Oaths of office

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Roman magistrates were required to take a number of oaths in the conduct of their office. This article is intended to bring together what is known about these oaths.

Contents

Oath following election

Immediately following the election of the consules for the following year, the elected candidates took an oath.

The timing of the oath emerges from Pliny's Panegyric 64, which describes the emperor Trajan taking the oath. This was some time after the republican period, but it is likely that the same procedures were followed in republican times. Pliny says that the oath was taken after the electoral ceremonies were over[1]

and the crowd of voters was dispersing[2]

.

Greenidge[3]

suggests that this occurred before the presiding magistrate's formal announcement of the results (renuntiatio), but there appears to be no evidence of this and it seems more likely that it occurred after the renuntiatio.

The oath was administered by the presiding magistrate, who sat in the curule chair and spoke the words of the oath to the elected candidate. The elected candidate, standing, then repeated the words.[4]


The only direct evidence for the content of this oath is from Pliny, who mentions only the execratio in indirect speech: "he consigned his life and his property to the anger of the gods if he knowingly broke his oath".[5]


It is not clear whether this oath was taken by the successful candidates for every magistracy or only for the consulate.


Votorum nuncupatio

Livy seems to imply that the consules, and perhaps other magistrates, made "ritual pronouncement of vows"[6]

as part of the ceremonies at the Capitoline temple of Iuppiter Optimus Maximus on the first day of the political year (the 1st of January in the late republic).

These are presumably the same as the vows "for the safety of the republic" which are mentioned in Furneaux's notes on Tacitus' Annals[7] . Regrettably Furneaux does not cite any source for this phrase; it is not from Tacitus.


Iusiurandum in leges

Pliny also mentions an oath "in leges" (literally "into the laws", i.e. an oath to obey the laws), saying that it was done on the rostra in the forum.[8]

 Appian mentions one particular lex which included a clause requiring magistrates to swear obedience to it within five days or else lose their office; this oath, he says, was administered at "the temple of Saturn, where the quaestors were accustomed to administer oaths".[9]

Livy says that in 200 B.C. one of the newly-elected aediles curules, "because he was flamen Dialis, was unable to take the oath to obey the laws; no one was permitted to hold a magistracy for more than five days who did not swear to obey the laws".[10]


These three texts together appear to be evidence of an oath to obey the laws (possibly including some specific laws by name) which a new magistrate must swear within five days of taking office or else be deprived of office again, and which was administered by the quaestores at the temple of Saturn. Pliny's statement that the oath was taken on the rostra is only slightly at odds with Appian's reference to the temple of Saturn, since the temple was directly next to the rostra; possibly Appian is being imprecise. Macrobius also appears to refer to the iusiurandum in leges being taken on the rostra in 45 B.C., supporting the evidence of Pliny.[11]

 This location for the iusiurandum is also made more likely by the fact that the eiuratio magistratum (the equivalent oath at the end of a term of office) was certainly taken there.

If the iusiurandum was indeed taken on the rostra, it was probably taken at the same time as the consules delivered their traditional speech in a contio soon after being elected in order to set out their plans for the year.

Livy shows that this oath was taken by the aediles curules as well as by the consules; it must certainly therefore also have been taken by the praetores, and probably by the censores also. Since it was administered by the quaestores (perhaps each quaestor to his own magistrate), it is hard to know whether they themselves also took the oath, and, if so, who administered it to them. Possibly they were not expected to take it, since they performed their duties under the supervision of superior magistrates and were therefore not independent magistrates in the same way as the others. There is no direct evidence whether the tribuni plebis and aediles plebis took the oath, but it seems likely.

Livy goes on to say that a solution to the problem of the aedilis was was also flamen Dialis was found "so that he [the aedilis] might be exempted from the [requirement of the] laws"[12]

the senate advised him to find someone who would take the oath on his behalf, and advised the consules to ask the tribuni plebis to propose a plebiscitum declaring the requirement satisfactorily fulfilled.[13]

 Livy does not always use legal terms precisely, but the fact that he talks about the aedilis being "excused from the leges"[14]

suggests that the iusiurandum in leges was not only a customary but a statutory requirement.  This is confirmed by the fact that a senatus consultum was not sufficient to waive the requirement: the concilium plebis had to pass a plebiscitum declaring that the  requirement had been satisfied.  So it seems that there was some specific lex, or group of leges, which required this oath to be sworn within five days on pain of loss of office.


Eiuratio magistratum

The consules, and probably whatever other magistrates took the iusiurandum in leges, were required also to "eiurare magistratum" ("swear away the magistracy") by making an oath at the end of their term of office.

The oath is mentioned by Pliny , who says that Trajan swore "that he had done nothing contrary to the laws".[15]

 He implies again that this oath was taken on the rostra.

Cicero mentions in several places his own magistratum eiuratio, which we can therefore reconstruct with some detail.[16]

 It was taken at a great contio[17]

at which a large number of people were present[18]

it therefore probably took place in the forum. He expected to make a speech, but a tribunus plebis prevented him from saying anything more than the bare oath.[19]

 He then swore, evidently departing from the usual wording of the oath, that he had saved the  republic.[20]


The eiuratio magistratum is also mentioned by Macrobius. He tells the curious story of C. Caninius Rebilus, who was chosen to fill a sudden vacancy in the consulate on the last day of the year 45 B.C. Rebilus therefore took his iusiurandum in leges and his eiuratio magistratum in the same speech: "he mounted the rostra to enter the office of consul and and the same time to lay it down".[21]

 This confirms the evidence from Cicero and Pliny that the eiuratio magistratum took place on the rostra.

All three writers clearly indicate that the office ceased immediately upon the swearing of the oath, and Cicero implies that it was traditional for magistrates (or at least consules) to preface the eiuratio with a speech.

There is no evidence whether the eiuratio was a statutory requirement or merely a customary one. The fact that the tribunus did not stop Cicero taking the oath, although he did stop him making a speech, suggests that the oath was in some way more essential than the speech, and may perhaps suggest that it was a legal requirement, but this is not very strong evidence. On the other side, we may note that failure to take the iuratio in leges was punished by the loss of office; it is hard to imagine what the equivalent penalty could have been for failing to make the eiuratio.

References

  1. "peracta erant sollemnia comitiorum": Pliny, Panegyricus, 64.1.
  2. "omnis turba commoverat": Pliny, Panegyricus, 64.1.
  3. Greenidge, Roman Public Life (date & publisher unknown), p. 189.
  4. Pliny, Panegyricus, 64.2-3.
  5. "caput suum domum suam, si scienter fefellisset, deorum irae consecraret": Pliny, Panegyricus, 64.3.
  6. "sollemnem votorum nuncupationem": Livy, 21.63.7-8.
  7. "pro incolumitate rei publicae": Furneaux (ed.), P. Cornelii Taciti Annales (date & publisher unknown), vol. 1 p.571 n.8; vol. 2 p. 455 n. 6.
  8. Pliny, Panegyricus, 65.1-2.
  9. Appian, Civil Wars, 1.4.
  10. "quia flamen Dialis erat, iurare in leges non poterat; magistratum plus quinque diebus, nisi qui iurasset in leges, non licebat gerere": Livy, 31.49.7-8.
  11. Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2.3.6.
  12. "ut legibus solveretur": Livy, 31.49.8.
  13. Livy, 31.49.8-10.
  14. "legibus solveretur": Livy, 31.49.8.
  15. "Se nihil contra leges fecisse": Pliny, Panegyricus, 65.2.
  16. Cicero, ad familiares, 5.2.7; pro Sulla, 34; in Pisonem, 6; de domo duo, 35.94.
  17. "in maxima contione": Cicero, pro Sulla, 34; "in contione": Cicero, in Pisonem, 6.
  18. "populus Romanus universus illa in contione": Cicero, in Pisonem, 7, with characteristic exaggeration.
  19. "dicere a tribuno plebis prohiberer ea quae constitueram... is mihi tantum modo ut iurarem permitteret": Cicero, in Pisonem, 6.
  20. "iuravi rem publicam atque hanc urbem mea unius opera esse salvam": Cicero, in Pisonem, 6-7.
  21. "rostra cum ascendisset, pariter honorem iniit consulatus et eieravit": Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2.3.6.

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