All Roman citizens had rights to attend and vote in at least some groupings: but the senate saw to it that the wealthy continued to dominate.
While the existence of the various assemblies gives the Roman constitution an air of democracy, the senate was principally an advisory body, and in none of the others did members vote as individuals. Voting was by group or category, according to the assembly’s composition; the majority voice of a group represented a single vote. State officials (magistri) were elected by this means.
Senate: about three hundred members up to the reforms of Sulla. Nominations were originally automatic and by birth or rank; later they were made by the consuls and, after about 350 BC, by the censors. Plebeians were admitted during the fourth century BC, after which the senate became a body predominantly of men who had served as state officials. It did not pass laws so much as refer its advice (senatus consultum). It had, however, control over finance, administration of the state and empire, and relations with foreign powers. It also adjudicated on religious matters and acted as an intermediary between the Roman people and the gods.
Comitia curiata: assembly of representatives of wards, ten each from the three original tribes of Rome, and the original people’s council at the time of the kings. In the fourth century BC its functions were largely assumed by the comitia centuriata.
Comitia centuriata: originally the assembly of representatives of military units (centuries). It was reconstituted in 193 centuries, to which eligible voters (all Roman citizens) were allocated according to their means. Each century comprised an indefinite and variable number of members. Ninety-eight of the votes (a majority) were in the hands of the eighteen centuries of equestrians and the eighty representing the top five property bands. The assembly elected senior state officials, declared war, instituted peace treaties, approved legislation, and, until the function was transferred to the courts, had the final say in cases of execution or exile.
One of the great plebeian dynasties and a pillar of the nobility was the family of the Caecilii Metelli. Inscriptions from the Arch of Augustus in the Forum name all Roman consuls from 753 BC to 19 AD. This part of a slab lists those from 123 to 115 BC, nine years during which four men named Caecilius Metellus held the highest office of state. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)
Concilium plebis (meeting of the people): the original plebeian parliament, sitting and voting in 35 tribal or district divisions. It elected its own officers and formulated decrees (plebiscita) for observance by its own kind, which, after 287 BC, could be made binding on the whole community.
Comitia tributa (tribal assembly): organized in tribes in the same way as the concilium plebis but open to all citizens. It elected minor officials and was a means of approving legislation on a different voting basis to the comitia centuriata.
Republican coin, issued by the moneyer P. Licinius Nerva, showing voting in an assembly. Two voters are casting their ballots: the voter on the left receives his tablet from an attendant below, while the other, after crossing the bridge, places his tablet in the voting urn. Below, a drawing of the image. (VRoma: National Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)
CONFLICT OF ORDERS
At the outset of the republic, the patricians had not only the means and inclination to exercise government, but all the power as well. The bid by the plebs for rights with which to improve their lot was achieved by passive resistance, including sit-down strikes, and collective bargaining. In about 494 BC the office was created of tribunus plebis (tribune of the people), to be a convenor of the popular assemblies and to present the people’s grievances to the consuls or senate. A tribune had extraordinary powers. Whereas a government official could quash the act of a colleague of equal status, a tribune of the people could hold up almost any business of state, including actions of officers and resolutions of the senate, merely by pronouncing a veto. He was on call day and night to any citizen who required help.
As the plebeians achieved political and military prestige which entitled them to be classed as aristocracy, some of the great patrician families began to lose their way. A new ruling class emerged, distinguished by families, in addition to the patricians, whose members had acquired nobilitas. Nobles bred nobility, and by the third century BC the lists of consuls and priests are dominated by similar names from the same families. Members of the nobility exercised their power through wealth, intrigue, and the system, which appears to have gone back to the period of the kings, whereby armies of dependent clients were collected, and protected, by patrons. The nobility effectively controlled the senate and, through patronage, influenced the election of officers of state, who included the holders of religious posts.
Believe it or not:
The Romans had a deep trust in omens. In 310 BC, Lucius Papirius, appointed dictator against the Samnites, was asking the comitia curiata to go through the formality of confirming his nominee as his deputy, when he noticed that on that day it was the turn of curia Faucia to vote first. This was a sinister omen, because on two previous occasions when this had happened, the consequence was disastrous to the state. He cancelled the vote, and took it again on the next day.