CHAPTER V. THE ROMAN CONSTITUTION.
Such was the Roman Senate - an assembly of nobles, whether patrician or plebeian. The descendants of all who had filled curule magistracies were nobiles, and had the privilege of placing in the atrium of the house the images and titles of their ancestors - an heraldic distinction in substance. And as the patricians carried back their pedigree to the remotest historical period, there was great pride of blood. Few plebeians could boast of a remote and illustrious ancestry, and every plebeian who obtained a curule office, was the founder of his family's nobility, like Cicero - a novus homo. This nobility contrived to keep possession of all the great offices, and it was difficult for a new man to get access to their ranks. The distinction of Patrician and Plebeian was secondary, after the Gracchi to that of Nobilitas, yet it was rare to find a patrician gens the families of which had not enjoyed the highest honors many times over. Thus the aristocracy was composed of the families of those who had held the highest offices of the state; but as these offices were controlled by the Senate and enjoyed by the patricians chiefly, it was difficult to determine whether nobility was the result of patrician blood, or the possession of great offices. A man could scarcely be a patrician who had not held a great office; nor could he often hold a great office unless he were a patrician. The great offices were held in succession by the members of the Senate. The two consuls, the ten tribunes, the eight praetors in the time of Sulla - the twenty quaestors, together with the governors of provinces, and the generals who were selected from the Senate, or belonged to it, would necessarily compose a large part of the nobility, when their term of office lasted but a limited time, so that a senator with any ability was sure, in the course of his life, of the highest honors of the state.
[But only those who had distinguished themselves.]
The great executive officers, therefore, belonged to the noble class, not of necessity, but as a general thing. Cicero was a novus homo, and yet rose by his talents to the highest dignities. It was rare, however, to confer the highest offices on those who had not distinguished themselves in war. Military fame, after all, gave the greatest prestige to the Roman name. Consuls commanded armies, but they would not have been chosen consuls except for military, as well as political, talent.
The consul was, after the abolition of the monarchy, the highest officer of the state. It was not till the year 366 B.C. that a plebeian obtained this dignity. The powers of consuls were virtually those of the old kings, with the exception of priestly authority. They convened the Senate, introduced ambassadors, called together the people, conducted elections, commanded the armies and never appeared in public without lictors. Nor were they shorn of their powers till Julius Caesar assumed the dictatorship. The whole internal machinery of the state was under their control. But their term of office lasted only a single year. Their election took place in the Comitia Centuriata.
The censors were next in dignity, and like the consuls, there were two, and elected in the same manner under the presidency of a consul; only men of consular rank were chosen to this high office, and hence it was really higher than the consulship. The censors were chosen for a longer term than the consuls, and had the oversight of the public morals, the care of the census, and the administration of the finances. They could brand with ignominy the highest persons of the state, and could elect to the Senate, and exclude from it unworthy men. They had, with the aediles, the control of the public buildings and all public works. They could take away from a knight his horse, and punish extravagance in living, or the improper dissolution of the marriage rite. They were held in the greatest reverence, and when they died were honored with magnificent funerals.
Next in rank were the praetors, at first two in number, and ultimately sixteen. They exercised the judicial power, both in civil and criminal cases.
The aediles were also curule magistrates, and to them was entrusted the care of the public buildings, and the superintendence of public festivals. They were the keepers of the decrees of the Senate, and of the plebiscita. They superintended the distribution of water, the care of the streets, the drainage of the city, and the distribution of corn to the people. It was their business to see that no new deities were introduced, and they had the general superintendence of the police, and the inspection of baths. Their office entailed large expenses, and they were forced into great extravagance to gain popularity, as in the case of Julius Caesar and Aemilius Scaurus; but the aediles exercised extensive powers, which, however, were essentially diminished under the emperors.