Collections: How to Roman Republic 101, Part IIIb: Imperium

This is the second section of the third part of our planned five part series (I, II, IIIa) on the structure of the Roman Republic during the third and second centuries, the ‘Middle’ Republic. Last week we discussed the overall structure of the ‘career path’ for a Roman politician and the first few offices along that path. This week we’re going to look at the upper-steps of that career path, the offices of praetor and consul and the particular set of powers they possess, called imperium, along with the pro-magistrate forms of these positions. Now I should note at the outset that we have skipped one office on our way through, the tribunes of the plebs; we’ll get to that office next week to discuss its oddities and unusual powers.

The praestorship and the consulship are the highest Roman offices (the censorship being more of a ‘victory lap’) and the two offices that wield direct military and judicial authority. These are also the offices where competition in the cursus honorum starts to get fierce, as the eight quaestors must compete for just six praetorships and those six praetors can expect to compete for just two – always two – consulships. It is worth keeping in mind as we go through this that on the one hand these offices are largely confined to a small Roman elite, the nobiles, composed of families (both patrician and plebeian) that have been successful in politics over generations, but at the same time it is the popular assemblies which choose ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ from among the nobiles by deciding who gets to proceed to the next round of the political elimination context, and who is forever going to sit in the Senate as a former quaestor and nothing more.

Now I am the only one of this blog who gets to have imperium (apparently ACOUP operates in the imperial where I have imperium and the guest-posters are my legati), but Patrons at the patres et matres conscripti level can still advise me on how to use my imperium! You don’t even have to have held the quaestorship! 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. I am also on Bluesky ( and (less frequently) Mastodon (


What connects these offices in particular is that they confer imperium, a distinctive concept in Roman law and governance. The word imperium derives from the verb impero, ‘to command, order’ and so in a sense imperium simply means ‘command,’ but in its implication it is broader. Imperium was understood to be the power of the king (Cic. Leg. 3.8), encompassing both the judicial role of the king in resolving disputes and the military role of the king in leading the army. In this sense, imperium is the power to deploy violence on behalf of the community: both internal (judicial) violence and external (military) violence.

That power was represented visually around the person of magistrates with imperium through the lictors (Latin: lictores), attendants who follows magistrates with imperium, mostly to add dignity to the office but who also could act as the magistrates ‘muscle’ if necessary. The lictors carried the fasces, a set of sticks bundled together in a rod; often in modern depictions the bundle is thick and short but in ancient artwork it is long and thin, the ancient equivalent of a police-man’s less-lethal billy club. That, notionally non-lethal but still violent, configuration represented the imperium-bearing magistrate’s civil power within the pomerium (recall, this is the sacred boundary of the city). When passing beyond the pomerium, an axe was inserted into the bundle, turning the the non-lethal crowd-control device into a lethal weapon, reflective of the greater power of the imperium-bearing magistrate to act with unilateral military violence outside of Rome (though to be clear the consul couldn’t just murder you because you were on your farm; this is symbolism). The consuls were each assigned 12 lictors, while praetors got 6. Pro-magistrates had one fewer lictor than their magistrate versions to reflect that, while they wielded imperium, it was of an inferior sort to the actual magistrate of the year.

From the British Museum (inv. 1983,1229.1) a bronze figurine dating to the late first century showing a lictor bearing the fasces as they would be carried outside of the pomerium, with the axe inserted.

What is notable about the Roman concept of imperium is that it is a single, unitary thing: multiple magistrates can have imperium, you can have greater or lesser forms of imperium, but you cannot break apart the component elements of imperium.1 This is a real difference from the polis, where the standard structure was to take the three components of royal power (religious, judicial and military) and split them up between different magistrates or boards in order to avoid any one figure being too powerful. For the Romans, the royal authority over judicial and military matters were unavoidably linked because they were the same thing, imperium, and so could not be separated. That in turn leads to Polybius’ awe at the power wielded by Roman magistrates, particularly the consuls (Polyb. 6.12); a polis wouldn’t generally focus so much power into a single set of hands constitutionally (keeping in mind that tyrants are extra-constitutional figures).

So what does imperium empower a magistrate to do? All magistrates have potestas, the power to act on behalf of the community within their sphere of influence. Imperium is the subset of magisterial potestas which covers the provision of violence for the community and it comes in two forms: the power to raise and lead armies and the power to organize and oversee courts. Now we normally think of these powers as cut by that domi et militiae (“at home and on military service”) distinction we discussed earlier in the series: at home imperium is the power to organize courts (which are generally jury courts, though for some matters magistrates might make a summary judgement) and abroad the power to organize armies. But as we’ll see when we get to the role of magistrates and pro-magistrates in the provinces, the power of legal judgement conferred by imperium is, if anything, more intense outside of Rome. That said it is absolutely the case that imperium is restrained within the pomerium and far less restrained outside of it.

From the British Museum (inv. G.2680) a gold stater (minted in 42 BC) showing on the obverse Brutus as consul with two lictors accompanying him.

There were limits on the ability of a magistrate with imperium to deploy violence within the pomerium against citizens. The Lex Valeria, dating to the very beginning of the res publica stipulated that in the case of certain punishments (death or flogging), the victim had the right of provocatio to call upon the judgement of the Roman people, through either an assembly or a jury trial. That limit to the consul’s ability to use violence was reinforced by the leges Porciae (passed in the 190s and 180s), which protected civilian citizens from summary violence from magistrates, even when outside of Rome. That said, on campaign – that is, militae rather than domi – these laws did not exempt citizen soldiers from beating or even execution as a part of military discipline and indeed Roman military discipline struck Polybius – himself an experienced Greek military man – as harsh (Polyb. 6.35-39).

In practice then, the ability of a magistrate to utilize imperium within Rome was hemmed in by the laws, whereas when out in the provinces on campaign it was far less limited. A second power, coercitio or ‘coercion’ – the power of a higher magistrate to use minor punishments or force to protect public order – is sometimes presented as a distinct power of the magistrates, but I tend to agree with Lintott (op. cit., 97-8) that this rather overrates the importance of the coercive powers of magistrates within the pomerium; in any case, the day-to-day maintenance of public order generally fell to minor magistrates.

While imperium was a ‘complete package’ as it were, the Romans clearly understood certain figures as having an imperium that outranked others, thus dictators could order consuls, who could order praetors, the hierarchy neatly visualized by the number of lictors each had. This could create problems, of course, when Rome’s informal systems of hierarchy conflicted with this formal system, for instance at the Battle of Arausio, the pro-consul Quintus Servilius Caepio refused to take orders from the consul, Gnaeus Mallius Maximus, because the latter was his social inferior (being a novus homo, a ‘new man’ from a family that hadn’t yet been in the Senate and thus not a member of the nobiles), despite the fact that by law the imperium of a sitting consul outranked that of a pro-consul. The result of that bit of insubordination was a military catastrophe that got both commanders later charged and exiled.

Finally, a vocabulary note: it would be reasonable to assume that the Latin word for a person with imperium would be imperator2 because that’s the standard way Latin words form. And I will say, from the perspective of a person who has to decide at the beginning of each thing I write what circumlocution I am going to use to describe “magistrate or pro-magistrate with imperium,” it would be remarkably fortunate if imperator meant that, but it doesn’t. Instead, imperator in Latin ends up swallowed by its idiomatic meaning of ‘victorious general,’ as it was normal in the republic for armies to proclaim their general as imperator after a major victory (which set the general up to request a triumph from the Senate). In the imperial period, this leads to the emperors monopolizing the term, as all of the armies of Rome operated under their imperium and thus all victory accolades belonged to the emperor. That in turn leads to imperator becoming part of the imperial title, from where it gives us our word ’emperor.’

That said, the circumlocution I am going to use here, because this isn’t a formal genre and I can, is ‘imperium-haver.’ I desperately wish I could use that in peer reviewed articles, but I fear no editor would let me (while Reviewer 2 will predictably object to ‘general’ ‘commander’ or ‘governor’ for all being modern coinages).3

On to our first set of imperium-havers!


The six praetors are the junior imperium-possessing magistracy and though all of the praetors were elected together, by the Middle Republic the job of being praetor might vary quite a lot depending on which role you were assigned by the Senate. You will recall that the praetorship is an old office, originally taking the place of chief magistrate which later becomes the consulship (note Livy 3.5.11-12, 7.3.5-8; Cic. Leg. 3.8; Fest. 249L; Gell. 11.18.8, 20.1.47; Plin. NH 18.12 see also Varro Ling. 5.80), though at some point the title of the chief magistrate shifted being consul and the praetor (just one of them) served as a junior assistant to the consuls. We’re not well informed about the praetorship in this early form, but it seems likely it had a similar role in organizing the courts, while the consuls led the armies. In any case the number of praetors increases rapidly in the last half of the third century, with a second added in c. 242, two more in 228 and two more in 198/7, giving the total of six.

Because the praetors had imperium, they could in theory lead armies and organize courts the same as consuls (though they lacked some of the other distinctive consular powers we’ll discuss in a moment) but in practice the responsibilities of the praetors were usually quite distinct and split into two large categories: praetors assigned a provincia (which again, you should read as ‘job’ not ‘province’) at Rome and praetors assigned a provincia outside of Rome.

The two praetors operating normally in Rome were terms the praetor urbanus and praetor peregrinus and their responsibility was almost entirely focused on the court system. The praetor urbanus was primarily concerned with legal disputes involved two citizen parties, while any issue involving foreigners came under the jurisdiction of the praetor peregrinus, though the latter was sometimes also deployed out of Rome on special duties, at which point the praetor urbanus, who almost always remained in Rome, would handle both. On coming into office, the praetor urbanus (and probably also the praetor peregrinus) issued the edictum praetoris (‘Praetor’s edict’) which set out how he intended to carry out his office. Early on, these edicts seem mostly to have been restricted to changes in procedure or the assessment of damages, but by the first century praetorian edicts could lay out substantive law creating what later Roman jurists would term the ius praetorium (‘praetorian law’), which sat alongside the main law code itself, the ius civile (‘civil law’). Mostly what these edicts lay out seem to be procedures or the conditions under which the praetor will grant a cause of action. By the time the edict is fully developed, praetors seem to be seeking and getting advice from an emerging class of legal experts, iuris prudentes (‘men learned at law’ = ‘legal consult’) to craft what must often have been pretty formulaic edicts.4

We’ll cover the Roman legal process towards the end of this series but we may cover the praetor’s role here in brief. When a case was raised – and Roman law understands all cases as disputes just like Greek law does, though unlike in most Greek poleis, some Roman magistrates seem to have had an expectation to act as quasi-public prosecutors for certain kinds of infractions – it was brought before the praetor, either urbanus for an issue involving citizens or peregrinus for an issue involving at least one non-citizen. At this point the matter was in iure (‘at law’) and the praetor held a sort of preliminary hearing to determine if there was a cause of action (thus the importance of this question in the praetor’s edict) and then to assign a judge (a iudex) who would administer the trial and to set a formula (formula, gotta love Latin), which functioned rather like jury instructions, naming the relevant parties, describing their dispute and setting out the consequences should the matter be ruled in favor of one or the other (this stage of the case is apud iudicem, ‘before a judge’). Note that the praetor doesn’t make a ruling, but merely lays out the formula.

For more serious matters that required a jury court to resolve, a potential prosecutor went before the praetor, who then assigned the case to the relevant court or assembly (as assemblies, especially early on, could act as courts) and set a date for the trial. Interestingly, for jury trials, no formula was provided by the praetor.

What about the praetors who weren’t assigned to Rome? As the sphere of Roman military activity expanded beyond Italy, it became necessary to have more commanders in the field, and this is where we get the additional praetors. Because a praetor has imperium, they can function as a sort of ‘mini-consul.’ That said, praetors don’t tend to get assigned the sorts of jobs consuls do. If Rome needs three major field armies, the Senate generally doesn’t send a praetor to command the third, rather it sends a pro-consul (which makes a degree of sense when you think about it; you want an experienced commander).

Instead, praetors in the field tend to be assigned to putative ‘quiet’ provinces or auxiliary support functions. The standard praetorian provinces were Corsica et Sardinia (one province) and Sicily, later joined by the two Spains (Hispania Citerior, ‘Nearer Spain’ and Hispania Ulterior, ‘Further Spain), when they were quiet. When a major military action flared up on this areas, the response wasn’t to send a praetor with a large army, but to assign a consul or a pro-consul to the province instead, though because these assignments are made annually that tends to mean that trouble flares up, the praetor with his smaller army tries to manage it and if he fails and is defeated, then a consul is sent out with a major army.

Now I don’t want to get entirely off-track detailing what a Roman commander does in his overseas provincia; I may add a supplemental post on this one describing what Roman provincial government looks like in the Republic (though for the curious, the book to read is F.K. Drogula, Commanders and Command (2015); it’s a bit dry, but quite thorough). But in brief a praetor in his overseas provincia is going to have command of whatever military forces are there, generally less than the standard two-legion consular army (sometimes a lot less!). If there is no active military campaign to be done, the praetor will transit around the province. Because he has imperium, he can resolve disputes as a court and in the provinces – because imperium is stronger outside of Rome – he can do so summarily so long as Roman citizens are not involved. He can enforce these resolutions on non-Romans in the province because he has a Roman army and the implicit backing of the rest of the Roman state. Note that the praetor in his province doesn’t take over day-to-day garden variety law and order issues; those are still handled by local governments, according to local laws.

Generally the expectation is that a praetor is going to use his mix of military force and his ability to resolve disputes and deliver judgements to keep good order in the region and to make sure that Rome’s taxes are collected. In practice within those confines, there’s a lot of latitude, though the Senate may make certain specific demands as part of a praetor’s assignment. The praetor is also assisted by an assigned quaestor who handles the financial side of things and is expected to consult a small council of advisors, a consilium, when making decisions. Finally, beginning in 149, there is a permanent court in Rome which has the job of handling the cases of governors who exceeded their mandate in the provinces, the quaestio de repetundis; the name literally means ‘the court for things you need to give back’ because the primary concern was governors extorting money and taking bribes in their provinces. So the praetor’s latitude is not infinite.

As the number of active provinciae became too large for even the larger number of praetors and the two consuls, the Senate took to having former praetors serve as ‘pro-praetors,’ a kind of pro-magistrate, but we’ll talk about them below, after we’ve discussed the most important Roman magistrate, the consuls.

The Consuls

The consuls, always a pair, are the senior magistrates of the Roman Republic. While the censors, if there are any in office, may be themselves senior consulars (that is, ex-consuls), the sitting consuls are still the most powerful magistrates. Consuls wield imperium, but of a greater degree than any other magistrate or pro-magistrate (save a dictator), allowing them to in theory give orders to other magistrates (though this doesn’t happen often). The consuls also lead Rome’s primary field armies through the Middle Republic (this shifts only with Sulla’s reforms in 83).

While in theory the consuls’ possession of imperium meant they could superintend the courts, they generally didn’t (some Late Republic exceptions, like Pompey presiding over the trial of Titus Annius Milo are remarkable for being unusual). Instead, we most often see consuls in two roles: moving major legislation and leading Rome’s main field armies. In the former case, technically the praetors could legislate as well as the consuls, but in practice major laws tended to be proposed by either the consuls or the plebeian tribunes.

Each consul would also command a major field army. The Romans do not do army-command-by-committee (unlike Athens), so under normal circumstances the consuls each had independent command over their own army. The standard strength of a consular army was two legions (8,400 infantry, 600 cavalry) plus two alae of socii (varies but roughly the same size, with somewhat more cavalry), meaning that each consul in the Middle Republic goes to war with a chunky c. 20,000 man army. It was only in rare circumstances that these armies would be combined and such combined ‘double consular’ armies often caused problems if the consuls couldn’t get along or agree on a strategic vision.

That said, how many troops a consul might have and where he would be expected to take them was largely determined by the Senate. The Senate, as we’ll see, assigns provincia (again, think ‘jobs’ not ‘provinces’) – even to the consuls – and it also directs the quaestors on how resources are to be allocated. That includes conscription (the dilectus) and we see repeatedly that consuls do not feel they can hold a dilectus without the consent of the Senate; they can take volunteers without senatorial approval, but a draft, no. Likewise, unless they can find volunteer funding, they are reliant on quaestors releasing funds, quaestors who are always going to do what the Senate tells them to do.

However, the Senate can’t come on campaign with the consuls and so once in the field, dealing with whatever problem the Senate has suggested they deal with, the consuls have a great deal of command independence and nearly limitless authority. Whereas at Rome consular authority is constrained by laws and the plebeian tribunes (whose powers end at the pomerium), in the field they can implement strict military discipline and command their armies as they see fit. That extends to considerable latitude when it comes to negotiating with foreign states (neutral or hostile), though any treaty they make must be ratified back in Rome (technically requiring approval of an assembly but in practice this depends on if the Senate approves).

Now with such sweeping powers the Romans were naturally concerned that the consuls might usurp the state, so they instituted a few basic checks on this. One of these checks is simply the existence of the plebeian tribunes, but we’ll talk about those next time. But also it was clearly established that there must always be two consuls. Not one, not three. Two. If one consul dies, another must be immediately elected; this replacement consul was called a consul suffectus (the year was still dated from the two consuls elected at the beginning, the consules ordinarii). Because only a consul had the authority to hold a consular election, you needed a system to handle situations where both consuls were indisposed at once (either both dead or one dead and one abroad with the army); the solution was a rare official, the interrex, who only had the authority to hold an election for the consulship.

Once you’ve ensured there are always two consuls, the next trick is to make sure they can check each other. To ensure that, consuls were given some substantial powers. The most famous of these was veto, Latin for “I forbid!” Just by saying the word, a consul could block any action by any other magistrate, including the other consul. The power had to be exercised in person, which limited it: if you really wanted to prevent your colleague from doing something he really wanted to do, you best be prepared to follow him around in person every day to keep vetoing it. A supercharged for of veto consuls could also exercise was iustitium, declaring a stop to all state business; this could be used to stop any meeting of a popular assembly or of the Senate so long as the assembly had not dispersed into voting groups.

The final check on the consuls is pretty simple: they only serve for one year. After which it is generally expected that there be a respectable interval (usually around 10 years) before you can run for the consulship again. While in office, any Roman with imperium is immune from prosecution, but can be prosecuted immediately on leaving office for any crimes they may have done while in office. Consequently, a consul’s freedom of action is going to be limited by their concern about potentially having to face a jury after their one-year term is complete. Even if they aren’t worried about that, once their year is done they go back to being just another senator, so good relations with the rest of the Senate is a good idea.

In part because one of the other things the Senate decides on are…


Roman expansion put strains on all of these systems. Fundamentally, the Roman system remained one designed for a small city-state. Everything – military command, attending the Senate, passing legislation, using veto power – needed to be done in person by magistrates who only had a single year in office. While Roman territory and the scope of Rome’s wars remained small, that sort of system worked fine. As Roman territory and Rome’s wars expanded, it put all sorts of strains on that system: how to handle multi-year campaigns which kept the armies in the field? How to handle having more commands than magistrates?

The solution was to extend (prorogue) a magistrate’s authority, making them a pro-magistrate (‘pro’ meaning ‘standing in for’). It’s tricky to pin down exactly when the Romans first did this as our sources for early Rome (Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus) tend to use terms for proconsular power (pro consule or ἀνθύπατον ἀρχὴν) long before prorogation seems to have been used in Rome. Generally, we think that the first genuine prorogation happens in 327 as part of the run-up to the Second Samnite War (Livy 8.23).5 The problem here was two-fold: Rome’s evident shift to year-round campaigning meaning that the army needed a continous commander in the field as in this case where it was conducting a siege, combined with the greater distances – the commander, Q. Pubilius Philo, is besieging Naples – making swift changes in command difficult.

Prorogation becomes common and regular during the Punic Wars. The First Punic War, taking place primarily in Sicily, demanded the use of prorogation to cover the lag time between elections in Rome and commanders arriving in Sicily, as well as to allow single commanders to conduct more complex campaigns. By the Second Punic War, which takes place in Italy, Sicily, Gaul, Spain, North Africa and Illyria (much of that simultaneously) it was also necessary to prorogue commanders in order to simply get enough field commanders with imperium for all of the armies Rome was deploying. Indeed, in the crazy days of the Second Punic War, at points the Senate prorogued men who had never held office before, privati cum imperio (private citizens with imperium), though this is discontinued and replaced by a system whereby prorogued commanders will have first held the relevant office at some point.

The expanding number of areas of Roman overseas control pushed this further as more regions meant more provinciae (in the sense of ‘jobs’) which demanded more imperium-havers to handle. New praetors were eventually made for Sicily, Corsica-and-Sardinia and the two Spains, but by the mid-second century the Romans are regularly assigning imperium-havers to Gaul (Cisalpine or Transalpine), Africa, Greece and Macedonia and of course also need magistrates with imperium in Italy to handle the regular functions of government.6

One of the pressures here is that by this point it was clearly locked into tradition that there were only ever two consuls. It had not always been that way; back when the Romans had military tribunes with consular powers, they had three of them. But by the third century, there were always and could only be two consuls. But that’s a problem because even if you have spare praetors, you don’t assign praetors to major military commands, so if you have three major military commands, you don’t send a praetor, you assign a proconsul.

The result of all of this is that each year the most pressing military problems generally got a consul assigned to them. Often the military problem from last year that was on-going would see its ex-consul prorogued to continue handling it. Likewise, the new praetors would be sent out to replace the governors in quiet provinces, with the remainder who weren’t replaced prorogued to hold down the fort for another year. Later it is going to become quite common for former praetors and consuls who had returned to Rome to be dispatched back out to the provinces to do a stint as a promagistrate, but the common use of this is really a consequence of the Sullan reforms and for the most part belongs to the first century. Most third and second century promagistrates are having an existing command extended rather than being sent out fresh.

Extensions of this sort, I should note, were generally fairly short. The longest run I can think of in this period is that of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus who is privati cum imperio pro consule (‘private citizen with pro-consular imperium’) from 210 to 206, mostly as a product of his father and uncle having been the local Roman commanders in Spain and Scipio having taken over when they were both killed, leading to an irregular, emergency command. He’s then consul in 205, before having his command prorogued from 204 to 201 to complete his invasion of Africa (technically, he’s assign to Sicily with permission to invade Africa if an opportunity presented itself).

Far more typical for even an exceptional commander was something like Scipio Aemilianus’ experience. Consul in 147, he is prorogued to complete the destruction of Carthage in 146. Then, consul in 134, he is prorogued to complete the destruction of Numantia in 133. And that was that. The point here being that the heavy reliance on proconsuls to conduct the main effort in Roman wars, often with longer commands (most famously Caesar’s eight years in Gaul or Pompey’s back-to-back eastern commands from 67 to 62) visible in the Late Republic was not common practice in the Middle Republic.

One significant legal quirk of prorogation is that while a consul or a praetor at least notionally had imperium which traveled (though in practice they would be expected to focus on the provincia the Senate assigned them), the imperium of a promagistrate, who after all only ‘stood in for’ the actual magistrate of the year, was in fact restricted to their defined sphere of action.

My plan once we’ve gone through the whole Roman system for Romans is to add two more posts on this series (perhaps not coming right away), one covering how the Roman Republic interacts with the socii and another briefly describing the shape of Roman governance in the provinces7 But for now, that’s enough on imperium. Next week, we’re going to look at two very strange major offices, the tribunate and the censorship, plus discuss what we know of the key minor offices of the republic.

  1. I should note here that Drogula (in Commanders and Command (2015)) understands imperium a bit differently than this more traditional version I am presenting (in line with Lintott’s understanding). He contends that imperium was an entirely military power which was not necessary for judicial functions and was not only indivisible but also, at least early on, did not come in different degrees. In practice, I’m not sure the Romans were ever so precise with their concepts as Drogula wants them to be.
  2. Pronunication note because this bothers me when I hear this word in popular media: it is not imPERator, but impeRAtor, because that ‘a’ is long by nature, and thus keeps the stress.
  3. And yes, really, I have had reviewers object to ‘general’ or ‘commander’ to mean ‘the magistrate or pro-magistrate with imperium in the province.’ There is no pleasing Reviewer 2.
  4. To be clear, these are not professional lawyers, but rather generally elites who had taken a special interest in the law and thus become experts, on whom other elites holding offices might rely.
  5. On this, see Drogula, op. cit. 27.
  6. Macedonia as a permanent province is added in 147, Africa in 146 and Asia in 129, followed by Gallia Narbonensis in 120. No new praetors are created for this province; they’re handled by promagistrates when things are calm enough not to require a consul.
  7. Places, not jobs, for once.

162 thoughts on “Collections: How to Roman Republic 101, Part IIIb: Imperium

  1. “Bearer of imperium” or “imperium-bearer”, maybe? To my ear it seems a little less awkward than “imperium-haver”, though mileage may vary.

    1. I’d propose “imperium actor”. In the right tone & context, “actor” is adequately stentorian, and it does draw attention to imperium as a delegated social role.

    2. “Imperium-holder” seems like the obvious term to me. Though I suppose it’s the gentlemen with fasces doing the actual holding.

    3. Maybe an acronym would work. Imperium Holding Officials & Pro-Officials or IHOP.

      “The expanding number of areas of Roman overseas control pushed this further as more regions meant more provinciae (in the sense of ‘jobs’) which demanded more IHOPs to handle.”

      I think that conveys the meaning nicely while maintaining a level of classical dignity.

  2. Something that only occurred to me because of your note that tyrants are extraconstitutional figures; back in the series about the governance of a polis, we had a line about how surrounding oneself with club-wielding bodyguards was the look of a tyrant. Do we know of any cultural pollination that the magistrates with imperium also surrounded themselves with club-wielding “bodyguards” but for offices that were explicitly constitutional ones? It strikes me as a bit too neat to arrive at completely by chance, and of course there was definite cultural contact between Rome and the Greek speaking world, but do you have any idea how this got started?

    1. Eh, if you need a bodyguard, and open carrying of weapons inside the city is frowned on, then clubs/staffs/walking sticks/something similar is an obvious thing to have the bodyguards armed with, in some sense it’s not a “real” weapon, just a walking stick or a crowd control device.

      US police still carry clubs, and if we had a strict rule against bodyguards carrying guns, I’m quite sure that many bodyguards would be carrying clubs today.

      I don’t see the need for any cultural common origin beyond the fact that both societies frowned on going armed inside the city walls (which I think was common enough) and neither extended the prohibition on “arms” to “sticks”.

    2. The Romans themselves ascribed the lictors and their fasces to Etruscan tradition, imported to Rome under the kings.
      One can also note that having non-lictor bodyguards was seen as a sign of tyranny by the Romans as well; it was said to be one of the reasons for Caesar disbanding his guard (though the sources also ascribe it to his philosophy, which Shakespeare phrased as “Cowards die many times before their deaths;⁠ The valiant never taste of death but once”)

    3. I think the reason for this is pretty straight forward. To set rules who can, and can not pay the people in their service to be armed guards, is the first for the state to create a monopole on force. As big men always had a tendency to do that, and then enforce their will with the help of those people.
      Clubs simply where the most available weapons to civilians, as they are cheap, readly available, and often have plausible deniability. And it’s enough to bring the message across.

      1. As noted above, the Romans inherited the tradition from their kings, who in turn seem to have got it from the Etruscans. The logic of club-armed bodyguards is pretty obvious in and of itself, although institutionalising their use is interesting.
        Another important point about lictors is that they weren’t employed directly by the magistrate they were protecting. When you were elected you couldn’t just hire a bunch of thugs off the street and call them lictors. They had their own corporation (or guild) and if you were entitled to lictors, it was the corporation who supplied them. This of course stopped – in principle – magistrates hanging onto their lictor escorts after their term of office ended, and magistrates from sourcing their own, unsanctioned, lictors. (Not that they couldn’t, and didn’t, hire non-lictor private bodyguards, of course).
        So any impression of thuggery the lictors gave off – and for all the ceremony attached, many of them must have been quite thuggish – was explicitly presented on behalf of the Republic, not the individual magistrate in question.

        1. Interesting. The Roman-cosplaying Fascists celebrated their club-wielding blackshirt thugs pretty openly.

        2. I wonder if the guild of lictors might have had a religious origin? Taken up by kings and then by secular magistrates to show that “The Gods favor me”?

          1. Theoretically, the lictors had originally been supplied to the two consuls and one praetor by the 30 tribes, one from each. This is probably ahistorical, but the idea that the lictors were handed out by the different gentes might not be. In that case, the lictor would not just represent himself, the magistrate and the republic, but also his gens. And should that be the case, it would be quite understandable for different lictors to negotiate between themselves, because essentially, by enforcing the magistrate’s decisions, they would be drawing also their gens to the dispute. Thus, you would want to make sure that the other lictors (and their gentes) would also be following you.

        3. Somewhat mitigating the supply of lictors by the corporations was that it appears the lictors were sponsored for membership in the corporations by their patrons. Particularly for the gens that tended to be voted into offices with imperium, the corporation would be likely to have a number of lictors sponsored by the gens available for assignment to their imperium-holders. They might not be hand-picked by the specific person they’re assigned to, and there might not be enough gens-sponsored lictors for the more junior officials, but they could likely be assured of having at least one or two lictors who were clients of the family.

  3. “it is the popular assemblies which choose ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ from among the nobiles”

    Hmm, why does this remind me of some of the ways you’ve characterized modern liberal democracies….

    1. Our current president grew up middle class and the man before the previous office holder was in a household receiving food stamps growing up. Saying that we are just picking from among the nobles is ridiculous.

      I wish the internet wasn’t so full of people who tried to use cynicism as a substitute for accuracy, knowledge or basic common sense. It leaves me feeling quite cynical.

      1. ” the man before the previous office holder was in a household receiving food stamps growing up. ”

        A misunderstanding of the situation. His mother subsisted on food stamps for a while, but she had sent her child to live with her very well-to-do parents.

      2. Try to make a quantitative comparison…
        Looking at the US presidents, the first 5 could not yet be sons of previous presidents. The following 41 included 2 who were sons of presidents (Adams and Bush).
        Looking at the final years of the Middle Republic, 115 BC to 91 BC – that period included 6 consulates of Marius and 3 consuls for whom Wikipedia did not have article – I counted that 17 out of 42 were probably sons of consuls.
        Now the question is who the other 25 were? Even though 2 consuls per year, infrequent iterations, should provide an adequate pool of sons of consuls (there were several cases of brothers being consuls), most consuls still were not sons of consuls. How did a Roman become a homo novus – that is, a consul without being son of one? Because most consuls were!

        1. As I understand it, a novus homo needed an endorsement from an established political family. Also, I figure that you could be from an established political family without your father having been consul. Maybe your grandfather was consul but your father only made praetor.

          1. Or, of course, you could be part of an established political family, but not the son of a consul yourself. Maybe your brother was consul, or your grandfather, or an uncle or cousin. In the narrower sense, a novus homo had to be completely ab initio: no ancestors of senatorial rank at all; in a narrower sense, in the broader sense, anyone without a consular ancestor counted, but that ancestor didn’t have to be in the previous generation.

            It’s possible that none of Caesar’s direct ancestors made consul: certainly none of them had for 150 years before his own consulship (albeit most had been praetor). But he had several consular cousins on his father’s side, three of his maternal uncles were consul, and Marius was his uncle by marriage. He was not the son of a consul but he was very much not a novus homo.

            Sulla’s family hadn’t had a consul for centuries, but they were still one of the most prestigious families in Rome.

            Marius was a true “new man”, though, as was Cicero. According to Cicero himself (never one to hide his light under a bushel) he was the first novus homo to make consul since Marius’s day.

          2. Not strictly true, this claim that Cicero and Marius were the only new men consuls between 107–44. A search in the Digital Prosopography of the Roman Republic shows a number of names: C Flavius Fimbria (cos 104), Cn Mallius Maximus (cos 105), T Didius (cos 98), C Coelius Caldus (cos 94), and L Licinius Murena (cos 62).

      3. Our current president was referred to as “the senator from MBNA” as senator and the aftermentioned president bailed out the big banks and is now a multimillionaire. Both of their terms saw wealth inequality and homelessness worsen, and both were well rewarded by the private sector for their actions in public office
        For the bottom 90%, the cynicism is more than justified

        1. A) Even at its most absurdly cynical, where Biden & Obama are plutocrats, the point is that they’re *new* plutocrats in this circumstance. They weren’t born to “Old Money.” This is the version of the American Dream where there’s still an elite, but it’s open to anybody to get there.

          B) Obama got his money from stuff like… book deals, for selling novels to the wider public. I guess that counts as the “private sector” but gimme a break about portraying this as some sellout, unless you think Mark Twain is a villain.

          C) It’s not 1935 any more where a millionaire can break the bank at Monte Carlo. With the steady march of both inflation and overall wealth, “Multimillionaire” describes a decent portion of America, including people who consider themselves middle class! (But happen to be sitting on property / homes that greatly appreciated in value and are technically worth 1.5 million if they sold, or the like.) There ARE some filthy rich people in politics, but they’re the likes of Michael Bloomberg (96 billion with a b), not Biden.

          1. But Obama wasn’t a new plutocrat. His father was a plutocrat. His mother didn’t manage to stay in her own social class, but it was quite elevated – her parents were a WASP banking family.

          2. Responding to Michael, Obama Sr was born in a village in Kenya, enlisted in the British colonial army, got to study in the US due to a scholarship, worked briefly for an oil company then became a star government economist in Kenya for like five years before falling out of favour with the regime and getting blacklisted, then getting into two car accidents and dying in poverty as an alcoholic in a third car crash.

            His stepfather Lolo Soetoro was the son of a mining office worker, worked for the Indonesian army as a civilian topographer, got a scholarship to study geography and went back to being a geographer, before getting a government relations job with an oil company.

            It seems a real stretch to describe either one as a “plutocrat”.

      4. Whatever his circumstances growing up, Obama’s public career was preceded by the receipt of degrees from Columbia and Harvard. Elite institutions like Harvard and Goldman Sachs play the role today that powerful families played in pre-modern societies, and their imprimatur is crucial for any aspiring novus homo. Those who lack access to such institutions–and you can say it’s their own fault for having such low SAT scores–are frequently resentful.

    2. Well, the primary difference I notice with this tweet Bret made is that Romans picked winners from the nobiles, we get to pick winners from “middling elites”. I’d say there are two important differences between the Roman nobiles and the elites in liberal democracy that we pick winners from:
      1. an industrial capitalist economy does allow for more social mobility than an agricultural economy, so being part of the elite today is less affected by who your parents are (but by no mean unaffected)
      2. today politics is a full-time job today, and running a business/investing is too, so elites in most cases have to choose if they want to focus on their political careers or their wealth. (By contrast in the Roman Republic the best way to get richer was through politics: by leading an army or administrating a province.)

  4. There seems to have been a change to how this site displays in “light mode.” Instead of having dark text on a light background, it has dark text on a dark background (much harder to read).

  5. Man, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the Senate. For an assembly with (if I understand it correctly) little to no actual (legal, constitutional) authority… They seem to have their fingers on a lot of the buttons and levers of power.

      1. The question, then, is not “Why did the senate have a lot of de facto power?” That seems obvious. It’s “why did the Senate never get any de jure power?” Why were the very strong practical powers of the Senate never formalized and instead solely the province of unwritten tradition?

    1. The Senate doesn’t need official power, they have practical power. The Senate is the collection of the richest, most-connected, most-influential people in Rome. If you go against the Senate, you’ve gone against the will of (almost) everyone that matters.

      1. I believe foreign embassies addressed themselves to the Senate, not the consuls. There was a delegation from Rhodes, Athens and I think one other party which asked for Rome to go to war with Phillip V, claimed he had violated terms of the most recent treaty.

    2. Obviously the blog will have a post on this, but it kind of makes sense for a few reasons

      -Senators are some of the richest, most successful, most important people in the city, will each have individual power for that reason. In patronage systems, this includes elections.

      -If you need to make complex, far reaching decisions, a big body of people can do more stuff, bring in more expertise, etc than a single official. Since there’s no big bureaucracy (it sounds like) of well trained people to write reports and analyze and such, the senate is the closest thing.

      –Combining the first two, the senate has lots of ex officials, so will know their business quite well.

      -Tradition is a strong thing in Rome, apparently. Senate is a long lasting advisory body, so it will advise, and that will be followed.

      1. So question: would the US senate do its job better if it was say only :
        – former senate confirmed roles (some sort of seniority ceiling too clear or too many)
        – Former presidents, cabinet members, generals, governors, maybe Supreme Court justices if we started term limiting them

        I’d suggest it might do its constitutional job better if it was

        1. It would be doing a different constitutional job – consulting and providing informal legitimation. Such a system would be wildly unrepresentative as a formal legislative body, a problem in a society where the bulk of the citizenry is educated and equally politically enfranchised.

          I would also argue that such a consultative role would have a lot less practical power in a modern society, with mass education and hence no shortage of educated bureaucrats to work out policy details.

        2. Then the Senate would be picking who gets to be in the Senate, letting a group that takes control of it entrench itself. This would be a major failing in its role of representing constituents.

          I’d also note that it’s not like Senator is generally someone’s first job in government as it is. They’ll usually have held at least a state legislative office.

          1. The Founding Fathers might approve on just those grounds. To provide a counterweight.

        3. Administrative experience, as far as I can tell, doesn’t lead to a notable decrease in partisanship. In the end, no democracy/republic is immune to stasis, and stasis seems to be the reason why the US congress is so disfunctional. If there are two factions in the political arena that consider politics a zero sum game and are unwilling to compromise, a different system of selecting government offices will not solve this (at best/worst it could push one of the factions out of power permanently). Stasis can only be solved through change in to political culture.

          1. Although most stable democracies, Canada for example, have more than two significant parties, making the relations between any two parties less zero-sum. Inter-party alliances can occur.

            I sometimes wonder why the American two-party system seems to be so much more rigid and unchallengeable than elsewhere.

          2. I’d agree with Richard, but expand:

            Canada and UK both have plurality voting and multiple parties. Both have the same basic system: in US terms, they’re run by the equivalent of the House of Representatives, a bunch of small districts. I bet you’d find that very few Canadian or UK districts are 3-way competitive; in general they’ll be dominated by 1 or 2 parties. But different districts can be dominated by _different_ parties, even without the specifically regional effects of Quebec and Scotland. I know someone whose Canadian ‘riding’ one year had 38% Conservative, 37% Liberal, and a scattering of votes to the NDP and Greens. The Conservative won…

            In the US, we have higher levels of elections which probably ‘iron out’ any such regionalism. States have governor and (later in our history) Senate elections, and then there’s the presidency. As Richard said, you need two national parties to compete efficiently for the presidency, and once you have that, it’s natural for them to absorb any other politics as well. Instead of having a Southern party, we elect Southern democrats.

            Also, I don’t know how US caucuses compare to however candidates are selected in Canada or the UK, but the later primary process seems distinctive to the US, and provides another way for factions to duke it out within the two party system.

          3. ad9: The American two-party system is stable as a result of the voting system. First-past-the-post plurality voting for fixed districts doesn’t leave much room for third parties, because they tend to cannibalize their ideological neighbors, which provides an opportunity for more unified sections of the political spectrum to win the election with less than a majority. I personally suspect that the presidential electoral mechanics have a significant effect by requiring that any party that wants to be elected to the presidency have a national organization. (After all, technically, each national party is a coalition of state parties, and some of those have somewhat different names from others.) The only time a presidential third-party candidate got past 10% of the vote in the last 35 years was Ross Perot, and he provides an example of the cannibalization effect, too: If we ignore the electoral college details for a moment to focus on the popular vote, Bill Clinton won his first election with something like 40%, but he had still had a plurality of voters.

            Taking a look at Canada, it almost has a 2-party system, too: The house of commons has one major left party, one major right party, the Quebec nationalists, and one small leftier (?) party that’s just enough to keep the prime minister in his seat. The fact that there’s a prime minister at all (as opposed to a direct-elected president) is probably a lot of the difference there, as that coalition can be built after the election instead of before it. But the other difference, and this one is subtle enough that I missed it before I thought to go check, is how many people are represented per seat. Canada has 10-15% of the population of the USA, and there are 75% the number of seats in the house of commons as the house of representatives. If they’re distributed evenly by population, (which is notionally true but has some major outliers) then that means that a Canadian MP is representing less than one tenth as many people as a US representative. If the districts were that small, we might well see more people like Bernie Sanders, who declares himself to be in a party apart from the Democratic Party despite caucusing with them for all intents and purposes.

            But actually, after writing all that out, I think I’m going to come back to the presidency. A prime minister is elected by the legislature, after the election, while a president is not, and that, on its own, creates more space for localized parties to do political balancing without forcing the voters to choose. Straight-ticket voting where you’re voting for both the executive and the people the executive endorses is a powerful, powerful tool for party consolidation.

          4. “The house of commons has one major left party, one major right party, the Quebec nationalists, and one small leftier (?) party that’s just enough to keep the prime minister in his seat.”

            I can’t speak for Canada in particular, but India is a first past the post political system that’s very much not a two party system. (Even if it looks superficially like one to some western observers, trust me, it isn’t- the way Indian politics look at the moment is a very recent thing).

            I think some of what’s going on there is that regional differences play a much bigger role in politics than they do in America. As much as they might all hate the right, the Congress liberal/social democrats, the caste-based parties, the communists, and the Dravidian nationalists are never going to form one party because not only are their ideological bases different, their regional power bases are totally different as well. You could maybe fairly say that politics in each individual state is largely a two party affair, it’s just that that doesn’t translate to having two parties at the national level. (Quebec is an example of something similar in Canada, I guess).

            I can see an alternate history where something similar happens in America, but of course it didn’t.

          5. I want to note that a multi-party system doesn’t protect a country from stasis. Weimar Germany for example ended up in a three way stasis between the pro-democracy faction (social democrats, liberals, the Catholic center party), the anti-democratic right (reactionary nationalists and Nazis), and communists.

            The Roman Republic and the various Greek poleis didn’t really have political parties and also ended up in .

            This is a danger that will exist in any non-monarchical system. (Monarchies of course have some other fail states that republics don’t have.)

          6. Yes, the first-past-the-post voting system tends to lead to a two-party system, unless there is important regional diversity, in which case it doesn’t. Politics in the US became very nationalised, which is why the two-party system is now largely baked in.

          7. A good explainer on the lack of 3rd parties in the US is

            In short they are defacto regulated out of existence
            a prospective new party in Canada needs only to provide registration documents including the names of 250 supporters and is then eligible to authorize candidates to use the party name in every Federal election district in the whole country. (All candidates must submit 100 signatures of district residents.) That’s a far cry from the 1.1 million signatures a party needs to be able to offer candidates in every U.S. House district

        4. You’d need to limit the size *a lot* because there are 1200-1400 Senate-confirmed posts, not counting ambassadors and military general officers.

          The UK House of Lords is vaguely close to this: the members are almost all appointed for life by the government of the day, and include senior scientists, judges, former elected officials and so on. Unfortunately there’s not much external check on who gets appointed, so you also have people who pay the PM or his party enough, the PM’s mates, and possibly even the PM’s unacknowledged children. It isn’t a representative body, doesn’t pretend to be one, and its powers are very limited as a result.

      2. This was pretty much the rationale for the House of Lords. It collected together the landed wealth of England, together with the leading figures in Ireland and Scotland, and supplemented them with judicial and theological expertise (the Law Lords and the Bishops) and let them set the tone. It lost power as wealth moved away in the very late C19 and early C20.

    3. Yes. Groups of people with little formal authority but great power in practice are extremely common, in both historical societies and modern ones.
      Which is why I find people who try to analyze politics strictly through the lens of formal public office so frustrating; it doesn’t matter how much evidence there is that X is happening, they refuse to accept it as a real problem if it isn’t legitimized by some specific law or legislator.

      1. Tell me about it. I remember trying to explain that absolute monarchy is an ideology, in reality the absolute monarch depends on and has to keep happy all sorts of groups. And people with no legal power, like consorts, can have all kinds of informal power and even the ability to challenge their spouse. They refused to take it in. Maybe it comes of living in a country with a written constitution.

        1. On the face of it, for most of the history of Christendom a nobleman’s wife would typically have interests more closely aligned with him than almost any other person in the world. Presumably then, she would be one of the people he trusted most in all the world.

          Admittedly, that is potentially an extremely relative term.

          1. I was thinking of Catherine the Great, also Isabella of France. It was definitely wise to keep one’s consort onside. She was a valuable ally, or very dangerous enemy.

          2. Indeed. Can’t have been a good thing to have your own heirs mother opposed to you.

      2. The classic example of this is the various east-bloc countries: Where despite a lot of formal power residing in at least theoretically elected bodies like the Supreme Soviet, in practice all the decisions were made by the party officials, and even the formal executive was usually mostly rubber-stamping decisions already made by the party organs.

    4. I suppose it’s a lot like a think tank, but with an automatic revolving door to the entriety of the current and former ‘executive’. And no separate legislative branch.

  6. Typo: “A supercharged for of veto consuls could also exercise was iustitium,”
    ITYM “form”

    I already sorta knew about the “imperator” distinction because a Jerry Pournelle science fiction novel has a Space Roman explaining it to a modern Earth human, that troops hailing a foreign wanax (king) as imperator wasn’t making him emperor, just saying he was worthy to lead Roman troops.

    I was wondering if Peregrine Falcons were named after the official like with Cardinals, but a quick web search says no, though there is an indirect connection.

    1. Other typos:

      turning the the → turning the
      were terms the → were termed the
      disputes involved → disputes which involved

      1. It was the term they invented after hostis too awkward — because that was the original term for “stranger” and while it’s the root for “hospitality” it’s also that for “hostile.”

    2. Common root: “peregrine” means “traveling” (in modern Romance languages it often specifically means “pilgrim”). “Urban consul” vs “traveling consul”/”consul-at-large”, with the peregrine falcon being named for its broad migration range.

    3. Interesting how one picks up information in the oddest places. Others have mentioned Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, IMO it gives a good if fictionalized account of how the Romqn system worked in practice.

      1. did it ever cause arguments between consuls. like was there ever time when the other consul wanted something to happen and the other consul does the iustitium thing and then the other consul is like ‘dude, wtf?’?

  7. (though to be clear the consul couldn’t just murder you because you were on your farm; this is symbolism)

    I mean, obviously; we’re talking about Rome. This isn’t Sparta.

  8. Question about provinces (as in job, not region).

    I had a professor in undergrad who argued that they had to be assigned by lot, because otherwise, you’d basically have civil war among the Roman aristocrats. And having guys like Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar basically going directly to the assemblies to get the most desirable provinces was hugely destabilizing.
    Is that broadly correct, or did I misinterpret her? It has been years, and I wasn’t a very good undergraduate student, so misinterpreting her is a very likely possibility.

    1. I’m definitely not qualified to give a firm answer to this, but it sounds like something that was more likely to be a concern in the Late Republic (when Roman institutions were falling apart and the personal fortunes and power of the most prominent Roman ‘big men’ overwhelmed the institutions on a regular basis). Wind back the clock to the Punic Wars or earlier, and I suspect that there’d be less fear of Roman aristocrats fighting a civil war over assignments to the provinces.

        1. The problem with Sulla was that he trod on the mos majorum by kicking down the door and forcing changes at swordpoint. Whatever improvements he made to the system to make it more coupproof, he undermined by showing everyone a general could just march on rome and force his will on the senate.

    2. For the praetorian provinces there was usually a lot. For the consular provinces the senate would assign two provinces to the consuls and the consuls would either decide among themselves or draw lots. This is all in Drogula *Commanders and command* (2015). The innovation of securing commands by using the assemblies is usually viewed as destabilising the standard constitutional order (certainly it did in 88).

  9. If the Senate had no legal authority, how did they prorogue the consuls and praetors?

    I can understand the Senate assigning the praetor or consul to a provincia by saying something like “the Senate agrees that the best job for consul Maiorus Maiorus Maiorus would be the war against King Such-and-such”, with the implication that the unfortunately named consul would better agree.

    But minting out a proconsul is not just a dispensation of an order masked as an advice, it bestows imperium on the target. This sounds like something one of the assemblies should vote on.

    1. According to Wikipedia, the Curiate Assembly (which we skipped talking about) did legally have to approve promagistrate grants, but by 212 sometimes this didn’t happen and people just ignored that fact.

    2. As the old saying goes: A Sargent in motion outranks a Lieutenant who hasn’t reacted yet, and a Bomb Disposal Technician at a run outranks anyone, even a General.

      When there’s no time to hold an assembly to vote, the Romans are going to defer to the advice of the experienced, wealthy, influential Senators who happen to be present to offer it. As most politically active Romans are likely to have some military knowledge, if not training and experience, they well appreciate that initiative/momentum counts.

      dignitas and auctorias can outweigh legal responsibility even in our contemporary systems, how much more so in Rome with much less formalized institutions.

    3. Senatorial decisions on prorogations were submitted to the people for ratification until around 190 BC. Drogula, in Commanders and Command p 255, indicates that this was likely because it became a boring staffing issue rather than a decision related to war and peace. The original grant of imperium was previously ratified by the comitia curiata which is a vestigial assembly.

  10. What do we know about the lictors? I.e. could one be a professional lictor who was paid for their service and moved from magistrate to magistrate, or were they just selected by the magistrate from among their buddies/clients? Was this a prestigious appointment, akin to a medieval courtier? Or were they like the Secret Service, meant to be seen but not heard? (Or do our sources just not tell us any of this?)

    1. Being a lictor was a professional job, there was a collegium, effectively a guild, of lictores, from which the magistrates of the year were assigned their lictors. In that sense they worked the same as the other apparatores (scribes, messengers and heralds).

  11. Ah, yes. Something all in academia have in common, be we in the humanities, the STEM fields, or social sciences – we all think reviewer 2 is a f*cking idiot.

    1. My disertation advisor once wrote a paper using the first person singular because he had no coathors on it (very rare in our area of mathematics). The reviewers insisted that he go back and switch to third person for everything “We prove that…” rather than “I prove that…”.

      1. I read about something that was sort of the opposite. The author used “we” out of habit, and reviews complained that it didn’t make sense because he had no coauthor. In order to avoid rewriting, he named his cat as coauthor.

        1. You simply can’t satisfy reviewer 2 (at least not on initial submissions of single author papers). Maybe that’s the real reason everyone collaborates.

          1. They are payed to be not satisied. No scholary publication can be expected to be thought of as scholary, if they just printed some paper that did not went through at least two rounds of the review process, can it? *scnr

        2. I work for a company that edits mathematical journals, and our house style allows both “I” and “we” for a single author, as long as it’s used consistently across the paper. (Of course, by the time the papers get to us, they’ve already been through peer review, so what the reviewers asked for might differ from our official policy.)

          1. In my field the “we” typically includes the reader as if the reader is thinking the logic through with the author.

      2. There’s a famous story about a physicist at Michigan State (my grad-school alma mater) in the 1960s who wrote a paper in the first person plural (“We show that”, etc.) rather than using “I”, for stylistic reasons, even though he was the sole author. The reviewers wrote back that he couldn’t use “We” since he was the only author. He didn’t want to go back and make all those corrections, so he added his pet cat Chester (suitably disguised) as a coauthor.

  12. on a side note to footnote 3,

    I sometimes wonder if Imperial China’s administration sounds more sophisticated to lay audiences than other societies due to the tendency to translate official titles into modern English language usage, as opposed to classical or medieval studies where titles are far more likely to be rendered in an anglicized form of the original language.

    Hence we get the “Minister of Public Works” when discussing the Tang Dynasty rather than the “Gōngbù” but we get the “Questors” of the Roman Republic

    1. I think there might be another factor where many short phrases in Chinese translate into something far longer and more florid sounding in English.

      For example, Taiping Tianguo translates into Heavenly Kingdom of Eternal Peace.

    2. Then there’s the question of idiom. Was once in an online discussion where someone brought up the difference between rendering a phrase Valley of Tranquility — or Quiet Valley.

      1. Quiet Valley sounds like it’s either the setting of a horror story or the place the protagonists should avoid at all costs because nothing good can happen there

      2. Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planète des singes was translated into English as both Planet of the Apes and Monkey Planet. Both are perfectly accurate translations of the French title, but have very different connotations in English.

        1. Biologically speaking, all apes are monkeys but not all monkeys are apes – the hominoids (apes) fall within the simians (monkeys). Colloquial French doesn’t make this distinction, using the same word for both “monkey” and “ape”, and some hominoids* are known to get violently agitated** when the broader but still technically correct term “monkey” rather than “ape” is used to describe them.


    3. Good point. Translation matters. The Chinese didn’t invent bureaucracy but they certainly developed it to a high level. Enlightenment thinkers were in locpve with the fact it was theoretically a meritocracy but the chief qualification for becoming an official was knowledge of the Confucian Classics.

      1. That sounds like a meritocracy to me, if you think merit is something earned by knowledge of the Confucian classics. If the chief qualification for a role was demonstrated technical skills, it would be a technocracy.

        1. Yes and no. Money and influence still counted and it was extremely rare for a man who wasn’t a ‘gentleman scholar’ by birth to enter the hierarchy.

          1. Given that the Enlightenment thinkers were also gentlemen scholars, I doubt they would consider this a failure of the system. Or not much of one, anyway.

          2. Exactly, Richard. The Enlightenment philosophes were enchanted by a system that seemed to g8 e power to people like them.

          3. That still sounds a lot more meritocratic than, for example, pre-revolutionary France, where the essential requirement to be an army officer was for your ancestors to have been aristocrats for the last several generations.

          4. “That still sounds a lot more meritocratic than, for example, pre-revolutionary France, where the essential requirement to be an army officer was for your ancestors to have been aristocrats for the last several generations.”

            But I don’t think that’s true, because, for example, Catinat. Napoleon. The Royal Army of France had an entire career track purpose-built to allow ORs to become officers, the “officiers de fortune”.

            Without a doubt, being noble made your career faster, but it’s not the case that every officer was an aristocrat (at least until just before the revolution with Segur’s decree).

          5. clears throat

            Napoleon’s father got an Italian family of nobles, the Buonaparte, to recognize them as relatives, thus making him and his children noble enough.

          6. The French made specific exceptions for the technical branches – the artillery and engineers. The British did the same (you needed to pass an exam and could not buy promotion), plus both had the imperial or colonial branches, where it was possible both to live on one’s pay and possibly grab some loot.

        2. You still needed to have the money and leisure time to study the classics, and typically needed tutors to do well on tests. You can be a brilliant ox-herder, but if your family needs you to herd oxen 24/7 then you’re not going to have time to study for or take tests.

          1. Like SAT, it’s still a much better equalizer rather than “prior achievements”, “motivation essay”, or “leadership experience” which is much more easily gamed by the elites.

          2. The SAT was gamed almost from its inception, by expensive private schools, who kept copies on file, and by various ambitious immigrant groups who kept track of what specific questions had been asked. Now, I have nothing against aspiration or ambition, but the SAT was asking to be cheated on and it was. I date the decline in American education from when the SAT began to be used.

          3. The SAT did enormous amounts to break open the college system. Instead of being fed students from prep schools, colleges had a measure.

          4. @Mary Bennet: Citation needed; the SAT has been one of the best indicators for “will this person be successful in college” for decades.

          5. Mary Bennet, it is a lot harder for influential people to game an anonymously graded exam like the SAT than it is for them to game something that *isn’t* an anonymously graded exam.

            That is why the influential people want to abandon them.

          6. Is there some contention that expensive private schools (and the parents who send their children there) can’t gin up large amounts of fascinating life experiences, noble public service, high levels of extracurricular achievement, athletic achievement in sports that only rich people play, like sailing and squash, or whatever else Harvard wants today?

          7. I was once offered a chance to buy, for $5,000. which I did not have, a course of study for my Jr. High child, and top marks on the SAT was “guaranteed”. In other words, someone had the test and was monetizing it.

          8. I was once offered a chance to buy, for $5,000. which I did not have, a course of study for my Jr. High child, and top marks on the SAT was “guaranteed”. In other words, someone had the test and was monetizing it.

            I would interpret “guaranteed” as “if we don’t succeed you get your money back”. That seems a bit more likely. (Or, as someone noted, a scam.)

  13. I’m not sure if this is relevant for this series, but what if anything do we know about how the *regiones* of Rome were governed? Was there any kind of local government for these quarters of the city? Or were these just administrative divisions?

    Another broader question would be, if, as you write, “Fundamentally, the Roman system remained one designed for a small city-state”, was there anything it could have done to ‘reform’ and stay a republican state? I know this is obviously a speculative question, but the failure of the Republic to avoid the slide into Empire is (for good reason) often bewailed as a bad development and a important warning for our modern democracies; but what I haven’t seen touched on is if anything could have been done to make the Roman constitution workable for such a massive Mediterranean empire. Is there any kind of a historical consensus, or at least, what do you think about it Dr. Devereaux?

    1. This comment claims that someone in the Second Punic War proposed letting other cities send 2 Senators to Rome; proposal was not adopted.

      I’ve wondered if there could have been a similar path with plebeian tribunes, cities (especially the coloni of citizens) sending tribunes, maybe evolving into a Tribunate that we would recognize as a representative legislature for the broader Republic. If the Social War had pushed for one more concession…

      1. Found the source.
        Titus Livius, Book 23, Chapter 22:
        XXII. After making good, in so far as they could accomplish it by human wisdom, the other losses fortune had caused by a series of disasters, the fathers at last had regard for themselves as well and for the desolate Senate House and the small number that came to the council of state. [5] For since the censorship of Lucius Aemilius and Gaius Flaminius the list of the senate had not been revised, although the defeats and in addition the fate of individuals [p. 75]had in the five years carried off so large a number4 of senators. Marcus Aemilius, the praetor, raised that question, as all demanded that he should, since the dictator had already gone to the army after the loss of Casilinum. [6] Thereupon Spurius Carvilius, after complaining in a long speech, not of the lack of senators only, but also of the small number of citizens from whom [7??] men might be chosen into the senate, said that for the sake of recruiting the senate and of linking the Latins more closely with the Roman people, he strongly urged that citizenship be bestowed upon two senators from each of the Latin states, to be selected by the Roman fathers; and that from this number men be chosen into the senate in place of the deceased members. [8] The fathers gave no more favourable hearing to this proposal than they had given to a former demand of the Latins themselves.5 There was a murmur of indignation everywhere in the hall, and in particular Titus Manlius said that there still lived a man of the family to which belonged the consul who on the Capitol had once threatened that he would slay with his own hand any Latin he should see in the Senate House.6 [9] Upon that Quintus Fabius Maximus said that never had anything been mentioned in the senate at a more unfavourable moment than this had been broached, in the midst of such unsettled feeling and wavering loyalty among the allies, only to stir them up the more; that that rash utterance of a single man should be drowned by silence on the part of them all; and that, if there was ever any hallowed secret to be left unmentioned [p. 77]in the senate, this above all others must be covered,7 concealed, forgotten, considered unsaid. [10] So mention of the matter was suppressed.

      2. Bringing in senators from outside of Rome would definitely have helped, as well as maybe non-Roman plebeian tribunes. But I have a hard time imagining the Roman tribunate evolving into a kind of legislature, even organically over a long period of time; for one thing, any law or plebiscite that would’ve made the tribunes behave more like a legislative body would almost certainly have needed to rescind their veto (in other words, to make them less like magistrates), and I have a hard time imagining any plebeian tribune consenting to have their enormous powers within the constitution diminished in that way.

        Having the allies send delegates to Rome where everyone can talk on issues of mutual interest actually sounds very workable, because it sidesteps the issue of going from a direct to a representative democracy by making it all confederal, so the popular assemblies at Rome and whatever constitutional arrangements the allies have can all stay the same for their own sovereign issues. Such a congress or colloquium or whatever it might be called would probably be more of a deliberate than a legislative body, but the Senate also had no legislative power and still had a lot of auctoritas within the Roman state (and, of course, Rome would probably hold the presidency of such a body, much like Athens and the Delian League). Eventually over time one can maybe imagine it hypothetically evolving into a more tight-knit and unitary system, much like how the United States went from the Continental Congress, to the Articles of Confederation, to the Constitution, just over a much longer timeframe. But I don’t know what you think.

        1. “Bringing in senators from outside of Rome would definitely have helped, as well as maybe non-Roman plebeian tribunes. But I have a hard time imagining the Roman tribunate evolving into a kind of legislature, even organically over a long period of time; for one thing, any law or plebiscite that would’ve made the tribunes behave more like a legislative body would almost certainly have needed to rescind their veto (in other words, to make them less like magistrates), and I have a hard time imagining any plebeian tribune consenting to have their enormous powers within the constitution diminished in that way.”

          There is the debacle of Marcus Octavius.
          When M. Octavius put a veto on the legislation of his colleague Ti. Gracchus and persisted on it, finally Ti. Gracchus proposed legislation to depose Octavius as a tribune. The vote passed – unprecedented, but it was a reasonable claim that people could vote as they pleased. Marcus as now ex-tribune lost his untouchability and was physically dragged away by freedmen, his veto invalidated.

          What happened to Octavius´ seat as Tribune? Were elections held for a suffect tribune, or were there nine tribunes for the rest of the year?

          Would there have been some logic to propose law to handle future possibility of clashing tribune vetoes – either voting of rest of tribunes or plebian assembly overriding the veto, but the minority tribune to keep his post?

          1. The replacement or M Octavius, according to MRR 1.493, was a person by the name of… Q? Mucius? Minucius? Mummius? (Yes, every possible name has a question mark after it.)

      3. Making the leap to a representative assembly is a big step, though. The Senate’s power, as I understand it, doesn’t come from a claim to represent the people of Rome. It comes from the (obvious) fact that it contains most of the power players in Rome as Senators. If you have the Senate on your side, ipso facto you have the most important people in the Republic on your side.

        So an argument for non-Roman senators couldn’t be “the people in Gaul are part of the Empire and morally they should be represented here” – it would have to be “Gaul contains several important indigenous power players, who should be present to add their voice to the Senate’s discussion”. Like client kings, for example.

    2. I’ve brainstormed this a little bit, as have a lot of people, and realized pretty quickly that as a nonhistorian who doesn’t live there, and human social systems being weird, difficult beasts, that plausible fixes were probably thin on the ground. (Actual historians, maybe political scientists, and related fields, more familiar with the culture and how political systems tend to work can probably offer better commentary) But I can some up some observations.

      It looks like the widely agreed problems to fix were individual generals or politicians getting too powerful, resistance to reforms, and less enforcement of rules/norms that kept things in check. So a hypothetical saved republic needs a way to keep ambitious and powerful people under control, not allow people resistant to reforms to continually block them, and have more strict enforcement mechanisms for some rules.

      Why these issues cropped up more when Rome expanded seems something historians are actually studying. Provinces and expanded territory letting people get much more rich, and gain much more of a base of power than was possible in a single city with loosely controlled subjects is an explanation I’ve seen a lot.

    3. So far the only way we have managed to create republics in large territorial states has been representative democracy, but representative democracy arose from royal parliaments who took inspiration from the city-state republics of antiquity, not from city-state republics themselves. It seems unlikely that the Roman Republic would develop in that way. (It seems somewhat more likely that to me the Principate would develop in that direction, if the emperor can determine who gets to be a senator, he can decide that senators should be picked in a way that represents the different inhabitants of the Empire. The Republican Senate wouldn’t share its power in that way.)

      The best shot to saving the Republic I see is to continue making conquered people Socii instead of provinces after the First Punic War:
      -it prevents the problem of taxes only going to Rome and the Socii feeling cut out, unlike earlier when they got an equal share in the loot
      -less opportunity for promagistrates to get really wealthy through administering a province
      -desincentivizes conquest because if these Socii feel unhappy with Rome, they may join the enemy in the next big war
      -that means Rome might not become the hegemonic power in the Mediterranean, which will keep military mortality high, so you got fewer impoverished Romans (Gracchi-like conflict prevented)

      You will keep the Roman Republic that way as a tough regional power, but there won’t be Pax Romana covering the entire Mediterranean.

      1. The Senate of the Empire did, in fact, become a more representative body. Claudius appointed the first Gauls to the Senate, while Italians of different origins had been there much longer.

        I don’t know, though, how many Hispanians or Africans, let alone Greeks, Syrians or Egyptians went to the Senate. St. Augustine would probably have become a senator, as the imperial rhetor in the court of Milan often received later a prominent administrative position, and Senate would have been part of that career but he forsook it all.

        1. Caesar had already appointed Senators from Cisalpine Gaul, while those from modern-day France were added from Claudius onwards.
          Hispania was one of the most integrated provinces, and notables like Seneca and later Trajan were from there, though possibly of Italian settler origin. Also, I think the first consul of non-Italian background was actually Cornelius Balbus, who came from Cadiz.
          As for Africans, there are some, of native origin, from the 2nd century, significantly Fronto and later emperor Severus. Greeks also seem to rise in prominence at this time, since men like Herodes Atticus and Arrian eventually became consuls.
          Since Severus’ wife was Syrian, the men in her family enter the Senate in his reign; I know not if there were any Syrian senators before.
          And Dio mentions Coeranus in the reign of Caracalla as being the first Egyptian in the Senate.
          I think our host once cited an older paper trying to calculate the percentage of senators by province of origin, in his post about Roman diversity.

      2. Parliaments developed from royal councils, but the councils had their antecedents in tribal assemblies (a key feature of Carolingian politics) and by many accounts these in steppe traditions of rule assimilated by the Germanic ‘barbarians’. Appeal to classical traditions was later window-dressing.

        Scandinavian kings swore to govern “with the council’s counsel”, an oath that – with variations – was commonly included in European coronations from early on.

    4. I think it’s too easy to think teleologically: ie that the Roman Republic fell means everything is a clue to its fall. Gruen and Morstein-Marx push back very strongly and, I think, very convincingly against this. The idea that the republic could not manage an empire is “glib” and “that a republic possesses no competence to run an empire is not a self-evident proposition”. Gruen LGRR (1974/95) pp 500–02.

  14. “The longest run I can think of in this period is that of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus [. . .] prorogued from 204 to 201 [. . .] assign[ed] to Sicily with permission to invade Africa if an opportunity presented itself”—love when a guy’s name really clues you in to the answer of a question like “did the opportunity present itself to invade Africa?”

  15. and another briefly describing the shape of Roman governance in the provinces

    Yessss my special interest will be addressed! More interested in Late Republican and Early Imperial than Middle Republican provincial government, but I’m sure the Middle Republican version will be illuminating.

  16. In practice, did a guy running for one of these offices (and the guys voting for him, for that matter) have a pretty good idea which job he would end up with? Or was it very up in the air? Especially for the praetors, it seems like being praetor urbanus would be a pretty dramatically different job compared to being put in charge of some overseas province.

    1. Also how did the voting work in general for offices with multiple “seats”? If six praetors are being elected, does each voter choose six of the candidates? Or did they just vote for one and the six most popular win? Or some other system?

    2. Magistrates draw lots for assignments. In a Roman election one would vote in a block – there are many and they are wildly weighted for wealthy old people – and the block would name as many candidates as there are posts. Once someone gets a majority they are declared a winner and taken out of the pool. Elections then continue until there all posts are filled. If your block wasn’t yet called, sucks to suck.

  17. “This is the second section of the third part of our planned five part series”

    Yes! My prediction in part one was correct!

    “My plan once we’ve gone through the whole Roman system for Romans is to add two more posts on this series (perhaps not coming right away),”

    Nooooo! I am undone!

  18. If I remember correctly promagistrates have the same number of lictors as their urban equivalents. Eg OCD 4th ed sv “pro consule, pro praetore”: “praetors [prorogued] at first usually pro praetore; but both during and after their office their imperium might be raised to pro consule (with twelve lictors)”. See also Drogula *Commanders and command* (2015) p 367 n 46; Brennan *The fasces* (2023) pp 53, 81 noting Spanish proconsuls after 197 BC having twelve lictors, imperial era references to senatorial propraetors with six lictors, Symacchus’ proconsulship ca AD 375 with twelve lictors, Verres’ – propr in 73 per MRR 2.112 – employment of six lictors to beat someone senseless, etc.

  19. Similarly, re magistrates and promagistrates the episode with Caepio and the novus homo indicates the lack of a rank system between consuls and proconsuls: Drogula *Commanders and command* (2015) pp 156–57, ch 4. Similarly, Alexander *Trials* (1990) Trial 64 notes that Mallius (the novus homo) also was sent into exile. This doesn’t seem consistent with normal-magistrates-always-out-rank-pro-magistrates.

  20. I think the system for handling both consuls being indisposed and unable to hold elections, as shown by the many entries in the fasti, would be not to appoint an interrex (which events in 43 showed could only be done if there were no curule magistrates at all) but rather to appoint a dictator comitiorum habendorum causa.

  21. I also don’t think “replaced by a system whereby prorogued commanders will have first held the relevant office at some point” is strictly true. The praetors assigned to Spain are regularly given proconsular status even though they’ve never held the consulship: eg Ti Sempronius Gracchus cos 177 serving in Hispania Citerior pro consule in 179 BC. MRR 1.395–96. Cato is assigned to Cyprus pro quaestore pro praetore in 58 even though he’s not yet held the praetorship.

  22. //There is no pleasing Reviewer 2.//

    Is “2” more or less randomly selected, or is there a meme in academia about Reviewer 2 being stricter and worse to deal with than Reviewer 1?

    1. It’s a meme, as I understand it. Reviewer 1 will submit a one-line report accepting your paper without any change, while Reviewer 2 will nitpick every paragraph of your paper and insist you cite three or four of their own papers (reviewers are anonymous, but it is apparently often possible to figure out who they are from what they write).

      1. The tendency among editors is to list the more positive review as ‘Reviewer 1’ while the more negative review is ‘Reviewer 2.’

        Though ironically, I just got back a peer review with those roles reversed.

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