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date: 24 November 2020

Lex Hortensia was a law submitted for comitia approval in 287 bce by the plebeian dictator Q. Hortensius. The law established that plebiscites would be valid for the entire Roman population and would have the force of law.1 A small group of ancient sources agree on the description of the law’s contents.2

Scholars are uncertain as to which assembly considered the proposal. Pliny the Elder places the approval in Aesculeto3: this is an unknown location, which is nonetheless considered to be outside the pomerium.4 If this opinion is correct, it can be assumed that the centuriate comitia voted on the law.

The law was presented and voted upon during a period of political and economic conflict between the patricians and plebeians, and during the third secession of the latter (in this case, on the Janiculum5).6 It represented a fundamental step for plebeian progress. It can be said that the lex Hortensia marked the final moment in the Struggle of the Orders.7

The main uncertainties regarding this law relate to the fact that ancient tradition attests to two earlier laws with the same content: lex Valeria Horatia de plebiscitis dated 449 bce8 and lex Publilia Philonis de plebiscitis dated 339 bce.9 Scholars therefore consider how much credibility should be afforded to the sources, and how the laws are related.

Three main hypotheses have been put forward in the scholarship.10

According to the first hypothesis, the first two laws dated 449 and 339 bce were nothing but annalistic inventions and the only testimonies with any real historical credibility are those relative to the lex Hortensia.11

A second reconstruction denies the historical accuracy of the lex Valeria Horatia alone and recognizes the lex Publilia Philonis as the first equalisation between laws and plebiscites,12 subject—according to some scholars—to the approval/ratification (auctoritas) of the senate for each and every plebiscite. According to this theory, the lex Hortensia would have subsequently abolished the need for senate approval.

A third opinion claims that all three laws historically exist. When the first two came into force, some sort of approval (whether preventive or ensuing) by the senate would have been required, and the lex Hortensia would have subsequently abolished the need for any ratification.13

By critically analysing the issue in light of the sources, it immediately emerges that numerous plebiscites existed with the status of law, no doubt approved between 449 and 339 bce, with some even dated prior to 449 bce.14 In some of these cases, senate approval is accounted for, at times preventive, at other times ensuing to the content of the plebiscites.15

This data would appear to indicate that during the early Republic, the senate could, in certain cases, accept and ratify decisions assumed in a revolutionary way by the plebeians, granting these decisions the status of law. It is difficult to say whether there existed an initial unknown law before the Twelve Tables,16 or whether the recognition of plebiscites by the senate occurred during this early phase within the context of political dynamics. It does, however, seem likely that at a certain point, a law intervened to definitively establish the validity of plebeian decisions (provided they had been previously or subsequently approved by the senate), and this provision can be correctly identified in ancient tradition in the lex Valeria Horatia of 449 bce.

In any case, it may be that the provisions of said law were not always respected in the general context of the endemic political battle characterising the Roman political scene during the fifth and fourth century bce. With the advent of the new constitution ratified by the Liciniae Sextiae reforms of 367 bce, the need clearly arose, in this new and by now changed political and institutional context, to enforce what had already been anticipated by the lex Valeria Horatia. It could be said that this result was achieved through the approval of the lex Publilia Philonis of 339 bce, the aim of which was most likely to increase plebeian power at a time when a new executive class had formed: the patrician-plebeian nobilitas (noble class).

The lex Publilia Philonis would had to have instilled the procedure for the approval of plebiscites in a more permanent manner, establishing that senatorial ratification of said legislative acts was always preventive.17 This data can be confirmed by a passage from Appian.18 When describing a reform by Sulla of 88 BCE, this Greek historian writes that by imposing the need for preventive consent by the senate for the plebiscites,19 a process was called upon that had not been applied for a long time.20 Appian doesn’t quote the lex Hortensia as the law that abolished the need for preventive consent by the senate, but it is presumably what he is referring to. If this conclusion is drawn, it can be inferred that the law which established preventive senatorial ratification may well have been the lex Publilia Philonis, or rather the law which, on the issue of plebiscites, was in force prior to the lex Hortensia.

Gaius,21 by his own account, adds that at one stage, prior to the approval of the lex Hortensia, the patricians claimed not to be obliged to respect plebiscites that had been voted for without their consent. It would appear correct to state that, once again, reference is made to the lex Publilia Philonis.

Moreover, the lex Publilia Philonis, like the Valeria Horatia before it, was not unquestionably respected. This can be inferred from Pomponius,22 according to whom before the lex Hortensia there was much discord regarding the value of plebiscites.

The definitive equalisation between laws and plebiscites achieved in 287 bce led to a type of division of competencies between the comitia and the plebeians: proposals with genuine political weight were presented by the consuls to the centuriate assembly, while more decidedly technical laws, in particular those relative to private law, were left to the initiative of the tribunes. This division of authority was also justified by the supreme magistrates’ frequent absence from Rome due to military demands. Add to this the fact that, compared to laws, plebiscites were an agile normative instrument for which the complex process of comitia approval was not required.

With the enforcement of the lex Hortensia, all preventive and ensuing ratification of plebiscites by the senate would have disappeared,23 as can be inferred a contrariis by the testimonies of Appian and Gaius. That said, it cannot be denied that the senate was able to revoke a plebiscite. But instances of plebiscite revocation by the senate confirm that these were not due to lack of accord regarding plebiscite content but rather more bureaucratic reasons, such as the failure to comply with promulgation terms, the grouping of measures pertaining to different subjects in a single provision (lex satura), or the violation of auspices.24

Macrobius25 makes reference to a lex Hortensia that modern scholars refer to as “de nundinis” (concerning markets), a law indicating which market days were to be considered fasti26 and therefore days on which justice could be administered. The provision was a measure to support rural plebeians, who when visiting the city on market days would have also been heard by the praetor in regards to their legal requests. The doctrine raises questions, however, as to whether this was a real law distinct from the lex de plebiscitis or whether it was just a chapter of it.27

Bibliography

  • Bennett, Chris. “Livy and the Lex Hortensia. The Julian Chronology of the Comitial Dates in Livy.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 149 (2004): 165–176.
  • De Martino, Francesco. Storia della costituzione romana, I. Naples: E. Jovene, 1972.
  • Develin, Robert. “Provocatio and Plebiscites. Early Roman Legislation and the Historical Tradition.” Mnemosyne 31 (1978): 45–60.
  • Elster, Marianne. Die Gesetze der mittleren römischen Republik. Text und Kommentar. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2003.
  • Fercia, Riccardo. “Sul ruolo del senato nell’equiparazione tra leges e plebiscita.” In Scritti per Alessandro Corbino, III. Edited by I. Piro, 583–605. Tricase: Libellula, 2016.
  • Ferenczy, Endre. From the Patrician State to the Patricio-Plebeian State. Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1976.
  • Guarino, Antonio. “L’exaequatio legibus dei plebiscita.” In Festschrift für F. Schulz, 458–465. Köln-Wien: Böhlau, 1951.
  • Hölkeskamp, Karl-Joachim. “Die Entstehung der Nobilität und der Funktionswandel des Volkstribunats. Die historische Bedeutung der lex Hortensia de plebiscitis.” Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 70 (1988): 271–312.
  • Humbert, Michel. “I plebiscita prima dell’equiparazione alle leggi (con la lex Hortensia del 287 ca.).” In Leges publicae. La legge nell’esperienza giuridica romana. Edited by J.-L. Ferrary, 307–337. Pavia: IUSS Press, 2012.
  • Maddox, Graham. “The Economic Causes of the lex Hortensia.” Latomus 42 (1983): 277–286.
  • Maddox, Graham. “The Binding Plebiscite.” In Sodalitas. Scritti in onore di Antonio Guarino, I, 85–95. Napoli: Jovene, 1984.
  • Mitchell, Richard E. Patricians and Plebeians. The Origin of the Roman State. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.
  • Niccolini, Giovanni. Il tribunato della plebe. Milan: Hoepli, 1932.
  • Rotondi, Giovanni. Leges publicae populi romani. Elenco cronologico con una introduzione sull’attivita legislativa dei comizi romani. Milan: Società editrice italiana, 1912.
  • Siber, Heinrich. Die plebejischen Magistraturen bis zur Lex Hortensia. Leipzig: T. Weicher, 1936.
  • Staveley, E. Stuart. “Tribal Legislation before the lex Hortensia.” Athenaeum 33 (1955): 3–31.
  • Strachan-Davidson, James Leigh. “The Decrees of the Roman Plebs.” The English Historical Review 5.19 (1890): 462–474.

Notes

  • 1. Essential general works for an initial overview of the laws are Giovanni Rotondi, Leges publicae populi romani. Elenco cronologico con una introduzione sull’attivita legislativa dei comizi romani (Milan: Società editrice italiana, 1912), 238–241; and Marianne Elster, Die Gesetze der mittleren römischen Republik. Text und Kommentar (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2003), 121–127.

  • 2. Plin., HN, 16.10.37; Gell. 15.27.4; Gai., Inst., 1.3; Pomponius, Dig., 1.2.2.8; Inst. Iust. 1.2.4.

  • 3. Plin., HN, 16.10.37.

  • 4. Stephen P. Oakley, A Commentary on Livy. Books VI–X, IV, Book VI (Oxford: Clarendon, 2005), 523.

  • 5. Plin., HN, 16.10.37; Livy, Per., 11.

  • 6. The first two were those dated 494 bce (Liv. 2.32–33) and 450/449 bce (Liv. 3.50–54).

  • 7. Kurt von Fritz, “The Reorganisation of the Roman Government in 366 B.C. and the so-called Licinio-Sextian Laws,” Historia 1 (1950): 3–44; Graham Maddox, “The Economic Causes of the lex Hortensia,” Latomus 42 (1983): 277–286; Richard A. Bauman, Lawyers in Roman Republican Politics. A Study of the Roman Jurists in their Political Setting, 316–82 BC. (Munich: C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1983), 79–82; Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp, “Die Entstehung der Nobilität und der Funktionswandel des Volkstribunats. Die historische Bedeutung der lex Hortensia de plebiscitis.” Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 70 (1988): 271–312, esp. 277–280, 294–312; Richard E. Mitchell, Patricians and Plebeians. The Origin of the Roman State (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 226–235; Stephen P. Oakley, A Commentary on Livy. Books VI–X, II, Books VII–VIII (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), 523–525; Richard E. Mitchell, “The Definition of patres and plebs. An End to the Struggle of the Orders,” in Social Struggles in Archaic Rome. New Perspectives on the Conflict of the Orders, ed. K. A. Raaflaub (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 128–167; and Jürgen von Ungern-Sternberg, “The End of the Conflict of the Orders,” ibid., 312–332; Walter Eder, “Struggle of the Orders,” in Brill’s New Pauly, Antiquity, ed. Hubert Cancik and Helmuth Schneider. First published online in 2006; Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp, Die Entstehung der Nobilität. Studien zur sozialen und politischen Geschichte der Römischen Republik im 4. Jh. v. Chr. (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2011), 114–203.

  • 8. Liv. 3.55.3; Dion. Hal., Ant. Rom., 11.45.1.

  • 9. Liv. 8.12.14–16.

  • 10. Add to these the one dating back to Theodor Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, III.1 (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1888), 156–157, which states that plebiscites were valid even before 449 BCE, provided they were ratified ex post by the senate. According to Mommsen, the lex Valeria Horatia and the lex Publilia Philonis would not have been in reference to plebiscites but to tribal assemblies. Only the lex Hortensia would have established the general validity of plebiscites for the first time, without the need for senatorial ratification.

  • 11. Mainly Michel Humbert, “Le tribunat de la plèbe et le tribunal du peuple. Remarques sur l’histoire de la provocatio ad populum.” Mélanges de l’École française de Rome. Antiquité 100 (1988): 431–503; Michel Humbert, “La normativité des plébiscites selon la tradition annalistique,” in Mélanges de droit romain et d’histoire ancienne. Hommage à la mémoire de André Magdelain, ed. M. Humbert and Y. Thomas (Paris: Éd. Panthéon-Assas, 1998), 211–238; Michel, Humbert, “I plebiscita prima dell’equiparazione alle leggi (con la lex Hortensia del 287 ca.),” in Leges publicae. La legge nell’esperienza giuridica romana, ed. J.-L. Ferrary (Pavia: IUSS Press, 2012), 307–337. Moreover: Julius Binder, Die Plebs. Studien zur romischen Rechtsgeschichte (Leipzig: A. Deichert, 1909), 371, 476, 485; Karl Julius Beloch, Römische Geschichte bis zum Beginn der Punischen Kriege (Berlin-Leipzig: de Gruyter, 1926), 349–350; Siber, Heinrich. Die plebejischen Magistraturen bis zur Lex Hortensia. Leipzig: T. Weicher, 1936: 39; Heinrich Siber, “Plebiscita,” in Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, XXI.1, ed. A. Pauly, G. Wissowa, and W. Kroll, 1951 (Stuttgart: A. Druckenmüller); Jochen Bleicken, Das Volkstribunat der klassischen Republik. Studien zu seiner Entwicklung zwischen 287 und 133 v. Chr (Munich: Beck, 1968), 18–23; Jochen Bleicken, Lex publica. Gesetz und Recht in der römischen Republik (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1975), 95; Jean-Louis Ferrary, “L’iter legis, de la rédaction de la rogatio à la publication de la lex rogata, et la signification de la législation comitiale dans le système politique de la Rome républicaine,” in Leges publicae. La legge nell’esperienza giuridica romana, ed. J.-L. Ferrary (Pavia: IUSS Press, 2010), 3–37, esp. 36; and Thibaud Lanfranchi, “Le leggi comiziali nella prima Deca di Livio,” ibid., 339–403, esp. 345.

  • 12. Antonio Guarino, “L’exaequatio legibus dei plebiscita,” in Festschrift für F. Schulz (Köln-Wien: Böhlau, 1951), 458–465; Vincenzo Arangio-Ruiz, Storia del diritto romano (Naples: Jovene, 1957), 52; Hans Julius Wolff, “Interregnum und auctoritas patrum,” Bullettino dell’Istituto di Diritto Romano 64 (1961): 1–14, esp. 13; Giannetto Longo, “Lex Hortensia de plebiscitis,” Novissimo Digesto Italiano, IX (Turin: Utet, 1963), 809; Giannetto Longo, “Lex Publilia Philonis de plebiscitis,” ibid., 816; Giannetto Longo, “Lex Valeria Horatia de plebiscitis,” ibid., 823–824; Francesco De Martino, Storia della costituzione romana, I (Naples: E. Jovene, 1972), 391–395; II (Naples: E. Jovene, 1973), 153–157; Arnaldo Biscardi, “Auctoritas patrum.” Problemi di storia del diritto pubblico romano con una premessa ed una nota di aggiornamento dell’autore (Napoli: Jovene, 1987), 81–82; Gaetano Scherillo, Aldo Dell’Oro. Manuale di storia del diritto romano (Milan: Cisalpino Istituto editoriale universitario, 1987), 207; Antonio Guarino, “Novissima de patrum auctoritate,” Bullettino dell’Istituto di Diritto Romano 91 (1988): 117–143; Filippo Cássola, and Luigi Labruna, in Lineamenti di storia del diritto romano ed. M. Talamanca (Milan: Giuffrè, 1989), 96; Filippo Cássola, and Luigi Labruna, Linee di una storia delle istituzioni repubblicane (Naples: Esi, 1991); and Luigi Capogrossi Colognesi, Storia di Roma tra diritto e potere (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2009), 119.

  • 13. See in this regard, with various differences between them, Pierre G. H. Willems, Le Sénat de la république romaine. Sa composition et ses attributions, II (Paris: A. Durand and Pedone-Lauriel, 1883), 80–84; Ernst Herzog, Geschichte und System der römischen Staatsverfassung (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1884), 190, 253; Wilhelm Soltau, Die Gultigkeit der Plebiscite (Berlin: Calvary, 1885), 91, 136, 142, 153, 169; James Leigh Strachan-Davidson, “The Growth of Plebeian Privilege at Rome,” The English Historical Review 1.2 (1886): 209–217; James Leigh Strachan-Davidson, “The Decrees of the Roman Plebs,” The English Historical Review 5.19 (1890): 462–474 (according to this author, at the time of the lex Valeria Horatia and of the lex Publilia Philonis de plebiscitis, the vote of the plebs in a matter which concerned the whole state was a mere petition, fortified by which the tribune approached the consuls and requested them to propose a rogatio to the sovereign populus in the comitia); George Willis Botsford, The Roman Assemblies. From Their Origin to the End of the Republic (New York: Macmillan, 1909), 276–314; Giovanni Niccolini, Il tribunato della plebe (Milan: Hoepli, 1932), 52; E. Stuart Staveley, “Tribal Legislation before the lex Hortensia,” Athenaeum 33 (1955): 3–31, esp. 14; Feliciano Serrao, Classi, partiti e legge nella Repubblica romana (Pisa: Pacini, 1974), 39–41; Robert Develin, “Comitia tributa plebis,” Athenaeum 53 (1975): 302–337; Marianne Elster, Studien zur Gesetzgebung der frühen römischen Republik. Gesetzes-anhäufungen und -wiederholungen (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1976), 112–119; Endre Ferenczy, From the Patrician State to the Patricio-Plebeian State (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1976), 59–197; Robert Develin, “Provocatio and Plebiscites: Early Roman Legislation and the Historical Tradition,” Mnemosyne 31 (1978): 45–60; Vincenzo Mannino, L’auctoritas patrum (Milano: Giuffrè, 1979); Luigi Amirante, “Plebiscito e legge. Primi appunti per una storia,” in Sodalitas. Scritti in onore di Antonio Guarino, IV (Naples: Jovene, 1984), 2025–2045; Graham Maddox, “The Binding Plebiscite,” in Sodalitas. Scritti in onore di Antonio Guarino, I (Naples: Jovene, 1984), 85–95; Jan Zabłocki, “Leges de plebiscitis,” Prawo Kanoniczne: kwartalnik prawno-historyczny 35.1–2 (1992): 237–246; Vincenzo Mannino, “Ancora sugli effetti della lex Publilia Philonis de patrum auctoritate e della lex Maenia,” Iura 45 (1994): 94–125; Wolfgang Kunkel and Roland Wittmann, Staatsordnung und Staatspraxis der römischen Republik, II (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1995), p. 81, n. 95, p. 439, n. 172, 584, 608–610, 617; Elster, Die Gesetze, 1: 121–124; Jan Zabłocki, “Leges de plebiscitis. Equiparazione i plebiscita ai leges,” in Forum Romanum. Доклады‎ III международной конференции‎ “Римское частное и публичное право: многовековой опыт развития европейского права‎.” Ярославль—Москва‎, 25–30 июня‎ 2003 г‎. (Forum Romanum. Papers of the 3rd International Conference “Roman Private and Public Law: the Centuries-old Experience of Development of European Law.” Yaroslavl—Moscow, 25th–30th June, 2003), Москва: Ифомедиа Паблишерз‎ (Moscow: Infomedia Publishers, 2003), 15–18; Johannes Michael Rainer, “Sulle leggi di Publilio Filone,” Seminarios Complutenses de Derecho Romano 15 (2003): 231–246; Robert Develin, “The Integration of Plebeians into the Political Order after 366 B.C.,” in Social Struggles in Archaic Rome: New Perspectives on the Conflict of the Orders, ed. K. A. Raaflaub (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 293–311; Feliciano Serrao, Diritto privato, economia e società nella storia di Roma, I, Dalla società gentilizia alle origini dell’economia schiavistica (Naples: Jovene, 2006), 98–103; Ana Isabel Clemente Fernández, “Ante initium suffragium,” RidRom. Revista Internacional de Derecho Romano 4 (2010): 164–166; and Jan Zabłocki, “Leges votatae nelle assemblee popolari,” Diritto@Storia. Rivista Internazionale di Scienze Giuridiche e Tradizione Romana 10 (2011–2012). According to Riccardo Fercia, “Sul ruolo del senato nell’equiparazione tra leges e plebiscita,” in Scritti per Alessandro Corbino, III, ed. I. Piro (Tricase: Libellula, 2016), 583–605, opposite to mainstream scholarship, the lex Valeria Horatia and the lex Publilia Philonis did not provide for senatorial auctoritas for the plebiscites and only the lex Hortensia—for the first time—did.

  • 14. Complete list in Humbert, “I plebiscita,” 11: 307–337.

  • 15. Lex Publilia de plebeis magistratibus (on plebeian magistrates) (471 bce): Liv. 2.57.4 (preventive auctoritas); lex Terentilia de quinqueviri legibus scribundis (on the five men responsible for writing the laws) (462 bce): Dion Hal. 10.56.2 and cf. Liv. 3.32.6 (ensuing auctoritas); lex de tribunis plebis decem creandis (on the creation of ten plebeians tribunes) (457 bce): Dion. Hal. 10.29–30; lex Icilia de Aventino publicando (on the granting of Aventine Hill land to plebeians to build their homes) (456 bce): Liv. 3.31.1, 3.32.7 (ensuing auctoritas); lex Canuleia de conubio patrum et plebis (on marriage between patricians and plebeians) (445 bce): Liv. 4.6.4 (preventive auctoritas); lex de cura annonae L. Minucio tribuenda (on the attribution to L. Minucius of responsibility for the victualling board) (440 bce): Liv. 4.12.8; lex de ambitu (on electoral fraud) (432 bce): Liv. 4.25.13–14 (preventive auctoritas); leges Liciniae Sextiae (367 bce): Liv. 6.42.12 (ensuing auctoritas); lex de triumpho M. Furii Camilli (on the triumph of M. Furius Camillus) (367 bce): Liv. 6.42.8 (preventive auctoritas); lex Poetelia de ambitu (on electoral fraud) (358 bce): Liv. 7.15.12–13 (preventive auctoritas). Only in one case it is said in the sources that the senatorial auctoritas did not at all take place: lex Icilia de triumpho consulum (on the triumph of the consuls) (449 bce): Liv. 3.63.11.

  • 16. Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, 10: 156–157.

  • 17. In the same way, the lex Publilia Philonis de patrum auctoritate (on the ratification of the senate) of that same year, 339 bce, established the preventive senatorial ratification for the laws: Liv. 8.12.15.

  • 18. App., B Civ., 1.59.266.

  • 19. Lorenzo Gagliardi, “L’assegnazione dei novi cives alle tribù dopo la lex Iulia de civitate del 90 a.C.,” Quaderni Lupiensi di Storia e di Diritto 3 (2013): 43–58, esp. 52.

  • 20. The Sullan law would have then been abrogated in 70 ce following a proposal by Cn. Pompeius Magnus and P. Licinius Crassus.

  • 21. Gai., Inst., 1.3.

  • 22. Pomponius, Dig., 1.2.2.8.

  • 23. Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, 10: 156–157. Contra Humbert, “I plebiscita,” 11: 325, n. 17; Ferrary, “L’iter legis,” 11: 37 (but see p. 11 for the opposite view).

  • 24. Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, 10: 367.

  • 25. Macrob., Sat., 1.16.30.

  • 26. Consolación Granados Fernández, “Nundinae. Dies fasti, nefasti, feriae, sollemnes? Interpretaciones de Macrobio,” in Actas del VIII congreso español de estudios clásicos (Madrid, 23–28 de septiembre de 1991) (Madrid: Ed. Clásicas, 1994), 575–580; and Chris Bennett, “Livy and the Lex Hortensia. The Julian Chronology of the Comitial Dates in Livy,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 149 (2004): 165–176.

  • 27. Elster, Studien, 13: 79; Elster, Die Gesetze, 1: 125.