Rome: Magistracy

Patrick Andrivet

1It is essentially in chapter VIII of Romans and in chapters 12 to 19 of book XI of L’Esprit des Lois that Montesquieu deals with the Roman magistracy.

2“Magistracy” is understood precisely in the Latin sense, broader than in our time, of charges exercised by any man invested with political authority, administrative or jurisdictional; for Montesquieu the notion has real meaning only during a little less than five centuries of Roman history, the republican period.

3Montesquieu passes for having been a great admirer of Rome’s republican institutions, and consequently of the magistracies. It is true that certain of his formulations abound in praise. Thus in Romans: “The government of Rome was admirable in that, since its birth, its Constitution was such, either by the spirit of the people, the strength of the Senate, or the authority of certain magistrates, any abuse of power could always be corrected” (“Le gouvernement de Rome fut admirable en ce que, depuis sa naissance, sa Constitution se trouva telle, soit par l’esprit du peuple, la force du Sénat, ou l’autorité de certains magistrats, que tout abus de pouvoir y put toujours être corrigé”); but we note that Montesquieu does not speak separately of the magistracies and that he associates the people and the Senate with them. That is because in Romans, VIII, magistracies come up only with respect to the “divisions that were always in the City”; in L’Esprit des lois (XI, 12-19), Montesquieu’s purpose is to study what he calls “the distribution of the three powers” in the Roman Republic.

4In Romans as well as in L’Esprit des lois, Montesquieu notes that after the expulsion of the kings, the consuls having inherited all their attributions, not much was changed for the people, insofar as the nobility monopolized “all the magistracies”. The origin of the magistracies that emerged from the “decompositon” of the Consulate is paradoxical: it was the “patrician families” which, “hoping [above all] to prevent the return of kings”, exacerbated the desire of freedom among the people, and in so doing did “more than [they] meant to”, pushing them to “bring down the Consulate”. thus, from the aristocracy it was after the Tarquins were expelled, the Roman Republic leaned towards democracy.

5Montesquieu knew that the access of plebeians to all the magistracies was the result of struggles that extended over a very long period, but he tended to minimize the difficulty the people had in obtaining equality on this point with the dominant order.

6In a single paragraph (EL, XI, 14) Montesquieu details what happened to the Consulate: “The Consulate was dismantled, and several magistracies were created. They created praetors, to whom was given the power to judge private matters; they named quaestors to judge public crimes, they established aediles to whom the police was given; they created treasurers, who had the administration of the public funds; finally, with the creation of censors, they took that part of legislative power that regulates the morality of citizens, and the momentary policy of the various bodies of the state from the consuls. The principal prerogatives that remained to them were to preside over the great estates of the people (in note: comitiis centuriatis), to assemble the Senate and to command the armies.” (“On décomposa le Consulat, et on en forma plusieurs magistratures. On créa des préteurs, à qui on donna la puissance de juger les affaires privées ; on nomma des questeurs pour faire juger les crimes publics, on établit des édiles à qui on donna la police ; on fit des trésoriers, qui eurent l’administration des deniers publics ; enfin, par la création des censeurs, on ôta aux consuls cette partie de la puissance législative qui règle les moeurs des citoyens, et la police momentanée des divers corps de l’État. Les principales prérogatives qui leur restèrent furent de présider aux grands États du peuple [en note : comitiis centuriatis], d’assembler le Sénat et de commander les armées”)

7In the same book of L’Esprit des lois, in chapter 18, Montesquieu analyzes at some length what was “the power to judge” in republican Rome. Until the decision he finds extremely unfortunate to transfer the judgments of senators to the knights, at the initiative of Caius Gracchus, the functioning of justice seems to him rather satisfactory. For civil matters, “each year the praetor drew up a list or table of those he was choosing for the function of judged during the year of his magistracy” (“chaque année le préteur formait une liste ou tableau de ceux qu’il choisissait pour faire la fonction de juges pendant l’année de sa magistrature”). He also seems to approve of a disposition of the Law of Twelve Tables that stipulates that with respect to private crimes the people should name “for each crime a quaestor to prosecute it, by a particular commission”. With the Roman population growing, towards the middle of the second century, “a few of these commissions were made permanent. Over time all these criminal matters were divided into various parts, which were called perpetual questions. They created various praetors, and attributed to each of them one of these questions. They were given the power to judge the crimes that were their responsibility, for one year” (“quelques-unes de ces commissions furent rendues permanentes. On divisa peu à peu toutes les matières criminelles en diverses parties, qu’on appela des questions perpétuelles. On créa divers préteurs, et on attribua à chacun d’eux quelqu’une de ces questions. On leur donna, pour un an, la puissance de juger les crimes qui en dépendaient”).

8Among the magistracies created after the expulsion of the kings, one has particular favor with Montesquieu, and that is the censor. As the name indicates, the censors “performed a count of the people […]; they corrected abuses that the law had not foreseen, or which the ordinary magistrate could not punish […]; they could expel whomever they wished from the Senate, take from a knight the horse that the public provided for him […]; finally they had a look at the present situation of the Republic, and distributed the people in its various tribes so that the tribunes and the ambitious could not become masters of the suffrages, and the people could not abuse its power” (“faisaient le dénombrement du peuple [...] ; ils corrigeaient les abus que la loi n’avait pas prévus, ou que le magistrat ordinaire ne pouvait pas punir [...] ; ils pouvaient chasser du Sénat qui ils voulaient, ôter à un chevalier le cheval qui lui était entretenu par le public [...] ; enfin ils jetaient les yeux sur la situation actuelle de la République, et distribuaient de manière le peuple dans ses diverses tribus que les tribuns et les ambitieux ne pussent pas se rendre maîtres des suffrages, et que le peuple ne pût pas abuser de son pouvoir”, Romans, VIII). Montesquieu also admires the fact that alone of all the Roman magistrates, the censors did not have to account for their conduct when they left office (EL, V, 8).

9As for the plebes’ tribunate, mentioned here, and which the patricians found themselves obliged to create after the people retreated to the Sacred Mountain, Montesquieu does not have the severity of Bossuet who could see only “sedition” in them, but he notes that “by an eternal disease of men, the plebeians who had obtained tribunes to defend themselves used them to attack” (“par une maladie éternelle des hommes, les plébéiens qui avaient obtenu des tribuns pour les défendre, s’en servirent pour attaquer”, Romans, VIII). To be sure, an “abuse” was thus corrected, but “this body” of tribunes “first had huge pretensions” and Montesquieu, with a tone of indictment, wonders, in the “Coriolanus affair”, “which was greater, the plebeians’ cowardly boldness in demanding [to be the sole judges], or the Senate’s condescension and quickness to grant it” (“quelle fut plus grande, ou dans les plébéiens, la lâche hardiesse de demander [à être les seuls juges], ou dans le Sénat, la condescendance et la facilité d’accorder”). At the other end of the history of the Republic, he reproaches the tribune, in other words the Gracques, as we have seen, for having deprived “the senators of the power to judge”: “endless harm came from this. They changed the constitution at a time when, in the fire of civil discords, there scarcely was a constitution” (“il en résulta des maux infinis. On changea la constitution dans un temps où, dans le feu des discordes civiles, il y avait à peine une constitution”).

10The whole body of Roman magistracies in the republican period, with the evolution of each of them, is proof, in Montesquieu eyes, of the people’s and Senate’s capacity to build, then, if required, to correct the Constitution, at least up to the Gracchian crisis. Other factors were to come along, as we know, to destroy this fine edifice.


Patrick Andrivet, “Rome enfin que je hais…”? Une étude sur les différentes vues de Montesquieu concernant les anciens Romains, Orléans: Paradigme, 2012.