Occupations: The Elite

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Occupations: The Elite


Senators. Tradition always maintained that a Roman senator should be a farmer who did public service when called upon to do so and for him to generally act as a model of Roman industriousness. In practice, a senator’s working day varied from individual to individual and changed a great deal in the course of the history of the empire. During the Republic, when the Senate held the greatest power in the Roman state, senators had many responsibilities. The Senate directed all of Rome’s finances, made crucial decisions about deploying the military, and guided all diplomatic missions. To enter the Senate, and as members, many also took administrative jobs or governed the territories they conquered. In earlier times, too, senators were more likely to be or have been officers in the military. By contrast, in spite of their wealth, senators were not supposed to engage in commerce or invest in trade. Such activity was unbecoming to a senator and legal measures, such as those prohibiting a senator from owning a merchant ship, were put in place to discourage such activity. In practice, however, the profits to be made from such investments were great, and senators found ways to put their money into trade anyway. They would have friends or clients handle the business for them and would be “secret” partners in such ventures. After the emperor started assuming the senate’s previous responsibilities, senators still led vital, public lives. Some emperors relied on the Senate more than others, but individual senators still held important offices and many emperors emerged from the ranks of the Senate. The property requirement instituted by Augustus insured that all senators had substantial estates of their own to manage. Senators also remained voices of authority in the courts and were regularly called upon to testify or support those involved in litigation. At all times, membership in the Senate carried prestige with it, and its members always bore the responsibility of embodying Roman ideals in all their activities.

The Cursus Honorum. For men on the senatorial career track, there existed a set of laws and customs governing the sequence of public offices they should hold in order to advance, known collectively as the cursus honorum (course of honors). Few rules are known about this sequence from the earlier days of the Republic, other than the expectation of military service and certain restrictions on repeating terms in the same office. By the early part of the second century B.C.E., the cursus was more regulated, generally for the purpose of slowing down the ambitious. The standard sequence ran: quaestor, praetor, and consul. The tribuneship of the plebs might be held after the quaestorship. The position of censor was open usually only to former consuls. Later, the vigintivirate magistracies (and, unofficially, the post of military tribune) were added to the beginning as prerequisite to the quaestorship.

Viginti(sex)viri. Six boards comprising twenty-six magistracies were collectively known in the late Republic as the vigintisexviri (“Twenty-six Men”). Half of the positions belonged to the Board of Ten for Judging Lawsuits (decemviri stlitibus iudicandis). Four were Prefects for Campania (praefecti capuam cumas) The three-man board tresviri capitales, also known as the tresviri nocturni, had limited police functions, such as guarding prisoners. Another three-man board, the tresviri monetales (“Monetary Board of Three”), also known as the tresviri acre argento auro flando feriundo (“Board of Three for Smelting and Casting Bronze Silver and Gold”), supervised the minting of coins. A board of four men (quattuorviri) governed the maintenance of streets in the city of Rome (viis in urbe purgandis) and another of two (duoviri) handled street maintenance around the city (viis extra urbem purgandis). The Emperor Augustus abolished two of these boards (the four prefects to Campania and the two offices in charge of streets around Rome), and the group became known as the vigintiviri (“The Twenty Men”). These boards became important by the Late Republic as precursors (along with, unofficially, the post of Military Tribune) for the quaestorship and hence to a senatorial career.

Quaestor. The quaestor primarily controlled finances and served under the praetor. Quaestors governed the treasury (aerarium). Provinces, as they were created, also had one or more Roman quaestors to supervise their finances. Eventually the number of quaestors reached stability at twenty. When called upon, a quaestor was expected to act in place of his supervisor, as propraetor (from pro, “on behalf of”). After Augustus transferred control of the public treasury to the emperor’s court, the office of quaestor accordingly moved and candidates were chosen by the emperor. The quaestorship was traditionally the least of the public magistracies, but it was nonetheless the beginning of the cursus honorum and a senatorial career. At times, holding the office could gain, but not guarantee, admission to the Senate. Later, the holding of one of the lesser magistracies (the vigintisexviri) became a prerequisite for quaestor.

Aedile. The office of Aedile originated in the supervision of the temple (aedes, hence aedilis “of/pertaining to the temple”) of the plebs, and in support for the tribune of the plebs. As the office developed, Aediles had three main areas of responsibility: cura urbis, cura annonae, and cura ludorum sollemnium. Cura urbis, “care of the city,” referred to maintaining the city and public events within it, including public cultic rituals, streets, water supply, markets, and so on. Cura annonae referred specifically to maintaining the grain supply. Finally, cura ludorum sollemnium called upon the aedile to provide religious and spectacular games for the public. Because these games generated much publicity for their sponsors, aediles came to spend more and more lavishly on them to further their own careers. Under the empire, aediles surrendered many of these functions to other officials but still held authority over markets. Provinces and municipalities outside Rome also had aediles with analogous responsibilities. While never a strict requirement along the cursus honorum, the aedileship was a frequent step after the quaestorship.

Tribune. Two classes of tribunes, aerarii (of the treasury) and militum (of the military) were traditionally associated with the equestrian order (see below). The tribunus plebis, the tribune of the plebs, could be held after the quaestorship along the cursus honorum toward a senatorial career. The origin and growth of the office coincides with the long struggle of the plebeians against the patricians for power in the Roman state. The first secession of the plebs traditionally created the office, which gradually acquired the power of veto against other magistrates and became a full public magistracy itself. Broadly speaking, the tribune was responsible for communicating and enacting the will of the plebs or of the people generally. Tribunician authority came to be subsumed by the emperors, but the office still remained on the path of the potential senator until the third century C.E.

Praetor. The praetorship was the one of the most powerful offices in Republican Rome, second only to the consulship. Originally, praetors were elected annually with consular powers, only in lesser degrees. In the absence of the consuls from the city of Rome, the praetor was the chief magistrate in the city, president of the Senate, and in charge of the legal system. A praetor could also lead armies. In the third century B.C.E., two praetorships developed, the urbanus (“of the city”) and peregrinus (“of/for foreigners”). The number of praetorships rose as high as eight, in order to provide enough governors and commanders for new provinces during Rome’s expansion. The urban praetor became increasingly responsible for the law courts, but late Republican civil strife led to the collapse of the Praetorian office in the 50s B.C.E. During the empire, praetors governed principally over law courts and also took over production of public games. In all periods, the praetorship was a highly sought-after office, being one of the most powerful magistracies. In the Republican cursus honorum, it was the stepping-stone to the consulship.

Consul. The two consuls were the most powerful individual officials in Republican Rome. Traditionally, the consulship was developed when the monarchy was abolished in 509 B.C.E. Two consuls were elected each year, insuring that no one man would have the power of monarchy (literally, “sole rule”). A consul was invested with a supreme power called imperium, and restricted in his authority only by (1) the limit of his office to one year; (2) the veto power (Latin veto, “I forbid”) of the other consul, who also had imperium ; and (3) an appeal-procedure called provocatio. The two consuls could share responsibilities or alternate them. For example, on military campaigns the consuls traditionally each held overall command on alternate days. The consulship represented a key stage in the cursus honorum in a senatorial career, and except for the senate itself, no institution was more identified with the Roman Republic. Under the empire the office of consul continued to exist, but the emperor held the consular imperium, and the position entailed more prestige than power.

Censor. The office of the two censors was created in the early days of the Republic. The censors had the primary responsibility of maintaining the official list (census) of Roman citizens. Censors served originally for four years, and later for five, but terms and elections varied in actual practice. The power of the censors extended beyond the census itself. Censors had the right and responsibility to inspect the moral health of the Roman citizenry. Censors could exclude citizens from their tribe and thus deprive them of the right to vote. Censors also served as gatekeeper to the Senate, from which censors could also exclude members. Censors reviewed the suitability of members of the cavalry (Equites equo publico). Censors were also in charge of leasing public properties and selling public contracts, such as those for tax collection. Reserved for former consuls, the censorship represented the pinnacle of the cursus honorum in a senatorial career. Under Augustus, the emperor absorbed the duties of the censors.


The Romans developed a complex legal system that has influenced and served as the foundation, directly or indirectly, of many legal systems around the world. They established the principle whereby legal experts (Jurists) would interpret and reinterpret the proper application of laws. Included in Roman law was the basic mechanism for one individual to sue another for damages. This type of lawsuit was called “delict,” based on a law called the lex Aquilias, and is similar to American torts. Surviving legal writings include fictional cases that jurists use to illustrate legal principles. These sample cases provide a glimpse of the common events and disputes of people in the Roman world. Many disputes, for example, involve people who rent work animals, much as someone today might rent a car or equipment. One famous case asks how to award damages when some children are playing ball in the street and a stray ball hits the hand of a barber, who then, because he is hit, cuts the neck of the slave whom he is shaving. The slave’s master sues for the value of the dead slave, Should the barber pay up?

Source : Bruce W. Frier, A Casebook on the Roman Law of Delict (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989).

Occupations of Equestrians. The equestrians (equites, “horsemen” or “cavalry”) originated with, as their name suggests, a segment of the military. Certain rights and prestige seem to have belonged to them from the earliest days, even in the monarchy. By the end of the third century B.C.E., their role in the military had all but vanished but the prestige remained and wealth was the primary key to gaining admittance. In 129 B.C.E., the equestrians officially became distinct from the senatorial order, when senators were forbidden to enroll in the equestrian order. At the end of the

decade, Gaius Gracchus included in his reforms that jurors in corruption trials be composed of equestrians, and this change may mark the beginning of the later order as it is now known. The juror-function was returned to the senate fifty years later, but the identity of the equestrian order remained. They were traditionally wealthy and prestigious, but involved in business ventures and commerce in a way not officially permitted to senators. Because senators often formed “secret” partnerships with equestrians in business ventures, the equestrian order could influence the senate. Augustus more clearly defined the order as an aristocratic class second only to the Senate and restored their identity as jurors. Emperors during the third century C.E. increasingly appointed equestrians to positions traditionally held by senators. As more and more officials of lower rank were granted the status of equestrian, by the end of the fifth century C.E., the equestrian order ceased to be a recognizable element. During the most prosperous and historic epochs in Roman history, however, while equestrians could and did run for political office, they were better known as the large capital investors and management executives of the Roman world.

Tribunes. Two types of tribuneships are associated with the Equestrian order. The tribuni aerarii (treasury officials) were early officials in charge of collecting tribute from foreign nations and disbursing military pay. This office disappeared, but the title was later applied to a class of jurors (third after the senators and equestrians) who met the census requirement of equestrians but were not members. After Julius Caesar abolished this category of jurors, the title disappeared. Tribuni militum (military tribunes) originally commanded tribal contingents of the Roman army. A quota of six tribunes became the norm, with four elected to command legions and two others appointed and acting in rotation. In the later empire, the term applied to a wider variety of commands. At all periods, equestrians dominated these posts, but some men of senatorial families might also serve as military tribunes, as this post was customary (but not required) between a stint among the vigintisexviri and the quaestorship.

Publicans: Contractors and Construction Companies. Much collection of public revenue and many public construction projects were sold to private individuals and companies known as publicani. The Senate would approve a project and allot the funds for it. The censors would offer a contract for the project for sale. Publicans, represented by a bidder called the manceps, bought the contracts and made their profit by spending less on the project than the contract cost them. In the case of contracts to collect taxes, this situation could lead tax collectors to extort extra taxes to increase profits. Offices of publican companies consisted of magistri (“chiefs”) who ran the companies, and staffs (familiae), which ran into the hundreds in some instances, consisting generally of slaves and freedmen. Gaius Gracchus seems to have greatly expanded the scale of publican activity by arranging for the taxes from the province of Asia (corresponding to the southwestern part of modern Turkey) to be sold by the censors. The partners (socii) in a publican company put up the money to buy a contract and then expected their money returned plus a share of the profits when the contract was completed. Equestrians dominated these companies. Senators were forbidden to be partners, but they certainly found ways to skirt the law. By the end of the Republic, such companies had become so successful that they even acted as bankers for the Roman government. Corruption and conflict of interest (especially when senators were illegally involved in these companies) became serious problems. At times, too, some companies offered public shares of stock (partes), compounding the difficulty. The civil wars engulfing the Republic hurt publican companies, and they were sharply curtailed under the empire.


People today know the trades and details about ordinary workers mostly from paintings, carvings, and occasional inscriptions. Some professions existed, but scarcely more than that is known. This is certainly the case with professions devoted to making and repairing items for women. For example, the comic playwright Plautus includes a monologue that helps us learn what sort of professions existed in the Roman Republic of his day. A character is lamenting what happens when a man gets married and moves to the city. He speaks of the days when the wife’s bills come due:

These days you’ll find more delivery-wagons in front of buildings in the city than you’d see in the country when you go to your remote villa. But even that’s a nice view compared to when your expenses track you down. Up pops the dry-cleaner, the embroiderer, the goldsmith, woolsmith, salesmen, hem-makers, negligee-makers, veil-makers, purple-makers, yellow-makers, or sleeve-makers, or slippers-centers, linen sellers, shoe-makers, shoe-shiners, slipper makers, sandal-makers, all right there waiting. The pink makers!—right there waiting. The dry-cleaners look for you. The patch-makers look for you. The scarf-makers are right there waiting. At the same time, the belt-makers-right there waiting! And just when you figure you’ve got them all taken care of, they leave-and three hundred more show up! Countless numbers of them, ready with the bills, stacked up in the hallway, frilly-fringe-makers, jewelrybox-makers. You let them in. You think you’ve taken care of it—the yellow-robe-makers stroll in, or some other dead man walking who wants something!

Source: Plautus, 5 volumes, translated by Paul Nixon, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1916-1938).


Lionel Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History, second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

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