Cursus honourum, literally “path of honour”, was a well-established ladder of political career in the Roman Republic. In Rome, it gradually became a custom that soldiers held successive offices. It was the beginning of the concept of a “political career”. In practice, the political career involved men from senatorial families. The idea of creating a strictly defined political career was intended for young men to gain experience in less important positions before taking up more important ones.
The norms and criteria determining the path of such a career changed depending on the era. Patterns passed on by tradition, such as the plebiscite of 342 BCE, forbade holding several ordinary positions in the same year, but allowed the possibility of holding one ordinary office and one extraordinary office. Moreover, this plebiscite forbade the same person from repeating the same function if there had not been a ten-year break in its performance. However, there have been many exceptions when these bans have been lifted, so one can have doubts as to the full binding force of this law. It had to refer only to repeating higher functions.
The Act of 265 BCE prohibited the repetition of the censor’s office, and was taken in 151 BCE the analogous one applied to the consulate. Custom established a hierarchical order of positions, but it was not precise. The act, thanks to Lucius Villius – lex Villia, from 180 BCE specified the minimum age required to hold particular functions, establishing two-year gaps between one and the other. Quaestor’s position could be accepted by a citizen who has reached 30 years of age. There is a limit of 36 for applicants to the aedile office or people’s tribunate (optional). The next step was the position of praetor at least 39 years old.
According to the content of the newly adopted law, cursus honourum began with a bursary: to be eligible for it, you had to have at least ten years of military service behind you and be at least 30 years old. Then the path of promotion was associated with the aedile’s senatorial office (36 years old), praetorship (39 years old) and after three years the praetor could apply for the consulate, the highest office.
People’s offices began with the praetor. To lay claim to censorship or dictatorship, you had to be a consulate clerk before. Sulla’s Act of 82 BCE regulated in more detail the cursus honourum, which was established in 180 BCE. She confirmed the ban from 151 BCE. re-assuming the office of consul, subject to one time and according to the old rule, already adopted by the plebiscite in 342 BCE, that re-assuming the office may take place after a twenty-year break.
Under Augustus, the cursus honourum of the remaining republican offices was even more carefully regulated. It was agreed that a quaestor’s position should be held first, with a minimum age of 25 still required. After leaving office in lower civilian or military offices, such as an office of 20 members (virgintivirato) or a military tribunate, it was possible to take up the office of people’s tribune or the office of aedile after a two-year break (this rank was not required for people belonging to the patrician class), and finally not earlier than at the age of 30 – the office of consul.
It was very difficult to go through the entire ladder of positions, and only the most eminent people could do it. The very assumption of the office of consul was a great achievement.