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How the Romans Voted in the Roman Republic

Majority of the vote was only one factor in Roman elections

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The Republican Period of Rome > Roman Voting in the Republic

The vote was almost a side issue. When Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome, reformed the tribal system of Rome, giving the vote to men who had not been members of the three original tribes, he increased the number of tribes and assigned people to them on the basis of geographic location rather than kinship ties. There were at least two main reasons for the extension of the suffrage, to increase the tax body and to add to the rolls of young men suitable for the military. Over the next couple of centuries more tribes were added until there were 35 tribes in 241 B.C. The number of tribes remained stable and so new citizens were assigned to one of the 35 no matter where they lived. So much is pretty clear. Details are not so sure. For instance, we don't know whether Servius Tullius established any of the rural tribes or just the four urban ones. The importance of the tribes was lost when citizenship was extended to all free people in A.D. 212 by the terms of Constitutio Antoniniana.

Posting Issues

Roman assemblies were called to vote after notice of issues had been publicized. A magistrate published an edict in front of a contio (a public gathering) and then the issue was posted on a tablet in white paint, according to the University of Georgia's Edward E. Best.

Did Majority Rule?

Romans voted in a couple of different groupings: by tribe and by centuria (century). Each group, tribe or centuria had one vote. This vote was decided by majority vote of the constituents of said group (tribe or tribe or centuria), so within the group, each member's vote counted as much as anyone else's, but not all groups were equally important.

Candidates, who were voted on together even when there were multiple positions to fill, were counted as elected if they received the vote of one half of the voting groups plus one, so if there were 35 tribes, the candidate won when he had received the support of 18 tribes.

Polling Place

Saepta (or ovile) is the word for the voting space. In the late Republic, it was an open wooden pen with probably 35 roped-off sections. It had been on the Campus Martius. The number of divisions is thought to have corresponded with the number of tribes. It was in the general area that both tribal groups and comitia centuriata held elections. At the end of the Republic, a marble structure replaced the wooden one. The Saepta would have held about 70,000 citizens, according to Edward E. Best.

The Campus Martius was the field dedicated to the war god, and lay outside the sacred border or Pomoerium of Rome, as Classicist Jyri Vaahtera points out, which is significant because in early years, Romans may have attended the assembly in arms, which didn't belong in the city.

Voting was also held in the forum.

Centuriate Voting Assembly

The centuriae may also have been started by the 6th king or he might have inherited and augmented them. The Servian centuriae included about 170 centuriae of foot soldiers (infantry or pedites), 12 or 18 of equestrians, and a couple of others. How much wealth a family had determined which census class and therefore centuria its men fit in.

The wealthiest infantry class had close to a majority of the centuriae and were also allowed to vote early, just after the cavalry whose first position in the metaphorical voting line (may have) earned them the label praerogativae. (It is from this use that we get the English word 'prerogative.') (Hall says that later, after the system was reformed, the first [selected by lot] centuria to vote had the title of centuria praerogativa.) Should the vote of the wealthiest (infantry) first class and that of the cavalry be unanimous, there was no reason to go to the second class for their vote.

The vote was by centuria in one of the assemblies, the comitia centuriata. Lily Ross Taylor thinks the members of a given centuria were from a variety of tribes. This process changed over time, but is thought to have been the way the vote worked when the Servian Reforms were instituted.

Tribal Voting Assembly

In tribal elections the voting order was decided by sortition, but there was an order of the tribes. We don't know exactly how it worked. Only one tribe might have been chosen by lot. There might have been a regular order for the tribes that the winner of the lottery was allowed to jump over. However it worked, the first tribe was known as principium. When a majority had been reached, the voting probably stopped, so if 18 tribes were unanimous, there was no reason for the remaining 17 to vote, and they didn't. The tribes voted per tabellam 'by ballot' by 139 B.C., according to Ursula Hall.

Voting in the Senate

In the Senate, voting was visible and peer-pressure-driven: people voted by clustering around the speaker they supported.

Roman Government in the Roman Republic

The assemblies provided the democratic component of the mixed form of Roman government. There were also monarchic and aristocratic/oligarchic components. During the period of kings and the Imperial period, the monarchic element was dominant and visible in the personage of the king or emperor, but during the Republic, the monarchic element was elected annually and split in two. This split monarchy was the consulship whose power was deliberately curtailed. The Senate provided the aristocratic element.

References:

  • "The Centuriate Assembly before and after the Reform," by Lily Ross Taylor; The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 78, No. 4 (1957), pp. 337-354.
  • "Literacy and Roman Voting," by Edward E. Best; Historia 1974, pp. 428-438.
  • "The Origin of Latin suffrāgium," by Jyri Vaahtera; Glotta71. Bd., 1./2. H. (1993), pp. 66-80.
  • "Voting Procedure in Roman Assemblies," by Ursula Hall; Historia (Jul., 1964), pp. 267-306

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