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Plebeian Tribune


Plebeian Tribune

For other uses, see Tribune (disambiguation).
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Tribune was a title shared by elected officials in the Roman Republic. Tribunes had the power to convene the Plebeian Council and to act as its president, which also gave them the right to propose legislation before it. They were sacrosanct, in the sense that any assault on their person was prohibited. They had the power to veto actions taken by magistrates, and specifically to intervene legally on behalf of plebeians. The tribune could also summon the Senate and lay proposals before it. The tribune's power, however, was only in effect while he was within Rome. His ability to veto did not affect regional governors.

Because it was legally impossible for a patrician to be a tribune of the plebeians, the first Roman emperor, Augustus, was offered instead all of the powers of the tribunate without actually holding the office (tribunicia potestas). This formed one of the two main constitutional bases of Augustus' authority (the other was imperium proconsulare maius). It gave him the authority to convene the Senate. Also, he was sacrosanct, had the authority to veto (ius intercessionis), and could exercise capital punishment in the course of the performance of his duties.

Most emperors' reigns were dated by their assumption of tribunicia potestas, though some emperors, such as Tiberius, Titus, Trajan and Marcus Aurelius had already received it during their predecessor's reign. Marcus Agrippa and Drusus II, though never emperors, also received tribunicia potestas.

Plebeian tribune

In 494 BC, the city was at war,[1] but the plebeian soldiers refused to march against the enemy, and instead seceded to the Mons Sacer.[2] The patricians agreed to a settlement whereby the plebs were given the right to elect their own magistrates, named plebeian tribunes (tribuni plebis), and gave them two assistants, the plebeian aediles (aediles plebi).[3][4] The tribunes were made sacrosanct whilst they held office, so that any person who harmed a tribune was liable to punishment by death.[5]

Since the plebeian tribunes and plebeian aediles were elected by the plebeians (non-aristocrats that owned land) in the Plebeian Council, rather than by all of the People of Rome (plebeians, the patrician nobility, and the capite censi, landless commoners), they were technically not "magistrates". While the term "plebeian magistrate" (magistratus plebeii) has been used as an approximation, it is technically a contradiction.[6] The plebeian aedile functioned as the tribune's assistant, and often performed similar duties to those of the curule aediles. (In time, however, the differences between the plebeian aediles and the curule aediles disappeared.)

The mos maiorum of the patricians did not permit plebeians to carry out the rites of the state, but they recognized the need to give the tribunate real political power, so the powers they gave to the tribunate were unique and unprecedented. The tribunes were sacrosanct—that is, no one was allowed to touch them.[7] Their sacrosanctity was enforced by a pledge, taken by the plebeians, to kill any person who interfered with a tribune during his term of office. No other powers were given to the tribune, so everything was derived from their sacrosanctity. One obvious consequence of this sacrosanctity was the fact that it was considered a capital offense to harm a tribune, to disregard his veto, or to interfere with a tribune.[7] The sacrosanctity of a tribune (and thus all of his legal powers) were only in effect so long as that tribune was within the city of Rome. If the tribune was abroad, the plebeians in Rome could not enforce their oath to kill any individual who harmed or interfered with the tribune. Since tribunes were technically not magistrates, they had no magisterial powers ("major powers" or maior potestas), and thus could not rely on such powers to veto. Instead, they relied on the sacrosanctity of their person to obstruct. If a magistrate, an assembly or the senate did not comply with the orders of a tribune, the tribune could 'interpose the sacrosanctity of his person' (intercessio) to physically stop that particular action. Any resistance against the tribune was tantamount to a violation of his sacrosanctity, and thus was considered a capital offense. Their lack of magisterial powers made them independent of all other magistrates, which also meant that no magistrate could veto a tribune.[8]

Tribunes could use their sacrosanctity to order the use of capital punishment against any person who interfered with their duties.[7] Tribunes could also use their sacrosanctity as protection when physically manhandling an individual, such as when arresting someone.[9] On a couple of rare occasions (such as during the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus), a tribune might use a form of blanket obstruction, which could involve a broad veto over all governmental functions.[10] While a tribune could veto any act of the senate, the assemblies, or the magistrates, he could only veto the act, and not the actual measure. Therefore, he had to physically be present when the act was occurring. As soon as that tribune was no longer present, the act could be completed as if there had never been a veto.[11]

Tribunes, the only true representatives of the people, had the authority to enforce the right of provocatio ad populum, which was a theoretical guarantee of due process, and a precursor to the common law concept of habeas corpus. If a magistrate was threatening to take action against a citizen, that citizen could yell "ego te provoco!", which would appeal against the magistrate's decision to a tribune.[12] A tribune had to assess the situation, and give the magistrate his approval before the magistrate could carry out the action. Sometimes the tribune brought the case before the College of Tribunes or the Plebeian Council for a trial. Any action taken in spite of a valid provocatio was on its face illegal.[13] In this capacity, the tribune was the principal, and often the only, guarantor of the civil liberties of Roman citizens against arbitrary state power. The degree of liberty afforded to Roman citizens by the tribune through the power of Provocatio was unmatched in the ancient world.

Tribunes were required to be plebeians, and until 421 BC this was the only office open to them. In the late Republic the patrician politician Clodius arranged for his adoption by a plebeian branch of his family, and successfully ran for the tribunate. When Lucius Cornelius Sulla was dictator he severely curtailed the tribunes of the plebeians by invalidating their power of veto and making it illegal for them to bring laws before the Concilium Plebis without the Senate's consent. Afterwards, the tribunate was restored to its former power during the consulship of Crassus and Pompey.

Throughout the Republic and its fall, less powerful individuals used the tribunes for their personal glory and gain. Clodius and Milo were both tribunes who used violence in the courts and government in order to achieve the needs and requests of Pompey and Caesar. When the Senate refused to grant Caesar's veterans lands and a further governorship of Gaul, he turned to the tribunes with his demands and got them.

Roman military officers

Tribune of the soldiers

Main article: Military tribune

Each year the Tribal Assembly elected 24 young men in their late twenties with senatorial ambitions to serve as military tribunes (tribuni militum). These 24 were distributed six to each of the consuls' four legions as the legions' commanding officers.

All middle-ranking officers of the legions were also titled tribunes, though they were unelected and junior to the tribuni militum. Messala, the villain in the 1880 novel Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace and its 1959 film, was a military tribune.

Tribune of the Celeres

The Tribune of the Celeres (tribunus celerum) was the commander of the personal bodyguard of the Roman King, the "Celeres", during the days of the Roman Kingdom. While the three original curia (Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres) were each headed by a tribune, the Tribune of the Celeres did not lead any such curia. Rather, he was second in rank to the Roman King, could pass laws (lex tribunicia), and could theoretically preside over the Curiate Assembly in an attempt to deprive the king of his constitutional powers (his imperium), and thus his office. Occasionally, during a war, the Roman King might take command of the infantry, but delegate command of the cavalry to the Tribune of the Celeres. In this respect, the arrangement was revived after the fall of the monarchy, and during the years of the Roman Republic, between the Roman Dictator ("Master of the Infantry") and his Master of the Horse ("Master of the Cavalry").[14]

Cohort commander

  • Tribunus Cohortis: commander of military unit.
  • Tribunus Cohortis Urbanae: urban cohort commander.

Tribune of the treasury

The duties of the tribunes of the treasury (tribuni aerarii) are somewhat 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 it was a class of people slightly below the equites in wealth. In 70 BC the makeup of Roman juries was reformed, and 1/3 of all members were to be tribunes of the treasury.

Various offices

Tribunal: a raised platform in front of the HQ used for addressing the troops or administering justice.

Tribunus: senior officer. In the late Roman army, alternatively called a comes, he was a commander of a cavalry vexillatio. The title survived in the East Roman army until the early 7th century, hellenized as tribounos.
Tribunus angusticlavius: "narrow-striped officer"; equestrian legionary officer, five to each legion.
Tribunus comitiatus: officer elected as tribunus militum by the comitia.
Tribunus laticlavius: "broad-striped officer"; senatorial legionary officer, second in command of a legion.
Tribunus militum: senior legionary officer.
Tribunus militum a populo: senior legionary officer appointed by popular assembly.
Tribunus rufulus: officer picked by the commander.
Tribunus sexmestris: tribune serving a tour of duty of only six months; note that there is absolutely no evidence at all to identify this officer as commander of the legionary cavalry as sometimes stated in modern literature.
Tribunus vacans: Late Roman unassigned tribune; staff officer.

Related Public Offices

Republic of Venice

In the early history of the Republic of Venice, during the tenure of the sixth Doge Domenico Monegario, Venice instituted a dual Tribunal modeled on the above Roman institution - two new Tribunes being elected each year, with the intention to oversee the Doge and prevent abuse of power (though this aim was not always successfully achieved).

French revolutionary tribunat

Main article: Tribunat

The "Tribunat", the French word for tribunate, derived from the Latin term tribunatus, meaning the office or term of a Roman tribunus (see above), was a collective organ of the young revolutionary French Republic composed of members styled tribun (the French for tribune), which, despite the apparent reference to one of ancient Rome's prestigious magistratures, never held any real political power as an assembly, its individual members no role at all.

It was instituted by Napoleon I Bonaparte's Constitution of the Year VIII "in order to moderate the other powers" by discussing every legislative project, sending its orateurs ("orators", i.e. spokesmen) to defend or attack them in the Corps législatif, and asking the Senate to overturn "the lists of eligibles, the acts of the Legislative Body and those of the government" on account of unconstitutionality. Its 100 members were designated by the Senate from the list of citizens from 25 years up, and annually one fifth was renewed for a five-year term.

When it opposed the first parts of Bonaparte's proposed penal code, he made the Senate nominate 20 new members at once to replace the 20 first opponents to his politic; they accepted the historically important reform of penal law. As the Tribunate opposed new despotic projects, he got the Senate in year X to allow itself to dissolve the Tribunate. In XIII it was further downsized to 50 members. On August 16, 1807 it was abolished and never revived.

New York City Public Advocate

New York City's municipal government has a citywide, elected position called The Public Advocate, a non-voting member of the New York City Council who has the right to introduce and co-sponsor legislation. The Public Advocate serves as an ombudsman for city government, providing oversight for city agencies, investigating citizens' complaints about city services and making proposals to address perceived shortcomings or failures of those services. These duties are laid out in Section 24 of the City Charter. The Public Advocate is also charged with appointing members to various boards and commissions, including one member of the New York City Planning Commission. The Public Advocate serves on the committee which selects the director of the Independent Budget Office. Along with the Mayor and the Comptroller, it is one of only three municipal offices elected by all the city's voters.

Bill de Blasio is the current Public Advocate, first elected in 2009.

See also





  • Nouveau Larousse illustré (Encyclopaedia in French; undated, early 20th century)
  • Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History, Christopher S. Mackay, p. 135 for information on Tribunes of the Treasury

External links

  • The Use of the Tribunate for Reforms
  • Tribune

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