Elections at the end of the Roman Republic: how did they work?

A public res, the Roman philosopher Cicero claims, is a legitimate form of republic if, and only if, the people are the sovereign power, and they entrust their sovereignty in the capable hands of the elite.

At the start of the constitutional debate in to re publica [a dialogue on Roman politics by Cicero, written in six books between 54 and 51 BC], Cicero actually said: “public res, then, is the property of a people (res populi). A people, moreover, is not just any collection of humans assembled in any way; it is a gathering of people in large numbers associated in a partnership with each other by a common agreement of law (iuris agreed) and profit sharing (communion utilitatis). “

The construction of the definition of a public res like res populi in terms of the metaphor of property allows Cicero to assert that in any legitimate form of government the populus should own his res. To do this in a meaningful way, it is necessary that the people have the right to manage and administer it. This, in turn, equates to the possession of freedom and the ability to exercise it.

Tracing the evolution of the Roman constitution as the historical embodiment of the best form of government, Cicero showed how Rome came to acquire that matrix of civic and political rights essential to establishing the status of citizens’ liberty.

Of these rights, the most important was the right to vote. This gave the people a certain degree of political participation, thus ensuring that they were the de facto owners of their own property, which they can administer as they see fit. In this form of government, the powers of this sovereignty were vested in an elected aristocracy, which would run the affairs of the people with the common benefit in mind, and according to a common sense of justice. At least that was the theory …


In practice, in the 1st century BC – the best documented republican period – the people exercised their right to vote mainly in two assemblies: comitia centuriata and the comitia tributa.

the comitia centuriata, which was responsible for electing superior Roman magistrates, and seldom at that time passed legislation or acted as a tribunal with jury, was an assembly that originally reflected the military structure of the Roman army. The Romans did not know the one-vote citizen system, but instead embraced the idea of ​​voting units – in the case of this assembly, the military centuria, within which the Roman people were distributed.

The majority of votes within a unit counted as the result of that unit, and in turn the majority of units were the final result of the vote. People were divided into classes by the census, traditionally on the basis of their financial capacity to arm themselves. Each census class was assigned a designated number of centuries – the higher the census class, the greater the number of centuries this class took place.

In the vast majority of cases, the rest of the Roman people were not even consulted, and the last census class, the capite cens – to whom only one centuria has been assigned – have very rarely been involved in a decision of this assembly. There have been some attempts to remedy the timocratic bias of this assembly. [a state where only property owners may participate in government], but the Romans largely justified the system which was at the center of their political organization.

They claimed that he embodied the principle that “the greater number should not have the greater power” (Cicero to re publica, 2.39), and they praised this organization for ensuring that “the majority of votes were in the hands of those for whom the greatest welfare of the republic was most important”.

However, what all the Roman writers also pointed out as an important characteristic of this political organization is that “no one was deprived of the vote” – no one, that is to say except women, foreigners. and slaves. In theory and in practice, it was essential for the Romans that no adult male citizen be deprived of his right to vote – that would have been tyrannical.

The real advantage of this system was the guarantee that those who had the most stake in the republic were also in a position of political dominance. It also meant that everyone had the right to vote, meaning that everyone also had the most basic political right, which allowed them to play a role in the management and administration of property. of the people: the republic.

the Tributa of comitia

The main legislative assembly at the end of the Republic was the Tributa of comitia, who was also in charge of the elections of the Roman magistrates. This assembly was organized around the voting unit of the tribe – a territorial unit to which each Roman citizen belonged by birth or legal act. The number of tribes gradually increased throughout the Republic with the Roman conquest, but in 231 BC the Romans decided not to increase their number further, which became fixed at 35, comprising four urban tribes and 31 rustic tribes.

The voting principle, although not based on fortune, was identical to that applied in the case of comitia centuriata. The majority of the votes of a tribe constituted the vote of that tribe, and the majority of the tribes then determined the final result. As in the case of the centuriata comitia, it is clear that this assembly did not guarantee equal participation for all citizens, as it was based on an obvious bias in favor of the rustic tribes. The registered citizens of the four urban tribes probably had no chance of winning.

Citizens were politically informed in the contiones, non-decisional assemblies where political debates took place in front of the community. This random gathering of people, not subdivided into voting units, included not only adult male citizens, but also women, strangers, and slaves – essentially anyone who was nearby and could afford the leisure of listening.

Supporters of a proposal addressed the crowd and often allowed their opponents to counter-argue their position. Although in theory anyone can stand on the rostrum and speak (if the magistrate in charge gives permission), in practice only members of the elite are recorded as having addressed the people.

Obstacles to voting

However, besides the limits imposed by the structure of these assemblies, there were a number of practical obstacles which could have hampered the effective exercise of the citizens’ right to vote.

First of all, assemblies take place in Rome, either at Campus Martius or at the Forum, which can hardly contain all of the people authorized to exercise their right to vote. At the end of the first century BC, the Roman census recorded some four million citizens (although the precise demographic significance of this figure is much debated). Roman citizens could be found all over the Mediterranean, but the heart of Roman territory remained the Italian peninsula, south of the Po River (BC 49 BC) to the Strait of Messina.

Few citizens could have afforded the trip to Rome, and even those who lived nearby might not have been able to take the time to spend at least a day in Rome to exercise their political right, for which, unlike according to Greek custom, there was no economic compensation. In his vitriolic critique of the Roman politician Publius Clodius Pulche and the tribune of the plebs responsible for his exile in 58 BC. comitia tributa that people had to be recruited from other tribes to ensure that each tribe fulfilled its voting function.

The secret ballot

Assemblies could only be called by a Roman magistrate, and in legislative assemblies they could only approve or reject the proposed proposal without being able to propose amendments. But from the second century BC. This was gradually adopted for all spheres of popular political activity: electoral, legislative and judicial.

Even a century after its introduction, the existence of the written secret ballot has been hailed as the bastion of people’s freedom. But conservative members of the elite have expressed concern. According to them, the secret ballot offered the people a hiding place that allowed them to vote as they wished, out of the control of the elite. However, the measure was so ingrained in the political consciousness of the people that it could not be abolished.

Cicero offered a rather confusing alternative: the people must keep their written vote as a guarantee of their freedom, but, before pronouncing it, they must show it to the most eminent citizens “so that the citizens can enjoy freedom also in this even the privilege of honorably winning the favors of the aristocracy ”.

It therefore seems that there is a considerable gap between Roman political thought – which conceived the libera res publica as the property of the people, who have entrusted their sovereign power to the elected aristocracy – and the effective gathering of people who have exercised their right to vote in practice.

Many scholars claim that the voting process at the end of the Roman Republic was ultimately a public ritual in which only a minority of people participated and whose function was exclusively to strengthen the ideological centrality of people’s power at a symbolic level. . But if this is true, how do you explain the advice Cicero’s brother Quintus allegedly gave him on how to win a consular election?

He said: “And yet, you must not take political action in the Senate and in public meeting while you are a candidate: you must hold such things in abeyance, so that, according to your conduct of a whole life, the Senate can judge that you are likely to be a supporter of their authority; the Roman knights, as well as the loyalists and the wealthy, judge you by your past hungry for times of peace and quiet; and people think that you are not likely to be hostile to their interests because in the way you speak in public meetings and in your stated beliefs, you have been on the popular side ”.

This advice was most likely given in the year 64 BC, but it seems today that little has changed.

Dr Valentina Arena is a lecturer at University College London specializing in Roman history, with a particular emphasis on the study of politics and political concepts. She is the author of Libertas and the practice of politics at the end of the Roman Republic (Cambridge University Press, January 2013).

This article first appeared on History Extra in May 2015

David C. Barham