Roman Offices & Politics

The Roman Office Positions

(senior magistrate)
Comitia CenturiataCan propose law,
acts as senior judge,
presides comitia centuriata,
army commander,
can jointly propose dictator
provincial governor and army commander as pro-consul
(senior magistrate)
Comitia CenturiataActs as judge, can therefore create law by legal precedentprovincial governor and army commander as pro-praetor
(senior magistrate)
Comitia CenturiataOversees the census, can promote or demote individuals in their social class, including senators, awards and oversees public contracts

(junior magistrate)
Comitia Tributaoversees public works,
sponsors public games
Plebeian Aedile
(junior magistrate)
Concilium Plebisoversees public works,
sponsors public games
(junior magistrate)
Comitia TributaOversees public finance and taxation
Tribune of the peopleConcilium PlebisCan propose law, presides over concilium plebis,
can veto any act by any magistrate
or any assembly
from ca. 129 BC onwards could hold office consecutively
Pontifex MaximusComitia TributaAdministers all matters religious, presides in religious ceremonies of the state, regulates calendar, oversees Vestal Virgins, administers laws of adoption, testament and successionholds office for life
(extraordinary magistrate)
Senatecombines all magisterial powers in one person for duration of particular crisis

Consuls (Head of State)

The Roman republic was led by two Consuls who were joint heads of the Roman state and commanders-in-chief of the army. They were elected only for one year and thereafter could not be re-elected again for 10 years, in order to prevent any form of tyranny. Until 367 BC plebeians were barred from the office of consul. The first plebeian consul followed immediately after the change in 367 BC.

The main role of consuls was to prepare and propose new laws. Though this required co-operation between the two consuls, as either had the power to veto any proposals by the other. (The first plebeian consul was appointed in 366 BC, L. Sextius).

Dictator (Ruler in Crisis)

In times of crisis, a Dictator could be appointed. His time in office could not be longer than six months. But for his time in office he possessed the absolute power of a king.

The office of dictator was a very ancient office, having originated from times when one military commander might be appointed over the armies of several Latin cities. This rank then had been referred to as ‘master-of-infantry’. In republican days the title survived in form of the dictator’s second in command who was ‘master-of-cavalry’.

(Until 367 BC plebeians were barred from the office of dictator. The first plebeian dictator was appointed in 356 BC, Gaius Marcius Rutilus).

Pontifex Maximus (Head of Religion)

Religion was firmly in the hands of the Pontifex Maximus (High Priest) – a title still held by the present day pope. The pontifex maximus was, as were pretty much all official positions, an elected office. But unlike other offices its holder enjoyed a residence at the Roman forum in the very heart of Rome. His chief duty was to preside at a state ceremonies, but apart from that he also oversaw the calendar and chose the vestal virgins, as well as some of the priesthoods. He also possessed powers to discipline members of the priesthood.

Censor (Public Morality)

The Censor (of which there were two) was in his main duty the registrar of Rome. But he also oversaw the finances, including taxation, inspected the quality of public works and – more controversially – oversaw public morality.

In his role as registrar of Rome, he and his staff compiled lists of all Roman citizens, recording their name, age, ancestry, families, wealth as well as which one of the three tribes of Rome they belonged to.

If the initial purpose of the census, the counting of the people, was to allow for the military strength of Rome to be assessed, then it was naturally the censor, during the time of conscription, were in charge of assigning men, according to their status, to the various types of infantry or cavalry.

In their role of inspectors of public works, they oversaw the maintenance of the temples, roads, water systems.

Their powers of moral guardians were sweeping ones. Not only were they charged to discourage unmarried couples living together and to punish anyone who did not properly maintain his land, but they even possessed the power to bar a senator from the senate.

Simply for not seeing to his lands properly a citizen could be reduced to the lowest rank of citizenship.Equestrians too would be punished,if they were found to have neglected their horse, provided to them by public funds.

The office first arose in 444 BC, the first plebeian to hold it was Gaius Marcius Rutilus in 351 BC. Generally this powerful office was only ever granted to those who had already ascended the ‘ladder of honour’ from quaestor to consul and had thereby proved their worth. From the second century BC onwards, elections for this office were held every five years, coinciding with the census of the people. Despite the five yearly elections, a censor would only hold office for eighteen months, meaning that for the remaining three and a half years there would be no censors in place. Although his rulings would stay in place until the next election.

Praetor (Law Officer)

The Praetor (of which there were six after 197 BC) was in charge of the judiciary of Rome. He was in effect the chief law officer. He acted as the chief judge, apart from the consuls who possessed higher authority, should they choose to use it.

He also acted as a deputy to the consuls, in particular regarding the administration of the provinces. And it is therefore that provincial governors were either drawn from former consuls (proconsul) or from former praetors (propraetor).

The office of praetor was created in 366 BC, within about a century the post was held by two. The first plebeian praetor took up office 337 BC.

Aedile (Public Works)

The Aedile (of which there were four after 421 BC) was the supervisor of public works. He oversaw the public works, temples and markets. (Therefore there must have been some cooperation with the censors who had similar or related duties.) Also he oversaw the organization of festivals and games, which made this a very sought after office for a career minded politician of the late republic, as it was a good means of gaining popularity by staging spectacles.

In 367 BC BC the refusal of the plebeian aediles on one occasion to stage circus games for the length the senate desired, led to the senate simply creating two new patrician aediles, the so-called curule aediles (aediles curules) who then obliged in staging the games for the appropriate length of time. The curule aediles were hence of senior authority. But within twelve months the differences were settled and also plebeians were allowed into the curule aedileship.

Quaestor (Treasurer)

The Quaestor (of which there were four after 421 BC, and ten after 267 BC) was in charge of the military and civic treasury of Rome as well as keeping records. (Therefore there must have been some cooperation with the censors who had similar or related duties.)

Further the quaestors also acted as aides to the consuls. This office was the lowest of the magistracies, the beginning of the ‘ladder of honour’ which would lead to the office of consul.

The minimum age at which one could stand for this office was 25, allowing time for service in the legion. The first ever plebeian to take office as quaestor did so in 409 BC.

The Roman Assemblies

Senate (Patrician Assembly)

The Senate had roughly 300 members. In the very early days of Roman history entry to the senate was by birth or rank. Later it was the consuls who nominated new members to the senate.

Plebeians gained entry in the course of the fourth century BC. It was their entry into the house which saw the assembly become a body of experienced magistrates, rather than merely being the privileged nobility.

Somewhere in the early to mid fourth century it became the censors who decided upon whom to allow to join the assembly. If usually it was consuls who joined the senators at the end of their year in office, Sulla introduced rules by which all quaestors entered the senate after their term in office. Had he created 300 new senators after the civil war his proscriptions it is estimated that the number of senators remained roughly around 500.

The senate itself didn’t pass any laws of its own, but far more offered advice. However, it authority lay in its longevity. Any magistrate would only serve for one year. So despite enjoying more effective power than the senators he would be out of office after only twelve months, they wouldn’t.

With the senate consisting entirely of former magistrates, one must consider that it was a body of vast experience and great competence.

Although the senate didn’t appear to possess any defined powers, much of its power lay in customary acceptance of the senators advice on particular matters. And so foreign policy and major financial issues effectively lay firmly in the hands of the senate.

But so too did it advise on legislation and religious questions.

In effect, the senate formed, once plebeians had entered it, represented a aristocracy of political merit. Although, it must be said, that most were sons of former senators, continuing a long line of professional politicians in their family. And so there were few ‘new men’ to be found in the assembly.

Comitia Curiata (Ward Assembly)

The comitia curiata under the Roman kings acted as the people’s assembly. It was up of representatives of the three old tribes of the city of Rome (three old tribes: ramnes, tities, luceres). It is apparently based on these three old tribes that ten divisions of each tribe mere made to form a curia, which would then be represented in the comitia curiata. This although King Servius Tullius defined the four new urban tribes of Rome (four new tribes:sucusana, esquilina, collina, palatina) which meant that the tribes no longer were matters of birth, but merely where in the city you held residence. Despite such changes the division of Rome into thirty curiae remained.

As an assembly the comitia curiata didn’t really possess any real political powers. Far more its role was to ‘confirm’ magistrates in their position, once they had already been confirmed by the senate. In essence they therefore held no real political power, but acted as a discussion forum from which the spokesmen of the ordinary people could make their voices heard. The comitia curiata though also could act as a court of appeal for death sentences, if the quaestors deemed it suitable to hand a case to them for review.

The minimum age for the spokesman for a curia was fifty years and he was elected for life.

Comitia Centuriata (Military Assembly)

The comitia centuriata had already under the kings been the council representing the military units (the ‘centuries’). The comitia centuriata elected the higher magistrates (consuls, praetors, censors-although it was the senate which nominated the candidates), officially declared war and peace (although the actual decisions for this lay with the consuls). Also it was the highest court of appeal for executions or exile.

When considering the comitia centuriata one needs to keep in mind that its great influence was reflecting the fact that it was made up of the soldiery, which in republican times was almost entirely made up of the landowning classes.

Its influence decreased in the later republic, being eclipsed by the comitia tributa and the concilium plebis.

Class 140 senorium and 40 iuniorum80
Class 210 senorium and 10 iuniorum20
Class 310 senorium and 10 iuniorum20
Class 410 senorium and 10 iuniorum20
Class 515 senorium and 15 iuniorum30
special craftsmen, (fabri and cornicines)4
Total Votes193

Note: equites and class 1 command 98 votes, a majority! Proletarii have 1 vote.

Comitia Tributa (Tribal Assembly)

The comitia tributa, the tribal assembly, was made up of spokesmen for the ‘new’ tribes, as initially defined by king Servius Tullius. If the king had originally created 20 tribes, then this was expanded to 35, of which four remained the tribes of the city of Rome (four ‘new’ tribes:sucusana, esquilina, collina, palatina).

It elected the lower magistrates (curule aediles, quaestors) and other officials. In the later republic became the chief law making body, together with the concilium plebis.

Concilium Plebis (Plebeian Assembly)

The concilium plebis, was the plebeian assembly. It could only be summoned by the Tribunes of the People (tribuni plebis). It was made up in the same was as the comitia tributa, but with the exception that the upper classes were excluded, hence only allowing admission to plebeians.

If at first the assembly could only pass laws (plebiscita) which would affect the plebeians, then from 287 BC onwards its decrees became effective for all Romans, irrespective of class. The assembly also elected the tribunes and plebeian aediles.

In the later republic became the chief law making body, together with the comitia tributa.

The Two Traditional Parties

Populares and Optimates

The client system meant that Rome was never really a democracy. People voted at elections in accordance to their family loyalties. Political ideology didn’t play a major role.

Though in the later stages of the republic – roughly from the days of the brothers Gracchus onwards – there were two political parties, the populares (‘people’s party’) and the optimates (‘senatorial party’).

The populares were for the extension of citizenship to provincials, for the cancellation of debt, and for the distribution of land. The optimates were the opposing conservative force, defending the traditions of Rome and the existing order.

But this contest was far from being one between the poor and the rich. For people voted for their patrons, as they had always done. So a man might be poor but still vote as a client for the patron who was a staunch member of the optimates.

If teh struggle between the optimates was not pitching rich against poor in Rome, then one can perhaps portray it as a contest between the new powers and the old. The old privileged families held sway in Rome and hence sought to prevent any change from reducing their powers. Meanwhile the new powerful families, saw opportunities in winning more clients and supporters by championing the cause of the less privileged or excluded. For example, to speak on behalf of the Cisalpine Gauls or Samnites who did not enjoy citizenship meant, that, if they would ever be granted it, their loyalty – and hence their votes – would be with you. And so the aim of the powerful families in the populares party was clearly one of extending their own power. Any advantage to the poor was therefore merely a welcome side effect.

The great political clashes were hence only on the surface about ideology. In reality they were more about power than the public good. There were, to put it bluntly, no ‘socialists’ in Rome.

No one acted on behalf of the poor, but rather sought to gain poor votes.

If therefore the likes of the brothers Gracchus (populares) held grand passionate speeches which enthralled their audiences, these must be seen as well crafted speeches of great orators who could make their point brilliantly and persuasively. But one shouldn’t therefore necessarily think that they were any less class conscious and aristocratic than any member of the optimates.

Some might argue that granting social rights to increasing numbers was a gradual, natural process, as new blood pushed into the positions of power, building and enlarging its own client system. The great politicians might far more have been playing a part in a great theatre play, fighting out their personal struggles for power, but playing their role as champions of a greater cause.

Rulers of the Republic

Rome was a realm of quasi kings: magistrates and senators. The senate, made up of former magistrates, was no doubt an imposing sight to behold, – much like the court of a monarch.

Yet the republican attitude of Rome, to an extent even under the emperors, remained utterly hostile toward the idea of kings.

It was as though the attitude prevailed that a mere mortal on his his own could possible rule Rome and her empire. – One might even speculate that this mentality could have been the reason for the later deification of dead emperors.

The Roman passion for power is infamous. Latin even has two different words to describe a person’s power; potentia for personal power and potestas or political power.

But then to hold power in Rome was not comparable to political positions of a modern western state.

Roman magistrates were not comparable to today’s government offices. Their powers were absolute. Today’s governments separate the powers of the political rulers of the country (executive), the politicians making laws (legislature), and the judges who apply the law in the courts (judiciary). This however was not the case in ancient Rome. All such powers rested effectively with the highest magistrates, the consuls.

Not merely did the consuls hold tremendous power, but so, too, were they surrounded by symbols of ‘royal’ authority. Among them the lictors bearing the axes bound in rods, symbolizing their power over life and death, their purple striped tunic under the senatorial purple hemmed toga. And some of these symbols did indeed stem from the days when Rome had still been dominated by Etruscan kings.

And to the ordinary people of Rome their appearance must indeed have made them appear no less than kings.

But the consuls were not the only ‘kings’ in Rome. Other offices such as those of the praetors, aediles or quaestors, allowed their holders to make their own laws, oversee their enforcement and well as to prosecute and punish anyone who failed to abide by them. So they, too, enjoyed absolute power, although on a lower level.

This power of office was known as the provincia and it is hence no surprise that it eventually became the name for the ‘kingdoms’ Rome ruled over in its empire. For in those territories, the governors, held the same powers as consuls over their subjects. More so, they were under far less scrutiny when ruling over the provinces than anyone holding office within the capital. And yet, their positions generally demanded that they had previously proven their worth in high magistracies before they ever were entrusted with the absolute power of provincial governor.

Far away from Rome, subject to the many temptations of power, it is perhaps littel wonder that many governors suffered delusions of grandeur. In the eastern provinces they were often worshipped as gods by a population used to treating their rulers in such fashion.

Also of course many saw their time abroad as a marvellous opportunity to enrich themselves off the backs of their helpless subjects.

But, if the provincia did offer immunity from prosecution then this only extended for one’s time in office. Thereafter one could be prosecuted for one’s misdemeanours.

And there was many a young man ready and waiting to make a name for himself by prosecuting a corrupt governor in the courts.

When for example the governor of Gaul, Lucius Quinctius Flaminius, returned to Rome he was indeed prosecuted in 185 BC and expelled from the senate.

The Latin words res publica which are perhaps best translated as ‘public affairs’ are the source of today’s term ‘republic’.

Before setting out on reading about the history of the Roman republic, please find here the various offices and assemblies which were created in order to rule of the Roman state.