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Who Were the Roman Magistrates? Exploring the Elected Officials of the Republic


The Roman Republic, lasting from roughly 509 to 27 BC, was a complex political system that relied on a delicate balance of power between various institutions. Central to this system were the Roman magistrates – elected officials who carried out the day-to-day governance of Rome and its territories.

As a historian, studying the magistrates provides valuable insights into the functioning of the Republic and the eventual forces that led to its downfall. In this article, we‘ll take an in-depth look at who these magistrates were, how they were elected, and the various powers and responsibilities they held. We‘ll also explore how the magistrate system evolved over time and consider its overall effectiveness in maintaining stable Republican governance.

The Origins and Structure of the Magistrate System

The Roman magistrate system has its origins in the early days of the Republic following the overthrow of the monarchy in 509 BC. As the historian Livy recounts, the early Romans were determined to prevent a return to one-man rule:

"The monarchy was abolished, and in its place two consuls were appointed, for one year only; in this way, they thought, the power would be less extravagant if it were divided between two men and restricted by a time limit." (Livy, History of Rome 2.1)

From this foundation, the system of annually elected magistrates evolved over the centuries of the Republic. The number and types of magistracies expanded as Rome‘s territories and administrative challenges grew. By the late Republic, the main magistracies were:

  • Quaestors (20-40 per year): Financial officers, record-keepers, assistants to consuls and governors
  • Aediles (4 per year): Managed public works, festivals, food supply, some judicial duties
  • Praetors (8-16 per year): Judicial officials, governors, military commanders
  • Consuls (2 per year): Chief executives, military commanders, legislative duties
  • Censors (2 every 5 years): Conducted census, assessed property, regulated Senate membership

Magistrates were elected by Roman citizens in the popular assemblies, with different assemblies voting for different offices. The centuriate assembly, organized by wealth and age, elected consuls, praetors, and censors. The tribal assembly, organized by place of residence, elected quaestors and aediles.

To prevent any one individual from accumulating too much power, magistrates served one-year terms (except censors at 18 months) and had to wait 10 years before holding the same office again. There were also minimum age requirements:

Magistracy Minimum Age
Quaestor 30
Aedile 35
Praetor 39
Consul 42

This system of annually elected magistrates, with term limits and age restrictions, was designed to strike a balance between giving citizens a voice in governance while preventing the rise of tyrants. However, as we‘ll see, ambitious individuals still found ways to accumulate outsized influence.

The Powers and Duties of Key Magistrates

Let‘s take a closer look at some of the most significant magistrate positions and the Romans who held them.

The Consuls: Chief Executives

The two annually elected consuls were the closest things the Republic had to chief executives. As the Greek historian Polybius noted in his analysis of the Roman constitution:

"The consuls, before leading out the legions, remain in Rome and are supreme masters of the administration. All other magistrates, except the tribunes, are under them and take their orders." (Polybius, Histories 6.12)

Consuls held imperium – the power to command armies and govern provinces. They could propose legislation, call Senate meetings, and preside over certain judicial proceedings. Consuls also held religious authority, taking auspices to determine if proposed actions met with divine favor.

Notable Romans who held the consulship include Cicero (63 BC), Pompey the Great (70, 55, 52 BC), and Julius Caesar (59, 48, 46, 45, 44 BC). The consulship represented the pinnacle of the cursus honorum – the sequential order of offices of the Roman political career.

Praetors: Judicial Officials and Provincial Governors

Praetors were chief judicial magistrates and also important military and provincial officials. In the city of Rome, the urban praetor oversaw legal cases involving citizens, while the peregrine praetor dealt with cases involving non-citizens.

Outside Rome, praetors served as governors of provinces, commanding armies and administering territories. Notable Romans who held the praetorship include Cicero (66 BC) and Caesar (62 BC).

The number of praetors increased over time as Rome acquired more territory. From just one praetor in 366 BC, the number expanded to four in 227 BC, six in 197 BC, and up to 16 by the time of Julius Caesar‘s dictatorship.

Plebeian Tribunes: Defenders of the People

The ten annually elected plebeian tribunes were tasked with protecting the interests of common citizens (the plebeians) against potential abuses by the patrician elite. As Livy recounts, the tribunate was established in 494 BC after plebeian soldiers refused to march against a foreign enemy until they were granted political concessions.

Tribunes held sacrosanctity, meaning they were legally inviolable. Harming a tribune was considered a capital offense. They had the power to veto actions by other magistrates and even the Senate, as well as to propose legislation and call assemblies of the plebeians.

In the late Republic, ambitious tribunes like Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus (133 and 123-122 BC) used their office to push for controversial land redistribution reforms, a move which ended in their deaths at the hands of their senatorial opponents. Later, allies of political leaders like Caesar and Pompey would use the tribunate to push through legislation on their patrons‘ behalf.

Failings of the Magistrate System

For all its checks and balances, the Roman magistrate system ultimately failed to prevent the accumulation of power by charismatic strongmen. In the late Republic, political violence became commonplace, with figures like Sulla and Caesar marching their armies on Rome itself.

The dictator Sulla (82-81 BC) used his power to enact a series of constitutional reforms aimed at strengthening the power of the Senate and curtailing the influence of the tribunes. But just over thirty years later, Julius Caesar (49-44 BC) tore down these reforms, using the consulship and later the dictatorship to establish his own personal dominance.

After Caesar‘s assassination, his heir Octavian emerged victorious from the ensuing civil wars, becoming Augustus – the first Emperor. While Augustus maintained the façade of Republican magistracies, real power now rested with the Emperor and his successors.


The Roman magistrates were a key pillar of the Republican system, representing the democratic element in the mixed constitution outlined by Polybius. Through institutions like the consulship, praetorship, and tribunate, Roman citizens had a voice in their own governance.

However, the story of the late Republican magistrates is also one of decline. As Rome‘s territory and wealth expanded, the stakes of political competition became ever higher. Ultimately, the traditional magistracies proved unable to contain the ambitions of men like Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar.

The fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire marked a fundamental shift in Roman governance. While the titles of consul and praetor endured, true authority now resided with the emperors. The delicate balance of power that had sustained the Republic for centuries had finally collapsed under its own weight.

As historians, studying the Roman magistrates offers invaluable lessons about the potentials and limitations of republican systems. It invites us to consider the inherent challenges of preserving democratic institutions in the face of individual ambition and societal upheaval. In this sense, the story of the Roman magistrates is one that continues to resonate in our own time.