Roman political procedures
In the first two hundred years or so, Rome was a monarchy: the names of seven kings are known, of whom the last, Tarquinius, possibly of Etruscan origin, was deposed in 509 BC and the republic proclaimed. From then on, Rome was socially and politically divided in two “classes”, ninety-one “centuries” and thirty-five “tribes”, each of these classifications counting for a different political purpose. The two “classes” were, for one, the common men or “plebs” [short ‘e’, rhymes with ‘pets’, adjective ‘plebeian’, ¶], and, second, the “patricians” [from Latin ‘pater’, i.e. father, ¶], the nobility. These ancient aristocrats professed to rule the plebs much like a stern but benevolent father rules his children – for their own benefit.
These two classes worked together, or, rather, against each other, in four different legislative and executive congregations: one “Senate“, which comprised only patricians (in the first centuries), and three “assemblies of the people“, which had different legislative authorities. Since the origins of all these bodies reached back into the mythical days when Rome had been a monarchy, these bodies had been created without the benefit of written laws; hence legislative competition was furious, and it took three centuries to iron things out.
Due to its seniority as the oldest political institution, the Senate did not limit itself with technical jurisdictional issues; its members viewed themselves as the natural leaders of the commonwealth due to their former status as the king’s advisors. Membership was for life unless a senator was expelled for pauperism, immorality or treason. Technically, the senators were limited to income from agrarian possessions, for they were legally forbidden to entertain plebeian businesses; but they knew everything about silent partnerships and employing straw men.
In ancient times, the Senate had been a purely patrician affair, consisting of one hundred members. Around 500 BC, plebeians gained access, and during the days of the republic the membership swelled to 300, and in imperial times to 600 and eventually 1,000 members. As it may be assumed, it took the plebs decades and sometimes centuries to effect changes in the elitist club. In the early days, the Senate could not pass laws binding all Romans, for its exclusive patrician membership, but this technicality was easily circumvented. A decision of the Senate was called a “consultum”, a decree, and was technically a request to one of the assemblies of the people to enact a law in the form suggested by the Senate. Despite vigorous plebeian opposition, the house succeeded in retaining sole jurisdiction in matters of the treasury or fiscus, foreign affairs, including war, and the appointment of provincial governors.
The three assemblies of the people dealt, each in its own distinctive way and composition, with elections and the enactment of lesser laws. The “Comitia Centuriata”, the Centuriate Assembly, included both plebeians and patricians and was organized in “Centuriae”, i.e. “centuries” of one hundred men each, classified by wealth. The system of centuries hinted at the congregation’s original military character: a centuria of one hundred men was, of course, the basic unit of the legion. In the Comitia Centuriata, ninety-one centuries were represented, and each centuria had one vote.
This small number of votes reflects on the character of Roman voting rights, which were timocratic in nature, not democratic: based on wealth or status, not “one man -one vote”. Each centuria had one vote, which was decided by the relative majority of votes within it; the swindle in favour of the nobility lay in the fact that a centuria of patricians was indeed composed of one hundred men, while each centuria of the plebs was comprised of many thousand men. The following description of the political system of the Republic is much indebted to the late Colleen McCullough.
Since forty-six votes were needed for an absolute majority of 46 to 45 in the 91 “centuries”, the 4,600 wealthiest men, all nobles, organized in these 46 centuries, were automatically assured of a majority.
The business of the Centuriate Assembly was to elect consuls and praetors annually, and two censors every five years. In theory, the assembly could also pass laws, which happened seldom, and was the proper court to charge and try “Perduellio” – high treason. Such trials, however, became increasingly rare when the plebs realized that it was impossible to convict a nobleman against the votes of his fellow aristocrats.
The “Comitia Populi Tributa”, the Tribal Assembly or Assembly of the People, was also composed of both plebs and patricians but rigged in a different way. The “tribes” were based upon the ancient rural origins of Rome and centred on the old families: a “tribe” was the equivalent of a former territory, a village, perhaps, that had belonged to one of the old clans. Thirty-one of the total thirty-five tribes were made up from people whose ancestry related back to these ancient rural communities, and it made no difference if only three or five living members were left: they had one vote. The multitudes of the plebs, however, were assigned to two of the four “city” tribes, Esquilina and Subura, and hence these tens of thousands of men together only had two votes. The business of the Tribal Assembly was to elect lower magistrates, the curule aedile, the quaestors and the military tribunes, the apprentices for future generalships. It could pass laws and hear criminal and “civil trials.
The principal political instrument of the plebs was the “Comitia Plebis Tributa” or “Concilium Plebis”, the Assembly or Council of the People. It was the youngest of the legislative bodies, excluded patricians, and had earned its power by sheer and determined opposition against Senate and nobility. It could only be convoked by the peoples’ own elected officers, the “Tribuni Plebis“, Tribunes of the People, and could pass any law law [which were called “plebiscites”, an appellation still in use today, ¶]. The three assemblies, as mentioned, but not the Senate, elected public officials, some of which wielded “Imperium” while others did not.
The word “Imperium” is best translated as the “power of command” and is obviously the root for the words “emperor” or “empire”. It prescribed the degree of legal authority vested in the office, the execution of power that bound every Roman citizen, plebe and patrician alike. It was conferred by legal act of the respective comitia and lasted for one year. Every holder of “imperium” was preceded in public by lictors, bodyguards, who shouldered fasces. Fasces were bundles of birch rods tied together crisscross wise with red leather thongs; an ancient design, probably of Etruscan origin. The number of lictors preceding the magistrate depended on the office: an “Aedile” was preceded by two lictors, a “Praetor”, “Propraetor” or “Master of the Horse” by six, a “Consul” by twelve, and a “Dictator” by twenty-four.
Outside of Rome, axes were inserted in the birch bundles to indicate that the magistrate wielded power over life and death. Only a dictator was allowed to show axes inserted in his fasces within the pomerium (the religious borders of Rome), a reminder of his unconditional power that could not be gainsaid. The words fascism and fascist derive, of course, from fasces; after his takeover of Italy, Benito Mussolini reintroduced them as symbols of his power. The number of legislative bodies and magistrates makes the Roman government a complicated affair; the graphic at the bottom may be of assistance.
In order of ascending authority, the following were Roman public offices: The “Tribunes of the Soldiers” were two dozen aspiring men, more often than not from noble families, between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine, which were elected by the Tribal Assembly and were basically cadets, officer trainees: six of them were allotted to each of the four Roman legions that, together with four legions of allies, made up the standing army in the days of the republic. They should not be confused with the centurions, which were essentially Roman NCO’s, company commanders. These tribunes could have authority in the field, if the general so decided, but carried no imperium.
The “pomerium” were the sacred borders of the city, which ran essentially around the Capitol, Palatine and Aventine hills. To cross these borders from the outside meant to lose any imperium one possessed. This was essentially a precaution against military putsches, for the legions always assembled outside of the town and a general leading them in with designs on usurpation automatically lost his power of command. Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, which was the border from his province Gallia Cisalpina to Italia proper was the crossing of a similar legal border and thus amounted to a declaration of civil war against the Roman Republic.
The lowest rank of civil public servant was the “Quaestor”. They were also elected by the Tribal Assembly, usually six per year. This office was also considered the lowest rung of the “cursus honorum“, the acknowledged stations in the career of a full-time Roman politician. The quaestor’s duties were of financial nature: he was either seconded to a praetor or propraetor who governed a province, detailed to duty in the treasury, or consigned to one of the great ports. They did not carry imperium.
The next rank in the system was the “Aedile”, of which two varieties existed: two “Plebeian Aediles”, elected by the Assembly of the Plebs and hence not possessing imperium, and two “Curule Aediles”, which were elected by the Tribal Assembly and did wield imperium. Originally, the curule aediles had to be of patrician descent but this proviso was abandoned in the fourth century BC. The aediles governed the town itself: supervising construction and enforcing (or not) the building code, securing the supply of clean water flowing from the great aqueducts, and keeping roads, markets and other facilities in order.
The most important political part of the office was the aediles’ responsibility to arrange the ludi, the games, Rome’s favourite pastime. They provided the principal opportunity for a young politician to build a reputation; the more splendid the games, the higher the aedile’s prestige in the peoples´ esteem and his chances to be elected to more prestigious offices later.
There was a drawback: the state did not allocate funds for the games. The aediles were counted on to pay the expenses, which ran into the millions of sesterces, from their own purses. Not surprisingly, some aediles ruined their family fortunes in pursuit of sensational games and ended in exile, fugitives from their creditors. In most cases, however, the loan sharks were willing to wait until their candidate reached the rank of “Praetor” and was dispatched to govern a province. At such time, the recovery of the mostly modest principal plus interest, compounded, up to fifty per cent annually, took place, on the backs of the provincials. Exploitation was the normal and accepted course of business in the governance of a province: the governor could, for example, levy his own taxes, sell the Roman citizenship, forgive tax debts or issue exceptions, for a consideration, or create criminal indictments and then peddle their dismissal; treason was the favourite charge. He could also take advantage of the tax-farming system Rome implemented upon the provinces: contracts were let to businesses that paid the whole amount of taxes of, say, a town, an estate, or a whole province, in advance to the treasury and obtained, as compensation, the right to collect the imperial taxes on their own cognizance from the unhappy people. The tax rates they assigned were, alas, mysteriously high; higher than the amounts legally prescribed on some scroll in the treasury in Rome. The company, which belonged to the governor or his creditors, kept the difference. It was an excellent business, and for many politicians the only way to get rid of the debts they had incurred during their aedileship.
The second-highest rank in the hierarchy of Roman magistrates was the Praetor, as mentioned above. Initially entrusted with legal duties, the administration of justice and oversight of the courts, the number and duties of praetors varied in later years, when the government of provinces was added to their curriculum. Of the two praetors elected in ancient times, one, the Praetor Urbanus, as the word indicates, was responsible for lawsuits between Roman citizens or parties within the pomerium, while the second one, the Praetor Peregrinus, was deputized to litigate cases involving foreign entities. If both consuls were absent, chiefly during times of war, the praetor urbanus assumed the command over town and people. In the later days of the Republic, when more and more provinces were added to the Roman fold, additional praetors were elected as regents. They ruled either during their standard one-year term of office or in a subsequent year, in the case of which they were officiating as Propraetor [“in the stead of a praetor”, ¶). In the last century of the Republic, between six and eight praetors were elected annually. They did, of course, possess imperium.
The most senior regular officer owning imperium was the “Consul“, the executive head, or heads, of the Roman administration. It was one of Rome’s peculiarities to elect two persons to fill the highest office, so as to publicly and expressively deny any resemblance to a monarchy. The position of consul was also the zenith of the “cursus honorum”, but a popular or exemplary meritorious consul could be re-elected to a second term, provided that ten years lay between the first and second consulship.
Two plebeians could be consul at any one time, but not two patricians. A consul’s imperium eclipsed any other officer’s power, anywhere, unless a “Dictator” was in office. At the end of his term, the retired consul was given the honorific “consular”; he now was an elder statesman and enjoyed a privileged position in the Senate. Consulars were often deputized to govern provinces if no praetor was available, or were sent on special diplomatic or economic missions, the most important and recurring of which was to secure the annual grain supply from Sicily and Africa.
The office of Dictator was reserved for emergencies, most of which were of military nature. The office absolved the holder from any legal consequence of his actions or omissions, but was limited to six months. A dictator was appointed by the Senate, more often than not on the recommendation of the “Princeps Senatus”, the unofficial president of the Senate, or the consuls. Technically, the dictator’s title was “Magister Populi”, Master of the People; in this context “people” referred to the infantry he would presumably lead into the field. The first decision he had to undertake on the assumption of office was the appointment of a lieutenant called the “Magister Equitum” or Master of the Horse, that is, the cavalry. Dictators were appointed very infrequently.
The most senior of all Roman magistrates were the “Censors“, although they did not possess imperium. A candidate for censor must have absolved the complete “cursus honorum”, hence must have been a consul, and preferably one of the better ones. A team of two censors was elected by the Centuriate Assembly for a term of five years, which they, however, were at liberty not to complete. In general, they busied themselves with their tasks for a year or perhaps two, and then semi-retired. In addition to the duties mentioned above in the context of the elder Cato, they also administered the general economic classification which determined every citizen’s place in the proper centuria. On the outside of Rome, their duty was to perform a full census of all Roman citizens every five years, as mentioned in Luke 2:1.
The complete antithesis to all the offices and governmental functions enumerated above were the “Tribuni Plebis”, or Tribuni Populi, the tribunes of the plebs respectively the people (both terms were used). Their origin lies in the town’s early history, when political decision-making was more of a physical than verbal matter.
They were ten, elected annually by the Assembly of the People, and their task was the defence of the rights, the property and the lives of the common man against the machinations of the patricians, who in the days of yore had enjoyed a political monopoly. Since the tribunes of the plebs were elected by the plebs alone, they had no preconceived place within the fabric of Roman governance and thus carried no imperium. Their safety and authority lay in the oath the assembly took after election, to defend the inviolability of their representatives with their own lives.
The tribunal power was chiefly negative; although they could bring in and pass laws in the assembly of the people, the main authority lay in their what since has been called the “veto power” against the actions of any magistrate, officer or even fellow tribune; he could stop not only the passing of laws but even their discussion in the Senate or the assemblies with the magic word “intercessio” [“I step in”, ¶].
Such an ability to frustrate political action was not overlooked by the movers and shakers of the last century BC: it became common practice for Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar to have at least one or two tame tribunes whose election they had financed on the payroll, to counteract any designs their enemies came up with. Many parts of the Roman administrative machine became, often in only slightly different form, stock features of European political organization in the next two thousand years. The word “senator” comes to mind, as does “dictator” as a generic term for autocrats who, alas, only very seldom retire after six months. Consuls, albeit with different functions, work in every nation, and the word “patrician” still denotes a revered elder statesman. But it was the great concept of the “Imperium” that exerted the loftiest influence on the political designs of the next two thousand years: hegemony over the European continent became the treacherous ideal of many a ruler’s political daydreams.
Below an organizational diagram of Roman politics (inspired by Colleen McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series. Link for bigger version here.) (NB: “¶” in the text denotes a remark by the author. © John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)