by ‘Q. Aurelius Symmachus’
This treatment of the offices of the magistrates as the entry path to the Senate will deal with that period of time, The Republic, when the Senate served as the primary advisory body where laws were drafted to be put to the Popular Assemblies for a vote. During this period the Senate (guided by the Consuls), the Popular Assemblies and the elected magistrates (including the Consuls) formed the government of Rome. We will first briefly consider the situation following the creation of the Republic, then examine the process during the middle period of the Republic and finally move on to the changes that took place during the final century of the Republic which laid the ground work for the transition from Republic to the early Empire. The relationships between the offices of the magistracies and the Senate under the Empire will not be addressed by this brief article because by the time of the reign of Tiberius the system appears to have become sufficiently arbitrary to preclude any cursory exploration of the process for attaining a magistrates position.
During the days of the Etruscan Kings the senators were appointed by the king. At this time they served more or less like a council of elders to the king. After the last of the Tarquins was overthrown at the end of the 6th century BCE and the establishment of the Republic, the task of leading the Senate, which was to number 300, and therefore the government fell to two Consuls elected for a one year term. It is quite possible that during the first 150 years of the Republic these two offices were known as Praetors rather than Consuls (Grant, M. 1978), however for our purposes and simplicity we will refer to them as Consuls. For approximately the first 60 years of the Republic the senators were appointed by the Consuls in much the same way they had been appointed by the kings. After 444 BCE the roll of the Senate was revised by the Censors and then from the middle of the 4th century BCE the usual entrance to the Senate was through the magistracies of the city. Initially this was conferred on the higher magistrates, Consul and Praetor, and at a somewhat later time also included the lower magistrates, Aedile and Quaestor (Van Ness Myers, P. 1901).
The office of Tribune of the Plebs was formed in 494 BCE (Van Ness Myers, P. 1901; consistent with Jones & Sidwell 1997) following the first plebeian succession. The magistracy of Plebeian Aedile appears to also have been created at about this time.
In 447 BCE, the office of Quaestor, previously filled by nomination by the Consuls, became an office elected by the community and in 421 BCE was opened to plebeians who cared to and could afford to stand for election.
The magistracy of Curule Aedile was created in 366 BCE. The Curule Aedileship was open only to patricians as the Plebeian Aedileship was open only to plebeians. The Curule Aedile can be considered the higher or superior of the two offices. As the name implies, the Curule Aedile was allowed to occupy a curule seat but he did not have imperium.
We can safely say that in the beginning the Senate was composed of men drawn from only the patrician class. However, as time passed there was a growing number of plebeians who were equal to the patricians in ability and wealth and who had distinguished themselves in battle. These men were able to act as plebeian spokesmen during the struggle for political, social, religious and legal equality. The struggle was made ever more difficult because the patricians, whenever threatened by plebeian advancement would try to shift some of the functions to a new, exclusively patrician magistracy (Bradley 2000). Therefore we can understand that men were not elected to the Senate, but rather, by the middle of the Republican period a man was automatically admitted to the Senate (Shelton 1998) once he had been elected, normally by the Comitia Tributa or the Concilium Plebis, to his first magistracy. Having thus fulfilled the position of magistrate he became a senator for life. It should be noted that by the middle of the Republican period these two electoral groups, the Comitia Tributa and the Concilium Plebis, which eventually came to be indistinguishable (Bradely 2000) were probably responsible for most of the elections to the Senate because a man would enter the ‘Cursus Honorum’ at these lower levels which, during normal times, he was expected to complete before moving on to vie for the higher offices.
Now at this point let us take a quick look at these electoral bodies or ‘Popular Assemblies’ as they were known.. There were four such assemblies (Bradely 2000) and they will be treated briefly here. The Comitia Curiata or the Assembly of Wards seems to have not been an electoral body at all but one that was only convened for formal duties such as bestowing imperium on the Praetors and Consuls. Imperium meant supreme authority, involving command in war and the interpretation and execution of law, including the infliction of the death penalty (Bradley 2000).
The second body, and a very important one was the Comitia Centuriata. This body could only be convened by a magistrate with imperium which means a Consul or a Praetor. It should be noted that a Dictator and his Master of the Horse also had imperium but they were emergency offices and not offices of normal times. The Comitia Centuriata elected the Consuls and Praetors as these were the offices likely to be cast in the role of General in the event of a military campaign. This assembly was required to convene outside the walls of the city, on the Campus Martius, because as the name implies, the Comitia Centuriata was composed of all the people who were capable of bearing arms and who sat and voted according to their military ranking, meaning according to age, wealth and class.
The next body was the Comitia Tributa and it could be convened by magistrates with imperium or by the Tribunes. The people voted in their tribes for the Aediles and Quaestors. These lower magistracies had potestas rather than imperium. Potestas was the general term for the power of a magistrate to enforce the law by the authority of his office and was restricted to the carrying out of certain defined actions (Bradley 2000). There was a lot of action here as these were the offices at the bottom of the cursus honorum. At first glance it would appear that this was a very democratic process where all got to have an important input into the election, but all was not quite as it seems. In fact there were 35 tribes and most of the urban plebeians had been enrolled in the 4 urban tribes. This left 31 rural tribes where most of the privileged class had them selves enrolled, usually in a tribe from an area where they had a country estate and possibly other employer advantages that would give them extra political sway within the tribe. Now when a tribe had cast its votes, these were tallied and then the winner of that particular tribe’s votes would receive one electoral vote. That means that when all was said and done there would be 35 electoral votes cast for an office, one from each tribe, and that each electoral vote went to the winner of the tribal ballot. In this manner 16 electoral votes would indicate a majority and the winner. Most of the population who were readily available to vote, meaning the great number of urban plebeians, were registered in the four urban tribes which could only account for 4 electoral votes. In an election, as soon as a candidate received a total of 16 votes the election process was halted and the winner declared. By this it is not too difficult to understand how the privileged class maintained their control and why bribery was such a common place activity in the elections. A wealthy candidate did not have to spread his bribes over the entire population or even throughout the heavily populated urban tribes. He just had to bribe enough to ensure 16 electoral votes.
The final body was the Concilium Plebis. To this body was admitted only plebeians and it is thought that the Concilium Plebis, at one time, may have elected the Tribunes and plebeian Aediles.
During the final century of the Republic there were many abnormal occurrences which slowly worked to accustom the population to accept the extra ordinary. During this period we will point out four individuals that brought about noticeable change. The first was Gaius Marius and his multiple Consulships. People had held the office of Consul more than once in the past but normal procedure had been a 10 year wait before standing for a repeat as Consul. Marius was first Consul in 107, then again in 104. He succeeded himself in 103 through 100, thus completing the first 6 of his 7 Consulships. The next figure to bring about significant change was Lucius Cornelius Sulla who marched on Rome, became victor in the civil war with Marius’ supporters and upon assuming the position of Dictator set about to rewrite the constitution, increase the power of the privileged class and disenfranchise the plebeian class. He increased the number of senators to 600 with the increase being drawn from the ranks of the patricians. This greatly overbalanced any sway that plebeian members of the Senate may have had. Sulla also suspended the tribunican powers of the plebeians but this is slightly outside our discussion here. Sulla himself initially started out on the cursus honorum having served as Quaestor in 106 and then Praetor in 97. He served as Consul in 80, during his period as Dictator. Within ten years of Sulla’s retirement from the office of Dictator and following his death, many of the changes he instituted were reversed.
The next person to ring change out of the system was Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus. Pompey became Consul in 70 without ever having held any of the lower offices on the cursus honorum or ever having been a member of the Senate (Millar 1998)
Our final figure is of course Gaius Julius Caesar. In 80 Caesar was awarded the Civic Crown for bravery in battle. He was thus marked as a young man of promise. Sometime either in late 74 or early 73, while studying in Rhodes, Caesar received word that he had been appointed to the College of Pontifices. This was to later serve him well. He entered on the cursus honorum serving as Quaestor in 69, and Aedile in 65. when he almost bankrupted himself by borrowing money for elaborate public games. In 63 BCE, and with the help of the heavy purse of his friend Crassus, he bribed his way through the election to Pontifex Maximus. It appears that Caesar felt that obtaining this office would help keep his many creditors at bay. He then won election to the office of Praetor which he served out in 62. It is quite likely that Crassus may also have served his cause in this election. In 61 he went as Propraetor to Further Spain as Governor where he was able to avoid his creditors while winning both military honors and wealth. Caesar and the wealthy Lucius Lucceius conspired to bribe Caesar’s way into the consulship of 59 (Bunson 1994). In a matter of ten years he had completed the cursus honorum. He continued on as Proconsul, as a member of the First Triumvirate, to win military honors through his conquest of Gaul. However, during his year as Consul in 59, his co-Consul, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus who had also bribed his way into office, was no friend to Caesar. To nullify the power of Caesar, Bibulus chose to retire to the roof of his home and there to take the auguries (basically watching bird formations in the sky) for nine months. This left Caesar alone in the consulship and it was not legal according to the constitution for a Consul to preside alone. This however did not stop Caesar and he proceeded to push laws through the Senate for vote by the Assemblies and carry on without Bibulus. Eventually this resulted in a move to prosecute Caesar for treason, the basis being that he acted alone. Caesar’s response to protect himself was to attempt to stand again for Consul but this time to stand in absentia. Now having lost the support of Pompey, and not gaining legal authority to stand for election in absentia which would have allowed him to stand for election while maintaining his imperium, he stood in danger of losing his imperium and having to undergo prosecution. This was to Caesar an intolerable assault on his Dignitas and his response was to cross the Rubicon with his troops. This led to civil war and finally the end of the Republic.
Bradley, Pamela, “Ancient Rome: Using Evidence”
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2000
Bunson, Matthew, “Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire”
Facts On File, Inc., New York, 1994
Grant, Michael, “History of Rome”
Book Club Associates, UK 1978
Jones, Peter and Sidwell, Keith, eds., “The World of Rome: an introduction to Roman culture”
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1997
Millar, Fergus, “The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic”
University of Michigan Press, USA, 1998
Shelton, Jo-Ann, “As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History” 2nd Ed.,
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998
Van Ness Myers, Philip, “Rome: Its Rise And Fall”
Ginn & Company, Boston, USA, 1901