In reality through the co-ordinate jurisdiction of the plebs and the community the estates, limbs, and lives of the burgesses were abandoned to the arbitrary pleasure of the party assemblies.

In civil jurisdiction the plebeian institutions interfered only so far, that in the processes affecting freedom, which were so important for the plebs, the nomination of jurymen was withdrawn from the consuls, and the decisions in such cases were pronounced by the "ten-men-judges" destined specially for that purpose (-iudices-, -decemviri-, afterwards -decemviri litibus iudicandis-).


With this co-ordinate jurisdiction there was further associated a co-ordinate initiative in legislation. The right of assembling the members and of procuring decrees on their part already pertained to the tribunes, in so far as no association at all can be conceived without such a right. But it was conferred upon them, in a marked way, by legally securing that the autonomous right of the plebs to assemble and pass resolutions should not be interfered with on the part of the magistrates of the community or, in fact, of the community itself. At all events it was the necessary preliminary to the legal recognition of the plebs generally, that the tribunes could not be hindered from having their successors elected by the assembly of the plebs and from procuring the confirmation of their criminal sentences by the same body; and this right accordingly was further specially guaranteed to them by the Icilian law (262), which threatened with severe punishment any one who should interrupt the tribune while speaking, or should bid the assembly disperse. It is evident that under such circumstances the tribune could not well be prevented from taking a vote on other proposals than the choice of his successor and the confirmation of his sentences. Such "resolves of the multitude" (-plebi scita-) were not indeed strictly valid decrees of the people; on the contrary, they were at first little more than are the resolutions of our modern public meetings; but, as the distinction between the comitia of the people and the councils of the multitude was of a formal nature rather than aught else, the validity of these resolves as autonomous determinations of the community was at once claimed at least on the part of the plebeians, and the Icilian law for instance was immediately carried in this way. Thus was the tribune of the people appointed as a shield and protection for the individual, and as leader and manager for all, provided with unlimited judicial power in criminal proceedings, that in this way he might give emphasis to his command, and lastly even pronounced to be in his person inviolable (-sacrosanctus-), inasmuch as whoever laid hands upon him or his servant was not merely regarded as incurring the vengeance of the gods, but was also among men accounted as if, after legally proven crime, deserving of death.

Relation Of The Tribune To The Consul

The tribunes of the multitude (-tribuni plebis-) arose out of the military tribunes and derived from them their name; but constitutionally they had no further relation to them. On the contrary, in respect of powers the tribunes of the plebs stood on a level with the consuls. The appeal from the consul to the tribune, and the tribune's right of intercession in opposition to the consul, were, as has been already said, precisely of the same nature with the appeal from consul to consul and the intercession of the one consul in opposition to the other; and both cases were simply applications of the general principle of law that, where two equal authorities differ, the veto prevails over the command. Moreover the original number (which indeed was soon augmented), and the annual duration of the magistracy, which in the case of the tribunes changed its occupants on the 10th of December, were common to the tribunes and the consuls. They shared also the peculiar collegiate arrangement, which placed the full powers of the office in the hands of each individual consul and of each individual tribune, and, when collisions occurred within the college, did not count the votes, but gave the Nay precedence over the Yea; for which reason, when a tribune forbade, the veto of the individual was sufficient notwithstanding the opposition of his colleagues, while on the other hand, when he brought an accusation, he could be thwarted by any one of those colleagues. Both consuls and tribunes had full and co-ordinate criminal jurisdiction, although the former exercised it indirectly, and the latter directly; as the two quaestors were attached to the former, the two aediles were associated with the latter.(7) The consuls were necessarily patricians, the tribunes necessarily plebeians. The former had the ampler power, the latter the more unlimited, for the consul submitted to the prohibition and the judgment of the tribunes, but the tribune did not submit himself to the consul. Thus the tribunician power was a copy of the consular; but it was none the less a contrast to it. The power of the consuls was essentially positive, that of the tribunes essentially negative. The consuls alone were magistrates of the Roman people, not the tribunes; for the former were elected by the whole burgesses, the latter only by the plebeian association. In token of this the consul appeared in public with the apparel and retinue pertaining to state- officials; the tribunes sat on a stool instead of the "chariot seat," and lacked the official attendants, the purple border, and generally all the insignia of magistracy: even in the senate the tribune had neither presidency nor so much as a seat. Thus in this remarkable institution absolute prohibition was in the most stern and abrupt fashion opposed to absolute command; the quarrel was settled by legally recognizing and regulating the discord between rich and poor.

Political Value Of The Tribunate

But what was gained by a measure which broke up the unity of the state; which subjected the magistrates to a controlling authority unsteady in its action and dependent on all the passions of the moment; which in the hour of peril might have brought the administration to a dead-lock at the bidding of any one of the opposition chiefs elevated to the rival throne; and which, by investing all the magistrates with co-ordinate jurisdiction in the administration of criminal law, as it were formally transferred that administration from the domain of law to that of politics and corrupted it for all time coming? It is true indeed that the tribunate, if it did not directly contribute to the political equalization of the orders, served as a powerful weapon in the hands of the plebeians when these soon afterwards desired admission to the offices of state.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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