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Tribune of the plebs in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Famous siblings: Tiberius (on the right) and Gaius Gracchus
Famous siblings: Tiberius (on the right) and Gaius Gracchus

The office of the tribune of the plebs in ancient Rome was formed at the beginning of the republic, probably at the beginning of the 5th century BCE. In 494 BCE in the face of the rebellion of the plebeians, the aristocracy made some concessions. The compromise of 494 BCE resulted in the establishment of the office of the people’s tribune.

Initially, two tribunes of the plebs were elected, and from around 457 BCE their number increased to ten. Officials were elected by plebeian commissions for a one-year term without being eligible for re-election. Throughout the duration of the republic, this position was reserved for people of plebeian origin. The tribune of the plebs was obliged to stay in Rome all year round and to receive petitioners at his home. This office was held honourably, without remuneration or an official place of office.

The task of the person who held this office each time was to represent the interests of the plebeians. The rights and privileges possessed by the people’s tribune made him an exceptionally attractive position for every figure striving to gain power in the era of the republic. The people’s tribune had the right of legislative initiative before plebeian assemblies, as well as the right to veto statutes in public matters. Interestingly, the right of veto was limited initially and was extended further. For example, in 133 BCE Octavius ​​vetoed most of the laws authored by the tribune of Tiberius Gracchus.

The person holding this office enjoyed personal inviolability, and an attack on the person of the tribune was punishable by death. For this reason, during the principate period, Roman emperors also assumed the function of people’s tribunes. The procedure for vetoing the bill itself was also extremely interesting. The people’s tribune symbolically recalled his inviolability and announced that he would stop senators from adopting the new law. Violating his integrity was a serious crime, so in fact, it was tantamount to vetoing. After vetoing the Senate’s resolution, which had the force of a binding resolution, it changed the qualification into an opinion-giving resolution.

Author: Piotr Baran (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Beard Mary, SPQR. Historia starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2018

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