The magistrates of ancient Rome

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Roman Magistrates: Consuls, Tribunes, Praetors, Censors and Aediles

The Magistrates were a class which included all the bureaucrats involved in running the state machine - including Consuls (elected prime ministers), Tribunes (anti-senators, protectors of the plebs), Praetors (judges), Censors (tax collectors and censors) and Aediles (in charge of urban planning, markets, games and funerals). There were also a number of lesser functions.


After the last king Tarquin the Proud was expelled the rule of Rome was awarded to two elected Consuls and a pyramid of more or less important support positions under them. By law, Consuls could only be Patricians elected by the Senate.

The very first consuls after Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud) was deposed were

Lucius Junius Brutus and
Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus

Due to his obvious family roots Tarquinius Collatinus was forced to abdicate his consulship in favour of Publius Valerius.

The Consuls were elected for a determined period of time (one year). In times of extreme danger they could be replaced by a single Dictator who held power for six months. In order to be eligible the person would have to be at least 42 years of age.

The first dictator in Roman history was nominated in 498BC. Possibly the most famous dictator from the "early days" of Rome was Cincinnatus (consul in 460BC and dictator in 458 and 439BC). He was a farmer-Patrician who worked his land. He was called to become dictator and lead the war against the Aequians, a local Italic people. He did his job, won the war, received great honours, including a crown of gold, and then proceeded to returned to till his land. These myths of early Rome attest to the nostalgia for the austere nature of the Roman forefathers.

The elected Consuls had government of the Senate itself which they could assemble or dismiss at their own leisure. They also had military command over armies. For example, Julius Caesar had himself elected Consul by his friends in the Senate in order to be allowed command of an army and this allowed him to go and conquer Gaul. Consuls also had authority over wars, state coffers and the administration of justice. They were honoured by having the years named after them. Julius Caesar was honoured by having a year named after him alone as the year of "Julius and Caesar".

The important position of Consul existed throughout the Republic and Empire although with time the powers of the Consul shifted and attenuated to a degree, particularly when absolutist emperors took over. The very first Consuls had the power of Kings except that it was attenuated by the brevity of their tenure and the fact that there was never only one Consul in power, but two. Later this power was tempered by the institution of Tribunes to represent the Plebeians and further reduced by the power of the emperors.

The Consuls had a number of symbols of authority. Amongst these were the toga they wore, which had a purple border around it. This was called a Praetexta or Toga Palmata. In the early days such togas were reserved to those who had deserved a public Triumph. The Consuls were also accompanied by a group of twelve men called Lictors carrying the bundles of rods and axes called Fasces: a symbol inherited from the Etruscans which symbolised their power to judge over life and death.


A sort of anti-Senator created during the social wars to defend the rights of the Plebeians against the power of the Senate and Patricians. The office was first instituted around the year 510BC. Eventually the assembly of Tribunes had the power to impose laws by itself, without consent of the Senate, so long as all the Tribunes voted in favour. At first there were only two Tribunes but reached a total of ten Tribunes around the year 250BC.

At first the (Plebeian) Tribunes didn't have the power of the (Patrician) Senators but gradually their authority became quite extraordinary as consequence of the strength of the population which backed. At first they "only" had the right to attend and listen in on the proceedings of the Senate and the power to veto the laws which the Senate was debating. Eventually the went as far as calling assemblies, announcing decrees and executing them on the Magistrates a state themselves. In some cases they went as far as commanding the imprisonment of Consuls.

Above all, their security was based on their being regarded as Sacro-Sancti, making it the highest of impiety to act against them or even interrupt them as they spoke.

The interplay between Tribunes and Senate is very important to the understanding of some of the more famous events of the Republican period. For example the passing of the socially oriented Agrarian Laws of the Gracchi brothers or Julius Caesar's excuse for waging war on the Senate when it kicked out the Tribunes he had sent.

The first sign of their loss in power was during the dictatorship of Sylla, towards the end of the Republican age. The power was regained only to be removed again in the time of the emperors who reduced them to little more than a title.


This position was created for two primary reasons. Firstly, Consuls were often absorbed in foreign wars which meant that someone needed to be found to administer Justice and other business in Rome. The second reason is possibly more political: the social wars took exclusivity of Consulship away from the noble Patricians and so, through the Senate, they created a new position of power exclusive to themselves.

At first only one Praetor was elected in order to look after Justice, this was around the year 389 of the city, about 364BC. Around the year 250BC a second Praetor was added. One, called the Praetor Urbanus was charged with Justice among the citizens of Rome whilst the other, the Praetor Peregrinus, appointed Judges in all matters related to foreigners. By the time Sicily and Sardinia were taken, two further Praetors were added to assist the Consuls in the government of the provinces. Thereafter the number increased to keep pace with the growth of Roman dominions. In the time of Caesar there were as many as fifteen.


Servius Tullius, the second king of Rome had instituted the Census of the Roman Citizens and since then the duty of Censor had fallen on the Kings and then with the Republican period on the Consuls (elected rulers). The census was important because according to this the citizens were be ranked into their military classes and centuries. The census also allowed taxation and the Censor had power over tax laws.

As Roman dominions grew so the Consuls were increasingly involved with the government of foreign affairs and wars. In similar fashion to the position of Praetor being created to cover Consular duties of Justice, the position of Censor was created to relieve the Consuls of their duties at home related to the census of the Roman Citizens. Although the power of a Censor was not as great as that of a Consul the position was very highly esteemed.

Censors had two primary duties: The census of the people and to censure their manners. The census of the people involved taking an exact tally of their possessions and estates in order to enable ranking the citizens into military orders and taxation. With respect to the censure of manners, the Censor had the power to judge the immorality of all citizens and dish out punishment accordingly. Punishment could be as severe as removing a senator from the Senate or removal of persons from a Tribe of honour and to ascribe them to a lesser Tribe. The Censor even had the power to remove citizens' right to vote.

The Census was held every five years. The five year periods were referred to as a Lustrum because of the sacrificial ceremony held (Lustrum Condere) on occasion of the census. The sacrifice, called a Suovetaurilia, included a pig, a sheep and a cow. Censors were elected with that same five year frequency although the growth in their power meant that they were to hold power for no longer than a year and a half. Usually they were persons who had already held the position of Consul.

A further role of the Censor was the commissioning of public works. A famous Censor worth mentioning was Appius Claudius Caecus ("the blind" because he eventually lost his sight). In 312BC he commissioned the first aqueduct and during an extension of his office he also commissioned the first road - the Via Appia. Both public works bear his name.

The position of Censor more or less disappeared when the job was taken over by the emperors who undertook census according to their own personal design.

The Aediles

No sooner had the Plebeians succeeded in establishing their rights to electing Tribunes that they also established a right to electing Aediles to aid the Tribunes.

The primary duties of the Aedile were related to the care of public buildings. They also took care of relatively minor duties such as authority over weights and measures and the prohibition of unlawful games. By about 270BC two further Aediles, called Aediles Curules, were elected for the precise task of inspecting public games and circuses as well as taking care of the building and maintenance of temples, theatres and baths. They also acted as judges in all cases related to the selling and exchanging of estates.

Julius Caesar himself could be said to have begun his meteoric career as an Aedile. He spent lavish sums of money organising public games and only the favours of his close friendship with the richest man in Rome saved him from financial ruin. Many years later, as dictator, Caesar created two new Aedile positions called Aediles Cereales, tasked with the inspection of public stores of Corn and cereals, to supervise commodities in markets and to punish criminals involved in monetary transactions.

| Consuls | Tribunes | Praetors | Censors |Aediles |

The next page goes on to compare and contrast the army and the state.


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"Roman Magistrates" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments