San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Institutions of Roman Governance

The three basic units of Roman governance were the Senate, the Consuls and the Popular Assemblies. The Senate was the fundamental pillar. Its formal name was Senatus Populusque Romanus which was literally Senate and the Roman People. The primary duty and source of power of the Senate was that it decided which pieces of legislation could be voted upon by a Popular Assembly. This was decided by vote after debate. Membership in the Senate was open to those who had been quaestors in the past five years. Officers called censors admitted to a Senate meeting those who satisfied the condition of quaestorship. They then expelled anyone who had become a person of public notoreity. One senator, called the Princep Senatus, had the right to speak first in the debates.

Qualification for quaestorship came after ten years of service in the cavalry or sixteen years in the infantry. Initially four and later eight quaestors were elected each year by the Comitia Tributa and their duties primarily had to do with public finance.

The Senate meetings were presided over by a consul. There were two consuls elected and they presided in alternate months. Besides presiding over Senate meeting consuls had the formal duty of presiding over games. These came early in the year. A more important function of consuls was commanding Roman armies in the field. The compaigning season was in the spring and summer. After the campaigning season was over the consuls returned to Rome.

The consuls were responsible for holding elections. These came near the end of the year usually after the campaigning season.

After his term in office a consul retained a status called proconsulship. Such ex-consuls were also known as promagistrate or propaetor. Proconsuls were sometimes called upon to command expeditionary Roman armies when consuls were not available.

Consuls were elected by the Comitia Centuriata. To be eligible for consulship a man had to have been first a praetor.

The duties of a praetor were primarily judicial in Rome or as a provincial governor. At first two praetors were elected each year. Later this was increased to four and finally to six.

There were several popular assemblies with power concerning Roman governance. In the Comitia Centuriata there were, after the year 241, 193 voting units. Seventy of those 193 were for the top landed families of Rome. Another 18 were for the cavalry. These represented the wealthier segments of Rome. In the public voting a propertied group voted first. The Comitia could only vote on pieces of legislation which had been approved by the Seate.

The voting units of the Comitia Tributa which elected quaestors consisted of tribes. There were 31 country tribes in addition to those of the city itself.

The Consilium Plebis was a popular assembly that had the power to pass legislation which did not have the prior approval of the Senate. However, it was presided over by ten tribunes each of whom had veto power over legislation passed.

(To be continued.)

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