Elections in the Roman Republic were an essential part of its governance, with participation only being afforded to Roman citizens. Upper-class interests, centered in the urban political environment of cities, often trumped the concerns of the diverse and disunified lower class; while at times, those already in power would pre-select candidates for office, further reducing the value of voters’ input. The candidates themselves at first remained distant from voters and refrained from public presentations (in fact, formal speech-making was at one point forbidden in an effort to focus on the policies rather than the charisma of the candidate), but they later more than made up for time lost with habitual bribery, coercion, and empty promises. As the practice of electoral campaigning grew in use and extent, the pool of candidates was no longer limited to a select group with riches and high birth. Instead, many more ordinary citizens had a chance to run for office, allowing for more equal representation in key government decisions.
During the Roman Republic the citizens would elect almost all officeholders annually. Popular elections for high office were largely undermined and then brought to an end by Augustus (r. 27 BC – 14 AD), the first Roman emperor (earlier known as Octavian). However, Roman elections continued at the local level.
Elections were a central element to the history and politics of Rome for some 500 years, and the major historians such as Livy and Plutarch make frequent references to them. No comprehensive account exists on how elections worked. Historians have reconstructed details from scattered accounts from different eras, but much is still uncertain and there is scholarly debate over several elements.
Sallust gives a valuable account of Marius‘ campaign of 107 BCE in the Jugurthine War. The most important sources are writings by Cicero. While his major works touch on elections, his daily life was immersed in late Republican politics, and his surviving letters and orations are the most valuable. Two important ones are Pro Murena and Pro Plancio, both legal speeches to defend candidates accused of bribery.
The most comprehensive surviving source is the Commentariolum Petitionis (Little Handbook on Electioneering) by Quintus Tullius Cicero. It is a how-to guide on running for consul, written by Quintus for his brother’s campaign in 64 BCE. Unfortunately, there are many doubts as to its authenticity, accepted by some as authentic to the period, others date it a century later to an author who would not have direct knowledge of election realities.
At the origin of the Republic, the only elected positions were the two consuls; over the course of the Republic new public offices were added, and by the end of the Republic 44 public offices were elected. All were elected annually to one-year terms except the censor, whose term covered a lustrum of five years. The only public offices which were not elected positions were the dictator and his deputy the Master of the Horse, who were appointed, but only in emergency circumstances.
The officeholders were elected by different assemblies. The Centuriate Assembly elected the highest offices of consul, praetor, and censor. This assembly divided all adult male citizens in 193 centuries. Its organization was descended from that of the early Roman Army, and the centuries were organized into tiers rank and property with cavalry equites at the top and unarmed and unpropertied at the bottom. Quaestors, and curule aediles were elected by the Tribal Assembly, while tribunes and plebeian aediles were elected by the Plebeian Council. These were divided into 35 tribes, geographical units of voters. The membership of the two is almost identical, with the only difference that patricians were excluded from the Plebeian Council.
For the Centuriate, voting was in descending order by status and wealth. The first property class would divide itself first into their 35 tribes and then split each tribe by age forming the iuniores (juniors) and the seniores (seniors). This would form 70 centuries, each with a vote. The iuniores would vote first, and one of them would be chosen by lot. This group, known as the centuria praerogativa, would be the first to vote, and it would have its results announced before every other century voted. Cicero put great weight on the ability of this first announced result to sway other voters. After the centuria praerogativa the other 34 iuniores would have their results announced simultaneously. Next, the 35 seniors and the 18 equites would cast their ballots. The first property class and the equites combined for 98 votes, and if they were unanimous a candidate would be declared elected and no other centuries would vote. If no majority was reached, balloting would continue through the lower property classes until a majority was reached.
The Tribal Assembly did not have a similar order of precedence. Each of the 35 tribes voted simultaneously. The results were then counted and announced in an order determined by lot. Once a candidate had reached a majority of 18 tribes, counting would stop.
Voting itself was originally oral and initiated via a magistrate‘s call for a public meeting. Candidates would stand before the electorate, without having prepared any sort of formal speech, and voters would separate to different sections of the saepta (a large unroofed wooden structure with 35 divisions) according to tribe. Each division was connected to the magistrate’s tribunal by a pons (plank) over which the voters would pass to cast their ballots. Each compartment had their votes taken individually and then given to tabulators on the tribunal. Until 139 BC, citizens cast their votes verbally by stating a desired candidate’s name while rogatores (tabulators) marked off the votes on wax tablets.
The lex Gabinia tabellaria of 139 BC introduced the secret ballot, where each voter wrote the initials of the desired candidate on a small wax tablet to be placed in a box known as the cista at the exit of each of the pontes. To prevent dishonesty, poll watchers guarded the ballot boxes, and the official tabulators, now called custodes, counted the votes. The process of voting itself occurred either in the capital’s forum before the temple of Castor and Pollux or before the Rostra, although limited space prevented all the tribes from voting at once.