Establishment of the

The establishment of the cursus honorum restructured Roman government through new regulations governing officeholders.

Summary of Event

The growth of Rome from an insignificant river city to the administrative center of a far-flung empire brought with it numerous changes in the machinery of its government. Many of these changes were made gradually but some were concessions forced by new political situations. A significant stage in this process was marked by the law passed in 180 b.c.e., the Lex villius annalis. Understanding of its full significance, however, requires a historical description of the Roman magisterial offices. Scipio Africanus
Lucius Villius

Before the establishment of the Roman Republic, all final political power in Rome resided in the person of the king, while the executive officers of the state acted solely as his personal representatives. With the overthrow of the monarchy, these officials, called magistrates by the Romans, became effective representatives of the entire community; their powers, duties, and privileges were thought to be derived from the senate and people conjointly, even though in the early period the people were limited solely to ratifying the election of patrician candidates. At that time the most powerful officials were the two consuls, elected for terms of one year. Only patricians were eligible for this office until the Licinian laws of 367 b.c.e. threw it open to the plebeians. So strong was the aristocratic domination of Roman political life, however, that only in 172 b.c.e. were both consuls plebeians. The duties of the consuls were diverse; they were charged with conducting the affairs of the senate, maintaining public order throughout Italy, and leading the army in time of war.

The second most powerful office was the praetorship. It seems probable that the first praetor was elected in 360 b.c.e., although there are some indications that the office may have formed part of the original constitution of the republic. Plebeians first became eligible for it in 337 b.c.e. The praetor was above all the supreme civil judge. In 242 b.c.e., the number of annually elected praetors was increased to two, so that one could be placed in charge of lawsuits between Roman citizens and aliens. As Rome’s overseas dominions increased, the number of praetors was raised to four in 227 b.c.e., allowing two praetors to serve as governors of the newly formed provinces of Sicily and Sardinia. In 197 b.c.e., the number was raised to six, the additional two officers being assigned to administer the two provinces of Spain.

An office not constitutionally essential for election to higher offices, but extremely influential in itself, was the aedileship. At the beginning of the Roman Republic, two aediles were appointed to supervise the temples and religious practices of the plebeians. Ultimately, they were given control over public buildings, street maintenance, the distribution of the corn supply, and, above all, production of the public games. This capacity enabled ambitious politicians to stage lavish and spectacular games in an attempt to gain popularity with the urban electorate.

The lowest political office was the quaestorship. The office was probably created at the beginning of the republic, with the number of annually elected quaestors raised to four in 421 b.c.e. At the same time, plebeians were also made eligible for the office. Ultimately the number of quaestors was fixed at twenty. Two of the quaestors had charge of the state treasury and official archives. The others were attached as aides either to generals on campaign or to provincial governors. Their duties were diverse: financial, judicial, and military.

These four offices formed the so-called cursus honorum, the order in which political offices had to be held, although the aedileship was not necessarily a prerequisite for election to any other office. The cursus honorum did not exist before 180 b.c.e., since until that time there were no age qualifications assigned to any of these offices, nor was the holding of any one office a necessary condition for election to another higher office. Thus Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Hannibal, was elected consul for 205 b.c.e. at the age of thirty-one, and Titus Quinctius Flamininus (c. 229-174 b.c.e.), the victor at Cynoscephalae in 197 b.c.e., was elected consul in 198 b.c.e. at a similarly early age. This situation was drastically altered by a law carried in 180 b.c.e. by the tribune Lucius Villius that set fixed age qualifications for the various offices. The probable age limits established were forty for the praetor and forty-three for the consul. Although no minimum age was placed on the quaestors, it was generally understood that candidates who stood for this office would have already completed their ten-year military obligation and thus be approximately twenty-eight years old.


The establishment of the cursus honorum placed a regular and restrained order over the advancement of all political careers and thus made it difficult for a politician to rise to power purely through popularity or force. In an age when the average lifespan of a Roman male was around forty years, the age requirements imposed by the cursus honorum meant that only the elders—and presumably the wise men—of the community were eligible for leadership. The cursus honorum also restricted eligibility for public office by age after a period during which participation in political life was increasingly opening up to plebians, thus, at least theoretically, replacing a class-based political structure with one more amenable to rewarding talent and experience.

Further Reading

  • Adcock, F. E. Roman Political Ideas and Practice. 1959. Reprint. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. A discussion of how theory and practice intersected in ancient Roman politics. An excellent place for the general reader to begin.
  • Gardner, Jane F. Being a Roman Citizen. London: Routledge, 1993. A good introduction to the duties and responsibilities of Roman citizenship, including the political offices of the cursus honorum. Written in a popular style but well researched.
  • Lintott, Andrew. The Constitution of the Roman Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A detailed overview of Roman government, outlining the various offices and they way they worked. Also discusses the legacy of the Roman constitution in later European history.
  • Scullard, Howard Hayes. A History of the Roman World: 753-146 b.c.
    5th ed. New York: Routledge, 2003. Lavishly detailed and comprehensive in scope, this book sets a discussion of Roman politics against the background of early economic, military, and social history.

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Scipio Africanus. Cursus honorum