Tribunus plebis

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Roman magistracies

Tribunus plebis

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The tribuni plebis (tribunes of the plebs) were representatives and protecting magistracy of the Roman plebs, but in the course of time their power increased to such a degree that they became a magistracy for the whole Roman people controlling the senate and the magistrates in general, although they had nothing to do with the administration of the government.

The word tribunus seems originally to have indicated an officer connected with a tribe (tribus), or who represented a tribe for certain purposes; and this is indeed the character of the officers who were designated by it in the earliest times of Rome, and may be traced also in the later officers of this name.


History of the tribuneship

At the time when all the Roman citizens were contained in the three tribes of the Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres, each of them was headed by a tribune, and these three tribunes represented their respective tribes in all civil, religious, and military affairs; that is to say, they were in the city the magistrates of their tribes, and performed the sacra on their behalf, and in times of war they were their military commanders. The tribunes of the three ancient tribes ceased to be appointed when these tribes themselves ceased to exist as political bodies, and when the patricians became incorporated in the local tribes of Servius Tullius.

Tribunes of the plebeian tribes

The ancient tribunes of the plebeian tribes had undoubtedly the right of convoking the meetings of their tribes, and of maintaining the privileges granted to them by king Servius and subsequently by the Valerian laws. But this protection was very inadequate against the insatiable ambition and usurpations of the patricians.

Establishing the tribunate of the plebs

When the plebeians, impoverished by long wars and cruelly oppressed by the patricians, at last seceded in the year 494 B.C. to the Mons Sacer, the patricians were obliged to grant to the plebeians this right of appointing a new type of tribunes (tribuni plebis) with more efficient powers to protect their own order than those which were possessed by the heads of the tribes. The purpose for which they were appointed was only to afford protection against any abuse on the part of the patrician magistrates; and that they might be able to afford such protection, their persons were declared sacred and inviolable, and it was agreed that whoever acted against this inviolability should be an outlaw, and that his property should be forfeited to the temple of Ceres (Liv. II.33; Dionys. VI.89).

This decree seems to contain evidence that the heads of the tribes in their attempts to protect members of their own order had been subject themselves to insult and maltreatment; and that similar things occurred even after the sanctity of the tribunes was established by treaty, may be inferred from the fact, that, some time after the tribuneship was instituted, heavy punishments were again enacted against those, who should venture to annoy a tribune when he was making a proposition to the assembly of the tribes. The law by which these punishments were enacted ordained that no one should oppose or interrupt a tribune while addressing the people, and that whoever should act contrary to this ordinance should give bail to the tribunes for the payment of whatever fine they should affix to his offence in arraigning him before the commonalty: if he refused to give bail, his life and property were forfeited (Dionys. VII.17). It should however be observed that this law belongs to a later date than that assigned to it by Dionysius, as has been shown by Niebuhr (II. p98); it was in all probability made only a short time before its first application in 461 B.C. in the case of K. Quinctius (Liv. III.13).

The tribunes were thus enabled to afford protection to any one who appealed to the assembly of the commonalty, or required any other assistance. They were essentially the representatives and the organs of the plebeian order, and their sphere of action was the comitia tributa. With the patricians and their comitia they had nothing to do.

The tribunes themselves however were not judges and could inflict no punishments (Gellius, XIII.12), but could only propose the imposition of a fine to the commonalty (multam irrogare).

The tribunes were thus in their origin only a protecting magistracy of the plebs, but in the course of time their power increased to such a degree that it surpassed that of all other magistrates, and the tribunes then, as Niebuhr (I. p614) remarks, became a magistracy for the whole Roman people in opposition to the senate and the oligarchical elements in general, although they had nothing to do with the administration of the government. During the latter period of the republic they became true tyrants, and Niebuhr justly compares their college, such as it was in later times, to the national convention of France during the first revolution. But notwithstanding the great and numerous abuses which were made of the tribunician power by individuals, the greatest historians and statesmen confess that the greatness of Rome and its long duration is in a great measure attributable to the institution of this office.

Number of the tribuni plebis

As regards the number of the tribunes of the people, all the ancient writers agree (see the passages in Niebuhr, I. n1356), that at first they we only two, though the accounts differ as to the names of the first tribunes. Soon afterwards, however, the number of tribunes was increased to five, one being taken from each of the five classes (Ascon. in Cic. Corn. p56, ed. Orelli; Zonar. VII.15). When this increase took place is quite uncertain.

According to Dionysius (VI.89) three new tribunes were added immediately after the appointment of the first two. Cicero (Fragm. Cornel. p451, Orelli) states, that the year after the institution of the tribunes their number was increased to ten; according to Livy (II.33) the first two tribunes immediately after their appointment elected themselves three new colleagues; according to Piso (ap. Liv. II.58) there were only two tribunes down to the time of the Publilian laws.

It would be hopeless to attempt to ascertain what was really the case; thus much only is certain, that the number was not increased to ten till the year 457 B.C., and that then two were taken from each of the five classes. (Liv. III.30; Dionys. X.30). This number appears to have remained unaltered down to the end of the empire.

Election of the tribunus plebis

The time when the tribunes were elected was, according to Dionysius (VI.89), always on the 10th of December, although it is evident from Cicero (ad Att. I.1) that in his time at least the election took place a. d. XVI. Kal. Sextil. (17th of July).

It is almost superfluous to state that none but plebeians were eligible to the office of tribune; hence when towards the end of the republic patricians wished to obtain the office, they were obliged first to renounce their own order and to become plebeians; hence also under the empire it was thought that the princeps should not be tribune because he was a patrician (Dion Cass. LIII.17, 32). But the influence which belonged to this office was too great for the emperors not to covet it. Hence Augustus received the tribunicia potestas for life (Suet. Aug. 27; Tacit. Annal. I.2; compare Suet. Tiber. 9, 23, Vesp. 12, Tit. 6). During the republic, however, the old regulation remained in force even after the tribunes had ceased to be the protectors of the plebs alone.

The only instance in which patricians were elected to the tribuneship is mentioned by Livy (III.65), and this was probably the consequence of an attempt to divide the tribuneship between the two orders.

Although nothing appears to be more natural than that the tribunes should originally have been elected by that body of the Roman citizens which they represented, yet the subject is involved in considerable obscurity. Cicero (Fragm. Cornel. l.c.) states that they were elected by the comitia of the curies; the same is implied in the accounts of Dionysius (l.c.) and Livy (II.56), according to whom the comitia of the tribes did not obtain this right till the Lex Publilia (472 B.C.; Liv. II.56; Dionys. X.41). Niebuhr thinks (I. p618) that down to the Publilian law they were elected by the centuries, the classes of which they represented in their number, and that the curies, as Dionysius himself mentions in another place (VI.90), had nothing to do with the election except to sanction it.

The election in the comitia of the centuries however does not remove the difficulties, whence Göttling (p289) is inclined to think that the tribunes before the expiration of their office appointed their successors, after a previous consultation with the plebeians. The necessity of this sanction by the curies cannot be doubted, but it appears to have ceased even some time before the Publilian law (Niebuhr, II. p190). After this time it is never heard of again, and the election of the tribunes was left entirely to the comitia tributa, which were convoked and held for this purpose by the old tribunes previously to the expiration of their office (Liv. II.56, &c.; Dionys. IX.43, 49).

One of the old tribunes was appointed by lot to preside at the election (Liv. III.64; Appian, de Bell. Civ. I.14). As the meeting could not be prolonged after sunset, and the business was to be completed in one day, it sometimes happened that it was obliged to break up before the election was completed, and that those who were elected filled up the legitimate number of the college by cooptatio (Liv. l.c.). But in order to prevent this irregularity the tribune L. Trebonius in 448 B.C. got an ordinance passed, according to which the college of the tribunes should never be completed by cooptatio, but the elections should be continued on the second day, if they were not completed on the first, till the number ten was made up (Liv. III.64, 65, V.10; cf. Niebuhr, II. p383). The place where the election of the tribunes was held was originally and lawfully the Forum, afterwards also the Campus Martius, and sometimes the area of the Capitol.

Tribunician power

Although its original character was merely auxilium against patrician magistrates, the plebeians appear early to have regarded their tribunes also as mediators or arbitrators in matters among themselves. This statement of Lydus (de Magist. I.38, 44; Dionys. VII.58) has been pointed out by Walter (Gesch. d. Röm. Rechts, p85).

The whole power possessed by the college of tribunes was designated by the name tribunicia potestas, and extended at no time further than one mile beyond the gates of the city; at a greater distance than this they came under the imperium of the magistrates, like every other citizen (Liv. III.20; Dionys. VIII.87).

As they were the public guardians, it was necessary that every one should have access to them and at any time; hence the doors of their houses were open day and night for all who were in need of help and protection, which they were empowered to afford against any one, even against the highest magistrates. For the same reason a tribune was not allowed to be absent from the city for a whole day, except during the Feriae Latinae, when the whole people was assembled on the Alban Mount (Macrob. Sat. I.3).

In the year 456 B.C. the tribunes, in opposition to the consuls, assumed the right to convoke the senate, in order to lay before it a rogation and discuss the same (Dionys. X.31, 32); for until that time the consuls alone had the right of laying plebiscita before the senate for approbation. Some years after, 452 B.C., the tribune demanded of the consuls to request the senate to make a senatus consultum for the appointment of persons to frame a new legislation; and during the discussions on this subject the tribunes themselves were present in the senate (Dionys. X.50, 52).

The written legislation which the tribunes then wished can only have related to their own order; but as such a legislation would only have widened the breach between the two orders, they afterwards gave way to the remonstrances of the patricians, and the new legislation was to embrace both orders (Liv. III.31; Zonar. VII.18).

From the second decemvirate the tribuneship was suspended, but was restored after the legislation was completed, and now assumed a different character from the change that had taken place in the tribes. The tribunes now had the right to be present at the deliberations of the senate (Liv. III.69, IV.1); but they did not sit among the senators themselves, but upon benches before the opened doors of the senate-house (Val. Max. II.2 §7; F. Hofmann, Der Röm. Senat, p109, &c.).

The inviolability of the tribunes, which had before only rested upon a contract between the two estates, was now sanctioned and confirmed by a law of M. Horatius (Liv. III.55). As the tribes now also included the patricians and their clients, the tribunes might naturally be asked to interpose on behalf of any citizen, whether patrician or plebeian. Hence the patrician ex-decemvir, Appius Claudius, implored the protection of the tribunes (Liv. III.56; cf. also VIII.33, 34; Niebuhr, II. p374).

About this time the tribunes also acquired the right to take the auspices in the assemblies of the tribes (Zonaras, VII.19). They also assumed again the right which they had exercised before the time of the decemvirate, to bring patricians who had violated the rights of the plebeians before the comitia of the tribes, as is clear from several instances (Liv. III.56, &c., IV.44, V.11, &c.).

Respecting the authority which a plebiscitum proposed to the tribes by a tribune received through the lex Valeria.. While the college thus gained outwardly new strength every day, a change took place in its internal organization, which to some extent paralyzed its powers.

Before the year 394 B.C. every thing had been decided in the college by a majority (Liv. II.43, 44; Dionys. IX.1, 2, 41, X.31); but about this time, we do not know how, a change was introduced, which made the opposition (intercessio) of one tribune sufficient to render a resolution of his colleagues void (Zonar. VII.15). This new regulation does not appear in operation till 394 and 393 B.C. (Liv. V.25, 29); the old one was still applied in B.C. 421 and 415 (Liv. IV.42, 48; cf. Niebuhr, II. p438).

From their right of appearing in the senate, and of taking part in its discussions, and from their being the representatives of the whole people, they gradually obtained the right of intercession against any action which a magistrate might undertake during the time of his office, and this even without giving any reason for it (Appian, de Bell. Civ. I.23). Thus we find a tribune preventing a consul convoking the senate (Polyb. VI.16), preventing the proposal of new laws or elections in the comitia (Liv. VI.35, VII.17, X.9, XXVII.6); and they interceded against the official functions of the censors (Dion Cass. XXXVII.9; Liv. XLIII.16); and even against a command issued by the praetor (Liv. XXXVIII.60; Gell. VII.19). In the same manner a tribune might place his veto upon an ordinance of the senate (Polyb. VI.16; Dion Cass. XLI.2); and thus either compel the senate to submit the subject in question to a fresh consideration, or to raise the session (Caes. de Bell. Civ. I.2; Appian, de Bell. Civ. I.29).

In order to propose a measure to the senate they might themselves convoke a meeting (Gellius, XIV.7), or when it had been convoked by a consul they might make their proposal even in opposition to the consul, a right which no other magistrates had in the presence of the consuls. The senate, on the other hand, had itself, in certain cases, recourse to the tribunes. Thus, in 431 B.C. it requested the tribunes to compel the consuls to appoint a dictator, in compliance with a decree of the senate, and the tribunes compelled the consuls, by threatening them with imprisonment, to appoint A. Postumius Tubertus dictator (Liv. IV.26). From this time forward we meet with several instances in which the tribunes compelled the consuls to comply with the decrees of the senate, si non essent in auctoritate senatus, and to execute its commands (Liv. V.9, XXVIII.45).

In their relation to the senate a change was introduced by the Plebiscitum Atinium, which ordained that a tribune, by virtue of his office, should be a senator (Gellius, XIV.8; Zonar. VII.15). When this plebiscitum was made is uncertain; but we know that in 170 B.C. it was not yet in operation (Liv. XLV.15). It probably originated with C. Atinius, who was tribune in B.C. 132 (Liv. Epit. 59; Plin. H. N. VII.45). But as the quaestorship, at least in later times, was the office which persons held previously to the tribuneship, and as the quaestorship itself conferred upon a person the right of being present and expressing his opinion in the senate, the law of Atinius was in most cases superfluous.

In their relation to other magistrates we may observe, that the right of intercessio was not confined to stopping a magistrate in his proceedings, but they might even command their viatores to seize a consul or censor, to imprison him, or to throw him from the Tarpeian rock (Liv. II.56, IV.26, V.9, IX.34, Epit. 48, 55, 59; Cic. de Leg. III.9, in Vatin. 9; Dion Cass. XXXVII.50).

It is mentioned by Labeo and Varro (ap. Gell. XIII.12) that the tribunes, when they brought an accusation against any one before the people, had the right of prehensio, but not the right of vocatio, that is, they might command a person to be dragged by their viatores before the comitia, but could not summon him. An attempt to account for this singularity is made by Gellius (l.c.).

They might, as in earlier times, propose a fine to be inflicted upon the person accused before the comitia, but in some cases they dropped this proposal and treated the case as a capital one (Liv. VIII.33, XXV.4, XXVI.3).

The college of tribunes had also the power of making edicts, as that mentioned by Cicero (in Verr. II.41; cf. Gell. IV.14; Liv. XXXVIII.52).

In cases in which one member of the college opposed a resolution of his colleagues nothing could be done, and the measure was dropped; but this useful check was removed by the example of C. Tiberius Gracchus, in which a precedent was given for proposing to the people that a tribune obstinately persisting in his veto should be deprived of his office (Appian, de Bell. Civ. I.12; Plut. Tib. Gracch. 11, 12, 15; Cic. de Leg. III.10; Dion Cass. XXXVI.13).

From the time of the Hortensian law the power of the tribunes had been gradually rising to such a height that there was no other in the state to equal it, whence Velleius (II.2) even speaks of the imperium of tribunes. They had acquired the right of proposing to the comitia tributa or the senate measures on nearly all the important affairs of the state, and it would be endless to enumerate the cases in which their power was manifested. Their proposals were indeed usually made ex auctoritate senatus, or had been communicated to and approved by it (Liv. XLII.21); but case in which the people itself had a direct interest, such as a general legal regulation (Liv. XXI.63, XXXIV.1), the granting of the franchise (Liv. XXXVIII.36), the alteration of the attributes of a magistrate (Liv. XXII.25, &c.), and others, might be brought before the people, without their having previously been communicated to the senate, though there are also instances of the contrary (Liv. XXXV.7, XXVII.5).

Subjects belonging to the administration could not be brought before the tribes without the tribunes having previously received through the consuls the auctoritas of the senate. This however was done very frequently, and hence we have mention of a number of plebiscita on matters of administration (see a list of them in Walter, p132, n11). It sometimes even occurs that the tribunes brought the question concerning the conclusion of a peace before the tribes, and then compelled the senate to ratify the resolution as expressing the wish of the whole people (Liv. XXX.43, XXXIII.25).

Tribunus plebis during the empire

Sulla, in his reform of the constitution on the early aristocratic principles, left to the tribunes only the jus auxiliandi, but deprived them of the right of making legislative or other proposals, either to the senate or the comitia, without having previously obtained the sanction of the senate. But this arrangement did not last, for Pompey restored to them their former rights (Zachariae, L. Corn. Sulla, als Ordner des Röm. Freistaates, II. p12, &c. and p99, &c.).

During the latter period of the republic, when the office of quaestor was in most cases held immediately before that of tribune, the tribunes were generally elected from among the senators, and this continued to be the same under the empire (Appian. de Bell. Civ. I.100). Sometimes, however, equites also obtained the office, and thereby became members of the senate (Suet. Aug. 10, 40), where they were considered of equal rank with the quaestors (Vell. Pat. II.111).

Tribunes of the people continued to exist down to the fifth century CE, though their powers became naturally much limited, especially in the reign of Nero (Tacit. Annal. III.28). They continued however to have the right of intercession against decrees of the senate, and on behalf of injured individuals (Tacit. Annal. XVI.26, Hist. II.91, IV.9; Plin. Epist. I.23, IX.13; cf. Becker, Handb. der Röm. Alterth. vol. II pt. II p247, &c.).


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