The Roman republic was always dominated by the wealthier classes, the senators and the knights (equites). In theory, all freeborn citizens were eligible to stand for the quaestorship: in fact they needed the wealth and social position of a knight (eques). Thus money and class were needed for entry to the cursus honorum - the various essential career moves culminating in consul or censor.


[Lucius Valerius] Publicola [one of the original consuls] instituted the rule that the lictors should march in front of each consul on alternate months, so that the insignia of office should not be more numerous in the republic than under the kings” Cicero, On the Republic, II. 31.

The Latin term res publica (from which comes the word “republic”) is usually translated as “state” or “commonwealth”. At no time was Rome a democracy (that is, rule by the people) in the Greek, or true, sense. Its society was rigidly divided by legal status (free or enslaved) and by class. Free men or women were further classified, for example, according to whether they were so by birth or by release from slavery, were Roman citizens or Latins, or were independent or answerable to a guardian or other person in authority.

child slave

Roman mosaic of child slave in kitchen, with figs and fish. (VRoma: Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg: Barbara McManus)

The republic began, and finished, as a state largely dominated by the two upper classes, the senators, who qualified by birth and wealth, and the equestrians or knights (equites); until the second century BC, the latter were, by reason of their property holding, provided at public expense with a horse, with which they were required to report for military duty. The constitutional change from monarchy to republic was gradual. The main functions of the king, including full military command, were undertaken by two consuls with equal powers, elected for one year only.

From 367 BC, one consulship was normally held by a plebeian. The consuls presided over the senate and over those assemblies which they were eligible to attend as members; they also could propose laws for consideration by the people. Their authority within the city was subject to provocatio (literally, a ‘calling out’), whereby the people could formally appeal against a decision. In time of war, however, right up to the beginning of the first century BC, the consuls, by tradition, led the troops. When both consuls were on a campaign together, sole command alternated on a daily basis. If the politics of the republic were about power, to achieve the consulship was also about prestige. To be, and to have been, consul was a privilege which was jealously guarded by leading families, on whom it conferred nobilitas, which can mean “nobility”, but also “fame” or “recognition”. The first of a family to achieve the highest office was referred to sneeringly as novus homo, “new man” or ‘upstart’.

The consul was so named because he “consults” the people and the senate. The constitution allowed, however, that in time of crisis, and particularly in war, a single “dictator” could be nominated to exercise complete control for not more than six months.

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Statue of the young emperor Augustus as pontifex maximus, with his head covered as a mark of respect, end of first century BC. (VRoma: National Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

Matters of state religion were in the hands of the pontifex maximus - the literal meaning of pontifex is “bridge builder”. This was an elected office, in the same way as those of other state officials, but with it in his case went an official residence in the middle of the forum. The pontifex maximus was responsible for the calendar, for presiding at state ceremonies, and for the nomination of vestal virgins and some priests. He also had disciplinary powers over the priestly classes.

State Officials

As the tasks of government of state and empire grew, so other political offices were created.

Censor (Two): chief registrar, financial and tax officer, inspector of public works, and arbiter of public morality. The office was instituted in 444 BC; the first plebeian held it in 351 BC. The post was usually restricted to those who had climbed the “ladder of honour” (cursus honorum) from quaestor to consul. From the second century BC elections for censor took place every five years, to coincide with the taking of the census. A censor held office for only eighteen months, though his acts remained in force until the next election. He had wide disciplinary powers, even over those who neglected to weed their agricultural land.

Praetor (Six after 197 BC): chief law officer and judge, and understudy to the consuls, particularly in the administration of the provinces (provincial governors were normally drawn from the ranks of former consuls and serving or former praetors).

Aedile (Four after 366 BC): supervisor of public works, temples, markets, and games.

Quaestor (Four after 421 BC, eight after 267 BC, and twenty from the time of Sulla): assistant to the consuls, particularly as controller of the military or civic treasury, and keeper of records. The minimum age was 25, to allow for the completion of military service.


First-century BC bronze figurine of lictor with fasces. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Believe it or not:

When Pompey the Great was elected consul for the year 70 BC without having before held any office of state, he was so ignorant of procedures in the senate, over which he now had to preside, that he asked his scholar friend, Terentius Varro, to write for him a handbook on the subject.

bronze dupondius

The early Roman coinage, like that under the kings, was linked to weight. This heavy bronze dupondius (c. 265 BC), 8.5 cm in diameter, was worth two asses (represented by the two bars) and carried the head of Roma, personifying the city. (Photo © Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow )