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Tribune was the title of various elected officials in ancient Rome. The two most important were the tribunes of the plebs and the military tribunes. For most of Roman history, a college of ten tribunes of the plebs acted as a check on the authority of the senate and the annual magistrates, holding the power of ius intercessionis to intervene on behalf of the plebeians, and veto unfavourable legislation.
The word tribune is derived from the Roman tribes. The three original tribes known as the Ramnes or Ramnenses, Tities or Titienses, and the Luceres, were each headed by a tribune, who represented each tribe in civil, religious, and military matters. Subsequently, each of the Servian tribes was also represented by a tribune.
Tribune of the Celeres
Under the Roman Kingdom, the Tribunus Celerum, in English Tribune of the Celeres, or Tribune of the Knights, was commander of the king’s personal bodyguard, known as the Celeres. This official was second only to the king, and had the authority to pass law, known as lex tribunicia, and to preside over the comitia curiata. Unless the king himself elected to lead the cavalry into battle, this responsibility fell to the tribune of the celeres. In theory he could deprive the king of his imperium, or authority to command, with the agreement of the comitia curiata.
In the reign of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last Roman king, this office was held by Lucius Junius Brutus, the king’s nephew, and thus the senior member of the king’s household, after the king himself and his sons. It was Brutus who convened the comitia and asked that they revoke the king’s imperium. After the fall of the monarchy, the powers of the tribune of the celeres were divided between the Magister Militum, or Master of the Infantry, also known as the Praetor Maximus or dictator, and his lieutenant, the magister equitum or “Master of the Horse”.
Tribune Of the Plebs
The Tribuni Plebis, known in English as Tribunes of the Plebs, Tribunes of the People, or Plebeian Tribunes, were instituted in 494 BC, after the first secession of the plebs, in order to protect the interests of the plebeians against the actions of the senate and the annual magistrates, who were uniformly patrician. The ancient sources indicate the tribunes may have originally been two or five in number. If the former, the college of tribunes was expanded to five in 470 BC. Either way, the college was increased to ten in 457 BC, and remained at this number throughout Roman history. They were assisted by two aediles plebis, or plebeian aediles. Only plebeians were eligible for these offices, although there were at least two exceptions.
The tribunes of the plebs had the power to convene the Concilium plebis, or plebeian assembly, and propose legislation before it. Only one of the tribunes could preside over this assembly, which had the power to pass laws affecting only the plebeians, known as plebiscita, or plebiscites. After 287 BC, the decrees of the concilium plebis had the effect of law over all Roman citizens. By the 3rd century BC, the tribunes could also convene and propose legislation before the senate.
The Tribune Militum, known in English as Military Tribunes or literally, Tribunes of the Soldiers, were elected each year along with the annual magistrates. Their number varied throughout Roman history but eventually reached twenty-four. These were usually young men in their late twenties, who aspired to a senatorial career. Each tribune would be assigned to command a portion of the Roman army, subordinate to the magistrates and magistrates appointed by the senate, and their legates.
In 445 BC, the tribunes of the plebs succeeded in passing the lex Canuleia, repealing the law forbidding the intermarriage of patricians and plebeians, and providing that one of the consuls might be a plebeian. Rather than permit the consular dignity to pass into the hands of a plebeian, the senate proposed a compromise whereby three military tribunes, who might be either patrician or plebeian, should be elected in place of the consuls. The first tribuni militum consular potentate, or military tribunes with consular power, were elected for the year 444. Although plebeians were eligible for this office, each of the first “consular tribunes” was a patrician.
Tribunes of the treasury
The exact nature of the Tribuni Aerarii, or Tribunes of the Treasury is shrouded in mystery. Originally they seem to have been tax collectors, but this power was slowly lost to other officials. By the end of the Republic, this style belonged to a class of persons slightly below the equities in wealth. When the makeup of Roman juries was reformed in 70 BC, it was stipulated that one-third of the members of each jury should belong to this class.