Wednesday, April 26, 2017


I thought it might be helpful to share some of my (layman's) notes on the cursus honorum (primarily). How a Roman becomes a senator. Of course, the Senate was the body of men that ruled the Roman republic.

A few preliminaries:

  • The context for my notes is the Republican period.
  • Rome was a militaristic society and culture (e.g. Romans believed military aptitude meant political aptitude and vice versa, and their highest offices combined political and military roles e.g. a consul or praetor leading legions to battle).
  • One gained lifetime admission to the Senate after serving as a magistrate for one year. A magistrate wasn't a judge like we might think today but an elected official. I suppose we'd simply say a politician.
  • The Senate originally had 100 members, which kept increasing over time. The Senate was 300 up to Sulla, then 600 shortly before the time of Spartacus, then 900 under Julius Caesar, then over 1000 under Augustus Caesar. However, Augustus Caesar eventually reduced the number to 600.
  • Although estimates can vary widely, at its height (i.e. during the Roman Empire) I believe the total population was around 75 million, and the city of Rome around 1 million, with the contemporary world population around 300 million. I've heard (but never verified) that no city in the world ever rivaled the population of Rome until the Industrial Age.
  • Order of speaking in the Senate: first, the current consul who called the Senate to meet; then the princeps senatus; then current consuls; then ex-consuls; then current praetors; then ex-praetors; then current aediles; then ex-aediles; then current quaestors; then ex-quaestors. In general the Senate met from sun up till sun down. It would be rare for those below the praetor level to ever speak.

Now the path to the Senate:

  1. Tribune (military). 24 positions per year. Tribune was often (though not always) the first step for a young man aspiring to the Roman Senate to take.

  2. Quaestor. 20 positions per year: 14 to provincial governors to serve as their deputies, 2 to consuls, and 4 to Rome's treasury. Quaestors were usually lowly bureaucrats with limited political power and no military power.

  3. Aedile. 4 positions per year in Rome: 2 plebeian aediles and 2 curule aediles. Their role was public works such as ensuring "temple" upkeep where "temple" included religious and social institutions. For example, the Temple of Castor and Pollux was the Senate house, the Temple of Saturn was the treasury, public baths were like modern shopping malls, etc. Aediles also helped maintain aqueducts and thus the water supplies to Rome, they stored and distributed grain, they maintained roads, among others. However, the most prominent role of the aedile was festivals and holidays such as the gladiatorial games. If done well, aediles could win over the commoners or plebeians. That's what Julius Caesar, for one, did.

  4. Praetor. 8 positions per year. Praetors were essentially judges. But not merely judges as in our modern conception of judges. Since the Romans united military and political into a single role, praetors had vested in them military powers (e.g. commanding a legion) as well as judicial powers. Imperium.

  5. Consul. 2 positions per year. Traditionally each consul would alternate between their roles and responsibilities every other month (i.e. "holding fasces"). Consuls had the power to open debate in the Senate, propose laws, veto, call the public assembly, oversee elections, wage war, implement martial law, read or interpret omens. Consuls were the height of Roman political achievement.

  6. Proconsul (or propraetor). Basically a governor of a Roman province. It was what praetors and consuls usually wished to do after serving as praetors or consuls. Some provinces were more desirable than others. In general due to how lucrative it would be for the proconsul to govern the province. Judea was not a province at this time. It held no promise of wealth. It had too many rabble rousers to control. Its main value was it lay at the crossroads between the eastern trade routes as well as Syria and Egypt, two affluent provinces.

  7. There were other magistrates or political positions (e.g. censor, tribune of the plebs, pontifex maximus), but they aren't officially part of the cursus honorum, as far as I'm aware.

All this said, I'm no ancient Roman historian or classicist so I'm open to correction.

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