Classics in the Classroom: Bodies of the Constitution
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Classics in the Classroom: Bodies of the Constitution


In this video, we’re going to look at the
bodies of the res publica. As with many other Roman institutions, these bodies were institutions
in flux and again, they didn’t look the same at any two moments in time. That said,
one constant is that membership of all of these bodies and participation in them was
restricted to adult male citizens. Today, we’re going to be looking at four bodies
of the res publica. These are: the senate, the comitia centuriata, the concilium plebis
(or the comitia plebis tributa), and the comitia tribute (or the comitia populi tributa).
Let’s begin with the Roman senate. The most important thing to remember about the Roman
senate is that it was an advisory body and that it did not pass legislation. Prior to
Sulla’s reforms in 88 BC, the senate consisted of roughly 300 members. By 81 BC, following
Sulla’s reforms, this had grown to about 600 members. This was a result of Sulla’s
proscriptions. The membership was topped up with Sullan partisans and members of the equestrian
order. Quaestors were now automatically enrolled to prop up and strengthen the capability of
this enlarged senate. Also, as a result of Sulla’s reforms, both consuls and the now
8 praetors remained in Italy and thus were able to attend the senate, leading to more
competition and more discussion at senatorial meetings. The senate could take place at any
time but not in any place. It must be finished by sunset and it met in augurated spaces.
For motions to pass in the senate, quora were in place. These were a minimum number of senators
that were required to be present for any motion to pass.
But what did the senate actually do? Well, there were four types of proposal that the
senate could produce. These four types of proposals were:
The senatus consultum – this was the advice of the senate that was typically heeded and
treated as law although not a law itself. The senatus consultum per discessionem – this
was a motion reached by the senate before any discussion had taken place.
The senatus auctoritas – which was a decree that was vetoed by a consul or a tribune of
the plebs before it was voted upon. And finally, the senatus consultum ultimum
or the so called ‘final decree’ – this was based on a reference by Caesar in his
bellum civile. This was passed by the senate at times of crisis in which magistrates or
the consuls were asked to see that the Republic came to no harm. But as I mentioned earlier,
they could not pass legislation and they did not hold elections.
The next body of the res publica did hold elections and that is the comitia centuriata.
The comitia centuriata was military in origin and comprised the military forces of Rome.
As such, it met on the Campus Martius, a large open space outside of the pomerium – the
city limits – where the army could muster and gather before a triumph. Citizens were
enrolled in the comitia centuriata based on age and wealth. They were enrolled into a
number of centuries, hence centuriata. In total, there were 194 centuries. The first
class comprised 71 centuries of the wealthiest citizens; the cavalry classes or the equites
comprised 18 centuries; the remaining 104 centuries were made up by the poorer classes
at Rome. With groupings of roughly 20, gradually requiring less money to be in each class.
Each century was further divided into seniores and iuniores. Seniores were at least 40 years
old, however, becoming enrolled in the senate could bestow the status of seniore before
the age of 40. The purpose of the comitia centuriata was to elect consuls, praetors
and censors, to pass legislation and to facilitate declarations of war and peace, in line with
its military origin. Another body of the res publica that could
hold elections and pass legislation was the concilium plebis. We call this a concilium
and not a comitia because it was comprised of only part of the populus. A comitia is
comprised of the whole populus. The concilium plebis is also sometimes called the concilium
plebis tributa because of its tribal organisation, which I’ll return to shortly. This could
only be convoked and presided over by a tribune of the plebs. As mentioned, it was attended
exclusively by plebeians. These plebeians were organised, by the late Republic, into
35 Roman tribes. There were 4 urban tribes and 31 rural tribes. This is important, as
by the late Republic, this was the principal legislative body and most laws were passed
here. When we consider the time necessary to travel to Rome, the importance of having
31 rural tribes and 4 urban tribes becomes apparent. This was not proportionate for the
voting process. The laws passed by this body were known as plebiscita or, literally, resolutions
of the plebs and remained so, although in 287 BC, plebiscita were given a status equal
to that of leges. Leges were the laws passed by the comitia centuriata and so our primary
sources for the late Republic often do not distinguish between leges and plebiscita.
Besides passing the majority of legislation, this body also elected its own officials:
the plebeian tribunes and the plebeian aediles. The next assembly we’re going to look at
is the comitia tributa. Like the concilium plebis, this was based on a tribal organisation.
This can properly be called a comitia and is known as populi tributa because it comprised
the populus and not just the plebeians. The main purpose of this assembly, by the late
Republic, was to elect curule aediles, military tribunes and quaestors.
There we have a list of the four principal bodies of the res publica. That list was not
exhaustive and there are several other bodies, such as contiones (public assemblies that
were used to discuss business. Here are some of the most important things to take away:
Firstly, the senate did not pass legislation and was primarily an advisory body.
Secondly, the concilium plebis was perhaps the most important body as it passed the majority
of the legislation in the late Roman Republic. The variation in assemblies and seemingly
odd structure show the remnants of an earlier, military-orientated state.
And finally, it is important to note that the disproportion of voters in urban and rural
tribes could have implications for the passing of certain legislation, such as agrarian reform.

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