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Roman Assemblies

For administrative purposes the citizens were divided into 25 various groups, as are those of all civilized communities to-day. During the regal period the citizens were divided into thirty curiae, 'wards.' At a later (republican) period all the people of the city and adjacent territory were divided according to locality into tribus, 'tribes,' which in Cicero's time numbered thirty-five. At a still later date each tribe was subdivided on a basis of wealth and age into ten centuriae, 'centuries,' making of course three hundred and fifty centuriae for all the people possessing the minimum of property required.

Each citizen on being enrolled as such was assigned by the censors to his proper tribe and century, and it was only as a member of such tribe or century that he could exercise that most important of his iura publica the ius suffragii. That is, each ward, or tribe, or century, was counted as a whole, its vote being determined, as is the electoral vote of one of our states, by the majority of the individual votes of the citizens who composed it.

In accordance with this triple division of the citizens there were three great popular assemblies (comitia, from cum and eo), known respectively as the Comitia Curiata, Comitia Tributa, and Comitia Centuriata. The word comitia is plural in Latin, but is used by English writers as a singular also, equivalent to assembly.

  1. The Comitia Curiata. - This ancient assembly had lost all political power, and was called together merely as a matter of form to confer the Imperium upon the consuls, to authorize adoptions, etc. Its authority was so shadowy that the curiae were merely represented by a single delegate each.
  2. The Comitia Tributa. - This had once been an assembly 2S of plebeians only, but had grown in influence until in Cicero's time it was the most important of the comitia, and all legislation had practically passed into its hands. It could be summoned by a consul, praetor or tribune. Its meetings were held in the forum. It elected tribunes, quaestors, aediles, and petty magistrates. Most of the laws that have come down to us were adopted in this assembly and were called plebiscita.
  3. The Comitia Centuriata. - Originally devised by Servius Tullius this assembly had been reconstructed at about the time of the second Punic war. It was composed of the three hundred and fifty centuriae, formed by dividing each of the thirty-five tribes into five classes, according to wealth, and each of these classes into two centuriae according to age - one of Sniores (above 45), one of Juniores. To these were added eighteen centuriae of young nobles who had not been magistrates, and five centuriae of smiths, trumpeters and citizens (called aerarii) who lacked the property qualification for the regular classes, making a total of three hundred and seventy-three centuriae. This assembly could be summoned by a dictator, consul or praetor. It met on the Campus Martius. It elected consuls, praetors and censors. It possessed full rights of legislation, but almost never used them. It possessed judicial authority in criminal cases, but had delegated this to the standing courts. It had the power of declaring war, but had allowed the senate to usurp this function.
The same method of voting was used in all assemblies. In the comitia tributa the people arranged themselves by tribes in enclosures (saepta) marked off by ropes or other barriers. Each citizen was supplied with tickets marked 'for' and 'against' when a law was proposed, or with the names of the candidates when an election was in progress. One tribe (tribus praero-gativa) was selected by lot to vote first; and the members of that tribe passed out of the saepta one by one through a narrow opening (pons), each depositing his ticket in a box provided for the purpose. The vote of this tribe was immediately announced to the remaining thirty-four, and (as the gods were supposed to direct the lot) it was usually confirmed by a majority of the others. The rest of the tribes then voted in the same manner as the first, but at the same time, and the matter was decided by a majority (eighteen) of the tribal votes.

The comitia centuriata went through similar formalities. The people were arranged, each century to itself, around the sides of the Campus Martius, a large space being left unoccupied in the center. The seventy centuries of the first and wealthiest class cast lots to see which should vote first (centuria praerogativa), and the result of its vote was announced. Then the remaining centuries of the first class (sixty-nine) and the eighteen centuries of nobles voted at the same time. The other classes followed in order of wealth; but with each of these four classes voted an extra century made up of citizens who had arrived too late to vote with their proper centuries, thus making a total of three hundred and seventy-seven votes, a majority of which decided the matter.

None of these assemblies were in any sense deliberative bodies. They could assemble only when called together by the proper magistrate, and then only to vote 'yes' or 'no' without the right to debate or amend, upon the question which he put before them, or to elect or reject some candidate whom he nominated to them. They were dissolved at any moment when it was his pleasure to stop their proceedings, and if he saw fit he could annul the election of a successful candidate by simply refusing to proclaim the result officially.

Nor were the assemblies at the mercy of the presiding magistrate only. After notice had been given of the meeting of the comitia it could be countermanded by any magistrate equal or superior in authority to the one appointing it. Even after the voting had begun it had to be suspended if lightning was seen, or if a storm arose, or if any one present had an epileptic fit, or if a tribune of the people interposed, or if night came on before the business was completed. After any such interruption the proceedings had to be repeated from the very beginning - they could not be resumed at the point where they were discontinued. Thus if at an election of the eight praetors an interruption took place after six had been chosen, their election was null and void; they had to take their chances again with the other two whenever the balloting was renewed. The time required for holding an election was therefore very uncertain, as, by one pretext or another, it might be postponed for weeks and months.

As a citizen could vote at the elections only as a mere fraction of a tribe, or ward, or century, and at the cost of a journey to Rome if he lived elsewhere, and at the risk of loss of time by interruptions and postponements, the comitia were, except in times of great excitement, very scantily attended. Sometimes out of an entire century only five citizens would be present, and at all times the assembly was at the mercy of the demoralized rabble of the city.

Contiones

In the comitia the people met to elect magistrates and enact laws, but in another class of assemblies (Contiones, from cum and venio) their part was a purely passive one. Any magistrate had a right to get the people together at any convenient time and place for the purpose of informing them about matters in which he or they might be interested. He could address them himself or give any one else the right to speak. These assemblies had no powers of any kind, no resolutions were adopted, no voting was done, no debate was allowed; but they were the one means of acquainting the public, citizens and slaves and foreigners, with public events before the days of Court Journals, Congressional Records or enterprising newspapers.




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