Antiques & The Arts

Roman Elections

At this point it should be clear that the
Senate was the center of political life in the Roman Republic. And of course we know that in order to be
appointed to the Senate, a person first had to be elected to the office of Quaestor by
the people. But how were they actually elected? And once in the Senate, how were they elected
to higher offices? That’s actually a pretty complicated question. If we’re talking about elections, we have
to talk about Public Assemblies. You may have noticed that when this comes
up, I tend to just drop the in phrase “Public Assembly,” and leave it at that. That’s been a bit of shorthand on my part. There were actually a three different Public
Assemblies responsible for electing politicians. Each was summoned at different times, and
had its own rules. And most importantly for our purposes today,
they each elected different politicians. So let’s jump in. The most prestigious Public Assembly was called
The Assembly of the Centuries. Century as in the Roman military unit. This body elected the highest ranking Roman
officials. Consuls, Praetors, and Censors. I haven’t really talked about Censors yet. They were highly respected ex-Consuls, who
were in charge of keeping the official membership rolls for the Senate. In practice, every newly elected Quaestor
was inducted into the Senate automatically, but it wasn’t official until a Censor added
him to the list. They were also in charge of conducting an
official census, which assessed the net worth of each citizen, and divided them up into
different classes. These classes were important, because they
determined how people voted in the Assembly of the Centuries. There were, broadly speaking, 8 different
classes, which were further subdivided by wealth and age into 193 voting blocs. Of the 8 classes, the highest ranking one
was the Patricians, who had 6 voting blocs specifically set aside for them. The Patricians were basically most prestigious
families in Rome. Not necessarily the richest, but the ones
with a history of public service going all the way back to the monarchy. Most of these men would have been either senators
or the sons of senators. This was an incredibly small group, probably
several hundred people, but divided up into 6 blocs, they had immense influence. Just below them were the Equites, who were
assigned 12 blocs. Think of the Equites as the top 0.1% of Roman
society. Very, very rich. Many were richer than the Patricians, but
just hadn’t been lucky enough to be born into the right family. The Equites were considered an aristocratic
class, with special privileges, separate from normal Roman citizens. But membership in this class was dependent
on them maintaining their wealth. Together, the Patricians and the Equites accounted
for a little over 9% of the voting blocs. Now, we finally get to normal Roman citizens. This group consisted of the wealthiest non-aristocrats
in Rome, and is called the first class. Think: the top 1%. Rich, but otherwise normal people. These class was allotted an overwhelming 80
blocs. From here, the wealth threshold decreased
predictably. The second class, the third class, and the
fourth class were each allotted 20 blocs. The fifth class, at the bottom, was allotted
30 blocs. And finally, below the fifth class, we have
one final group, called the proletarii. These were people with no property, and no
savings. Basically the people living hand to mouth. These were the urban poor. This group, which was by far the largest,
was allotted just 1 giant bloc. One additional detail: classes 1 to 5 were
each internally subdivided based on wealth. Each wealth level was further subdivided into
one senior and one junior bloc. The senior bloc was for citizens 46 years
and older, while the junior bloc was for adults 45 and younger. And now, finally, we get to voting. Each sitting consul had the power to call
for a meeting of the Assembly of the Centuries, and would then set the agenda for that meeting. This agenda was almost always simply an election,
but it’s worth noting that this was also the body that officially ratified the Senate’s
request to declare war. But this wasn’t war day, this was election
day! On election day everybody interested in voting
gathered on the Field of Mars, just outside Rome’s city limits. As people arrived, they divided themselves
into their blocs. Each bloc was marked apart from the others
by wooden fences, or pens that had been set up in advance. To begin voting, one of the junior blocs from
the first class was chosen at random, and given the honour of the first vote. Why one of the junior blocs? Just to make things more complicated. Each bloc voted internally, and when a winner
was decided, the bloc cast their one vote before the entire assembly. It didn’t matter how many people were in that
bloc, or how strongly that bloc supported a particular candidate. Each bloc’s vote was weighted the same. But things get just a little bit more complicated. All elections of the same type were conducted
simultaneously, meaning that if, for example, two consuls needed to be elected, each bloc
had to give up two names. They couldn’t vote for the same candidate
twice, they basically had rank their top two candidates. After the results from the first bloc were
announced to the entire assembly, the other 39 junior blocs in the first class voted simultaneously. These results were tabulated, and announced. After this, the Patricians, the Equites, and
the senior blocs in the first class all voted. For this reason the Patricians and the Equites
are sometimes considered part of the first class, but I decided to separate them for
the sake of clarity because Jesus Christ it’s complicated enough. After these blocs were all done voting, there
was another pause while these results were tabulated and announced. At this point, 98 of 193 votes had been cast,
which is like 51%. If there was a consensus and all candidates
received an absolute majority of the votes, the winners were announced and voting immediately
stopped. But if not, voting continued progressing down
the classes until one candidate received an absolute majority. When that happened, it was announced, and
the victor and taken out of consideration. If all classes voted and there was still one
or more candidates without a 50% majority, voting continued the next day, and then the
next day, until there was a winner. That’s kinda confusing, so let me try to simplify
it. The question wasn’t “how many votes does a
candidate get.” The question was “which candidate can get
to 50% before the others.” The moment a person got to 50%, they were
done. The game being played here seems clear. The elites voted first, so if they could all
get behind the same candidates, they never even had to consult the poor. When the elites were split, that’s when the
poor got to have their say. The proletarii had it really bad. They only time they mattered was in the case
of a tie. But that was only one kind of Public Assembly. There were two others. The Tribal Assembly was significantly different
from the Assembly of the Centuries. This body was responsible for filling some
of the lower-ranked offices, like military tribunes, quaestors, and curule aediles. Just a reminder: military tribunes were the
young aristocrats that were elected and assigned to command positions in Roman legions. Quaestors were the people that, upon their
election, were appointed to the Senate. Aediles were in charge of administrative things,
like public games, and the upkeep on temples, and keeping the streets clean. Now the Tribal Assembly only elected half
of these, called Curule Aediles. There were two kinds, but their jobs were
virtually the same. The only difference was that the Curule Aedile
could be either a Patricians or a Plebeians, whereas the other kind, which we’ll get to
later, could only be a Plebeian. The Tribal Assembly did also have one high
profile job to fill. They elected the Pontifex Maximus, which was
the head religious official in Rome, and was a lifetime appointment. Pontifex Maximus aside, these offices were
all lower in status, and the method of voting reflected this. Just like before, the Tribal Assembly was
usually summoned by and had its agenda set by consuls. Praetors could do this too, but in practice
it was usually consuls. Voting happened like this. All Roman citizens were organized into 35
tribes. These tribes were not based on ethnic divisions
but rather on where the person lived. They were geographic. Kinda. Four tribes were set aside for the city of
Rome, and the other 31 were spread out over the rest of Roman territory. We don’t know how exactly they were spread
out, but we do know that most of them were concentrated in Italy. That all seems pretty straightforward, but
here’s the curve-ball. Tribal membership was hereditary, meaning
that if a family moved, they took their tribal affiliation with them. After generations of internal migration, you
can understand how this became a complete mess. Censors did their best to clean things up
by manually changing people’s tribal affiliation, but it was an impossible task. When the Tribal Assembly was called, the tribes
separated into their 35 pens. Each tribe, or bloc, got one vote. And by one vote I mean they each gave their
list of their top candidates, just like before. One bloc was chosen at random to start things
off, and voting continued randomly until a candidate or candidates reached an absolute
majority of 18. When that happened, voting immediately stopped. Unlike the Assembly of the Centuries, there
was no overt bias in the Tribal Assembly toward the rich. It was still a race to 50%, but voting was
randomized, so each tribe had an equal chance of getting its voice heard. But it certainly wasn’t fair. Citizens living in Rome found it easy to set
aside a day to vote in the Tribal Assembly, so the four blocs representing the city tended
to be very large, and very poor. But the further you got from Rome, the fewer
people were able to make the trip. This made these blocs smaller, but of equal
electoral weight. Those who did make the trip from the Italian
countryside and beyond tended to be older, richer, and more powerful, on average. As a whole, this meant that the Tribal Assembly
tended to favour the interests of rich Italian landowners, at the expense of the urban poor. Sometimes the Tribal Assembly was called to
vote on something less important than an election. When this happened, 18 of the 35 tribes were
selected at random and told to meet in the forum, in the center of Rome. Here, this limited group voted in a similar
manner. We get the impression that these meetings
were very poorly attended, because a rule had to be made that a bloc had to have at
least 5 people in it in order to vote. That’s pretty bad. This assembly couldn’t declare war like the
Assembly of the Centuries could, but it did have a few other jobs. It was possible for an important trial to
be decided by the Tribal Assembly, but this became less common over time. They also technically had the power to rubber-stamp
legislation passed by the senate, but that was almost always done by another group. In the video about the year 57 B.C.E., the
one where Cicero’s banishment was overturned, I cut out a big chunk related to this because
it derailed the story, but I might as well bring it up here. The first bill overturning Cicero’s banishment
had been passed by the senate. But Clodius had successfully stopped its ratification
when he and his armed supporters marched on the crowd. What I didn’t mention was that Pompey made
sure that the next time the bill came up for ratification, it went before the Tribal Assembly
instead. As I said before, the Tribal Assembly tilted
in favour of rich Italian landowners, who happened to be big fans of Cicero. So when Pompey toured the Italian countryside
whipping up support, what he was actually doing was meeting with Cicero’s supporters
and convincing them make the trip to Rome to attend the Tribal Assembly. The plan worked, because when the bill came
up, every bloc that voted in the Tribal Assembly voted in favour of the bill. But this was an unusual event, and normally
the senate’s legislation went before the third kind of public assembly, which we get to now. 3. The Plebeian Assembly (or The Council of the
Plebs) The Plebeian Assembly, also known as the Council
of the Plebs. You can probably guess from the name what
it means. Only Plebeians were allowed to vote in this
body. No Patricians allowed. The Plebeian Assembly was summoned by and
was presided over by a Tribune of the Plebs. On election day this body elected Plebeian
Aediles, which we talked about before, and Tribunes of the Plebs. Unlike the other two assemblies, this one
didn’t have complicated rules governing it. This was a straight up or down vote. This is the closest to democracy that Rome
got. The Plebeian Assembly the only body where
the urban poor could dominate. This is why we have a long line of Tribunes
of the Plebs, even Conservative ones, that got elected by promising either subsidized
or free food. The Plebeian Assembly had another equally
important job. This was the body that almost always gave
its rubber-stamp approval to Senate legislation. The only rule was that there were no amendments
and no debate. Just a simple yes or no vote. The moment any bill passed the Plebeian Assembly,
it became law. By the late Republic, alongside an increase
in political violence and gridlock in the senate, we start to see this body elect a
series of extreme Tribunes of the Plebs. It’s hard to single out specific things like
this, but I can’t help but think that if the poor hadn’t felt muzzled in the Assembly of
the Centuries and the Tribal Assembly, they wouldn’t have felt it necessary to stack the
one office they had control over with dangerous men. But we’ll never know for sure.

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