Collections: How to Roman Republic, Part IIIc: Ten Tribunes, Two Censors and Twenty-Six Guys

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.

And if you want to be selected by the censors (Ollie and Percy) to be part of the ACOUP Senate, you can support this project on Patreon at the patres et matres conscripti tier, to be able to submit questions and weigh in on what topics we should cover next. 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 (

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.

From the British Museum, a gold half-aureus (labeled, inaccurately, as a quinarius), minted under the emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138). On the reverse we have Felicitas, the goddess of good luck and fortune, with the inscription, “TRIB POT COS,” standing for tribunicia potestas and consul.

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.

Via Wikipedia, a a part of the Paris Frieze of the so-called Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, depicting what seems clearly to be a census registration. There is debate as to the identity of the seated figure recording on the wax tablet, with some viewing him as a iurator, a professional assistant to the censors, since he is taking down the information himself. On the other hand, he appears to wear calcei, the footwear of a senator, which may mean this is in fact one of the censors.

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.

From the Louvre, a relief (first century AD) showing a suovetaurilia, probably in the smaller context of the purification of an estate rather than as a state ritual.

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.

Minor Magistrates

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.

  1. Discussed by Badian in “Tribuni Plebis and Res Publica” (1996)
  2. 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.
  3. Though, for balance’s sake I should note that Tiberius Gracchus’ opponents ruptured the mos maiorum at least as much as he did.
  4. The exception that caused the rule to be codified was Gaius Marcius Rutilus Censorinus, censor in 294 and 265.

121 thoughts on “Collections: How to Roman Republic, Part IIIc: Ten Tribunes, Two Censors and Twenty-Six Guys

  1. Wasn’t there some early tribune of the plebs who vetoed *everything* for a year or more until he got his wishes? Or did I dream that?

    1. The period 377…367 BC perhaps. Anarchy – sources disagree on its duration, one year, or five, or ten.

  2. With such an emphasis on mores in the Roman Republic, I wonder if we have similar systems that would simply crumble if our mores were different.

    I am guessing that a big more we have is to follow the law. Systems seem to be much more codified in our modern world and they largely function as written. Maybe it’s a little naive of me to think of it this way, but I have not put a lot of thought behind this.

    1. The filibuster is very frequently cited as such a case. Originally a senate cloture motion (putting an end to debate and thus preventing filibusters) was extremely non controversial if a proper debate has been held. Bills like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were not supported by filibuster proof majorities but there was no delaying effort. The filibuster was a tool of debate not delay or blocking like it is used today. In theory in 1964 the minority party could have just filibustered everything and prevented anything whatsoever from becoming law.

      1. At one time a filibuster meant you stood up in the senate and spoke for days on end – sometimes reading the phone book. That of course was a waste of time so the senate adopted the idea that you could threaten to do that and so they would just move on. Which is was great until someone realized the cost of filibustering was much lower since you didn’t have to stand up and fill the air, and so senators who didn’t like sometime were more likely to filibuster.

        Of course the real question is how do we preserve minority rights. When you have a majority you just call for a vote, but that can lead to tyranny of the majority (who of course do not see how evil they are). I’ve never seen a great answer, but we see the Romans had their own idea which did at least a little work that way.

        1. When the filibuster required the Senator to actually be on the floor and talking, cloture (ending the filibuster and bringing the matter to a vote) required a two-thirds vote. The filibuster was difficult and cloture was difficult.

          When the filibuster was reduced to threatening to talk, the cloture vote was reduced to 3/5ths. Filibustering was easier and cloture was easier. Since then the Senate has determined that the filibuster/cloture rules can be amended by and ordinary majority. Slowly, the practice has eroded. First budget bills were excluded. After that most nominations were excluded during the Obama administration, then all nominations during the Trump Administration. Today the practice survives as Deterrence by Mutual Assured Destruction.

          The Civil Rights Act of 1964 needs to be understood as part of the unusual politics of that year. President John Kennedy had sent a proposed civil rights bill to Congress in 1963. He was assassinated in November of that year. He was deeply mourned by the entire country. President Johnson made the proposal a memorial to Kennedy. Public support emboldened congressional fence sitters to support the bill, and the 2/3rds threshold was crossed.

          1. The filibuster has eroded precisely because of how dysfunctional it is in a highly partisan environment where one or both sides are willing to just openly say “yes, we will shut down the whole government because we insist on getting our way even when in the minority.”

            It’s not a totally incapacitating thing to have in your democracy when the parties are able to compromise and there’s overlap between them on ideological positions in the middle.

            It’s very much incapacitating when you have an ultra-radical wing of your party credibly threatening to shoot down any legislator who even thinks of crossing the aisle to vote for a genuninely popular law or physical expansion of government offices.

    2. An interesting case is the four-way stop. Used to be whoever stopped first would go, then the one to their right (or left, depending on state), and so on around the circle. Now, everywhere I go people on the same street will go–so north/south will go, then east/west. It’s more efficient and as long as everyone is on the same page it’s no less safe. Even the cops I’ve seen follow the new mores, but the law (at least in the states where I’ve looked) still lags behind.

      The Underground Railroad is another. When slavery was accepted as generally a good thing it couldn’t function as effectively, but as mores changed and slavery became less and less accepted it became more and more effective.

      On a smaller, but perhaps more widespread, scale, youth sports are dropping in part because of changing mores. When sports were to have fun and play a game, more kids participated. But as they became more and more competitive, and outrageous behavior among parents became more and more accepted, participation started to drop and kids adopted less-structured games.

      All of these are sort of trivial compared to what Bret is talking about, but the large-scale is often composed of numerous small-scale things.

      1. I think you’re wrong about youth sports. That’s probably declining because kids don’t leave the house anymore. The Internet is blamed, and it’s not irrelevant, but mostly that’s about (basically bogus) safety concerns – children are no longer allowed to go play without supervision, even pretty old children. There’s obvious knock-on effects if you can’t go to practice (or just have fun and scrimmage) without parents watching you.

        1. The safety concerns about strangers are bogus. The safety concerns about cars are somewhat justified. Plus the shift of US population into cul-de-sac suburbs means there may be nowhere for kids to go under their own power anyway. Nothing in walking distance and the arterial may not have a sidewalk anyway, not safe to bike because the US doesn’t provide bike infrastructure even when there’s tons of room…

          But yeah, in the 1980s at age 7 or 8 I was running errands in Chicago on my own. In 2014 I knew people from the Central Valley who wouldn’t let an 11 year old girl play on the front lawn without an adult present.

          (Not universal. Even today I see kids around Berkeley on their own. But in Cambridge MA, equivalents have had the police called on them.)

          1. Cars create both the danger from accidents and from strangers, since strangers can scoop up a child and take him or her a long way. It’s rare but it happens. I am fortunate that both I and my daughter spent our summers on an island without cars, where the children continue to run free with minimal adult supervision.

          2. “It’s rare but it happens.”

            “Rare” is an inaccurate description. Once you remove custody disputes and family issues–ie, once you look at the incidents of actual strangers kidnapping children–it becomes vanishingly small. Obviously geography plays a role here–some areas are worse than others. I’d let my kids roam at my grandfather’s farm no issues, but I’d keep a tight reign on them in the middle of Detroit. And when it does happen it’s extremely horrific. But despite what the news says, when you look at the actual statistics we are at one of the safest periods in our history, certainly within my lifetime.

            Your child is, statistically speaking, in far more danger in your car than they are from being abducted by strangers.

        2. Youth sports are very much supervised. There’s an adult coach watching you and telling you what to do, not only during the game but during practice as well.

          1. Ah, I think Dinwar was talking about organized youth sports, thus parents (and coaches, as you say), while Jacob interpreted that as broader group play, possibly including teammates practicing on their own, but also just friends playing at a public court or in a park.

            I’m trying to recall if manga shows kids practicing team sports on their own, but I don’t really read those kind of manga. Certainly lots of autonomy in general though, compared to recent US/UK standards.

          2. Remember that fictious kids have freedom as necessary to move the plot. Indeed, many kids’ stories ensure that adults don’t intervene in situations where that would require a great deal of explanation.

          3. While it’s true that fictional kids can have more freedom, and some Japanese works set in schools have Mysteriously Missing Teachers, there’s still a huge and real difference in autonomous mobility. As far as I can tell, it is the modern US that is the outlier, divergent from even the US of 30 years ago. Though other parts of the Anglosphere, with similar car-oriented development and “stranger danger” hysteria, have also shrunk children’s range.

          4. It occurs to me that the percentage of children who personally participate in sports may go down a lot if children only play under adult supervision. If kids can’t just go outside to throw a ball around or something, the only ones who end up building the basic skill set to even try to play in organized team sports are the ones that have specific adults in their lives deliberately pushing them to cultivate those skills.

            Everyone else just stays inside and plays with the Nintendo Switch.

        3. I think you’re leaving out a few things. The number of hours of homework has increased, for example, and the number of recess hours has decreased. Without unstructured socialization time kids don’t develop the horizontal ties necessary to have pickup games. Geography also plays a role, as mindstalko said–we’ve incentivized a certain style of neighborhood, and it’s one where youths gathering together without adult supervision is considered a crime. (For that matter, some HOAs I know view adults gathering together in non-pre-approved places and manners to be a crime.) We’ve also decided that a lot of normal childhood behaviors are either criminal or medical problems, meaning that kids are going to suppress these or have them suppressed. I recall a news article from my home town, for example, where kids dumped some soap in a local fountain. Not a drinking fountain, but a purely decorative one. People were talking about jail time (and horse-whipping) fourth graders over this–when a brief examination of the pumps involved was sufficient to prove that the only harm this prank did was to necessitate draining the fountain, a bit of routine maintenance the town had been neglecting! Kids learn norms by imitation and violation, and we’ve made “violation” too high a risk to be worth taking.

          In other words: It’s a complex issue with many causes that ultimately boil down to “We live like this because we choose to live like this.”

          I also think that we’re talking about two different, but not unrelated, things. Two different steps along the same path, as it were. You’re talking about free-play style games, where a group of kids decides to play a game. This evolved into structured games like I was talking about–where there are (almost always adult) refs and coaches and leagues and tournaments. This has evolved into a fairly hypercompetitive environment where doing something for the fun of it is considered a failure and winning matters more than social norms. Who wants to play a game when it entails weeks or months of training, five minutes of playtime, and getting screamed at by someone you’ve never met?

    3. Speaking as an American, norms about how our political systems are supposed to work have historically been just as important as the actual rules governing them. The Senate filibuster is a familiar example of this- for most of American history, it was theoretically possible for one senator to obstruct federal legislation indefinitely. Much like the tribunes’ veto, this power could only exist alongside a norm that it only be used on special occasions, or else the system would have quickly ceased to function.

      1. We may also be seeing a decline in trust in elections. In the past, if you lost an election it was what it was and try harder next time (though maybe I’m being naïve). Now it seems far more acceptable, at the federal level, to take the results to the courts to decide. We’ve seen both parties do this with presidential elections.

        1. 2000 was a nearly-tied election. And Florida had enough issues with the 2000 election (butterfly ballots, undercounting, etc) that finding a 1000-vote error was very plausible. It also took forever partly because the mechanics for conducting a recount were very flawed – that’s been fixed. I will also note that the violence that did occur in 2000 – the Brooks Brothers riot – was instigated by Republicans, and involved people like Matt Schlapp and Roger Stone. That violence didn’t get people killed, but it did impact the results of the election by shutting down Miami-Dade’s recount.

          And Trump’s challenges in 2020 were almost entirely based on nonsense, or just assuming that the Court would actually approve anything Trump wanted, regardless of its legal merits.

          1. Congressional Democrats have challenged every Republican presidential victory in this century (plus the 2000 election, if you want to be pedantic) That didn’t used to happen.

          2. Republicans used to win presidential elections with clear majorities of the popular vote and large electoral college majorities a lot more often, too.

            When your mandate hinges on whether one or two key swing states have 49.1% or 49.3% of the voters declaring for your guy, it’s inevitable that there’s going to be a certain amount of bickering and recounting done to settle the question of who actually won.

            The only question is whether the losing side takes “yes, we recounted and sorry, you lost” for an answer, or whether they start pulling outright illegal shenanigans after that point.

        2. Close federal elections used to be incredibly rare. The recent usage of courts to resolve them probably has more to do with a general growth in the power of the federal court system- the disputed 1876 election, for instance, was ultimately resolved by Congress.

          The functioning of federal courts, including the Supreme Court, is another example of mores mattering as much as laws. SCOTUS has theoretically unlimited power, because the Constitution is the supreme law and it has awarded itself the power to decide what the Constitution says. The federal government still works because of the norm that the Court isn’t supposed to crush the other branches and rule by decree, even though it technically could.

          1. Well, also becuase while the courts have the *technical* power to do something, they don’t have the enforcement mechanism to get it done, other than by mores. “The court has made its’ ruling, now let it enforce it”, and so forth.

            The army, after all, is paid by congress, not the courts.

          2. “Close federal elections used to be incredibly rare.”

            Interestingly, no. If you look at presidential elections by the size of the popular vote margin, the six closest are 1880, 1960, 2000, 1884, 1968 and 1888. By electoral votes, the six closest are 1824, 1876, 2000, 1796, 1916 and 1800.

          3. Close elections may not be more common, but we have had two in the past quarter-century where the popular vote and electoral votes went in opposite directions, which had only happened once before 2000.

      2. There’s some issues in the US – partly because some parts of the system have figured out that you don’t have to obey either the mores or the laws if you have the right people enforcing the law (like the Supreme Court very narrowly defining political corruption in the McDonnell case). And the filibuster will disappear completely the moment one party has an actual Senate majority that’s hamstrung by it. Manchin and Sinema were much happier letting the filibuster be their excuse for things they didn’t really support.

        But I think the UK may be a more interesting case, because they don’t really have a formalized constitution – in many situations where power is abused their actual legal backstop is the apolitical monarch stepping in, which no one, including the monarch, ever want to have happen. A Jan 6th-type attempt wouldn’t work as long as Charles says no.

      3. As a non-American, I would also suggest that has happened to impeachment. A combination of partisanship and a notion that the President is the leading office of government has largely rendered presidential impeachment inert.

        1. That’s mostly down to the partisanship, with a side order of “impeachment was neutered from day one by the supermajority requirements.”

          The impeachments against Clinton and Trump were, in effect, pointless except insofar as they gave those presidents’ opposition a chance to air whatever evidence they felt they had against the presidents in question. Neither man was ever in any real danger of being thrown out of office by a vote of 67 senators.

          Impeachment mattered against Johnson in the 1860s, but only because there was a near-supermajority in the Senate that hated him. This was a very rare circumstance in American history and the conditions that made it possible are unlikely to ever happen again. Impeachment may have been a relevant threat against Nixon, but only because it looked like a large fraction of his own party in the Senate would be willing to join the Democrats in impeaching him for blatantly criminal conduct.

          If you have the backing of your own party and they just don’t care about whatever it is that you did (or supposedly did), then it’s vanishingly unlikely that you’re ever going to get kicked out as president of the United States. Because if your party was weak enough in the Senate to be unable to protect you, you wouldn’t have gotten elected in the first place. And that’s a direct consequence of design features.

    4. “we have similar systems that would simply crumble if our mores were different”

      US Senate filibuster has already been mentioned.

      Gerrymandering is another one. Highly abused for a long time, but right after censuses. More recently legislatures have re-gerrymandered in the middle of decades.

      Limiting how many voting booths exist in areas that support the opposing party is a clear attack on democracy.

      More theoretically, a US governor or president could run a criminal gang and keep pardoning the members, or even try to pardon himself. There’s some limit — a president couldn’t pardon someone for committing murder under state law, and their are powers of impeachment or (in some states) recall, but there’s still some room for abuse that hasn’t been fully delved yet.

    5. Mores evolve (even Roman ones), but periods of stress challenge them. In the US, you are seeing it now with challenges to election procedures and Senate appointments (one senator blocking a slew of armed forces appointments, McConnell refusing to schedule a nomination to the Supreme Court, then reversing his own precedent under Trump, use of the blue slip…). There has been some slippage in parliamentary process in the UK and Australia (Boris seeking to prorogue, use of closure motions). We live in contested times.

    1. Other possible typos:

      “if I consecrate your money, it isn’t your anymore.” – yours

      “more often directed by censors as infamous fellow elites.” – at

      “(‘four prefects sent to Capua and Cumae,’ which is to say, to Campania’)” – excess quote mark at the end.

  3. I’m still not clear on how elections actually WORKED, say I’m a voter and we’re electing 8 quesitors. I assemble with my Centuriate Assembly century, and we’re called to vote.

    Do I vote for one guy or for 8 or for a specific slate? If I only vote for one guy, does my century vote for the 8 with the highest totals in group, or for one and the 8 guys with the most group votes are elected (which would mean you’d need 1/9th+1 to get elected).

    Slates would seem to make it very hard for a new man to break in; single votes with eight offices at stake would tend to encourage minority faction candidates, which goes very badly with individually powerful magistrates; everyone votes for eight guys makes the process take rather a long time, and if we’re letting multiple groups vote at once, which would seem to be required to conduct business in a single day (and IIRC was mentioned in the post on the assemblies), then how do we reduce the number of candidates on the fly if someone gets a majority partway through one set of groups.

    I’m just not understanding the actual mechanics of being a Roman voter here or of counting the votes.

    1. You’re electing quaestors so you’re in the tribal assembly. The tribe has one collective vote. The traditional view from Mommsen is that you write down eight names. Candidates are removed when the votes are periodically counted even if the tribes are voting multiple times at once. Presumably they had pauses to count, announce, then if not fillled, continue.

  4. Not directly related to the magistracies themselves, but a question about Roman politics. You’ve mentioned repeatedly that public campaigning in Rome was an expensive process, and if you really wanted a shot at senior office, be prepared to shell out considerable amounts of cash for your campaign. That in turn restricted senior office to the sorts of people who had the kind of wealth to meaningfully campaign, which further in turn generally meant “people who owned a lot of land”. Do we have any idea how much land this actually was? I remember from your piece on farming that a small landholder was probably in the 5-8 iugera range, but how much land/wealth would you need to finance a campaign for say, praetor or consul? Or is the evidence just not there to make a determination of something like that? Do we have any indication as to how much land the rich bigwigs in the middle republic would tend to own?

    1. Well a Senator had to be worth a million sesterces according to the Censors. I’m not clear whether that was capital or income. Bribing the electors was apparently quite common and obviously cost a lot. So did games and spectacles to catch the voters attention and favor.

  5. Now I want to see a “buddy cop” detective novel about a newly minted tresviri capitales and the chief slave of his squad (who has been there decades and has seen magistrates come and go) who are trying to solve some extremely weird crime in the Middle Republic with prominent Senators breathing down their necks and demanding reports.

    1. I like the idea, but I think it might work better as a somewhat comic and fourth wall leaning sort of movie rather than a novel.

    2. The impression I got from earlier articles is that the Romans didn’t really have investigative policing until the imperial era or perhaps the very late years of the republic (where the vigiles might have started moving towards that role). The buddy cops of the republican era would probably be aspiring young lawyers who would need to gather all the evidence on their own. The government would only hire a judge to hear the evidence after private parties brought forth a lawsuit.

      1. When I was a kid I read a historical novel like that, a young nobile on the make starting his legal career hires an old and jaded lower class roman citizen to build evidence for a defense he’s running during the age of Sulla.

    3. It has been a while, but David Drake wrote a couple of novels about guys investigating crimes in ancient Rome, though I recall few details now.

      1. There have been a number of mystery stories set in Ancient Rome. Two series that I have encountered are the Rome sub Rosa/Gordianus the Finder novels by Steven Saylor, set in the early to mid-first century BCE (e.g., Cicero appears as a character), and the Marcus Didius Falco novels by Lindsey Davis, set in the late first century CE, which (at least in the little I read) made me think of ’30s-style noir, transferred to an ancient setting. Both of these, however, at least at the start, involve private individuals hired to find answers, rather than office-holders of the Roman state; I like Matthew’s “buddy-cop” idea above, however historically unlikely it might be.

        1. I recommend the SPQR books by John Maddox Roberts. I preferred them to both the Gordianus and Falco books.

        1. Little known (completely fake) etymology – we derive this meaning of the word “cannon” from Romans gone rogue. It refers to when one of the reeds (“canna”) in a bundle came loose, and later applied to when one of the sticks in a fasces came loose. The path from “canna” to “cannon” meaning “a big gun” was separate, but eventually the two meanings merged together in popular use, despite having different derivations.

          1. The point of the fasces being that the reed is useless alone. . . he’s just being accused of a lack of solidarity, leading to futility.

          2. @Mary: I feel like “a lack of solidarity” is a legitimate thing to criticize a loose canna cannon for. “We need to stick together, but you’re off doing Minerva-knows-what and ruining our plans!”

    4. If you haven’t already come across them you might enjoy the Falco novels by Lindsay Davis. Falco is a detective during the Flavian dynasty.

    5. There was the actual historical case where none other than Emperor Tiberius investigated and figured out the murderer (praetor Marcus Plautius Silvanus). How about Nero (!) Wolfe redux, but one of the tresviri capitales is the Archie Goodwin, and Tiberius as Nero sitting back at home assembling the clues?

  6. Me putting together that the office of consul didn’t exist when the tribunes were established: “wait… Shakespeare LIED TO US?!!!!”

  7. 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).

    Considering how Roman names for months and military units work, I’m shocked that there weren’t 28 or 24 of them.

    1. Well for the months it’s worth considering that the year used to start in March and that they just didn’t bother renaming the months when it became the third (or at the time, sometimes fourth, month of the year.)

  8. The plebian tribune’s persons being sacrosanct seems….staggering. I have a number of questions:
    – Sure, the tribunes could theoretically keep the senators captive by refusing to let them leave, but were there any cases where the Senators took them up on the gauntlet and tried to beat them in endurance?
    – You mention that the power of the tribunes to veto only held inside the Pomerium, and not outside; but would their sancrocrity(?) been held outside it, such that willfully harming a tribune would be considered an even more egregious crime than merely harming a magistrate?
    – Follow-up; suppose two tribunes got in a fight. Would anyone besides fellow tribunes been able to intervene without fear of reprisal?

    1. Related, when Sulla and others started interfering with tribunes later on, I’m wondering what would happen if they were still doing the oath thing.

  9. How often were these elections to magistracies actually competitive? Were they generally nailbiters or were the winners generally decided ahead of time behind closed doors? Of course the answer is going to be “it depends,” but as a general thing were these assemblies voting on who gets in actually important or more rubber stamps?

    1. Or decided in general. This is the tricky thing about the assemblies: they could have effectively decided in advance.

      1. Yeah my college history prof talked about endorsements for local magistrates in Pompeii stuff like “the bakers guild thinks that Quintus Whoeverus would make a nifty magistrate” but zero endorsements for losing candidates. He said historians disagreed on whether endorsements for losers were immediately taken down so we can’t see them or if the local elites got together and decided “OK this year is Quintus Whoeverus’ turn” and the whole election was just a dog and pony show.

        1. It could be that there was a general consensus. Or that at least the elite knew who the riff-raff would put up with as candidates, and didn’t dare put up an unacceptable one.

          1. It could also be a question of period – I assume elections were probably more competitive during the Republic than the Principate, so maybe that was a factor?

        2. Further complicating matters, evidence from Pompeii speaks directly to how elections worked *in Pompeii* and likely represents only part of the spectrum of possible ways to run things, given the broad degree of civic autonomy characteristic of Roman rule.

        3. It seems plausible that the mores around elections might involve taking down signs for unsuccessful candidates after the election.

          Of course there’s some pragmatic self-interest in not antagonizing the current office-holder. And depending on how Roman society worked, it might be unfashionable to associate oneself with “losers”, which I suspect is a broadly cross-cultural pejorative. Plus, it fits a mindset that, if the last few hundred years of history hadn’t happened, I’d use the word “fascist” to describe: we only unbundle the sticks at a specific time and place, for disagreement and argument and airing competing views, and after all that gets resolved one way or another, we bundle the sticks back together and all work as a team with no dissension until next time. In other words, certain forms need to be followed, and following those forms is more important than personal ambition or whether the forms embody some more abstract notion of “justice”. (Although I suspect this is a superficial description lacking the inner fire that would be present if I actually believed in it. I’d guess that such a description would also involve something that I’d refer to as creating group identity, and preserving said identity in the face of threats internal and external. But pithy and inspiring, like Oscar Wilde crossed with Rudyard Kipling.)

  10. Now I want to hear more about those private tax companies because it sounds wild and fascinating

    1. These are why tax collectors get a bad rap in the Gospels — on top of being quislings, of course.

    2. They were notorious for extortion, slave-taking and general misbehaviour. The tax-farmers of ancien regime France went to the guillotine.

      1. To be fair, a lot of people went to the guillotine. They callend it “le grand terreur” for a reason.

        1. Yeah, for a brief moment in time, the inbreds were in more danger from the state than the commoners who they’d starved to death to fund the Cabinet Wars.

          (Anglos who think the worst crime of the Revolution was the Reign of Terror, death toll 35,000, and not the suppression of the revolt in the Vendée, death toll 200,000, deserve unending contempt. Peasant lives matter.)

          1. ah yes, the aristocracy where 1/4th of the families that belonged to it had only been ennobled in the 18th century and 2/3rds had received their titles from the 17th century onwards were a bunch of inbreds of course

          2. its not much of an overclass when pretty much any commoner with the right perquisites of wealth and service can join the privileged orders with little to no backlash and most of the aristocrats are fans of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the famous reactionary thinker

          3. English-speakers who use “Anglo” as an epithet are not normally using it to say anything particularly thought-out.

          4. It is possible to think ill of both events–though not, as I understand, if you aspire to a position in French politics or academia.

          5. Sixth-generation privilege is not “anyone can join,” give me a break.

            And re “people think the Vendée was part of the Reign of Terror,” look at English-language literary reception. The climax of A Tale of Two Cities is not about a peasant who liked his local priest and was massacred in reprisal operations. In more popular media, Scarlet Pimpernel saves aristocrats, not peasants – and this cascades to the modern card game Guillotine. The French reception is different (and also doesn’t conflate the Vendée with the Reign of Terror), but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

            Compare this with reception of the crimes of the Russian Revolution. People do talk about the royalty, to the point of mythologizing Anastasia, but most reception focuses on other things. The famine was so well-known that Oil! feels the need to have author avatar Paul Watkins make up a rebuttal. Most later reception talks about Stalinist crimes since they’re much greater, but it too centers the victims of the gulags, not the Great Purge; thankfully, nobody cares about party members.

        2. The desire to kill the tax farmers was one of the big engines that created the Terror in the first place.

          Imagine living in a society where there’s a certain class of men who are just legally entitled to commit some horrible crime year after year for personal benefit, and they very much do. Who become a hate sink for all the crimes of the regime, because they do in fact commit a lot of those crimes even if they also work on behalf of the rest of the government.

          When the revolution comes around, there’s going to be a lot of people who are extremely willing to accept some collateral damage as the price of killing that class dead dead dead.

          This is how you get things like “the Republic has no need of scientists” at the trial of Lavoisier. It’s not that this was the consensus opinion of the revolutionaries as a whole; we know this because the First Republic funded scientific expeditions and did dorky stuff like rationalize the calendar and indulge in anticlericalism in the 1790s when only complete nerds were into that.

          But Lavoisier was, from the perspective of the revolutionary courts, both a great scientist and a tax farmer. And to them, that was like being “both a great scientist and a child molester.” The former may be indisputably true, but it provides you very, very little protection from the consequences of the latter.

          So one of the lessons learned is, if I actually think ‘revolutionary excesses’ are a bad thing, I very much don’t empower a special class of super-special men to hurt and torment the masses for personal gain. Because ‘excesses’ happen for reasons; cause and effect is in play here.

    3. Tax farming is one of those ideas governments in need of cash tends to come up with regularly and they always end up with the same problems.

    4. Fairly common way to collect taxes before modern states. You bid “I can collect 5 million a year!” you often pay the state upfront, then you go collect taxes and pocket anything you collect over the tax demanded by the state. Very often in this system the taxed cannot point to anything that says “actually we only owe this.” The result is very easy for the state (and therefore profitable for weak states) but involves a lot of extortion, theft, general Sheriff of Nottinghamness and idiots setting off tax revolts.

      1. I’ve been reading Simon Schama’s book “Citizens” about the French Revolution and the section that talked about the Farmers-General honestly sounded like a fever dream, something you’d only see in a on-the-nose setting from a certain kind of fantasy or science fiction story.

        1. Hypothesis:

          Any sufficiently powerful elite that rules unchecked for a long enough span of time will tend to converge on being indistinguishable from cartoon villainy. It is very difficult to make up a society whose rulers are more pointlessly cruel and depraved than real humans are capable of becoming after generations of “absolute power corrupts absolutely” have done their work.

          1. I do not think the historical record supporting this deliberate inversion of the old saying is nearly so clear, personally.

            It’s the kind of thing one says to sound wise about revolutions, while saying revolutions are a bad thing, while trying to avoid saying that the aristocratic regimes they replace (which are often blatantly, farcically bad) were a good thing, even if that’s the effective result.

          2. Again, this is the kind of thing one says about revolutions when one is trying to sound wise, without admitting a preference for the old regimes (even when they are widely agreed to be rotten) over the new ones (even when they are not).

          3. The fantasy of creating a new, non-rotten regime has slaughtered more people than any other view in history.

  11. How does starting a political career (i.e. being quaestor or tribunus plebis) interact with being not the pater familias (yet, because you’re young and your (rich, influential, probably senatorial) father still lives)? I.e. could a senator with several ambitious sons effectively wield several offices at once (and disregarding the grace periods between being elected himself), because he’d have authority over them (technically only within the familia, but power is power)?

    1. Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus, consul 143, censor 131, died in 115 BC… leaving 4 sons:
      Q. Caecilius Metellus Balearicus, consul 123, censor 120
      L. Caecilius Metellus Diadematus, consul 117, censor 115
      M. Caecilius Metellus, consul 115
      G. Caecilius Metellus, consul 113, censor 102.
      So you have a father who held in his potestas three consuls and one censor in his lifetime (and one more consul and two censors after death).

      1. Oops. Make it two censors! If Quintus lived into M.-s consulate, he also lived into L.-s censorship!

    2. Some higher offices were off-limits to men with living fathers- I don’t have the reference handy, but Livy records the case of an ex-officerholder who had to be pardoned because it turned out his father, thought to have died in battle long ago, turned up alive and enslaved in Gaul.

      1. I’ve gone back and looked it up. The details are in Livy 27.21 and 30.19, the official was Gaius Servilius, the offices were plebeian tribune and plebeian aedile. Livy is light on legal details but this rule seems to be specific to plebeian offices. It also seems to have been a customary rather than statutory rule, since the rumor that Servilius’s father is alive isn’t enough to block his election, and the period in question (late 3rd century BC) is mostly before the Romans start codifying their electoral customs into laws.

        On the other hand, Quintus Fabius Maximus the Elder (the famous one) actually served in an army commanded by his consul son, giving rise to a conflict between public and family authority that Livy describes as follows:

        “Fabius the elder came to his son’s encampment in Apulia to serve as his legate. The son went forward to meet him and (out of respect for the father’s eminence) his lictors were silent as they went ahead of him. The old man had ridden past eleven sets of fasces when the consul told the lictor closest to him to pay attention. The lictor then called to the elder Fabius to dismount, and at this the father finally jumped from his mount, saying: ‘My son, I wanted to see if you were fully aware that you are consul.’” (24.44, trans. Yardley)

        So while the formal authority of the paterfamilias didn’t extend to public business, their auctoritas still mattered a lot in an informal way.

  12. The Romans took their politics more seriously than do modern-day Americans. Bread and circuses was fine for the masses — in the Senate, things were more sober. If you made a wrong move, you could get stabbed to death (Caesar did, and he wasn’t the only one.) The ever-present threat of assault sharpened the mind, inhibited vaporous whims, and made a man proud to be a man. The End. (Click on my name to come read my blog.)

        1. A cursory glance at the blog in question indicates that the author might not be quite all there, so the comment is actually par for the course.

      1. “This is not a particularly accurate description of the tenor of Roman politics in any period,”
        “Any period” is an exaggeration.
        For the highest office of the state… US presidents, 1 position at a time in the country, had 4 open assassinations in a century 1865…1963, plus two natural deaths of which one was somewhat rumoured as assassination. Roman consuls, 2 positions at a time, 190 BC to 90 BC, did not have a single case of clearly recognized assassination. Then again, Roman emperors, 1…2 positions at a time, in 190…290 AD… a lot.

        1. By the time “high risk of assassination” starts applying to Roman emperors, a lot of the other subtext underlying Catxman’s post breaks down and no longer applies. The point isn’t that each individual part of the claim is inaccurate for all parts of Roman history. It’s that no period of Roman history matches all parts of the claim.

  13. Bret, if I’m a voting citizen, and am sufficiently independent I’m not anyone’s client, how do I know who to vote for in elections? Were there any distinct factions in the Middle Republic? In the Late Republic, we see the Optimates vs. Populares stasis, but was there any clear division into consistent factions earlier? It could even be within some system of consensus (cf. the tripolar system of traditional Dutch and Belgian politics). Or was it just about personal relationships between clients and patrons, or the charismatic authority of a triumphant general?

    1. There would have been a lot of speech-making and politicking in the days leading up to the election. If you’re rich enough not to be anyone’s client, then you probably live in the city and rent out your farmland, or else can spend the time to socialize in the city where all the elites live and socialize. And once someone was up for something like a consul-ship, they would have had several years of other positions for people to consider them and weigh whether or not they would be good for the job.

  14. Bret, with the ongoing self-destruction of Twitter/X, is there a chance that some of your Twitter essays will be reposted to Mastodon or another social media platform that allows the general public to read them all?

  15. This is a fascinating system, one that sounds to me as if it could “almost work” today. I wonder what revisions/amendments/reforms would be necessary to approximate this for a modern nation state?

    1. I don’t think the number of changes it would take would be few. Among quite a few other things, some of the many, many, many revisions that would be needed are:

      1) A way to get mass participation in the political system that doesn’t require spending all your time in a single city.
      2) A way to mind-control-ray everyone into actually accepting some of the underlying Roman cultural mores that made this work (such as patronage networks).
      3) A way to make war profitable again so that the part where “the Republic is always at war” doesn’t cripple the Republic’s economy.

      That’s just off the top of my head.

  16. 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.
    [ . . . ]
    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.

    Yes! But isn’t it always? Organizations that remain functional for centuries are built upon a solid foundation, so they live and die by their context. Anything built up as high as Rome needs bedrock, groundwork and bricks on top to all be solid and hold shape well enough.
    Instead of this, most of the “interesting” sources cover shiny “events”, mostly of military history. Which can tell us a lot, but only as long as we know what it was about.
    Then the context gets omitted due to intellectual fashions in the style of “Milking machines for spherical cows! One size fits all!”. Then ivory-tower summaries which ignore almost anything that actually mattered for a case get pressed into easily digestible portions. Which is why most of content filtering down to the people who did not study history as such is, well, insulting to everyone’s intelligence, even outside the areas subjected to smoke-and-mirrors treatment deliberately.
    And this is why so many people tend to ignore history altogether. Also, how the groundworks are related to the constructions that wobble and sag now, while we’re at it.
    So, your series of dioramas, like this one? A good start.

  17. 1) A way to get mass participation in the political system that doesn’t require spending all your time in a single city.

    Sounds complicated. Especially in USA and clones thereof, where almost nothing ever gets politicized, and most people in such good shape that “couch potato” is among the disappearing species.
    I mean, seriously?

    2) A way to mind-control-ray everyone into actually accepting some of the underlying Roman cultural mores that made this work (such as patronage networks).

    Did you even try to search internet for “patronage network”, “patronage structure” and “patronage scheme”? No? Try this! Now, how many results even on the first pages look like they are all about Roman Republic? And should you mistakenly type “massive patronage scheme” in duckduckgo… but clicking on that would probably be a thoughtcrime.

    3) A way to make war profitable again so that the part where “the Republic is always at war” doesn’t cripple the Republic’s economy.

    I guess, this one would require to reconstruct some lost knowledge on how they used to do this back in ⅩⅩ century.

    Come on, you can do better than this. =)

    1. If this was intended as a reply to me, it kind of falls flat.

      In regards to your first point, the problem isn’t that you can’t get mass participation in the political system. The problem is that you can’t get mass participation in the exact manner the Romans ran things on a continental scale just by adding modern technology to the mix. The Roman system’s ability to function was very, very much based around specific propositions about who would be physically present within the confines of the city of Rome, and what decisions could be made in and out of it, and so on. It doesn’t port one-for-one onto a modern society with telegraphs and locomotives, let alone one with teleconferences and jetliners.

      In regards to your second point, the problem isn’t that patronage has ceased to exist. It’s that modern societies don’t run a patronage network the way Rome did. In Rome, “your Honor, this man is my patron and I cannot in good conscience testify against him in court” or something like that might very well get you some sympathy. Today, in pretty much any place in the developed world, it won’t. The patron-client relationship isn’t formalized or socially authorized the way it was in Rome, which means that part of the glue holding Roman society together cannot be duplicated today.

      In regards to the alleged thoughtcrime… why? The first several links I see are references to corruption schemes in, let’s see, the Illinois state legislature, the San Jose police department, somewhere in Central Asia, and an accusation that Trump intends or intended to revive the early 19th century spoils system for federal appointments. What exactly do you think I’ll consider a ‘thoughtcrime?’ I’m honestly curious. I can’t shake the feeling that you must have very strange ideas about how my ‘thoughts’ work. What, exactly, are you so coyly hinting will cause my brain to explode?

      In regards to your third point, this has been covered elsewhere on this blog. Modern states do not make net economic profits by waging war against other states on any reliable basis. The Romans could win a war, bring back loot, gain farmland to settle their veterans on, and become a stronger state as a result. It was a self-strengthening cycle The last people to try this seriously in modern times with even a faint hint of success were the Nazis. And it failed miserably for them within a few years. And more recent attempts to even begin to get onto that cycle (Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, Putin in Ukraine) failed even more miserably.

      Rome could make war support war and could thus make permanent large-scale warfare a major load-bearing part of its social and political norms. Modern societies cannot, because sooner or later they’ll lose, or just exhaust their industrial base vainly trying to fight the wars, and the government collapses.

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