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distinction, like a modern decoration, - and they had the exclusive
rights of the orchestra at theatres and amphitheatres. [Footnote: See
article in Smith's _Dict. of Ant._, by Dr. Schmitz.] Under the
emperors, the Senate was degraded, and was made entirely subservient to
their will, and a mouth-piece; still it survived all the changes of the
constitution, and was always a dignified and privileged body. It
combined, in its glory, more functions than the English Parliament; it
was convoked by the curule magistrates, and finally by the tribunes. The
most ancient place of assembly was the Curia Hostilia, though
subsequently many temples were used. The majority of votes decided a
question, and the order in which senators spoke and voted was determined
by their rank, in the following order: president of the Senate, consuls,
censors, praetors, aediles, tribunes, quaestors. Their decisions, called
_Senatus Consulta_, were laws - _leges_ - and were entrusted to
the care of aediles and tribunes. [Footnote: Nieb. _Roman Hist._,
viii. p. 264.]

[Sidenote: The Senate composed of patricians and plebeians.]

[Sidenote: The Senate hold the great offices of state.]

Such was the Roman Senate - an assembly of nobles, whether patrician or
plebeian. The descendants of all who had filled curule magistracies were
_nobiles_, and had the privilege of placing in the atrium of the
house the images and titles of their ancestors - an heraldic distinction
in substance. And as the patricians carried back their pedigree to the
remotest historical period, there was great pride of blood. Few
plebeians could boast of a remote and illustrious ancestry, and every
plebeian who obtained a curule office, was the founder of his family's
nobility, like Cicero - a _novus homo_. This nobility contrived to
keep possession of all the great offices, and it was difficult for a new
man to get access to their ranks. The distinction of Patrician
and Plebeian was secondary, after the _Gracchi_ to that of
_Nobilitas_, yet it was rare to find a patrician gens the families
of which had not enjoyed the highest honors many times over. Thus the
aristocracy was composed of the families of those who had held the
highest offices of the state; but as these offices were controlled by
the Senate and enjoyed by the patricians chiefly, it was difficult to
determine whether nobility was the result of patrician blood, or the
possession of great offices. A man could scarcely be a patrician who had
not held a great office; nor could he often hold a great office unless
he were a patrician. The great offices were held in succession by the
members of the Senate. The two consuls, the ten tribunes, the eight
praetors in the time of Sulla - the twenty quaestors, together with the
governors of provinces, and the generals who were selected from the
Senate, or belonged to it, would necessarily compose a large part of the
nobility, when their term of office lasted but a limited time, so that a
senator with any ability was sure, in the course of his life, of the
highest honors of the state.

[Sidenote: But only those who had distinguished themselves.]

The great executive officers, therefore, belonged to the noble class,
not of necessity, but as a general thing. Cicero was a _novus
homo_, and yet rose by his talents to the highest dignities. It was
rare, however, to confer the highest offices on those who had not
distinguished themselves in war. Military fame, after all, gave the
greatest prestige to the Roman name. Consuls commanded armies, but they
would not have been chosen consuls except for military, as well as
political, talent.

[Sidenote: The Consuls.]

The consul was, after the abolition of the monarchy, the highest officer
of the state. It was not till the year 366 B.C. that a plebeian obtained
this dignity. The powers of consuls were virtually those of the old
kings, with the exception of priestly authority. They convened the
Senate, introduced ambassadors, called together the people, conducted
elections, commanded the armies and never appeared in public without
lictors. Nor were they shorn of their powers till Julius Caesar assumed
the dictatorship. The whole internal machinery of the state was under
their control. But their term of office lasted only a single year. Their
election took place in the _Comitia Centuriata_.

[Sidenote: The censors.]

The censors were next in dignity, and like the consuls, there were two,
and elected in the same manner under the presidency of a consul; only
men of consular rank were chosen to this high office, and hence it was
really higher than the consulship. The censors were chosen for a longer
term than the consuls, and had the oversight of the public morals, the
care of the census, and the administration of the finances. They could
brand with ignominy the highest persons of the state, and could elect to
the Senate, and exclude from it unworthy men. They had, with the aediles,
the control of the public buildings and all public works. They could
take away from a knight his horse, and punish extravagance in living, or
the improper dissolution of the marriage rite. They were held in the
greatest reverence, and when they died were honored with magnificent

[Sidenote: The praetors.]

Next in rank were the praetors, at first two in number, and ultimately
sixteen. They exercised the judicial power, both in civil and criminal

[Sidenote: The aediles.]

The aediles were also curule magistrates, and to them was entrusted the
care of the public buildings, and the superintendence of public
festivals. They were the keepers of the decrees of the Senate, and of
the plebiscita. They superintended the distribution of water, the care
of the streets, the drainage of the city, and the distribution of corn
to the people. It was their business to see that no new deities were
introduced, and they had the general superintendence of the police, and
the inspection of baths. Their office entailed large expenses, and they
were forced into great extravagance to gain popularity, as in the case
of Julius Caesar and Aemilius Scaurus; but the aediles exercised extensive
powers, which, however, were essentially diminished under the emperors.

[Sidenote: The tribunes.]

Allusion has already been made to the tribunes, in connection with the
development of the plebeian power. At first they were only two, then in
creased to five, and finally to ten. It was their business to protect
the plebs from the oppression of nobles, but their authority was so much
increased in the time of Julius Caesar that they could veto an ordinance
of the Senate. [Footnote: Caesar, _De Beil Civ_., 1, 2.] They not
only could stop a magistrate in his proceedings, but command their
viatores to seize a consul or a censor, to imprison him, or throw him
from the Tarpeian rock. [Footnote: Liv. ii. 56, iv. 26; Cicero, _De
Legibus_, iii. 9.] The college of tribunes had the power of making
edicts. After the passage of the Hortensian law, there was no power
equal to theirs, and they could dictate even to the Senate itself. In
the latter days of the republic, the tribunes were generally elected
from among the senators. It was the vast influence which the people had
obtained through the tribunes which led to the usurpation of Caesar; for
he, as well as Marius, rose into power by courting them against the
interests of the aristocracy.

[Sidenote: The quaestors.]

The last of the great magistrates whose office entitled them to a seat
in the Senate were the quaestors, who had charge of the public money.
Originally only two in number, they were raised by Sulla to twenty, and
by Caesar to forty, for political influence. As the Senate had the
supreme direction of the finances they were merely its agents or
paymasters. The proconsul or praetor, who had the administration of a
province, was attended with a quaestor to regulate the collection of the
revenues. The quaestors also were the paymasters of the army.

Such were the great executive officers of the state, having a seat in
the Senate, and belonging to the noble class by their official position
as well as by birth. No one could be consul until he had passed through
all these offices successively, except the censorship.

[Sidenote: Pontifex maximus.]

There was, however, another great Roman dignitary who held his office
for life, which was one of transcendent importance. He was at the head
of the college of priests, which had the superintendence of all matters
of religion. The college of pontiffs, of which, under Julius Caesar,
there were sixteen, were not priests, but stood above all priests, and
regulated the worship of the gods, and punished offenses against
religion. The chief pontiff lived in a public palace in the Via Sacra,
and might also hold other offices. It is a great proof of the talents of
Caesar and of the estimation in which he was held, that, at the age of
thirty-seven, he was chosen to this high dignity, against the powerful
opposition of Catulus, prince of the Senate, and when he had only
reached the aedileship.

[Sidenote: Assemblies of the people.]

[Sidenote: The Comitia Cenuriata.]

In regard to the assemblies of the people, where they voted for the
great officers of state, it must be borne in mind that they were not
made up of the rabble, but of the populus or the patricians till nearly
the close of the republic. Each of the thirty curia had its building for
the discussion of political and legal questions. They had also
collectively an assembly, called _Comitia Curiata_, where the
people voted on the measures proposed by the magistrates. The votes were
given by the curiae, each curia having one collective vote. The assembly
originated nothing, but decided upon the life of Roman citizens, upon
peace and war, and the election of magistrates. This was the primitive
form under the kings. But Servius Tullius instituted the _Comitia
Centuriata_, and hence divided the populus into six property classes,
and one hundred and ninety-three centuriae. The first class was composed
of ninety-eight centuriae, with a property qualification of one hundred
thousand asses; the second of twenty-two centuriae with seventy-five
thousand asses; the third of twenty, with fifty thousand asses; the
fourth of twenty-two, with twenty-five thousand asses; the fifth of
thirty, with eleven thousand asses; and the sixth of any one of those
below twelve and a half minae. Yet this class was the most numerous. The
wealthier classes voted first, and when a majority of the centuries was
obtained the voting stopped. Hence the power was virtually in the hands
of the rich; for, united, they made a majority before the poorer classes
were called upon to vote. The _Comitia Centuriata_ elected the
magistrates and made laws, and formed the highest court of appeal, but
all its decisions had to be sanctioned by the curiae, although in course
of time the curia was a formality. The centuries met in the Campus
Martius, and were presided over by the consuls, who read the names of
the candidates. In the assemblies by centuries, the vote of the first
class prevailed over all the others; in the _comitia_ by curiae the
patricians were supreme.

[Sidenote: The Comitia Tributa.]

[Sidenote: Decline of power of the comitia.]

The _Comitia Tributa_ represented the thirty Roman tribes according
to the Servian constitution, to whom was originally given the right to
elect inferior magistrates. This was a plebian assembly, and had very
insignificant powers, chiefly relating to the local affairs of the
tribes. But when these tribes began to be real representatives of the
people, with the increase of the plebeian classes, matters affecting the
whole state were brought before them by the tribunes. This gave to the
assembly the initiative of measures, which was sanctioned by a law of L.
Valerius Publicola, B.C. 449. This law gave to the decrees passed by the
tribes the power of a real _lex_, binding upon the whole people,
provided it had the sanction of the Senate and the populus in the
_Comitia Centuriata_. In 287 B.C. the Hortensian law made the
plebiscita independent of the sanction of the Senate. When the plebeians
began to be recognized as an essential element in the state, it was
found inconvenient to have the first class, which included the equites,
so greatly preponderant in the comitia of the centuries; and it was
designed to blend the _Comitia Centuriata_ and _the Tributa_
in such a manner as to make only one assembly. This took place after the
completion of the thirty-five tribes, B.C. 241. The citizens of each
tribe were divided into five property classes, and each tribe into ten
centuries, making three hundred and fifty centuries. This comitia was
far more democratic than the comitia of the centuries, and was guided by
the tribunes. When all the Italians were incorporated with the thirty-
five tribes, violence and bribery became the order of the day. Sulla
took away the jurisdiction of the people, and Julius Caesar encroached
still more on popular rights when he decided upon peace and war in
connection-with the Senate - which great question was formerly settled by
the comitia alone. The people retained nothing under him but the
election of magistrates, which amounted to little, since Caesar had the
right to appoint half the magistrates himself, with the exception of the
consuls. After the death of Caesar, the comitia continued to be held, but
was always controlled by the rulers, whose unlimited powers were
ultimately complied with without resistance. Finally the comitia became
a mere farce, and all legislation passed away forever, and was
completely in the hands of the emperor and Senate.

[Sidenote: The nobles retain the chief ascendency.]

[Sidenote: The dictator.]

[Sidenote: The idea of popular government.]

[Sidenote: The Senate retains all real power.]

Thus it would appear that the Roman constitution was essentially
aristocratic, especially for three hundred years after the expulsion
of kings. The _Senate_ and the _populus_ had the whole power.
Gradually, as wealth increased, the _equites_ became an influential
order, not less aristocratical than the patricians. The _plebs_
were not of much consideration till the time of the Gracchi, and always
obtained office with difficulty. It was two hundred years after the
expulsion of kings before the plebeians could even obtain a share of the
public lands. So long as the aristocracy preserved their virtue and
patriotism, the state was most ably administered, and continually
increased in wealth and power. The conquest of Italy was entirely under
the regime of nobles, and even when wealthy plebeian families mingled
with the ancient patricians there was still great difficulty in reaching
preferment, without the advantages of birth. [Footnote: Mommsen,
_Roman Hist_., i. p. 241.] In fourteen years, from 399 to 412, the
patricians allowed only six plebeians to reach the consulship. The lives
of the citizens were protected by the laws, but public opinion remained
powerless at the assassination of those who incurred the hatred of the
Senate. The comitia were free, but the Senate had at its disposal either
the veto of the tribunes or the religious scruples of the people, for a
consul could prevent the meeting of the assemblies, and the augurs could
cut short their deliberations. Even the dictatorship was often a means
of oppressing the plebs, and was a lever in the hands of the
aristocracy, since the dictator was appointed by the consuls under the
direction of the Senate. [Footnote: Liv., viii. 23.] He was a patrician
as a matter of course, until the political distinctions between
patrician and plebeian were removed, and had absolute authority for six
months. He was not held responsible for his acts while in office,
[Footnote: Becker, _Handbuch der Romanisch Alterthumer_, vii. p. 2;
Nieb. _History of Rome_. vol. i. p. 563.] nor was there any appeal
from his decisions. He was preceded by twenty-four lictors, and was
virtually supreme. Between 390 and 416 there were eighteen dictators.
The Senate thus remained all-powerful, in spite of the victories of the
plebeians, and such were its patriotism and intelligence that it
preserved its preponderance. It was during the conquest of Italy that
aristocratic power shone in all its splendor, and the most able men were
entrusted with public affairs. Every thing was sacrificed to patriotism,
and discipline was enforced with cruelty. The most powerful patricians
readily exposed their lives in battle, and a town became a people which
ultimately embraced the world. When the plebeians had grown to be a
power the decline of the republic commenced, and a new organization was
necessary. Great chieftains became dictators for life, and the imperial
sceptre was seized by an unscrupulous but enlightened general. The Roman
_populus_ in an important sense carried out the great idea of self-
government, but, strictly speaking, self-government, as applied to the
people generally, never existed in the Roman Commonwealth. But the idea
was advanced which gave birth to future republics. Nor did the fall of
the old patrician oligarchy divest the Roman commonwealth of its
aristocratic character, for a new aristocracy arose. When the plebeian
families obtained the consulate and other high offices of state, they
were put on a level with the old patrician families, and were allowed
the privilege of placing the wax images of their illustrious ancestors
in the family hall, and to have these images carried in the funeral
procession. As curule magistrates, they had a seat in the Senate, and
wore the insignia of rank - the gold finger-ring and the purple border on
the toga. "The result of the Licinian laws," says Mommsen, "in reality,
only amounted to what we now call the creation of a new batch of
officers." [Footnote: Mommsen, B. III. c. xi.] As all the descendants of
those who had enjoyed the curule magistracy were entitled to the
privilege of these distinctions, the nobility became hereditary. And as
the great officers of state were generally selected from this class,
since they controlled the comitia, the nobility was not merely
hereditary, but it was a _governing_ nobility. The nobility had the
possession of the Senate itself. It monopolized the great offices of
state. The stability of the Roman aristocracy is seen in the fact, that,
from the year 388 to 581, when the consulate was held by one patrician
and one plebeian, one hundred and forty of the consuls, out of the three
hundred and eighty-six, belonged to sixteen great houses. The Cornelii
furnished thirty consuls in one hundred and ninety-three years, the
Valerii eighteen, the Claudii twelve, the Aemilii fifteen, the Fabii
twelve, the Manlii ten, the Postumii eight, the Servilii seven, the
Sulpicii eight, the Papirii four, to say nothing of other curule
offices. Thus the nobility was not composed exclusively of patrician
families, although these were the most numerous, but of old plebeian
families also, in the same way that the English House of Lords is
composed of families which trace their origin to Saxons as well as
Normans, although the Normans, for several centuries, were the governing
class. And as the House of Lords has accessions occasionally from the
ranks of the people, in consequence of great wealth, or political
interest, or eminent genius, or signal success in war, so the Roman
nobility was increased, as old families died out, by the successful
generals who gained the great offices of state. Marius arose from the
people, but his exploits in the field of battle insured his entrance
among the nobility in consequence of the offices he held, even as the
Lord Chancellors of England, who have been eminent lawyers merely, are
made herditary peers in consequence of their judicial position.

[Sidenote: Roman citizens.]

The Roman burgesses again were any thing but a rabble. They were
composed of men of standing and wealth. If they did not compose the
motive-power, they constituted a firm foundation of the state. They had
a clear conception of the common good, and a sagacity in the election of
rulers, and a spirit of sacrifice for the general interests. They had a
lofty patriotism that nothing could seduce. The rabble of Rome were of
no account until the enormous wealth of the senatorial houses raised up
clients and parasites. And when this rabble, who were merely the
dependents of the rich, obtained the privilege of voting, then the
decline of liberties was rapid and fearful, since they were merely the
tools of powerful demagogues.

[Sidenote: Balance of power.]

Thus among the Romans, until the prostration of their liberties, the
powers of government were not in the hands of kings, as among the
Orientals, nor in those of the aristocracy, exclusively, nor in those of
the people; but in all combined, one class acting as a check against
another class. They were shared between the Senate, the magistrates, and
the people in their assemblies. Theoretically, the _populus_ was
the real sovereign by whom power was delegated; but, for several
centuries, the _populus_ meant the patricians, who alone could take
part in the assemblies. The preponderating influence was exercised by
the Senate. The judicial, the legislative, and the executive authority
were as clearly defined as in our times. The magistrates were all
elected by the Senate or the people, and sometimes proposed by the one
and confirmed by the other. No case, involving the life of a Roman
citizen, could be decided except by the _Comitia Centuriata_. The
election of a magistrate, or the passing of a law, though made on the
ground of a _senatus consultum_, yet required the sanction of the
curiae. In legislative measures, a _senatus consultum_ was brought
before the people by the consul, or the senator who originated the
measure, after it had previously been exhibited in public for seventeen
days. The inferior magistrates, whose office it was to superintend
affairs of local interest, were elected by the _Comitia Tributa_.
All the magistrates, however great their power, could, at the expiration
of their office, be punished for transcending their trust. No person was
above the authority of the laws. No one class could subvert the
liberties and prerogatives of another. The Senate had the most power,
but it could not ride over the Constitution. The consuls were not the
creatures of the Senate; they were elected by the centuries, and
presided over the Senate, as well as the assembly of the people. The
abuse of power by a consul was prevented by his colleague, and by the
certainty of being called to account on the expiration of his office.
His power was also limited by the Senate, since he was dependent upon
it. There was no absolute power exercised at Rome, except by the
dictators, but they were appointed only in a national crisis, and then
only for six months. Unless their power were perpetuated, not even they
could overturn the constitution. The senators again, the most powerful
body in the state, were not entirely independent. They could not elect
members of their own body, nor keep them in office. The censors had the
right of electing the senators from among the ex-magistrates and the
equites, and of excluding such as they deemed unworthy. And as the
Senate was thus composed wholly of men who had held the highest offices
or had great wealth, it was a body of great experience and wisdom. Yet
even this august assembly was obliged to submit to the introduction of
any subject of discussion by the tribune. What a counterpoise to the
authority of this powerful body were the tribunes! From their right of
appearing in the Senate, and of taking part in its discussions, and from
their being the representatives of the whole people, in whom power was
supposed primarily to be lodged, they gradually obtained the right of
intercession against any action which a magistrate might undertake
during the time of his office, and without giving a reason. They could
not only prevent a consul from convening the Senate, but could veto an
ordinance of the Senate itself. They could even seize a consul and a
censor and imprison him. Thus was power marvelously distributed, even
while it remained in the hands of the higher classes. The people were
not powerless when their assemblies could make laws and appoint
magistrates, and when their tribunes could veto the most important
measures. The consuls could not remain in office long enough to be
dangerous, and the senators could be ejected from their high position
when flagrantly unworthy. "The _nobiles_ had no legal privileges

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 17 of 50)