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People’s assemblies

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Comitium at the Forum Romanum - a print made by Etienne Du P├ęracin  around 1500. It shows the Comitium at the Forum Romanum in Rome. The building  with a triangular roof is a curia called Curia Iulia
Comitium at the Forum Romanum - a print made by Etienne Du P├ęracin around 1500. It shows the Comitium at the Forum Romanum in Rome. The building with a triangular roof is a curia called Curia Iulia

People’s assemblies were Roman institutions of a legislative nature, whose role and significance underwent constant changes throughout history. All free Roman citizens who met certain requirements for a given congregation could participate in them. Several types of Roman assemblies were distinguished.

Polybius pointed out that people’s assemblies were the most important organs of the Roman state that conferred official positions and enacted laws, decided peace, and war. These first two powers survived until the end of the republic. In turn, international relations were gradually ceded to the Senate, which was responsible for diplomacy. In the event of a major conflict (i.e. with Carthage), the voice of the people was necessary to emphasize the solidarity of society.

Originally, the assemblies also had judicial functions; however, this was gradually reduced significantly due to the fact that the Roman state was expanding intensively, and the population – and with it, the number of cases – increased significantly. In this case, it was necessary to transfer the court cases for consideration (from 149 BCE) to specially established permanent tribunals (quaestiones perpetuae), which relieved the assemblies.

Citizens were enrolled by censors in the tribus (territorial division) and centuria (property division). Importantly, belonging to the tribus was hereditary – that is, even if the Roman left his farm in favour of the city, he still officially belonged to the rural tribus.

In the early days of the republic, when Rome ruled the city and surrounding lands, the participation of citizens in voting was not problematic. The larger the Roman state became, the smaller the congregations represented by society. Due to the fact that the commission met in Rome, proletarians or freedmen (so-called pledged plebs) and rich Romans residing in Rome or regularly visiting the city most often took part in the elections. For example, citizens on duty did not have the physical opportunity to vote.

Each assembly had its own chairman, usually a high official (consul or praetor). He was the one who had control over the conduct (contio) of the committees; gave the floor to politicians and eventually decided to dissolve the assembly in the event of unsuccessful signs. As such, the crowd had the opportunity to express their opinion/opinion only by whistling or applause.

Before the gathering, the augures carried out their ritual to assess whether the gods convey beneficial signs (omen) for the voting to take place. Generally, the augures inaugurated and took care of the proper decoration of the auspices so that all public activities were carried out in accordance with the will of Jupiter. The Augurs read the will of the gods from heavenly signs and the flight of birds. In the case of a bad omen, the assembly could be broken (often done deliberately to, for example, avoid adopting the law).

Importantly, there were also sine suffragio citizens who did not have political rights and could not vote at the meetings. This group mainly belonged to the inhabitants of the conquered Latin cities. However, with the Act of 189 BCE – lex Terentia – they were added to the centuria and tribus and received full rights.

The place of popular gatherings was square, which was called comitium. The square also had Curia – Senate meeting place and rostra – the rostrum from which the orators spoke.

It is worth mentioning that during the meetings it was not possible to deliberate or submit your own proposals; the citizen could only vote on the proposals presented.

Royal period

During the royal period, Rome was divided into 30 curiae, to which the inhabitants of Rome belonged. Belonging to the curia was hereditary. Each curia had its own structure and organization – similar to the family model, with rituals or holidays. In each curia, a member belonging to it cast a vote; the majority opinion became the curia’s official position. According to the absolute majority, 16 curiae decided.

There were two types of folk gatherings in royal Rome.

Comitia curiata

Comitia curiata (curial commission) was the only Roman congregation during the Kingdom to influence state policy as such. The assembly was organized according to the 30 curiae mentioned above. He was presided over by the king or interrex (in the case of interregnum), who forwarded the statutes for ratification (the curia’s lack of consent to adopt the law did not preclude the law at all). It was just before comitia curiata that an election of a new king took place, who was granted powers based on lex curiata de imperio.

On the first (kalendae) and ninth (nonae) days of the month, the assembly would gather to hear the announcements. Appeals regarding Roman family law were often considered at the assembly; in the spring (in two days) the congregation attested wills and adoptions. The assembly also controlled the admission of new families to the curia, the transfer of families between curiae, the transfer of people from the plebeian state to patricians (or vice versa) or restored citizenship. All other meetings were held as needed. The assembly also (sometimes) ratified the decision to start the war.

Comitia calata

Comitia calata was the oldest gathering of Roman society. We know very little about it. The assembly met in the Capitol and was organized on the basis of 30 curiae. Voting was not legislative, but rather religious. The assembly was chaired by pontifex maximus, appointing priests or Westalka.

Republic period

For republics, people’s assemblies had the most power. According to Polibius’s message, the people of Rome had the decisive voice in the matter of granting offices, establishing the law, decisions on the death penalty, declaration of war or the conclusion of peace and alliances.

Two types of assembly were distinguished:

  • comitium (comitia) – a gathering of citizens to represent Rome as a whole.
  • consilium (concilium) – gathering citizens belonging to a particular stratum.

Before the actual assembly, conventions were held where politicians gave their speeches to convince citizens of their case and cast their votes. As for voting, a meeting was called if needed. If elections for officials were to take place on a given day, the election date was announced 17 days in advance so that citizens could adapt. It was similar to the adoption of the law – 17 days were left to the assembly to consider the legislative proposal.

Four types of gatherings in the republic were distinguished:

Comitia curiata

During the first two decades of the republic, the most important gathering was comitia curiata (curia commission), known from the time of the kingdom, which consisted only of patricians. They appointed consuls (the only officials of that time), settled lawsuits and adopted laws.

Later, most of the powers of curial commissions were delegated to centurial and tribal commissions. During the mature republic, the commission had only a symbolic role. Its members confirmed adoption, accepted priests for service, transferred citizens from the patrician state to plebeian and vice versa (this was done even with Clodius in 59 BCE), recognized the will (e.g. Caesar on the adoption of Gaius Octavian and recognised him as the main heir). With the advent of the empire, state powers were transferred to the emperor or senate, which automatically made the assembly superfluous.

Comitia centuriata

Comitia centuriata (centuriate assembly) was one of the most important assemblies of Rome during the republic. It chose the highest state officials: consuls, praetors, and censors. The assembly also ratified censuses (lists of citizens) made by censors and served as the highest tribunal in some court cases (especially regarding offences of a state, punished by exile or death). Also, Romans citizens decided here about war or peace.

The chairman of the assembly was a consul or praetor. In practice, centurial commissions were dominated by patricians who owned 98 of 193 centuries. Despite smaller numbers, patricians (constituting the first class of property) were divided into a large number of centuries. Due to the fact that the centuries cast votes in the order from the highest property class to the lowest (proletaria), the absolute majority was reached before later / poorer centurions took the floor. In this way, the richest and “most-excellent” citizens could easily decide on important state decisions.

The division into 5 property classes of the Romans was created by the sixth king of Rome, Serius Tulius.

Comitia populi tributa

Comitia populi tributa (tribal commission) were assemblies that were divided into 35 tribus, which included both patricians and plebeians. The assembly was headed by either a consul or a praetor. The Assembly had legislative powers and electoral: quaestors, curule aediles, military tribunes, and a number of less important clerical positions were elected.

Tribus cast their votes randomly (as opposed to centuries). The absolute majority was 18 tribus.

Concilium plebis

Concilium plebis (Concilia plebis tributa) was a people’s gathering in which only plebeians cast their votes. Plebeian aediles and people tribunes were chosen.

Empire period

During the reign of emperor Tiberius (14-37 CE), the powers of people’s assemblies (comitia) were delegated to the Senate. This was largely due to the observation that votes cast by citizens were often sold, or voters cast their votes in ignorance.

Another reason for reducing the role of the congregations during the Roman Empire was the fact that the state covered a huge territory. The assembly system was effective when Rome ruled only the city-state and surrounding lands, not many provinces. Roman citizens located far from the capital had virtually no chance to vote. The body was therefore unrepresentative.

The people of Rome continued to organize for centuries and tribus, but the associated powers were lost. In theory, the emperor directed the imperial law (initiated Octavian August; ended Domitian) to a tribune assembly for ratification; in practice, he did not have to do this. Curial commissions were deprived of the lex curiata de imperio powers, which were the responsibility of the senate. However, the right to certify wills and adoptions is retained. The centurial assembly lost its legal rights to the institution subordinate to the emperor; in turn, the election of officials was in the hands of the Senate. The plebeian assembly also lost its legislative, legal and electoral powers; which was mainly due to the fact that the emperor had the authority of the tribune and exercised control over this commission.

  • Alfoldy Geza, Historia społeczna starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2003
  • Crawford M., The Roman Republic
  • Lintott Andrew, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, 1999
  • Ziółkowski Adam, Historia powszechna. Starożytność, Warszawa 2000
  • Ziółkowski Adam, Historia Rzymu, Poznań 2008

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