What was the Cursus Honorum?

The Cursus Honorum

The Cursus Honorum or “course of offices” was the “greasy pole” of the Roman political world. It was designed for men of senatorial rank. It spelled out the sequential order of offices that were held  by aspiring  Roman politicians. These offices were a mixture of military and political administration posts. Each office, as we shall  see, had different functions and responsibilities  as well as varying degrees of political influence. 

This diagram displays the order of offices:

NB: the offices marked by an asterisk (*) carried imperium or supreme power. This meant the men who held the offices were very influential. Those offices with the prefix “pro-“ entailed the governance of a Roman province.

Although theoretically every male citizen could aspire to high office, only the rich had any real chance of actually attaining these offices. This is because in the Assembly of the Centuries (Comitia Centuriata), the rich citizens swayed the votes at political elections in their favour. The rich and wealthy were placed in smaller numbers into many centuries (voting bodies each with one vote) and the poor were placed in larger numbers into a smaller number of centuries. The voting power at elections therefore lay with the rich.

Also, since these offices were all unpaid, poorer people would not have had the means to sustain themselves whilst in office.

Respect for tradition meant that members of the nobility, who attained high political office, were of tried and tested political stock.  Their ancestors would have attained high office within the Senate. It was very rare for a candidate to become consul without having a consul in the family at some point (such men e.g. Cicero were termed “novus homo” or “new men”).

After the Conflict of the Orders, Principles of Structure were established:

All the offices in the Cursus Honorum had minimum age restrictions for election. This ensured that only mature men could attain political office.

In addition there was a system of checks and balances: there were always at least two men holding the same office. There were set intervals of time between successive offices (2-3 years), set periods of office (usually one year) and laws which banned repeating an office. But reforms of Lucius Cornelius Sulla required a ten year period between holding another term in the same office.

In theory the Roman Republic was a participatory democracy but in practice it had oligarchic elements (primarily governed by a small, elite class), as we have seen above. It also had representative elements, since offices required popular election and tribunes represented a plebeian constituency.

A crucial role was played by the Senate, which was composed solely of ex-magistrates (these men were usually automatically appointed to the Senate by the consuls). The Senate was the only permanent governing body and the only body where debate was possible. The Senate controlled all finances, foreign affairs and state administration. It had by far the greatest prestige.       

 To have held each office at the minimum age (or suo anno “in his year”, as it was known) was a great political triumph, since to miss out on being praetor at 39 meant that one could not become consul at 42.

Cicero was also very proud that, not only did he become consul without any of his ancestors having been consul, but that he had become consul “in his year”.

 As you have seen in earlier notes the breaking of the rules governing office-holding in the late Roman Republic contributed to the destruction of the Republican system.  Although all the offices were presented as an opportunity for public service they were often used as opportunities for self-aggrandizement

A rich young Roman gentleman of a noble and respected senatorial family could expect his political career to proceed thus:

Military Tribune

The Cursus Honorum began with ten years military duty in the Roman cavalry or in the staff of a general (usually a family member or friend of the family). The ten years military service was considered mandatory for political office but in practice, the rule was not always followed rigidly

A more prestigious position was that of military tribune. 24 men of around 20 years of age were elected by the Tribal Assembly (Comitia Tributa) to serve in legions. There were six tribunes in each legion with command rotating among them. The tribunes could elected by the consuls or by the generals in the field as necessary.

The tribune had no definite duties but would be given tasks and command of units by the Legatus, the commander of the whole legion.

The following steps on the Cursus Honorum were achieved by elections every year:


The first official office on the Cursus Honorum and the most junior magistracy. The minimum age limit was 30 for patricians and 32 for Plebs.

Ex-quaestors were automatically made senators after the reforms of Sulla. Before that the censors revised the roll of the Senate less regularly.

The function of a quaestor was to supervise the treasury and the financial affairs of the state, its army and its officers.

Originally there were two quaestors appointed by the consuls as their assistants. By 420 BC there were 4 quaestors elected each year by the Tribal Asembly (Comitia Tributa). After 267 BC there were 8 until Sulla increased this number to twenty. Of the eight in office in the third and second Centuries BC two were expected to work in the city (quaestores urbani) and two were expected to assist the consul in the field.

Other quaestors were assigned to the staffs of generals. Still others   over military finances.

Quaestors held no imperium


The second official office on the Cursus Honorum. The minimum age was 35, set by a law passed in 180 BC. The minimum age limit was probably reduced by two years for patricians.

There were 4 aediles elected per year. 2 curule aediles were elected by the Tribal Assembly (Comitia Tributa) from the patricians and 2 plebeian aediles were  elected only by the Plebs in the Plebeian Assembly (Consilium Plebis). Since the plebeian aediles were not elected by the Roman People but by Plebeians, they were not technically magistrates. The functions of the two kinds of aediles were indistinguishable.  However later both patricians and plebeians could run for curule aedileship.

Despite their functions being the same the curule aediles were allowed symbols of rank unlike the plebeian aediles;  the sella curulis or “curule chair”, the toga praetexta, the right to issue edicts (ius edicendi) and 2 lictors. In this way curule aediles held imperium.   

Their functions can be placed into three categories;

1. Maintenance of the city (cura urbis):  repair and preservation of the temples, sewers and aqueducts; street cleaning and paving; regulations regarding traffic; dangerous animals and dilapidated buildings; precautions against fire; superintendence of the baths and taverns; punishment of gamblers and usurers. They were also in charge of the public morals in general including the prevention of foreign superstitions. They punished those who had a too large share of the ager publicus (public land) or who kept too many cattle on state pastures.   

2. Care of provisions (cura annonae): investigation of the quality of articles supplied; the correctness of weights and measures; the purchase of corn for disposal at a low price in case of necessity.

3. Care of the games: superintendence and organisation of public games, as well as those given by themselves or private individuals (e.g. funerals) at their own expense. Ambitious people often spent vast sums of money to gain popular support with a view to political advancement    

Since many of these functions were similar to that of the censors, the aediles and censors worked closely together

The aedileship was not a compulsory part of the Cursus Honorum and so a former quaestor could become a praetor without having been an aedile. However the aedileship was an advantageous office to hold because it demonstrated the aspiring politician’s commitment to public service


After holding the office of quaestor or aedile, a male citizen could run for praetorship. The minimum age was 39 (take two years off for patricians). The praetors were elected by the Assembly of the Centuries (Comitia Centuriata)

The number of praetors varied over time but was generally around 6 or 8.

A praetor was elected every year with special responsibility for civil jurisdiction and presided as a judge over civil cases (praetor urbanus). He could also act as a military commander and preside over the assemblies and Senate and present business to them. It was his responsibility to publish an edict setting out the principles upon which he would administer justice during his term of office. Although the praetor could not legislate, he had a lot of discretion. In a sense the continuing edicts formed a corpus of precedents (known as ius honorarium). These edicts were the cumulative source of much of Roman Law in later times.

In 242 BC a second praetorship was created to deal with civil law cases between citizens and foreigners (praetor peregrinus). Two more were added in 227  BC with respective responsibility for Sicily and Sardinia. Two further were then added in 197 BC to govern the two provinces in Spain. They were then 6 in total. This number was raised to 8 by Sulla and to 16 by Julius Caesar 

The praetors possessed imperium but his imperium was inferior to that of a consul. There was provision for this imperium to be prolonged (prorogatio) and by virtue of such prolonged imperium, ex-praetors and ex-consuls (known as propraetors and proconsuls respectively)  governed provinces.    

In a civil case, the praetor could either issue an interdict or appoint a judge. Proceeding under a praetor were said to be in iure.  The praetor would then establish a formula directing the judge to a certain remedy if certain circumstances had been met. He then handed the case back to the judge (the case was now apud iudicem, not in iure). The judgements of the judges were legally binding. Later the praetor either heard the whole case in full or appointed a delegate.   The formula were replaced by an informal system of pleadings.

In addition to civil judicial powers praetors also superintended quaestiores perpetuae (criminal proceedings of various types). A praetor was assigned to one type on a permanent basis. The praetors appointed judges, who acted as jurors in voting for guilt or innocence. The verdict was either acquittal or condemnation. These proceedings looked into crimina publica or “crimes against the public”, such as were worthy of a praetor’s attention e.g. Ambitus (“canvassing” – illegally influencing votes), Majestas (treason e.g. plotting the murder of magistrate) and Peculatus (embezzlement e.g. misappropriation of public money).  

Each praetor was accompanied by 6 lictors but only two inside the Pomerium.


Two consuls were elected by the Assembly of the Centuries (Comitia Centuriata). The minimum age was 42 for plebeians and 40 for patricians.

Each Consul had a term of one year and was given the power to veto his colleague. The officials would alternate each month

After 367 BC at least one consul had to be a plebeian    

The years were identified by the names of the consuls elected

Both had imperium and were recognised as the chief military and political executives of the state. The tenure of the consulship was widely considered to be highpoint of a political career (apart from the office of censor, perhaps)

Whilst inside the Pomerium (the city boundaries of Rome) they were the head of the government and all other magistracies were subordinate to them (with the exception of the tribunes of the plebeians) but retained independence of office. The internal machinery of the Republic was under the superintendence of the consuls.

To allow consuls greater authority when executing the law, consuls had the right of summons and arrest. This power even extended to inferior magistrates. The only limit on their judgement was the right to appeal

The consuls would command armies in the field, preside over the Comitia and over the Senate. They were also able to propose laws to the people (ius agendi cum populo). Theoretically they had rights over jurisdiction but in criminal cases they normally delegated and civil jurisdiction was taken over by the praetor urbanus

Each consul was attended by twelve lictors. These lictors removed the axes from the fasces upon entering the pomerium to show that a citizen could not be executed without trial. Upon entering the Comitia Centuriata the lictors would lower the fasces to show that consular power derived from the people

Consuls could convene and preside over the Senate. In addition they could summon and preside over any of the three Roman Assemblies (Curiate, Centuriate and Tribal). Thus the consuls conducted elections and enacted legislation.

The consuls were also the chief Roman diplomats and therefore met foreign dignitaries and ambassadors before they reached the Senate, to which the consul would introduce them. The consuls alone carried out negotiations between the Senate and foreign powers.

Each consul served as president of the Senate for a month

When neither consul was present in the city, the praetor urbanus took over the civil roles of the consuls.

Outside the walls of the city the powers of the consuls were much more extensive as commanders-in-chief of all Roman legions. In this function they were invested with full imperium. When the legions were ordered by a decree of the Senate, the consuls oversaw the levy (conscription) on the Campus Martius and also superintended the gathering of troops of allies. Within the city a consul   could arrest and punish but could not exact capital punishment but when on campaign the consul could inflict any punishment he saw fit on an officer, soldier, citizen or ally.      

Each consul commanded an army of about 2 legions strong. In rare cases both consuls marched together, each consul would then take command for one day respectively. A typical consular army was about 20,000 strong.

Rome was a very warlike society and very seldom did not fight a war (the doors of the Temple of Janus were closed in times of peace and were only closed 5 times). As a result the consul, upon entering office, was expected by the Senate and the People to start a military campaign against Rome’s enemies. If he won an immense victory, he would be awarded a triumph and be hailed as Imperator by his troops.

The consul could  conduct the campaign as he saw fit and had limitless power but could be prosecuted for misdeeds after the campaign

Except on campaign when the consul acted as commander-in-chief the consuls had to work in unison or at least not against each other’s determined will

Against the sentence of one consul, his colleague could launch an appeal (using his veto) and if successful could overturn the sentence. Another point which acted as a check on the actions of the consuls was the certainty that after their term in office was over they could be held accountable for their actions whilst in office

In addition there were three other restrictions placed upon consuls; their term of office was short (one year), their duties were pre-determined by the Senate and they could not stand for office immediately after the end of their term in office. They were expected to wait ten years between consulships.


After his term in office a consul was assigned to a province to administer as governor. The provinces each consul was assigned to were drawn by lot or upon the advice of the Senate (senatus consultum) and  determined before the end of the consulship. Transferring consular imperium to proconsular imperium the consul would become a proconsul and a governor of one or more of Rome’s provinces.

As a proconsul his imperium would be limited to the province(s), of which he was governor. Any exercise of proconsular imperium in any other province(s) was illegal. A proconsul was not allowed to leave his province before the end of his term or before his successor arrived. Exceptions were granted only by special permission of the Senate. Each term as governor lasted 1-5 years.    

Proconsuls were given the provinces on the borders of the Roman Republic, which required permanent military garrisons due to the high threat of invasion and revolt. Proconsuls were given command of provinces with Roman legions rather than using the militia.

However propraetors (those who had served as praetors the year before) also served as governors of provinces. Due to their lesser degree of imperium and lesser experience, they tended to be given control of more tranquil provinces, in which the chance of invasion or revolt was small. Although some propraetors were given control of more troubled provinces

These promagistrates held the equality with magistrates, who possessed the same imperium and were attended by the same number of lictors.

Generally the governors had autocratic power in their own provinces. A provincial governor possessed almost limitless authority and often extorted vast sums of money from the provincial population. Although he was immune from prosecution as long as he held imperium, once he left office he became vulnerable for his actions during his term.  


The censors were two former consuls elected by the Assembly of the Centuries (Comitia Centuriata), generally every 5 years (this period was known as the “lustrum”)

They held office until they had performed their function but not for longer than 18 months 

A censor could not be called to account for his actions as censor

Although the office of censor did not carry imperium, it was regarded as the most august of magistracies

The principle functions of a Censor are as follows:

1. The Census: the register of citizens and their property, conducted by the censors every 5 years. This took place on the Field of Mars (Campus Martius) in a building called the Villa Publica. The Censors would ensure the proper registration of the people, asses the value of their property and “moral worthy”. They also reviewed the membership of the Senate in which they could enrol new members and remove any deemed unworthy. For more information see notes entitled “The Roman Census”.

2.The Regimen Morum or keeping of the public morals: This was the second most important function of the Censor and one which caused their office to be the most revered and dreaded in the Roman State.  As a result of this role, censors were often called “Castigatores” (chastisers). This name grew out of the right of censors to exclude people from the list of citizens, whom they considered to be unworthy. Censors held at least nominal complete superintendence over the whole public and private life of every citizen. They were the conservators of public morality – not simply preventing crimes and immoralities but maintaining the traditional Roman character, ethics and habits (mos maiorum) and protecting the traditional ways.

The punishment inflicted by a censor in this duty was called a nota censoria or “censorial mark”, animadversio censoria or “censorial reproach”. In inflicting punishment the censors were guided by their own moral judgement. Upon taking office the censors had to swear an oath that they would not act biased by partiality and they were bound in every case to state in their lists, opposite the name of the guilty citizen, the cause of the punishment inflicted upon him.

The office of censor was invested with a peculiar kind of jurisdiction, similar to public opinion in modern times; there are many actions which whilst morally reprehensible are not illegal or punishable by the state. Even in real crimes, positive laws only punish the particular offence. But in public opinion, the offender, even after he has been punished for his crimes,  is still tainted and excluded from honours given to those of unblemished character.

Thus the Roman censor might brand a citizen with the censorial mark, even though he had already been convicted and punished by a court of law. The result was only “ignominia”, since the censorial mark was not a iudicium or legal judgement and its effects were not lasting and could be  removed by a succeeding censor. A censorial mark was not valid unless both censors agreed. The ignominia was therefore a transitory loss of status, which did not appear to have deprived a magistrate of his office. In addition the censorial mark did not prevent a person labouring under it from obtaining a magistracy, being appointed a judge by the praetor or from serving in the Roman army.

A person might be branded by the censor in a variety of cases, which are impossible to specify because it depended so much on the discretion of the censor himself. Broadly the recorded crimes fall into three categories;

1. Those committed in one’s private life, for example: living in celibacy instead of marrying and providing citizens for state, the dissolution of matrimony or betrothal in an improper way or for insufficient reasons, improper conduct towards one’s wife or children as well as harshness or overindulgence of children and disobedience of the latter towards their parents, inordinate and luxurious mode of living or extravagant use of money, cruelty towards slaves and clients and carrying on of a disreputable trade or occupation e.g. prostitution.

2. Those committed in public life either in the capacity of a public officer or against magistrates, for example: if a magistrate behaved in a many not befitting the dignity of his office (if he was accessible to bribes or forged auspices), perjury, neglect, disobedience or cowardice of soldiers in the army  

3. A variety of actions, which were thought to be injurious to public morality, were prohibited by an edict. Those who acted contrary to this edict were branded with nota and degraded. Also, improper conduct towards a magistrate or an attempt to limit his power or abrogate a law

A person branded with a nota censoria, who considered that he had been wronged, could try to prove his innocence to the censors and if he did not, he might try to gain the protection of one of the censors, that he might intercede on his behalf

Punishments inflicted by the censors differed according  to status of the offending citizen, though a person of the highest rank might suffers all the punishments at once and be degraded to the lowest class of citizens. But the punishments are generally divided in to four categories:

a. Motio (removal) or ejectio e senatu (ejection from the Senate)   or the removal of a man from the ranks of the senators. This punishment might either be exclusion from the lists of senators or the person might at the same time be excluded from his tribe and degraded to the rank of an aerarian citizen. The latter was rarely adopted. Commonly the censors would simply omit the removed senator’s name from the list of senators and in the reading of the lists in public, quietly omitted the names of those who were no longer senators. Hence the expression praeteriti senatores or “senators passed over” is equivalent to e senatu ejecti (those removed from the senate). In some cases the censors did not keep to this convention but addressed the senator, whom they had noted, and publically reprimanded him for his actions. As with ex-senators who were not barred from holding any of the magistracies that led to the Senate, he might at the next census again become a senator.

b. The ademptio equi or taking away of the publically funded horse from an equestrian. The punishment might be simple or combined with the exclusion from the tribes or degradation to the rank of an aerarian citizen

c. motio e tribu or removal of a person from his tribe. This punishment and degradation to the rank of an aerarian were normally the same. When in time the distinction was made between urban and rustic tribes, the motio e tribu transferred a person from the rustic tribes to the less respectable urban tribes. If motio e tribu were combined degradation to the rank of an aerarian, it was expressly stated.

d. Referre in aerarios or facere aliquem aerarium. This punishment might be inflicted upon any citizen, who the censors thought deserved it. The degradation properly included all other punishments, for an equestrian could not be made an aerarius unless he had previously been deprived of his horse nor could a member of a rustic tribe be made an aerarius unless he was previously excluded from it.        

3. Administration of the finances of the state: the regulation of all the revenue payable to the Roman state  (vectigalia) was superintended by the censors, such as the tithes paid for public buildings, the salt mines etc.

The censors also auctioned off the collection of taxes and tithes to the highest bidder for the space of the lustrum (tax farming). The auction seems to have taken place in March in a public space in Rome

The  censors also possessed the right, although not without the assent of the Senate, to impose new vectigalia and even to sell off state-owned land. It would thus appear that it was the duty of the censor to bring forward a budget for the 5 year period (lustrum) and to make sure that the income of the state was sufficient for its expenditure during this period. In this way they acted like the modern ministers of finance.  However the censors did not receive the revenues of the state. All money was paid into the aerarium, which was under the jurisdiction of the Senate, who had control over its disbursement and had the quaestors as its officers.

The censors were entrusted with the expenditure of public money in one important area. The censors had general superintendence of all public buildings (in this capacity they worked closely with the aediles). To meet the expenses connected with this part of their duty, the senate voted them a certain sum of money, to which they were restricted and which they might employ at their discretion. They had to make sure that all the public building were in a good state of repair and that no public building was encroached upon by the occupations of private persons and that the aqueducts, roads etc. were properly attended to.

The repair and maintenance of public buildings was auctioned to the lowest bidder by the censors, just as the vectigalia was let out to the highest bidder. The persons who undertook the contacts were known as susceptores and conductores

The censors also had to superintend the expenses connected to the worship of the gods, even feeding the sacred geese that lived on the Capitol. These various tasks were let out by contract

As well maintaining the old public buildings, the censors were in charge of the construction of new ones, either for ornament or utility both in Rome and in other parts of Italy, such as temples, basilicae, theatres, porticos, fora, walls of towns and cities, aqueducts, harbours, bridges, roads etc. These works were either performed by them jointly or they divided between them the money, which the senate had granted them. The task of building was let out on contract and when the building had been completed the censors had to make sure that the work had been performed in accordance with the contract (this was called opus probare or in acceptum referre)      


There was provision for a consul to nominate a dictator with overriding imperium who was to hold office for only six months or the duration of the emergency, whichever was shorter. Only one dictator was appointed at one time because of his imperium magnum.

The dictator was appointed to effect and execute the business of the Roman state designated rei gerundae causa (for the matters to be done) seditionis sedandae causa (for the putting down of rebellion).

Sulla as dictator legibus et rei publicae constituendi causa (Dictator for making of laws and for the settling of the constitution) established legal precedents which contributed to the end of the Roman Republic

The dictator was usually a former consul and was appointed by the Senate by the passing of a decree known as “senatus consultum ultimum”, which nominated the dictator. The consul then appointed this man as dictator. Sometimes the consul would choose to ignore the wishes of the Senate and appoint a man in direct opposition to the Senate. In later times the Senate chose the consul who was nearest at hand.  

A dictator was attended by 24 lictors outside the Pomerium and 12 inside the Pomerium, who never removed their axes from their fasces bundles, even inside the Pomerium. A sign of the immense power of a dictator over the lives of every citizen.

The dictator had the right to appoint a deputy, the Master of the Horse and to delegate his imperium to him – the only instance in regular procedure of a holder of imperium being allowed to delegate that imperium to another without reference to the people. The practice was extended when Pompey (who was never dictator) was allowed in 67 BC and in 55 BC to appoint deputies with imperium and when Augustus was allowed to appoint his own deputies to govern provinces  

The dictator became chief executive and supreme military commander of the Republic. The regular magistrates with the exception of the Tribune of the Plebs became subject to the higher imperium of the dictator. Although they all continued to discharge the duties of their respective offices, they were obliged to obey his command in every circumstance. Failure to do so could result in the magistrate being removed from office

Any magistrate who held imperium was not accountable for his actions whilst he served in an office, which held imperium. However once a magistrate left office, he could face trial for his illegal deeds after the imperium had expired. This was not the case for the dictator, who was untouchable whilst in office and was not liable to be called to account for actions, legal or illegal, after his abdication from office. Legally the dictators actions were treated as though they had never occurred.     

The superiority of the dictator’s powers to that of the consuls, consisted chiefly of greater independence from the Senate, more extensive power of punishment of citizens without trial by the people and complete immunity from being held accountable for his actions. The lack of a colleague to counter him gave the dictator great control over Rome (dictator was the only office not to have a colleague). Unlike the consuls, who had to act in co-operation with the Senate, the dictator could act on his own authority without reference to the Senate. Though the dictator usually acted in unison with the Senate. There was no appeal from the sentence of a dictator unless the dictator changed his mind. As a result there were few checks or balances on the actions of the dictators.    

In addition the dictator’s imperium granted him the powers to rule by decree and he could change any law as he saw fit and these changes lasted as long as the dictator was in power. He could introduce new laws into the Roman constitutions, which did not require ratification by any of the Roman assemblies but, which were usually put to a vote anyway. 

The dictator could also act as supreme judge with no appeals from his decisions. These judicial powers made the supreme authority of the dictator into military and civil affairs.

The extent of the dictator’s powers and imperium have led to the position of a dictator being compared with that of a monarch. However the powers of a dictator were limited by their length in office (only six months), by the fact that he did not have control over public treasury (only over the money given to him by the Senate). Also the dictator was not allowed to leave Italy, since he might become dangerous to the Republic. In addition he was not allowed to ride on horseback inside Rome, since otherwise he would too much resemble a king

The dictator had the curule chair and toga praetexta as well as twenty-four lictors

The tribune of the plebs was the only magistrate to maintain his  independence even during the tenure of the dictator. There is no reason to think that the tribune hampered the actions of the dictator by means of his veto, as he could against the actions of the consul. This may be explained  by the fact that the law creating the office of dictator was passed before the creation of the tribune of the plebs and so consequently made no mention of it

Master of the Horse (Magister Equitum)

The dictator always appointed a deputy as his most senior official known as the master of the horse or magister equitum

The appointment of the magister equitum was left to the dictator unless the senatus consultum ultimum specified the name of the man appointed (as was sometimes the case)

The dictator could not be without a magister equitum to serve him. If the magister equitum died during the 6 months in office, another man was nominated to replace him.

The magister equitum was granted praetorian imperium and was thus subject to the imperium of the dictator

In the absence of the dictator, the magister equitum became his representative and exercised the same powers as the dictator

The imperium of the magister equitum was considered equal to that of a praetor and thus the magister equitum had the insignia of a praetor; the toga praetexta and 6 lictors

It was considered necessary that the man nominated to be magister equitum  should have previously been a praetor, although this rule was not rigidly followed

The magister equitum as his name suggests was originally commander of the cavalry whilst the dictator was commander of the infantry

When the dictator left office, the position of master of the horse ceased to exist    


The senior magistrates of the Roman Republic held what is called “imperium”, which varied in degree depending on seniority

The exact definition of “imperium”, which roughly translates as “power” and “authority”, has been long debated by scholars. Perhaps the neatest definition comes from A.H.M. Jones, who said that it was “the power vested in a person by the state to do what he considers to be in the best interests of the state”

Imperium could be used in a geographical as well as political sense and so could be termed “territory”

A curule magistrate or promagistrate held an ivory baton surmounted by an eagle as a symbol of his office. Any such magistrate was accompanied by lictors bearing the fasces (traditional symbols of imperium and authority). When outside the Pomerium axes were added to the fasces as a sign of the imperial magistrate’s power to enact capital punishment. These axes were taken off the fasces inside the Pomerium as a sign that the magistrates could not enact capital punishment inside the sacred boundaries of the city.

The fasces of a dictator’s lictors still bore an axe inside as well as outside Rome as a sign that he could enact capital punishment within and outside Rome  

The number of lictors in attendance of a magistrate was an overt indication of the degree of imperium held by that magistrate.

When in the field of battle, a magistrate with imperium equal to or greater than praetorian imperium wore a knotted sash over his cuirass (breast plate)

Any man executing imperium within his sphere of influence was entitled to a curule chair 

Summary of lictors:

curule aedile – 2 lictors (since a plebeian aedile did not hold imperium, he was not escorted by any lictors)

magister equitum (dictator’s deputy) – 6 lictors

praetor – 6 lictors

consul – 12 lictors each

dictator – 24 lictors outside the pomerium, 12 inside

As can be seen a dictatorial imperium was superior to consular, consular was superior to praetorian and praetorian was superior to aedilician

Plebeian Offices

Tribune of the plebs

Ten Tribunes were elected each year by the Plebeian Assembly (Consilium Plebis)

These men had sacrosanctity and therefore could not be assaulted in any way whilst in office and inside the walls of Rome. It was thus a capital offence to harm or interfere with a tribune. However if the tribune went abroad, the Plebeians in Rome could not enforce the pledge to kill anyone who harmed or interfered with the tribune  

This sacrosanctity was enforced by a pledge taken by the Plebeians to kill anyone who harmed or interfered with the tribune during his term in office. It was from this sacrosanctity that the tribune derived all his powers;

They represented the Plebeians and had the right to convene and put proposals to the Consilium Plebis, whose resolutions (known as plebiscita) at least after 287 BC had the force of law. Thus in effect the tribune had the right to propose law  

The tribune of the plebs could veto any action by a magistrate, for example stopping a levy or stopping a motion being put to the vote of the Senate. Since the tribune was not a magistrate, he had no magisterial powers and so relied solely on his sacrosanctity of person to veto

If a magistrate, assembly or the Senate refused to comply with the orders of the tribune, the tribune could “interpose the sacrosanctity of his person” (intercessio) to physically stop that particular action  

Any resistance against a tribune was tantamount to a violation of his sacrosanctity and was considered a capital offence

Tribunes could use their sacrosanctity to order capital punishment against anyone who interfered with their duties. They could also use this sacrosanctity as protection when physically manhandling someone e.g. when arresting them.

On a few rare occasions the tribune might use a form of blanket obstruction, which could involve a broad veto over all governmental functions (as in the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus)

Whilst a tribune could veto any act of the Senate, the assemblies or the magistrates, he could only veto the act and not the measure . Therefore he had to be physically present when the act was taking place. As soon as the tribune was no longer present, the act could be completed as if there had never been a veto

 Their lack of magisterial powers made them independent of all other magistrates, which meant that no magistrate could veto a tribune  

The tribunes as the only true representatives of the people had the authority to enforce the right of habeas corpus, the theoretical right to due process. This duty and right of bringing help to a citizen being arrested by a magistrate was known as “ius auxilii ferendi”. If a magistrate threatened to take action against a citizen, the citizen had to yell simply “ego te provoco!”, which would appeal the magistrate’s decision to the tribune. A tribune had to access the situation and give the magistrate his approval before the magistrate could carry out the action. Sometimes the tribune brought the case before the College of Tribunes or the Assembly of the Plebeians for a trial. Any action taken in spite of a citizens “provocatio”  to a tribune was illegal.   

Thus in this role the tribune was the principle and often only guarantor  of civil liberties of Roman citizens again arbitrary state powers. In this sense the position of Tribune is much like that of the Ombudsman today.

Tribunes were required to be Plebeians and until 421 BC the office was only open to them. The patrician politician Clodius arranged for his adoption by the plebeian side of his family and successfully ran for the tribunate

When Lucius Cornelius Sulla was dictator, he severely curtailed the powers of the tribunes of the plebs by invalidating their power of veto and making it illegal for them to bring laws before the Consilium Plebis without the consent of the Senate. Afterwards the tribune was restored to its former power during the consulship of Crassus and Pompey. 

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