This is the third section of the third part of our our planned five part series (I, II, IIIa, IIIb) on the structure of the Roman Republic during the third and second centuries, the ‘Middle’ Republic.’ Last time we looked at the top of the Roman political career in the republic, the offices that carried the awesome power of imperium. This week is a bit of a grab bag of offices that do not fit perfectly into the elite Roman career path and which have unique – and often very substantial – powers of their own.
In particular, we’re going to look at the tribunes of the plebs, an office relatively early in the Roman career path but which wielded an incredible array of powers, as well as the censorship, an office elected only once every five years and which served as the crowning laurel on exceptional political careers. Finally, we’ll also briefly discuss what is known of Rome’s minor magistracies, the vigintisexviri or ‘twenty-six men,’ a collection of six boards of minor magistrates held by Romans very early in their careers.
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The Tribunes of the Plebs
Arguably the most important of these odd-ball magistracies were the tribuni plebis, or tribunes of the plebs. Tribunus here means ‘tribal officer’ or ‘chief’ but is actually a fairly general word in Latin for figures with authority. We have already seem the tribuni militum – military tribunes – but there were also tribuni aerarii, junior figures that supported the quaestors as well as in the regal period tribuni celerum, ‘tribunes of the swift’ (cavalry officers), and so on. Naturally plebis here means ‘of the plebeians.’ And I should note that for the rest of this section I am going to just say ‘tribunes,’ but you should understand that I mean the plebeian tribunes and not the entirely unrelated military tribunes we’ve already discussed. These are completely different, unrelated offices.
The tribunate was established in 494 as an early part of a series of compromises between the patricians who had established the republic and the plebeians over whom it had been established. That often leads to the tribunes of the plebs being regarded as a late-comer to the res publica by students, but if you pay attention to the dates it really isn’t. Very little of the order we are laying out existed properly in 494, when the highest magistrate was still a praetor, for instance. Once we keep in mind that the period from 509 to 367 involved a fair bit of shifting systems and experimentation (decemviri, military tribunes with consular powers, and so on), the early establishment and long duration of the tribunate seems remarkable. By the 450s, there were ten of these fellows and that number also remains stable.
Plebeian tribunes were elected in the concilium plebis in elections overseen by the previous year’s still-serving Plebian tribunes, and served for a single year. Early on it seems to have been possible for tribunes to serve multiple years, but by the second century – if not earlier – this had fallen out of practice, such that Ti. Sempronius Gracchus’ (trib. 133) preparation to run for a second term was viewed by his opponents as extra-constitutional, verging on revolutionary. And because my students regularly confuse this I should note that tribunes do not have imperium; they do have some coercive power but it is differently derived.
Fundamentally the tribunate’s purpose was as a check on the power of the magistrates and the Senate that advised them; this was a blocking magistracy. That fact can be obscured because of course the most famous tribunes were famous for their legislation (and indeed, tribunes could legislate), but most of the tribune’s activities were about making things not happen. Unfortunately for us, our sources tend to leave tribunes anonymous in these situations; our sources are full of anonymous tribunes exercising a veto or bringing auxilium (a term we’ll get to) or obstructing some proceeding or so on. And we need to keep in mind that most tribunes would have been like these anonymous tribunes and not like the famous ones (the Gracchi, Saturninus, Sulpicius Rufus and so on). The primary job of the tribunate was to prevent abuses of power by magistrates, especially magistrates with imperium.
In order to accomplish that job, the tribunes were given a staggering array of powers. Most of the ‘blocking’ powers derived, directly or indirectly, from the sacrosanctitas of the tribunes. Initially, this sacrosanctity emerged out of an oath (which, remember, has a religious character) by the plebeians to defend their tribunes, with violence if necessary, but by the third and second century it had become an accepted part of Roman law. The tribunes, for their time in office were sacrosanct, which meant that their persons were entirely inviolate; as this was an issue of religion, this protection transcended the imperium of the senior magistrates. And the degree of protection was strong: a tribune could not be pushed, shoved, or touched in a hostile manner at all by anyone. That of course protected the tribunes from any kind of coercion by other magistrates, even with lictors, but it also gave tribunes all sorts of interesting follow-on powers.
The most important of these was intercessio, intercession, by which a tribune of the plebs could block a magistrate’s action by physically interposing themselves in the way; since they could not be moved, the action failed and was blocked. To block a voting assembly, this had to be done before the voters dispersed into their voting groups. A special kind of intercessio was auxilium, literally ‘help,’ whereby a tribune could intervene to protect an individual from the exercise of a magistrate’s imperium. The most common case of this is a tribune intervening to prevent the arrest of an individual and indeed in the Late Republic we see a sort of political theater seemingly develop where a magistrate on one side of a debate will make a show of ‘arresting’ their opponent and leading them to the carcer (the very small jail just off the forum), knowing full well that tribunes on the other side of the debate will intercede with auxilium to free the fellow.
But of course this kind of intercession was also, at least in theory, available to regular people in Rome (indeed, that was its purpose) and during the republic the tribunes maintained a sort of ‘station’ at the Basilica Porcia near the comitium from where they could observe the magistrates functioning in the forum and intervene if necessary.
Tribunes also had broad power to veto the actions of any magistrate or the decisions of the Senate. This may have actually begun as part of the tribune’s power of intercessio; there’s an annalistic tradition,1 in our sources that early on the tribunes had to listen in on Senate meetings from outside and then block the exit if the measures discussed were hostile to the plebs. In any case, by the time we can see clearly, the tribunes are active in meetings of the Senate and can simply exercise a veto on the outcome of any debate, preventing the formation of a senatus consultum.
Because of their role in representing the interests of the people, tribunes also tended to take an active role in prosecuting certain crimes, including notably perduellio (treason) which was extended in some cases to include not merely treasonous acts, but also certain sorts of extreme official incompetence, though the Romans only rarely punished generals legally for failures in the field. Tribunes seem also to have been involved in levying fines for various infractions. The power of tribunes to levy fines may originally have been connected to their ability, as consecrated (‘sacer‘) figures, to extend that to cover objects; if I consecrate your money, it isn’t your anymore. That said, their general coercive power over private citizens derived from the original oaths to defend the tribunes and follow their leadership.
Finally, the tribunes could also move legislation, proposing plebiscita through the concilium plebis which, after the Lex Hortensia in 287, had the full force of law when passed. It is clear that by the Middle Republic, it had become customary for the tribunes to seek senatorial approval, just like other magistrates, before moving legislation in this manner, but that remained only a customary, not a legal, requirement.
This is an absolutely staggering set of powers, restrained by just a few key legal and customary limits. The key legal limit is the pomerium: the tribune’s powers only work within the pomerium. Because functionally all political business happened in Rome, that gave the tribunes great latitude to block civilian politics, while at the same time ensuring that magistrates in the field with an army wouldn’t have to worry about having their orders countermanded by the tribunes.
The other major limit is simply the place of the tribunate in the Roman political system, though this is a customary limit. Now I should note that we know only a handful of the many, many men who would have held the tribunate. The earliest tribunes seem to have come from outside of the nobiles, but by the Middle Republic this office was a regular stepping stone in the careers of eminent plebeians (like the Gracchi, whose father Ti. Sempronius Gracchus had been consul in 177 and 163, and censor in 169). At the same time, simple math suggests that not all tribunes had held the quaestorship before,2 and indeed it seems like men were still elected into the tribunate from outside the nobiles who then proceeded no further in politics.
So this is an office held by a mix of junior aristocrats from eminent families looking to move up in politics and less eminent men for whom the tribunate would be the height of their political ambitions. Both groups would, of course, be well advised to avoid antagonizing the broader political order without a very good reason, the former because senatorial opposition could kill a political career and the later because they were always going to be a lot less powerful than the ex-consuls they might offend. Consequently, we tend to see tribunes often working in concert with their colleagues (though they do not have to) and with the explicit backing of the crowd to constrain magistrates and on very touchy issues the tribunes often seem to have conferenced together to decide on a course of action (they could, after all, veto each other).
Of course this all breaks down catastrophically in 133 with the tribunate of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, but that’s a topic for another day. Suffice to say that after Gracchus, the nature of the tribunate fundamentally changes, as Gracchus’ year had shown what a tribune could potentially do if they didn’t abide by those customary limitations and if they didn’t feel constrained by the colleagues in office.3
Interestingly, the cultural value placed on the tribunes as the protectors of the rights of the people continues into the imperial period. Not only does the office continue to exist (although it stops being important), but beginning with the first emperor Augustus, the emperors take as part of their portfolio of powers tribunicia potestas, “the powers of a tribune.” Augustus and immediate successors could not, of course, hold the tribunate because they were patricians, so they were voted the powers of the tribune instead. The legal powers of the emperor were thus defined by a grant of imperium and the grant of tribunicia potestas, but it is striking that it is the latter set of powers (arguably the less important ones) that emperors choose to advertise, because the PR value of presenting themselves as super-tribunes defending the interests of the people was high.
Getting Things Past the Censors
The other quite odd office in the res publica was that of the censores or censors. As the name implies, the core function of the censors was to take the census (lit, “census”), registering Roman citizens and their property. Two censors were elected every five years and they served an eighteen month term in order to complete the census (which of course means most of the time there were no sitting censors). Censors were almost always well-respected ex-consulars who only served a single term, by custom before 265 and by law afterwards.4 Censors were elected in the comitia centuriata in elections overseen by the consuls; they do not have imperium.
The censors are odd magistrates. They don’t have imperium and thus no lictors, but they wear the toga praetexta of a senior magistrate, and sit in the curule chair of a senior magistrate. They could not convene any assembly. Odder still, the censors are immune to the veto of the consuls, though they could block each other (thus the selection in pairs, each a check on the other) and could still be disrupted by the intercessio of a tribune.
Once elected, the censors set up shop in the campus Martius in a building called the villa publica; they had a staff of apparatores (professional functionaries) to assist them and given the scale of their task the staff was likely to be considerable. Citizens – or more correctly heads of households, meaning patres familias as well as (probably!) women who were sui iuris – were required to show up and register, making a declaration of the members of their household as well as their property. The censors were then responsible for assigning citizen households to census classes (as used in the assembly voting) and of course this was also the process that made an individual liable for conscription in the dilectus.
The censors also as part of the process updated the rolls of the Senate, inducting new members – those who had held the quaestorship or other senior magistracies in the previous years – as well as establishing the precedent order, which determined the order in which senators spoke in debate. At the end of the census, the censors conducted an elaborate purification ritual which featured the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep and a bull to Mars (the suovetaurilia); this wasn’t the only situation in which a lustrum was celebrated, but it was still a major festival, marking the ritual purification of the whole of the populus Romanus.
The censors had some power to punish failure to declare or for simple moral turpitude either by seizing and auctioning off the person’s property or by degrading their citizenship; it’s unclear if this would mean revoking it or merely reassigning the individual into one of the less favored urban tribes. In the case of senators, since the censors kept the Senate’s rolls, they could strike senators off of the list, generally for what was considered flagrant immoral behavior. The disapproval of the censors was made with a mark next to an individual’s name in the roles, a nota. In any case, the censors had to agree on any such measures. This was an extrajudicial check on behavior in Rome and the impression one gets is that it functioned as a system of elite self-regulation more often directed by censors as infamous fellow elites.
In addition to these tasks, censors picked up a number of other administrative jobs, mostly associated to the letting out of major public contracts. Public contracts of this sort included those for the construction and maintenance of public buildings (including roads), but they also included tax contracts. The Roman state didn’t maintain much of a bureaucracy for tax collection; in Italy the main tax, the tributum seems to have been collected by the tribuni aerarii (minor officials serving under the quaestors). But outside of Italy, the republic generally subcontracted the job of taxation to private companies (societates) of tax farmers. The farmers put up five years of estimated tax revenue as collateral in advance, then collected the taxes over the five year period (and pocketed the difference, should actual tax revenue be higher, which this being a business, it generally was). The censors role in conducting the bidding for this process gave them quite a lot of import as Rome’s territory expanded beyond Italy; the value of these tax contracts could be absolutely massive.
In addition to these major magistrates, we know that Rome also had a number of elected magistrates who ranked below the quaestors. These are tricky to discuss with much of any certainty, as our sources rarely mention them. We generally assume they would have been held by young aristocrats making their way into politics, much like holding early career military tribunates before proceeding to the quaestorship, but we are so poorly informed of who is holding these offices year-to-year that it can be very hard to tell.
The main grouping of these was the vigintisexviri (‘twenty-six men’), a collection of six boards of minor magistrates in the res publica whose number added up, collectively, to twenty six (thus the name). These offices were regularly elected annually. The two most prestigious were the tresviri monetales, who supervising the minting of coins and other precious metals under the supervision of the urban quaestors, and the tresviri capitales. The tresviri capitales, created c 290, acted as a night watch, seem to have supervised prisons and executions and also had at least some judicial role and functioned as what passed for Rome’s fire department. If you were robbed, for instance, it seems that the tresviri capitales might investigate that and perhaps even judge the matter if the individual was caught. To provide the manpower for these tasks, the tresviri capitales were provided a group of public slaves (enslaved workers owned by the state), who could make a primitive riot squad or fire-fighting force. We shouldn’t overstate their role, it’s clear that these fellows didn’t act very much like a police force, but they functioned to keep public order.
Less prestigious than these two offices but still part of the ‘twenty six men,’ were the decemviri stlitibus iudicandis (‘ten men for judging lawsuits’), a board which judged minor lawsuits, including adjudicating the free or non-free status of a person when the question was in doubt. There were also quattuorviri viis in urbem purgandis (‘four men for cleaning roads in the city’) who did exactly what the name implies. The remainder were the duoviri viis extra urbem purgandis (‘two men for cleaning roads outside of the city’) and the four praefecti Capuam Cumas (‘four prefects sent to Capua and Cumae,’ which is to say, to Campania’). We also hear reference to some quinqueviri cis et ultis Tiberim (‘five men on either side of the Tiber’), but if they were ever part of the ‘twenty six men’ it is unclear.
Part of the problem of course is that we get only awkward snapshots of these systems. Our best full list of the ‘twenty-six men’ comes from Cassius Dio (54.26) and he is in the process of relating how Augustus ditched some of these offices, reducing the twenty-six men of the Republic to just twenty. Sulla made holding one of these offices a prerequisite for the quaestorship in his reforms (83 BC), but that offers us little clue as to their status prior to that point, except that at least some of these offices clearly exist much earlier in the Republic.
Observations on Roman Magistrates
Before we move on to the Senate, it’s worth making a few observations on the nature of this system. First, the nature of the Roman political career as an elimination contest is important for understanding the balance of powers between the various elements of the res publica. Because on the one hand, the magistrates listed above have far greater powers and latitude for action than most magistrates in a polis, particularly because all of the senior magistrates have the power to move unilaterally (except for the censors) without needing to consult a board of colleagues.
The first restraint on this power is the combination of short terms and needing to win successively harder elections as one marches up the political spectrum. The Roman Republic is a political system which vests most power with the elite, but has the popular assemblies pick ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ among the elite when it is divided (which it nearly always is). Because terms of office are short and ambitious Roman politicians are always thinking about the next office (and after holding the consulship, that might be another consulship a few years down the line), they have an interest in maintaining a positive reputation among the electorate – though of course as we noted with assemblies, that is hardly the whole population evenly considered. And of course these elections are getting harder at every stage, eliminating members of the aristocracy unwilling or unable to build enough goodwill among the people to get elected to the next office.
The same is true with most elite’s relationship with the Senate as a collective body. Of course the Senate has its factions, but turning on the Senate collectively was an unwise move for any ambitious elite. After all, you are consul for just one year, but a senator for the rest of your life; these will be your colleagues regardless. Moreover, precisely because these are men with great auctoritas, if you want to hold office ever again, it would be beneficial to have them at least be neutral. And of course a final check on a truly rogue elite are the two censors, who could remove such a figure from the Senate entirely, though only if they both agreed (making this a poor tool to remove a popular politicians or one with significant political influence).
Finally, this system requires Roman social mores to work. Rather than establishing a clear hierarchy among all of these offices, with lots of ‘direct reports’ from one magistrate to the next, this system fundamentally relies on the deference low-ranking Romans are supposed to show to higher status Romans in order to work. The quaestors and aediles would thus naturally defer to the Senate, since they are very junior magistrates and the auctoritas of the Senate is considerable. And the plebeian tribunes might only work up the courage to act boldly when acting together, because surely no individual tribune, perhaps in their late 20s or early 30s, is going to take it on themselves to try to reshape large parts of the Roman political order.
Of course the story of the collapse of the Roman Republic is one in which these elements of the mos maiorum slowly crumble under the weight of the political disputes of the late second and first centuries. Students often assume that the solution was merely to codify these things into law, but what is striking to me is that the Romans tried that and it didn’t work. The lion’s share of Sulla’s reforms consisted, after all, in writing into law limits that had once been customary and codifying expectations which before had been unspoken and it did nothing to arrest the decline of the res publica. Without the norms – norms that Sulla himself undermined – the laws were merely words on the page. With the norms, the laws were largely unnecessary.
- Discussed by Badian in “Tribuni Plebis and Res Publica” (1996)
- There being eight quaestors and ten tribunes a year and even more that many of those quaestors, being patricians, will have been ineligible to be tribunes.
- Though, for balance’s sake I should note that Tiberius Gracchus’ opponents ruptured the mos maiorum at least as much as he did.
- The exception that caused the rule to be codified was Gaius Marcius Rutilus Censorinus, censor in 294 and 265.