CHAPTER V. THE ROMAN CONSTITUTION.
Thus among the Romans, until the prostration of their liberties, the powers of government were not in the hands of kings, as among the Orientals, nor in those of the aristocracy, exclusively, nor in those of the people; but in all combined, one class acting as a check against another class. They were shared between the Senate, the magistrates, and the people in their assemblies. Theoretically, the populus was the real sovereign by whom power was delegated; but, for several centuries, the populus meant the patricians, who alone could take part in the assemblies. The preponderating influence was exercised by the Senate. The judicial, the legislative, and the executive authority were as clearly defined as in our times. The magistrates were all elected by the Senate or the people, and sometimes proposed by the one and confirmed by the other. No case, involving the life of a Roman citizen, could be decided except by the Comitia Centuriata. The election of a magistrate, or the passing of a law, though made on the ground of a senatus consultum, yet required the sanction of the curiae. In legislative measures, a senatus consultum was brought before the people by the consul, or the senator who originated the measure, after it had previously been exhibited in public for seventeen days. The inferior magistrates, whose office it was to superintend affairs of local interest, were elected by the Comitia Tributa. All the magistrates, however great their power, could, at the expiration of their office, be punished for transcending their trust. No person was above the authority of the laws. No one class could subvert the liberties and prerogatives of another. The Senate had the most power, but it could not ride over the Constitution. The consuls were not the creatures of the Senate; they were elected by the centuries, and presided over the Senate, as well as the assembly of the people. The abuse of power by a consul was prevented by his colleague, and by the certainty of being called to account on the expiration of his office. His power was also limited by the Senate, since he was dependent upon it. There was no absolute power exercised at Rome, except by the dictators, but they were appointed only in a national crisis, and then only for six months. Unless their power were perpetuated, not even they could overturn the constitution. The senators again, the most powerful body in the state, were not entirely independent. They could not elect members of their own body, nor keep them in office. The censors had the right of electing the senators from among the ex-magistrates and the equites, and of excluding such as they deemed unworthy. And as the Senate was thus composed wholly of men who had held the highest offices or had great wealth, it was a body of great experience and wisdom. Yet even this august assembly was obliged to submit to the introduction of any subject of discussion by the tribune. What a counterpoise to the authority of this powerful body were the tribunes! From their right of appearing in the Senate, and of taking part in its discussions, and from their being the representatives of the whole people, in whom power was supposed primarily to be lodged, they gradually obtained the right of intercession against any action which a magistrate might undertake during the time of his office, and without giving a reason. They could not only prevent a consul from convening the Senate, but could veto an ordinance of the Senate itself. They could even seize a consul and a censor and imprison him. Thus was power marvelously distributed, even while it remained in the hands of the higher classes. The people were not powerless when their assemblies could make laws and appoint magistrates, and when their tribunes could veto the most important measures. The consuls could not remain in office long enough to be dangerous, and the senators could be ejected from their high position when flagrantly unworthy. "The nobiles had no legal privileges like a feudal aristocracy, but they were bound together by a common distinction derived from a legal title, and by a common interest; and their common interest was to endeavor to confine the election to all the high magistracies to the members of their own body." The term nobilitas implied that some one of a man's ancestors had filled a curule magistracy, and it also implied the possession of wealth. Theoretically it would seem that the nobiles were very numerous, since so many people can ordinarily boast of an illustrious ancestor; but practically the class was not so large as we might expect. A noble might be poor, but still, like Sulla, he remained noble. The distinction of patrician was, long before the reforms of the Gracchi, of secondary importance; that of nobilitas remained to the close of the republic. The nobility kept themselves exclusive and powerful from the possession of the great offices of state from generation to generation; they prevented their own extinction by admitting into their ranks those who distinguished themselves to an eminent degree.