrying its collective auctoritas generally passes handily.
Modern scholars differ on how democratic the character of this ‘run-up’ period of dueling speeches was. Fergus Millar made it the centerpiece of his argument for a real somewhat-democratic political process in Rome in The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (1998). But Robert Morstein-Marx took on this argument directly in Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic (2002), arguing that while the contio was very important, it’s purpose was not to provide a place for the democratic expression of the people’s will, but as an exercise in elite consensus building, an opportunity for the already dominant Roman elite to get the people ‘on board’ with what they wanted to do anyway. On the other hand, popular support, Morstein-Marx argues, mattered, and so the process of getting the people on board was important. We’ll come back to this at the end, but I find this discussion, itself focused on the Late Republic (where our evidence is better) rather than on the Middle Republic, undervalues the situations where we can actually see popular political activism ‘deflect’ elite policies. These don’t happen all the time, but they do happen.
In terms of the common details of the process, here is the outline. A law or candidates for election were presented in public a trinundinum (three market days, which comes out to 17 days minimum) before the assembly would meet, alerting everyone tht there would be an assembly on a given matter on a given day. That period of course would leave a lot of time for holding those contiones to build support or for candidates to campaign. On the day, every voting assembly begins with a prayer, though many assemblies were effecively proceeded by an informal contio where supporters and opponents might give their final appeals. Then before a vote on a law, the proposed law was formally read out to the assembly by a herald. This is the last moment that magistrates with blocking powers (tribunes and consuls with veto and iustitium) could exercise it, before the order was given to the assemble to discedite, Quirites (‘divide, Quirites,’ ‘quirite’ being an archaic term for Romans), dividing the body into their voting groups (discussed below). Votes were cast in baskets (cistae) which were held up on an elevated voting platform (the pons, or ‘bridge’). The presiding magistrate – the one that summoned the assembly – announced the result; the whole process of the election itself had to be accompliushed in a single day. If it was interrupted, then it would have to start over from the beginning.
And with all of that out of the way, we can now treat each of the major assemblies in turn. We can start by dismissing the one assembly of the four that simply doesn’t do much in our period, the comitia curiata. This assembly had been important in the regal period, but by the period of the republic, nearly all of its real powers had been absorbed into other assemblies and it existed in, as Lintott notes, “existed only in a symbolic and ritualized form.” Technically the comitia curiata was required to approve all grants of imperium to elected magistrates, including dictators; in practice this was a rubber-stamp. Likewise the comitia curiata had a role in ratifying wills and formalizing a certain form of adoption (adrogatio), but this too was mostly a rubber stamp. We won’t waste too much time on it here; if you want more of what we know, see Lintott (op. cit.), 49.
The Comitia Centuriata
Instead, the oldest and most important of Rome’s functioning assemblies in this period was the comitia centuriata or centuriate assembly. Of all of the assemblies the comitia centuriata was the most powerful, capable of doing the most things, but also the slowest and most cumbersome and and a result generally convened only to do the very important things no other assembly could do. At its core, the comitia centuriata assembles the Roman citizenry as an army for the purpose of voting; it is the army-as-voting-body and thus retains unique competence over military issues. Indeed, occasionally the comitia centuriata was referred to as the exercitus, ‘the army.’1
In particular, the comitia centuriata elected magistrates with imperium (consuls and praetors) who could thus command armies. It is also the only assembly which can declare war or ratify peace treaties. The comitia centuriata can also pass laws like the other assemblies, but doesn’t seem to have been regularly used for this because its voting procedure is so cumbersome. Still even limited to its exclusive jobs will have meant that this assembly met a few times every year. The comitia centuriata is odd in another respect: evidently it’s large number of voting units (and higher than normal attendance?) required it to be moved out of the comitium where other assemblies were held on to the campus Martius just outside of Rome.
That the comitia centuriata required so much more space is curious, because a great many voters votes will have counted less (for reasons we’ll get to) in this assembly. If you were going to have an impact, it wouldn’t usually be here. However, the comitia centuriata is divided into a lot more voting units, whcih may have demanded more space and it also voted on the most important matters to the state (who gets to be consul, war and peace), which may have simply drawn out more voters, much the way turnout is higher in the United States for presidential elections than for off-year elections or ballot-measures.
What made the comitia centuriata so cumbersome was its structure: citizens were divided (in the census conducted every five years) into 193 voting blocks called centuries. At some early point, these probably mapped on to military centuries, but by our period that is long past. These centuries were broken down by wealth and age and because they voted as units, with each century effectively awarding one ‘point’ to the winner of its internal vote, this system made some voters more powerful than others.
Our sources for this most important assembly’s structure are tricky though. Livy and Dionysius of Hallicarnasus both provide schematics for how they understood the assembly to be structured under the legendary king Servius Tullis (Livy 1.43; Dionysius Ant. Rom. 4.16), but these reconstructions must be to some considerable degree anachronistic reconstructions (they are, for instance, based on a currency standard that didn’t exist until 211). Cicero then provides a very brief and enigmatic description of the function of the assembly (DRP 2.39). So understand there are some tricky bits, but here is a basic outline of the distribution of voting units:
- 18 Centuries of the Equites, which are in fact the equites cum equo publico, a subset of the very wealthiest Romans selected for the special distinction of serving with a ‘public horse.’ These are the only centuries that consisted of 100 members each.
- 70 Centuries of the First Class (prima classis) of the Infantry (pedites), which will also include the growing number of equites wealthy enough to fight on horseback but not selected for the public horse (these are equites cum equo suo). These centuries are split evenly between iuniores (men 17-46) and seniores (men 47+).
- 100 Centuries of the remaining four classes (II, III, IV and V) of the Infantry (pedites), also split between iuniores and seniores. The exact distribution of centuries between these classes in the Middle Republic is uncertain. Livy and Dionysius present the pedites as having 80/20/20/20/30 centuries per classis, but Cicero is pretty clear that in his day there are only 70 centuries of the prima classis.
- 4 Centuries for Musicians, Artisans and the Accensi. These are all clearly special classes of non-combat personnel. The accensi seem to have been a class of camp servant earlier in the republic, but establishing this with any kind of precision is hard because Livy is our source and he’s pretty badly confused himself (Livy 8.8, a passage which is a total mess).
- 1 Century for the capite censi, Roman citizens with too little property to serve in the army.
- 193 Centuries total
The centuries voted in a specific order as well. First, one of the centuries of the iuniores of the prima classis was selected by lot and designated the centuria praerogativa (‘the century asked first’) and it voted first. Cicero (Phil. 2.82) notes that the vote of this first century was generally considered an omen – it was announced before the others voted – and usually the rest of the assembly followed its results. After this, 12 of the centuries of the equites, 1 century of the artisans and the remaining centuries of first class of the infantry vote. After that, the remaining six centuries of equites, followed then by the second class of the infantry, and then the third, and so on. The capite censi vote last. Crucially, voting seems to stop after a majority is reached, meaning that centuries later in the process will only vote if the vote is close.
Now the implications. Polybius reports that in 225 there were 26,100 Roman citizen cavalry and 299,200 Roman citizen infantry but does not elaborate their breakdown beyond this. Cicero, however, notes that the centuries higher up on the social scale were smaller (as indeed, we’ll see, they must be). A range of reconstructions here is possible, I’ll suggest a somewhat conservative one as follows: the 18 centuries of equites (who are not all of the equites, recall) have 1,800 individuals in them. The remaining 24,300 equites are equites cum equo privato and are thus sorted into the first class of the infantry. They are presumably outnumbered by actual infantrymen (it would be really strange if they weren’t; you have to be pretty rich to have a horse!) so there must have been at least something like 60,000 voters in the first class, around 900 per century, perhaps somewhat higher. But that leaves the remaining 264,200 men liable for infantry service to be distributed into the 100 remaining centuries of infantry at around 2,650 men each. Finally, the century of the capite censi would have been enormous – thinking back to our reconstruction of Roman social classes, it may have had 50,000 voters in it.2
Each of these units – the ones with 100 men, the ones with 1,000 men, the ones with 2,500 men and the one with fifty-thousand men all get one vote each. There is actually another slant here and that is by age. Based on what we know of Roman life expectancy (following a Model West Level 3 Life table, which is what we generally use), we ought to expect the centuries of the iuniores to be roughly twice the size of the centuries of the seniores.
(For those wondering how these census classes relate to the Roman legionary system described by Polybius, with its light infantry velites, three ranks of heavy infantry (hastati, principes, triarii) and cavalry equites, the answer is obscure. Dionysius and Livy’s discussion of the census classes makes clear that they were based around who could afford what sort of armor, but they assume a principally hoplite army and, as noted, must be pretty fundamentally wrong about something given that Livy at least is using the sextantal as, which doesn’t exist until 211 (and Dionysius’ figures appear to be simple computations into Greek monetary units from the sextantal as). That the army’s equites were not all drawn from the centuries of equites is clear by Polybius’ census, discussed above: the proportion of equites on the rolls (nearly all of them equo privato) matches pretty neatly their proportion in the legion (8% of the assidui, 7% of the army). One data-point we do get is that Polybius reports that the mail lorica hamata was required for infantrymen rated at more than 10,000 drachmae in wealth, which neatly equals Dionysius and Livy’s figures for the first class (100 minae and 100,000 asses respectively), telling us that mail armor was required for the first class by Polybius’ day. Polybius notes that the poorest Romans served in the velites, who represented roughly a quarter of the legion, so we might think the fifth class and maybe the fourth (30 and 20 centuries respectively) might have normally gone into the velites, though Polybius also implies young Romans of greater means might first go into the velites before graduating to the heavy infantry, so perhaps only the fifth class was deemed to poor to serve in the infantry line. Doubtless there was some connection, given that the extra body-armor requirement for the first class still stood in Polybius’ day, but the exact cut-off is unclear, as is, I must stress again, the exact size of each of the classes of infantry. We also have plenty of reason to suppose tax assessment was done based at least somewhat on census class. Polybius does tell us that the capite censi served primarily in the fleet as rowers. But anything more specific than this is beyond us, lost between Livy and Dionysius’ anachronism projecting the system back to Servius Tullius (r. 578-535) and Polybius’ lack of detail in his schematic of the Roman constitution.)
You can see the impact immediately: votes are heavily weighted by wealth and age. Indeed, the votes of the very poor count for practically nothing. Cicero is, in fact, explicit that this was the design and in fact argues that the balance of the number of centuries was ideal because it both allowed the lower classes to vote (“lest there be danger of arrogance”), without assigning them a decisive role except when the wealthier centuries were divided (“lest they be too strong”). Indeed, Cicero goes so far as to note this is a system, “so that the largest number not have the greatest influence” (Cic. de re publica 2.39).
At the same time, note that while the system constructs a sliding scale whereby richer Romans’ votes count more, the decisive bulk of the voting power is not confined to the equites, but is in fact focused on the first class of the infantry. Indeed, no decisive majority of votes can be assembled until at least the second (and perhaps part of the third) class of infantry has voted. This is far less closed than some of the Greek polis oligarchies we’ve discussed, but it is hardly a fair voting system.
Rather, I think the purpose here is fairly clearly: without leaving any part of the citizenry entirely out, the structure here concentrates political power among the men who served – preferring the men who had served modestly but significantly over the men who would serve. Dionysius even claims that military service obligations were portioned out proportional to the centuries (Ant. Rom. 4.19.2-3), meaning that the rich would also have to serve more; modern scholars have doubted this, but there’s no reason they couldn’t have been portioned out this way, at least during non-crisis periods. There is a tendency among modern readers to assume that in the past as they imagine in their own society that the rich generally avoided military service; this was clearly not the case in Rome where in any event ten years of service was required to run for office (Polyb. 6.19.3).
So while on the one hand this is a system that absolutely favors wealth (and age), I think we should also understand it is an apparent effort to concentrate the public decision-making power over matters of war and peace in particular – given the unique competences of this assembly – in the men who had served or who would serve in the military. I think this goes a long way to explaining why this assembly, but none of the others, so aggressively disenfranchises the poorest Romans. Still, the slanted nature of the comitia centuriata‘s structure is a worthwhile caution when assessing the democratic character of the res publica: the well-to-do but not super-rich infantrymen of the first and second class would be heard very clearly. The rest of Rome? Less so.
The Comitia Tributa
Compared to the bewildering complexity that is the comitia centuriata, the comitia tributa is refreshingly simple and also substantially more democratically organized. The comitia tributa was the workhorse of the Roman assemblies, used for the bulk of legislation, because it was less cumbersome. The comitia tributa, like the comitia centuriata could be convened by either a praetor or a consul. It assembled in the comitium, a space in the Roman forum directly outside the Senate house, a location that is going to have some substantial implications.
The only ‘special’ competence this assembly had was that it elected curule aediles and quaestors (don’t worry about those offices yet, we’ll talk about them in the coming weeks), but in practice it was the regular assemblies that consuls and praetors used to pass legislation. While laws (technically plebiscita, rather than leges, though the Romans are not always careful about these technical terms) passed by the tribunes through the concilium plebis tend to get a lot more focus (because of the remarkable tribunates of the Gracchi, mostly), most legislation was proposed by consuls and praetors – consuls in particular for major legislation – and so was mostly passed through this body.
The comitia tributa was called that because the Roman citizens voted here in units called ‘tribes’ (tribus).3 These tribes were not really tribal units so much as voting districts, with each section of the ager Romanus assigned to a tribe for voting purposes. Census registration was in turn done by tribe-of-residence, which will have created the voter rolls.4 Originally there had been four urban tribes and just fifteen or sixteen rural tribes (then called pagi, ‘rural district’). As the ager Romanus expanded, so too did the number of tribes, reaching its full count of 35 in 241. After this point, new land was apportioned into the existing rural tribes rather than assigned to new tribes, with the result that fairly quickly most ‘tribes’ consisted of several disconnected districts. Consequently, for the Middle Republic, there were 35 tribes: four for residents of the city itself and 31 ‘rural’ tribes which covered the countryside (including smaller urban settlements of Roman citizens in that countryside).
The balance of the tribes was also presumably intentional, with the greater number of rural tribes consisting of landholders spread through the ager Romanus, while Rome’s very poor who lived in the city and survived by working for wages were massed into just the four urban tribes. Freedmen were also generally assigned to the urban tribes and so over time, they developed a stigma to them. If you were rich enough to own a townhouse in Rome, you’d instead still register in your tribe as a resident of your rural estate; the wealthy thus inhabited the rural tribes. Indeed, as L.R. Taylor notes, the urban tribes were viewed as less prestigious – a bit downmarket and shabby – from an early point.
That said, this was still a substantially more democratic arrangement of votes. For one, whereas the capite censi consisted of just 1/193 (c. 0.5%) of the vote in the comitia centuriata, they likely dominated the four urban tribes, 11% of the total vote. Meanwhile within the tribes, votes were counted without regard to wealth, meaning that the capite censi would dominate the votes of the urban tribes, while the mega-wealthy rural elite would find their votes swamped by the far larger number of small freeholders. This may seem like a small thing, but remember again how the Roman Republic is structured: freeholding farmers, not the urban poor, were the largest group of voters and so the voting balance of the comitia tributa may have come closer to one-[citizen-]man-one-vote than you’d think. In particular, the rural assidui who dominated 31 of the 35 tribes (88% of the total) probably represented about 80% of adult citizen males. So the votes of property holders are inflated here, but not massively so and there’s no sliding scale to prefer the votes of big property holders over small ones. The tribes of the comitia tributa also vote in an order determined entirely by lot, which avoids the exceptional influence that the centuria praerogativa had on the comitia centuriata. One oddity is that, like all other Roman voting assemblies once a decisive majority was reached, voting stopped, but whereas this pattern in the comitia centuriata enforces the superiority of the upper centuries, the random order of the comitia tributa means this fact will fall evenly over time on the different tribes.
This is a much more democratic structure, but we have to throw some caveats out right away. First, like every other sort of assembly, the comitia tributa does not deliberate. It can only consider business put before it by a consul or a praetor in an up or down vote, constraining the opportunities to use the assembly to voice popular discontent with the ruling elite. More critically, while in theory this was a body where the votes of the poorer freeholding farmers could dominate, we have a lot of reasons to believe that turnout was low and perhaps intentionally kept low, in which case wealthier voters who could afford to take the day off to trek into Rome and spend a whole day casting his vote might still rule the day.
One of the major reasons we think this has to do with the physicality of the forum itself. Put simply, there were, by the Middle Republic, a lot of Romans and the comitium is just not that big. Henrik Mouritsen (op. cit.) estimates that it might have fit just around 3,600 people. It’s possibly only the voting tribus occupied that space at any given time, with the rest waiting out on the forum, but that too might only accommodate perhaps 20,000 people. Which is a bit of a problem because we tend to figure there were more than 300,000 Roman assidui eligible to vote, plus an undetermined but large number of capite censi (perhaps c. 50,00), with around 10,000 or so in each of the rural tribes and 12,500 in each of the urban tribes. For these spaces to actually work for the voting procedures as described, turnout would have to consistently be quite low. The speed of voting was also a factor, as voters needed to ascend a platform (called a bridge or ‘pons‘) to cast their vote. Moving through even a few thousand voters one at a time might take a very long time indeed – and as you will recall, voting had to be done in person and in one day, though I will note that I find simply assuming that, because we have no direct evidence of time-saving measures (multiple voting platforms, delivering votes in batches, etc.) that the Romans must not have had any perilous indeed. There is one mass gathering we know worked as intended with very large numbers, year after year, and that was the dilectus. Evidently the Romans could pull this sort of thing off at some scale and there is some reason to believe very large votes of the comitia tributa or the concilium plebis might be moved out into the campus Martius at least some of the time.5
However, even supposing there were time-saving measures or clever use of the available urban space, it seems very clear that normal voting in the comitia tributa must have involved far less than the total voting public. Turnout of even 10% would have put tremendous, probably unmanageable strain on these systems, yet we do not generally hear of worries about assemblies (that haven’t been disrupted) ‘running over’ in either time or physical space. Consequently, while I might quibble with a detail here or there, I think Mouritsen must be right: normal turnout was extremely low, in the single-digits percentages. By contrast, when we look at the physical infrastructure of polis democracies, what we see is an effort to actually accommodate a big share of the citizen body. Rome’s elite do not seem at any point to have really bothered to make turnout more possible and indeed seem to have done the opposite, working to keep turnout low.
That in turn made the ‘hype’ phase of the political process all the more important, both because that might fuel turnout in elections that were likely to be decided primarily on turnout, but also because assemblies seem to have been quite loath to vote against proposals deemed to be popular. Laws with, as it were, ‘good vibes’ generally passed. What we do not generally hear about is situations where a law was massively popular in the streets6 but voted down by a narrow vote in the comitia (or concilium). When, for instance, the political agenda of Gaius Gracchus suffered setbacks in the assembly (this would be the concilium plebis, which we’ll discuss in a moment), our sources note that public popularity for the measures had already begun to wane. That perception (again, the ‘vibes’) may have opened the door for a fairly small, closed actual electorate (probably substantially richer than the general electorate) to then vote down the proposals.
The Concilium Plebis
All of which leaves just one more assembly, the concilium plebis or comitia plebis tributa (it goes by both names), which we’re going to call the concilium plebis for the sake of simplicity. And having already discussed the comitia tributa makes discussing a lot of the concilium plebis pretty easy. The concilium plebis has the same tribal voting structure of 4 urban and 31 rural tribes, meets in the comitium just like the comitia tributa and votes by tribes in an order selected by lot, just like the comitia tributa.
You may then ask why have this assembly if it is going to function almost exactly like the comitia tributa and the answer is that, like many elements of the res publica, it emerged as an ad hoc solution to a problem that then continued to exist afterwards, after the problem had largely faded from prominence. The problem was the ‘Struggle of the Orders,’ a series of political crises running from 494 BC to 287 BC in which the plebeians (particularly wealthy, influential plebeians) pushed for a greater role in the state. In 494 they extracted a compromise from the Senate (at that point, exclusively patrician) that the plebeians would get their own magistrates, the tribunes of the plebs (tribuni plebis) to organize them within the republic and act as a counter-balance to the patrician magistrates (Livy 2.33). Initially, we are told, there were five tribunes, but the number is eventually expanded to ten and one of the powers these tribunes evidently had was the ability to summon their fellow plebeians to an assembly by tribes. Those assemblies could then pass laws for the plebeians only, called plebiscita, which of course fits with the tribune’s role as the magistrates for the plebeians (while the patrician magistrates spoke, in theory, for the entire community). Naturally, the assembly those tribunes call, which of course is the concilium plebis, also elects new tribunes.
This didn’t end the issue and a series of other laws ensued which altered the situation. In 367, the leges Liciniae Sextiae (Licinian and Sextian laws) opened the main offices of the cursus honorum (and thus membership in the Senate) to non-patricians, which meant that wealthy, elite plebeians, though I should note there is a ‘shaking out’ period involved. Then in 287, the Lex Hortensia sets down that the plebiscita of the concilium plebis should be binding on all Romans, not mere plebeians, giving plebiscita the full force of law. In practice, that reduced the legal significance of the plebeian-patrician distinction to almost meaninglessness, but the Romans being traditional people don’t get rid of the tribunes or the concilium plebis and so these institutions continue to function and indeed remain important. We’ll cover the staggering legal powers of the tribunes of the plebs in a later post.
That history then explains some of the oddities of the concilium plebis. As far as we can tell, it is the only assembly which actually excludes some citizens: patricians could not attend. The concilium plebis was convened not by consuls or praetors, but by the tribunes of the plebs (any one of the ten of them could do so) and it passed plebiscita rather than leges, though after 287 this is not a meaningful distinction. It elected the tribunes of the plebs as well as the two plebeian aediles (the matching plebeian pair to the two curule aediles).
Now the Romans seem to have certainly understood this assembly as being one which spoke for the people, but in practice it has all of the same size and turnout issues that the comitia tributa does. The actual raw number of patricians in the res publica was minuscule, so their exclusion from the assembly does nothing to resolve the turnout problem. Still this alternate venue with its alternate convening magistrate becomes tremendously important in the late second century as a favorable venue for popularis (‘popular’ in the sense of ‘of the people’ or ‘against the elite’) legislation, perhaps in part because of the exclusion of the patricians (who still made up many influential senators and so you might not want to have them there working the crowd) and in part because of the reputation and cultural cachet behind the notion of the concilium plebis as a venue ‘for the people,’ as it were.
As you can see, the Roman assemblies are a bit of a contradiction. On the one hand, their powers are in theory vast: these assemblies are sovereign, their decisions are final. While some magistrates, as we’ll see, could stop an assembly from convening (through veto or iustitium, powers we’ll discuss soon), once voting started the process could not be legally stopped and its conclusion was final. Only the assemblies could pass laws or elect magistrates. Magistrates themselves were limited merely to proposing laws and the Senate to giving advice.
On the other hand, it’s really easy to overstate the democratic character of these institutions. They were not designed for high turnout and one of them, the comitia centuriata, is explicitly designed to devalue the votes of poorer Romans. And I should note this was an open feature of Roman politics. Remember, the Romans are a lot more comfortable with open hierarchy and so we don’t get a lot of sense in our sources that it was a major issue of contention that in some assemblies, some votes counted more than others. Poorer Romans do clearly get upset if they feel their traditional privileges and prerogatives are being tramples by the elites (usually magistrates), but they don’t seem to have been nearly so bothered about the traditional and long-standing ‘slanted’ nature of Roman politics.
At the same time, I think there’s a real risk in assuming the assemblies were always rubber-stamps and that ‘the people’ just went along with what the Senate wanted all of the time. Rome wasn’t a strict oligarchy, like Sparta, where a small council ran the state and the assembly acted purely to build consensus around its decisions. The assemblies could – and every so often, did – buck the elite.
In 200 BC, for instance, the Senate concluded, not unreasonably, that the strategic situation brewing in the Eastern Mediterranean was perilous: Philip V of Macedon and Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire were effectively working together and threatening to topple the existing balance of power. So the Senate assigned one of the year’s consuls, Publius Sulpicius, the ‘province’ (meaning ‘job,’ it’s not a formal province yet) of Macedonia to deal with the issue by waging war on Philip V. Sulpicius goes to the comitia centuriata for the pro-forma declaration of war and…is turned down cold in a nearly unanimous vote, because the Roman people were weary of war and many of them had severed many years during the recent Second Punic War (218-201) (Livy 31.6). The Senate and Sulpicius have to compromise, getting the war declaration they want but promising not to enroll any veteran who didn’t want go fight (Livy 31.8.6).
In 195 BC, there’s a controversy over the Lex Oppia, a law which restricted the display of wealth by elite women, passed during the Second Punic War to encourage those women to instead donate their wealth to the war effort. Here the oddity is that the ‘vibes’ campaign is led by the women of Rome (Livy 34.1.5-7); they’re opposed, according to Livy, by a good chunk of the Senate, two tribunes and Cato the Elder, consul in that year. The women respond by turning out en mass and blocking the objecting tribunes in their houses in order to ensure a vote. Once again under the mos maiorum, it would have been unseemly not to put a proposal with such strong ‘vibes’ to the vote and shocking if it didn’t pass. In the event (Livy 34.8.3) it was voted on in the comitia tributa and the Lex Oppia was repealed, a rare instance of successful open activism by women (who, remember, cannot vote in these assemblies – but they can influence the ‘vibes’!) in Roman politics.
Then of course there is Scipio Aemilianus’ entire political career. In the elections of 148 (for the consulship of 147), the Roman people were evidently ticked that the Third Punic War against Carthage was going badly (though it ought ot have been an easy victory). Scipio Aemilianus was 38, under the mandatory age to run for the consulship and was instead running to be aedile, but when the comitia centuriata was convened they elected Scipio Aemilianus consul instead, demanding that he take over the war (App. Pun. 112). The consuls argued this was illegal, to which the people – mobilized behind some unnamed tribunes – pointed out that it didn’t matter: the assembly was sovereign and could elect whoever it liked. The assembly got its way, Scipio Aemilianus became consul and went on to destroy Carthage. Then this happens again in 134, with the same Scipio Aemilianus, once again ineligable to run (having been consul too recently). Appian (Hisp. 84) politely implies the Senate is fine about it this time but some of our other sources sure suggest they were annoyed and tried to handicap Scipio (Plut. Mor. 201A-B), but in the end the will of the assembly held, Scipio was elected again and went on to destroy Numantia.7
I don’t mean to imply that this sort of thing was happening all the time. For the most part, the assemblies went along with what the Senate advised. Indeed, at no point ever does the assembly ever, in the final vote, opt not to go to war or to make peace against the will of the Senate, though they occasionally make their displeasure known with the particulars of command. For the most part, the Senate led and the assembly followed. At the same time, I suspect a lot of the nature of Roman politics here can also obscure the importance of popular ‘vibes,’ since the Senate in the Middle Republic is also loath to push too hard on unpopular measures or to block popular ones. Of course that element of the mos maiorum begins to fail in the last decades of the second century, opening the door to the unstable and frequently violent politics of the first century. It is a good reminder that norms are often as important as written laws in the running of a state.
Consequently, I think we should understand the Roman assemblies first and foremost as census-ratification institutions, designed to take the existing ‘vibes’ and elite opinion and repackage them as the universal action of the whole community, rather than a mechanism for determining if these things actually had majority support (though most probably did or the system wouldn’t function). At the same time, in rare instances, they also functioned as a means for the Roman people to clarify to the elite that they were unhappy.
And perhaps most importantly – and this leads neatly into magistrates, which are our next topic – the assemblies decided which elite Romans proceeded up the political ladder in what was a highly competitive elimination contest, and which did not. In the end, it was the people who decided which quaestors would go on to be praetors and consuls and which would languish in relative unimportance on the figurative ‘back benches’ of the Senate for the rest of their careers. As we’ll see in our next installment, Roman magistrates were really powerful, so this ability to name winners and losers in the cursus honorum was not a small one.
- See Lintott, op. cit., 55, fn. 72 for a list of references.
- Note that these numbers are for demonstration purposes only, among other things they do not consider the seniores/iuniores breakdown discussed below. Please do not cite these numbers or use them to support an argument – they’re just meant to demonstrate how the reconstruction could work.
- The standard reference on these units in English is L.R. Taylor, The Voting Districts of the Roman Republic, rev. J. Linderski (2013; orig. 1960)
- On these sorts of documents, see the recent and quite good Pearson, Exploring the Mid-Republican Origins of Roman Military Administration (2021), hard to get in print but reasonably accessible as an e-book
- See Lintott, op. cit., 55, fn. 70.
- Among Roman citizens, at least. We do hear that citizenship proposals, wildly popular among the Italian socii (who don’t get a vote), keep getting blocked by the Senate or voted down in the assemblies.
- It’s funny to note this is one of those, “and then it happened again” episodes that if it had occured a century or two earlier and been reported by Livy, we’d have assumed Livy was mistakenly reporting the same legend twice. But Scipio Aemilianus’ career and two consulships are well within the historical period and so it is quite clear that Scipio Aemilianus really did use the assemblies to end-run the rest of the Roman elite like this, twice, both times getting away with it because he won an intractable war (it must also have helped that he was part of a very old, aristocratic family and was generally a supporter of the Senate).