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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Roman Elections

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At this point it should be clear that the Senate was the center of political life in

the Roman Republic.

And of course we know that in order to be appointed to the Senate, a person first had

to be elected to the office of Quaestor by the people.

But how were they actually elected?

And once in the Senate, how were they elected to higher offices?

That's actually a pretty complicated question.

If we're talking about elections, we have to talk about Public Assemblies.

You may have noticed that when this comes up, I tend to just drop the in phrase "Public

Assembly," and leave it at that.

That's been a bit of shorthand on my part.

There were actually a three different Public Assemblies responsible for electing politicians.

Each was summoned at different times, and had its own rules.

And most importantly for our purposes today, they each elected different politicians.

So let's jump in.

The most prestigious Public Assembly was called The Assembly of the Centuries.

Century as in the Roman military unit.

This body elected the highest ranking Roman officials.

Consuls, Praetors, and Censors.

I haven't really talked about Censors yet.

They were highly respected ex-Consuls, who were in charge of keeping the official membership

rolls for the Senate.

In practice, every newly elected Quaestor was inducted into the Senate automatically,

but it wasn't official until a Censor added him to the list.

They were also in charge of conducting an official census, which assessed the net worth

of each citizen, and divided them up into different classes.

These classes were important, because they determined how people voted in the Assembly

of the Centuries.

There were, broadly speaking, 8 different classes, which were further subdivided by

wealth and age into 193 voting blocs.

Of the 8 classes, the highest ranking one was the Patricians, who had 6 voting blocs

specifically set aside for them.

The Patricians were basically most prestigious families in Rome.

Not necessarily the richest, but the ones with a history of public service going all

the way back to the monarchy.

Most of these men would have been either senators or the sons of senators.

This was an incredibly small group, probably several hundred people, but divided up into

6 blocs, they had immense influence.

Just below them were the Equites, who were assigned 12 blocs.

Think of the Equites as the top 0.1% of Roman society.

Very, very rich.

Many were richer than the Patricians, but just hadn't been lucky enough to be born into

the right family.

The Equites were considered an aristocratic class, with special privileges, separate from

normal Roman citizens.

But membership in this class was dependent on them maintaining their wealth.

Together, the Patricians and the Equites accounted for a little over 9% of the voting blocs.

Now, we finally get to normal Roman citizens.

This group consisted of the wealthiest non-aristocrats in Rome, and is called the first class.

Think: the top 1%.

Rich, but otherwise normal people.

These class was allotted an overwhelming 80 blocs.

From here, the wealth threshold decreased predictably.

The second class, the third class, and the fourth class were each allotted 20 blocs.

The fifth class, at the bottom, was allotted 30 blocs.

And finally, below the fifth class, we have one final group, called the proletarii.

These were people with no property, and no savings.

Basically the people living hand to mouth.

These were the urban poor.

This group, which was by far the largest, was allotted just 1 giant bloc.

One additional detail: classes 1 to 5 were each internally subdivided based on wealth.

Each wealth level was further subdivided into one senior and one junior bloc.

The senior bloc was for citizens 46 years and older, while the junior bloc was for adults

45 and younger.

And now, finally, we get to voting.

Each sitting consul had the power to call for a meeting of the Assembly of the Centuries,

and would then set the agenda for that meeting.

This agenda was almost always simply an election, but it's worth noting that this was also the

body that officially ratified the Senate's request to declare war.

But this wasn't war day, this was election day!

On election day everybody interested in voting gathered on the Field of Mars, just outside

Rome's city limits.

As people arrived, they divided themselves into their blocs.

Each bloc was marked apart from the others by wooden fences, or pens that had been set

up in advance.

To begin voting, one of the junior blocs from the first class was chosen at random, and

given the honour of the first vote.

Why one of the junior blocs?

Just to make things more complicated.

Each bloc voted internally, and when a winner was decided, the bloc cast their one vote

before the entire assembly.

It didn't matter how many people were in that bloc, or how strongly that bloc supported

a particular candidate.

Each bloc's vote was weighted the same.

But things get just a little bit more complicated.

All elections of the same type were conducted simultaneously, meaning that if, for example,

two consuls needed to be elected, each bloc had to give up two names.

They couldn't vote for the same candidate twice, they basically had rank their top two


After the results from the first bloc were announced to the entire assembly, the other

39 junior blocs in the first class voted simultaneously.

These results were tabulated, and announced.

After this, the Patricians, the Equites, and the senior blocs in the first class all voted.

For this reason the Patricians and the Equites are sometimes considered part of the first

class, but I decided to separate them for the sake of clarity because Jesus Christ it's

complicated enough.

After these blocs were all done voting, there was another pause while these results were

tabulated and announced.

At this point, 98 of 193 votes had been cast, which is like 51%.

If there was a consensus and all candidates received an absolute majority of the votes,

the winners were announced and voting immediately stopped.

But if not, voting continued progressing down the classes until one candidate received an

absolute majority.

When that happened, it was announced, and the victor and taken out of consideration.

If all classes voted and there was still one or more candidates without a 50% majority,

voting continued the next day, and then the next day, until there was a winner.

That's kinda confusing, so let me try to simplify it.

The question wasn't "how many votes does a candidate get."

The question was "which candidate can get to 50% before the others."

The moment a person got to 50%, they were done.

The game being played here seems clear.

The elites voted first, so if they could all get behind the same candidates, they never

even had to consult the poor.

When the elites were split, that's when the poor got to have their say.

The proletarii had it really bad.

They only time they mattered was in the case of a tie.

But that was only one kind of Public Assembly.

There were two others.

The Tribal Assembly was significantly different from the Assembly of the Centuries.

This body was responsible for filling some of the lower-ranked offices, like military

tribunes, quaestors, and curule aediles.

Just a reminder: military tribunes were the young aristocrats that were elected and assigned

to command positions in Roman legions.

Quaestors were the people that, upon their election, were appointed to the Senate.

Aediles were in charge of administrative things, like public games, and the upkeep on temples,

and keeping the streets clean.

Now the Tribal Assembly only elected half of these, called Curule Aediles.

There were two kinds, but their jobs were virtually the same.

The only difference was that the Curule Aedile could be either a Patricians or a Plebeians,

whereas the other kind, which we'll get to later, could only be a Plebeian.

The Tribal Assembly did also have one high profile job to fill.

They elected the Pontifex Maximus, which was the head religious official in Rome, and was

a lifetime appointment.

Pontifex Maximus aside, these offices were all lower in status, and the method of voting

reflected this.

Just like before, the Tribal Assembly was usually summoned by and had its agenda set

by consuls.

Praetors could do this too, but in practice it was usually consuls.

Voting happened like this.

All Roman citizens were organized into 35 tribes.

These tribes were not based on ethnic divisions but rather on where the person lived.

They were geographic.


Four tribes were set aside for the city of Rome, and the other 31 were spread out over

the rest of Roman territory.

We don't know how exactly they were spread out, but we do know that most of them were

concentrated in Italy.

That all seems pretty straightforward, but here's the curve-ball.

Tribal membership was hereditary, meaning that if a family moved, they took their tribal

affiliation with them.

After generations of internal migration, you can understand how this became a complete


Censors did their best to clean things up by manually changing people's tribal affiliation,

but it was an impossible task.

When the Tribal Assembly was called, the tribes separated into their 35 pens.

Each tribe, or bloc, got one vote.

And by one vote I mean they each gave their list of their top candidates, just like before.

One bloc was chosen at random to start things off, and voting continued randomly until a

candidate or candidates reached an absolute majority of 18.

When that happened, voting immediately stopped.

Unlike the Assembly of the Centuries, there was no overt bias in the Tribal Assembly toward

the rich.

It was still a race to 50%, but voting was randomized, so each tribe had an equal chance

of getting its voice heard.

But it certainly wasn't fair.

Citizens living in Rome found it easy to set aside a day to vote in the Tribal Assembly,

so the four blocs representing the city tended to be very large, and very poor.

But the further you got from Rome, the fewer people were able to make the trip.

This made these blocs smaller, but of equal electoral weight.

Those who did make the trip from the Italian countryside and beyond tended to be older,

richer, and more powerful, on average.

As a whole, this meant that the Tribal Assembly tended to favour the interests of rich Italian

landowners, at the expense of the urban poor.

Sometimes the Tribal Assembly was called to vote on something less important than an election.

When this happened, 18 of the 35 tribes were selected at random and told to meet in the

forum, in the center of Rome.

Here, this limited group voted in a similar manner.

We get the impression that these meetings were very poorly attended, because a rule

had to be made that a bloc had to have at least 5 people in it in order to vote.

That's pretty bad.

This assembly couldn't declare war like the Assembly of the Centuries could, but it did

have a few other jobs.

It was possible for an important trial to be decided by the Tribal Assembly, but this

became less common over time.

They also technically had the power to rubber-stamp legislation passed by the senate, but that

was almost always done by another group.

In the video about the year 57 B.C.E., the one where Cicero's banishment was overturned,

I cut out a big chunk related to this because it derailed the story, but I might as well

bring it up here.

The first bill overturning Cicero's banishment had been passed by the senate.

But Clodius had successfully stopped its ratification when he and his armed supporters marched on

the crowd.

What I didn't mention was that Pompey made sure that the next time the bill came up for

ratification, it went before the Tribal Assembly instead.

As I said before, the Tribal Assembly tilted in favour of rich Italian landowners, who

happened to be big fans of Cicero.

So when Pompey toured the Italian countryside whipping up support, what he was actually

doing was meeting with Cicero's supporters and convincing them make the trip to Rome

to attend the Tribal Assembly.

The plan worked, because when the bill came up, every bloc that voted in the Tribal Assembly

voted in favour of the bill.

But this was an unusual event, and normally the senate's legislation went before the third

kind of public assembly, which we get to now.


The Plebeian Assembly (or The Council of the Plebs)

The Plebeian Assembly, also known as the Council of the Plebs.

You can probably guess from the name what it means.

Only Plebeians were allowed to vote in this body.

No Patricians allowed.

The Plebeian Assembly was summoned by and was presided over by a Tribune of the Plebs.

On election day this body elected Plebeian Aediles, which we talked about before, and

Tribunes of the Plebs.

Unlike the other two assemblies, this one didn't have complicated rules governing it.

This was a straight up or down vote.

This is the closest to democracy that Rome got.

The Plebeian Assembly the only body where the urban poor could dominate.

This is why we have a long line of Tribunes of the Plebs, even Conservative ones, that

got elected by promising either subsidized or free food.

The Plebeian Assembly had another equally important job.

This was the body that almost always gave its rubber-stamp approval to Senate legislation.

The only rule was that there were no amendments and no debate.

Just a simple yes or no vote.

The moment any bill passed the Plebeian Assembly, it became law.

By the late Republic, alongside an increase in political violence and gridlock in the

senate, we start to see this body elect a series of extreme Tribunes of the Plebs.

It's hard to single out specific things like this, but I can't help but think that if the

poor hadn't felt muzzled in the Assembly of the Centuries and the Tribal Assembly, they

wouldn't have felt it necessary to stack the one office they had control over with dangerous


But we'll never know for sure.

The Description of Roman Elections