Censor was an official in the Roman Republic. The name of this office comes from the word “judge” (censeo). The censor was one of the most important officials in the country, who was responsible for drawing up the census, caring for the morality of citizens and overseeing the state’s finances.
The first census was carried out during the reign of Servius Tullius – the sixth king of Rome. After the overthrow of the monarchy, this function was rewritten to consuls.
In 443 BCE, no consuls were elected and instead tribunes with consular authority were appointed. It was a movement of plebeians who wanted to gain more influence in the magistrate. In order to prevent plebeians from compiling a census, the patricians took this right from the consuls and tribunes, and then created a new office – the censor – reserved only for patricians. Two censors (according to the number of consuls) were always elected for a 5-year term. The decision on the selection of officials was made at the meetings of the centurial committees (comitia centuriata). This position was a one-off and re-election was prohibited. Despite such a long time in office, it took them no more than 18 months to complete all their tasks. Their headquarters was the Villa Publica on the Field of Mars, commissioned by a pair of censors Gaius Furius Pacilus and Marcus Geganius Macerinus. In the event of the death of one of the censors, his role was taken over by a colleague. This happened only once in history – in 393 BCE one of the censors died. The second official, however, did not take over his function and resigned. Two new magistrates were elected immediately.
The victory of the plebeians over the patricians allowed them to gain the right to apply for the position of censor in 351 BCE. The first censor from the commoners was Gaius Marcius Rutilus. Then, in 339 BCE, at the request of Quintus Polybius Philo, the lex Publilia Philonis de censore credendo was passed, where it was decided that at least one of the censors should be plebeian. Despite taking office, no plebeian censor carried out lustrum – that is, did not make an atoning sacrifice to the gods (often in the form of animal sacrifice, the so-called suovetaurilia) in the Fields of Mars – until 280 BCE In 131 BCE, for the first time, the office of censor was held by two plebeians.
Recognizing the great importance of this office, it was decided to make it difficult to hold the position. For this purpose, it was agreed that a censor could be a person who had undergone all cursus honourum (path of honours) and was a consul. Censors belonged to the so-called curule magisturas (magistratus curules), which means that they had the right to use a curial chair (sella curulis) in theatres and other public places while performing their functions.
The censors were the only magistrate who did not have an empire, which prevented them from having liqueurs carrying a bunch of horns (fasces). In turn, they were the only ones to be buried in a purple toga (toga praetexta), which was a sign of royal power.
In the initial period of the censor’s office, the tasks were limited to preparing the censorship. Gradually, however, their role grew.
Censors’ duties can be divided into three groups:
- The oldest and most important duty of the censors was to compile an inventory of Roman citizens and their property (agere censum) and assign them to the proper tribus and centuria. The list was drawn up on the basis of declarations made by authorized citizens.
Other responsibilities included establishing a list of 18th driving centuries and senators (lectio senatus) for the next term of office. They approved the Princeps Senatus who had to be the censor. Moreover, they established a list of equities (Ordo Equester). This was the first responsibility of the censors.
- The second scope of censors’ duties was cura morum, that is watching over the morality of citizens. In the event of the bad behaviour of a given citizen, a censorship note (nota censoria) was attached to his name, which transferred the citizen from the rural tribus to one of the four city tribus. This allowed to detract from the dignity of a citizen who passed into a region destined for, inter alia, liberators. Another penalty was, for example, the removal of a citizen of the horsemen (equum adimere) and striking off the list senators (senate movere). Censors could even strip him of his political rights, then the censors were called aerari. The verdict was final and there was no chance of an appeal. Even the people’s tribune veto was unsuccessful. In this regard, the only inconvenience for the censors was that the decision on the punishment had to be approved by a comrade. As you can see, there was a lot of power in the hands of the censors.
- The third function was controlling state spending for public purposes, determining the cost of waging wars and expanding the army.
Conducting a census
Information about the census process is based on a fragment of Tabulae Censoriae, preserved thanks to Varro. The census was performed after auspices. The inhabitants were summoned in the Field of Mars by the city caller. The citizens of each tribus (residential district) were convened separately according to a pre-prepared list of people’s tribunes. Each paterfamilias had to personally appear in front of the censors who sat on curule chairs.
The censorship was carried out at the discretion of the censors – the so-called ad arbitrium censoris. Naturally, however, they had to follow certain rules, called leges censui censendo. According to these laws, each citizen had to present his / her origin, family and property under oath. He was the first to mention his full first name (praenomen, nomen and cognomen) and his father; if he was a liberator (libertus), he would give the name of his patron (patronus) and age. In addition to the name, age was also given. Then the citizen determined whether he was married and how many children he had. In this case, he also gave names and age.
Single women and orphans were represented by their guardians. Their names were listed on separate lists and were not included in the entire census.
After the citizen was “identified”, the property was then determined. At the beginning of the census, only general inspection of the citizen’s property was practised; over time, however, it was required that each Roman should present his achievements in detail. Particular attention was paid to the number of slaves and cattle.
Censors had the right to collect items or property, if the citizen did not take into account, for example, jewellery, clothes, carts.
A person who deliberately avoided censorship was subject to severe penalties. King Servius Tullius sentenced the guilty to prison and death for this type of behaviour. In the days of the republic, a Roman could have been sold into slavery; at the end of the republic, it was possible to represent the citizen.
It is not entirely clear what the case with the legionaries’ census was. During the war, according to Livius, the censors sent special representatives to census the provinces on their behalf.
After creating a complete list of names and property of citizens, censors divided them into lists of tribus, classes and centuria. According to the law of Servius Tullius (Comitia Centuriata), the position of each citizen was determined on the basis of his property.
During the empire, the ruler sent his representatives (censitores) to the provinces (provinciae) for the purposes of censorship. They were accompanied by the so-called censuales who created lists. After the fall of the republic, all ceremonial aspects of census and property census were lost.
Defender of morality
As previously mentioned, the censors were also responsible for upholding morality. There were a number of behaviours that were considered inconsistent with accepted custom:
- A celibate life when a citizen should have been married and should have tried for a child. Gradually, it was customary to impose a financial penalty (aes uxorium)
- Inappropriate behavior towards one’s wife and children; strict or too liberal attitude towards children; disobeying your parents
- Inappropriate and extravagant lifestyle. There have been many recorded cases of this behavior. In order to curb this behavior, leges sumptuariae.
has been introduced
- Failure to cultivate your land
- Cruelty to slaves or customers
- Trade and work aimed at fraud
- Illegal appropriation of orphans
- Inappropriate behavior towards officials
- Neglect, disobedience and cowardice of soldiers
- Not caring for Equus Publicus (equus’s horse at public expense)
Failure to comply with the required behaviors could lead to nota censoria and degradation. However, it was possible to prove one’s innocence and ask for the intercession of one of the censors. The punishment largely depended on the position of the citizen. It was divided into four classes:
- Motio or ejectio e senatu (removal from the Senate), or removal from the list of senators. It was also possible to be removed from tribus and downgraded to aerarian.
- Ademptio equi or depriving a publicly funded horse. It was also possible to be removed from tribus and downgraded to aerarian.
- Motio e tribu or exclusion with tribus. Sometimes it was just downgrading to a lower tribus.
- Referre in aerarios or facere aliquem aerarium
The censors were also tasked with supervising the state’s finances. They controlled the payment of the property tax (the so-called tributum), which depended on the amount of the recorded output in the census. Censors supervised vectigalia,, that is, the tithing paid to the state for various services.
Officials paid attention to the condition of public buildings and determined the funds to be spent on renovation. They also supervised the construction of new structures and assessed whether the money was used in accordance with the design and assumptions – this function was defined as opus probare or in acceptum referre.
Fall of censors
Censors lost their importance with the crisis of the republic in the 1st century BCE. According to one of the messages, the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla has ceased to appoint new officials. Ambitious politicians who found this office inconvenient have led to the abolition of virtually all censorship powers. The office was temporarily reinstated under the consulate of Pompey and Crassus. After the end of the civil wars, Rome’s “first citizen” Octavian Augustus appointed Lucius Munatius Plancus and Aemilius Lepidus Paullus as censors. This was the last time in history that these officials were appointed.
In the future, the emperors abolished this magistracy in favour of Praefectura Morum (Prefect of Morality).
The emperor Claudius tried to restore the importance of the office, who appointed Vitellius as his assistant during the period of his censorship. During the rule of Vespasian, the emperor’s assistant was his son Titus. Ultimately, however, this office lost its importance and kept only an honourary form. Domitian assumed the title of Censor Perpetuus (Eternal Censor), which was, however, omitted by his successors.
List of Roman Censors