Collections: How to Roman Republic 101, Part IIIa: Starting Down the Path of Honors

This is the third of our planned five part series (I, II) on the structure of the Roman Republic during the third and second centuries. Last time we discussed Rome’s popular assemblies, which at least notionally expressed the will of the people. One of the key tasks those assemblies had, we noted, was the election of magistrates, the executive officials of the Roman state. Those magistrates will be our focus this week, though we’re not going to get through all of them. Today we’re going to focus on the structure of a Roman political career, the cursus honorum and the first few steps on that career: serving as military tribunes, quaestors and aediles.

Similar to the magistrates in the Greek polis, Roman magistrates should not be thought of as bureaucrats within a unitary governing institution. Rather each magistrate is an independent actor, granted certain powers to oversee the public interest in a specific field. This is perhaps even more true of Roman magistrates, who rarely function as ‘boards’ the way Greek magistrates often do (none of the senior magistrates in Rome function as a board, they are all individual actors). Instead of having an chief executive (like a president or prime minister) to coordinate the different actions of government, the Romans in the Middle Republic instead rely on the Senate, which will be our topic for next week, though the Senate’s guidance is going to show up a fair bit here as well.

Each of these offices has a range of functions and some interesting powers and prerogatives, so it is worth discussing each one in turn.

And while at Rome you had to be a wealthy elite to have a chance of entering the Senate, here at ACOUP, our wealth requirements for joining the ACOUP Patreon as either an amici or patres conscripti are far more reasonable! As always, if you like this, please share it! 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.

The Cursus Honorum

One particular feature of Rome’s system of magistrates is that the offices were organized from a relatively early point into a ‘career path’ called the cursus honorum or ‘path of honors.’ Now we have to be careful here on a few points. First, our sources tend to retroject the cursus honorum back to the origins of the republic in 509, but it’s fairly clear in those early years that the Romans are still working out the structure of their government. For instance our sources are happy to call Rome’s first magistrates in the early years ‘consuls,’ but in fact we know1 that the first chief magistrates were in fact praetors. Then there is a break in the mid-400s where the chief executive is vested briefly in a board of ten patricians, the decemviri. This goes poorly and so there is a return to consuls, soon intermixed from 444 with years in which tribuni militares consulari potestate, ‘military tribunes with consular powers,’ were elected instead (the last of these show up in 367 BC, after which the consular sequence becomes regular). Charting those changes is difficult at best because our own sources, writing much later, are at best modestly confused by all of this. I don’t want to get dragged off topic into charting those changes, so I’ll just once again commend the Partial Historians podcast which marches through the sources for this year-by-year. The point here is that this system emerges over time, so we shouldn’t project it too far back, though by 367 or so it seems to be mostly in place.

The second caution is that the cursus honorum was, for most of its history, a customary thing, a part of the mos maiorum, rather than a matter of law. But of course the Romans, especially the Roman aristocracy, take both the formal and informal rules of this ‘game’ very seriously. While unusual or spectacular figures could occasionally bend the rules, for most of the third and second century, political careers followed the rough outlines of the cursus honorum, with occasional efforts to codify parts of the process in law during the second century, beginning with the Lex Villia in 180 BC, but we ought to understand that law and others of the sort as mostly attempting to codify and spell out what were traditional practices, like the generally understood minimum ages for the offices, or the interval between holding the same office twice.

That said, there is a very recognizable pattern that was in some cases written into law and in other cases merely customary (but remember that Roman culture is one where ‘merely customary’ carries a lot of force). Now the cursus formally begins with the first major office, the quaestorship, but there are quite a few things that an aspiring Roman elite needs to do first. The legal requirement is that our fellow – and it must be a fellow, as Roman women cannot hold office (or vote) – needs to have completed ten years of military service (Polyb. 6.19.1-3). But there are better and worse ways to discharge this requirement. The best way is being appointed as junior officers, military tribunes, in the legions. We’ll talk about this office in a bit, but during this period it served both as a good first stepping stone into political prominence as well as something more established Roman politicians did between major office-holding, perhaps as a way of remaining prominent or to curry favor with the more senior politicians they served under or simply because military exigency meant that more experienced hands were wanted to lead the army.

A diagram of the elected offices of the cursus honorum. Note that there were additional appointed military tribunes.

There are a bunch of other minor magistrates that are effectively ‘pre-cursus‘ offices too, but we don’t know a lot about them and they don’t seem generally to show up as often in the careers of the sort of Romans making their way up to the consulship, though this may be simply because our sources don’t mention them as much at all and so we simply don’t know who was holding them in basically any year. We’ll talk about them at the end of this set of posts, because they are important (particularly for non-elites).

I should note at the outset: all of these offices are elected annually unless otherwise noted, with a term of service of one year. You never hold the same office twice until you reach the consulship, at which point you can seek re-election, after a respectable delay (which is later codified into law and then ignored), but you may serve as a military tribune several times (this was normal, in fact, as far as we can tell).

The first major office of the cursus was the quaestorship. The number of quaestors elected grows over time. Initially just two, their number is increased to four in 421 (two assigned to Rome, one to each of the consuls) and then to six in the 260s (initially handling the fleet, then later to assist Roman praetors or pro-magistrates in the provinces) and then eight in 227. There may have been two more added to make ten somewhere in the Middle Republic, but recent scholarship has cast doubt on this, so the number may have remained eight until being expanded to twenty under Sulla in 81 BC through the aptly named lex Cornelia de XX quaestoribus (the Cornelian Law on Twenty Quaestors, Sulla being Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix).2 It’s not clear if there was a legal minimum age for the quaestors and we only know the ages of a few (25, 27, 29 and 30, for the curious) so all we can say is that officeholders tended to hold the office in their twenties, right after finishing their mandatory stint of military service.3 Serving as a quaestor enables entrance into the Senate, though one has to wait for the next census to be added to the Senate rolls by the censors.

After the quaestorship, aspirants for higher office had a few options. One option was the office of aedile; there were after 367 four of these fellows. Two were plebeian aediles and were not open to patricians, while the two more prestigious spots were the ‘curule’ aediles, open to both patricians and plebeians. The other option at this stage for plebeian political hopefuls was to seek election as a tribune of the plebs, of which there were ten annually, we’ll talk about these fellows in a later post because they have wide-ranging, spectacular and quite particular powers.

After this was the praetorship, the first office which came with imperium. Initially there may have just been one praetor; by the 240s there are two (what will become the praetor urbanus and the praetor peregrinus). In 227 the number increases to four, with the two new praetors created to handle administration in Sicily and Sardinia et Corsica. That number then increases to six in 198/7, with the added praetors generally being sent to Spain. Finally Sulla raises the number to eight in 81 BC. The minimum age seems to have been 39 for this office.

Finally comes the consulship, the chief magistrate of the Roman Republic, who also carried imperium but of a superior sort to the praetors. There were always two consuls and their number was never augmented. For our period (pre-Sulla) the consuls led Rome’s primary field armies and were also the movers of major legislation. Achieving the consulship was the goal of every Roman embarking on a political career. This is the only office that gets ‘repeats.’

Finally there is one office after the cursus honorum and that is the censorship. Two are elected every five years for an 18 month term in which they carry out the census. Election to the censorship generally goes to senior former-consuls and is one way to mark a particularly successful political career. That said, Romans tend to dream about the consulship, not the censorship and if you had a choice between being censor once or holding the consulship two or three times, the latter was more prestigious.

With the offices now laid out, we’ll go through them in rough ascending sequence. Today we’ll look at the military tribunes, the quaestors and the aediles; next week we’ll talk about imperium and the regular offices that carry it (consuls, praetors and pro-magistrates). Then, the week after that, we’ll look at at two offices with odd powers (tribunes of the plebs and censors), along with minor magistrates. Finally, there’s another irregular office, that of dictator, which we have already discussed! So you can go read about it there!

One thing I want to note at the outset is the ‘elimination contest’ structure of the cursus honorum. To take the situation as it stands from 197 to 82, there are dozens and dozens of military tribunes, but just eight quaestors and just six praetors and then just two consuls. At each stage there was thus likely to be increasingly stiff competition to move forward. To achieve an office in the first year of eligibility (in suo anno, “in his own year”) was a major achievement; many aspiring politicians might require multiple attempts to win elections. But of course these are all annual offices, so someone trying again for the second or third time for the consulship is now also competing against multiple years of other failed aspirants plus this new year’s candidates in suo anno. We’ll come back to the implications of this at the end but I wanted to note it at the outset that even given the relatively small(ish) size of Rome’s aristocracy, these offices are fiercely competitive as one gets higher up.

Military Tribunes

In any given year, Rome needs a lot of military tribunes. Six military tribunes are required for each legion and Rome averages around a dozen legions in the field annually during the late third and second century, so that’s around 72 military tribunes each year. A handful of these – 16 by 311 and 24 in 207 – were elected, while the rest were appointed by the commander of the legion in question. The office-holders for these posts will have actually varied a lot. While short summaries of the cursus honorum often focus on the military tribunate as an initial stepping-stone office (which it was), we have plenty of instances where Roman elites serve as military tribunates after having been elected to higher offices in the cursus. It’s also the only position before the consulship where individuals regularly serve multiple times.

While we know that only a handful of the military tribunes were elected and the rest appointed, our sources almost never distinguish between the two, which makes how one gets this office a bit hard to parse. It is unclear, for instance, if the very senior military tribunes we sometimes see are usually elected or appointed by their generals. Clearly, however, there is an in-built advantage for the scions of illustrious families – the sons of the nobiles – because they are going to have family friends and relatives holding praetorships and consulships and thus in a position to appoint them to these posts. That in turn is going to give them a head-start to a political career, giving them opportunities to curry favor with the soldiers (who are also voters) and get their names ‘out there.’ Though I should note it is not at all clear that every military tribune planned to move further in the cursus; indeed, it seems quite unlikely. Many of these men were likely just experienced soldiers, appointed by a general who wanted a couple of steady hands on his staff (likely in addition to promising young aristocrats, his good-for-nothing nephew, and maybe a good friend whose praetorship just ended and could use a bit of glory before he tries for the consulship in a couple of years).

Military tribunes had a few fixed duties and then a slew of ad hoc ones. The fixed duties are, for the most part, noted by Polybius: the military tribunes had a major role in the Roman levy (the dilectus). They also chose the location of the marching camp (along with the senior centurions, Polyb. 6.41), take over the supervision of the camp, including the watches (Polyb. 6.27) and they also lead individual legions (because a consul’s army may have two or more) on the march (Livy 41.1.7). They’re also responsible for military awards as well as fines and other punishments (Polyb. 6.37.8).

But then we also see military tribunes do a lot more than this. They’re the most common figure in the legion to lead foraging parties, which as we’ve discussed were pretty major and constant operations. We also see them pulled to act as messengers (Livy 44.7.1), envoys (App. Hisp 54) and even legionary commanders in battle (Livy 40.27.6). In effect, the military tribunes could be assigned to lead or coordinate almost any task their commander required, making them impressively versatile staff officers. That said, military tribunes do not have fixed commands; they do not command a specific part of the legion. Instead, the leading of a legion seems to rotate between them, in pairs (so with 6 tribunes per legion, that’s three rotations) on an apparently monthly basis. Often when dispatched to other jobs, we see this pairing continued.

The other key function of the military tribunes was to be part of a commanders consilium, a council of war (though magistrates doing civilian functions might also utilize a consilium). Roman consuls, praetors and pro-magistrates were expected to consult with their subordinates on decisions in a consilium, which would include the commander, his quaestor, the military tribunes, senior centurions, key allied leaders and any other elite Romans who were around. Present, but not necessarily members were a generals apparatores, a handful of assigned professional scribes, clerks and messengers. For early-career military tribunes, they were likely mostly observers in these councils, picking up the art of decision-making and command by observation, though one assumes military tribunes who had held high office would have their opinions heard. Roman society is one in which the social codes whereby deference is owed to individuals of higher status (a function of age, influence and offices held) is strongly felt – few young tribunes would boldly speak out in a room full of more senior Romans, but likewise a military tribune who was an ex-praetor or ex-consul would expect to be heard and his opinion weighed heavily.

The sheer number of military tribunes required of course also speaks to the fact that the Roman Republic, by the third century, was already very different from any polis, in that the military resources available to it were enormous. The largest Greek poleis have maximum deployments of hoplites around 9-10,000 (including perioikoi, Sparta might have been able to get up to 16,000 notionally, but never deploys that many at once). Whereas in 225 Rome has something on the order of 770,000 men liable for conscription (Polyb. 2.24), 699,200 of them infantrymen; given the makeup of the Roman army that might suggest something just shy of 200,000 heavy infantrymen comparable to hoplites, about 80,000 of them Romans and 120,000 of them socii.4 Rome never deploys all of these fellows at once, but Rome exceeds 100,000 men deployed in most of the years from 218 to 168. In short, this is a military system fully an order of magnitude larger than any Greek polis, which thus demands more leadership positions (though it is less officer-heavy, man-for-man, than the Spartan army).

For comparison, the Athenian system has 43 number of notional military officers: the polemarch, ten strategoi, ten taxiarchoi, a board of ten katalogeis (who handle conscription), two hipparchoi who command the cavalry and ten phularchoi under them. Even before we count magistrates, in any given year, the Roman army takes up the attention of two consuls, four praetors (the other two are the urban praetors), six quaestors, seventy-two military tribunes, plus the praefecti sociorum (3 per legion, so 36 in a typical year), for 120 military officers.5 Though for a direct comparison if we’re counting the taxiarchs and phularchoi, we might include at least the Roman cavalry decuriones (30 per legion, so 360 total in a typical year) and potentially even the infantry centurions (60 per legion, so 720 in a typical year), plus the equivalent officers appointed by the socii (Polyb. 6.21.5), which are probably similar in number. In short, this is a much bigger military establishment which in turn demands a lot more military officials.

But while serving as a military tribune, our aspiring Roman aristocrat is going to be eyeing the next step up, which is:


The quaestors (or quaestores if you prefer Latin) were fundamentally financial officials who superintended Rome’s public funds. That was the core of their duties though in practice, especially for overseas quaestors, that core duty took on a lot of additional duties by its nature. Of the (by 227) eight quaestors, two were quaestores urbani – urban quaestors – while the rest were each assigned to assist a magistrate overseas. Technically, I should note – we’ll get to the concept of provinces a little later – that this means that two quaestors are assigned the aerarium populi Romani (in Rome) as their provincia (read: ‘official assignment’ not ‘province’), while the other six were assigned the provincia of the supervision of Rome’s finances in the same places where a consul or a praetor was assigned the provincia of command. The quaestor’s province is thus not his magistrate, but the finances of Rome in a place – these are, technically, legally, two independent magistrates who just happen to be working together, but who have independent sources of legal authority.

But first, let’s talk about the quaestores urbani, whose remit is laid out in the lex Cornelia de XX quaestoribus, as they are the quaestors “who will have the aerarium [the Roman treasury] as province.”6 As the formula implies, their main responsibility was for the aerarium populi Romani (“treasury of the Roman people”) also known as the aerarium Saturni, because it was physically located in the temple of Saturn at the base of the Capitoline. The aerarium was not merely the place Rome deposited its money and precious metals – although it was that – it was also the repository of official government documents. The quaestores urbani superintended both functions. It seems that either quaestor could enter or discharge funds or register records in the aerarium, but that they may traded off day-to-day management, as the Senate at points seems to dispatch one of the quaestores urbani.7

That meant that the quaestores urbani authorized public income and expenses, though in practice this was less an independent function and more operationalizing the direction of the Senate. Quaestors were, after all, still quite junior magistrates and no quaestor who intended to still have a career was going to gainsay the Senate’s opinion on spending. Just as import, the urban quaestors were responsible for financial audits of the records of returning magistrates; every Roman magistrate sent abroad was expected, upon his return, to deposit records of his use of state funds, his rationes, with the aerarium, where the two urban quaestors would audit them. That might include loot obtained in war, which the quaestors reviewed and notarized; in this role they also had the responsibility for auctioning that loot, including enslaved captives. They also received fines and guarantees for state debts, and auctioned property seized to satisfy unpaid debts or fines.

Finally, quaestors had an oversight role in a lot of financial and public spending activity in Italy. We see this with, for instance, the Egadi Rams; the Roman rams each have a Latin inscription attesting to the quaestor who approved the production of such an expensive weapon. Likewise, quaestors might oversee the minting of coins, particularly in the provinces (though as we’ll see, this was normally in Rome the job of minor magistrates, the triumviri monetales, ‘three men for the mint,’ who worked under the supervision of the quaestors). The urban quaestors also had a role overseeing the use of funds for public works in Italy, including road construction, the upkeep of foreign dignitaries visiting Rome, and funds used for public works, although generally this was limited to disbursing the funds, whose expenditure was then controlled by more senior magistrates. In all of these functions, one gets the strong sense that the quaestors, operating in Rome quite literally across the street from the Roman Senate, largely did as the Senate directed.

Via the Naval Ram Collection at the Nautical Archaeology Digital Library, a catalog of rams maintained by Stephen DeCasien, an image of Egadi 4, a ram used in the Battle of the Aegates Islands (241), showing the inscription, which reads, “M[arco] Populicio L[ucii] f[ilio] Q.P. / C[aio] Paperio Ti[berii] f[ilio],” “Marcus Populicius son of Lucius and Gaius Paperius son of Tiberius, quaestores publici.” The inscription presumably indicates the quaestors approved of the expense and manufacture of this ram. All of the intact Egadi rams have inscriptions of this sort, 8 Latin inscriptions and 1 Punic inscription published so far to my knowledge.
More information on this ram is available from RPM Nautical.

More potentially independent were quaestors in the provinces, assigned to consuls, praetors and pro-magistrates in command of Roman armies, though in practice the same career considerations which might make a quaestor in Rome obedient to the Senate made quaestors in the provinces obedient to their commander. It’s important to keep in mind that while the quaestor in a province has independent authority as a magistrate (and as such has to keep their own rationes, which of course might be checked against their commander’s rationes), they do not have imperium, whereas the local commander does. Consequently, a consul or praetor in a province can, with their imperium, give their quaestor an order, even though the quaestor is an independent magistrate notionally. Of course in most cases that would hardly be necessary as the strong Roman preference for deference is going to kick in, as by definition a magistrate or pro-magistrate with imperium has more auctoritas than any quaestor.

From the British Museum, a silver coin (tetradrachm?) minted by a Roman quaestor, Aesillas (the rest of his name is unknown to us) who was probably the quaestor assigned to Macedonia in 93 and pro-quaestor in 92 (MRR, vol 2., 15-18). The coin depicts marks of the quaestor’s authority, the fiscus (a moneybox, left-side of the reverse) and the quaestor’s chair (right side of the reverse), the subsellium, which was the bench of junior magistrates like the quaestor or the tribunes of the plebs.

The main job of the quaestor in the province was to manage the province’s finances, which in this period largely means the army’s finances. Quaestors supervised the pay of soldiers, deducted fines for missing equipment and managed the armies train. Polybius informs us that the Roman camp had an open area at its center which functioned for storage and a market called the quaestorium (Polyb. 6.31), and it seems pretty reasonable to suppose this was the quaestor’s domain on campaign. Roman camps also often included private merchants (sutlers; in Latin lixae or mercatores) and these seem also to have fallen under the authority of the quaestor. When Scipio Aemilianus expelled most of the non-soldiers from his camp, he insisted that sutlers could only sell plain food to the soldiers, to be enforced by Scipio or his quaestor (App. Pun. 116). This job of managing food, supplies and finances seems to decay in the Late Republic, I should note; Caesar’s quaestors never seem to do any of this (in the imperial period, imperial procuratores replace the quaestor in this role). Quaestors also handled any purchasing the army needed. Quaestors get sent off from the army to arrange for the purchase and transport of food or clothing and in some cases to supervise their final delivery. (Plut. C. Gracchi. 2.3; Sall. Iug. 294; Cic. Verr. 2.1.95).Quaestors also served as part of the general’s consilium and their views would naturally have more weight than more junior members (like the military tribunes, unless these were themselves senior politicians). It also gave rising Roman politicians another chance to observe more experienced, senior commanders at work. Finally, should the commander have to leave the province or die, the quaestor would take command until a new magistrate or pro-magistrate with imperium arrived to take over.

Cicero gives us some interesting commentary on the expected relationship between a quaestor and his magistrate. These were joined, Cicero notes, by necessitudo (‘necessity,’ as distinct from a warmer sort of friendship), but the relationship was, in its ideal, distinctly paternal and at multiple points Cicero describes the proper role of a quaestor’s commander as being like a father to the quaestor. That carried with it a lot of direct implications for the Romans, for whom the position of father was freighted with a lot of meaning: quaestors were to be obedient to their commander and at the same time the commander was to, in a sense, take the quaestor under their wing, teaching them how to be the sort of Roman who sits in the Senate and – hopefully, one day – commands armies. That relationship, in Cicero’s thinking, survived the term in office such that it would be, for instance, inappropriate (but not illegal) for a quaestor to ever prosecute their own magistrate later in life.8

I should note that quaestors did not do all of these things alone. They, like more senior magistrates, were assigned professional assistants, called apparatores, which included scribes and clerks (scribae), messengers (viatores) and heralds (praecones).

Once a quaestor’s term of service was done, they became eligible for entry into the senate and would normally be entered into the Senate’s rolls in the next census (conducted every five years). Now you may be wondering, as Rome’s territory outside of Italy expanded, how the eight quaestors could meet the demands and the answer is: they couldn’t. The solution, rather than adding more annual quaestors, was to ‘prorogue’ (Latin: prorogare) a quaestor’s term in office, making them a ‘pro-quaestor.’ This is the first of our pro-magistrates, who are Roman magistrates whose term of service has been prolonged to provide sufficient officials for all of Rome’s overseas commands. Consuls and praetors could also be prorogued like this (becoming pro-consuls and pro-praetors) and we’ll talk about that more when we get to those offices, as their habit of being prorogued is rather more important.


And just a pronunciation note before we start that in English aedile is pronounced EEE-dial, even though in Latin aedilis (with a long-by-nature first i) would have been pronounced eye-DEE-lis. The name probably comes from the fact that one of their core functions was the maintenance of temple buildings (aedes), though our sources suggest the office began as a pair of assistants to the tribunes of the plebs. According to Livy (6.42.12-14) in 367 as part of the shaking out of the struggle of the order, two patrician aediles were added. We call these two patrician aediles ‘curule’ aediles because they were permitted the the use of the curule chair (the sella curulis), a mark of a magistrate’s authority not extended to the original two plebeian aediles.

The two plebeian aediles were elected in the concilium plebis, whereas the two curule aediles were elected by the comitia tributa. While the plebeian aedileships were restricted to plebeians, it doesn’t seem that the curule aediles had to be patricians (much the same way that while post-367 one of the consuls had to be a plebeian but the other did not have to be a patrician). While technically magistrates, the curule aediles seem to have lacked a lot of the prerogatives typical of magistrates – they couldn’t convene assemblies, give orders to citizens (coercitio), nor were they immune from prosecution during their term of office, though they could publish edicts related to their duties.

The aediles had a range of public duties at Rome related to the upkeep of the city and its public structures. They were to ensure that the streets were clean and clear, that the water and grain supplies were steady, that temples and markets were maintained and that certain key festivals occurred. Of the festivals, the curule aediles seem to have handled the ludi Romani and the Megalensia, while the plebeian aediles managed the ludi plebeii, the Floralia and cerealia. One thing they do not do is act as police; in rare circumstances they are involved with the keeping of order in the city but their role is minimal and they do not have lictors (lictores) the way magistrates with imperium do (again, we’ll get to this next week).

The aediles also could act as a sort of public prosecutor – a rarity in the Roman legal system – for certain kinds of crimes. We don’t have a full picture of what sort of offenses the aediles would prosecute, but the glimpses we get reveal an odd assemblage: political corruption (a role shared with the tribunes and perhaps reaching back to the plebeian aediles’ original role), breaches of law regarding the use of the ager publicus (state-owned land), illegal use of magic or poison (veneficia, understood as a single charge) and a few other things. It can be tricky to untangle what charges the aediles might bring as part of their official duties versus charges brought by someone serving as an aedile as a private action but fitting with the plebeian aedile’s notional role as protectors of the people. But mostly the aediles weren’t court officials, they were public works officials.

While the aediles likely had public funds for at least some of these jobs, it was expected that aediles would dip into their own private funds to help fund their public works, renovations, games and festivals. Serving as aedile was thus a really useful stepping stone on the way up the cursus honorum because it gave the holder of the office – assuming they were very wealthy – an opportunity to pose as a high profile public benefactor, building goodwill among the Roman voters by putting on extravagant games or spending lavishly on public works. Of course the lavishness of a typical aedileship is going to depend on the wealth of the Roman elite, which is rising rapidly during this period. We may thus assume that the expenditures of aediles in the third century were probably pretty tame compared to the attested astonishing lavishness of some aediles in the first century.

And that turns out to be important, because the competition for the next full step on the cursus honorum and the first office with imperium, the praetorship, is starting to get stiff. We’ll talk about this office as well as the highest office, the consulship, next week!

  1. See Lintott, op. cit. 104-5, n. 47
  2. These dates and numbers, by the by, follows F.P. Polo and A.D. Fernández, The Quaestorship in the Roman Republic (2019).
  3. If you are wondering about how anyone can manage to hold the office before 27, given ten years of military service and 17 being the age when Roman conscription starts, well, we don’t really know either. The best supposition is that some promising young aristocrats seem to have started their military service early, perhaps in the retinues (the cohors amicorum) of their influential relatives. Tiberius Gracchus at 25 is the youngest quaestor we know of, but he’s in the army by at most age 16 with Scipio Aemilianus at Carthage in 146.
  4. These figures are, of course, very approximate. For modern interpretations of them, see Taylor, Soldiers and Silver (2020), 29ff.
  5. Don’t worry about these guys right now, we’ll cover them when we get to minor magistrates and officials. But I should note that technically most of the military tribunes and all of the praefecti sociorum are not magistrates, just officers, as they aren’t elected in a popular assembly.
  6. quaestorem quaei aerarium provinciam optinebit, text as quoted in F.P. Polo and A.D. Fernández, op. cit. 79; it’s clear this phrasing was a standard Roman legal formula as it appears in other laws as well.
  7. On this, see F.P. Polo and A.D. Fernández, op. cit., 80-4.
  8. On all of this, see Thompson, “The Relationship between Provincial Quaestors and their Commanders-in-Chief” Historia 11.3 (1962): 339-355.

96 thoughts on “Collections: How to Roman Republic 101, Part IIIa: Starting Down the Path of Honors

  1. About that numbers game:
    There were 10 popular tribunes (ever since 457 BC)
    In Early Republic, Licinius and Sextius had been iterated as tribunes for 10 years in a row. But it seems that by Middle Republic, it was highly extraordinary for Ti. Gracchus to stand for reelection. Which means that Middle Election had to find ten new tribunes each year.
    Ti. Gracchus had been a quaestor before being tribune. But before Sulla, there never were as many quaestors as tribunes in total – in the period 287-264 just 4 quaestors, some of them necessarily patricians and therefore ineligible as tribunes.

    How did Romans find suitable popular tribunes if there were not enough plebian exquaestors?

    1. Hm. Dr. Devereaux’s exact words were:

      The other option at this stage for plebeian political hopefuls was to seek election as a tribune of the plebs, of which there were ten annually…

      Strictly, this doesn’t require that all plebeian tribunes have previously been a quaestor, just that a quaestor could, upon ending his term in office, seek election as a plebeian tribune just as he could do any number of other things with his time. Write a book. Take up painting. Run for office. Whatever.

      My extremely cursory Wikipedia-level research does not find any immediate evidence that “having been a quaestor” was a requirement for the office of “tribune of the plebeians” at all. I could be missing something, of course.

      1. From what I can gather through googling, according to Livy the office of Tribune of the Plebs was established (Book 2.33, 493 BCE) before the Quaestorship was opened to plebeians (Book 4.43, in 421 BCE). So having been Quaestor before cannot have been a requirement for running for Tribune of the Plebs, at least not originally.

  2. ” For instance our sources are happy to call Rome’s first magistrates in the early years ‘consuls,’ but in fact we know1 that the first chief magistrates were in fact praetors. Then there is a break in the mid-400s where the chief executive is vested briefly in a board of ten patricians, the decemviri. This goes poorly and so there is a return to consuls,”

    Inconsistency sighted.

    Did they change the name at the return, or did the praetors become consuls before the break? Inquiring minds want to know.

    1. The impression I got was that they didn’t have consuls at first, then they had consuls, then they didn’t for a little while, then they did again.

      1. I think I would suspect it was a name change after, to say that oh, no, we’re not going back to the stuff before, we’re doing something TOTALLY NEW and not just junking the decimveri as a mistake.

      2. That’s the imperssion I got too, but as our host wrote, our sources were already confused by this. So the answer probably is we don’t know.

    2. IIRC Lintott suggests that the title decimveri period involved some sort of constitutional reform. So the consuls were initially (three?) praetors or a type of praetor but post decimveri they were formally a different office. This is hazy memory of something I read a few years back though so take it with a big grain of salt.

      1. Sounds plausible. After all, after dumping the old system, you wouldn’t want to bring it back — or at least, admit to bringing it back.

    3. I like the reconstruction in Drogula, Commanders and command (2015). Cornell, Beginnings of Rome (1995), and Forsythe, Critical history of early Rome (2005), offer more traditional explanations which if I recall correctly largely accept the narrative of the consulship emerging at the start of the republic.

  3. Was there any difference in prestige to the Quaestors assigned to Rome itself vs the ones assigned to an army? How were the assignments divided up anyway? Did the senate have any role in that?

    1. See Pina Polo & Diaz Fernandez, Quaestorship in the Roman Republic (2019). Quaestorian provinces (here meaning “posts” as in “tasks”) were decreed by the senate. The posts were then normally assigned to each man by lot.

  4. Regarding the anomalously young ages for some quaestors, is it possible that Romans employed “book time”? I know in the British Royal Navy captains would mark a boy as being part of the ship’s company despite not being on the ship, to jump-start the kid’s military career, often as a favor to a friend or benefactor. Technically it was illegal, but it was also common and the Admiralty tended to not investigate too closely unless you gave them reason to.

    1. Continuing on the Royal Navy theme, there seems to have been some plausibility to extremely young (say, age 12) midshipmen or other apprentice sailors, although perhaps that was a recording artifact of the “book time” stuff you were talking about. (Novelists seem to have taken it seriously, regardless.) I could imagine something like that happening, especially for teenagers, in the legions, too. They might not have been in the line, (but at 16 they might have, also) but they could well have been there regardless.

      1. There’s truth to those rumors. Boys as young as 12 were able to be midshipmen in the British Royal Navy, if they had 3 years experience as a volunteer, able seaman, or some other role, until the mid/late 19th century. At that point the age limit was raised to 18. This seems to coincide with the requirement to have attended the Naval College at around that time. And kids younger that were on ships from time to time–officers could have wives and family members onboard (though from everything I’ve read this was hardly universally done). The timing of the transition means that authors writing about the Napoleonic Wars have a fair bit of latitude–the navy was going through a lot of transitions at that time.

        I wonder what ages Lord Cochrane’s midshipmen were. He joined at 17, so he wasn’t one of the youngsters. Many novelists draw from his life (Forester and O’Brian do so quite openly), mainly because Cochrane did so many insane things that it’s hard to come up with a reasonably realistic story that can top them. But it’s probably mostly for the dramatics it affords you. Readers react more strongly to a boy being injured or killed than to an adult.

        Captain’s servant was one of the ways to get book time, and I imagine something like that was available in the legions as well. Plenty of reasons for a scribe or messenger to be away from their commander, after all! That would put a young man technically within the legion, but not necessarily in combat, and would give them an excuse to be with the quaester or other officials, learning the ropes.

        1. “And kids younger that were on ships from time to time–officers could have wives and family members onboard (though from everything I’ve read this was hardly universally done).”

          There is a book about that, which I lost track of and didn’t finish.

          “Hen Frigates: Wives of Merchant Captains Under Sail” by Joan Druett, Simon & Schuster, 1998

        2. N.A.M Rodger’s The Wooden World covers this a lot in the Anson period (roughly the War of Austrian Succession and Seven Years Wars), but you can reasonably extrapolate it back to the War of Spanish Succession and forward to the War of American Independence. Basically, the Royal Navy wanted to get their hands on men as young as feasible, both to properly educate them and to take advantage of teenage agility and flexibility. So lots of boys really joined the Navy in their teens, whether as proto-enlisted men or proto-officers.

          1. You had to have at least six years sea time and show certifications that you were able to ‘hand, reef and steer’ to apply to pass for lieutenant (the first step as a commissioned officer). Given the complexity of sailing ships and the importance of seamanship, starting early was advisable. The exam was often rigorous (“you are sailing close-hauled on the starboard tack, double reef in the topsails, courses taken in, Portland Bill one point on your port bow when a squall sets you flat aback and the spanker and mizzen topmast carry away. What do you do?”)

      2. IIRC Jane Austen had two brothers who joined the Navy when they were 12. And in Mansfield Park her protagonists four brothers, as they reach that age, join the Navy in two cases, an East Indiamen in another case, and the last is apprenticed to a trading house in the city. Presumably this sounded perfectly normal to her readers at the time. Note that the protagonist was asking people to send her 12-year-old brother into the Napoleonic Wars as a favour to her.

        (I sometimes wonder what Miss Austen would have thought of the Spartans.)

        I suppose the difference between these careers and the army, is that in the army you were likely to end up fighting a grown man with a sword, spear or bayonet, and to do that you want to be a grown man yourself.

        1. “(I sometimes wonder what Miss Austen would have thought of the Spartans.)”

          She probably thought they were a pretty good society, based on her understanding of the society at the time and her social rank (ie: Wealthy land-owning aristocrat). The Enlightenment Era certainly praised Greek philosophy, and while I’m not exactly widely-read in the extant literature from this era, every mention of Sparta I’ve seen from that time has been good.

          Had she known the reality, it would be….less good. Pretty much every flaw in our view of Sparta that Bret provides in his “This Isn’t Sparta” series is present in the discussions of Sparta that I’ve seen, and there are some deep, fundamental differences between England in the 1800s and Sparta at her height that I think would render them irreconcilable foes.

          There’s…a lot here, but just on the naval side (the only part I’m reasonably familiar with) any master and commander would have considered Spartan logistics to be amateurish and incompetent to the point of warranting death by firing squad (Byng was shot for less). To give another example to illustrate the point: England is a society where the Queen took up Irish crochet in part to encourage the practice (Ireland was going through a famine and this helped families put food on the table), but also, from everything I’ve read, from enjoyment (it IS fun). Imagine what would have happened in Sparta had the queen openly and publicly did weaving!

          It’s also worth noting that, for whatever reason, Britain outlawed slavery in 1807 (you know, sorta), and took military action to suppress the trade. Sparta was the most enslaved society I’ve come across (admittedly I’m nothing like an expert here). England was certainly extremely racist at the time–everyone was–and Spartan slavery didn’t translate 1-to-1 with the modern practice, so there’d be a lot of face-saving justifications (is a conscripted sailor a slave? a servant? a prisoner forced to labor in a farm field?), but all in all I don’t see a country actively engaged in reducing the slave trade being overly fond of a country where most of the population is brutally enslaved.

          All that said….England wasn’t exactly thrilled to have to deal with the Ottoman Empire. Had Sparta been around at that time (in the sense of an independent political entity, not merely the city), and had they been strong enough to pose a threat to the Ottomans….I could see England siding with Sparta. And then immediately turning Sparta into a vassal state.

          1. Well, from the same era, we get “the brutal Spartans, who in defiance of justice and gratitude, sacrificed, in cold blood, the slaves that had shown themselves men to rescue their oppressors.”

            from Mary Wollstonecraft.

            Admittedly in an attack on Rousseau for admiring them. Then Rousseau was a no-holds-barred totalitarian.

          2. “her social rank (ie: Wealthy land-owning aristocrat)”

            Her father was a rector i.e. a parish priest. Not an aristocrat.

            But I was really thinking of was the people who think of Sparta as “a badass school for badasses”.

          3. Jane Austen was the daughter of a clergyman. They were most definitely NOT landowning aristocrats. There weren’t even titles in the family tree.

            However, as we know, war provides opportunities of all kinds, including class climbing via marriage and favor. That is what we see in Austen’s family in all kinds of different ways.

          4. “Her father was a rector i.e. a parish priest. Not an aristocrat.”

            The rector would have been fairly firmly middle-class (which puts them in the upper part of the social ladder–say, top half to top third). On Royal Navy ships, for example, they were part of the wardroom mess, which put them above the midshipmen in social standing. It’s also worth noting that parish priests were often also scientific men, a middle-class to upper-class activity at that time (the lower classes were mostly trying to not starve or freeze to death). The training wasn’t free (though someone else may be convinced to pay for it), which placed certain limits on who could enter. Finally, her siblings were accepted as young gentlemen. A common sailor could, through ability and luck, shift his hammock after the mast, but they absolutely did NOT start there. There are a lot of reasons–competition, the complex interplay of favors, even how money was handled on ships–but the end result is that captains took gentlemen on their ships as midshipmen. If Jane’s father was of an unacceptable rank in society the request would have been flatly denied.

            I’ll grant that the reality is more complex than that paragraph seems to imply. A lot depended on the individual rector. Some came from wealthy backgrounds and carried that status with them; some were poor and carried that status. That had been going on since the early Middle Ages–see the repeated reforms of Cluny, where this is discussed (among other issues0. And the individual mattered, of course.

            Still, while I may have erred on the “land-owning” part, I feel comfortable putting the clergy in the “aristocrat” bin. They were the lower part of the top 1%, but they WERE part of that 1%. I also acknowledge that differences of opinion are possible here. “Aristocrat” wasn’t a firmly-established bin at that time–not all aristocrats at the time were lords or even knights–so where one draws the line is vague. For my part, the fact that rectors moved in aristocratic circles and were accepted among them is sufficient for me to put them there. This is particularly true for this discussion, where the question is “How would an English woman view Sparta?” I seriously doubt Jane spent much time slinging clay, separating dog turds from horse (dogs’ are more valuable), or cleaning laundry; from what I’ve read (and if I’m wrong, please correct me) her activities were that of the “middle-class” of the time–the lower rungs of the aristocracy.

          5. ” I feel comfortable putting the clergy in the “aristocrat” bin.”

            Fans of Pride and Prejudice are now trying to imagine someone trying to persuade Lady Catherine de Bourgh that, say, Mr Collins is an aristocrat.

            I’d like to be a fly on the wall to overhear that conversation.

          6. Lady Catherine would not hold a conversation with a lunatic, especially not a commoner.

          7. Miss Austen was not a land owner or an aristocrat, though she was poor relation to some.

          8. There was an essential dividing line in Georgian and Victorian society (and earlier) between “gentlemen” and non-gentlemen. It was similar to the dividing line between officers and enlisted men (then and now) or the dividing line between those with bachelor’s degrees and those without (now, not then). Note that this line now still correlates closely with the one between officers and enlisted men, and also correlates with the line between “exempt” and “non-exempt” employees. Plus ca change.

            Those on the upper side of the Georgian and Victorian divide include: (i) category 1: those with enough land (or other income-producing assets, but that’s unusual) that they don’t have to work for a living and (ii) category 2: those who work but not with their hands (clergymen, lawyers, teachers, army and navy officers, etc.). In both categories, there is a spread of incomes, with the lowest not richer than the upper working class (skilled workers who do work with their hands), just as now museum curators (say) may earn less than plumbers, but are higher status for most purposes. Also, in addition to the better off in each category looking down on the less well off, category 1 generally looks down on category 2.

            So poorer members of category 2 are only in the top 5 or 10 percent socially, and may well be no more than the top 30 or 40 percent financially.

          9. “There was an essential dividing line in Georgian and Victorian society (and earlier) between “gentlemen” and non-gentlemen.”

            On reflection, I suspect someone above has confused the terms “aristocrat” and “gentleman”.

          10. “Aristocrats” would be the one percent: those with titles or really large amounts of land. Jane Austen’s family was not in that category. Aristocrats do mingle and converse on terms of familiarity with gentlemen and ladies, and sometimes marry them, if they can do no better. They do not mingle on such terms with those who are not of gentle status.

          11. They do not marry them unless they are in the lower ranks of the nobility.

          12. British terms are somewhat confusing here: “gentlemen” or “gentry” tends to be largely interchangeable (and were seen as such) with what on the continent was usually called “Low nobility” (“niederadel” in germany, “lågadel” in swedish) while “nobility” or “aristocracy” is restricted to the “High nobility”.

            There’s something of a difference in terms of social status (my impression was that the gentry was definitely more open to social climbers, and required less of a formal introduction) but in practice they seemed to interact on fairly equal terms (IE: a british gentlemen would be recieved in the house of a petty german noble as someone of similar social status) in a way either of them wouldn’t with the high nobility (counts, dukes and their families, etc.)

            Clergy is kind of interest but my impression is that your average priest was not on the same social status as the local nobleman or gentry *but* they were sufficiently similar that they could interact socially. (partially of course because they were often related to other gentry)

          13. The British terms don’t carry across to the Continent. But the ‘aristocracy’ in Britain can extend quite a way down the economic ladder. As well as the peers: the dukes (less than twenty, many royal), marquis, earls and viscounts, there were barons (and below them baronets and knights – not included in the peerage). Moreover the peerage included Scottish and Irish peers – many not much more than small to medium landowners. All entitled to at least the opportunity to sit in the House of Lords.

            They were intimately connected at the lower levels with the gentry, who again extended down to parsons and others who had to count pennies quite closely, but could often call a peer cousin (as the grandson of a third son or some such).

          14. We can make some pretty good guesses about Austen’s opinion of slavery:
            1. Her novel Mansfield Park was named after the judge who decided chattel slavery could not exist under English common law, and is a (heavily coded) anti-slavery tract. 2. We know from her personal accounts during adulthood that she bought “free sugar”, i.e. sugarcane grown by free sharecroppers or paid labourers. This was significantly more expensive. In short, she was sympathetic to Abolition.

            And use of Sparta as a metaphor for particularly harsh slavery was common among British Abolitionists. She would have been aware of Spartiates being able to murder helots, and almost certainly disapproved.

        2. (I sometimes wonder what Miss Austen would have thought of the Spartans.)

          My impression is that the Georgian English saw themselves as the heirs to the Athenians, not the Spartans. Limited democracy, naval power, overseas colonies, art and philosophy valued, and so on.

          Interestingly, the Georgian Scots thought of themselves as the heirs to Sparta in some respects. The dialect of NE Scotland is still called “Doric” for this reason, after the harsher dialect of the Doric Greeks. At least one Scots school founded around this time calls its prefects “ephors”.

        3. One notes that she singled out the Navy as marked as lower class in Persuasion. Perhaps it was just that Sir Walter was so much more of a snob, but no one thinks as badly of the Army in Pride and Prejudice.

          1. The key difference is that army officer ranks and promotions had to be purchased at a cost the middle class couldn’t afford. Years of income for a family like Austen’s. The navy wasn’t exactly a pure meritocracy, but becoming an officer and being promoted were at least free.

            Her army officer characters are aristocrats. Colonel Brandon is the younger son of a rich landowner, General Tilney owns a vast estate (and his firstborn son is an cavalry captain), while Colonel Fitzwilliam is the younger son of an earl. None of her navy characters are.

            Sir Walter objects to the navy because it allows some social mobility (and the weather means they’re not as pretty as him).

    2. Just one is “anomalously” young. Ti. Gracchus age 25. The others are 27 or more.
      If the age of “compulsory” military service is 17 and the compulsory service for getting elected is 10 years then age 27 is precisely “suo anno” – 17+10.
      Ti. Gracchus is attested to have been actually at military camp – at Carthage – no later than age 16. He would have met the 10 years service by age 25 if he had been in service by age 15. Given how the compulsory callup started at 17, a rider like “volunteers already accepted ages 15 and 16” would not be unrealistic. Actually, Lex Ursonensis, which is discussing nonmilitary compulsory work, puts upper age limit at 60 just as the Roman military conscription… but the lower limit at 14.

    3. Another possibility is if some of these numbers were calculated with inclusive counting?

      I don’t recall the Romans being quite this extreme, but I believe there are some systems whereby a baby that we’d describe as 1 day old could be counted as 2 years old. (Born on December 31st, so on January 1st they are in their 2nd year. Modulo whatever the local year transition is.)

  5. Every time I hear about Roman offices, I always think how short a single year is. How did the balance the desire of every office-holder to make their mark and stand out in a single year versus the dangers and problems of having some new guy with his own ideas on how things should be done every year?

    Aediles especially, a large public works project might be a multi-year affair. How did they every get those done?

    1. Well, there was this advisory body of a few hundred ex-magistrates, serving for life, whose advice was usually treated as binding orders. I’d imagine that provided a lot of stability.

      Though I wonder about the math: 8 quaestors a year, over 40 years (27-67) gives about 320 Senators, minus losses. Wasn’t the Republican Senate 300 people? Seems potentially short.

      1. I was wondering about that, too. Either being a questor wasn’t the only way to get into the senate, or the senate was below it theoretical maximal size alot.

        1. I was actually worried about the opposite, whether there would be enough slots for eight new Senators a year.

          I suppose this tells us that eight is about the average number of Senators who die per year.

        2. Ties to the issue about tribunes, who outnumbered the quaestors, some of whom were ineligible for tribunes. Tribunes and quaestors combined gives maybe 12 potential annual entrants – the patrician quaestors cannot continue as tribunes, the plebeian exquaestors must be supplemented by tribunes who have not been quaestors.
          Dr. Devereux´s “We don´t know” raises a question of evidence. Do we know any Roman politicians who specifically had served as tribunes, but had not served as quaestors?

          1. I love the Digital Prosopography of the Roman Republic because it can answer these sorts of questions. Of the office holders after 367 there are 335 quaestors and 472 tribunes of the plebs. Of those, 55 men are known to have held both offices.

            However, the answers aren’t good ones here: the data are too fragmentary. A quaestorship might simply have gone unrecorded.

      2. Reaching 60 was a rare feat in preindustrial societies. Not quite unlikely, but in fact, after 50, the odds are you get some internal issue that kills you short of medical intervention. So, 55 is more like the age where your average senator dies.

        This means that you need also people who hadn’t necessarily served as questors in the Senate. People could get there, I understand, also on the merits of their patrilinear line, which gave the censors leeway.

        1. If you reached 50. The thing about premodern times is that while the chief impact on life expectancy was infant mortality, even after that deaths tended to be much more evenly spread over age groups. A tribune becomes a senator but serves in another war and gets a wound that gets infected and dies at 30; sad for his family, but nothing out of the ordinary.

        2. Passing 60 was not really rare. Out of the 11 emperors of high Empire who died of natural causes, between Augustus and Septimius Severus, just 2 died before 60 (Titus at 41 and Marcus Aurelius at 58). But just 3 passed 70 (Augustus, Tiberius and Antoninus Pius). And of the unnatural deaths, Galba was 72.
          But another example of how to get into Senate was the dictatorship of Buteo.
          After Cannae, there was the perception that the Senate should be around 300 men – and a lot of senators had fought at battles and died. Also it was 4 years since the last census – meaning natural depletion in the absence of new appointments.
          Buteo was made second simultaneous dictator in violation of many customs. He voiced his objections… and then appointed 177 new senators. Including men who had never held any office.

          Did men who had been appointed to Senate by Buteo by virtue of that appointment qualify to run for higher offices?

        3. Most pre-industrial average lifespan calculations are drug down by high infant mortality. If you made it past ten, you probably were going to live a long life.

          Plus, the mandatory ten years of military service acted as a culling process. Many of the things that would kill you before 60 would kill you in the army just as quickly–and given the relatively high mortality of Roman combat, a lot of people with conditions that would have killed them at 55 but not in the military would die anyway. Plus, Roman military service was reasonably physically demanding, meaning you’d be in pretty good shape after, and Rome had a culture of physical activity in the form of gymnasiums and baths. This would mitigate many of the diseases of nobles that are associated with sedentary lifestyles (though from the reconstructions I’ve seen, the baths may have killed you in a number of other ways, and their diet certainly left much to be desired).

          Further, Rome had surgery and medicines. Not as good as we have now, but the manuals and tools I’ve seen are surprisingly sophisticated.

          Without looking at actuarial tables (or mass graves where plague wiped out a cross-section or even entire population) it’s impossible to tell what their cohort chart would look like, but given what we know about Rome, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see many people reaching 60 or older.

      3. I thought that some sacerdotal positions (The flamines? The salii?) allowed you to take a position in the Senate upon retirement, and as the gods and its rites were forgotten these positions were seen as a sinecure for unambitious politicians. But I cannot find any reference to that and I am starting to thing I hallucinated it.

  6. Only barely tangentially-related note; since you advertise that you’ve defeated Dark Souls, do you intend on defeated the upcoming Armored Core game?

      1. It looks like it’s gonna be a wild ride, in terms of both gameplay and story (ddunno if you’ve seen any of the trailers, but my bet’s that one of the story routes will be Dune with Mecha). Though I figure odds are slim that the star system being named Rubicon and some guy being named Sulla are meaningful deep cuts to Roman history as opposed to being cool, but I can still hold out hope.

  7. Did the assistants, clerks, etc. of these officers/magistrates get assigned to them by the state or were they something each magistrated hired (or used his clients for) himself?

    I seem to remember that at least in some cases in imperial times a lot of the actual bureaucracy of a provincial magistrate would be amde up of his clients, enslaved persons, or general hangers-on, which is how the roman state could actually function employing such a pitifully small number of bureaucrats.

    1. I think there were a permanent staff of slaves owned by the city itself. Also, magistrates could call upon their networks of clients, which would have the merit of getting lower status men involved in public life.

    2. They were normally a magistrate’s clients. Eg Marcus Claudius Glicia who was the consul’s messenger (possibly even a freedman) who was then appointed dictator by the consul as – basically – a prank on the senate in response to a perceived slight.

  8. Did anybody else keep hearing Kenny Loggins singing “I’m Alright” while they were reading this? No? OK, then.

  9. If even the Romans were confused about the development of their system what chance do we have of figuring it out?

    1. We might have access to sources they don’t. Like inscriptions on stone that was burried already, when our Roman sources wrote. Or sources that were outside of Rome.

      1. Plus, of course, distance means we don’t have quite the same engagement as they did. It’s nothing to us whether the censors were introduced as a TOTALLY NEW thing, not at all like we had before, or RETURNING TO OUR FATHER’S CUSTOM, which we should never have left.

        1. True. In Ancient Rome innovation was a Bad Thing. Changes tended to be sold as a return to ancient precedent.

          1. Whenever you want to get the country to do something really stupid, when no other argument will serve, tell them the Constitution requires it.

            Especially if it doesn’t.

            Why would Rome be any different?

  10. The Aediles were expected to supplement public funds with their own personal wealth. Is there any record of a person getting an enemy elected to the office of aedile in order to bankrupt them? Were there some aedile appointments which were known to cost more than others (more expensive public works to maintain, perhaps)?

    1. Such a guy would presumably just *not* spend his personal wealth. It’s certainly nice to be a respected public works official even if you need to spend your own cash, but if spending your own cash means you’ll have trouble feeding your family, that’d make you a shitty official to begin with. If anyone complains, just say “should’ve elected someone richer bruh, I’m doing my best with what I’ve got”.

      There’s also the possibility of asking someone else to fund stuff. They won’t have the burden of organising anything, can get a cool inscription, public shoutouts so everyone knows they funded it, perhaps for an own political career boost. No idea if it ever happened though.

      1. From what I understand, political families were all wealthy, and also each political family was allied with several non-political wealthy families who would help fund public works. It’s nice to have friends in office who owe you favors!

        1. It would be more accurate to say that you had to be wealthy to go into politics, and not just because of the Senatorial means requirement! Many aspirers to high office borrowed to throw grand games and got the means to pay their creditors back by service in the provinces. A praetor or pro-consul enriching himself at the expense of Rome’s provincial was not corruption but business usual.

          1. I believed there were Romans who bragged that they were moderate in their corruption.

          2. Nowadays it’s viewed as corruption because we have different expectations about how society should be governed and also who was governing and being governed.

            An alternative point of view would be that when we strip away a thin veneer of self-delusion, we find out that it’s really always the same system, then and now – the aristocrats are just trying to convince the public that it approves their decisions, there’s a respected group of them which doesn’t rule directly but whose recommendations everyone’s supposed to follow, and social mobility is contingent on playing ball. The moral value of a system can so easily change with willingness to handwave away problems.

  11. The aediles’ role in prosecuting poisoners reminds me of how in England until the mid 20th century the Attorney General was required to personally act as prosecutor for certain high profile cases. These were mainly offences against the State (treason and the like) but also included all cases of murder by poisoning.

  12. How did the performance of religious offices intersect with the cursus honorum? Would filling a high-profile priesthood be a legitimate cul-de-sac on the road up to high office, or did it essentially entail a different career path? Could you hold priesthoods and magistracies simultaneously? Caesar was a pontiff at some point early in his career, I seem to recall.

    1. There were 15 flamines, or high priests; of these the three flamines maiores were surrounded by so many taboos it was impossible to hold political offices. The rest of the flamines are not too well-known, I believe. Caesar was actually supposed to be Flamen Dialis, one of the maiores, but was stopped from it by Sulla (perhaps lucky for his political career; also the office apparently was not filled until Caesar died, so in a way he was a non-active flamen). Caesar also famously became Pontifex Maximus, the most important priesthood and one that could be held by a politician. As Roxana mentions below, politicians could be augurs as well, Cicero being a famous example.

  13. Pontifex and Augur were extremely prestigious side jobs for Roman Elites, they tended to be semi hereditary with the priesthood often going to the next of kin of a deceased holder. They were elective or cooptive at different times. Flaminates were somewhat different but only the Famen Dialis was unable to lead a normal life or have a public career due ridiculously confining taboos, ditto for the Rex Sacrorum.
    Caesar was Pontiff Maximus, the High Priest of Rome. It didn’t keep him from conquering Gaul or becoming Dictator.

  14. you know, these series on the political systems of Ancient Greece and Rome, with their emphasis on how different the polis and res publica are to modern liberal democracies, seems to show pretty clearly that the model of governance they promoted shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a universal model. Greek city-states flourished for a bit, and then were dominated by Macedonia, and the Roman Republic admittedly showed itself pretty superior to the Hellenistic monarchies – before it developed such deep and serious problems that the only solution was a monarchical regime with a standing army and a more developed bureaucracy (and even then, the Roman Empire differed quite a lot from other monarchies in its officially republican character, which arguably contributed to many of its existential problems – hard to have a smooth succession when technically the emperor is just a magistrate and so his closest relation doesn’t automatically come to power by law). Then you have the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and so on, where the only functional city-states are deeply oligarchic and pretty politically medieval mercantile republics – so not exactly shining lights of imitation-worthy democracies, either. The Dutch Republic seems to be an exception to this rule, but it alternates between having and not having a stadtholder, so hardly very stable there. England has a commonwealth in the 17th century, but it’s not long before the Stuart Restoration comes in and ends that. Meanwhile, monarchical states are beginning to develop the institutions that enable the astronomical take-off of modern state-building – professional bureaucracies, professional officer corps and standing militaries, the cabinet system for delegating responsibilities in the machinery of government from the monarch to select individuals. Then you have the American Revolution, but after the Constitutional Convention of 1787 the United States adopts a system that resembles the British constitution more than Athens or Rome – just look at how singular the chief magistrate is – and of course ever since then the federal government has gotten stronger and the presidency has acquired more powers and the bureaucracy has expended too to meet expanding needs. The French Revolution happens, but its attempt to mimic classical politics end pretty horrible before Napoleon Bonaparte comes in and establishes an even more powerful and efficient monarchy than the ancien regime. Even up to 1914, almost all of the most successful states in the world were monarchical in character, asides from a few exceptions. And now you live in a world where pretty much all liberal democracies look a lot more like their direct monarchical predecessors than any imagined classical past – there’s always one executive, who tends to be pretty powerful and oversees the bureaucracy, the legislature is usually a bicameral parliament in character – no ekklesia or comitia centuriata and concilium plebis and comitia tributa here – and of course, all of these states are defended by professional militaries whose organization is less citizen militia and more royal force with nobles in charge. It goes without saying that closely patterning your society on one where the citizen body can actually meet in one place and coming to a decision within a day is extremely impractical if you have more than a couple thousand people. And not to add that many of these liberal democracies are quite recent historical developments, which means there’s no guarantee they’ll survive in the long run, even if a modern industrial civilization is so radically different from the pre-modern agrarian civilizations in which the allegedly bypassed models of government can survive; so it seems to me like the verdict of history is pretty clearly on the sides of the authoritarians and the monarchies, not any ideal of government by the people, which only appear viable when you take quite a lot of powers out of the popular hands and imitate the hierarchical organization of allegedly backwards and unworthy regimes or are small enough for the city-state model to work!

    1. Paragraphs are your friend, if you want people to read your text.

      “hard to have a smooth succession when technically the emperor is just a magistrate and so his closest relation doesn’t automatically come to power by law”

      Hereditary succession has not been any guarantee of smooth succession. Although the English crown stayed within the extended family since William the Bastard, civil wars over which family member would get it were extremely common — like half the time, roughly — until 1688. Only after Parliament had flexed its power twice did things calm down.

      “the British constitution more than Athens or Rome – just look at how singular the chief magistrate is”

      The President is hardly the only difference. Congress and the Supreme Court are quite significant too.

      “almost all of the most successful states in the world were monarchical in character, asides from a few exceptions”

      Um. At that time the world-empire state was the UK, run by Parliament with a vestigial ceremonial monarch. The biggest economy was the USA, a republic with presidents who tended to be weak more often than not. France was a republic. In 1914 the set of “most successful states” would not be very big. China couldn’t defend itself, Russia was about to fall apart, the rising powers of Germany and Japan were erratically incorporating more republican aspects…

      “there’s always one executive,”

      Switzerland is one exception, with a 7-member Federal Council. France is another, with real powers split between president and prime minister. More commonly, real day to day power is held by a prime minister who is powerful only as long as she has the confidence of a parliament, which can be withdrawn at any time, while a president or monarch holds “head of state” mana in safe powerlessness.

      “the legislature is usually a bicameral parliament in character”

      Commonly, the lower house is far more powerful than the upper; the power of the US Senate is a rare exception.

      “no ekklesia or comitia centuriata and concilium plebis and comitia tributa here”

      Mostly true, though Switzerland is again an exception, with frequent and easy referenda and initiatives. It’s not far in spirit from Rome or Athens: a small body (Boule, consuls, legislature) proposes laws, the assembly validates them. In Switzerland the voters don’t actually vote on very law, but it seems pretty easy for them to strike down laws they don’t like.

      I think Uruguay recently adopted a similar system. I would also note that rarity of a particular system need not be a comment on its quality: legislatures that don’t labor under direct democracy will be unwilling to voluntarily restrain their power, so even if more countries could benefit from being like Switzerland that wouldn’t mean they would do so.

      “all of these states are defended by professional militaries”

      Except the ones that have universal service, such as Israel or Switzerland and others.

      “more royal force with nobles in charge”

      That’s just a complete reach.

      “is extremely impractical if you have more than a couple thousand people”

      Athens had 30,000-60,000 male citizens of age. Rome _as a republic_ had way more than that.

      “it seems to me like the verdict of history is pretty clearly on the sides of the authoritarians and the monarchies”

      It seems to me that this is motivated reasoning, unsupported by any of your evidence, such as it is. History full of pre-modern societies can have no verdict on industrial societies with mass media and an established concept of representative democracy.

      The most stable authoritarian large competitors to modern democracies are not hereditary monarchies but one-party states: the USSR, the PRC, post-Revolution Iran, PRI Mexico. A strong adult leader is selected by a small group, whose composition is partially influenced by the leader. But, note that most of them are not very good competitors! The USSR fell behind economically, then fell apart. Mexico developed poorly, and became more democratic. Iran is a powder keg, with many people no longer even identifying as Muslim. China is the best of the bunch, but has big fault-lines of its own: low birth rate, high corruption, high pollution, the government resorting to hiding economic data…

      The basic democratic principles of active consent of the governed, being able to criticize your leaders, and being able to peacefully replace failing leaders on short notice, are as powerful now as they were 2500 years ago. Some form of representative democracy solves the scale problem that city-states faced. The biggest threat to democracy is not competition with outside peers[1] but selfish power-grabs from within.

      [1] I would venture that Macedon was a local superpower, not a peer; no form of city-state was going to hold out unless they solved the cooperation problem between them.

      1. To be honest this was a stream of consciousness I had late at night which I wasn’t entirely sure of and wanted to see what others thought, so the shoddy organization is my bad. I’ll try to be better in responding.

        1) Of course its true that hereditary succession does not by itself guarantee stability, but it seems to work well when there is a constitutional framework that constrains the ability of other actors to challenge the basic principle. And in any case, arguing that Medieval England was constantly in succession disputes seems, even in my limited knowledge of the subject, to be untrue.

        2) You are right that the presidency is not the only difference, but I was in a bit of a rush so that’s my bad. The Supreme Court seems to differentiate the United States from both any classical models and the British system, which didn’t adopt a Supreme Court until relatively recently.

        3) This was maybe a bit of an out there assertion, but it still seems basically true. Great Britain was a constitutional monarchy, France was on the Third Republic but was still dealing with the existence of a right that would’ve preferred a Boulangerist dictatorship or restoration to a republic, Germany is a monarchy that is becoming constitutional, Denmark and Sweden and Norway were also monarchies, Italy is a monarchy (albeit a very unstable one due to its liberal oligarchy), Austria-Hungary is a monarchy, etc.. I feel like defining any monarchy that is constitutional in nature as being somehow republican is treacherous due to the semantic shifts around the word ‘republic’ that have happened over time and requires care.

        4) Switzerland is an exception, and I guess France also counts, but the point still stands that most of these societies don’t bother with having archons or consuls or directors split the executive powers among themselves – either real power is in the hands of a president or a prime minister, although of course with prime ministers they are responsible to the legislature. And so even if they have weak executives they are a) following a monarchical model with the constitutional monarch or president having to deal with a legislature with ministers being drawn from that body and b) by classical standards mostly all pretty strong executives.

        5) While true, this is also a relatively recent historical development that may or may not end up being stable in the long run; no one can really claim to know whether history will vindicate the House of Commons having more power than the Lords, but many political theorists of the past supported bicameral legislatures and would certainly see this as a dangerous and alarming development.

        6) You are right, but the point remains that Switzerland is a small country and few others follow its model. The point on a system’s rarity is true, but absent supporting arguments could be used, for instance, to justify totalitarianism or some other equally terrible system.

        7) Although I’m not sure of this point, universal service doesn’t seem to disqualify a military from being at least semi-professional; Israel seems to come the closest to being a citizen militia, but they are, like Switzerland, a pretty small country where that doesn’t cause glaring inconveniences in an emergency, and as I understand they still have a professional officer corps.

        8) I was struggling to put into words the idea ‘standing army with professional officer corps which is descended from institutions instituted under royal regimes’, so that is completely my bad.

        9) The couple thousand is definitely an undercount on my part but I feel like Athens and Rome both seem to align with the Montesquieuan idea that democracies only work with small, geographically limited states. And again, the Athenian Empire at its height was limited to the Aegean Sea and Rome had the institutions that allowed it to expand, but then it started running into problems with a city-state running vast territories and experienced democratic backsliding.

        10) I think these criticisms are fair so I would like to elaborate on the basic thrust of the argument by saying that the argument I felt uncertain about and wanted to troubleshoot was democracies are not universally impractical, just that their basic nature limits them to certain sizes and requires a lot of extra effort to keep running smoothly – for instance, the inculcation of civic virtues – that more authoritarian systems don’t need because they are more in line with human nature, for instance having hierarchies where everyone knows who’s in charge and accepts that as the ‘natural’ order of things.

        And while you are right that pre-modern and modern civilizations face some radically different challenges, that is hardly an argument that lessons from the past must be dismissed – after all, why do supporters of democracy so often hearken back to Ancient Greece and Rome? Those cultures certainly have more in common structurally with, say, the societies of the Middle Ages than they do with us. Another important point is that with the Industrial Revolution, human civilization has undergone a profound transformation that severely destabilized and destroyed the old order. But how do we know the current setup, or whatever teleology we imagine will naturally evolve from that, is the inevitable end point of modern industrial and postindustrial societies? Are we at the beginning, middle, or end of modernity? What if the end point of all this ferment is a return to some kind of stable plateau or equilibrium – not exactly the same as agrarian civilizations, but perhaps similar in spirit and character – which ends up reasserting something like the old patterns of human societies?

        I don’t think the principles of consent of the governed, free speech, etc. are undesirable, but are they inherently democratic ideals? After all, many of the Enlightenment fathers of democracy would see things we take for granted, such as the existence of political parties and free speech, as bad for democracy. At one stage of the French Revolution the government famously reimposed censorship on the grounds that criticizing the Revolution could only be treasonous and counter-revolutionary, not the functioning of a healthy democracy. And to a certain extent many societies we might call constitutional authoritarian have degrees of some of these public goods – parliaments, after all, came out of attempts to build a stable Medieval state that could build a consensus among the estates of society for taxation and other issues. Its worth keeping in mind that in the 18th century, when some Western cultures started moving towards democracy, many regarded the existence of standing armies and large bureaucracies as flagrant examples of tyranny and menaces to any free people – and yet nowadays most of the functioning democracies have those, and nobody regards them as being on life-support for those reasons. So are these things democratic or not?

        1. 1) I’m no expert historian, but a while back I went through the kings of England on Wikipedia. It took 9 kings and 206 years to get to a clear combination of “peaceful reign” and “crown passes to son without anyone fighting over it”. Otherwise you have rebellious barons, sons, brothers, or some combination thereof, before and after.

          3) Constitutional monarchies tend to be democratic, if not republican in a strict sense. I look at where the power is. The Principate was not as democratic as the Republic, despite republican forms, because Augustus held the real power through the army. Likewise, the various constitutional monarchies of Europe tend to be puppets of the Parliament. In England, that has been increasingly the case since 1688, nearly 330 years.

          5) There’s no reason to think a strongly bicameral legislature would be historically favored. The trend has been for the lower house to become more powerful. The US is an exception; the US also suffers a lot of policy deadlock.

          9) Direct and fully deliberative democracy (all voters getting to ‘speak up’ meaningfully) only works up to some size, sure. Apart from some futurist speculation, hardly anyone has argued otherwise. So what? Town meeting democracy not scaling doesn’t mean democracy can’t work, it means other forms of democracy need to be developed, something that was already happening in Athens with the increasing role of the law courts (large random juries.)

          10) “their basic nature limits them to certain sizes” Only if you insist on a narrow definition of democracy.

          “that more authoritarian systems don’t need because they are more in line with human nature”

          If human nature is line with anything, it would be living in egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers, which everyone did until the past 10,000 years. Authoritarian system do a ton of work to function at all, let alone well: religion is used to inculcate a sense of supernatural backing and superiority for the elites; violence is kept specialized; fortifications are built to subdue the bulk of the people. Actually keeping power in the hands of the king and bureaucracy, rather than splitting up in nobles and generals, is a whole other level of effort, usually rather imperfectly done.

          I would follow (I think) Azar Gat and say that it’s less about human nature and more about economic conditions. Foraging leads to one kind of society, pastoral nomadism another, peasant agriculture + horse-based military yet another.

          “why do supporters of democracy so often hearken back to Ancient Greece and Rome?”

          Because it’s cool, and there are some lessons to learn? But hardly anyone thinks we should strictly imitate their structures. Occasionally you get someone saying we could borrow some ideas, like the Athenian selection by lot.

          “how do we know the current setup, or whatever teleology we imagine will naturally evolve from that, is the inevitable end point”

          We don’t. No one around here has been pretending to be Fukuyama.

          “are they inherently democratic ideals?”

          Some sort of active consent of the governed is pretty essential to democracy, yes. That’s what democracy means. Free speech is more of an adjunct value, but has been more stable in democracies and republics than in autocracies — “human nature” is that people don’t like being criticized, and will suppress it when they can, which autocrats usually can. Especially when the very first criticism will be “why do you have power and I don’t?” for which there is no good answer.

          1. “I would follow (I think) Azar Gat and say that it’s less about human nature and more about economic conditions.”

            Karl Marx, I think, would be the most notable and influential formulator of that idea. (Which doesn’t make it wrong, I believe it myself.)

          2. Perhaps, but I have read Gat and not Marx, and Gat would have much more resource of anthropology and historical research to draw on.

          3. 1) I don’t know this is as straightforward an assessment as you put it. I’m not sure that many of the examples of ‘strong monarchy’ you count as unstable were really, in the light of feudalism, very strong monarchies.

            3) I don’t believe much of this is disputable as fact, but I will observe that arguing that constitutional monarchs either are in fact or ought to ideally be puppets of their legislatures as some kind of constitutional axiom does not follow from their relative powerlessness nowadays. Again, many political thinkers we like to see as the glorious prophets of modern democracy would consider this a dangerous sign of a constitution out of balance.

            5) But this is such a recent trend that I don’t know we can meaningfully extrapolate that to the rest of history as how representative democracies must always work.

            9) This is true, but at what point do direct and representative democracies diverge to the point that they are still meaningfully similar forms of government?

            “Only if you insist on a narrow definition of democracy.”

            That is true, but I would again argue that modern liberal democracies are too historically recent for the jury to be in on whether they are good examples of democracy; if, for instance, the United States experiences such sharp democratic backsliding in the next fifty years (which doesn’t sound so far fetched nowadays) that the status quo its built up suffers severe damage, then it will hardly be good evidence for the idea that democracies can be large states.

            “If human nature is line with anything, it would be living in egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers, which everyone did until the past 10,000 years. Authoritarian system do a ton of work to function at all, let alone well: religion is used to inculcate a sense of supernatural backing and superiority for the elites; violence is kept specialized; fortifications are built to subdue the bulk of the people. Actually keeping power in the hands of the king and bureaucracy, rather than splitting up in nobles and generals, is a whole other level of effort, usually rather imperfectly done.
            I would follow (I think) Azar Gat and say that it’s less about human nature and more about economic conditions. Foraging leads to one kind of society, pastoral nomadism another, peasant agriculture + horse-based military yet another.”

            We are discussing what forms of organized societies are best suited to human nature, so the hunter-gatherer comparison doesn’t really count. And of course all systems require work to function – the point is that non-democracies are arguably much easier to maintain, for a wide variety of reasons; a good monarchy requires one man or woman to be virtuous, while a good democracy requires all of the people to be virtuous, and which is more probable? I mean, just think about how much time and money the United States pours into educating and socializing its population to be good citizens, and how its common knowledge the average high school senior can’t even tell you the most basic facts about the Constitution. We’ve made sure that every adult person has the right to vote, but let’s be honest, if you took away that right from many ordinary people, how many would notice on Election Day? My guess is not much. How much easier would it be if at least some of the authority in a free society was instead placed into the hands of a enlightened prince (or princess, I won’t discriminate) and a obedient aristocracy? And where has there ever been a successful, long-lasting society that did not have hierarchy and gradations of the social order? Democracies constantly talk about how they have made all men equal, but this is obviously untrue if you look at capitalist managerialism, which is hardly compatible with political democracy’s values.

            “Because it’s cool, and there are some lessons to learn? But hardly anyone thinks we should strictly imitate their structures. Occasionally you get someone saying we could borrow some ideas, like the Athenian selection by lot.”

            My question was rhetorical.

            “We don’t. No one around here has been pretending to be Fukuyama.”

            And yet one constantly hears that democracy is obviously superior, because look at how successful the modern liberal democracies are, never mind that they are recent inventions for a unprecedented industrial civilization that we cannot be sure has achieved its stable state.

            “Some sort of active consent of the governed is pretty essential to democracy, yes. That’s what democracy means. Free speech is more of an adjunct value, but has been more stable in democracies and republics than in autocracies — “human nature” is that people don’t like being criticized, and will suppress it when they can, which autocrats usually can. Especially when the very first criticism will be “why do you have power and I don’t?” for which there is no good answer.”

            Active consent of the governed is a good thing, but why will the governed always consent to a democracy? And aren’t the governed supposed to be the governors in a democracy? I thought democracy meant rule by the many – if we have subconsciously shifted to identifying them as the governed, it seems to me like representative democracies, as I have been arguing, seem more successful only because they’ve abandoned some of the basic elements of democratic societies in favor of more authoritarian structures.

            Of course free speech isn’t well-protected in autocracies, but what about monarchies which derive their authority from the laws? I think it would be absurd to say they are incapable of protecting free speech and other basic rights.

            I am not aiming to justify autocracy, but for any system in which some are in power and others are not, I can actually think of a very good answer – “because God ordained it so”, or “because a place for every man and every man in his place is the best way to organize civilization”. In any case, this is a dangerous question for a supporter of democracy to lob around – one could go right up to the White House and say the same thing to its occupant.

          4. I grow tired of long posts. But picking out a few:

            1) “not sure… very strong monarchies.” What? My point was that hereditary succession was not stable.

            3) “many political thinkers” I don’t really care about them.

            “arguably much easier to maintain” You haven’t made a good argument for that.

            “a good monarchy requires one man or woman to be virtuous” That’s a pretty simplistic case. Even if the king is giving good orders, getting those orders implemented is another matter. People in monarchies have their own interests, they’re not order-following drones.

            I think CP Grey has a video arguing that ruler of autocracies _have_ to spend a lot resources on the violent people keeping them in power. A “good king” risks getting overthrown by someone who will bribe the army or nobles more.

            “a good democracy requires all of the people to be virtuous” No, it really doesn’t. This is so wrong that I can’t even hope to address it properly in a comment.

            I’ll just note that at most basic, democracy could be seen as a simple hill climbing optimization algorithm. “IF life is improving THEN keep current governors ELSE try new ones”. No particular virtue needed.

            “aren’t the governed supposed to be the governors in a democracy”

            In pure “town meeting” direct democracy, yes. Which as we’ve already established, does not scale very far in size. Even in Athens, the Council of 500 was often writing the laws debated and approved by the Assembly; the active ‘governors’ were a random subset of the ‘governed’. A large society requires some level of specialization. But people can still have an ultimate role ranging from “throw the bums out” (most places) to easy voting on individual laws (Athens, Rome, Switzerland)

            “monarchies which derive their authority from the laws” Like what real world monarchies, exactly?

            I think it would be absurd to say that monarchies outside of fantasy books are reliably guards of rights, let alone free speech.

            “I am not aiming to justify autocracy”

            Sure seems like you are.

          5. 1) To quote your own post, “Even if you discount some of the smaller rebellions, I think the “democratic” (more like oligarchic, even today) period of Parliamentary supremacy is clearly far more peaceful and orderly than the hereditary succession of strong monarchy.”

            3) Amazingly, as it happens, I care much more about the accumulated expertise of many intelligent people who had to think long and hard about how politics work, and many of whom were themselves experienced politicians, than your opinion of their opinions.

            You are absolutely right that people are no order-following drones, but you then proceed to describe democracies as rather mechanical systems where all of the voters appear to be perfectly rational actors with perfect information and understanding of that information following a rather simple algorithm. This is simply absurd on the face of it, and any democracy that was organized on these kinds of expectations would quickly fall apart.

            These observations seem to prove that democratic institutions do indeed scale poorly and require degrees of specialization and elitism once you enter the arena of large democratic states, neither of which sounds very democratic at all, and seems to align with the idea that many successful democracies are indeed borrowing from a playbook that might be described as ‘authoritarian’ or maybe something less charged but equally un-democratic.

            In any case, we’ve gone from the people will rule or actively consent to the people will, on occasion, decide which member of the elite will hold a certain office, at which point they stop caring about politics and go back to normal life – this is perhaps a workable system, but not one that seems radically different from, say, a monarchy or aristocracy that has democratic elements in the constitution. In fact, if political life in such societies is so specialized, how much ‘real’ participation do we want from the masses here? It doesn’t sound like you’re describing much of it. What you’re describing sounds a lot more like Sieyes’ idea of ‘authoritarian democracy’ than what most people would consider the good kind of democracy.

            And why shouldn’t morals be at least some consideration in politics? You are certainly happy to condemn un-democratic societies that don’t guarantee certain civil rights, and I am sure this is not completely because of some utilitarian consideration. People who are taught to be virtuous or behave well or are socialized properly or however you put it will certainly cause less trouble to the state and their fellow citizens than people who just look out for number one.

            “Like what real world monarchies, exactly?
            I think it would be absurd to say that monarchies outside of fantasy books are reliably guards of rights, let alone free speech.”

            “Hey Siri, which side in the War of American Independence liberated slaves, and did they write the Declaration of Independence?” That’s a bit facetious but the main point still stands. And as someone who has read ASOIAF, I can call to mind certain monarchies in fantasy who in fact are rather more depraved than many real world monarchies had a tendency to be (not all – just a healthy amount of them).

            “Sure seems like you are.”

            I do not think an acknowledgement that the division of labor is the natural concomitant of sophisticated societies and that social hierarchies are, to a certain extent, good and useful counts as an endorsement of autocracy.

        2. ” after all, why do supporters of democracy so often hearken back to Ancient Greece and Rome?”

          That has much less to do with the actual graeco-roman situation and much more to do with european political history of the 18th and 19th century: basically, Greece and Rome were drafted as historical examples to legitimize democracy, regardless of how actually effective they were (though it should be noted, these early democrats often had programmes more similar to greece and rome than what they ended up creating)

          There’s also a kind of thing where for a long time *everyone* harkened back to Rome; Authoritarians to Augustus, Democrats to the republic, Oligarchs to the senate, christians to Constantine… Rome has been the canvas which every politician paints their ideology on. (while the truth is of course that the roman state not only evolved over time but was, at any given point it’s own thing, and not a teaching example for the future)

          (incidentally, in addition to using rome as a cultural basis for this, most cultures also have thier own imagined past that can be used to paint whatever)

          ” that more authoritarian systems don’t need because they are more in line with human nature, for instance having hierarchies where everyone knows who’s in charge and accepts that as the ‘natural’ order of things.”

          The assumption there is that this is natural and easy, and evidence seems to show it’s not: Rather, the maintenance of an authoritarian system *itself* requires quite a bit of legitimacy building, coup-proofing, etc. The “natural order” is usually the end product of centuries of work, of building the kind of legitimacy for the social order, and this is not very different from what democracies do.

          1. And those generations of work can be undermined and eventually overthrown by stupidity, incompetence or greed. As Machiavelli points out maintaining the consent of the governed is work, work, work.

        3. “And in any case, arguing that Medieval England was constantly in succession disputes seems, even in my limited knowledge of the subject, to be untrue.”

          “Constantly” is strictly speaking wrong, but it isn’t very wrong. There wasn’t really a unified English state until Edgar. Then you have a
          succession dispute after Edgar’s death in 975, which went on really through to 1066. Then you had a series of revolts against William. Then William dies in 1085 and you have another succession dispute that goes on until 1128. Then you have the Anarchy starting in 1135 that goes on until 1154. Then you have Henry II facing revolts by his children. Then you have John vs the barons in the late 13th century.
          Things calm down a bit under Edward I but then you have all the revolts under Edward II, Roger Mortimer and so on. Bit of calm under Edward III and then you get the coup by Henry IV in 1399. Half a century of calm under Henry IV and V, and then the Wars of the Roses run through to 1485, generally felt to be the end of the Middle Ages in England.

          So the English Middle Ages last for roughly 500 years, and there is a succession dispute going on (generally armed) for about 400 years of that period!

      2. I just wanted to stick my oar in to appreciate ‘a president or monarch holds “head of state” mana in safe powerlessness’ as an astonishingly clear and concise way of describing it. 🙂

        1. “clear and concise way”

          Thank you! Though I think I got the idea from James Nicoll, some line about constitutional monarchs being a lightning rod drawing dangerous head-of-state mana away from the government. I can’t actually find a source online earlier than me, though. :p

    2. Theorists have been betting on autocracies vs. Democracies for some time now, and losing. Of course an autocratic system is very attractive to those who assume they’ll be among the autocrats.

    3. On one hand, you are questioning the democratic character of regimes by pointing out their differences to other democracies, on the other hand you are lumping an array of very diverse regimes together under the label of “monarchical and authoritarian” in order to argue that this kind of regime is historically more successful. That is a dishonest form of argument.

      You are right though that modern democracy was not arrived at by imitating classical forms of government; it evolved from the early-modern absolutist monarchy (and therefore still in many ways resembles this form of government more than that of any ancient state) by adding more and more forms of democratic checks – taking legislative power from the monarch and putting it into the hands of a permanent parliament, making parliament subject to regular equal and free elections, shifting executive power to a prime minister or chancellor, replacing the hereditary monarch with an elected head of state etc. And while it was in no way a uniform trend, governments with more of these checks have tended to be more successful through the last 200 years. The most stable form of government France has had since the Revolution was the 3rd Republic, lasting from 1871 to 1940, and in both World Wars as well as the Cold War the side where the leading countries had more of these checks came out on top. We can argue all day as to whether these countries deserve the name “democracy” or are more properly described as “checked oligarchies” or the like, but they are vastly different from authoritarian states, and seem on average to be more successful than authoritarian states, in great power competition as well as in other metrics such as “ensuring peaceful succession” or “providing social mobility and civil liberties”.

      1. I believe I have unintentionally mislead people by using the word authoritarian to describe the system that I mean, which I will admit is my fault. I am using authoritarian in this argument to mean something like “top-heavy, specialized, elitist governments with wide ranging powers”, not “fascist or fascist-adjacent, extraconstitutional”. Clearly constitutional states have outperformed autocracies and other kinds of despotic states in history.

        My point was that we have only reached the current system of liberal democracies largely by modifying the basic models we found in early-modern absolute or near-absolute monarchies, not by drawing deeply from the well of the classical past. For instance most liberal democracies nowadays have standing militaries and large professional bureaucracies, institutions that in the Enlightenment period would’ve been seen as dead ringers for autocracies and therefore anathema to democracy. (Although this is not essential to my argument, I believe the existence of mass media like the Internet may push this “authoritarian” trend even further by requiring governments to respond to the over-saturation of the public square with fake or useless information with some kind of censorship. As Neil Postman said, the problem is not that George Orwell was right, but that Aldous Huxley was.)

        In this case, there seems to be good reason to fear that, since the best democracies have less replaced the old systems than modified them to suit new purposes, that means they are probably extremely prone to democratic backsliding, if anything even more prone to it than the alarmists worry, because that is sort of built in to their nature. And the cry of more democratic reforms to proof the system against these problems may not work by in effect ruining what made these liberal democracies so effective in the first place – the combination of a basically “authoritarian” or “monarchical” political structure with some democratic principles and checks and balances. So the future of liberal democracies may not prove that they are the best and most natural system of government, but rather require a lot of caveats to work and may in future be replaced by some other variety of constitutional government that to us would be more “authoritarian”, but not authoritarian in the sense of government by secret police or death squad. Is that a better argument?

        1. So the future of liberal democracies may not prove that they are the best and most natural system of government

          That is a huge strawman. I don’t think anyone ever claimed that liberal democracy is “natural” to man. It isn’t, it needs a conscious effort to achieve (and even then, efforts backed by a superpower can succeed like in Germany or fail like in Afghanistan) and to uphold. But upholding it is worth the effort because while it may not be “the best” system, all the others (that have actually been tried) are worse in many regards.

          I disagree with your take that the modern administrative and bureaucratic state (which is indeed descended from that of the absolutist period) is inherently “authoritarian” or contrary to the state being democratic. Liberal democracy doesn’t mean not having a Leviathan – it means, in the words of Acemoglu and Robinson, putting shackles on the Leviathan.

          1. “That is a huge strawman. I don’t think anyone ever claimed that liberal democracy is “natural” to man. It isn’t, it needs a conscious effort to achieve (and even then, efforts backed by a superpower can succeed like in Germany or fail like in Afghanistan) and to uphold.”

            To be sure, this would be a straw-man if I was trying to describe your views on the matter. But certainly it is going too far in the opposite direction to say that nobody has ever claimed liberal democracy is “natural” (which, as you point out, it is not). Some of the most important thinkers of the Enlightenment would certainly speak of democracy in this way, and I think it’s a frequent assumption of some 21st century people. If I remember correctly George Orwell once observed that many people defined democracy as, “the system of which I approve”, rather than some more objective definition. Of course this is a small caveat and does not challenge the main thrust of your argument, which I think is inarguable.

            “I disagree with your take that the modern administrative and bureaucratic state (which is indeed descended from that of the absolutist period) is inherently “authoritarian” or contrary to the state being democratic. Liberal democracy doesn’t mean not having a Leviathan – it means, in the words of Acemoglu and Robinson, putting shackles on the Leviathan.”

            I think I have been at fault here for using democracy in an older semantic sense, rather than the sense which is more current and which most people would think of today. If democracy is defined as the modern liberal state, then obviously the administrative and bureaucratic state isn’t contrary to it – some if not all of the most important contributions to this system have come from democracies.

            What I think – and feel free to correct me if I am wrong – is the main stumbling block for me is that, if direct and representative democracies, or classical and liberal democracies, have developed so differently that there are few genuine points of contact anymore, can they be meaningfully compared and both labelled democracies? Once when people would define the Roman Republic as oligarchic or aristocratic in character, I would disagree, but now I think I’d have to say there is little meaningful similarities between Rome (or Athens, or Thebes, …) and the United States (or France, or Germany, or the United Kingdom, …) except in broad ideological outlines – and to be honest, the attempt to find meaningful similarities feels incredibly frustrating to me, like repeatedly trying to square a circle, and has maybe led me to stake out more extreme positions than make good sense.

            That isn’t to say that there aren’t good lessons to learn from classical history for democracies, but if this argument is true, it seems the history of many medieval or early modern states might be equally or even more useful lessons in how to manage a modern democracy due to the existence of a administrative and bureaucratic chasm between us and the Greek and Roman past. That is not to mention differences in, for instance, how a bicameral parliamentary legislature behaves in comparison to something like the Athenian boule and ekklesia, or how the role of the judiciary as a third branch has nothing to do with classical democracies.

  15. The ideal Roman political career commenced by getting the attention of the electorate, name recognition was an important element so it definitely paid to come from a famous family with lots of Consuls and Praetors in it’s ranks. One got attention and sometimes money through a sterling military record and/or a reputation as an advocate in the courts. Gaius Julius Caesar did both.
    Tribune of the Plebs was a good way to rivet the voters’ interest and get into the Senate, but only if you were a Plebeian yourself. Another way was to run for Quaestor, the first of the magistracies. You had to be Quaestor to go further. If you made Quaestor at thirty you filled in the years until you were eligible for higher office by serving on gocernors’ or generals’ staffs and networking.
    You could run for Aedile in your mid thirties, Aedile was a very expensive office but if you had or could borrow the cash you could win the favor of the electorate by throwing fabulous games. Caesar did that too.
    At thirty-nine or forty you could run for Praetor. If you achieved that you became eligible to lead armies and govern provinces, the latter being a good way to shore up your finances which have no doubt suffered badly. Two or three years later you are eligible to run for Consul, the top job. After your year as consul you are a Very Important Senator with speaking privilege and plenty of clout thanks to your auctoritas and dignitas.
    As Bret said it was most prestigious to get in a magistracy the year you became eligible; thirty, thirty-six, thirty-nine and forty-two. After Consul there was additional prestige in being elected one of the Censors thus nicely rounding out your career.

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