Institution of the Plebeian Tribunate Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The institution of the plebeian tribunate by the Roman senate recognized the rights of the lower orders of Roman society.

Summary of Event

Because of the lack of contemporary sources and because evidence was at times deliberately suppressed and falsified for purposes of family aggrandizement or moral and artistic edification, much early Roman history lies shrouded in obscurity and myth. Despite conflicting details, however, there seems to be a core of fact relating to the institution of the plebeian tribunate as described by the historians Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Livy. A secession of the plebs, prompted by their abuse at the hands of the patricians, was followed by the election of officers to represent plebeians and defend their rights. Ultimately, an oath was sworn by the plebeians to regard as inviolable the persons of their new tribunes. Conflicting accounts exist about the place of secession, whether on the Aventine hill or the Sacred Mount; about the number of tribunes elected, whether two, four, or five; about the manner of their election; and about the oath taken making them sacrosanct. Manius Valerius Sicinius

According to Livy, trouble broke out during the consulship of Appius Claudius Sabinus Inregillensis and Publius Servilius in 495 b.c.e. The plebeians complained that while they were fighting in the army to preserve Roman independence, they were being enslaved at home by patrician creditors. They were particularly exasperated by the pitiful sight of a former soldier who, having lost his home and his crops to the enemy, had to borrow money in order to pay his taxes. To induce plebeians to take up arms against a Volscian army, Servilius was forced to order that no Roman citizen should be held in chains or in prison to prevent him from enlisting, that no one should seize or sell a soldier’s property while he was in service, and that no one should harass his children or grandchildren.

Continued pressure on debtors, however, caused the plebs to become violent. They began to assemble at night on the Aventine and Esquiline, and they refused to fight against the invading Sabines. An edict by the dictator Manius Valerius giving greater protection to plebeians from their creditors made it possible to muster an army. In the absence of permanent adjustments, however, the plebs took the advice of a certain Sicinius and withdrew to the Sacred Mount 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the city across the Anio River. This secession caused panic in the city among the patricians, who were afraid of hostile foreign invaders and those plebeians who remained behind. According to Livy, the senate compromised with a constitutional innovation.

This new agreement, a milestone in the struggle between the orders, created an exclusive plebeian office to protect “the people” from the aristocratic consuls. The “tribunes of the people” at first had only a negative function because they could do no more than “forbid” an overt act inimical to a plebeian at the instant of its perpetration. Moreover, aid had to be initiated by a complaining plebeian, so a tribune could not absent himself from the city for a whole night or shut his doors at any time. The person of the tribune was declared sacrosanct by a lex sacrata; anyone who interfered with a tribune doing his duty became an outlaw, liable to be killed by plebeians.

At first, there were two tribunes—or possibly four or five, according to some sources. That number, however, eventually grew to ten. This strange negative office, creating a set of parallel officials working at cross-purposes with the old magistrates of the state, was intended partly to satisfy plebeian unrest and partly to keep plebeians from becoming regular magistrates, thus usurping the prerogative of the nobility. In 471 b.c.e., a law transferred the election of tribunes from the assembly of the curiae to the comitia tributa, an event and date that Eduard Meyer and some other scholars have associated with the actual creation of the plebeian tribunate itself.

Significance

Eventually, the veto of a plebeian tribune permitted him to negate the passage of any legislation prejudicial to plebeian concerns. Thus, it was only natural that tribunes began to sit in the senate to make known their objections to laws before they were actually passed, or to suggest legislation and even to call together the senate. The tribunes were also able to veto acts of the consuls and other magistrates, with the exception of dictators. In 287 b.c.e., plebiscites of their comitia tributa were given the same force as laws passed by the senate or the comitia centuriata.

Because of its invaluable power of veto, the office of plebeian tribune came to be sought avidly. Even patricians had themselves adopted by plebeians to become eligible. It is ironic that this weak, makeshift office became so powerful that the emperor Augustus used the authority of the plebeian tribunate to rule Rome in preference to consular imperium because of the unique right of the former to initiate or veto legislation.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ferenczy, Endre. From the Patrician State to the Patricio-Plebeian State. Translated by G. Dedinsky. Amsterdam: A. M. Hakkert, 1976. An excellent survey of the major reforms in the Roman government expanding the legal rights of non-nobles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lintott, A. W. The Roman Republic. Stroud, Glouestershire: Sutton, 2000. This volume in the Sutton Pocket Histories series provides a concise overview of the history of the Roman Republic, including its politics and government. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitchell, Richard E. Patricians and Plebeians: The Origin of the Roman State. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. An examination of the relationship between patricians and plebeians in the early Roman Republic. Bibiliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Münzer, Friedrich. Roman Aristocratic Parties and Families. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. This work on the aristocracy in Rome sheds light on the class structure in Republican Rome. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sandberg, Kaj. Magistrates and Assemblies: A Study of Legislative Practice in Republican Rome. Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 2001. An examination of the legislative process under the Roman Republic. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stewart, Roberta. Public Office in Early Rome. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. Stewart looks at public officials in Rome, specifically examining the roles of patricians and plebeians in the fourth century b.c.e. Bibliography and index.

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