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From Town Life in Ancient Italy, A Translation of Professor Ludwig Friedländer’s“"Städtewesen in Italien im ersten jahrhundert,” by William E. Waters, The Students’ Series, Boston: Benj. H. Sanborn & Co., 1906; pp. 12-21.

Town Life in Ancient Italy



Municipal Government

Under the empire the form of government in the municipia was essentially what it had been in the republican period.1 At first the cities retained the 13 fullest freedom in self-government. They retained the right of electing their own officers, even after other rights were lost, although it practically came to amount to mere approval of the choice made by the council of the municipality.2 The elections occurred regularly year after year, and the political excitement they created, however much they might seem like a tempest in a teapot, did in reality, at least in the earlier time, stir up the people in the profoundest way. In Pisa, in the year 4 A.D., no elections could be held at all on account of the bitter spirit of the candidates.3 The highest office was that of the duumvirs, or judges, by whose names the year was designated, as at Rome by the names of the consuls. They presided in the senate, and in popular assemblies; they had authority in civil cases up to a certain point, and in criminal cases their jurisdiction continued until the close of the first century, when it passed into the hands of the imperial judges. In intervals of every five years, the duumvirs who were then in office published an account of the municipal receipts and expenditures; and on account of this extension of authority, involving the fixing of the lists of senators and of citizens also, these particular duumvirs, or quinquennales, received a much greater 14 importance than the duumvirs of other years. Next in authority to them stand the two ædiles, or chiefs of police. To them belonged the supervision of the streets,4 the public buildings, baths and markets, and particularly the care of all imports, and the control of weights and measures. They could also punish offenders in the market. In many cities there were also special treasurers (quæstores), although not in all.

The privileges to which these officers were entitled were, first, the dress of the Roman magistrates (a toga with a purple border); secondly, the curule chair (a folding chair without back); thirdly, lictors to precede them, carrying only the staves and not the axes.

To hold office, the candidate must be freeborn, of irreproachable name, be at least twenty-five years old, and possess a certain income; he must also show that he is not carrying on any improper business, as that of procurer, actor, gladiator, or even auction criers, whose business was too much like that of the actor. Undertakers were also debarred. It was necessary to take office in the strictly legal order, beginning at the lowest and rising, if any one aspired to the higher grades. No one could hold the same office twice unless after an interval of five years. As for property qualification, in some cities, as in Comum, the candidate must possess at least $5000; 15 in larger cities, undoubtedly more. In Padua, at that time the most important city of upper Italy, there were, in the reign of Augustus, five hundred families which possessed more than four times the qualifying amount.5 In fact, almost everywhere larger means must have been requisite than merely the legal census in order to hold office without bankrupting oneself, for the magistrates were not only unsalaried, but burdened with considerable expenses incidental to the positions they held. Custom, and sometimes specifications in the laws, forced those who were elected to undertake certain things for the good of the community, for example, the erection of public buildings, or holding of public games; they were, besides, expected to contribute to the city treasury a certain amount as an honorarium, which was based upon the size of the city and the grade of the office. In Pompeii this amounted, in the case of the higher offices, to about $500. Sometimes it was remitted as a special mark of honor to certain individuals. Often the treasury received more than was expected under the law, and at times certain expenditures that required a far greater outlay were undertaken in behalf of the city, in place of contributing the money directly to the treasury.

The senate,6 or city council, was commonly called the curia, and often with the epithet splendidissima, 16 “most reverend.” It was composed of one hundred members, chosen for life, who were called decuriones. Their list, as has been said above, was determined every five years by the quinquennales. All who had held office belonged eo ipso* to the senate. A stone inscription still exists, giving a list of the senate of Canusium (Canossa) for the year 223 A.D. In this, thirty-nine honorary members are named, as well as the one hundred decuriones. These latter are given according to the class to which they belong, for the classification of senators was an important matter, since it determined their seating in the senate and the order of their voting. In this list we see that seven were ex-quinquennales, four received this rank by senatorial decree without having filled the office, twenty-nine were ex-duumvirs, ten ex-ædiles, nine ex-quæstors, and thirty-two had as yet held no office. At the end are given the names of twenty-five sons of decuriones below the legal age, who, like the sons of Roman senators, had the right to attend the sessions as listeners, but were included in the senatorial list only upon special order to that effect. Such special orders were given upon the death of certain decuriones whose family the senate might desire to honor, or upon the express wish of fathers, or in grateful recognition of some generosity on their part toward the people. Their sons, or nephews, though often but mere youths, were then 17 placed on the list and, from that time, shared in the privileges of the decuriones, except that they did not vote before their twenty-fifth year.

There were certain honorable privileges enjoyed by the decuriones, differing according to their rank and class. These were not indicated by any special kind of dress, for as a fact the same dress was worn by all the senators, even indeed in the most elaborate and imposing ceremonials which attended their burial. The peculiar privileges of the honorable kind referred to were such as the first place of honor at all public festivals and games, the right to the use of a certain kind of chair called bisellium, which was a broad bench without back but with a footstool,7 the right to a larger share in the advantages of any entertainments given or in any distributions of money, and finally in later times the honorable epithet laudabilis, which might also be applied to the members of their families.8 As honestiores the decuriones could not be condemned to certain extreme penalties of the law in case they were guilty of crime.9 The conditions of eligibility were the same as with the executive officers of the city. An honorarium was necessary upon entering the senate, exemption 18 from which was also with them a mark of special distinction. They probably had the right to use the city water free of charge,10 and seem to have enjoyed other advantages, at least in certain towns.11

Although the city offices brought the holders of them no material advantages, but imposed considerable sacrifice, and though the privileges connected with the decurionate scarcely afforded any real compensation for the expenses they entailed, yet they were sought with eagerness and ambition. Cicero said that it was easier to become senator in Rome than to become decurio in Pompeii. This was true in later times as well. Besides, there is no doubt that in the smaller towns the desire to rise above one’s fellows, and to provoke jealousy and envy, was more keenly relished than in the cities. Yet it must not be forgotten that the municipalities did not participate in the vast concerns of the Roman empire; this would have been possible only in a government by representation, and antiquity knew no such system. The horizon of municipal politics did not, as a rule, reach beyond the precincts of the town. Within this 19 circle, under the early empire, when the central government had not yet imposed its representatives upon the towns of Italy, the full freedom of self-government allowed scope, not only for ambition and vanity, but also for talent and energy.

During the second century, and to some extent in the century preceding, the status of the cities of Italy declined. Imperfections in their administration of justice repeatedly forced Hadrian and subsequent emperors to reorganize them.12 Irregularities, too, had begun to appear in the finances of the cities, caused in part, no doubt, by the construction of handsome public buildings whose great cost exceeded the means at command. Deficits and bankruptcy naturally resulted, giving emperors opportunity to undertake the economic management of cities, a matter which had hitherto been intrusted to the quinquennales alone, and to name imperial commissioners, called curatores, to take charge of their government. These were never chosen from the cities where their duties lay, but either from another city, or from the two highest classes of the empire, the equites and senators. Such commissioners often had supervision over the economic administration of several cities at once. Just as soon as this interference in the affairs of the rural communities and cities was established by the central government, it was natural that the 20 local officers and the local senate should find themselves reduced to a more and more subordinate position, while the burdens of the community in financial obligations and taxes were increased. While, therefore, the municipal offices lost a large part of their desirability, yet, from the beginning of the second century, the centralizing imperial service offered much more favorable opportunities than before. At that time a bureaucracy was established by Hadrian which reached gradually throughout the entire government, —  a highly complex and systematized organism, that laid claim to a large number of privileges and powers, and opened up brilliant and powerful careers. Eagerness to enter into the imperial civil service increased; the desirability of municipal service declined. The number of those who, out of fear for the safety of their property, accepted the decurionate or the municipal offices became larger and larger; naturally they hid all indications of their wealth as far as possible. It seems probable that, as early as the second century, force was resorted to in filling up the membership of the municipal curiæ from among those holding the requisite valuation; and in time even severer measures were resorted to, lest the curiæ drop into desuetude through lack of members. The decurionate came therefore to be a rank or position that descended from father to son, and to it the sons of decuriones could belong, as such, as early as 21 their eighteenth year. In case of necessity, vacancies were filled from among the remaining citizens; slaves, freedmen, and outlaws could not, however, be chosen. In the fourth century, the senate became a sort of penal institution into which a citizen might be forced on account of some offence.


1  On this and the following cf. Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, I. 132-208; and the section Res municipales in the Indices of the CIL, X. 2 and XIV.; Henzen-Orelli, Indices, 150 ff., and Wilmanns, p. 611.

2  Mommsen, Staatsrecht, III. 1. 349-351.

3  Henzen-Orelli, 643, propter contentiones candidatorum. On this general subject cf. Mau-Kelsey, pp. 121-123.

4  Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, I. 166, 7.

5  Friedl., III. 179.

6  Mau-Kelsey, Pompeii, p. 12.

7  According to Johannes Schmidt, De Seviris Augustalibus, p. 93, this honor was for those only who had already held this office.

8  De Rossi, Bullet. crist., III. 26; V. 24.

9  Hartmann, De exilios, p. 58 f. Cf. Mau-Kelsey, Pompeii, 12 f.

10  Mommsen, Zeitschrift für histor. Rechtswissenschaft, XV. 311.

11  CIL, X. 4760 = Willmanns, Exem. Inscr., 2038 (Suessa): huic (Aug. 11) ordo decurionum . . . ut aquæ digitus in domo eius flueret commodisque publicis acsi decuro frueretur . . . decrevit. XI. 1, 1607 (Florentia): filio an. XXIIII. commodis decurioni(s) uso d. d.

12  Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, I. 223 ff.

Elf.Ed. Notes

*  eo ipso — “for that very reason#8221; is one meaning of this variously interpreted phrase, A New Latin-English Dictionary, by William Young, London: A. Wilson, 1818, p. 274.


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