Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
A tribus, or tribe, was a division of the Roman people, constituting the voting units of a legislative assembly of the Roman Republic. The word is probably derived from tribuere, to divide or distribute; the traditional derivation from tres, three, is doubtful.
According to tradition, the first three tribes were established by Romulus; each was divided into ten curiae, or wards, which were the voting units of the comitia curiata. Although the curiae continued throughout Roman history, the three original tribes that they constituted gradually vanished from history.[i]
Perhaps influenced by the original division of the people into tribes, as well as the number of thirty wards, Servius Tullius established thirty new tribes, which later constituted the comitia tributa. This number was reduced to twenty at the beginning of the Roman Republic; but as the Roman population and its territory grew, fifteen additional tribes were enrolled, the last in 241 BC.
All Roman citizens were enrolled in one of these tribes, through which they were entitled to vote on the election of certain magistrates, religious officials, judicial decisions in certain suits affecting the plebs, and pass resolutions on various proposals made by the tribunes of the plebs and the higher magistrates. Although the comitia tributa lost most of its legislative functions under the Empire, enrollment in a tribe remained an important part of Roman citizenship until at least the third century AD.
The Romulean Tribes
The first three tribes are said to have been established by Romulus, the founder and first King of Rome, shortly after the foundation of the city. Following the Rape of the Sabine Women, the Sabines under Titus Tatius attacked Rome, and successfully entered the city. After fierce fighting, the Sabine women themselves interceded, stepping between their husbands and their fathers to prevent further bloodshed. Peace was concluded, with Romulus and Tatius ruling jointly, and a large Sabine population relocating to Rome; the nascent city was thus evenly divided between Latins and Sabines. At this time (traditionally 750 BC), Romulus divided the people into three tribes, known as the Ramnes or Ramnenses, named after himself; the Tities or Titienses, named after Titus Tatius; and the Luceres or Lucerenses, whose name and origin were obscure even to the ancient historians.
Known as the three Romulean tribes, these first tribes have often been supposed to represent the major ethnic groups of early Rome: the Ramnes representing Rome’s Latin population; the Tities representing the Sabines; and the Luceres probably representing the Etruscans. Rome lay on the Tiber, the traditional boundary of Etruria with Latium, and may have had a substantial Etruscan population from the beginning; but certainly there was a considerable Etruscan element in the Roman population by the sixth century BC; the fifth and seventh kings of Rome were Etruscan, and many of Rome’s cultural institutions were of Etruscan origin. It may be to this period, rather than the time of Romulus, that the institution of the Luceres belongs; and indeed the names, if not the ethnic character, of all three of the Romulean tribes appear to be Etruscan. Although the theory that the Romulean tribes represented the city’s original ethnic components continues to be represented in modern scholarship, it has never been universally accepted, and this view is rejected by many scholars.
These three tribes were in turn divided into thirty curiae, or wards, the organization of which is unclear; they were said to have been named after thirty of the Sabine Women, but of the nine curiae whose names are known today, several are of geographical origin. The only curiae whose names are now known were: Acculeia,[ii] Calabra, Faucia,[iii] Foriensis,[iv] Rapta,[v] Tifata,[vi] Titia,[vii] Veliensis,[viii] and Velitia.
In the past, it was widely believed that membership in the curiae was limited to the patricians, and that statements to the contrary, indicating that clientes were admitted meant no more than that they were passive members with no voting rights. However, Mommsen argued convincingly that the plebeians were included in voting, and this view now appears to have prevailed; the plebeians were included either from the beginning, or at least from an early date; certainly from the earliest years of the Republic. The members of the curiae were known as curiales. Each curia was attended by a priest, or curio, who assisted by another priest, known as the flamen curialis, undertook the religious obligations of the ward. Each had its own place of meeting, also known as a curia.
The Comitia Curiata
When the various curiae were assembled for voting, they formed the comitia curiata, the oldest legislative assembly of the Roman Republic. One of the curiones was appointed or elected curio maximus, and presided over the assembly. Under the kings, the comitia curiata was summoned by the king or by an interrex, who would present questions upon which the comitia might vote. These included the election of a new king, as proposed by the interrex; the passing of a law conferring imperium on the king, known as a lex curiata de imperio; whether to declare war; rulings on appeals; matters relating to arrogatio;[ix] and whether to allow foreigners to be received among the patricians. Under Servius Tullius, the rights to declare war and to decide appeals were transferred to the comitia centuriata, another legislative assembly.
After the downfall of the Roman monarchy, questions were presented to the comitia curiata by the Roman Senate. However, between 494 and 449 BC, most of its functions were relegated to the comitia tributa and the comitia centuriata. The higher magistrates were elected by the comitia centuriata, which also presided over certain capital trials, and held the power to declare war, and to pass legislation presented by the senate. Lesser magistrates were elected by the comitia tributa, which also elected religious officials, presided over trials affecting the plebeians, and passed resolutions based on legislation proposed by the tribunes of the plebs and various magistrates. The comitia curiata retained the power to confer imperium on magistrates elected by the comitia centuriata, and to confirm alterations in the Roman constitution decided upon by the other two comitia; both of these, however, required the senate to propose them before the comitia could act. The comitia also retained the power to decide whether to admit a non-patrician into that order, and to oversee the process of arrogatio, particularly when a patrician was being adopted into a plebeian family. By the late republic, each curia was represented by only one lictor.
The Servian Tribes
The institution of the tribes that made up the comitia tributa, as well as the centuries of the comitia centuriata, occurred under Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome, whose reign is traditionally dated from 578 to 534 BC. According to Livy, Servius divided the city into four regions, and the surrounding land into twenty-six, thus dividing the people into thirty tribes, based on geographic location. The names of the four “urban” tribes were based on the four regions of the city that they represented, while those of the “rural” or “rustic” tribes were likely based on the names of families that owned considerable tracts of land in those areas.
Ten of the original rural tribes, whose names are lost to history, were destroyed in the war against Lars Porsena at the commencement of the Republic. Those that remained were the four urban tribes: Collina, Esquilina, Palatina, and Suburana (also called Succusana); together with sixteen rural tribes: Aemilia, Camilia, Cornelia, Fabia, Galeria, Horatia, Lemonia, Menenia, Papiria, Pollia, Popillia, Pupinia, Romilia, Sergia, Veturia, and Voltinia.
When the Sabine Appius Claudius removed to Rome together with his clientes, in 504 BC, he was admitted to the patriciate, and assigned lands in the region around the mouth of the Anio. These settlers became the basis of the tribus Claudia, which was admitted in 495 BC, during Claudius’ consulship, and subsequently enlarged to become the tribus Crustumina or Clustumina. Four more tribes were added in 387 BC: Arniensis, Sabatina, Stellatina, and Tromentina.
With the addition of Volscian territory in 358 BC, two more tribes were formed, Pomptina and Publilia (also found as Poblilia). In 332, the censors Quintus Publilius Philo and Spurius Postumius Albinus enrolled two more tribes, Maecia (originally Maicia) and Scaptia. Ufentina (or Oufentina) and Falerina followed in 318, and in 299 Aniensis and Terentina were added. The last two tribes, Quirina and Velina, were established in 241 BC, bringing the number of tribes to thirty-five. Eight tribes were added at the end of the Social War, when the Roman franchise was extended to the socii, but they were later absorbed into the other thirty-five.
The thirty-five tribes (with their usual abbreviations) were:[x]
Although the names of the older rural tribes are those of patrician families, the tribes themselves were probably entirely plebeian until 449 BC, after which both patricians and plebeians were enrolled; before this time, many of the powers and responsibilities later held by the comitia tributa still belonged to the comitia curiata. While we know the origin of their names, the location of the territories which defined these tribes is uncertain. Subsequent tribes were based in territories where Roman settlements had been established, or in which the inhabitants had received the Roman franchise. In later periods, citizens might be enrolled in tribes without reference to geography.
The enrollment of new citizens in particular tribes became a significant political issue during the censorship of Appius Claudius Caecus in 312 BC. Those who wished to limit the voting power of the lower social orders, and particularly of freedmen, advocated enrolling them only in the four urban tribes. This effort was largely unsuccessful, except with respect to freedmen, who were nearly always enrolled in one of the urban tribes. A similar attempt to limit the power of newly enfranchised citizens followed the end of the Social War. It was also possible for one of the censors to punish an individual by expelling him from one of the rustic tribes, and assigning him to one of the urban tribes; this was known as tribu movere.
The tribes functioned as civil divisions of the populace for purposes of the census, taxation, and military service. Each tribe possessed its own officers, including a curator tribuum, who served as the head of the tribe, and tribuni aerarii, or tribunes of the treasury, whose responsibility was for the tribe’s financial obligations; they were responsible for collecting the war tax, and distributed pay to the tribe’s soldiers.
Toward the end of the Republic, the importance of the tribus was such that it became an official part of a Roman’s name, usually appearing, in the most formal documents and inscriptions, between a citizen’s filiation and any cognomina.
In imperial times, the enrollment of citizens in tribes along a geographic basis was resumed; for instance, easterners were typically enrolled in the tribes Collina and Quirina, while in Gallia Narbonensis enrollment in the tribus Voltinia was preferred.
The Comitia Tributa
Together, the Servian tribes constituted the concilium plebis, or plebeian council; as time passed and the council’s authority to pass legislation developed, it was increasingly known as the comitia plebis tributa, or tribal assembly. A law passed in 449 BC made resolutions of the comitia tributa, known as plebi scita, or plebiscites, binding upon the whole Roman people; this law was not ratified by the senate until 286 BC, but even before this its resolutions were considered binding on the plebs. Because all citizens, whether patrician or plebeian, received the same vote in the comitia tributa, and because the assembly was much simpler to convene than the comitia centuriata, the comitia tributa was Rome’s most democratic assembly. By the end of the Republic, the plebs greatly outnumbered the patricians, and it was through this comitia that the collective will of the citizens could be exercised without regard to wealth or status.
The comitia tributa elected all of the lower magistrates, including the tribunes of the plebs, the military tribunes, the plebeian aediles and the curule aediles. A committee of seventeen tribes, chosen by lot, nominated the Pontifex Maximus, and coöpted members of the collegia of the pontifices, augures, and the decemviri sacrorum.
The comitia could pass resolutions proposed by the tribunes of the plebs, or by the higher magistrates, on both domestic and foreign matters, such as the making of treaties or concluding of peace. Proposals had to be published before receiving a vote, and were passed or rejected as a whole, without modification. Although the senate might review these resolutions, it could only reject them if they had been passed without the proper formalities.
The comitia tributa also decided suits instituted by the plebeian tribunes and aediles, for offenses against the plebs or their representatives. In the later Republic, these suits typically involved charges of maladministration; the tribunes and aediles were entitled to levy substantial fines.
Beginning with the institution of the tribunes of the plebs in 494 BC, the comitia tributa was normally summoned by the tribunes themselves. Magistrates could also convene the comitia, but only with the consent of the tribunes. The comitia was summoned by the proclamation of a praeco, a crier or herald, at least seventeen days before the meeting. The auspices would be taken, and the meeting could only proceed if they were favourable. The tribes convened at daybreak, and were obliged to adjourn at sunset. If summoned by one of the tribunes, the tribes had to gather within the city, or within a one-mile radius of the city; this was the boundary of a tribune’s authority. In the first centuries of the Republic, the comitia usually met on the Capitol, in the Forum, or at the Comitium. If summoned by one of the magistrates, the comitia typically met on the Campus Martius.
After a prayer, unaccompanied by sacrifice, proposals would be read, and the citizens arranged by tribe. The first tribe to vote, known as the principium, was chosen by lot, and the result of its vote announced. The other tribes would then vote simultaneously, and the results of their votes announced in an order also determined by lot, before the final result was proclaimed. Laws passed by the comitia took effect as soon as the results were announced. Although the order of voting was determined by lot, there was also an official order of the tribes, known as the ordo tribuum. The first four tribes were the urban tribes, in the order: Suburana, Palatina, Esquilina, Collina; the rural tribes followed, concluding with Aniensis.[xii]
In the final years of the Republic, participation in the comitia was quite low, and its acts increasingly the result of corruption. Caesar deprived the comitia tributa of the power to declare war or conclude peace; the early emperors further curtailed its power. Augustus removed the comitia’s judicial function, and preserved its power to pass legislation only in form. He filled half of the available magistracies with his own candidates, and Tiberius transferred the comitia’s remaining electoral authority to the senate. Although the emperors received many of their powers from the comitia tributa, this was only a formality.
Although the comitia tributa continued to exist until the third century AD, its only remaining functions were symbolic; it took auspices and gave prayer; it conferred the emperor’s legislative powers and other authority; and it proclaimed the laws presented to it for approval. But by this time voting was done not by ballot, but by acclamatio.
i. There is no evidence that the Romulean tribes were ever formally abolished, although they are seldom mentioned in the time of the Republic. However, Livy implies that they still existed, and that members of the college of augurs were traditionally assigned in threes, so that each tribe would be represented by one or more augurs.
ii. According to Varro, the curia Acculeia made a sacrifice to Angerona during the festival of the Angeronalia, on December 21. This may have been a special honour, as Angerona was the tutelary goddess of Rome itself. There was a gens Accoleia, probably derived from the same source, and either the curia was named after the gens, or if this ward was named for one of the Sabine women, perhaps Accoleia was a matronymic surname, based on an ancient praenomen such as Acca. Various traditions relating to an Acca Larentia are associated with Romulus.
iii. Livy mentions that the curia Faucia was particularly ill-omened, because it had cast the first vote in 390 BC, the year that Rome was sacked by the Gauls, and again in 321 BC, the year of the disaster at the Caudine Forks; they cast the first vote again in 310, but the ill omen came to naught, as the Romans won an important victory over the Etruscans. According to Licinius Macer, the curia Faucia had also cast the first vote in 477 BC, the year of the destruction of the Fabii at the Cremera.
iv. Foriensis probably refers to the area around the Roman Forum.
v. Raptus is an adjective meaning “abducted” or “captured.” In its feminine form, it could well be a reference to one of the Sabine women.
vi. Festus says that tifata means “full of holm oaks.” However, it also referred to various places, including a Curia Tifata at Rome, which in another passage Festus explains was named after a certain Curius who lived there. Thus, while Festus seems to say in one passage that Tifata was one of the thirty curiae, there is some doubt as to whether it was instead a place name; or perhaps it was both.
vii. Festus informs us that the curia Titia, like the tribe of the Tities, was named after Titus Tatius; but Poucet disagrees. Titia was also a women’s praenomen.
viii. Veliensis refers to the Velian Hill, a ridge in central Rome joining the Palatine Hill and the Oppian Hill. The origin of the name is obscure; but Velia is an Etruscan woman’s praenomen, and there was a gens Velia.
ix. Arrogatio, or arrogation, was a particular type of adoption specific to Roman culture. It was a means of ensuring that a particular family line did not become extinct, merely because a man had no children of his own. In order to qualify, the adoptor had to be both childless and incapable of having children, while the adoptee had to be an adult. This process was of particular interest to the patricians, who formed an increasingly small minority of the Roman populus as time passed; normally, the adoptee would receive the status of his adopted father, and thus a patrician adopted into a plebeian gens would normally lose his patrician status; this principle was used by Publius Clodius Pulcher to pass over to the plebeians, and become eligible to hold office as tribune of the plebs, although in his case the adoption was technically illegal, as his adoptive father was a young man, presumably capable of having children. On the other hand, a plebeian might obtain patrician status by being adopted into a patrician gens, and this would also have been of concern to the patricians. There may have been exceptions to the usual rule; a family of the Junii Silani descended from the patrician Manlia gens seems to have retained their patrician status, although adopted into the plebeian Junii; Gaius Junius Silanus was Flamen Martialis, a priestly office restricted to the patricians.
x. A number of the tribes are known with variations in spelling, both as the result of scribal error, and as the orthography of Latin itself shifted over time; for example, the tribus Maecia must originally have been Maicia, as it is frequently abbreviated Mai.Crustumina and Clustumina are used interchangeably; Poplilia and Poblilia are older forms of Publilia; and a number of internal letters are omitted in some writing; for instance, Falerna in place of Falerina, Sabatia for Sabatina, Teretina for Terentina, and Votinia for Voltinia.
xi. The tribus Claudia was subsequently enlarged to become Crustumina.
xii. Crawford postulates that the rustic tribes were enumerated along the major roads leading from Rome (the Viae Ostiensis, Appia, Latina, Praenestina, Valeria, Salaria, Flaminia and Clodia), in a counter-clockwise order: Romilia, Voltinia, Voturia, Aemilia, Horatia, Maecia, Scaptia, Pomptina, Falerina, Lemonia, Papiria, Ufentina, Terentina, Pupinia, Menenia, Publilia, Cornelia, Claudia, Camilia, Aniensis, Fabia, Pollia, Sergia, Clustumina, Quirina, Velina, Stellatina, Tromentina, Galeria, Sabatina, Arniensis. This list omits the tribus Popillia, one of the original Servian tribes, and counts Claudia and Clustumina as separate tribes.
- Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, “Tribus.”
- Oxford Classical Dictionary, “Tribus.”
- The Bantam New College Latin & English Dictionary, s. v. tribus.
- Cassell’s Latin & English Dictionary, s. v. tribus.
- Livy, x. 6.
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- Livy, i. 9–13.
- Robert Maxwell Ogilvie, A Commentary on Livy, Books I–V (1965).
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- Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, “Curio.”
- Livy, i. 43.
- Livy, ii. 21.
- Oxford Classical Dictionary, “Tribuni Aerarii.”
- Oxford Classical Dictionary, “Comitia.”
- Timothy Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars, Routledge, London (1995).
- Marcus Terentius Varro, De Lingua Latina (On the Latin Language).
- Michael H. Crawford, “Tribus, Tesserae, et Regions,” in Comptes rendus de l’Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, vol. 146, pp. 1125–1135 (2002).
- Oxford Classical Dictionary, N. G. L. Hammond and H. H. Scullard, eds., Clarendon Press, Oxford (Second Edition, 1970).
- Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen, Römische Forschungen (Roman Research), Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, Berlin (1864–1879).
- Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, Harry Thurston Peck, ed. (Second Edition, 1897).
- D.P. Simpson, Cassell’s Latin and English Dictionary, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York (1963).
- C.J. Smith, The Roman Clan: The Gens from Ancient Ideology to Modern Anthropology (2006).
- Sextus Pompeius Festus, Epitome de M. Verrio Flacco de Verborum Significatu (Epitome of Marcus Verrius Flaccus: On the Meaning of Words).
- Titus Livius (Livy), History of Rome.
- John C. Traupman, The New College Latin & English Dictionary, Bantam Books, New York (1995).
Originally published by Wikipedia, 07.02.2006, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.