Tribuni plebis (or plebi), ‘tribunes’, were the officers of the plebs first created in 500–450 bce (traditionally in 494, the date of the first secession of the plebs and their corporate recognition). The word is evidently connected with tribus, but it is uncertain whether the tribunes were at first chiefs of the tribes who later became officers of the plebs (they are sometimes φύλαρχοι in Greek, but δήμαρχοι is standard), or whether the title imitated that of the tribuni militum already existing. The original number of the tribunes is variously given as two, four, or five; by 449 it had certainly risen to ten.
The tribunes were charged with the defence of the persons and property of the plebeians (ius auxilii). Their power derived not from statute (initially, at least) but from the oath sworn by the plebeians to guarantee their sacrosanctitas, or inviolability. Elected by the plebeian assembly (concilium plebis, more usually called comitia plebis tributa) and exercising their power within the precincts of the city, the tribunes could summon the plebs to assembly (ius agendi) and elicit resolutions (plebiscita; see plebiscitum). They asserted a right of enforcing the decrees of the plebs and their own rights (coercitio); connected with coercitio was a measure of jurisdiction, including, probably, capital. Moreover, they possessed, though perhaps not from the very first, a right of veto (intercessio) against any act performed by a magistrate (or by another tribune), against elections, laws, senatus consulta. From this veto only the dictator (until c. 300 bce) and, perhaps, the interrex were exempt.
This revolutionary power was gradually recognized by the state. The tribunes became indistinguishable from magistrates of the state, although without imperium or insignia. The full acknowledgment of their power came with the recognition of plebiscita as laws binding upon the whole populus and not just the plebs (by the lex Hortensia of 287). Tribunes were first admitted to listen to senatorial debates; at least from the 3rd century bce they had the right to convoke the senate. In the 2nd century, the tribunate became sufficient qualification for membership of the senate (probably by a lex Atinia of 149). From the 4th and 3rd centuries, the tribunate became in part an instrument by which the senate could control magistrates through the veto and the right to summon the senate. But the revolutionary potential and popular origins of the office did not disappear.
In the first surviving contemporary discussion of the tribunes, from about the middle of the 2nd century, Polybius (1) (6. 16) states that ‘they are bound to do what the people resolve and chiefly to focus upon their wishes’. Succeeding years saw the tribunate active in the pursuit of the people’s interest and the principles of popular sovereignty and public accountability, as evidenced by the beginning of the practice of addressing the people in the forum directly (145), the introduction of the secret ballot in assemblies (139 and 137), concern with the corn supply (138), the agrarian legislation of Ti. Sempronius Gracchus (3) (133), and above all by the legislation and speeches, for which contemporary evidence survives, of C. Sempronius Gracchus (123–122). This movement continued sporadically into the tribunates of L. Appuleius Saturninus at the end of the 2nd century but did not long survive the domestic chaos of 100 and the convulsion of the Social War and consequent enfranchisement of peninsular Italy.
Active tribunes came increasingly to be associated with the particular interests and grievances of the urban plebs (and frequently with those of one or another of the emergent dynasts); the effective popular instrument was now the army. From the 130s on, attempts were made to limit the legislative potential of the tribunate, as well as the use of the veto. Sulla excluded tribunes from the magistracies of the Roman People and abolished, or severely curtailed, their power to legislate, their judicial powers, and their veto. In 75, the bar from magistracies was removed, and in 70 the full tribunicia potestas was restored to the tribunes. This tribunician power, divorced from the office but retaining its associations, was valued by the architects of the imperial state in the construction of their personal power. Caesar assumed at least the tribunician sacrosanctitas, and Augustus, probably in three steps (36, 30, 23 bce), gained a permanent tribunicia potestas. Reft of its power and all independence, the tribunate itself remained as a step in the senatorial career for plebeians alternatively with the aedileship until the 3rd century ce, and there is still evidence for the title in the 5th century.
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