1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tribune

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23894211911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 27 — TribuneJames Smith Reid

TRIBUNE (Lat. tribunus, connected with tribus, tribe), a name assigned to officers of several different descriptions in the constitution of ancient Rome. The original tribunes were no doubt the commanders of the several contingents of cavalry and infantry which were supplied to the Roman army by the early gentilician tribes—the Tities, the Ramnes and the Luceres. In the historical period the infantry in each legion were commanded by six tribunes, and the number six is probably to be traced to the doubling of the three tribes by the incorporation of the new elements which received the names of Tities secundi, Ramnes secundi, Luceres secundi. The tribuni celerum or commanders of the horsemen no longer existed in the later times of the republic, having died out with the decay of the genuine Roman cavalry.[1] So long as the monarchy lasted these tribunes were doubtless nominated by the commander-in-chief, the king; and the nomination passed over on the establishment of the republic to his successors, the consuls. But, as the army increased, the popular assembly insisted on having a voice in the appointments, and from 362 B.C. six tribunes were annually nominated by popular vote, while in 311 the number was raised to sixteen, and in 207 to twenty-four, at which figure it remained. The tribunes thus elected sufficed for four legions and ranked as magistrates of the Roman people, and were designated tribuni militum a populo, while those who owed their office to the consuls bore the curious title of tribuni rufuli. The name was traced to a commander Rutilius Rufus (Liv. 7, 5; and Fest. Ep. 260), but was more probably derived from the dress (Mommsen, Staatsrecht, 1, 434). The rights of the assembly passed on to the emperors, and “the military tribunes of Augustus” were still contrasted with those nominated in the camp by the actual commanders. The obscure designation tribunus aerarius (tribune of the treasury) had also, in all probability, a connexion with the early organization of the army. The officer thus designated may have been the levier of the tributum, the original property tax, and was at any rate the paymaster of the troops. The soldier who was defrauded of his pay was allowed to exact it from this tribune by a very summary process. There was still another and important class of tribunes who owed their existence to the army. In the long struggle between the patrician and plebeian sections of the population, the first distinctions in the public service to which the plebeians forced their way were military, and the contest for admission to the consulate was, in large part, a contest for admission to the supreme command of the national forces. In 445 B.C., the year in which mixed marriages of patricians and plebeians were for the first time permitted, power was given to the senate (then wholly patrician) of determining from year to year whether consuls or military tribunes with consular authority (tribuni militares consulari potestate or imperio) should be appointed. But, even when the senate decided in favour of electing tribunes, no election was valid without the express sanction of the senate superadded to the vote of the centuriate assembly. If it happened to be too invidious for the senate openly to cancel the election, it was possible for the patricians to obtain a decision from the sacred authorities to the effect that some religious practice had not been duly observed, and that in consequence the appointment was invalid. According to tradition, recourse was had to this device at the first election, a plebeian having been successful. Forty-five years elapsed after the creation of the office before any plebeian was permitted to fill it, and it was held by very few down to the time at which it was abolished (367 B.C.) and the plebeians were fully admitted to the consulate. The number of consular tribunes elected on each occasion varied from three to six; there was no year without a patrician, and to the patrician members were probably confined the most highly esteemed duties, those relating to the administration of the law and to religion.

But by far the most important tribunes who ever existed in the Roman community were the tribunes of the commons (tribuni plebis). These were the most characteristic outcome of the long struggle between the two orders, the patrician and the plebeian. When in 494 B.C. the plebeian legionaries met on the Sacred Mount and bound themselves to stand by each other to the end, it was determined that the plebeians should by themselves annually appoint executive officers to stand over against the patrician officers—two tribunes (the very name commemorated the military nature of the revolt) to confront the two consuls, and two helpers called aediles to balance the two patrician helpers, the quaestors. The ancient traditions concerning the revolution are extremely confused and contradictory, and have caused endless discussions. The commonest story is that the masses assembled on the Sacred Mount bound themselves by a solemn oath to regard the persons of their tribunes and aediles as inviolable, and to treat as forfeited to Diana and Ceres, the plebeian divinities, the lives and property of those who offered them insult. That this purely plebeian oath was the real ultimate basis of the sanctity which attached to the tribunate during the whole time of its existence can hardly be believed. The revolution must have ended in something which was deemed by both the contending bodies to be a binding compact, although the lapse of time has blotted out its terms. The historian Dionysius may have been only technically wrong in supposing that peace was concluded between the two parties by the fetial priests, with the forms adopted by Rome in making treaties with a foreign state. If this were fact, the “sacrosanctity” of the tribunes would be adequately explained, because all such formal foedera were “sacrosanct.” But, notwithstanding that the plebeians may safely be assumed to have been conscious of having to a large extent sprung from another race than the patricians and their retainers, it is not likely that the feeling was sufficiently strong to permit of the compact taking the form of a treaty between alien powers. Yet there must have been a formal acceptance by the patricians of the plebeian conditions; and most probably the oath which was first sworn by the insurgents was afterwards taken by the whole community, and the “sacrosanctity” of the plebeian officials became a part of the constitution. There must also have been some constitutional definition of the powers of the tribunes. These rested at first on an extension of the power of veto which the republic had introduced. Just as one consul could invalidate an order of his colleague, so a tribune could invalidate an order of a consul, or of any officer inferior to him. There was no doubt a vague understanding that only orders which sinned against the just and established practice of the constitution should be annulled, and then only in cases affecting definite individuals. This was technically called auxilium. The cases which arose most commonly concerned the administration of justice and the levying of troops.

Although the revolution of 494 gave the tribunes a foothold in the constitution, it left them with no very definite resources against breaches of compact by the patricians. The traditional history of the tribunate from 494 to 451 B.C. is obscure, and, so far as details are concerned, nearly worthless; but there is a thread running through it which may well be truth. We hear of attacks by patricians on the newly won privileges, even of the assassination of a tribune, and of attempts on the part of the plebeians to bring patrician offenders to justice. The assembled plebeians attempt to set up a criminal jurisdiction for their own assembly parallel to that practised by the older centuriate assembly, in which the nobles possess a preponderating influence. Nay, more, the plebs attempts something like legislation; it passes resolutions which it hopes to force the patrician body to accept as valid. As to details, only a few are worth notice. In the first place, the number of tribunes is raised to ten, how we do not know; but apparently some constitutional recognition of the increase is obtained. Then an alteration is made in the mode of election. As to the original mode, the ancient authorities are hopelessly at variance. Some of them gravely assert that the appointment lay with the assembly of the curiae—the most ancient and certainly the most patrician in Rome, even if we allow the view, which, in spite of great names, is more than doubtful, that the plebeians were members of it at any time when it still possessed political importance. The opinion of Mommsen about the method of election is more plausible than the others. It was in accordance with the Roman spirit of order that the tribunes, in summoning their assemblies, should not ask the plebeians to come en masse as individuals, and vote by heads, but should organize their supporters in bands. The curia was certainly a territorial district, and the tribunes may have originally used it as the basis of their organization. If tribunes were elected by plebeians massed curiatim, such a meeting would easily be mistaken in later times for the comitia curiata. At any rate, a change was introduced in 471 by the Publilian Law of Volero, which directed that the tribunes should be chosen in an assembly organized on the basis of the Servian or local tribe, instead of the curia. This assembly was the germ of the comitia tributa. The question by what authority the Law of Volero was sanctioned is difficult to answer. Possibly the law was a mere resolution of the plebeians with which the patricians did not interfere, because they did not consider that the mode of election was any concern of theirs. In the first period of the tribunate the tribunes almost certainly agitated to obtain for their supporters a share in the benefits of the state domain. And, whatever view may be taken of the movement which led to the decemvirate, an important element in it was of a certainty the agitation carried on by the tribunes for the reduction of the law of Rome to a written code. Until they obtained this it was impossible for them effectually to protect those who appealed against harsh treatment by the consuls in their capacity of judges.

During the decemvirate the tribunate was in abeyance. It was called into life again by the revolution of 449, which gave the tribunes a considerably stronger position. Their personal privileges and those of the aediles were renewed, while sacrosanctity was attached to a body of men called judices decemviri, who seem to have been the legal assistants of the tribunes. The road was opened up to valid legislation by the tribunes through an assembly summoned by them on the tribe-basis (concilium plebis), but in this respect they were submitted to the control of the senate. The growth of the influence of this assembly over legislation belongs rather to the history of the comitia (q.v.) than to that of the tribunate. After the Hortensian Law of 287 B.C. down to the end of the republic the legislation of Rome was mainly in the hands of the tribunes. The details of the history of the tribunate in its second period, from 449 to 367 B.C., are hardly less obscure than those which belong to the earlier time. There was, however, on the whole, undoubtedly an advance in dignity and importance. Gradually a right was acquired of watching and interfering with the proceedings of the senate, and even with legislation. Whether the absolute right of veto had been achieved before 367 may well be doubted. But the original auxilium, or right of protecting individuals, was, during this period, undergoing a very remarkable expansion. From forbidding a single act of a magistrate in relation to a single person, the tribunes advanced to forbidding by anticipation all acts of a certain class, whoever the persons affected by them might prove to be. It therefore became useless for the senate or the comitia to pass ordinances if a tribune was ready to forbid the magistrates to carry them out. Ultimately the mere announcement of such an intention by a tribune was sufficient to cause the obnoxious project to drop; that is to say, the tribunes acquired a right to stop all business alike in the deliberative assembly, the senate, and in the legislative assemblies, the comitia. The technical name for this right of veto is intercessio. To what extent the tribunes during the time from 449 to 367 took part in criminal prosecutions is matter of doubt. The XII. Tables had settled that offenders could only be punished in person by the centuries, but tradition speaks of prosecutions by tribunes before the tribes where the penalty sought was pecuniary. The two main objects of the tribunes, however, at the time of which we are speaking were the opening of the consulate to plebeians and the regulation of the state domain in the interests of the whole community. Both were attained by the Licinio-Sextian Laws of 367.

Then a considerable change came over the tribunate. From being an opposition weapon it became an important wheel in the regular machine of state. The senate became more and more plebeian, and a new body of nobility was evolved which comprised both orders in the state. The tribunes at first belonged to the same notable plebeian families which attained to the consulate. The old friction between senate and tribunes disappeared. It was found that the tribunate served to fill some gaps in the constitution, and its power was placed by common consent on a solid constitutional basis. From 367 to 134 B.C. (when Tiberius Gracchus became tribune) the tribunate was for the most part a mere organ of senatorial government. As the change made by the Gracchi was rather in the practice than in the theory of the tribunate, it will be convenient at this point to give a definite sketch of the conditions and privileges attaching to the office.

Even after the difference between patrician and plebeian birth had ceased to be of much practical consequence in other directions, the plebeian character was a necessity for the tribune. When the patricians P. Sulpicius Rufus and, later, P. Clodius (the antagonist of Cicero) desired to enter on a demagogic course, they were compelled to divest themselves of their patrician quality by a peculiar legal process. Even the patricians who became so by mere fiat of the emperors were excluded from the tribunate. The other necessary qualifications were for the most part such as attached to the other Roman magistracies—complete citizenship, absence of certain conditions regarded as disgraceful, fulfilment of military duties. The minimum age required for the office was, as in the case of the quaestorship, twenty-seven. The tribunate, however, stood outside the round of magistracies, the conditions of which were regulated by the Villian Law of 180 B.C. The election took place in a purely plebeian assembly, ranged by tribes, under the presidency of a tribune selected by lot. The tribune was bound by law to see a complete set of ten tribunes appointed. Technically, the tribunes were reckoned, not as magistrates of the Roman people, but as magistrates of the Roman plebs; they therefore had no special robe of office, no lictors, but only messengers (viatores), no official chair, like the curule seat, but only benches (subsellia). Their right to summon the plebs together, whether for the purpose of listening to a speech (in which case the meeting was a contio) or for passing ordinances (comitia tributa), was rendered absolute by the “laws under sacred sanction” (leges sacratae), which had been incorporated with the constitution on the abolition of the decemvirate. The right to summon the senate and to lay business before it was acquired soon after 367, but was seldom exercised, as the tribunes had abundant means of securing what they wanted by pressure applied to the ordinary presidents—the consuls or the praetor. When an interregnum came about and there were no “ magistrates of the Roman people,” the plebeian tribunes became the proper presidents of the senate and conductors of ordinary state business. At the end of the republic there were interregna of several months' duration, when the tribunes held a position of more than usual importance. A tenure of the tribunate did not, until a comparatively late period (probably about the time of the Second Punic War), confer a claim to a permanent seat in the senate. The candidates for the office were mainly young men of good family who were at the beginning of their political career, but the office was often filled by older men of ambition who were struggling upwards with few advantages. The plebeian aediles very soon after 367 became dissociated from the tribunes and associated with the curule aediles, so that in the political hierarchy they really ranked higher than those who were originally their superior officers.

The real kernel of the tribune's power consisted in his intercessio, or right of invalidating ordinances, whether framed by the senate or proposed by a magistrate to the comitia, or issued by a magistrate in pursuance of his office. From 367 B.C. down to the time of the Gracchi the power of veto in public matters was, on the whole, used in the interests of the aristocratic governing families to check opposition arising in their own ranks. A recalcitrant consul was most readily brought to obedience by an exercise of tribunician power. But, although modern readers of the ancient historians are apt to carry away the idea that the tribunate was an intensely political office, it is safe to say that the occasions on which tribunes found it possible to play a prominent part in politics were extremely few, even in the late republic. On the other hand, the tribunes found a field for constant activity in watching the administration of justice and in rendering assistance to those who had received harsh treatment from the magistrates. The tribunes were, in fact, primarily legal functionaries, and constituted in a way the only court of appeal in republican Rome. It was to this end that they were forbidden to pass a whole night away from the city, except during the Latin festival on the Alban Mount, and that they were expected to keep their doors open to suppliants by night as well as by day. They held court by day in the Forum close by the Porcian basilica, and frequently made elaborate legal inquiries into cases where their help was sought. Naturally this ordinary humdrum work of the tribunes has left little mark on the pages of the historians, but we hear of it not infrequently in Cicero's speeches and in other writings which deal with legal matters. According to the general principle of the constitution, magistrates could forbid the acts of magistrates equal to or inferior to themselves. For this purpose the tribunes were deemed superior to all other officers. If a tribune exercised his veto no other tribune could annul it, for the veto could not be itself vetoed, but it was possible for another tribune to protect a definite individual from the consequences of disobedience. The number of the tribunes (ten) made it always possible that one might balk the action of another, except at times when popular feeling was strongly roused. In any case it was of little use for a tribune to move in any important matter unless he had secured the co-operation or at least the neutrality of all his colleagues. The veto was not, however, absolute in all directions. In some it was limited by statute; thus the law passed by Gaius Gracchus about the consular provinces did not permit a tribune to veto the annual decree of the senate concerning them. When there was a dictator at the head of the state, the veto was of no avail against him. One of the important political functions of the tribunes was to conduct prosecutions of state offenders, particularly ex-magistrates. These prosecutions began with a sentence pronounced by the tribune upon the culprit, whereupon, exercising the right given him by the XII. Tables, the culprit appealed. If the tribune sought to inflict punishment on the culprit's person, the appeal was to the assembly of the centuries; if he wished for a large fine, the appeal was to the assembly of the tribes. As the tribune had no right to summon the centuries, he had to obtain the necessary meetings through the urban praetor. In the other event he himself called together the tribute assembly and proposed a bill for fining the culprit. But the forms of trial gone through were very similar in both cases.

It is commonly stated that a great change passed over the tribunate at the time of the Gracchi, and that from their day to the end of the republic it was used as an instrument for setting on foot political agitation and for inducing revolutionary changes. This view is an inversion of the facts. The tribunate did not create the agitation and the revolutions, but these found vent through the tribunate, which gave to the democratic leaders the hope that acknowledged evils might be cured by constitutional means, and in the desperate struggle to realize it the best democratic tribunes strained the theoretic powers of their office to their ruin. For the bad tribunes did not hesitate to use for bad ends the powers which had been strained in the attempt to secure what was good. But herein the tribunate only fared like all other parts of the republican constitution in its last period. The consuls and the senate were at least as guilty as the tribunes. After a severe restriction of its powers by Sulla and a restoration by Pompey, which gave a twenty years' respite, the essential force of the tribunate was merged into the imperial constitution, of which indeed it became the principal constituent on the civil side. The ten tribunes remained, with very restricted functions. The emperors did not become tribunes, but took up into their privileges the essence of the office, the “tribunician authority.” This distinction between the principle of the office and the actual tenure of the office was a creation of the late republic. Pompey, for example, when he went to the East, was not made proconsul of all the Eastern provinces, but he exercised in them a “proconsular authority” which was equal to that of the actual proconsuls—an authority which was the germ of the imperial authority on its military side. Similarly the emperor, as civil governor, without being tribune, exercised powers of like quality with the powers of the tribune, though of superior force. By virtue of his tribunician authority he acquired a veto on legislation, he became the supreme court of appeal for the empire, and to his person was attached the ancient sacrosanctity. Augustus showed the highest statesmanship in founding his power upon a metamorphosed tribunate rather than upon a metamorphosed dictatorship, upon traditions which were democratic rather than upon traditions which were patrician and optimate. The tribunes continued to exist till a late period, with gradually vanishing dignity and rights; but it is not necessary here to trace their decay in detail.

The name “tribune” was once again illuminated by a passing glory when assumed by Cola di Rienzi. The movement which he headed was in many respects extremely like the early movements of the plebeians against the patricians, and his scheme for uniting Italy in one free republic was strangely parallel with the greatest dream of the Gracchi.

The history of the tribunate is interwoven with that of Rome, and must, to a large extent, be sought for in the same sources. The principles attaching to the office are profoundly analysed by Mommsen in his Staatsrecht, and are clearly set forth by E. Herzog in his Geschichte u. System der römischen Staatsverfassung (Leipzig, 1884).  (J. S. R.) 

  1. In the legends of the foundation of the republic Brutus is represented as having exercised authority, when the king was banished, merely by virtue of holding the office of tribunus celerum.