After the expulsion of the
last king at the end of the 6th century BC, the Roman Republic (rēs
publica “public thing”) came into being, and its institutions
continued throughout the Imperial period, albeit in a weakened form,
when imperium (our word “empire”), the highest political
and military authority, came to be limited to the emperor. Rome was
in no sense a democracy. Citizenship conferred important legal rights,
but the poor had scant political influence, and women had none. Rich
men, especially aristocratic rich men, from the familiae patriciae,
the “patrician families” (as opposed to the plebeians [plebs,
plēbis fem. 3]), elected their peers to magistracies, most of which
were annual. Patronage, amīcitia (literally “friendship”),
gave clientes little choice but to vote as their patrōnus
expected. The Roman political system was complex; listed here are some
of the terms which you can expect to meet most often. The descriptions
of the various offices etc. given here generally reflect the
The cursus honōrum
was the path to political advancement, from quaestor or tribune, to
aedile, to praetor, to consul.
masc. 3 (4, annually). Aediles were responsible for the grain supply
to Rome, and for public works.
masc. 3 (2, every five years). The censors, elected from the ex-consuls,
revised the lists of senators and knights, conducted a census and ritually
purified the city.
-iī neut. 2) centuriāta, “The assembly by centuries”,
elected consuls, praetors and censors, passed laws and declared war.
The citizen-body was divided into 193 “centuries”, which differed
in size and composition so as to favor the wealthier classes.
comitia tribūta, “The
assembly by tribes”, elected the lower magistrates and approved or
rejected legislation. There were 35 tribes, a number which stayed fixed
even when citizenship was extended to almost all free male inhabitants
of the empire. (When citizenship was granted to the Italian allies after
the Social War, the Romans initially attempted to confine them to 8
newly created tribes, so as to limit their political power.)
masc. 3 (2, annually). The consuls were the chief magistrates, and often
served also as military commanders. Their dual tenure, as well as their
limited term of office, prevented autocratic rule, but was not as efficient
in a crisis as sole authority; hence the dictatorship was devised. The
powers of a consul or praetor were regularly extended after his year
in office so that he could govern a province as proconsul or propraetor.
masc. 3 (1, originally for a maximum of six months). A dictator (the
term was originally without negative connotations) was appointed, by
senatorial authority or by a law, to rule in a military or political
emergency. Having sole power, he was freer to act than were the consuls.
No dictator was appointed throughout the 2nd century BC and Caesar’s
appointment as dictator in perpetuity deprived the office of its important
temporary nature. After his assassination the office was abolished,
on the proposal of Mark Antony. In any case, the establishment of the
Principate removed its raison d’être. A dictator might
have prevented the massacre of 80,000 troops and almost half as many
camp-followers at Arausio in 105 BC, a disaster caused by the refusal
of the two Roman generals to cooperate.
masc. 3 (literally “horseman”). The equestrian order (ordō
equester) was the second rank in Roman society, inferior only to
the senatorial class in authority and, at least in early times, usually
also in wealth. Membership was limited only by property qualification.
As the term implies, the equitēs originally constituted the
masc. 3 (1 at a time for five days each, appointed when both consuls
died or left office before their successors had been appointed). His
function was to nominate new consuls. The Romans themselves believed
that the institution, as its name suggests, went back to the regal period,
to the aftermath of the death of Romulus, but interregna
are first reliably attested for 482 and 462 BC.
magister equitum (“The
Master of the Cavalry”). The dictator’s second-in-command.
masc. 3 (8, annually). The praetors were subordinate only to the consuls,
and exercized predominantly judicial and administrative power.
masc. 3, literally “the leading man”. princeps was the title
chosen by Augustus as an inoffensive term describing his constitutional
position. princeps suggests the traditional Republican title
princeps senātūs (“The leader of the senate”) but, ironically,
given that Augustus was at pains to avoid regal connotations, it was
to become our word “prince”. By a similar irony, “palace” is
derived from Pālātium, -iī neut. 2, the Palatine hill
on which he built his rather modest home (among the splendors of more
public buildings). The first emperors did not use the term imperātor
in the modern sense of “emperor”; for a long time it continued to
bear the specific military sense “commander” (i.e. a general wielding
imperium). The reign of an emperor gradually came to be known as
his principate (principātus, -us masc. 4).
masc. 3 (20, for variable periods). The quaestors served predominantly
in financial posts.
masc. 3 (a variable number of magistrates and ex-magistrates, for life).
The senate was the chief legislative and administrative body. The collapse
of its authority marked the end of the Republic. Romulus is said to
have constituted a senate of 100 members. There were 300 senators at
the time of the Gracchi. Sulla increased their number to 600, Caesar
to 900 or even more (a controversial act, designed to reward his partisans;
it was supposed that some of them, coming from Spain and Gaul, would
be obliged to ask directions to the Senate House).
masc. 3 sc. plēbis (10, annually). Tribunes of the people had
to be plebeian, since their primary function was to protect the interests
of the plebs.
devaluation of the Republican institutions is perhaps most vividly illustrated
by Caligula’s rumored intention to appoint as consul Incitatus (“Galloper”),
a horse from the Green stable, even though this may have been no more
than a casual joke on his part, capitalized on by his enemies. Alexander
the Great seems never to have been reproached for founding a city in
memory of his horse, Bucephalas (“Ox-Head”), on the bank of the
river Hydaspes (the Jhelum, in Pakistan). (The Greek historian Plutarch
also records that he named a city after his dog, Peritas, but it may
be significant that he omits to say where that city was.) Augustus is
said to have erected a tomb for his horse, in praise of whom Germanicus
Caesar wrote a poem. Lucius Verus (co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius AD
161-169) is said to have draped Volucer (“Swift”), another horse
from the Green stable, in imperial purple and to have built him a tomb
on the Vatican hill. Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller, which has a
street in Richmond Virginia named after him, was buried with honors,
as also (as recently as 1997) were the remains of General Stonewall
Jackson’s Little Sorrel.