Who Were the Roman Magistrates?

Who Were the Roman Magistrates?

Who actually held the power in the Roman Republic?

Sovereignty lay with the people, the very name res publica translates to “the public thing”. The political elites of the Republic never contested that legitimacy came from the people.

However, the populace was fundamentally passive, their interests were completely in the hands of the elected officials. And these elections weren’t the free elections we are used to today.

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Voting occurred during popular assemblies, presided over by the officials who convened them. Debate occurred during separate meetings. These too had to be convened by an official. The official decided who spoke, and which issues would be discussed.

So who were these magistrates that had so much control?

The cursus honorum

During the Republic, a concept called the cursus honorum developed.

Translating to the “course of honour”, it was effectively a ladder of political offices (magistracies) that politicians would climb to reach the top. The top being the consulship, represented by two politicians who were the effective heads of state.

They represented the monarchical element in the Greek historian Polybius’ analysis of the structure of the Roman Republic.

The other two elements were aristocratic, and democratic — represented by the Senate, and the popular assemblies respectively.

Cursus Honorum. Image Credit C.K. Ruppelt (Cruppelt) / Commons

The magistracies made little distinction between civilian and military offices, and the power of the consuls was largely defined in military terms — their imperium (executive authority) was the power to command men both at home and in the field.

They could give the most important military commands, and politically they could propose legislation, convene the popular assemblies, and preside over Senate meetings.

They also held auspicium, the power to consult the gods on behalf of the state. This was a great power in a society such as Rome’s, which attributed its imperial success to being devout.

The rank below the consuls were the praetors, who shared in the consuls’ imperium and often dealt with administrative matters whilst the consuls were at war.

Other magistracies included the censors, who oversaw the censuses, and the aediles and quaestors, who performed various financial and administrative duties.

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The Tribune of Plebs

A remarkable office was the “Tribune of the Plebs”.

This office could only be held by plebeians rather than patricians, and was designed to protect the rights of the common citizen against magisterial abuse.

By the time of the “Classic” Republic (287-133 BC), however, plebeians could be just as wealthy and powerful as the patricians.

They had the power to veto the actions of other magistrates, or decrees of the Senate.

They could also convene the Senate, as well the comitia tributa, one of the popular assemblies, and call and address a contio, a formal debate on various policies and laws.

These powers granted them immense political agency, however, by the third and second centuries BC, they often aided the proposals of the Senate. This was due to them often being part of the same landowning class as the consuls and senators.

Gaius Gracchus, one of the Gracchi brothers, who were the most famous Tribunes of the Plebs.


Another special office was that of dictator.

These days a dictator is a political leader who has absolute power. During the Roman Republic they were special officials who could be appointed by the consuls in a time of emergency.

Only in office for six months, they possessed the highest degree of imperium.

They were attended to by 24 lictors, special officers who accompanied magistrates and carried fasces, bundles of rods with an axe-head.

Within the pomerium, the sacred boundary of Rome, lictors usually had to remove these axe-heads, symbolising the sovereignty of the people. But the dictator’s lictors were not required to do so, representing just how much power a dictator held, as well as the dire straits required to appoint one.

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Whilst some dictators would immediately relinquish their power once the emergency was over, notably Cincinnatus (featured image) who became an icon of civic virtue, the office was open to corruption. The famous examples are Sulla and Caesar.

Sulla revived the dictatorship by force, and Caesar was named dictator thrice, with his third term being 10 years (interrupted by his untimely demise).

The dictator’s second-in-command was called the magister equitum, “the master of the horse”, and held his post during the dictator’s time in office.

The assassination of Julius Caesar, whilst he was dictator.

Curbing electoral malpractice

We should not think of the magistrates as a government, as they acted as individuals, often in conflict with each other.

Nor was there any such concept as a “political party”, the closest example would be the optimates and populares, ideologies that loosely favoured the upholding of ancestral laws, or the following of popular measures.

Magistracies could only be held for a single year, and with the exception of the consuls, could only be held once. Even the consulship could only be held in 10 year intervals.

There were also age limitations and the cursus honorum set out an expected path to follow.

This highly regulated system of political office was meant to curb electoral malpractice, and prevent any individual from gaining too much power. By the time of Julius Caesar and Augustus, it had evidently failed.

The Powerful Praetor Roman Magistrate

A praetor was one of the greater Roman magistrates with imperium or legal power. They led armies, presided in law courts, and administered the law. Judging matters between citizens was the job of one specific magistrate, the praetor urbanus (city praetor). Since he was in charge of the city, he was only allowed to leave the city for a period of up to 10 days.

For matters outside Rome, the praetor peregrinus settled cases among foreigners. Over the years, they added additional praetors to handle matters in the provinces, but originally, there were two praetors. Two more were added in 227 B.C. when Rome annexed Sicily and Sardinia then, two more were added for Hispania (Spain) in 197 B.C. Later, Sulla and Julius Caesar added even more praetors.

Roman legal procedure

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Roman legal procedure, long evolving system used in the Roman courts, which in its later stages formed the basis for modern procedure in civil-law countries. There were three main, overlapping stages of development: the legis actiones, which dates from the 5th-century bce law code known as the Twelve Tables until the late 2nd century the formulary system, from the 2nd century bce until the end of the Classical period (3rd century ce ) and the cognitio extraordinaria, in operation during the post-Classical period.

The procedure under the legis actiones was divided into several steps. First, the plaintiff approached the defendant in public and called for him to come to court. If he refused, he could be taken there by force. The trial itself was divided into two parts. The first was a preliminary hearing held before a magistrate who decided whether there was an issue to be contested and, if so, what it was. Each step in this procedure was extremely formal. If the wrong words were used by either party, that party might lose the case. After the issues were delineated and sureties set, both parties agreed upon a judex, who was neither a lawyer nor a magistrate but a prominent layman, to try the case. The proceedings before the judex were more informal: advocates spoke and gave evidence, and witnesses often appeared. The judex made a decision but had no power to execute it. If the defendant refused to pay the fine or make restitution within a certain period of time, he could be brought by force to the magistrate. Then his property could be seized, or he could be made slave to the plaintiff to work off the debt or property claim.

During the later republic, as cases became more complex, it became necessary to write down the issues that had to be presented to the judex, thus leading to the formulary system, under which the defendant was still summoned by the plaintiff to appear in court there were still two parts to the trial, but the magistrate had greater power to determine whether the case would go to the judex.

Under the cognitio extraordinaria much greater power was placed in the hands of the magistrate and the courts. The summons was issued by the court, the trial was held exclusively before the magistrate, and the court became responsible for the execution of the sentence. Further, there developed a system of appeal. Thus, the state became involved in the administration of justice and the enforcement of its rules of law in a manner similar to that of modern European states.

The Ancient Roman Republic Government

The government of Ancient Rome consisted of three branches. These branches were: the magistrates, senate, and the assemblies and tribunes. The tri-government was known as a tripartite. Leaders knew they had to establish a government that kept citizens happy, otherwise unhappy citizens would overthrow the entire government. When Rome was founded in 753 BC, it was under the control of kings, and not all of them were Roman. Historical records show that the last three kings of Ancient Rome were of Etruscan origin. The last King of Ancient Rome was Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, he was said to be extremely cruel and had many Romans killed. Lucius Tarquinius was so corrupt that he did not even trust his own advisors and had them executed. This was the turning point in Ancient Rome. Ancient Roman nobles no longer wanted corrupt rulers or kings that were not of Roman heritage. Plebeians were common people who called for change in the Ancient Roman government. After the last king of Ancient Rome, the new government was born in 509 BC. This new republic allowed Ancient Roman citizens to elect leaders to govern them, rather than the previous monarch system of the kings.

Patricians were the wealthy land owners and upper class of Ancient Rome. To control Roman citizen s, patricians made radical changes to the Ancient Roman government. Patricians created offices that could only be held by a Roman. This ensured the best intensions for the people Rome, by the people of Rome. It should be noted that as the government grew in power and increased in stability, the differences between the patricians and plebeians started to dissolve however, this took some time as the government evolved.

As a result of the fundamental changes made by the aristocrats and patricians, the government developed into three unique parts: Magistrates, Senate, and Assemblies and Tribunes. Each part was responsible for certain duties and ensuring Ancient Rome would thrive. In the tri-government of Ancient Rome, known as a tripartite government, each part of the government had its own controls, rights, and privileges.


The first part of the Ancient Roman government was made of officials elected into office called Magistrates. Magistrates were elected each year but they were not allowed to hold their position indefinitely. The two most powerful magistrates made a section of advisors called the consuls. In this part of the government structure, only two consuls were allowed to hold office. They were responsible for running the city and leading the military. Two consuls were elected at the same time to ensure no single Roman consul would become too powerful or corrupt the system.

Below the consuls were other magistrates responsible for a variety of duties. These magistrates took care of finances and judicial obligations throughout the Ancient Roman Empire. Some magistrates were even responsible for entertainment elements such as festivals and games which Ancient Rome became famous for.


The second part of the Ancient Roman government was a body called the Senate. The Senate consisted of influential and wealthy Ancient Romans that advised Rome s leaders. When the Senate was first created, its purpose was to assist the early Roman kings. The people who worked at the Senate were called senators. Senators held this title for life, unlike magistrates who only could serve for a year. Once Rome s kings were overthrown, the Senate continued to assist the consuls. In early imperial Rome, the Senate was weak until the empire became established. Many of the senators were also magistrates previous to becoming a senator. Since a Magistrate s position was not a lifetime arrangement, many looked to holding a senator position after their magistrate duties were over. This is why many Magistrates would not upset the Senate as this was potentially their future political position.

Assemblies and Tribunes

The third part of the Ancient Roman government consisted of Assemblies and Tribunes. This part of the government protected the common people of Ancient Rome. The first branch known as Assemblies composed of the plebeians and the patricians. Their main job was to elect the magistrates responsible for running the Roman Empire.

In the second branch known as the tribunes consisted of elected officials. Tribunes were elected by the plebeians and could veto actions by other officials. With the ability to veto other officials, this made tribunes very powerful in the Ancient Roman government. To keep the tribunes from becoming too powerful, they were allowed only one year in office.

Roman Magistrates

The elected magistrates in the Roman Republic were held in check by the equal distribution of power through multiple officials of the same rank. The one noted exception to this rule was that of the dictatorship which granted supreme imperium to a single authority. All members of each particular office grouping were of equal rank and could veto acts of other members and higher magistrates (ie Consuls) could veto acts of lower magistrates (ie Quaestors).

As another check on abuse of power, each office was generally a 1 year term with the exception of the Dictatorship which was technically reserved to a 6 month emergency (though this could be extended) and the Censorship (18 months), whose powers were of a managerial nature rather than executive government. The annual term (and varying limits on eligibility for subsequent service) was often a matter of dispute and led to numerous civil disruptions, including the civil war led by Julius Caesar that eventually spelled the end of the Republican system (though it's institutional offices remained throughout the imperial period as well).

Consuls (2) (Latin: those who walk together)

The chief civil and military magistrates, elected through the assemblies by popular vote. They convened the senate and curiate and centuriate assemblies. Initially the office was only open to Patricians until the Lex Licinia opened it to Plebeian candidates in 367 BC. According to the Lex Villia annalis passed in 180 BC which established minimum age requirements for all magistrate positions within the Cursus Honorum, Consuls had to be 42 years of age. Under normal circumstances, a Roman could only serve in such a capacity only once every ten years. At the end of their annual term of service, Consuls would take the title Proconsul and generally serve as provincial governors. In the case of the death of a serving Consul, a Suffect Consul would be elected as a replacement for the remainder of his term. They were entitled to 12 Lictors as a symbol of their authority (or imperium).

Praetors (2-8)

This magistracy was originally designed as a sort of 3rd Consul and was established in 356 BC for Patricians only after they were forced to share the Consulship with Plebes. This however changed by 337 BC when the first Plebeian Praetor was elected. Romans were eligible to be a Praetor at the age of 39. They had imperium with the main functions being administration of civil law in Rome (Praetor Urbanus), military command, judges in courts of law (Praetor Peregrinus created in 246 BC), and finally the governing of provinces. They also assumed administrative duties of consuls when these were absent from Rome. When there were more than 2 Praetors (beyond 197 BC), the additional Praetors were generally assigned as governors of Sicily, Sardinia, and the Spanish provinces (and others as province acquisition continued through the late Republic and early Principate). Like Proconsuls, Praetors could hold the title of Propraetor after their annual term of service and be appointed as provincial governors. They were entitled to 6 lictors.

Aediles (4) (from the old responsibility of caretaking of the aedes, or the Temple of Ceres)

2 as Plebeian Aediles and 2 Curule Aediles. The Plebeian Aediles were established in 494 BC along with the office of the Plebeian Tribune. Curule Aediles were originally Patrician (and a higher ranking position) and the office was established in 365 BC. Eventually the Curule Aedileship became interchangeable with Patricians and Plebes. Aediles were in charge of of such things religious festivals, public games, temples, upkeep of the city, regulation of marketplaces, the grain supply in the city of Rome while Plebeian Aediles also assisted the Plebeian Tribunes. According to the Lex Villia annalis Aediles had to be 36 years of age. Curule Aediles only were entitled to 2 lictors.

Quaestors (2-40)

Quaestors typically had to be 31 years old (requirement lowered by Sulla as were all magistracies and raised back after his death) and could be Patrician or Plebeian (though in the later period this was a matter of major contention because ex-Quaestors were immediately eligible for a Senate seat). The Quaestor magistracy was developed in the time of the kings and the position in the later Republic was an evolution of various earlier positions and responsibilities. There were 2 Quaestores Parricidii, who were responsible for prosecution of criminals, and Quaestores Classici, who were financial officers and administrative assistants (civil and military). They were in charge of the state treasury at Rome and also served as quartermasters and Legionary officers under direct command of Proconsular or Praetorian Legates/Governors.

Tribunes (10) (from the Latin Tribus for Tribes)

The position of the Tribune (or Tribuni Plebis) was established after the final Plebeian withdrawal from Rome in 494 BC. Naturally they were a Plebeian only position developed as a counter measure to Patrician domination in law and policy making. They were responsible for protection of lives and property of plebians they were considered (sacrosanct) meaning their bodies were to be free of physical harm. In addition they had the power of veto over elections, laws, decrees of the senate, and the acts of all other magistrates (except a dictator) in order to protect the interest of the people (though this in itself became a powerful and manipulated political tool). They convened tribal assembly and elicited plebiscites which after 287 BC (lex Hortensia) had force of law (essentially meaning that the Tribunes could go directly to the people rather than the Senate and magistracy to propose and adopt policy).

Censors (2) (from the Latin for census)

Originally established under the kings, they were elected every 5 years to conduct census, enroll new citizens, review the rolls of senate and equestrians (essentially determing eligiblilty and be sure that all criteria for inclusion were met). They were responsible for the policies governing public morals and supervised leasing of public contracts. They ranked below Praetors and above Aediles in theory and they did not have imperium or entitlement to Lictors, but in practice, this was the pinnacle of a senatorial career. It was limited to ex-consuls carried incredible prestige and dignity and was essentially the "feather in the cap" for elder statesman (at least prior to the development of various prestigious provincial governorships such as Asia Minor). Either Patricians or Plebeians (established in 351 BC) could hold the position. The office was an oddity in that the elections were every 5 years, but that they served terms of 18 months. It was the only office that had notable lengths of time without any serving magistrates and Rome often went for very long periods without a censor. It was done away with as an official magistracy in 22 BC and replaced by the title Praefectura Morum in the Imperial system.

Dictator (1)

Created in 501 BC, just 9 years after the expulsion of the kings. In perilous times, typically of military emergency, public unrest or political upheaval a dictator could be appointed by originally the acting Consuls, and later by the overall senate body to have supreme authority. Typically the position was intended for Patricians, but the first Plebeian was appointed in 356 BC (C. Marcius Rutilius). The dictator appointed a Master of the Horse (Magister Equitum) originally as the name implies to lead the cavalry while the dictator commanded the legions (though the position also evolved into an administrative/executive position designed to assist the dictator). The Dictator's tenure was limited to 6 months or the duration of crisis, whichever was shorter. Generally, aside from those of Sulla and Caesar Roman dictatorships rarely lasted the entire 6 month term. Edicts of the dictator were not subject to veto and he was entitled to 24 lictors.


Though technically not a magistrate office, the Lictors were a representation of the power of the elected magistrates over the people. Originally selected form among the plebes, they were eventually limited to freedmen, but were definitely citizens as a toga was a required uniform. The lictor's main task was to attend their assigned magistrates who held imperium: 12 lictors for consuls, 6 for Praetors abroad and 2 within Rome, dictators (24 lictors, (12 before Sulla) and curule aediles (2 lictors) the dictator's magister equitum ("Master of the Horse") was also escorted by six lictors. Men of Proconsular or Propraetorian governer rank were also entitled to lictors (the number of lictors being equal to their degree of imperium). The lictors carried rods decorated with fasces and with axes that symbolized the power to execute. They accompanied the magistrates wherever they went. If there was a crowd, the lictors opened the way and kept the magistrate safe. They also had to stand beside the magistrate whenever he addresses the crowd. Magistrates could only dispense their lictors if they were visiting a free city or addressing a higher status magistrate. Lictors also had ancient police duties: they could, at their master's command, arrest Roman citizens and punish them.

A History of Dictatorship in the Ancient Roman Republic

The bust in the foreground depicts the consul – general Gaius Marius (157 – 86 BC) behind him, his contender Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (c. 138 BC – 78 BC). / Munich, Glyptothekm Photo by Egisto Sani, Flickr, Creative Commons

Dictators were only supposed to be appointed so long as the Romans had to carry on wars in Italy and elsewhere.

By Sir William Smith
English Lexicographer (1813-1893)

A dictator was an extraordinary magistrate at Rome. The name is of Latin origin, and the office probably existed in many Latin towns before it was introduced into Rome (Dionys. V.74). We find it in Lanuvium even in very late times (Cic. pro Mil. 10). At Rome this magistrate was originally called magister populi and not dictator, and in the sacred books he was always designated by the former name down to the latest times (Cic. de Rep. I.40, de Leg. III.3, de Fin. III.22 Var. L.L. V.82, ed. Müller Festus, s.v. optima lex, p198, ed. Müller).

On the establishment of the Roman republic the government of the state was entrusted to two consuls, that the citizens might be the better protected against the tyrannical exercise of the supreme power. But it was soon felt that circumstances might arise in which it was of importance for the safety of the state that the government should be vested in the hands of a single person, who should possess for a season absolute power, and from whose decisions there should be no appeal to any other body. Thus it came to pass that in B.C. 501, nine years after the expulsion of the Tarquins, the dictatorship (dictatura) was instituted. The name of the first dictator and the immediate reason of his appointment were differently stated in the annalists. The oldest authorities mention T. Larcius, one of the consuls of the year, as the first dictator, but others ascribed this honour to M’. Valerius (Liv. II.18). Livy states (l.c.) that a formidable war with the Latins led to the appointment and he also found mentioned in the annals that the consuls of this year were suspected of belonging to the party of the Tarquins but in the latter case T. Larcius could not have been one of the consuls.

Dionysius relates at length (V.63‑70) that the plebs, who were oppressed by the weight of their debts, took advantage of the danger of the republic to obtain some mitigation of their sufferings, and refused to serve in the army, and that thereupon recourse was had to a dictator to bring them to their duty. But as Livy makes no mention of any internal disturbances in this year, and does not speak of any commotions on account of debts till four years subsequently, we may conclude that Dionysius has in this case, as he has in many others, deserted the annalists in order to give what appeared to him a more satisfactory reason. It is true that the patricians frequently availed themselves of the dictatorship as a means of oppressing the plebs but it is certainly unnecessary to seek the first institution of the office in any other cause than the simple one mentioned by Livy, namely, the great danger with which the state was threatened. Modern scholars have stated other reasons for the establishment of the dictatorship, which are so purely conjectural and possess such little inherent probability, that they do not require any refutation.

Map of the main cities of the Latin League, 7th century BC–338 BC / Wikimedia Commons

Thus Niebuhr infers (Hist. of Rome, vol. I. p564) from the Roman dictator being appointed only for six months, that he was at the head both of Rome and of the Latin league, and that a Latin dictator possessed the supreme power for the other six months of the year but this supposition, independent of other considerations, is contradicted by the fact, that in the year in which the dictator was first appointed, Rome and the Latins were preparing for war with one another. In like manner Huschke (Verfassung d. Servius Tullius, p516) starts the strange hypothesis, that the dictatorship was part of the constitution of Servius Tullius, and that a dictator was to be nominated every decennium for the purpose of fixing the clavus annalis and of holding the census.

By the original law respecting the appointment of a dictator (lex de dictatore creando) no one was eligible for this office, unless he had previously been consul (Liv. II.18). We find, however, a few instances in which this law was not observed (see e.g. Liv. IV. 26, 48, VII.24). When a dictator was considered necessary, the senate passed a senatus consultum that one of the consuls should nominate (dicere) a dictator and without a previous decree of the senate the consuls had not the power of naming a dictator, although the contrary used to be asserted in most works on Roman antiquities. In almost all cases we find mention of a previous decree of the senate (see e.g. II.30, IV. 17, 21, 23, 26, 57, VI.2, VII.21, VIII.17, IX.29, X.11, XXII.57) and in a few instances, in which the appointment by the consul is alone spoken of, the senatus consultum is probably not mentioned, simply because it was a matter of course.

Niebuhr indeed supposes (Hist. of Rome, vol. I p567) that the dictator was originally created by the curiae, like the kings. According to his view the senate proposed a person as dictator, whom the curiae elected and the consul then proclaimed (dixit) and after this proclamation the newly elected magistrate received the imperium from the curiae. But this election of the dictator by the curiae is only supported by two passages, one of Dionysius and the other in Festus, neither of which is conclusive in favour of Niebuhr’s view. Dionysius simply says (V.70) that the dictator should be one “whom the senate should nominate and the people approve of” (ἐπιψηφίσθαι), but this may merely refer to the granting of the imperium by the curiae. In Festus (p198) we read “M. Valerius — qui primus magister a populo creatus est” but even if there were no corruption in this passage, we need only understand that a dictator was appointed in virtue of a senatus consultum, and certainly need not suppose that by populus the curiae are intended: there can however be hardly any doubt that the passage is corrupt, and that the true reading is “qui primus magister populi creatus est.” We may therefore safely reject the election by the curiae.

The nomination or proclamation of the dictator by the consul was, however, necessary in all cases. It was always made by the consul, probably without any witnesses, between midnight and morning, and with the observance of the auspices (surgens or oriens nocte silentio dictatorem dicebat, Liv. VIII.23, IX.38, XXIII.22 Dionys. X.11). The technical word for this nomination or proclamation was dicere (seldom creare or facere). So essential was the nomination of the consuls, that we find the senate on one occasion having recourse to the tribunes of the people to compel the consuls to nominate a dictator, when they had refused to do so (Liv. IV.26) and after the battle at the lake Trasimenus, when all communication with the surviving consul was cut off, the senate provided for the emergency by causing the people to elect a prodictator, because, says Livy, the people could not elect (creare) a dictator, having never up to that time exercised such a power (Liv. XXII.8).

In the same spirit it became a question, whether the tribuni militum with consular power could nominate a dictator, and they did not venture to do so till the augurs had been consulted and declared it allowable (Liv. IV.21). The nomination of Sulla by an interrex and of Caesar by a praetor was contrary to all precedent and altogether illegal (cf. Cic. ad Att. IX.15). The senate seems to have usually mentioned in their decree the name of the person whom the consul was to nominate (Liv. IV.17, 21, 23, 46, VI.2, VII.12, VIII.17, IX.29, X.11, XXII.57) but that the consul was not absolutely bound to nominate the person whom the senate had named, is evident from the cases in which the consuls appointed persons in opposition to the wishes of the senate (Liv. III.12, Epit. 19 Suet. Tib. 2).

Portrait of Sulla on a denarius minted in 54 BC by his grandson Pompeius Rufus / CNG, Wikimedia Commons

It is doubtful what rule was adopted, or whether any existed, for the purpose of determining which of the two consuls should nominate the dictator. In one case we read that the nomination was made by the consul who had the fasces (Liv. VIII.12), in another that it was decided by lot (IV.26), and in a third that it was matter of agreement among themselves (IV.21). In later times the senate usually entrusted the office to the consul who was nearest at hand. The nomination took place at Rome, as a general rule and if the consuls were absent, one of them was recalled to the city, whenever it was practicable (Liv. VII.19, XXIII.22) but if this could not be done, a senatus consultum authorising the appointment was sent to the consul, who thereupon made the nomination in the camp (Liv. VII.21, VIII.23, IX.38, XXV.2, XXVII.5). Nevertheless, the rule was maintained that the nomination could not take place outside of the Ager Romanus, though the meaning of this expression was extended so as to include the whole of Italia. Thus we find the senate in the second Punic war opposing the nomination of a dictator in Sicily, because it was outside of the ager Romanus (extra agrum Romanum — eum autem Italia terminari, Liv. XXVII.5).

Originally the dictator was of course a patrician. The first plebeian dictator was C. Marcius Rutilius, nominated in B.C. 356 by the plebeian consul M. Popillius Laenas (Liv. VII.17).

The reasons, which led to the appointment of a dictator, required that there should be only one at a time. The only exception to this rule occurred in B.C. 216 after the battle of Cannae, when M. Fabius Buteo was nominated dictator for the purpose of filling up the vacancies in the senate, although M. Junius Pera was discharging the regular duties of the dictator but Fabius resigned on the day of his nomination on the ground that there could not be two dictators at the same time (Liv. XXIII.22, 23 Plut. Fab. 9). The dictators that were appointed for carrying on the business of the state were said to be nominated rei gerundae causa, or sometimes seditionis sedandae causa and upon them, as well as upon the other magistrates, the imperium was conferred by a Lex Curiata (Liv. IX.38, 39 Dionys. V.70). Dictators were also frequently appointed for some special purpose, and frequently one of small importance, of whom further mention will be made below. At present we confine our remarks to the duties and powers of the dictator rei gerundae causa.

The dictatorship was limited to six months (Cic. de Leg. III.3 Liv. III.29, IX.34, XXIII.23 Dionys. V.70, X.25 Dion Cass. XXXVI.34º, XLII.21 Zonar. VII.13), and no instances occur in which a person held this office for a longer time, for the dictatorships of Sulla and Caesar are of course not to be taken into account. On the contrary, though a dictator was appointed for six months, he often resigned his office long previously, immediately after he had despatched the business for which he had been appointed (Liv. III.29, IV.46, VI.29). As soon as the dictator was nominated, a kind of suspension took place with respect to the consuls and all the other magistrates, with the exception of the tribuni plebis. It is frequently stated that the duties and functions of all the ordinary magistrates entirely ceased, and some writers have even gone so far as to say that the consuls abdicated (Polyb. III.87 Cic. de Leg. III.3 Dionys. V.70, 72) but this is not a correct way of stating the facts of the case.

The regular magistrates continued to discharge the duties of their various offices under the dictator, but they were no longer independent officers, but were subject to the higher imperium of the dictator, and obliged to obey his orders in every thing. We often find the dictator and the consuls at the head of separate armies at the same time, and carrying on war independent of one another (Liv. II.30, VIII.29) we see that the soldiers levied by the dictator took the oath of allegiance to the consul (Liv. II.32), and that the consuls could hold the consular comitia during a dictatorship (Liv. XXIII.23). All this shows that the consuls did not resign their functions, although they were subject to the imperium of the dictator and accordingly, as soon as the dictator abdicated, they again entered forthwith into the full possession of the consular power.

The superiority of the dictator’s power to that of the consuls consisted chiefly in the three following points — greater independence of the senate, more extensive power of punishment without any appeal (provocatio) from their sentence to the people, and irresponsibility. To these three points, must of course be added that he was not fettered by a colleague. We may naturally suppose that the dictator would usually act in unison with the senate but it is expressly stated that in many cases where the consuls required the co-operation of the senate, the dictator could act on his own responsibility (Polyb. III.87).

For how long a time the dictatorship was a magistratus sine provocatione, is uncertain. That there was originally no appeal from the sentence of the dictator is certain, and accordingly the lictors bore the axes in the fasces before them even in the city, as a symbol of their absolute power over the lives of the citizens, although by the Valerian law the axes had disappeared from the fasces of the consuls (Liv. II.18, 29, III.20 Zonar. VII.13 Dionys. V.70, 75 Pompon. de Orig. Jur. § 18). That an appeal afterwards lay from their sentence to the people, is expressly stated by Festus, (s.v. optima lex), and it has been supposed that this privilege was granted by the lex Valeria Horatia, passed after the abolition of the decemvirate in B.C. 449, which enacted “ne quis ullum magistratum sine provocatione crearet” (Liv. III.15). But eleven years afterwards the dictatorship is spoken of as a magistratus sine provocatione and the only instance in Livy (VIII.33‑34) in which the dictator is threatened with provocatio, certainly does not prove that this was a legal right for L. Papirius, who was then dictator, treated the provocatio as an infringement of the rights of his office.

The Gracchi, Tiberius Gracchus, and Gaius Gracchus, were Roman brothers who tried to reform Rome’s social and political structure to help the lower classes in the 2nd century BCE. / Wikimedia Commons

We may therefore suppose that the Lex Valeria Horatia only applied to the regular magistracies, and that the dictatorship was regarded as exempt from it. Whether however the right of provocatio was afterwards given, or the statement in Festus is an error, cannot be determined. In connection with the provocatio there arises another question respecting the relation of the dictatorship to the tribunes of the plebs. We know that the tribunes continued in office during a dictatorship but we have no reason to believe that they had any control over a dictator, or could hamper his proceedings by their intercessio or auxilium, as they could in the case of the consuls. The few instances, which appear to prove the contrary, are to be explained in a different manner, as Becker has shown. That the tribunes continued in office as independent magistrates during a dictatorship, while all the other magistrates became simply the officers of the dictator, is to be explained by the fact, that the lex de dictatore creando was passed before the institution of the tribuneship of the plebs, and consequently made no mention of it, and that as a dictator was appointed in virtue of a senatus consultum, the senate had no power over the tribunes of the plebs, though they could suspend the other magistrates.

It has been already stated that the dictator was irresponsible, that is, he was not liable after his abdication to be called to account for any of his official acts. This is expressly stated by ancient writers (Zonar. VII.13, Dionys. V.70, VII.56 Plut. Fab. 3a Appian, B. C. II.23), and, even if it had not been stated, it would follow from the very nature of the dictatorship. We find moreover no instance recorded in which a dictator after his resignation was made answerable for the misuse of his power, with the exception of Camillus, whose case however was a very peculiar one (cf. Becker, Römisch. Alterth. vol. II part II. p172).

It was in consequence of the great and irresponsible power possessed by the dictatorship, that we find it frequently compared with the regal dignity, from which it only differed in being held for a limited time (Cic. de Rep. II.32 Zonar. VII.13 Dionys. V.70, 73 Appian, B. C. I.99 Tac. Ann. I.1). There were however a few limits to the power of the dictator. 1. The most important was that which we have often mentioned, that the period of his office was only six months. 2. He had not power over the treasury, but could only make use of the money which was granted to him by the senate (Zonar. VII.13). 3. He was not allowed to leave Italy, since he might in that case easily become dangerous to the republic (Dion Cass. XXXVI.17)º though the case of Atilius Calatinus in the first Punic war forms an exception to this rule (Liv. Epit. 19). 4. He was not allowed to ride on horseback at Rome, without previously obtaining the permission of the people (Liv. XXIII.14 Zonar. VII.13) a regulation apparently capricious, but perhaps adopted that he might not bear too great a resemblance to the kings, who were accustomed to ride.

The insignia of the dictatorº were nearly the same as those of the kings in earlier times and of the consuls subsequently. Instead however of having only twelve lictors, as was the case with the consuls, he was preceded by twenty-four bearing the secures as well as the fasces. The sella curulis and toga praetexta also belonged to the dictator (Polyb. III.87 Dionys. X.24 Plut. Fab. 4 Appian, B. C. I.100 Dion Cass. LIV.1).

The preceding account of the dictatorship applies more particularly to the dictator rei gerundae causa but dictators were also frequently appointed, especially when the consuls were absent from the city, to perform certain acts, which could not be done by any inferior magistrate. These dictators had little more than the name and as they were only appointed to discharge a particular duty, they had to resign immediately that duty was performed, and they were not entitled to exercise the power of their office in reference to any other matter than the one for which they were nominated. The occasions on which such dictators were appointed, were principally:— 1. For the purpose of holding the comitia for the elections (comitiorum habendorum causa). 2. For fixing the clavus annalis in the temple of Jupiter (clavi figendi causa) in times of pestilence or civil discord, because the law said that this ceremony was to be performed by the praetor maximus, and after the institution of the dictatorship the latter was regarded as the highest magistracy in the state (Liv. VII.3). 3. For appointing holidays (feriarum constituendarum causa) on the appearance of prodigies (Liv. VII.28), and for officiating at the public games (ludorum faciendorum causa), the presidency of which belonged to the consuls or praetors (VIII.40, IX.34). 4. For holding trials (quaes­tionibus exercendis, IX.36). 5. And on one occasion, for filling up vacancies in the senate (legendo senatui, XXIII.22).

Along with the dictator there was always a magister equitum, the nomination of whom was left to the choice of the dictator, unless the senatus consultum specified, as was sometimes the case, the name of the person who was to be appointed (Liv. VIII.17, XXII.57). The dictator could not be without a magister equitum, and, consequently, if the latter died during the six months of the dictatorship, another had to be nominated in his stead. The magister equitum was subject to the imperium of the dictator, but in the absence of his superior he became his representative, and exercised the same powers as the dictator. On one occasion, shortly before legal dictators ceased to be appointed, we find an instance of a magister equitum being invested with an imperium equal to that of the dictator, so that there were then virtually two dictators, but this is expressly mentioned as an anomaly, which had never occurred before (Polyb. III.103, 106).

Gaius Servilius Ahala (magister equitum, 439 BC) / Wikimedia Commons

The rank which the magister equitum held among the other Roman magistrates is doubtful. Niebuhr asserts (vol. II p390) “no one ever supposed that his office was a curule one” and if he is right in supposing that the consular tribunate was not a curule office, his view is supposed by the account in Livy, that the imperium of the magister equitum was not regarded as superior to that of a consular tribune (VI.39). Cicero on the contrary places the magister equitum on a par with the praetor (de Leg. III.3) and after the establishment of the praetorship, it seems to have been considered necessary that the person who was to be nominated magister equitum should previously have been praetor, just as the dictator, according to the old law, had to be chosen from the consulars (Dion Cass. XLII.21). Accordingly, wefind at a later time that the magister equitum had the insignia of a praetor (Dion Cass. XLII.27). The magister equitum was originally, as his name imports, the commander of the cavalry, while the dictator was at the head of the legions, the infantry (Liv. III.27), and the relation between them was in this respect similar to that which subsisted between the king and the tribunus celerum.

Dictators were only appointed so long as the Romans had to carry on wars in Italy. A solitary instance occurs in the first Punic war of the nomination of a dictator for the purpose of carrying on war out of Italy (Liv. Epit. 19) but this was never repeated, because, as has been already remarked, it was feared that so great a power might become dangerous at a distance from Rome. But after the battle of Trasimene in B.C. 217,º when Rome itself was threatened by Hannibal, recourse was again had to a dictator, and Q. Fabius Maximus was appointed to the office. In the next year, B.C. 216, after the battle of Cannae, M. Junius Pera was also nominated dictator, but this was the last time of the appointment of a dictator rei gerundae causa. From that time dictators were frequently appointed for holding the elections down to B.C. 202, but from that year the dictatorship disappears altogether.

After a lapse of 120 years, Sulla caused himself to be appointed dictator in B.C. 82, reipublicae constituendae causa (Vell. Pat. II.28), but as Niebuhr remarks, “the title was a mere name, without any ground for such a use in the ancient constitution.” Neither the magistrate (interrex) who nominated him, nor the time for which he was appointed, nor the extent nor the exercise of his power, was in accordance with the ancient laws and precedents and the same was the case with the dictatorship of Caesar. Soon after Caesar’s death the dictatorship was abolished for ever by a lex proposed by the consul Antonius (Cic. Phil. I.1 Liv. Epit. 116 Dion Cass. LIV.51). The title indeed was offered to Augustus, but he resolutely refused it in consequence of the odium attached to it from the tyranny of Sulla when dictator (Suet. Aug. 52).

During the time, however, that the dictatorship was in abeyance, a substitute was invented for it, whenever the circumstances of the republic required the adoption of extraordinary measures, by the senate investing the consuls with dictatorial power. This was done by the well-known formula, Videant or dent operam consules, ne quid respublica detrimenti capiat (cf. Sall. Catil. 29).

(The preceding account has been mostly taken from Becker, Handbuch der Römischen Alterthümer, vol. II part II. p150, &c. cf. Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, vol. I p563, &c. Göttling, Geschichte der Römisch. Staats­verfassung, p279, &c.).

Excerpted from A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, by William Smith, published by John Murray (London, 1875), also available online at the University of Chicago.

Roman Law

Roman Law: the body of Roman legal sources, one of the most important set of texts from the ancient world.

The Gutenberg Bible was one of the first printed books, but it was followed soon afterward by the Corpus Iuris, the collection of Roman legal texts that had been made in 530-534 for the emperor Justinian. This Mainz edition of the Corpus Iuris, printed in 1468 by one of Gutenberg's successors, is one of the most important books in European history: for the first time, it was possible for every city, no matter how small or poor, to have access to the laws.

It seems strange that the people of the Renaissance accepted a legal system that was almost a thousand years old, but the Corpus Iuris had several advantages: it was venerably Roman and every Master of Law knew it. Another advantage was that it presented the Emperor as the source of law and did not recognize other authorities, making this a powerful instrument in the clash between the central state and feudal or religious potentates.

To function properly, the collection was considered to be a single system, as Justinian had indeed wanted it to be. It is a testimony to his legal team that it is indeed possible to regard it as one reasonably well-arranged structure, because Roman law was created out of several very diverse sources.


A legal system is, essentially, an agreement as to how certain things can be done properly. These rules can be found in several sources. Codified laws, like Rome's fifth-century BCE Twelve Tables, are only one part of the system. After codification, modification is often necessary, and indeed, the Twelve Tables were soon revised (the Laws of Valerius and Horatius). They were proposed in the Comitia Centuriata and when they were accepted by the people, these were valid laws, leges.

Another way to establish what was proper behavior was the edictum of the praetor. In Rome, there were two praetors who were responsible for jurisdiction: the praetor urbanus for disputes between Romans, and the praetor peregrinus for disputes involving foreigners (peregrines). At the beginning of his year in office, the praetor officially announced in which cases he would grant a remedy. Of course, he did not write a full legal code, but reiterated and adapted what his predecessors had written. Roman provincial governors did the same: when they entered their provinces, they published an edict with the rules they wanted to maintain.

Officially, the Senate could only offer advice to the magistrates, who had the right to ignore it. A couple of instances are recorded: it is sufficient to know that a magistrate who did so would rarely receive the support of his fellow-senators and had essentially destroyed his own career. Senatus consulta, the “advice of the Senate”, increasingly became a kind of law. When the emperor Tiberius (r.14-37) put an end to the Comitia Centuriata, he transferred its legislative powers to the Senate, which essentially meant that from now on, senatus consulta really were laws.

To sum up, there were three sources of Roman law under the Republic.

It is a bit confusing and we know that the college of Roman priests that were called pontifices often had to explain things to magistrates, who had been elected for one year only and were not always very knowledgeable. This became important task after the Romans had conquered Greece and new ideas about “natural law” came to play a role. From the second century BCE, we see the rise of a professional class of secular iuris prudentes, “legal experts”, who offered responsa, “answers” to the questions of the magistrates.

Imperial Practice

The Roman emperor, who was technically the governor of some twenty provinces, ruled through edicts. It was a powerful instrument, and the distinction between the emperor’s and the Senate’s provinces was soon obsolete. Because the need for a permanent code was felt, the emperor Hadrian (r.117-138) decreed the Edictum perpetuum, an “edict for eternity”. From then on, the praetors could no longer adapt the law to changing circumstances: the imperial chancery took over this role.

By then, there was no people’s assembly to make laws, while senatusconsulta were rare. The emperor remained as the main source of law – or edicts, although they are usually called constitutiones. At the same time, the ruler was expected to answer questions, and these answers are not called responsae but rescriptae. We are fortunate that a collection survives in the tenth book of letters by Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor who asked guidance from the emperor Trajan (r.98-117). The most famous example is Trajan’s response about the Christians: they needed to be persecuted but anonymously posted accusations were a dangerous precedent. Other rescripts can be found in Justinian’s Code (below).

/> Arch of Licinius Sura in Bera (Spain)

When writing his rescripts, the emperor could rely upon the procurator a libellis, his “minister of petitions”, who read the requests first and invited iuris prudentes to discuss them. Some of Rome’s most famous jurists, like Papinian, held this office. Other courtiers had similar tasks. We know that Pliny was over the moon when Trajan’s right-hand man Licinius Sura asked him to attend a meeting to discuss several topics on which Pliny was considered an expert. note [Pliny the Younger, Letter 6.31.]

Creating Order

By the mid-second century, only two legal subsystems remained: building on the foundations of laws, edicts, senatorial advice, and imperial constitutions, only the emperor could add new laws and write rescripts, while the iuris prudentes continued to offer advice. Dissensions among the experts were not unusual:

This was a quotation from the Institutiones by a lawyer named Gaius, who lived in the second half of the second century. This is a handbook for Roman law, which is still useful to help us understand the system – precisely because it was meant to create system. Also, unlike the legal texts contained in the Corpus Iuris Civilis of Justinian, Gaius’s Institutes have not been adapted to a sixth-century East Roman environment (“interpolated”).

Other examples of legal literature have the same ambition: the iuris prudentes were writing monographs on particular subjects and commentaries, bringing together information from various sources, and offering their own opinion where necessary. An example is the Lex Papia et Poppaea, a law that introduced privileges for people who had more than three or four children. Writing in the early third century, Julius Paulus offers advice about triplets, miscarriages, deceased children, and children born out of wedlock. note [Paul, Sententiae 4.9-10.]

Most of the handbooks, monographs, and commentaries are now lost, but from what remains, we can see that the subject matter was arranged quite loosely: the author mentioned a case with an interesting question, offered an opinion, and moved on to the next case. This casuistry does not make it easy to find what you need, but the Romans recognized the need to organize it better and started to write definitiones, differentiae, and regulae: various types of basic principles and abstract rules, which could be illustrated with well-known cases.

Fourth Century

/> The cardo (main street) of Beirut the Law School is supposed to have stood in front of the church in the background.

The fourth century witnessed a kind of renaissance: ancient texts were copied and studied again. What applies to poets like Juvenal and Martial also applies to the legal texts: they were republished, rephrased, and updated. The texts were also summarized and some of these compendia survive, like a collection of Sententiae by Julius Paulus of Emesa and the Epitoma with the opinions of Ulpian of Tyre, who had been an adviser of the emperors Caracalla (r.211-217) and Severus Alexander (r.222-235). These fourth-century summaries may have been used as textbooks, for example in the famous school of law in Beirut.

Another new genre was the compilation. A very important example is the Collatio Legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum, which contrasts the legal system of the Romans with the laws of Moses – an obvious comparison to make in the fourth century. In this age, we also see the first codices: private collections of various legal texts without official status, documenting the rules in a given province.

All in all, the situation was becoming increasingly chaotic, even though specialists had been trying to create some order. The teachers of the Beirut law school seem to have taken the lead in a grand project of creating order: Cyrillus, head of the school, wrote the first systematic explanation of all legal definitions, and his successors were advisers to the emperor in Constantinople. The emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450) understood their concern and ordered a codex of all imperial legislation since the reign of Constantine. This Codex Theodosianus was published in 438. It was highly influential and after the collapse of Roman administration in the west, special editions were made for the successor states in Gaul (Breviarium Alaricianum and Lex Romana Burgundionum), Spain (Lex Romana Wisigothorum and Forum Iudicum), and Italy (Edictum Theodorici).

Justinian’s Achievement

Roman law will forever be associated with the reign of Justinian, who became emperor in 527 and almost immediately ordered the codification of the full legal system. It is called the Corpus Iuris and is the culmination of a legal tradition of a millennium, which had started with the Laws of the Twelve Tables.

In 528, he appointed a committee of ten specialists who had to create a new codex of imperial legislation and could add what was necessary, leave out what was redundant, and change what was impractical. The job was done in about a year. One fragment of this Codex Justinianus survives.

The responses of the iuris prudentes were the next project: the team, now under the direction of Tribonianus, had to select everything that was useful in the second- and third-century handbooks, monographs, and commentaries, and the more recent compendia. Repetitions and contradictions had to be avoided, necessary changes (“interpolations”) had to be made, and everything that was incomplete, unnecessary, or outdated had to be erased.

The Digestae, assembled in 530-533, are a splendid text. In fifty books, subdivided in titles, chapters, and sections, every subject is dealt with. Because Justinian had explicitly demanded it so, the names of the original iuris prudentes had to be recorded out of respect for the past. If a modern reference is to “Ulp., D. 50.15.1. pr.”, this means that a section by Ulpian is meant, which can be found in the fiftieth book of the Digests, title fifteen, chapter one, in the prologue. In this section, we read that several cities in Syria combined the rank of colonia with Italian rights, and that Ulpian’s hometown Tyre was one of these, because it was “the most noble city of all”, very ancient, warlike, “most constant in its observance of treaties”, and very loyal to Rome. The fact that these words are retained suggests that the team that compiled the Digestae did not leave out everything that was unnecessary.

Justinian also ordered a new handbook, the Institutiones, which was based on the handbook by Gaius (quoted above). It was completed at the same time as the Digestae. These two new books made a revision of the Codex Justinianus necessary, and this was published in 534. During the next thirty years, Justinian continued to add new laws, in Greek, which are called the Novellae.

Together, these four texts – Institutiones, Codex, Digestae, Novellae – are known as the Corpus Iuris. To a historian, it is a veritable goldmine. Here we have a large body of Roman legislation, relevant to Late Antiquity, but based on older regulations, which we can try to reconstruct. This is very valuable information.

Besides, the casuistry of the Digestae offers unexpected views on lawsuits that demanded advice, allowing us to learn a lot about the things that really mattered to the Romans. And occasionally, you can suddenly recognize the personality of a legal expert. It tells a lot about Julius Paulus’ sense of humor that, commenting on the law that adulterers ought to lose their property and be exiled to an island, he advised exile on separate islands. note [Paul, Sententiae 2.26.14.]

The Digestae as Source

One of the big questions is how the Digestae could have been compiled in such a short time: three years. It is usually assumed that there was an older collection, available at the Beirut school of law. If this is true, the historian who wants to use information from the Digestae must be cautious. The original texts were written in Italy, the first collection was relevant for Syria, while Justinian aimed at reintroducing this as a new standard for the Byzantine Empire. Whether the casuistry of the Digestae was relevant to Hispania, Gaul, Britain, or the Rhine-Danube frontier, remains to be seen.

Primary Sources

(1) Seneca, Moral Epistles (c. AD 60)

The gladiators have nothing to protect them: their bodies are utterly open to every blow: every thrust finds its mark. Most people prefer this kind of thing to all other matches. The sword is not checked by helmet or shield. What good is armour? What good is swordsmanship? All these things only put off death a little. In the morning men are matched with lions and bears, at noon with their spectators. death is the fighters' only exit.

(2) Suetonius, Julius Caesar (c. AD 110)

His public shows were of great variety. Wild-beast hunts took place five days running, and the entertainment ended with a battle between two armies, each consisting of 500 infantry, twenty elephants, and thirty cavalry. Such huge numbers of visitors flocked to these shows from all directions that many of them had to sleep in tents pitched along the streets or roads, or on roof tops and often the pressure of the crowd crushed people to death.

(3) Cicero, in a letter to a friend described a visit to the games (55 BC)

The wild-beast hunts, two a day for five days were magnificent. But what pleasure can it possibly be to a man of culture, when either a puny human being is mangled by a most powerful beast, or a splendid beast is killed with a hunting spear? The last day was that of the elephants, and on that day the mob and crowd was greatly impressed, but expressed no pleasure. Indeed the result was a certain compassion and a kind of feeling that this huge beast has a fellowship with the human race.

(4) Keith Hopkins, History Today Magazine (June 1983)

Rome was a cruel society. They won their huge empire by discipline and control. Public executions were a gruesome reminder to citizens, subjects and slaves, that vengeance would be exacted if they rebelled or betrayed their country.

(5) Juvenal, Satire X (c. AD 120)

Time was when plebeians elected generals and commanders of legions: but now. there's only two things that concern them: bread and games.

(6) Grave inscription (c. AD 175)

Glauco, born in Mutina, fought seven times, died in the eighth. He lived 23 years and 5 days. Aurelia set this up to her husband.

(7) Graffiti in Pompeii (c. AD 79)

20 pairs of gladiators will fight at Pompeii 8 April. Aemilius painted this, all alone in the moonlight.

(8) Graffiti found in the gladiators' barracks in Pompeii (c. AD 79)

Seneca is the only Roman writer to condemn the bloody Games.

(9) Salvian, On the Governance of God (c. AD 450)

In these (the Roman Games) the greatest pleasure is to have men die, or, what is worse. to have them torn to pieces. to have men eaten, to the great joy and the delight of the onlookers. There are no shows given now in Mayence. nor at Cologne, for they are now controlled by the barbarians. What hope have Christians in the sight of God when these evils only cease to exist. when Roman cities themselves have come under the control of the barbarians.

Higher and lower magistracies

The higher magistracies (magistratus maiores) were those which were most senior in rank. They were elected by the highest of the popular assemblies, the comitia centuriata. The higher magistracies, in decreasing order of potestas, were the:

The higher magistracies can also be classified after the degree of auctoritas they have. The higher magistracies, in decreasing order of auctoritas, were the:

The rest were lower magistracies (magistratus minores):

The tribunatus plebis is not technically classified as a magistracy, and it would not be correct to regard it as either a higher or a lower magistracy.

The extraordinary magistracies are not classified as either higher or lower magistracies.


By virtue of his proconsular powers, the emperor held the same grade of military command authority as did the chief magistrates (the Roman Consuls and Proconsuls) under the republic. Since republican Proconsuls had often held their authority for extended periods of time, the prolonged use of this power by the emperor did have precedent. However, the emperor was not subject to the constitutional restrictions that the old Consuls and Proconsuls had been subject to. [6] For example, he was not required to observe collegiality, since he had no colleague, and he could not have his actions vetoed. Eventually, he was given powers that, under the republic, had been reserved for the Roman Senate and the Roman assemblies, including the right to declare war, to ratify treaties, and to negotiate with foreign leaders. [7] The emperor's degree of Proconsular power gave him authority over all of Rome's military governors. Under the republic, Proconsuls (usually former Consuls) were made governors of the more challenging provinces, and as such, most of the Roman army was under the command of one of the Proconsuls. In contrast, the "Propraetors" (usually former Praetors) were made governors of the more stable provinces. Under the republic, Praetors were the second highest ranking magistrates after the Consuls, which was why Propraetors were given provinces that were more stable. Under the early empire, the emperor commanded these Proconsular provinces, while the senate commanded the more stable Propraetorial provinces. It was by this that the emperor held command authority over most of the Roman army.

The emperor's tribunician powers (potestas tribunicia) gave him power over Rome's civil apparatus, although perhaps the most useful facet of the tribunician power was the prestige associated with the office. [8] [9] The Plebeian Tribune had been the magistrate most responsible for the political enfranchisement of the Plebeian (commoner) class during the early republic. The emperor's tribunician powers also gave him the power to preside over, and thus to dominate, the assemblies and the senate. [8] When an emperor was vested with the tribunician powers, his office and his person became sacrosanct. [8] It became a capital offense to harm, to attempt to harm, or to obstruct the emperor, and in time, this power provided the basis for laws that made it a capital offense, publishable by death, to even speak ill of the emperor. [8] His sacrosanctity also gave him the authority to order the use of capital punishment against any individual. Under the republic, Plebeian Tribunes held these same powers, but what made the emperor unique was that he possessed these powers for life, and thus he could never be held accountable for his actions, did not need to stand for reelection every year, [8] and could not have his actions vetoed.

The emperor also had the authority to carry out a range of duties that, under the republic, had been performed by the Roman Censors. Such duties included the authority to farm out tax collection, to grant public contracts, to regulate public morality (Censorship), and to conduct a census. As part of the census, the emperor had the power to grant citizenship to any individual, and to assign individuals to a new social class (the three imperial classes were the senators, the knights, and the plebeians), which, therefore, gave the emperor unchallenged control over senate membership. [10] The emperor also had the power to interpret laws and to set precedents, which he did by issuing either an edicta, decreta, or a rescripta. [11] Edicta usually addressed matters associated with the army, treasury, or food supply. The decreta were judicial decisions. The rescripta were issued in response to important questions asked by private citizens. [11] Under the republic, the aerarium Saturni held the state treasury, but only the senate had control over this treasury. While the imperial senate retained control over the aerarium Saturni, this control declined over time. [12] The emperor Augustus established two new treasuries, which future emperors would always control, called the fiscus Caesaris and the aerarium militare. The fiscus Caesaris replaced the aerarium Saturni, and thus became the principal treasury in Rome. [12] The aerarium militare was of minor importance, and its only significant function was to hold funds that were to be used to pay soldiers. [13] In addition, the emperor controlled the religious institutions, since, as emperor, he was always Pontifex Maximus and a member of each of the four major priesthoods. [7]

The first step in a political career was election to the Quaestorship, [3] although candidates for the Quaestorship had to be at least twenty-four years old. After they served as Quaestor, they had to wait for at least one year before they could seek election to a higher office, which was usually either the Plebeian Tribunate or the Aedileship. [4] After this, they had to wait for another year before they could seek election to a higher office, which was typically the Praetorship. [4] Members of Patrician (aristocratic) families could seek election to the Praetorship after serving as Quaestor, [4] and they did not have to serve as Plebeian Tribune or Aedile before this. However, since one had to be at least thirty years old before they could run for the Praetorship, Patricians ultimately had no true advantage over Plebeians. After an individual served as Praetor, they had to wait for another two years before they could seek election to the Consulship, and so, while it was not specifically mandated, candidates for the Consulship usually had to be at least thirty-three years old. [4] After a magistrate's term in office expired, they could run again for the same office almost immediately. [4]

During the transition from republic to empire, no office lost more power or prestige than the Consulship, which was due, in part, to the fact that the substantive powers of republican Consuls were all transferred to the emperor. In addition, the fact that one had to be nominated by the emperor before they could run for any office weakened the independence, and thus the prestige, of the Consulship. In addition, the Consulship lost further prestige from the fact that Consuls usually resigned before their terms ended. Imperial Consuls could preside over the senate, could act as judges in certain criminal trials, and had control over public games and shows. In general, Consular authority did not extend beyond the civil administration of Italy or the senatorial provinces. [14]

Julius Caesar had increased the number of Praetors to sixteen, [14] but Caesar's successor, the emperor Augustus, reduced this number to twelve. The number of Praetors reached its maximum of eighteen under the emperor Claudius. [5] The chief Praetor in Rome, the Urban Praetor (praetor urbanus), outranked all other Praetors, and for a brief time, they were given power over the treasury. Praetors also presided over the "permanent jury courts" (quaestio perpetua). [5] The irrelevancy of the Praetorship became obvious when the emperor Hadrian issued a decree (the edictum perpetuum), [5] which robbed the Praetors of their authority to issue edicts and transferred most of their judicial powers to either the Consuls or to district court judges.

Under the empire, the Plebeian Tribunes remained sacrosanct, [15] and, in theory at least, retained the power to summon, or to veto, the senate and the assemblies. [15] The emperor, who held tribunician powers, dominated the College of Tribunes, and while technically any member of the college could veto any other member, no Tribune dared to oppose the emperor. The Tribune's power over the assemblies meant almost nothing, since the assemblies themselves had no real power, and thus the only real influence that a Tribune had come in the form of the occasional veto over the senate. The Tribunes did also have the power to impose fines, and citizens retained a theoretical right to appeal criminal and civil decisions to a Tribune. [15]

When Augustus became emperor, forty Quaestors were elected each year, but Augustus reduced this number to twenty. [15] Augustus then divided the college of Quaestors into two divisions, and assigned one division the task of serving in the senatorial provinces, and the other the task of managing civil administration in Rome. [16] The Quaestors who were assigned to the provinces (quaestores pro praetore) managed funds given to the province by the senate or the emperor. The two Urban Quaestors (quaestores urbani) had authority over the treasury in Rome (aerarium Saturni), which functioned as a depository for both state funds and official documents. In 56 AD the Quaestors lost their authority over state funds, but retained their authority over official documents. [16] Julius Caesar had increased the number of Aediles to six, [15] and while Augustus retained this number, he also transferred control of the grain supply from the Aediles to a board of commissioners. It wasn't until after they lost the power to maintain order in the city, however, that they truly became powerless, and the office disappeared entirely during the 3rd century. [15]