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 Augustan period.

The cursus honōrum was the path to political advancement, from quaestor or tribune, to aedile, to praetor, to consul.

aedīlis, -is masc. 3 (4, annually). Aediles were responsible for the grain supply to Rome, and for public works.

censor, censōris 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.

comitia (comitium, - 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.)

consul, consulis 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.

dictātor, dictātōris 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.

eques, equitis 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 Roman cavalry.

interrex, -rēgis 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.

praetor, praetōris masc. 3 (8, annually). The praetors were subordinate only to the consuls, and exercized predominantly judicial and administrative power.

princeps, principis 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, - 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).

quaestor, quaestōris masc. 3 (20, for variable periods). The quaestors served predominantly in financial posts.

senātor, senātōris 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).

tribūnus, -i 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.

The 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.