Collections: How to Roman Republic 101, Part II: Romans, Assemble!

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.

Via Wikipedia, ‘The Orator,’ an Etruscan bronze statue dating to the late second or early first century BC depicting Aulus Metellus. It shows a Roman elite, in this case a senator, in the traditional pose for addressing a crowd at the opening of a speech and wearing the toga, the formal Roman garment.

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

As a handy refresher, here is our chart of Roman social classes (with the socii removed), so we can see the breakdown, with a sense of how it correlates to the balance of the comitia centuriata. It’s unfortunate that we cannot break down the classes of pedites with certainty.

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.

Via Wikipedia, a map of the Comitium, showing the location of the curia, the circular space of the Comitium itself and the location of the speaker’s platform, the Rostra.

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

From the British Museum, a Roman denarius (113-112) comisioned by P. Licinius Nerva. The obverse (left) shows Roma, but the reverse is what we’re interested in: it shows a Roman voter crossing the voting pons, handing off his vote to an attendant while another figure places a vote into the cista.

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.

  1. See Lintott, op. cit., 55, fn. 72 for a list of references.
  2. 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.
  3. 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)
  4. 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
  5. See Lintott, op. cit., 55, fn. 70.
  6. 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.
  7. 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).

104 thoughts on “Collections: How to Roman Republic 101, Part II: Romans, Assemble!

  1. As the first person to comment on this post, I claim the mantle of the centuria praerogativa and with it the opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the comitia centuriata.

    . . . bird told me to vote with the Senate. Sounds about right to me.

  2. You mention near the beginning that these votes were religious ceremonies wand would only proceed if the auguries were favorable. What happened if the augury of the day *wasn’t* favorable? Even with low-thousands turnout, I imagine it’s a hassle to drum up people you want voting for a given measure to show up on the right day, especially for the rural ‘tribes’ who live farther away. Did they just try again until they got a favorable omen and then everyone scrambled to get their voters out?

    1. I dont know if it applies in this context but in some contexts they could repeat the auguries until they got the favorable result. Bret discussed it in the series on polytheism. A bad augury meant the gods were warning you but maybe they were just warning you to wait a short time for circumstances to change.

    2. Yeah, I’d love to hear more about the practical side of the auguries. I’m sure there were cynical attempts to manipulate them once in a while, but there also must have been occasions when they genuinely came up bad.

      1. Almost certainly! There are modern people who try to cynically manipulate both scientific and political processes (experiments, studies, surveys, elections, etc) for their own ends. The methods by which they do so (from misleading experiments to biased questions to outright fraud) are rote to us, but their premodern equivalents would be unfamiliar and interesting.
        Except the fraud; lying about important stuff is pretty culturally agnostic.

      2. True, but remember what Bret also always says – ancient people believed their own religion. So the people in charge of the auguries might fudge thigs a bit, but if the auguries truly came up bad then the priests would probably *believe* that the omens were really bad and that it would be dangerous to continue.

  3. Huh, so the comitia centuriata would elect the praetors and consuls, and then the comitia curiata would rubber-stamp it afterward?

    1. Centuria did those elections, curiata did lower-level elections and most of the law approvals.

    2. From the Wikipedia article, and the somewhat older work of scholarship that it cites as a source

      I gather that the approval of the Curiate Assembly was – by Cicero’s time – a formality that was usually observed, but in the cases where magistrates acted before they could get the approval, people were unsure about the legal ramifications, and in practice just acted as if the approval had been given. Also, the “assembly” by that point consisted of thirty lictors delegated by their respective curiae (a “lictoral college”, so to say), so the potential for surprise was limited, and the lictors always voted in approval (lack of approval was only ever due to no assembly being held at all), possibly out of fear that an open conflict between the curiate and one of the other assemblies would just end in the curiate being further reduced in significance or abolished entirely.

  4. > “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.”

    I’m not sure what the last few words of this sentence are supposed to mean, I’m afraid. Typo, perhaps?

    The comitia centuriata, with its one-vote-per-variably-sized-group sounds a bit like the Electoral College; was that perhaps an inspiration to the writers of the U.S. Constitution? (Or is such a system found elsewhere in history enough to be sort of “general”?) Also, *wow* does that sound like a hassle, I’ll keep that in mind next time I’m tempted to complain about the disruption to my day as I breeze through voting. 😄

    1. Rephrasing: It is perilous to assume that the Romans never used any time-saving measures for voting just because we don’t have any direct evidence of them using any. Lack of evidence is not a reliable indication that something did not exist.

      1. Thank you! I got led down the garden path wondering why the Romans must not have had any “perilous indeeds”.

    2. First paragraph’s meaning I think is supposed to be “don’t assume the Romans didn’t have ways to speed up voting just because they don’t directly mention any.” It is a tricky sentence to figure out, I agree.

      Electoral college: It didn’t function like tribal groupings, originally, remember. Electors would choose whoever they liked, so its choosing the people who will choose the president rather than directly picking someone, not like Roman assembly groups directly voting on something. The “Divide people into groups who get a certain amount of winner take all votes on something” came later.

      1. I’m kicking myself because I did know about the Electoral College being different originally. I guess that (and my other confusion) are what I get for posting right before bedtime. (These posts come out in the evening in my time zone.)

      2. Originally, it worked just as it does now: you told the voters whom you would vote for, and they choose you on that basis.

        In theory it was supposed to be choosing someone wise to make the decision, but how better to judge the elector’s wisdom?

        1. The fact that the 12th amendment was needed says that electors were meant to act independently. Obviously elections didn’t end up going that way, but independent choice was clearly the intention, so it was not meant to copy the Roman system.

          If states distributing electoral votes directly was the intention, there isn’t a need for an electoral college with specific people chosen, you just have states vote in the popular vote/state legislature and send in their results however makes sense, and a random clerk can them up.

    3. to reword the phrase that confuses you – “I find simply assuming that, because we have no direct evidence of time-saving measures, that the Romans must not have had any perilous indeed.” -> “I find simply assuming that the Romans must not have had any time-saving measures because we have no direct evidence of them to be perilous indeed.”

      the (bracket) clarification makes it a little harder to parse, but its not a typo, just a somewhat complex sentence

  5. It seems you did not include the Centuries for Musicians, Artisans and the Accensi in your calculation or chart, is this due to the uncertainties about them? I am also curious if they are thought to include most of the people actually working in those fields, or if it was symbolic like the “First Class of Infantry”

    1. The Romans had a number of specialists in their armies. Musicians as signallers, surveyers, siege engineers (quite possibly aka artisans), medics, ext…. If you think of the assembly as corresponding to people’s military duty, then it makes some sense to give these specialists a place in the assembly, but they don’t fit in the normal classes. I strongly suspect that these four centuries were where all those guys voted.

    2. Oh, in the Roman Social Status chart? That’s because that chart is based on the census data reported by Polybius and he doesn’t break it down by census class beyond equites vs. pedites. We don’t know how many people would have been in those centuries.

  6. I heard that the comitia centuriata convened at the campus martius because it assembled as an army, and armies weren’t allowed within the pomerium.

    1. I think the underlying idea of the comitia centuriata – that the people in arms are the Roman people – carries over into the late Republic and the imperial period, when the armies become the final arbiters of power. For every general who made a bid for the purple there were several who tested the waters with their legionaries and found there were not enough votes to proceed.

  7. I remember, back during the Sparta series, Bret pointed out how the political system of Sparta had several weak points that prevented large-scale solutions when they went against the interests of more than one group, and pointed out especially the problem of only voting yes/no without debating, amending or making proposals of their own.

    It seems that the Roman system has similar weakness, I wonder how that will play out/ explained in more detail in the next parts.

    Or maybe because Roman system had similar small but crucial weaknesses, did the civil war happen which was rather bad for the republic?

    1. I get the sense that debate wasn’t a limiting factor in Roman politics. My (not-a-historian) sense is that Romans disallowed debate in the various comities because by the time it got to the comity in the first place it had been debated to death. They’d heard the orations in various forms, and they probably discussed it when visiting their patrons (while the clients were expected to vote with the patrons, I imagine that the patron also listened to their clients to an extent), in the fast-food joints, in the baths, etc. Discussions would also happen within the familia. The pater familias would have final say, sure, but again, his adult sons are going to have some sway (and being the ones going to war, for example, they’ll likely had strong opinions). Some of the Roman letters I’ve read include such discussions, either between patrons and clients, or between friends, or between fathers and sons (the Roman habit of adopting people makes the friends vs father/son thing unclear sometimes, at least to me)Lysistrata may be a Greek play, but it does illustrate dramatically that women need not be idle in these debates either.

      By the time it got to a comity everyone knew how they were going to vote, and further debate would have been pointless and annoying.

      I didn’t get the sense that Sparta encouraged as much discussion. They seemed to be more “murder-hobo in Warhammer 40K” than Vampire: The Masquerade.

      1. I mean it seems pretty obvious to me that part of the patron-client relationship is that the patron won’t make the client support something that’s really bad for the client, since that looks bad as a patron if your clients are doing badly.

        1. (Also not a historian) I seem to recall that while clients voted with their patrons, patrons were in a way responsible for the prosperity of their clients, as in, for example, making sure they got a fair share of contracts, representing them at trials, and so on. Also, could not a questor or aedile call on his clients for help with his official duties?

      2. > My (not-a-historian) sense is that Romans disallowed debate in the various comities because by the time it got to the comity in the first place it had been debated to death.

        I didn’t know that the comities disallowed debate, but it seems sensible, given that they needed to get it all done in one day.

      3. “No debate is allowed in a British General Election” is literally true…of the election sensu stricto. Campaigning and debate are prohibited at polling stations and the news media does not cover politics on election day. There is quite a lot of debate *around* a Biritish General Election though.

          1. That kind of proves my point, though. I’ve been in five-star restaurants, dive bars, and everything in between, from coast to coast, and politics is ALWAYS a topic of interest. By the time you get to the polling station you just want to get it over with. You don’t want a debate, because you’ve heard it all and have already made up your mind. Maybe there’s an item or two that you’re not aware of, but the stuff you showed up for you absolutely know how you’re going to vote! I can’t imagine, in a nation where you were assumed to be a lawyer if you wore the toga, that things would have been much different in Rome. Meaning that debate absolutely occurred, just not at the point where votes were cast.

  8. So do we have any instances of votes in the comitia centuriata where the capite censi were actually called upon to cast their (in theory, deciding) vote?

    I also find it interesting that the centuria praerogativa is one of the junior rather than senior groups – was this in recognition that the rising generation would more likely have to face the consequences of their decision, and thus get a symbolic first vote?

    1. An example of a vote where proletarians did decide was the trial of Gaius Claudius Pulcher in 169 BC. The proletarians decided to acquit.

  9. “As a handy refresher, here is our chart of Roman social classes (with the socii removed)-”

    (Plebs shouting sounds of disagreement for some reason. Are told to keep order by the Consuls as the respected Senator completes his speech).

    1. Given how the plebs reacted when C Fannius (cos 122) reacted when he said that admitting the socii would mean the forum, games, etc would be absolutely swamped by foreigners, I think the plebs would shout their agreement with removing the socii very vociferously.

      The Romans even as late as 90 didn’t really have much of a coherent vision of the allies’ grievances. The lex Varia, for example, posited a largely incoherent vision of why the allies were revolting: ie that certain aristocrats (among them the princeps senatus) had succeeded in inciting the allies to arms. Mouritsen, Italian unification (1998), makes the very astute point that this is nonsense and indicates Roman confusion.

      1. That was the British explanation of the American Revolution: powerful malcontents had disturbed the peace, but were few; once the mass of the population realized the malcontents could not protect them, they would return to loyalty.

        1. Both sides had similar theories: the British side believed that the rebels were a small, unrepresentative minority stirring up the rest of the population; the American side believed that the British were deliberately encouraging their slaves to revolt.

          1. Some Americans thought that, and it produced little effect. It was the guiding principle of the British reaction.

          2. It was literally one of the main reasons for the rebellion, listed in the rebels’ Declaration of Independence.

          3. Unwise comment since you’ve already been called on your dishonesty

          4. “Domestic insurrections” is one-half of one of the 26-odd (depending on how you count) complaints in the Declaration, and may as well refer to the arming of Tories as slaves (the latter being something the British didn’t do). It was hardly a “main reason” for the Revolution.

          5. Especially given that interpretation requires that the Americans didn’t mind things like King’s Mountain.

          6. “Unwise comment since you’ve already been called on your dishonesty”

            Only by a crazy lady

  10. The fun part of judging their importance is that the question is not what the vote was, but which proposals dropped because the magistrates realized they could not get the votes.

    And that would be harder to judge than many other things, since it was all informal at the point. Possibly a time traveler would discover that many, many, many proposals were thus informally vetoed.

    1. My guess is that a politician or clique that pushed ahead with a proposal that was always going to lose badly would suffer a loss of face and that aucturous thing that seems very important in Roman politics. It would be embarrassing to lose badly and raise questions about your judgement or the quality of your networking if you did.

      1. Given the small number that failed, presumably losing at all was a bad thing.

        Which works whether it’s you pushed forward something you knew the assemblies would not tolerate, or something that even the rubber stamps wouldn’t rubber stamp.

  11. In terms of “a single day;” obviously the Roman Republic didn’t have wind up clocks and wasn’t measuring the ticks of a cesium atom. Was it considered just sunrise to sunset? Was there a certain number of hours after sunset that voting had to conclude by?

    1. “How did ancient peoples measure time?” might be an interesting topic for a blog post. I’m aware of water clocks and things like burning standard-sized candles to measure time, of which at least the former was around by this point in history I think.

      I’m wondering now, how do things like sentry shifts overnight get handled? It makes sense to me that you probably want to keep those pretty consistent – you don’t want your sentries getting too tired to keep watch because their shift is 75% longer than normal, and it’d presumably be really bad for morale if some people were perceived to get shorter shifts than others. Or maybe it’s not as big a deal as I’m thinking, I don’t know.

      1. Seconding that a post on premodern timekeeping would be interesting, though as I am of the capite censi my vote is unlikely to be counted

        1. I’m in the ACOUP senate. Agree to be my client and I’ll sponsor your recommendation the next time we discuss things like that.

      2. Sundials, usually, I believe. I know the hours varied over the year.

        I also know that determining nighttime hours was a big inspiration for monasteries during medieval times, and not because the Romans had good measures for that that were lost.

        1. Sundials! That makes sense, and allows equal division of the daylight into hours (even if the length of hours varies over the course of the year).

          At night you could watch the movement of the stars to get an idea of the time if it’s not cloudy, though that wouldn’t help on overcast nights.

      3. Wikipedia pages on the history of timekeeping etc. say there are surviving sundials and water clocks from 1500/1400 BC Egypt, plus Mesopotamian references. Parts of the Bible written around 700 BC mention a sundial of Ahaz.

        “The Romans adopted the Greek sundials, and the first record of a sundial in Rome is 293 BC according to Pliny.[15] A comic character in a play by Plautus complained about his day being “chopped into pieces” by the ubiquitous sundials. Writing in c. 25 BC, the Roman author Vitruvius listed all the known types of dials in Book IX of his De Architectura,”

        [Ancient Egyptian water clocks]
        “There were twelve separate columns with consistently spaced markings on the inside to measure the passage of “hours” as the water level reached them. The columns were for each of the twelve months to allow for the variations of the seasonal hours. These clocks were used by priests to determine the time at night so that the temple rites and sacrifices could be performed at the correct hour.”

        “Use of the water clock as an aid to astronomical calculations dates back to the Old Babylonian period (c. 2000 – c. 1600 BC).[6] While there are no surviving water clocks from the Mesopotamian region, most evidence of their existence comes from writings on clay tablets.”

        “A commonly used water clock was the simple outflow clepsydra. This small earthenware vessel had a hole in its side near the base. In both Greek and Roman times, this type of clepsydra was used in courts for allocating periods of time to speakers. In important cases, such as when a person’s life was at stake, it was filled completely, but for more minor cases, only partially. If proceedings were interrupted for any reason, such as to examine documents, the hole in the clepsydra was stopped with wax until the speaker was able to resume his pleading”

        “Some scholars suspect that the clepsydra may have been used as a stop-watch for imposing a time limit on clients’ visits in Athenian brothels.[36] Slightly later, in the early 3rd century BC, the Hellenistic physician Herophilos employed a portable clepsydra on his house visits in Alexandria for measuring his patients’ pulse-beats.”


        “There are no records of the hourglass existing in Europe prior to the Late Middle Ages; the first documented example dates from the 14th century, a depiction in the 1338 fresco Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.[1] ”

        Personally I suspect Roman voting ended at sunset, but using water clocks whether for extended voting or for night-time watches would seem entirely plausible.

      4. 1) The Romans did a lot of their fighting at relatively moderate latitudes where the changing length of day and night through the course of the seasons is a bit less extreme.

        2) During the season of the year with the longest nights (winter) there was relatively little campaigning. Armies would often retreat into winter quarters where fortifications and reduced enemy activity would make being on sentry duty less of a burden.

        3) Crudely gauging the length of time that passed at night could often be done by looking at stars or the moon. It wouldn’t be exact, but for a purpose like “divide the night roughly into thirds so nobody’s watch is too long” it’d function.

        4) Besides, longer nights mean longer shifts, but they also mean more hours to sleep between dusk and dawn, so you don’t necessarily suffer much on net.

        1. Regarding #3, I’ve read that using the stars was one way the Egyptians accomplished their remarkable orientation with regard to their construction. As long as you can see the stars, and have some experience with the outdoors, the amount of error would be fairly minor if you’re using the stars for timekeeping. And if you want to be more exact, the technology isn’t exactly difficult to derive–a stick in the ground would be sufficient, if you knew what you were looking at, and we know via various means that the Romans were using a LOT of sticks to build their camps. (It’s also worth noting that any field worker [geologist or engineer, at least] can tell you from personal experience that you get REALLY good at telling the direction you’re looking after a remarkably short time. It’s a skill you develop when “left” and “right” cease to matter as much as “north” and “west”.)

          To be clear, I don’t mean to imply that they had anything near the degree of precision for things like navigation (where a difference of a part of a second could mean finding or missing an island). All I’m saying is, when you rely on the sun and stars for your day to day work, you develop a fairly good visceral sense of what time it is based on those things and where they should be at a given time.

          1. The thing with using the stars for timekeeping is that it tells you what your local time is. To know your longitude, you need to also know the time somewhere else, without knowing how far you are from that place (because that distance is what you’re trying to find out.) There _is_ an astronomical way of doing that — the method of lunar distances — but according to Wiki, the theory dates to 1524 CE and practice to maybe 1763. It takes very precise measurements of lunar altitude, with a sextant, and some very spiffy pre-calculated tables, using Euler’s mathematics.

            For terrestrial longitudes lunar eclipses were sometimes used, though apparently more often in the Islamic period than in the ancient. Much later, the motions of Jovian moons served as a global clock, but that took a telescope and a stable viewing platform.

          2. I was just using navigation as an example of what “Look at the star positions to tell time” can’t do. It’s an upper limit. To set watches you just need rough local time–good enough to within 15 minutes or so (given the number of people I’ve spoken to today complaining about people not relieving watch on time, I think it’s reasonable to assume the ancients also experienced variability here).

            Like I said, for that a stick in the ground and some marks in the dirt can be sufficient. “When this star is in line with this mark, wake the next watch up” is something that you could easily teach, especially in a society where star gazing is tremendously important (it helped set planting and harvesting cycles, was involved with religion, etc).

            Of course, the other option is to simply tell one group that their life is going to suck for a few days, they’ve got watch all night tonight. Rotate who does that so no one is too tired. “Wake us up at sunrise” is even easier, after all.

  12. “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.”

    It’s worth noting that this doesn’t give the first to vote any concrete advantage – though it may give them an advantage in terms of vibes and momentum, as the voters who are later to vote watch the numbers pile up and may decide to switch to the winning side. But if your side has a majority of
    voters, it’ll win whatever order the votes are counted in, and whether your individual vote gets counted or not.

    And I wonder if there might be another advantage to voting first: you can then leave and have the rest of the day free, while the less-fortunate voters have to keep hanging around waiting their turn. (After a while, especially if the numbers aren’t going their way, they might give up and decide to leave before voting…)

    1. This doesn’t matter for the comitia tributa, where it’s all random, but, in the comitia centuriata where votes are counted roughly in order of wealth, it could mask whether the lower classes disagreed to something the upper classes approved of.

      With that said, I suspect the real reason for this was so that everyone could go home once the decision was no longer in question. This would also be a reason to have a finite number of voting buckets, as you don’t need to know how many people were actually there to vote to determine whether the voting system had established a majority.

  13. The frequent mention of “vibes” being important reminds me of a similar “not democracy as we use the word conventionally in the west” legitimacy building tools used in China. China doesn’t do voting the way we do, but there is a lot of use of opinion polls/questionnaires and other means of gauging the general public’s “vibes.”

    And not unlike Rome, there’s a tendency for the ‘elites’ to want to diminish the influence of those they see as lowly.

    Relatedly, while China technically outlaws strikes and public protests, it’s often the case that whatever they are protesting against will be investigated, and sometimes, the protestor’s demands are implemented. But the protestors still go to jail, because it’s still illegal.

    Chinese Social Justice Advocates are pretty hard core – they are, simply by acting, displaying a willingness to do (not a a small amount of) jail time for their ideals.

    1. I did part of my studies on newspapers in 18th century Sweden, which also covered the period of gustavian absolutism. And one of the interesting points is that the theorists on “enlightened despotism” at the day were somewhat aware of the contradiction: On the one hand, they felt it was neccessary to suppres dangerous speech, on the other hand, you couldn’t go *too* far or you risked also chilling the legimate grievances people had, which could then fester and create bigger trouble if left unaddressed.

    2. Almost makes me think of the Soviet electoral system where only 1 candidate is on the ballot, but if they don’t get a certain threshold of eligible voters to turnout the party picks a new guy (im half-remembering how this worked I haven’t looked at it in a long time)

    3. Wise elites are always willing to make small sacrifices to keep the people content. The problems only start when you have unwise elites who let their pride get in the way of compromise.

  14. I presume we will get this in the bit on magistrates, but the impression I get from this is that the magistrates presented the assembly with a list of candidates they could vote for, presumably actually curating that list in turn gave a certain amount of power to whoever did so?

    1. IIRC there weren‘t candidate lists. Early on there was the restriction „needs to be patrician“, later (for consuls) „1 patrician and 1 plebeian“, and finally it was completely free. But wealth (for campaigning) and having many clients were the things you needed to get yourself on the informal lists of possible candidates that existed in each voters mind before Election Day. And then during the voting the first few centuries to vote basically set a de facto list, because at some point people will decide it makes more sense to support one of the candidates that already got some votes instead of introducing a new one.

      1. Julius Caesar declared himself a candidate and thus won immunity for crossing the Rubicon until he was no longer in office or running for one. The very word candidate comes from the candidates whitening their tunics. There must, therefore, be a status of candidate.

        1. You can declare yourself a candidate and get prosecuted. Eg Catiline in 65. You can be elected to the consulship and prosecuted. Eg Morena in 63. Immunity from prosecution only occurs when you are out of the city rei publica causa.

          Caesar had such an excuse due to his governorships secured by the lex Vatinia and extensions. Nobody, however, was seriously considering a Caesarian prosecution in 49; see Morstein-Marx, Julius Caesar and the Roman people (2021) App’x 2 (“Prosecution theory revisited”).

    2. A magistrate could prevent someone from making a professio; this usually required a decent enough reason. Eg Marius’ refusal to permit Glaucia’s candidacy in 100.

    1. Dangit, you’re right. I’ve been reading it in my head as “Vaebz” this whole time. Apologies for this grave mental error.

  15. Good article – a few spelling issues:

    “the Roman people were weary of war and many of them had severed many years” – “severed” should be “served”

    “though it ought ot have been an easy victory” – “ot” should be “to”

    1. If they were electing candidates, it must have been a written ballot – there wasn’t a preapproved list, so it can’t have been a case of “put a pebble in this urn to vote Claudius for consul, one in this urn to vote Lartius for consul”. So presumably a wax tablet?
      The other votes were up or down so maybe just a white ball/black ball system or similar.

      1. Was literacy high enough for that to work? I was my understanding that they didn’t have something approaching a modern literacy rate until the Imperial era.

        1. This suggests that initially you announced your vote verbally to a clerk and he ticked it off on a list.

          From the late second century, so towards the end of the period we’re looking at here, they went to a secret ballot with wax tablets. Up-or-down votes were just a single letter V for “approve” or A for “not approve”, so you could imagine that even an illiterate citizen would have been able to manage that with the help of a more literate friend (“if you like the proposal, draw a little seagull. If you don’t, draw a little tent. Trust me.”) For elections you’d need to be literate enough to write the name of your candidate, and I imagine a lot of people, even male citizens, weren’t.

      2. Votes were approval not first past the post. You wouldn’t vote candidate A or B, you would vote yes or no to candidate A then yes or no to candidate B and so forth.

  16. “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.”

    Since almost all of the Romans writing about politics were the elites, do we really know this? All we know is that the elites don’t think it bothered them.

    1. “they don’t seem to have been nearly so bothered about the traditional and long-standing ‘slanted’ nature of Roman politics.”

      Since almost all of the Romans writing about politics were the elites, do we really know this? All we know is that the elites don’t think it bothered them.”

      If the poorer Romans had been chronically bothered by traditional and long-standing grievances then there might have been popular leaders trying to capitalize on that resentment. The elites would have suppressed and badmouthed these, of course, but accusation of trying to upset mos majorum would have been a damning accusation, so it would have appeared in the accusations.
      It seems that when the poor did protest, they generally tried to claim that their situation had got worse recently, not that it had been bad all along.

    1. Which is honestly pretty sensible, given the scale of the Republic and the technology on offer. It feels like a system expressly designed to filter out apathetic voters without pissing them off by outright disenfranchising them.

      (The comitia centuriata feels like the most obvious case of this – yeah, sure, people who aren’t militarily relevant, you’re totally included in this vote on military matters! Oh, you’re too busy to show up to cast your <1% of a vote? I understand – have a nice day!)

    2. Sort of like the arcane registration and election system in New York, where I live, designed to give the appearance of ready access to the franchise, while in fact making its meaningful exercise difficult.

  17. Thank you for what to me, as a layperson, see as a scholarly writeup of the academic research describing the legalities of Roman governance.
    The question I have is: what is the difference between legalities and practice?
    I have in mind several specific instances where extra-legal practices were used to obtain desired political ends: the murders of the Gracchi brothers and one of the justifications for the murder of Julius Caesar.
    In both cases, it is quite clear that the ends justified means that were not part of either the practice or the form of Roman governance.
    And this matters, because there are numerous instances where law is superceded by practice.
    The lack of exercise of the various assemblies could well be due to such extra-legal actions (the Roman equivalent of brownshirts?) as much as “tradition” or “form”.

  18. Honestly? The structure of the Roman assemblies seem like a sensible way of getting democratic-ish results when you control a bunch of territory and have a strong tradition of face-to-face politics.

    Take the comitia centuriata, for example – if you have a limited ability to collect votes, and you’re specifically voting on military matters… why bother going out of your way to collect the votes of people who, practically by definition, aren’t actually militarily relevant? It makes more sense to ask the people who would be drafted whether or not they’re willing to go to war.

    I also suspect that the patronage system does a lot of work here, because there’s socially sanctioned way for people to complain to someone higher up the ladder, as it were. Sure, only the elites are going to be able to get to the polling place… but they’re going to take into account what their clients want out of the vote. After all, they’re all friends, and screwing over your friends makes you look bad.

    (I debated putting scare quotes around the word “friends” up there, but decided against it. That feels kinda like accusing the Romans of lying about their own culture, when the reality was probably closer to client/patron relationships generally being friendships with an added power dynamic that you didn’t bring up in polite conversation.)

    1. That same dynamic applies today to mentor/mentee (or whatever you call them) relationships today. Bret and most other graduate students generally describe their graduate advisors as “friends.”

    2. Rome was a lot more comfortable with power differentials than Americans are, though, and I think it’s dangerous to apply our views to Romans. WE tend to view friendship as necessarily being between equals or near-equals, and to view power differentials in a relationship as creepy or as a reason to preclude the relationship, but throughout history that hasn’t been the case.

      Take, for example, the concept of followers in the British Royal Navy in the 18th century–there was a TREMENDOUS power differential between a captain, or even a lieutenant, and an able seaman, but there was also frequently real affection between them, enough that the sailors would follow officers from ship to ship. Real friendships could grow between officers of varying ranks as well. A captain had almost unlimited power over his officers (he couldn’t flog them or kill them without trial, but he could make life very nasty for them), but that didn’t preclude some very strong bonds from forming (as evidenced by Pelew’s correspondence). You can also see this in the Middle Ages. Kings would be friends with lower-ranking nobles (in some cultures that was the basis for the entire political system).

      I don’t think that a Roman would view a disparity of power as lethal to the concept of friendship. Even the concept of obligation wouldn’t be–after all, friends help each other, particularly in a gift economy or in cultures where that’s expected. And it was a two-way street, at least in theory (variations are to be expected); each party helped the other in some way. Given some of the letters I’ve read translations of, the clients were hardly passive in this relationship, and at least powerful (because they were literate) clients could tell off their patrons if they thought it warranted.

      1. I think Bret overstates the difference between our culture and others. Powerful and successful people today tend to have entourages, or proteges, or supporters, or lieutenants, or whatever they are called, and they generally describe each other as friends.

  19. The client system became a shell of itself under the empire but back when it was relevant under the Republic it probably was a valuable way for the higher up to keep in touch with those lower down and for the lower down to access the networks among the powerful

    1. Really? I would have thought that in a long reign, the Emperor would become the highest-level patron.

  20. The reconstruction numbers for the comitia centuriata threw me in for a loop for a sec but they aren’t factoring attendance, right? In addition very often there would be an army or two with its higher officers abroad not in position to vote.
    If the prestige of voting for big things on the biggest assembly boosted attendance beyond the 10% expected for packed meetings of the smaller assemblies, then say the centuries of the first class of infantry still featured >100 men during the actual meetings.
    I wonder how big the average meeting would be. 193 centuries suggest it couldn’t have been lower than 20k but given the expectation for bigger centuries in lower classes it seems a low value for a minimum. Could it reach 6 digits?

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