Roman Politics and the Cursus Honorum

Now, this is the first of a political based series of posts. I will be writing about the political positions, systems and elections in Rome, rather than my previous militaristic themed posts.


So, first of all I am going to be talking about the political system after the fall of the monarchy in 509 BCE and the establishment of the Empire. Yes, the Senate did function and exist and had a decent amount of influence in Imperial Rome, but not as much as the Republican era.

So firstly, the Roman system was really Patrician dominated. But the wealthy Equestrian did end making bids for senatorial positions. While initially never serving higher offices, some of the equestrians would serve high positions and have a place in history. Two prominent examples are Cicero (one of the most famous orators and lawyers and served as Consul) and Marius (family to Julius Caesar, Consul an unprecedented 7 times,  a good general and reformed the Legions to a more effective fighting force).

Julius Caesar was a patrician and member of the Julia family, which was a long established family in Rome.

There was a path of positions, called the Cursus Honorum, which is a sequential posts of rising through the roman political system. It started at the post of Military Tribune, followed by an official senatorial post at Quaestor. The hierarchy in the senate was based on age as well, the next position was the Aedile, followed by the Praetor and finally the Consul and Governor positions. Other important positions were the Censors and Tribune of the Plebs and the ultimate authority in a non-monarchy state, Dictator.

There were some safeguards that had been put in place when the first monarchy of Rome was overthrown in 509 BCE. Most positions were for terms of 1 year only. After which, there was a pre-stipulated period of time between re-election. For example, if an individual served as Consul, they could only stand for the post after 10 years. This was to prevent any particular person or family consolidating power. Every position, had safeguards. For example, after serving as Praetor or Consul, the individual could be tried for perceived crimes after their imperium period ended.

However, in the last century of the Republic, the laws were ignored. Pompey was first consul at 35, having never held public office. Gaius Marius held Consulship 7 times, including 5 consecutive terms. Rules and Laws are only good if they serve your needs right? (Don’t get me started on Octavian who, frankly used the name of his dead uncle brilliantly but ignored most of the established Republican rules).

How to really rise up the roman politics?

Oh heads up, if you were born Patrician, you can deduct 2 years from the minimum age to be elected into a particular office.

The first step was quite frankly? Be born into the equestrian (the upper echelons) or patrician orders of Rome. If you were in the latter, you were pretty much guaranteed to be a senator of Rome when you turn 30. However, regardless of being born into the Equities or Patricians, young boys while training in literature, reading, fighting would follow their male relatives on business. This was important, as it acquainted them with various clients and fellow senators. Contacts (just as much as they matter today), mattered a lot back then.

Now, it was time for the first official post. The Military Tribune. There were 6 posts of these assigned to each legion. Mostly they were elected by the People and some were appointed by the Consuls of Rome. As a Tribune, a young man would serve for around 10 years, either as an Equite (cavalry) or as an administrator for the Legion. They gained command experience as well.

Cursus Honorum
The path of the Cursus Honorum with all the major positions available.

The next step: Quaestor. This was the first elected office, attainable generally at the age of 30 or 28 for Patricians. This was the first elected office in the Cursus Honorum and generally marked entry into the senate. As a job, it was administrative in nature, such as public finances or serving a consul or governor as their second in commands. The office, allowed the person to wear a toga and have a body guard (so help enhance their already bloated ego). The number of Quaestors elected increased, with 4 being elected in the early republic era, to 20 in the era of Sulla.

The step after Quaestor was optional, called the Aedile. This wasn’t a necessary step and did not really hinder you from becoming a Praetor, but helped a lot. There were 2 offices of the Aedile available each year to the Patricians and 2 for the Plebeians. A person could stand for election aged 35. The job included maintain temples and public facilities around Rome, maintain the temples and hosting games. It was a costly job but it was a worthwhile gamble. Politics in Rome were really a popularity game, and if you were an Aedile, you would be seen as committed to public service.

The Big steps

The Praetor was a major public office, with lots of power. At the age of 39, or 37 for those born from the right womb, a senator could stand for the office of Praetor. At any time during the republic, they were second only to the Consuls. There were 8 offices to be elected to. 2 were more prominent than the others. Praetor Peregrinus who was the chief judge if involving foreigners in Rome, and Praetor Urbanus, the chief judicial officer. Praetors were mostly judges, but were pretty much official second in commands to the Consuls. Along with the Consul, the Praetor was the office to have imperium or powers to command. They were expected in absence of Consuls to lead the Roman Armies as well. After their Praetor ship, the officers would become Magistrates in Roman Provinces for a year, having ultimate authority there.  In Rome, each Praetor had 6 civil body guards assigned to them.

With extensive powers just subordinated to a consul, the main job of Preator was to officiate cases in Rome.

The ultimate position in the Senate was the Consul and the final step of the Cursus Honorum. The consul was the leading position, where a senator can be elected at the age of 42 or 40*. They had power to veto any action, set political agendas, chaired the senate and command the larger armies. They also passed motions for laws, presided over elections of senior positions and could set religious holiday dates. The post was prestigious enough that the entire year was named after you.
For example: J. Caesar et M. Bibulus consulibus, would refer to happenings of the year 59BCE, in the consulship of Julius Caesar and Bibulus. Though at times, it is referred to the year of Julius and Caesar. (Yeah Optimates, the Populares are here to stay. More on these groups later)

Gaius Marius was consul of Rome 7 times.

They were given 12 body guards and Imperium. Usually for longer campaigns, they would have authority to negotiate treaties and lead armies. If the campaign was longer than their elected office of a year, they were generally granted imperium to continue. The consuls would serve as governors at pre-decided provinces (generally good ones) for a year.

Post Cursus Honorum

Now after the Cursus honorum, there were 2 positions that were available to those who reached consulship or praetor ship. As the Governor of a province (pro-consul after consulship and Propraetor if a Praetor), they had imperium and were the ultimate authority in that area. They had 12 body guards again. As a governor, they commanded legions, administrated the province and were the ultimate legal authority. They were only answerable to the sitting Consuls or Tribune of the Plebs when they return to Rome. They had a large staff, including Quaestors. Usually provinces closer to Rome were governed by former Praetors’, but those on the peripheries of the empire/republic, which had permanent and large garrisons were commanded by former consuls. The main idea of governing a province was to extort the locals to make back the massive amounts of money you spent on climbing the political ladder and repay your creditors before you return to Rome.

Another post, while having no imperium but was a respected post was that of the Censors. This was a unique post, where you were elected for 18 months instead of 1 year like the rest. The Censors had no legal imperium but were respected. They administered membership to the senate, conducted a census of Rome and sorted people into voting centuries based on their wealth and tribe, and could move people around from that. They also would redistribute conquered land for public use, and constructed buildings in Rome, financed by the senate. As former consuls and/or well respected senatorial members held this post, it was respected and considered the final stage of the Cursus Honorum.

Roman census
Jobs of the Censors. Registering people in their voting tribes, assessing their wealth, adding or removing senate members.

Other positions worth noting

These positions, were not part of the Cursus Honorum but had a major role in Roman Politics.

Tribune of the Plebs. Well we know that Patricians and the Rich Equestrian dominated Roman Politics. What about like 99% of the population? The ones dependent on the free votes? OH they had a tribune of the Plebs. If you haven’t guessed, such a person is elected only from the Plebeians. They had the right to protect the plebs from any magistrate and they had the much vaunted Veto power. However, they were really only protected in the year they had power. Their power only was valid in Rome. Their homes had to be open day and night. While the magistrates had jurisdiction all over, the Tribune had to be present to really use his veto power. This was dicey for a magistrate, as to ignore this was punishable by death. No wonder hard-core conservative politicians like Sulla nullified much of the powers of the tribune. Besides, tribunes were from the well-off sections of society, so they’d usually at times throw their lots with the Patricians for a mutually beneficial alliance. Why not? They need someone to protect them after their term is over.


Dictator, was in a sense the ultimate position any person can hope to attain. As dictator, they have the final say. The powers of every other post in Rome is second to the dictator. A dictator was nominated by the consuls of Rome and then approved by the Senate. The Dictator did not mean a reduction or loss of power of after magistrates, but they were to do tasks subject to his approval. A dictator was appointed only in emergency. Namely, when Rome was struggling against an enemy with both consuls dead or unable to do much, or one is the victorious guy from a civil war (Sulla, Caesar anyone?).  Dictators of Rome, by law had to be appointed only for 6 months and had to resign if unable to complete their task or it had been accomplished. Well, after the Punic Wars you did not have dictators till Sulla and Caesar? But yeah this is the ultimate short term position where you are a legally called upon King.


Well, as you can see, there were lot of positions to gain power in Rome. The ladder and route was fixed for all, but this system broke down in the last century of the Republic.

The next set of posts will be about each position in detail, with their tasks, power and if any controversies did take place!


Interested in the World of Ancient Greece? Check out the Athenian Inspector’s blog here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s