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Roman magistracies

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All Roman magistracies

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The censores were the name of two magistrates of high rank in the Roman Republic. Their office was called censura. In the Roman and Latin colonies and in the municipia there were censors, who likewise bore the name of quinquennales.


Esteblishment of the censura

The censors were originally elected to take the census instead of the consuls. The census, which was a register of Roman citizens and of their property, was first established by Servius Tullius, the fifth king of Rome. After the expulsion of the kings it was taken by the consuls; and special magistrates were not appointed for the purpose of taking it till the year B.C. 443. The reason of this alteration was owing to the appointment in the preceding year of tribuni militum with consular power in place of the consuls; and as these tribunes might be plebeians, the patricians deprived the consuls and consequently their representatives, the military tribunes, of the right of taking the census, and entrusted it to two magistrates, called censores, who were to be chosen exclusively from the patricians. The magistracy continued to be a patrician one till B.C. 351, when C. Marcius Rutilus was the first plebeian censor (Liv. VII.22). Twelve years afterwards, B.C. 339, it was provided by one of the Publilian laws, that one of the censors must necessarily be a plebeian (Liv. VIII.12), but it was not till B.C. 280 that a plebeian censor performed the solemn purification of the people (lustrum condidit, Liv. Epit. 13). In B.C. 131 the two censors were for the first time plebeians.

There were always two censors, because the two consuls had previously taken the census together. If one of the censors died during the time of his office, his colleague had immediately to resign. This regulation was introduced when a censor had died in B.C. 393, and his colleague made the people to elect another in his stead, but the capture of Rome by the Gauls - that happened in the same lustrum as the election of the suffect censor - excited religious fears against such practice (Liv. V.31). From this time, if one of the censors died, his colleague resigned, and two new censors were chosen (Liv. VI.27, IX.34, XXIV.43, XXVII.6).


The censorship is distinguished from all other Roman magistracies by the length of time during which it was held. The censors were originally chosen for a whole lustrum, that is, a period of five years; but their office was limited to eighteen months, as early as ten years after its institution (B.C. 433), by a law of the dictator Mam. Aemilius Mamercinus (Liv. IV.24, IX.33). The censors also held a very peculiar position with respect to rank and dignity. No imperium was bestowed upon them, and accordingly they had no lictors (Zonar. VII.19). The jus censurae was granted to them by a lex centuriata, and not by the curiae, and in that respect they were inferior in power to the consuls and praetors (Cic. de Leg. Agr. II.11). But notwithstanding this, the censorship was regarded as the highest dignity in the state, with the exception of the dictatorship; it was an ἱερὰ ἀρχή, a sanctus magistratus, to which the deepest reverence was due (Plut. Cat. Maj. 16, Flamin. 18, Camill. 2, 14, Aemil. Paul. 38; Cic. ad Fam. III.10). The high rank and dignity which the censorship obtained, was owing to the various important duties gradually entrusted to it, and especially to its possessing the regimen morum, or general control over the conduct and the morals of the citizens; in the exercise of which power they were regulated solely by their own views of duty, and were not responsible to any other power in the state (Dionys. in Mai, Nova Coll. vol. II p516; Liv. IV.24, XXIX.37; Val. Max. VII.2 §6). The censors possessed of course the sella curulis (Liv. XL.45), but with respect to their official dress there is some doubt. From a well-known passage of Polybius (vi.53), describing the use of the imagines at funerals, we may conclude that a consul or praetor wore the praetexta, one who triumphed the toga picta, and the censor a purple toga peculiar to him; but other writers speak of their official dress as the same as that of the other higher magistrates (Zonar. VII.19; Athen. XIV. p660c). The funeral of a censor was always conducted with great pomp and splendour, and hence a funus censorium was voted even to the emperors (Tac. Ann. IV.15, XIII.2).

The censorship continued in existence for 421 years, namely, from B.C. 443 to B.C. 22; but during this period many lustra passed by without any censor being chosen at all. According to one statement the office was abolished by Sulla (Schol. Gronov. ad Cic. Div. in Caecil. 3, p384, ed. Orelli), and although the authority, on which this statement rests, is not of much weight, the fact itself is probable; for there was no census during the two lustra which elapsed from Sulla's dictatorship of Pompey (B.C. 82‑70), and any strict regimen morum would have been found very inconvenient to the aristocracy in whose favour Sulla legislated. If the censorship was done away with by Sulla, it was at any rate restored in the consulship of Pompey and Crassus. Its power was limited by one of the laws of the tribune Clodius (B.C. 58), which prescribed certain regular forms of proceeding before the censors in expelling a person from the senate, and the concurrence of both censors in inflicting this degradation (Dion Cass. XXXVIII.13; Cic. pro Sext. 25, de Prov. Cons. 15). This law, however, was repealed in the third consulship of Pompey (B.C. 52), on the proposition of his colleague Caecilius Metellus Scipio (Dion Cass. XL.57), but the censorship never recovered its former power and influence. During the civil wars which followed soon afterwards no censors were elected; and it was only after a long interval that they were again appointed, namely in B.C. 22, when Augustus caused L. Munatius Plancus and Paulus Aemilius Lepidus to fill the office (Suet. Aug. 37, Claud. 16; Dion Cass. LIV.2). This was the last time that such magistrates were appointed; p262the emperors in future discharged the duties of their office under the name of Praefectura Morum. Some of the emperors sometimes took the name of censor when they actually held a census of the Roman people, as was the case with Claudius, who appointed the elder Vitellius as his colleague (Suet. Claud. 16; Tac. Ann. XII.4, Hist. I.9), and with Vespasian, who likewise had a colleague in his son Titus (Suet. Vesp. 8, Tit. 6). Domitian assumed the title of censor perpetuus (Dion Cass. LIII.18), but this example was not imitated by succeeding emperors. In the reign of Decius we find the elder Valerian nominated to the censorship (Symmach. Ep. IV.29, v.9), but this design was never carried into effect.

Election of the censors

The censors were elected in the comitia centuriata held under the presidency of a consul (Gell. XIII.15; Liv. XL.45). It was necessary that both censors should be elected on the same day; and accordingly if the voting for the second was not finished, the election of the first went for nothing, and new comitia had to be held (Liv. IX.34). The comitia for the election of the censors were held under different auspices from those at the election of the consuls and praetors; and the censors were accordingly not regarded as their colleagues, although they likewise possessed the maxima auspicia (Gell. XIII.15). The comitia were held by the consuls of the year very soon after they had entered upon their office (Liv. XXIV.10, XXXIX.41); and the censors, as soon as they were elected and the censorial power had been granted to them by a lex centuriata, were fully installed in their office (Cic. de Leg. Agr. II.11; Liv. XL.45). As a general principle the only persons eligible to the office were those who had previously been consuls; but a few exceptions occur. At first there was no law to prevent a person being censor a second time; but the only person, who was twice elected to the office, was C. Marcius Rutilus in B.C. 265; and he brought forward a law in this year, enacting that no one should be chosen censor a second time, and received in consequence the surname of Censorinus (Plut. Coriol. 1; Val. Max. IV.1 §3).

Duties and powers of the censors

The duties of the censors may be divided into three classes, all of which however were closely connected with one another:

  • 1. The census, or register of the citizens and of their property, in which were included the lectio senatus, and the recognitio equitum;
  • 2. The regimen morum; and
  • 3. The administration of the finances of the state, under which were classed the superintendence of the public buildings and the erection of all new public works.

The original business of the censorship was at first of a much more limited kind; and was restricted almost entirely to taking the census (Liv. IV.8); but the possession of this power gradually brought with it fresh power and new duties, as is shown below. A general view of these duties is briefly expressed in the following passage of Cicero (de Leg. II.3):— "Censores populi aevitates, soboles, familias pecuniasque censento: urbis templa, vias, aquas, aerarium, vectigalia tuento: populique partes in tribus distribunto: exin pecunias, aevitates, ordines patiunto: equitum, peditumque prolem describunto: caelibes esse prohibento: mores populi regunto: probrum in senatu ne relinquunto."

The census

See under census.

The regimen morum

This was the most important branch of the censors' duties, and the one which caused their office to be the most revered and the most dreaded in the Roman state. It naturally grew out of the right which they possessed of excluding unworthy persons from the lists of citizens; for, as has been well remarked, "they would, in the first place, be the sole judges of many questions of fact, such as whether a citizen had the qualifications required by law or custom for the rank which he claimed, or whether he had ever incurred any judicial sentence, which rendered him infamous: but from thence the transition was easy, according to Roman notions, to the decisions of questions of right; such as whether a citizen was really worthy of retaining his rank, whether he had not committed some act as justly degrading as those which incurred the sentence of the law." In this manner the censors gradually became possessed of a complete superintendence over the whole public and private life of every citizen. They were constituted the conservators of public morality; they were not simply to prevent crime or particular acts of immorality, but their great object was to maintain the old Roman character and habits, the mos majorum. The proper expression for this branch of their power was regimen morum (Cic. de Leg. III.3; Liv. IV.8, XXIV.18, XL.46, XLI.27, XLII.3; Suet. Aug. 27), which was called in the times of the empire cura or praefectura morum. The punishment inflicted by the censors in the exercise of this branch of their duties was called Nota or Notatio, or Animadversio Censoria. In inflicting it they were guided only by their conscientious convictions of duty; they had to take an oath that they would act neither through partiality nor favour; and, in addition to this, they were bound in every case to state in their lists, opposite the name of the guilty citizen, the cause of the punishment inflicted on him,— Subscriptio censoria (Liv. XXXIX.42; Cic. pro Cluent. 42‑48; Gell. IV.20).

This part of the censors' office invested them with a peculiar kind of jurisdiction, which in many respects resembled the exercise of public opinion in modern times; for there are innumerable actions which, though acknowledged by every one to be prejudicial and immoral, still do not come within the reach of the positive laws of a country. Even in cases of real crimes, the positive laws frequently punish only the particular offence, while in public opinion the offender, even after he has undergone punishment, is still incapacitated for certain honours and distinctions which are granted only to persons of unblemished character. Hence the Roman censors might brand a man with their nota censoria in case he had been convicted of a crime in an ordinary court of justice, and had already suffered punishment for it. The consequence of such a nota was only ignominia and not infamia (Cic. de Rep. IV.6) [Infamia], and the censorial verdict was not a judicium or res judicata (Cic. pro Cluent. 42), for its effects were not lasting, but might be removed by the following censors, or by a lex. A nota censoria was moreover not valid, unless both censors agreed. The ignominia was thus only a transitory capitis diminutio, which does not even appear to have deprived a magistrate of his office (Liv. XXIV.18), and certainly did not disqualify persons labouring under it for obtaining a magistracy, for being appointed as judices by the praetor, or for serving in the Roman armies. Mam. Aemilius was thus, notwithstanding p264the animadversio censoria, made dictator (Liv. IV.31).

A person might be branded with a censorial nota in a variety of cases, which it would be impossible to specify, as in a great many instances it depended upon the discretion of the censors and the view they took of a case; and sometimes even one set of censors would overlook an offence which was severely chastised by their successors (Cic. de Senect. 12). But the offences which are recorded to have been punished by the censors are of a threefold nature.

1. Such as occurred in the private life of individuals, e.g.

  • (a) Living in celibacy at a time when a person ought to be married to provide the state with citizens (Val. Max. II.9 §1). The obligation of marrying was frequently impressed upon the citizens by the censors, and the refusal to fulfil it was punished with a fine [Aes Uxorium].
  • (b) The dissolution of matrimony or betrothment in an improper way, or for insufficient reasons (Val. Max. II.9 §2).
  • (c) Improper conduct towards one's wife or children, as well as harshness or too great indulgence towards children, and disobedience of the latter towards their parents (Plut. Cat. Maj. 17; cf. Cic. de Rep. IV.6; Dionys. XX.3).
  • (d) Inordinate and luxurious mode of living, or an extravagant expenditure of money. A great many instances of this kind are recorded (Liv. Epit. 14, XXXIX.4; Plut. Cat. Maj. 18; Gellius, IV.8; Val. Max. II.9 §4). At a later time the leges sumtuariae were made to check the growing love of luxuries.
  • (e) Neglect and carelessness in cultivating one's fields (Gell. IV.12; Plin. H. N. XVIII.3).
  • (f) Cruelty towards slaves or clients (Dionys. XX.3).
  • (g) The carrying on of a disreputable trade or occupation (Dionys., l.c.), such as acting in theatres (Liv. VII.2).
  • (h) Legacy-hunting, defrauding orphans, &c.

3. A variety of actions or pursuits which were thought to be injurious to public morality, might be forbidden by an edict (Gellius, XV.11), and those who acted contrary to such edicts were branded with the nota and degraded. For an enumeration of the offences that might be punished by the censors with ignominia, see Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, vol. II p399, &c.

The punishments inflicted by the censors generally differed according to the station which a man occupied, though sometimes a person of the highest rank might suffer all the punishments at once, by being degraded to the lowest class of citizens. But they are generally divided into four classes:—

1. Motio or ejectio e senatu, or the exclusion of a man from the number of senators. This punishment might either be a simple exclusion from list of senators, or the person might at the same time be excluded from the tribes and degraded to the rank of an aerarian (Liv. XXIV.18). The latter course seems to have been seldom adopted; the ordinary mode of inflicting the punishment was simply this: the censors in their new lists omitted the names of such senators as they wished to exclude, and in reading these new lists in public, passed over the names of those who were no longer to be senators. Hence the expression praeteriti senatores is equivalent to e senatu ejecti (Liv. XXXVIII.28, XXVII.11, XXXIV.44; Festus, s.v. Praeteriti). In some cases, however, the censors did not acquiesce in this simple mode of proceeding, but addressed the senator whom they had noted, and publicly reprimanded him for his conduct (Liv. XXIV.18). As, however, in ordinary cases an ex-senator was not disqualified by his ignominia for holding any of the magistracies which opened the way to the senate, he might at the next census again become a senator (Cic. pro Cluent. 42, Plut. Cic. 17).

2. The ademptio equi, or the taking away the equus publicus from an eques. This punishment might likewise be simple, or combined with the exclusion from the tribes and the degradation to the rank of an aerarian (Liv. XXIV.18, 43, XXVII.11, XXIX.37, XLIII.16). [Equites.]

3. The motio e tribu, or the exclusion of a person from his tribe. This punishment and the degradation to the rank of an aerarian were originally the same; but when in the course of time a distinction was made between the tribus rusticae the tribus urbanae, the motio e tribu transferred a person from the rustic tribes to the less respectable city tribes, and if the further degradation to the rank of an aerarian was combined with the motio e tribu, it was always expressly stated (Liv. XLV.15, Plin. H. N. XVIII.3).

4. The fourth punishment was called referre in aerarios (Liv. XXIV.18; Cic. pro Cluent. 43) or facere aliquem aerarium (Liv. XLIII.43), and might be inflicted on any person who was thought by the censors to deserve it [Aerarii.] This degradation, properly speaking, included all the other punishments, for an eques could not be made an aerarius unless he was previously deprived of his horse, nor could a member of a rustic tribe be made an aerarius unless he was previously excluded from it (Liv. IV.24, XXIV.18, &c.).

A person who had been branded with a nota censoria, might, if he considered himself wronged, endeavour to prove his innocence to the censors (causam agere apud censores, Varr. de Re Rust. I.7), and if he did not succeed, he might try to gain the protection of one of the censors, that he might intercede on his behalf.

The administration of the finances of the state

The administration of the finances of the state, was another part of the censors' office. In the first place the tributum, or property-tax, had to be paid by each citizen according to the amount of his property registered in the census, and, accordingly, the regulation of this tax naturally fell under the jurisdiction of the censors (cf. Liv. XXXIX.44) [Tributum.] They also had the superintendence of all the other revenues of the state, the vectigalia, such as the tithes paid for the public lands, the salt works, the mines, the customs, &c. [Vectigalia.] All these branches of the revenue the censors were accustomed to let out p265to the highest bidder for the space of a lustrum or five years. The act of letting was called venditio or locatio, and seems to have taken place in the month of March (Macrob. Sat. I.12), in a public place in Rome (Cic. de Leg. Agr. I.3, II.21). The terms on which they were let, together with the rights and duties of the purchasers, were all specified in the leges censoriae, which the censors published in every case before the bidding commenced (Cic. ad Qu. Fr. I.1 §12, Verr. III.7, de Nat. Deor. III.19, Varr. de Re Rust. II.1). For further particulars see Publicani. The censors also possessed the right, though probably not without the concurrence of the senate, of imposing new vectigalia (Liv. XXIX.37, XL.51), and even of selling the land belonging to the state (Liv. XXXII.7). It would thus appear that it was the duty of the censors to bring forward a budget for a lustrum, and to take care that the income of the state was sufficient for its expenditure during that time. So far their duties resembled those of a modern minister of finance. The censors, however, did not receive the revenues of the state. All the public money was paid into the aerarium, which was entirely under the jurisdiction of the senate; and all disbursements were made by order of this body, which employed the quaestors as its officers [Aerarium; Senatus.]

In one important department the censors were entrusted with the expenditure of the public money; though the actual payments were no doubt made by the quaestors. The censors had the general superintendence of all the public buildings and works (opera publica); and to meet the expenses connected with this part of their duties, the senate voted them a certain sum of money or certain revenues, to which they were restricted, but which they might at the same time employ according to their discretion (Polyb. VI.13; Liv. XL.46, XLIV.16). They had to see that the temples and all other public buildings were in a good state of repair (aedes sacras tueri and sarta tecta exigere, Liv. XXIV.18, XXIX.37, XLII.3, XLV.15), that no public places were encroached upon by the occupation of private persons (loca tueri, Liv. XLII.3, XLIII.16), and that the aquaeducts, roads, drains, &c. were properly attended to. [Aquaeductus; Viae; Cloacae.] The repairs of the public works and the keeping of them in proper condition were let out by the censors by public auction to the lowest bidder, just as the vectigalia were let out to the highest bidder. These expenses were called ultrotributa; and hence we frequently find vectigalia and ultrotributa contrasted with one another (Liv. XXXIX.44, XLIII.16). The persons who undertook the contract were called conductores, mancipes, redemptores, susceptores, &c.; and the duties they had to discharge were specified in the Leges Censoriae. The censors had also to superintend the expenses connected with the worship of the gods, even for instance the feeding of the sacred geese in the Capitol, which were also let out on contract (Plut. Quaest. Rom. 98; Plin. H. N. X.22; Cic. pro Rosc. Am. 20). Besides keeping existing public works in a proper state of repair, the censors also constructed new ones, either for ornament or utility, both in Rome and in other parts of Italy, such as temples, basilicae, theatres, porticoes, fora, walls of towns, aqueducts, harbours, bridges, cloacae, roads, &c. These works were either performed by them jointly, or they divided between them the money, which had been granted to them by the senate (Liv. XL.51, XLIV.16). They were let out to contractors, like the other works mentioned above, and when they were completed, the censors had to see that the work was performed in accordance with the contract: this was called opus probare or in acceptum referre (Cic. Verr. I.57; Liv. IV.22, XLV.15; Lex Puteol. p73, Spang.).

The aediles had likewise a superintendence over the public buildings; and it is not easy to define with accuracy the respective duties of the censors and aediles: but it may be remarked in general that the superintendence of the aediles had more of a police character, while that of the censors had reference to all financial matters.

Purification of the people

After the censors had performed their various duties and taken the census, the lustrum or solemn purification of the people followed. When the censors entered upon their office, they drew lots to see which of them should perform this purification (lustrum facere or condere, Varr. L. L. VI.86; Liv. XXIX.37, XXXV.9, XXXVIII.36, XLII.10); but both censors were obliged of course to be present at the ceremony. [Lustrum.]


Lacus Curtius - A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, by William Smith

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