Welcome to Rome Across Europe! In the past we’ve had some videos about particular Roman offices.
There’s been the Consul, the Cursus Honorum, Questor, Praetor and Aedile. Oh my!
It’s been a while since we’ve taken a look at any officer, but that ends now. Today we take a look at the Roman Censor!
The Censor was an officer in Ancient Rome who was responsible for maintaining the census, supervising public morality, and overseeing certain aspects of the government’s finances. The Censors’ regulation of public morality is the origin of the modern meaning of the words “censor” and “censorship”.
The census was first instituted by Servius Tullius, the 6th Rex Romae. After the abolition of the monarchy and the founding of the Res Publica Romana, the Consules had responsibility for the census until 443 BC.
In 442 BC, no Consules were elected, but Tribunos with consular power were appointed instead. This was a move by the Plebeius to try to attain higher magistracies.
To avoid the possibility of Plebeians obtaining control of the census, the Patricii removed the right to take the census from the Consules and Tribunos, and appointed for this duty 2 magistrates, called Censores, elected exclusively from the patricians in Rome.
The magistracy continued to be controlled by Patricians until 351 BC, when Gaius Marcius Rutilus was appointed the initial Plebeian Censor. Twelve years later, in 339 BC, one of the Publilian laws required that at least 1 of the 2 Censores had to be a Plebeian.
Despite this, no Plebeian Censor performed the formal purification of the people the lustrum until 280 BC. In 131 BC, for the first time, both Censores were Plebeius.
The reason for having a pair of Censors was that the 2 Consuls had previously taken the census together. If one of the Censores died during his term of office, another was chosen to replace him, just as with Consuls.
This happened only once, in 393 BC. From then on, if one of the Censors died, his colleague resigned, and 2 new censors were chosen to replace them.
The duties of the Censores can be divided into 3 classes, all of which were closely connected with each other:
- The Census or register of the citizens and of their property, in which were included the reading of the Senate‘s lists (lectio senatus) and the recognition of who qualified for Ordo Equester rank (Recognitio Equitum).
- The Regimen Morum, or keeping of the public morals.
- The administration of the finances of the state, under which were classed the superintendence of the public buildings and the erection of all new public works.
The original business of the censorship was at first much more limited, and was restricted to almost entirely to taking the census. The possession of this power gradually brought with it fresh power and new duties.
A general view of these duties is briefly expressed in the following translated passage of Cicero: “The Censors are to determine the generations, origins, families, and properties of the people; they are to (watch over/protect) the city’s temples, roads, waters, treasury, and taxes; they are to divide the people into three parts; next, they are to (allow/approve) the properties, generations, and ranks [of the people]; they are to describe the offspring of knights and footsoldiers; they are to forbid being unmarried; they are to guide the behavior of the people; they are not to overlook abuse in the Senate.”
The Census, the first and principal duty of the censors, was always held in the Campus Martius, and from the year 435 BC onwards, in a special building called Villa Publica, which was erected for that purpose by the 2nd pair of Censors, Gaius Furius Pacilus and Marcus Geganius Macerinus.
An account of the formalities with which the census was opened is given in a fragment of the Tabulae Censoriae, preserved by Varro. After the auspices had been taken, the citizens were summoned by a public crier to appear before the Censors.
Each tribe was called up separately, and the names in each tribe were probably taken according to the lists previously made out by the tribunes of the tribes. Every paterfamilias had to appear in person before the Censores, who were seated in their curule chairs, and those names that were taken first were considered to be of good omen, such as Valerius, Salvius, Statorius, etc.
The census was conducted according to the judgment of the Censor (ad arbitrium censoris), but the Censors laid down certain rules, sometimes called leges censui censendo. According to these laws, each citizen had to give an account of himself, of his family, and of his property upon oath, “declared from the heart”.
First he had to give his full name (praenomen, nomen and cognomen) and that of his father, or if he were a Libertus that of his patronus, and he was likewise obliged to state his age. He was then asked, “You, declaring from your heart, do you have a wife?” and if married he had to give the name of his wife, and likewise the number, names, and ages of his children, if any.
Single women and orphans were represented by their guardians. Their names were entered in separate lists, and they were not included in the sum total of heads.
After a citizen had stated his identity, he then had to give an account of all his property, so far as it was subject to the census. Only such things were liable to the census (censui censendo) as were property according to the Quiritarian law.
At first, each citizen appears to have merely given the value of his whole property in general without entering into details. Shortly thereafter it became the practice to give a specification of each article, as well as the general value of the whole.
Slaves and cattle formed the next most important item. The Censors also possessed the right of calling for a return of such objects as had not usually been given in, such as clothing, jewels, and carriages.
A person who voluntarily absented himself from the census was considered incensus and subject to the severest punishment. Servius Tullius is said to have threatened such individuals with imprisonment and death, and in the Republican period he might be sold by the state as a slave.
In the later times of the Republic, a person who was absent from the census might be represented by another, and be thus registered by the Censors. Whether the soldiers who were absent on service had to appoint a representative is uncertain.
In ancient times, the sudden outbreaks of war prevented the census from being taken, because a large number of the citizens would necessarily be absent. It is supposed from a passage in Livy that in later times the Censors sent commissioners into the provinces with full powers to take the census of the Roman soldiers there, but this seems to have been a special case.
After the Censors had received the names of all the citizens with the amount of their property, they then had to make out the lists of the tribes, and also of the classes and centuries. By the legislation of Servius Tullius the position of each citizen in the state was determined by the amount of his property (Comitia Centuriata).
These lists formed a most important part of the Tabulae Censoriae, under which name were included all the documents connected in any way with the discharge of the censors’ duties. These lists, insofar as they were connected with the finances of the state, were deposited in the aerarium.
Besides the division of the citizens into tribes, centuries and classes, the Censors had also to make out the lists of the Senators for the ensuing 5 years, or until new Censors were appointed. In the same manner they held a review of the Equestrians who received a horse from public funds (equites equo publico), and added and removed names as they judged proper.
They also confirmed the Princeps Senatus, or appointed a new one. The Princeps Senatus himself had to be a former Censor.
After the lists had been completed, the number of citizens was counted up, and the sum total announced. A census was sometimes taken in the provinces, even under the Republic.
The Emperor sent special officers called Censitores into the provinciae to take the census. Sometimes the duty was discharged by the Imperial legati.
The Censitores were assisted by subordinate officers, called Censuales, who made out the lists. In Rome, the census was still taken under the Empire, but the old ceremonies connected with it were no longer performed, and the ceremony of the lustration was not performed after the time of Vespasian.
Besides the conventional meaning of “valuation” of a person’s estate, the word census has other meaning in Rome. It could refer to:
- The amount of a person’s property (hence we read of census senatorius, the estate of a senator; census equestris, the estate of an eques).
- The lists of the censors.
- The tax which depended upon the valuation in the census.
Keeping the regimen morum, or in the Empire the praefectura morum, was the next most important branch of the Censors’ duties, and the one which caused their office to be one of the most revered and the most dreaded in the Roman state. Because of this, the Censores were also known as Castigatores (chastisers).
It naturally grew out of the right which they possessed of excluding persons from the lists of citizens. In this manner, the Censors gradually assumed at least nominal complete supervision over the whole public and private life of every citizen.
Constituted as the conservators of public morality, the Censors were not simply to prevent crime or particular acts of immorality but rather to maintain the traditional Roman character, ethics, and habits (mos majorum).
Regimen morum also encompassed this protection of traditional ways. The punishment inflicted by the Censors in the exercise of this branch of their duties was called nota (mark, letter) or animadversio censoria (censorial reproach).
In inflicting the punishment, they were guided only by their conscientious convictions of duty. Censors also took an oath that they would act biased by neither partiality nor favor and, in addition to this, they were bound in every case to state in their lists, opposite the name of the guilty citizen, the cause of the punishment inflicted on him, Subscriptio censoria.
Roman Censors might brand a man with their nota censoria (censorial mark) in case he had been convicted of a crime in an ordinary court of justice, and had already suffered punishment for it. The consequence of such a nota was only ignominia (shame).
A censorial mark was also not valid unless both censors agreed. The ignominia was thus only a transitory reduction of status.
It doesn’t appear to have deprived a magistrate of his office, and it certainly did not disqualify persons from obtaining a magistracy, for being appointed as judices by the Praetor, or for serving in the Exercitus Romanus.
A person might be branded with a censorial mark in a variety of cases, which it would be impossible to specify, as in a great many instances it depended upon the discretion of the Censors and the view they took of a case.
Sometimes even one set of censors would overlook an offence which was severely chastised by their successors. But the offences which are recorded to have been punished by the Censors are of a threefold nature.
- Living in celibacy at a time when a person ought to be married to provide the state with citizens. The obligation of marrying was frequently impressed upon the citizens by the censors, and the refusal to fulfill it was punished with a fine (aes uxorium).
- Improper conduct towards one’s wife or children, as well as harshness or too great indulgence towards children, and disobedience of the latter towards their parents.
- Inordinate and luxurious mode of living, or an extravagant expenditure of money. A great many instances of this kind are recorded. At a later time the leges sumptuariae were made to check the growing love of luxuries.
- Neglect and carelessness in cultivating one’s fields.
- Cruelty towards slaves or clients.
- The carrying on of a disreputable trade or occupation.
- Defrauding orphans
- Improper conduct towards a magistrate, or the attempt to limit his power or to abrogate a law which the censors thought necessary.
- Neglect, disobedience, and cowardice of soldiers in the army.
- The keeping of the Equus Publicus (a horse kept by patrician equestrian militia at public expense) in bad condition.
A variety of actions or pursuits which were thought to be injurious to public morality might be forbidden by an edict, and those who acted contrary to such edicts were branded with the nota and degraded.
A person who had been branded with a nota censoria might, if he considered himself wronged, endeavor to prove his innocence to the Censors. If he did not succeed, he might try to gain the protection of one of the Censors, which he might intercede on his behalf.
The punishments inflicted by the Censors generally differed according to the station which a man occupied, though sometimes a person of the highest rank might suffer all the punishments at once, by being degraded to the lowest class of citizens. But they are generally divided into 4 classes:
- Motio (removal) or ejectio e senatu (ejection from the Senate), or the exclusion of a man from the ranks of Senators. This punishment might either be a simple exclusion from the list of Senators, or the person might at the same time be excluded from the tribes and degraded to the rank of an aerarian.
- Ademptio equi or the taking away of the publicly funded horse from an Equestrian. This punishment might likewise be simple, or combined with the exclusion from the tribes and the degradation to the rank of an Aerarian.
- Motio e tribu or the exclusion of a person from his tribe. This punishment and the degradation to the rank of an Aerarian were originally the same. The motio e tribu transferred a person from the rustic tribes to the less respectable city tribes, and if the further degradation to the rank of an aerarian was combined with the motio e tribu, it was always expressly stated.
- Referre in aerarios or facere aliquem aerarium, and might be inflicted on any person who was thought by the censors to deserve it. This humiliation included all the other punishments, for an Equestrian could not be made an Aerarius unless he was previously deprived of his horse, nor could a member of a rustic tribe be made an aerarius unless he was previously excluded from it.
Administration of the state’s finances was another part of the censors’ office. In the first place the tributum (property-tax) had to be paid by each citizen according to the amount of his property registered in the census. Accordingly, the regulation of this tax naturally fell under the jurisdiction of the Censors.
They also had the superintendence of all the other revenues of the state, the vectigalia, such as the tithes paid for the public lands, the salt works, the mines, the customs, etc.
The Censors typically auctioned off to the highest bidder for the space of a lustrum the collection of the tithes and taxes (tax farming). This auctioning (venditio or locatio) seems to have taken place in the month of March, in a public place in Rome.
The terms on which they were let, together with the rights and duties of the purchasers, were all specified in the leges censoriae, which the Censors published in every case before the bidding commenced.
The Censors also possessed the right, though probably not without the assent of the Senate, of imposing new vectigalia, and even of selling the land belonging to the state. It would thus appear that it was the duty of the Censors to bring forward a budget for a 5-year period, and to take care that the income of the state was sufficient for its expenditure during that time.
In addition, the Censors had the general superintendence of all the public buildings and works (opera publica). To meet the expenses connected with this part of their duties, the Senate voted the Censors a certain sum of money or certain revenues, to which they were restricted, but which they might at the same time employ according to their discretion.
They had to see that the temples and all other public buildings were in a good state of repair, that no public places were encroached upon by the occupation of private persons, and that the aqueduct, roads, drains, etc. were properly attended to.
Besides keeping existing public buildings and facilities in a proper state of repair, the Censors were also in charge of constructing new ones, both in Rome and in other parts of the Empire. These works were either performed by them jointly, or they divided the money between them to take on said projects.
When the jobs were completed, the Censors had to see that the work was performed in accordance with the contract. This was called opus probare or in acceptum referre.
After the Censors had performed their various duties and taken the 5-yearly census, the lustrum followed. When the Censors entered upon their office, they drew lots to see which of them should perform this purification with both of them being obliged to be present at the ceremony.
The Censors were elected on the same day in the Centuriate Assembly, which met under the presidency of a Consul. If the voting for the 2nd Censor was not finished in the same day, the election of the 1st Censor was invalidated and a new assembly had to be held.
The assembly for the election of the Censores was held under different patronage from those at the election of the Consules and Praetors. The Censors were not regarded as their colleagues, although they likewise possessed the maxima auspicia.
As a general principle, the only ones eligible for the office of Censor were those who had previously been Consuls, but there were a few exceptions. Initially there was no law to prevent a person being censor twice.
However, in 265 BC Gaius Marcius Rutilus was the first person to be elected Censor for a 2nd term. In that year, he originated a law stating that no one could be elected censor twice. In consequence of this, he received the cognomen of Censorinus.
The censorship continued in existence for 421 years, from 443 BC to 22 BC. According to one statement, the office was abolished by Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
If the censorship had been done away with by Sulla, it was at any rate restored in the consulship of Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus. The office of the censorship, however, never recovered its former power and influence.
During the Roman Civil Wars which followed soon afterwards, no Censors were elected. It was only after a long interval that they were again appointed in 22 BC, when Augustus caused Lucius Munatius Plancus and Aemilius Lepidus Paullus to fill the office.
This was the last time that such magistrates were appointed. In the future, Emperors discharged the duties of their office under the name of Praefectura Morum (Prefect of the Morals).
Sometimes Emperors took the name of Censor when they held a census of the Roman people. This was the case with Claudius, who appointed the elder Vitellius as his colleague, and with Vespasian, who likewise had a colleague in his son Titus.
Domitian assumed the title of Censor Perpetuus (Perpetual Censor), but this example was not imitated by succeeding Emperors. In the reign of Decius, we find the elder Valerian nominated to the censorship, but Valerian was never actually elected Censor.
When all is said and done, the office of Censor was a lot more than just counting the Empire’s population. Many of the duties and ideals originally formed by this elected official can be seen in modern governments.
We hope you enjoyed taking a look back on this ancient office. Come check us out tomorrow to see what we have in store.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Brunt, P. A. Italian Manpower 225 BC – AD 14. Oxford, 1971.
Suolahti, J. The Roman Censors: A Study on Social Structure. Helsinki, 1963.
Wiseman, T. P. The Census in the first century B.C. Journal of Roman Studies, 1969.