About the time of the beginning of the Principate, Roman society was defined sharply into
three main classes, which in turn gradually became more defined durnig the empire.
For each clas, specific career and public service opportunities were provided.
For senators, these included the cheif magistracies and military posts; for the
equites (members of the Equestrian class), they included a career in civil or military
service of the emperor; for the lower classes, there were limited to private or junior
rank in the army. Classes, however, were not closed, and acension from one to
another was quite possible.
The magistracies were divided into what became known as the cursus
honorum, or the course of honors. Generally, one would start at the bottom of
the course, with a junior magistracy, and gradually rise through the ranks to the chief
magistracy of consul. It did not have to legally be done in this manner, but if
often ways. Magsitracies included:
Primarily a financial officer. One accompanied each general or provincial
governor as a treasurer or paymaster. The minimum age was 31.
Supervised commere in the marketplace, food supplies, streets, public buildings,
games, and festivities. They are nearly the equivalent of what we would call a city
- Praetor: Acted
as judges in legal disputes, as provincial governors, and as managers of public
spectacles. The minimum age requirement was 40 years old.
- Consul: Two
in number, the consuls headed the government. LIke all magistrates except censors,
they served for one year. There was a minimum age requirement of 43.
- Censors: Elected
every five years. Drew up a census of the people, showed the amount of propery owned
by each, and supervised the morals and conduct of the citizens. They made contracts
for public works and the collection of taxes. Thus, a censor was the equivalent of
today's sheriff, among other positions.
- Senate: Advisory
council of elders under the kings, adn still in place in the republic and empire. In
Cicero's day, it was entirely composed of ex-magistrates. The office of Senate was
held for life, unless the senator was found guilty of some grave misconduct.
During the republic,
the Senate was the center of administration for Roman government. By the 3rd
century BC, membership had been fixed at 300. Later, Augustus fixed it at 600.
Consuls and ex-consuls automatically became senators. Membership in the
Senate required ownership of property equivalent in value to 1,000,000 sesterces, and
granted the right to wear a senatorial toga with a broad purple stripe. Meetings
were held in the curia building in the forum.
The equestrian class
devloped as a separate entity under Gaius Gracchus, consisting of more prosperous
businesmen over the age of 18 who were of free birth and possessing property equivalent to
400,000 sesterces. The name comes from the fact that equestrians were thought to be
"wealthy enough to own a horse." Membership was controlled by the reigning
emperor, and if granted came with the right to wear a toga with a narrow purple stripe and
recieve a horse paid for by the public.
Under Roman law, based
on the originial Laws of the Twelve Tables published in the 5th century BC,
there was no public prosecuter's office. It was the responsibility of the victim and
family to apprehend and prosecute the offender. Court cases were heard in a variety
of places, but the Forum Romanum was the major venue for public trials.
Additionally, Augustus allowed the use of his forum for certain types of cases.
The praefectus urbi heard cases here, and was responsible for
maintaining public order in Rome. The praetor urbanis heard cases in the
forum near the temple of Castor; also held in the forum were cases involving foreigners,
under the magistracy of the praetor peregrinus.
established in the 3rd century, was the centumviri, meeting in the
Basillica Iulia, which from the time of Augustus is thought to have been used for cases
involving inheritances (minimum 100,000 sesterces) and disputes over land ownership and
guardianship. These cases attracted much public attention, not only to see great
speeches but also a little bit of scandal.
From the 2nd
century BC, separate tribunals were set up for crimes against the state, and eventually
these came in include treason, electoral bribery, embezzlement of state property,
adultery, and murder by violence or poison.. Evidence for court proceedure itself,
however, is scanty. Magistrates would sit in an elevated tribunal, and in the forum
the jury would sit on benches which had been placed on the paving. Criminal trials
were heard before the appropriate magsitrate who gave a binding ruling. Punishment
was based on class. Upperclassmen could be exiled, lose status, or be privately
executed. According to Seneca, punishment could be worse, examples being the
impaling stake, crucifixtion, death by wild beasts, and quartering. Lowerclassmen
could be beaten or publicly executed, or used in the games as entertainment.
The Senate met in the
curia at the forum. Originally, this building was called the Curia Histilia, said to
be built by Etruscan King Tullius Hostilius. In any event, it was rebuilt and
replaced with the existing Curia Julia, begun by Sulla in 80 BC. The building
reconstruction began in 44 BC after a fire, and was finished by Augustus. The curia
was later restored by Domitian and bebuilt in its originial design after a fire in AD 283
by Diocletian. The building itself was 21 meters high, with wooden seats for
senators running down the sides on steps. A raised platform opposite the door
provided seating for presiding magistrates. The two doors opened into the forum of
Julius Caesar, and were kept open during convocations so children of senators could
observe how business was conducted. By the time of Augustus, the Senate had nearly
1,000 members, and if all attended, the youngest and less prominent had to stand in the
back, while the elders and illustrious sat below.
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