|THE ROMAN REPUBLICAN CONSTITUTION
The Romans never had a written constitution, but their form of their
government, especially from the time of the passage of the lex
Hortensia (287 B.C.), roughly parallels the modern American division of
executive, legislative, and judical branches, although the Roman senate
doesn't neatly fit any of these modern categories.
-- the elected magistrates
With the exception of the dictatorship, all offices were collegial,
that is, held by at least two men. All members of a college were of
equal rank and could veto acts of other members; higher magistrates
could veto acts of lower magistrates. The name of each office listed
below is followed (in parentheses) by the number of office-holders;
note that in several cases the number changes over time (normally
With the exception of the dictatorship (6 months) and the censorship
(18 months), the term of office was limited to one year. The rules for
holding office for multiple or successive terms were a matter of
considerable contention over time.
CONSULS (2): chief civil and military magistrates; invested with imperium (consular
imperium was considered maius ("greater") than that of praetors); convened
senate and curiate and centuriate assemblies.
PRAETORS (2-8): had imperium; main functions (1) military commands (governors)
(2) administered civil law at Rome.
AEDILES (2): plebian (plebian only) and curule (plebian or patrician); in charge of
religious festivals, public games, temples, upkeep of city, regulation of
marketplaces, grain supply.
QUAESTORS (2-40): financial officers and administrative assistants (civil and
military); in charge of state treasury at Rome; in field, served as quartermasters
and seconds- in-command.
TRIBUNES (2-10): charged with protection of lives and property of plebeians; their
persons were inviolable (sacrosanct); had power of veto (Lat. "I forbid") over
elections, laws, decrees of the senate, and the acts of all other magistrates (except
dictator); convened tribal assembly and elicited plebiscites, which after 287 B.C.
(lex Hortensia) had force of law.
CENSORS (2): elected every 5 years to conduct census, enroll new citizens, review
roll of senate; controlled public morals and supervised leasing of public contracts;
in protocol, ranked below praetors and above aediles but, in practice, the pinnacle
of a senatorial career (ex- consuls only) -- enormous prestige and influence (auctoritas).
DICTATOR (1): in times of military emergency appointed by consuls; dictator
appointed a Master of the Horse to lead cavalry; tenure limited to 6 months or
duration of crisis, whichever was shorter; not subject to veto.
-originally an advisory board composed of the heads of patrician families, this
came to be an assembly of former magistrates (ex-consuls, ex-praetors, and ex-
quaestors, although the last appear to have had relatively little influence); the
most powerful organ of Republican government and the only body of state that
could develop consistent long-term policy.
-enacted "decrees of the senate" (senatus consulta), which apparently had no
formal authority, but often in practice decided matters.
-took cognizance of virtually all public matters, but most important areas of
competence were in foreign policy (including the conduct of war) and financial administration.
-- the three citizen assemblies (cf. Senate)
-all 3 assemblies included the entire electorate, but each had a different internal organization
(and therefore differences in the weight of an individual citizen's vote).
-all 3 assemblies made up of voting units; the single vote of each
voting unit determined by a majority of the voters in that unit;
measures passed by a simple majority of the units.
-called comitia-- specifically the comitia curiata, comitia centuriata,
and comitia plebis tributa (also the concilium plebis or comitia populi
CURIATE ASSEMBLY: oldest (early Rome); units of
organization: the 30 curiae (sing: curia) of the early city (10 for
each of the early, "Romulan" tribes), based on clan and family
associations; became obsolete as a legislative body but preserved
functions of endowing senior magistrates with imperium and witnessing
religious affairs. The head of each curia at least age 50 and elected
for life; assembly effectively controlled by patricians, partially
CENTURIATE ASSEMBLY: most important; units of organization:
193 centuries, based on wealth and age; originally military units with
membership based on capability to furnish armed men in groups of 100
(convened outside pomerium); elected censors and magistrates with
imperium (consuls and praetors); proper body for declaring war; passed
some laws (leges, sing. lex); served as highest court of appeal in
cases involving capital punishment. 118 centuries controlled by top 3
of 9 "classes" (minimum property qualifications for third class in
first cent. B.C.-HS 75,000); assembly controlled by landed aristocracy.
TRIBAL ASSEMBLY: originally for election of tribunes and deliberation
of plebeians; units of organization: the urban and 31 rural tribes,
based on place of residence until 241 B.C., thereafter local
significance largely lost; elected lower magistrates (tribunes,
aediles, quaestors); since simpler to convene and register 35 tribes
than 193 centuries, more frequently used to pass legislation
(plebiscites). Voting in favor of 31 less densely populated rural
tribes; presence in Rome was required to cast ballot: assembly
controlled by landed aristocracy (villa owners). Eventually
became chief law-making body.
CIVIL LITIGATION: chief official-Praetor. The praetor did not try cases
but presided only in preliminary stages; determined nature of suit and
issued a "formula" precisely defining the legal point(s) at issue, then
assigned case to be tried before a delegated judge (iudex) or board of
arbiters (3-5 recuperatores for minor cases, one of the four panels of
"The one hundred men" (centumviri) for causes célèbres (inheritances
and financial affairs of the rich)). Judge or arbiters heard case,
rendered judgment, and imposed fine.
CRIMINAL PROSECUTION: originally major crimes against the state were
tried before centuriate assembly, but by late Republic (after Sulla)
most cases were prosecuted before one of the quaestiones perpetuae
("standing jury courts"), each with a specific jurisdiction, e.g.,
treason (maiestas), electoral corruption (ambitus), extortion in the
provinces (repetundae), embezzlement of public funds, murder and
poisoning, forgery, violence (vis), etc.
Juries were large (c. 50-75 members), composed of senators and (after
the tribunate of C. Gracchus in 122) knights, and were empanelled from
an annual list of eligible jurors (briefly restricted to the senate
again by Sulla).
First plebeian consul in 366 B.C., first plebeian dictator 356, first plebeian censor 351, first plebeian praetor 336.
The many priestly colleges (flamines, augures, pontifex maximus, etc.) were also state offices, held mostly by patricians.
Imperium is the power of magistrates to command armies and (within limits) to coerce citizens.