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Form: tribunes of the commons.
The name given among the Romans to the official representatives granted to the plebeians in 494 B.C., as a protection against the oppression of patricians and the consuls. At first they were two in number, then five, and (after 457) ten. Only free-born plebeians were eligible for the office, which was annual. The election took place at first in the comitia curiata, but after 471 in the comitia tributa, under the presidency of any tribune who happened to be in office at the time. At first they were only magistrates of the plebs, and were without any insignia of office, or even lictors, instead of whom they had several attendants (viatores). This continued even after they were fully recognised as public officials. On the other hand, they possessed the privilege guaranteed to them by the plebs under solemn oath, on the institution of their office, of being "sacrosanct" and inviolable; and, under the protection of this right, they extended their originally limited powers by judicious encroachments. Their earliest right, which was at first exercised in favour of the plebs, but soon on behalf of all citizens, was that of protection (auxilium), which they could use against all magistrates with the exception of the dictator. This enabled them to prevent the execution of official orders by a simple veto (intercessio). In face of any opposition they were authorized to have recourse to compulsory measures such as arrest, fines, or imprisonment. Their power only extended over Rome and its immediate neighbourhood, and was further restricted by the right of veto, which they could exercise against one another. For the protection of the individual they only interposed when their aid was asked. For this purpose their house stood open day and night to any who sought their assistance, and they themselves could never be absent from the city a whole day, except during the feriae Latinae, when all business was suspended. Without appeal they could interpose in any measure which affected the whole plebs, such as the levying of troops and the raising of the war-tax (tributum). This right of intercession, which originally was confined to the auxilium, and which could never be exercised except by the tribune in person, and simultaneously with the proceeding that was to be prohibited, was in course of time gradually extended, until finally the veto of the tribunes enabled them to suspend almost all official proceedings; administrative measures, transactions with the Senate, and meetings of the people for the purpose of legislation and election, etc. They had the right of calling meetings of the plebs for the discussion of affairs relating to that body. From the time that the authority of these meetings extended over all State business, and their decrees (called plebiscita), were considered binding on the whole people, this right enabled the tribunes to propose changes in private or public law. It is true that, for carrying out their proposals, they were dependent on the sanction of the Senate; but, as they were safe from the risk of prosecution, they sometimes assumed, in case of need, an authority superior to that body. Originally they had no official relations with the Senate, but afterwards, by virtue of their inviolability, they obtained the right of sitting on their benches (subsellia) at the open door of the senate-house, so as to be present at the deliberations, and in case of need to interfere by virtue of their auxilium. Soon, however, they even obtained a seat in the Senate, and a general right of veto; until finally they acquired the right of summoning a meeting of the Senate, and of making proposals. At the same time they acquired the privilege of entrance into the Senate at the first census after the expiration of their office. The office of tribune, really the highest in the State, was employed by demagogues in the later days of the Republic in the interests of a party and to the injury of the commonwealth. By Sulla, in 80 B.C., its power was cut down to the very narrowest limits, chiefly by the regulation that, after the tribunate, no one was eligible for a curule office. However, as soon as 50 B.C. there came a complete reaction and a return to the old state of things, which finally entailed total anarchy, and, as a natural consequence, the sole rule of Caesar and Augustus. In 48 B.C. Caesar, to secure his position, assumed the tribunician power, at first without limit of time, and afterwards without limit of extent; and in 36 Augustus followed his example. From that time the tribunate became the pivot of the imperial power. Nevertheless, until beyond the time of Constantine, tribunes to the number of ten continued to exist. They were elected by the Senate, and as a rule from among the senators, but were in complete dependence on the will of the emperor. In order to find candidates for the office, which was now but little sought after, Augustus made the candidature in the case of the plebeians for the praetorship dependent on having held the tribunate. The office was also thrown open to sons of freedmen.
Type: Standard
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