Tribal Assembly
The Tribal Assembly of the Roman Republic
Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was the period of the ancient Roman civilization where the government operated as a republic. It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, traditionally dated around 508 BC, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and...

 was the democratic assembly of Roman citizens. During the years of the Roman Republic, citizens were organized on the basis of thirty-five Tribes: Four Tribes (the "Urban Tribes") encompassed citizens inside the city of Rome, while the other thirty-one Tribes (the "Rural Tribes") encompassed citizens outside of the city of Rome. The Tribes gathered into the Tribal Assembly for legislative, electoral, and judicial purposes. The majority of votes in any Tribe decided how that Tribe voted. Each Tribe received one vote, regardless of how many electors each Tribe held. Once a majority of Tribes voted in the same way on a given measure, the voting ended, and the matter was decided. The president of the Tribal Assembly was usually either a "Consul
Roman consul
A consul served in the highest elected political office of the Roman Republic.Each year, two consuls were elected together, to serve for a one-year term. Each consul was given veto power over his colleague and the officials would alternate each month...

" (the highest ranking Roman Magistrate) or a "Praetor
Praetor was a title granted by the government of Ancient Rome to men acting in one of two official capacities: the commander of an army, usually in the field, or the named commander before mustering the army; and an elected magistratus assigned varied duties...

" (the second-highest ranking Roman Magistrate). The Tribal Assembly elected three different magistrates: "Quaestor
A Quaestor was a type of public official in the "Cursus honorum" system who supervised financial affairs. In the Roman Republic a quaestor was an elected official whereas, with the autocratic government of the Roman Empire, quaestors were simply appointed....

s", "Curule Aediles
Aedile was an office of the Roman Republic. Based in Rome, the aediles were responsible for maintenance of public buildings and regulation of public festivals. They also had powers to enforce public order. There were two pairs of aediles. Two aediles were from the ranks of plebeians and the other...

", and "consular tribunes
Tribuni militum consulari potestate
The tribuni militum consulari potestate , in English commonly also Consular Tribunes, were tribunes elected with consular power during the "Conflict of the Orders" in the Roman Republic, starting in 444 BC and then continuously from 408 BC to 394 BC and again from 391 BC to 367 BC.According to the...

". The Tribal Assembly also had the power to try judicial cases. However, after the reforms of the Roman Dictator
Roman dictator
In the Roman Republic, the dictator , was an extraordinary magistrate with the absolute authority to perform tasks beyond the authority of the ordinary magistrate . The office of dictator was a legal innovation originally named Magister Populi , i.e...

 Lucius Cornelius Sulla
Lucius Cornelius Sulla
Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix , known commonly as Sulla, was a Roman general and statesman. He had the rare distinction of holding the office of consul twice, as well as that of dictator...

 in 82 BC, the power to try cases was reassigned to special jury courts (quaestiones perpetuae).

Since the Romans used a form of direct democracy
Direct democracy
Direct democracy is a form of government in which people vote on policy initiatives directly, as opposed to a representative democracy in which people vote for representatives who then vote on policy initiatives. Direct democracy is classically termed "pure democracy"...

, citizens, and not elected representatives, voted before each assembly. As such, the citizen-electors had no power, other than the power to cast a vote. Each assembly was presided over by a single Roman Magistrate, and as such, it was the presiding magistrate who made all decisions on matters of procedure and legality. Ultimately, the presiding magistrate's power over the assembly was nearly absolute. The only check on that power came in the form of vetoes handed down by other magistrates. Any decision made by a presiding magistrate could be vetoed by a magistrate known as a "Plebeian Tribune". In addition, decisions made by presiding magistrates could also be vetoed by higher-ranking magistrates.

Assembly procedure

In the Roman system of Direct Democracy
Direct democracy
Direct democracy is a form of government in which people vote on policy initiatives directly, as opposed to a representative democracy in which people vote for representatives who then vote on policy initiatives. Direct democracy is classically termed "pure democracy"...

, two primary types of assembly were used to vote on legislative, electoral, and judicial matters. The first was the Committee (comitia, literally "going together" or "meeting place"). The Tribal Assembly was a Committee. Committees were assemblies of all citizens, and were used for official purposes, such as for the enactment of laws. Acts of a Committee applied to all of the members of that Committee. The second type of assembly was the Council (concilium), which was a forum where specific groups of citizens met. In contrast, the Convention (conventio, literally "coming together") was an unofficial forum for communication. Conventions were simply forums where Romans met for specific unofficial purposes, such as, for example, to hear a political speech. Private citizens who did not hold political office could only speak before a Convention, and not before a Committee or a Council. Conventions were simply meetings, and no legal or legislative decisions could be made in one. Voters always assembled first into Conventions to hear debates and conduct other business before voting, and then into Committees or Councils to actually vote.
A notice always had to be given several days before the assembly was to actually vote. For elections, at least three market-days (often more than seventeen actual days) had to pass between the announcement of the election, and the actual election. During this time period (the trinundinum), the candidates interacted with the electorate, and no legislation could be proposed or voted upon. In 98 BC, a law was passed (the lex Caecilia Didia) which required a similar three market-day interval to pass between the proposal of a law and the vote on that law. During criminal trials, the assembly's presiding magistrate had to give a notice (diem dicere) to the accused person on the first day of the investigation (anquisito). At the end of each day, the magistrate had to give another notice to the accused person (diem prodicere), which informed him of the status of the investigation. After the investigation was complete, a three market-day interval had to elapse before a final vote could be taken with respect to conviction or acquittal.

Only one assembly could operate at any given point in time, and any session already underway could be dissolved if a magistrate "called away" (avocare) the electors. In addition to the presiding magistrate, several additional magistrates were often present to act as assistants. They were available to help resolve procedural disputes, and to provide a mechanism through which electors could appeal decisions of the presiding magistrate. There were also religious officials (known as Augur
The augur was a priest and official in the classical world, especially ancient Rome and Etruria. His main role was to interpret the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds: whether they are flying in groups/alone, what noises they make as they fly, direction of flight and what kind of...

s) either in attendance or on-call, who would be available to help interpret any signs from the Gods (omens), since the Romans believed that the Gods let their approval or disapproval with proposed actions be known. In addition, a preliminary search for omens (auspices) was conducted by the presiding magistrate the night before any meeting. On several known occasions, presiding magistrates used the claim of unfavorable omens as an excuse to suspend a session that was not going the way they wanted.

On the day of the vote, the electors first assembled into their Conventions for debate and campaigning. In the Conventions, the electors were not sorted into their Tribes. Speeches from private citizens were only heard if the issue to be voted upon was a legislative or judicial matter, and even then, only if the citizen received permission from the presiding magistrate. If the purpose of the ultimate vote was for an election, no speeches from private citizens were heard, and instead, the candidates for office used the Convention to campaign. During the Convention, the bill to be voted upon was read to the assembly by an officer known as a "Herald". Then the order of the vote had to be determined. An urn was brought in, and lots were cast to determine the sequence by which the Tribes were to vote. A Plebeian Tribune could use his veto against pending legislation up until this point, but not after.

The electors were then told to break up the Convention ("depart to your separate groups", or discedite, quirites). The electors assembled behind a fenced off area and voted by placing a pebble or written ballot into an appropriate jar. The baskets (cistae) that held the votes were watched by specific officers (the custodes), who then counted the ballots, and reported the results to the presiding magistrate. The majority of votes in any Tribe decided how that Tribe voted. If the process was not complete by nightfall, the electors were dismissed without having reached a decision, and the process had to begin again the next day.


The thirty-five Tribes were not ethnic or kinship groups, but rather generic divisions into which Roman citizens were distributed. When the Tribes were created the divisions were geographical, similar to modern U.S. Congressional districts. However, since one joined the same Tribe that his father belonged to, the geographical distinctions were eventually lost. Each Tribe had further subdivisions: Subdivisions in the urban Tribes were called vici and subdivisions in the rural Tribes were called pagi. While other subdivisions within Tribes were possible, such as professional guilds ("colleges" or collegia), the Tribe always remained the fundamental organizing unit. Each Tribe had its own officers, such as Treasurers (divisores) Registers (who conducted the tribal census), and by the late republic, officers whose only task was to distribute bribes. Since Tribal membership was reaffirmed once every five years in each Census, it became possible to crudely gerrymander Tribes. While land could never be taken away from a Tribe, the Magistrates known as "Censors" had the power to allocate new lands into existing Tribes as a part of the Census. Thus, Censors had the power to apportion Tribes in a manner that might be advantageous to them or to their partisans.

During the early and middle republic, the Tribal Assembly met at various locations in the Roman Forum
Roman Forum
The Roman Forum is a rectangular forum surrounded by the ruins of several important ancient government buildings at the center of the city of Rome. Citizens of the ancient city referred to this space, originally a marketplace, as the Forum Magnum, or simply the Forum...

, including the rostra
The Rōstra was a large platform built in the city of Rome that stood during the republican and imperial periods. Speakers would stand on the rostra and face the north side of the comitium towards the senate house and deliver orations to those assembled in between...

, the comitium
The Comitium in Rome is the location of the original founding of the city. The area is marked by a number of shrines, temples, altars and churches today from throughout its history. The location was lost due to the cities growth and development over a thousand years, but was excavated at the turn...

, the Temple of Castor and Pollux
Temple of Castor and Pollux
The Temple of Castor and Pollux is an ancient edifice in the Roman Forum, Rome, central Italy. It was originally built in gratitude for victory at the Battle of Lake Regillus . Castor and Pollux were the Dioscuri, the "twins" of Gemini, the twin sons of Zeus and Leda...

, and in a location near the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus
Temple of Jupiter
The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, also known as the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus was the most important temple in Ancient Rome, located on the Capitoline Hill.-First building:Much of what is known of the first Temple of Jupiter is from later Roman...

 (the area Capitolina). By the late republic, the assembly often met right outside of the city wall on the Field of Mars
Field of Mars
The Field of Mars was an area of the ancient city of Rome, the Campus Martius.Field of Mars may also refer to:*Field of Mars , An large public greenplace in Paris...

(Campus Martius), because the size of the field allowed votes to occur more quickly.

The presiding magistrate (either a Consul or a Praetor), always ensured that all Tribes had at least five members voting, and if any Tribe did not, the magistrate reassigned individuals from other Tribes into the vacant Tribe. The order that the thirty-five Tribes voted in was selected randomly by lot. The order was not chosen at once, and after each Tribe had voted, a lot was used to determine which Tribe should vote next. The first Tribe selected (the principium) was usually the most important Tribe, because it often decided the matter. It was believed that the order of the lot was chosen by the Gods, and thus, that the position held by the early voting Tribes was the position of the Gods. As can (usually) be seen in U.S. Presidential primaries, the early results tended to create a bandwagon effect
Bandwagon effect
The bandwagon effect is a well documented form of groupthink in behavioral science and has many applications. The general rule is that conduct or beliefs spread among people, as fads and trends clearly do, with "the probability of any individual adopting it increasing with the proportion who have...

. Once a majority of Tribes had voted the same way, voting ended.

See also

Primary sources

Secondary source material

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