The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Roman assemblies

The Roman Republic (Latin: Res Publica Romanorum) vested formal governmental powers in four separate assemblies — the Comitia Curiata, the Comitia Centuriata, the Comitia Tributa, and the Concilium Plebis. Unlike modern chambers, these bodies combined legislative, judicial, and electoral functions. They possessed the power to make ex post facto laws, retroactively making a given act illegal. Note that the Roman Senate was a deliberative chamber, and did not possess legislative or judicial powers.


Curiate Assembly

The Curiate Assembly, probably the oldest Roman assembly apart from the barely-remembered "Comitia Calata ", represented the original three Roman tribes, organized in 30 "curiae". This organ originally elected all higher magistrates but later only confirmed and inaugurated those elected by the Centuriate Assembly.

Centuriate Assembly

The Comitia Centuriata included both patricians and plebeians organized into five economic classes (knights and senators being the First Class) and distributed among internal divisions called Centuries. Membership in the Centuriate Assembly required certain economic status, and power was heavily vested in the First and Second Classes. The Centuriate Assembly met annually to elect the next year's consuls and praetors, and quintannually (every 5 years) to elect the censors. It also sat to try cases of high treason (perduellio), although this latter function fell into after Lucius Appuleius Saturninus introduced a more workable format (maiestas).

A citizen's vote did not count in the Centuriate Assembly. Rather, the individual's vote was counted within his Century and determined the outcome of the Century's vote. Because only the first eighteen (and richest) Centuries were kept to the nominal size of 100 members, members of those Centuries exerted a disproportionate influence over the outcome of votes. The Centuriate Assembly, originally a military assembly of knights, had to meet outside the pomerium of Rome on the Campus Martius, and was as a result extremely clumsy to convoke and manage. It was not normally used except to elect the next year's magistrates. The Centuriate Assembly is usually cited, with little contemporary evidence, as the classical precedent for the US Electoral College.

Tribal Assembly

The Comitia Tributa included both patricians and plebeians distributed among the thirty-five tribes into which all Roman citizens were placed for administrative and electoral purposes. The vast majority of the urban population of Rome was distributed among the four urban tribes, which meant that their votes were individually insignificant. Like the Centuriate Assembly, voting was indirect, with one vote apportioned to each tribe. The voting was therefore heavily slanted in favor of the thirty-one rural tribes. The Tribal Assembly met in the well of the Comitia in the Forum Romanum, and elected the aediles (curulis only), the quaestors, and the tribunes of the soldiers (tribuni militum). It conducted most trials until the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla established the standing courts (quaestiones).

Council of the People

The Concilium Plebis was also a tribal assembly, but it excluded all patricians, who were forbidden to take part in its meetings. Only the tribunes of the people (tribuni plebis) could convoke the Council of the People, and it usually met in the well of the Comitia (patrician senators often observed from the steps of the Curia Hostilia and heckled the tribunes during meetings. Roman politics were considerably more rambunctious than even the modern House of Commons). The Council of the People was the favored legislature of the Republic, although technically its laws were called plebiscites. It elected the aediles (plebis only) and the tribunes of the people, and conducted trials; the latter function fell into disuse after Sulla established the permanent courts.


Although the Senate passed senatus consulta ("the senate's advice") recommending laws and measures, these were comparable to modern United Nations resolutions, and did not actually carry any force of law — except in the case of the senatus consultum de republica defendenda, the so-called ultimate decree establishing a "pocket dictator" by directing the consuls to "take care that the Republic should take no harm" and in the case of the senatus cosultum ultimum a deliberation based on the decree of a tumultus and that often led to the proclamation of a iustitium, meaning "standstill" or "suspension of the law".

The former can be seen in the conduct of the Jugurthine War, when the Senate passed a senatus consultum extending Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus's tenure as commander in chief, but the Council of the People passed a plebiscite appointing Gaius Marius in Metellus Numidicus's stead. Although Julius Caesar was named proconsul of Gallia Cisalpina and Illyricum by senatus consultum, he was given Gallia Transalpina by plebiscite. The second one can be seen in the context of the Hannibal's invasion of Italy. The senatus consultum ultimum called all citizens to take whatever necessary measure to the salvation of the State. Tumultums was the event of a social and political nature by which exceptional measures are to be taken. The declaration of a tumultus often led to the proclamation of a iustitium according to which the citizens were called to defend the State, and see that no harm come to it.

The Senate had also the ability to reinstate the rule of law at the end of the emergency period and restore the imperium of the Republic magistrates. Such was the case after the defeat of Hannibal.

Sulla's Changes

During his consulate in 88 BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla passed a series of three laws impeding the Tribal Assembly and the Council of the People from considering any law unless it was sent to the assemblies by senatus consultum with a favorable "do pass" recommendation. His fourth law restructured the Centuriate Assembly such that the First Class — the senators and the most powerful knights — had nearly fifty percent of the voting power. His fifth law stripped both popular assemblies — the Tribal Assembly and the Council of the People — of their legislative functions, leaving all legislation in the hands of the restructured Centuriate Assembly. The tribal assemblies were left with the election of certain magistrates and the conduct of trials — but no trials could be held unless authorized by senatus consultum.

These reforms were overturned by the Populares led by Marius and Lucius Cornelius Cinna, restored by Sulla during his dictatorship rei publicae constituendae, and were again overturned after his death. They represent one of the most wide-ranging and direct shifts in the constitutions of the Roman state during both the Republic and the Empire.

See also

Last updated: 05-02-2005 11:19:34
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55