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Tribunitia Potestas











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Tribunitia Potestas. The tribunal power. - It is well known that the Tribunes of the People (tribuni plebis) were magistrates created at rome, sixteen years (as it was said) after the abolition of Royality (V.C. 262), to protect the rights and advocate the claims of the plebeians against the overbearing and tyrannical conduct of the patricians. It is equally well known, that by means, and under circumstances, which historians have fully explained, but which it comes not within the province of this work to do more than incidentally allude to, the strength and power of this popular magistracy, gradually increasing, arrived at such a pitch as rendered it not only a perpetual source of vexation and annoyance to the aristocracy; but also enabled it to make inroads on the privileges, and to compete with the function of the highest magistrates. After being thus elavted in scale of political and judicial importance, the tribunate became in turn an object of jealousy and hatred to those ambitious factionaries, who, like Sylla and Marius either by their corrupt proceedings undermined, or by their open violence overthrew, the liberties of the republic, and paved the way for the usurpations of Julius Caesar, and for the proscriptive tyranny of that triumvirate on which the artful Augustus subsequently build a superstructure of imperial power. - There is a denarius of the Lollia gens/family (see p. 521 of this Dictionary), the type of which, according to Morell, alludes to the restoration, A.V.C. 684, of that authority (potestas), which the constitution had assigned to the Tribuni Plebis, but which, under Sylla's dictatorship, had swindled to a mear name. As one of the attributes of sovereignty it eventually fell, with the other dignities, into the hands of the emperors, who reserving to to themselves, assumed the tribunitian title, not because it was the first in rank but because it would have given too much authority to an individual citizen. Hence Roman monuments under the emperors, instead of bearing the first, second or third years of their reigns, exhibit an enumeration of their tribunate, which was renewed to them from year to year; and accordingly, the legends Tribunita Potestas, or Potestate, which are found on most coins of the imperial series, mark the years when the tribunitian power was re-assigned to them. for example, when TR. POT. XX appears on a medal, it signifies that the emperor had entered the twentieth year of his tribunate or that the tribunitian power had devolved to him for the twentieth time.

It is in the 731st year from the foundation of Rome (23 BC) that the most accurate numismatics place the first medals on which appeared the date of the tribunitian power. But although that legend serves as a means for calculating the years of an emperors reign yet it is not to be relied on as the basis of an invariable rule; for some princes, sons of Emperors, or adopted by them, were invested with this dignity (so formidable under the commonwealth) more than once before their accession to the imperial throne. The tribunitia potestas (says the author of Leçons de Numismatique Romaine) was in some sort the foundation of the inviolability and unlimited powers of the emperors (who were supposed to have succeeded to the rights of the ancient tribunes of the people and who certainly augmented those rights). This power or dignity was the title which of all the others they generally least neglected to mention; but as it was considered to be removed each year, it was by that renewal they almost always reckoned the years of their reigns, thereby offering the greatest help to chronological researches. Unfortunately, however for those researches, le quantième of the tribunitian power is not always expressed on medals.

The above may suffice to convey a general idea of what is meant by the Tribunitia Potestas and to explain some of the reasons why those words, either in full length or in a more or less abbreviated form so frequently occupy a place on Roman coins or marbles. As however it is a point of considerable importance to be correctly understood by those who are willing to devote themselves to the science of “Latin Medals”, and is moreover one of the talents and researches of several very learned antiquaries have been employed, we shall proceed to add the subjoined passages, translated from Eckhel, including the purport of his sagacious remarks on the subject in question, after his having critically exclaimed the lucabrations of others:

Whence the Emperors derived the Tribunitia Potestas. – So important were the rights, and so extensive the powers, which had been conceded to the old Tribunes, that nothing was more likely than that the princes, who overturned the republic, and who afterwards endeavoured to appropriate to themselves all the magisterial functions should also canvass for the tribunitian authority, or at least be desirous to have it spontaneously offer to them. Nor was it indeed a slight addition either to their supreme power or their sole permanent welfare to be personally inviolate (sacrosanctum); and than, as Cicero says, not only against force of arms (contra vim et ferrum), but also, under the protection of sacred laws. Against words also, to be enabled to negative any order of the senate, to convoke and to dismiss at pleasure both the senate and the people, and to compel obedience from even opposing magistrates. Julius Caesar was the first to whom, according to Dion, the tribunitian power was decreed out of regular course. Indeed amongst other honours which, on hearing of the victory of Pharsalia, the people conferred upon him, was that of his being privileged to retain after a manner, the tribunitan power for life. The same honour was bestowed on Octavian (after his victory over Sextus Pompey and Lepidus in Sicily, according to Orosius, or over Antony at Actium, as Dion asserts) but he seems to have at that time declined accepting it, or at least to have treated it with indifference. Because seven years after these events (V.C.731), as Dion affirms, it was decreed by the senate that Augustus should be perpetual tribune of the people (tribunus plebis perpetuus); and he immediately adds, hence it arose that Augusts and the emperors who succeeded him under some such law assumed with the other honours that of the tribunalian power. Augustus therefore was the first who received and retained it under the authority of that law of which his successors availed themselves as we learn from ancient monuments.


Why Augustus coveted this dignity. – In doing thin, Augustus was actuated by more than one motive. For besides the reason above adverted to, he increased thereby his own power and security, whilst he avoided, in appearance, an invidious assumption of the power of the people. Tacitus (Ann. L. iii. s. 56), in treating of the Tribunitian power, intimates that this policy of Augustus did not in fact escape the discernment of the quick-sighted. –“That specious title (id summi fastifii vocabulum) – that term of the proudest assumption; importing nothing less than sovereign power, was invented (says he) by Augustus at a time when the name of rex and dictator were not only unconstitutional but universally detested. And yet a new name was wanted to overstep the magistrates, and the forms of the constitution. The same historian (Ann. L. i. s. 2) had said of the same emperor that he laid aside the invidious title of Triumvir, content with the more popular name of Consul and with the tribunitian power which he professed to assume for the protection of the people”. Augustus indeed pretended by that course, which seemed most agreeable to the people, to be in the highest degree regardful of the public welfare; and in strict conformity to the institutions of the state, to protect the lives and property of the citizens. This sort of affected decorum was the ore needful at that time when the recollections of liberty were still cherished in the minds of men. Yet, it is sill to be observed, that Tiberius – a man in other respects of violent character but of keen craftiness – adopted the same line of policy. “He (says Tacitus, Ann. L i. s. 7) began all his movements through the consuls, affecting the appearance of republican principles, as if the constitution still existed, and he himself had formed no design for destroying it. The proclimation itself indeed by which he convened the senate, professed no other authority than that of the Tribunitian power conferred upon him by Augustus." Hence it is clear how available was that power for strengthening of the sovereignty, and how much more surely by those treacherous dealings, disguised, however under a popular mask, than by more open assaults the commonwealth might be overthrown. Well and truly was it called by Tacitussummi fastigii vocabulum – not that it signified, but that it was by the means of procuring the supreme authority; insomuch as to warrant Velleius in affirming of Tiberius that “by his being associated in the tribunitian power he became equal to Augustus.” And Vopiscus also calls that power “the most important part of regal government." There are writers who have not sufficiently appreciated it, whilst others have ascribed to it too much. Amongst the former, Noris, too sparing is of opinion that tribunitian power of the emperors had no reference to the actual administration of public affairs, but only meant the right of putting in a veto and of enjoying perfect immunity from harm or violence. Amongst the latter Henry Dodwell, too liberal, asserts that in the power of the tribunate was included that of the proconsulate. Both these extreme opinions have been accurately refuted by Schwartz in his learned work Exercitatio Academia de Augustorum, Caesarumque Trib. Potestate; and also by Mazzoleni in his dissertation on the same subject.

Difference between the republician and the imperial tribunate. Between the old tribunes of the people and the emperors endured with the tribunitan power, there was a great difference, the nature of which Dion explains in certain passages of his work: - First he says that neither Augusts nor any other emperor bore the name of Tribunus Plebis, but simply the title of the tribunitian power. This indeed he affirms in another place, as follows: - “The emperors esteem it inauspicious to hold the plebian tribunate, they being themselves partricians; but they accept the whole tribunitian power at the highest pitch of greatness to which it ever attained.” From this we learn that the emperors, although they might have been of the plebian order, were immediately elected into the order of the patricians, of which Spartianus also has given an example in Didius Julianus. In the next place, during the freedom of the republic, a tribune of the people could not be at the same time consul, nor fill any other magisterial office, but the emperors were permitted to do so. Morover the ancient tribunate, according to the usual course of law, was only an annual office, entered upon fourth ides of December in each year. Whereas the tribunitian power of the emperors was perpetual, and decreed to them at any period whatsoever of the year. Lastly the old tribunes were not allowed to be absent from the city, nor even pass a single night out of its walls, except during certain holidays called feriae Latinae, besides which their authority did not extend beyond the city; but it was lawful for the emperors to be absent themselves from Rome, and the tribunitian power lost none of its force during their absence. Of this Tiberius furnished an example when, being ar Rhodes, he ordered some one who had been cited before the judgment seat as a slanderer (convitiator) to be dragged to prison (Suetoniun in Tib. C. 11). But although the emperors possessed themselves of the tribunitian power, yet the ancient custom of appointing tribunes was not discontinued, and there are frequent examples of the tribunitian perofative of the veto, being exercised against decrees of the senate, as may be seen in Pighius. But it may readily be supposed, that as to the rest of the magistracies so also of the tribuneship, the authority gradually decayed, and at length nothing but the mere name was left – Panvinius is of opinion that the tribunes lasted till the reign of Constantine the Great, by whom, in establishing as he did, a new form of state government, many old institutions were abolished.

The tribunitian power conferred by the senate. – The right of investing the emperors with the power of the tribunate belonged to the senatorial body, by whom, as already observed, it was granted to Julius Caesar and to Augustus. But afterwards, even when the imperial government became fully established, and when such princes as had the inclination, were not deficient in the strength of means, to usurp the privileges entrusted to the senate, yet those honours do not appear to have been wrested from it by force. Thus according to Tacius (Ann. iii. c. 56), Tiberius himself requested the senate to confer the tribunitian power on his son Drusus. It is for pursuing an opposite course in this respect that Dion among other things reprobates the conduct of Elagabalus, who without waiting for the sanction of a senatus consultum, seised with the rest of the honours usually paid to the princes, on the name of the tribunitian power. On the other hand, respecting the immediate successor of Elagabalus, (Alexander Severus) we learn from Lampridius that on one and the same day the senate proclaimed him by the respective titles of Augustus, Tribunitia Potestas and Pater Patriae. Nor can I (adds Eckhel) discover the reason why a coin of Pescennius, struck after he had openly declared himself Augustus should make no mention of the tribunitian power unless since it could not be decreed to him by the senate who were under control of Didius Julianus and the next of Sept. Severus, he had the moderation to abstain from taking it unopposed. But certainly on no coin of Pescennius hitherto discovered is this power found ascribed. Moreover as the people of Antioch from the time of Trajan, and subsequently, were accustomed constantly to stamp on their tetradrachms the words DHMARCIKHC EXOUCIAC, Tribunitia Potestate, so for the reason alone stated they have on a Pescennius omitted that epigraph substituting in its stead that of PRONOIA QEWN, Providentia Deorum.

Emperors had their colleagues in the tribunate. - Instances are frequent of the reigning prince associating with himself a colleague in the tribunitian power. According to Dion, Augustus himself supplies three examples. In the year V.C. 736, he conferred it upon M. Agrippa, for the space of five years; after that in V.C. 741 it was continued to him for another five years. In V.C. 748, with a view to repress the insolence of Caius and Lucius Caesars, he gave it for the same quinquennial period to his son-in-law, Tiberius, who being banished from Rome was again reduced to a private station. But Caius and Lucius both dying, Augustus to prevent uncertainty respecting his choice of a successor, and to curb the perverse hopes of others, as Tacitius remarks (Ann. iii. c. 56) adopted Tiberius in the year V.C. 757 and gave him the tribunitian power for ten years, at the expiration of which term he extended it to him beyond that period, as shown on the coins of Tiberius. It was Augustus therefore who set the example of an emperor treating him whom he had invested with a share of the tribunitian power as his colleague in the empire and as his destined successor; which measure of his became a precedent. For succeeding emperors took especial care that the tribunitian power should be immediately decreed to those whom by adoption they had selected for the government, provided only they were in point of age competent to administer public affairs. Examples of this pre-arrangement were given by Augustus as regarded Tiberius, by Nerva towards Trajan, by Hadrian towards Aelius and afterwards towards Antonius. It has been advisedly said provided such adopted heirs to the imperial throne had attained an age to qualify them for the public service; for neither did Augustus allow the tribunitian power to be bestowed upon Caius and Lucius (his grandsons) although b adoption his appointed successors and although the former had already served the consulship; nor did Claudius permit it in the case of Nero; nor Antoninus give it directly to Aurelius. The same rule also prevailed with respect to natural sons (filii naturales), as contradistinguished from adopted sons of emperors, and consequently to the Caesars. Of this a conspicuous example was afforded to Tiberius, who when he asked the senate to bestow the tribunitian power on his son Drusus, amongst other reasons, mentioned the circumstance of that young prince being then of age which he himself had attained when raised by the devine Augustus, to the same honourable office. Nor could the favour which he now sought be regarded as premature (he added) for Drusus had gone through eight years of probation. It was by sedition quelled, by wars successfully terminated, by triumphial honours earned, and by two consulships served that hismerits had been proved and his qualifications for duly discharging the duties of public office established. (Tacitus, Ann. iii. s. 56). Vespasian made his son Titus, already a mature age and of well-known virtue, partaker with himself in the same dignity. The worst examples were – that in which Marcus Aurelius bestowed the tribunitian power on his son Commodus, then aged only 16, besides adding to it in the same year the title of Augustus and the more insane folly of Severus who signalised the tenth year of his son Antoninus (vulgo Caracalla) by giving him the tribunate altogether with the Augustan title.

Afterwards, all rules and proprieties were set at naught, as in the instances of Philip the younger and of Volusianus, whose respective fathers heaped the honours of the consulate and the tribunitian power with the titles of Caesar, Imperator, Augustus and Pontifex Maximus, on these beardless boys of theirs, in disordered haste and in ‘much admired confusion’

The tribunitian power customarily renewed year after year. As the potestas tribunitia conjoined to the title of emperor was something like a foundation of basis of government; and as he who bore it was either a reigning prince, or an appointed successor to the sovereignty – so each of those princes in his turn was pleased, from the day of his power being bestowed upon him to take that (if such an expression be allowable) as an epocha, from which to date his admission into the supreme government. For what, says Dion, on this point? “They (the emperors) assume the whole tribunitan power in the most enlarged degree in which it was ever exercised, and they reckon according to that the succeeding years of their reign, as though they had accepted it yearly with the tribunes of the people”. Nothing however is more common than to see on coins and marbles the tribunitian power of each prince so numbered as to increase a unit every year. For we see the tribunitian power and its number inscribed on public monuments of Augustus, yet the same Augustus on the celebrated monument at Aucyra (a town of Galatia, now Ancyre) which sets forth a train of achievement performed by himself has marked out their dates not only from the consulship but also from the tribunitian power. For instance in recounting the different congiaria (or gifts of corn or in money) which he had caused to be distributed the time is noted to have been TRIBVNITIA POTESTATE DVODECIMVM and presently after TRIBVNITIAE POTESTATIS DVODEVICESIMVM CONSVL XII. Thus when Augustus departed this life, the last tribunitian power was XXXVII. From this one may easily perceive now much the numbers of the tribunitian power, if correctly described and known, contribute as well to fix the chronology of the emperors as to reconcile certain acts and events with their dates in each reign.

Tribunitian power – opinions as to the mode of its renewal to the emperors. Eckhel then adverts to the different opinions which in the application of their great erudition and intellectual acuteness to this point of research have been advanced by various eminent antiquaries – from amongst these he selects two opinions as appearing to him the most probable, namely – 1st that of Onuparius Panvinius (De Oivit Rom. c. 60) who contends that the tribunitian power was renewed yearly, on the day on which it was first received ; and secondly that of Nicholas Toinard, who thinks that it was repeated yearly, on the IVth Ides of December in each year. The author of Doct. Num. Vet., then enters (vol viii. p. 397) into a criticial examination of these respective opinions showing with his usual clearness and candour to what extent as he conceives each may safely be adopted or should prudently be rejected. And having fully and impartially delivered his judgement on the sentiments of other learned men he next proceeds to state his own which are in substance as follows. That the tribunitian power of the emperors from Augustus to Antoninus Pius was renewed yearly on the same day of the year on which it was first conferred; and that from Antoninus Pius down to Gallienus it was renewed on the calends of January in each year.

Rules for illustrating the mode of renewal. – In exhibiting the grounds of proof on which his doctrine rests, says Eckhel, lays down the following seven regulae, viz: - 1 That coins are the surest testimony to rely upon in the attempt to investigate the method of renewing the tribunitian power. 2. That no coins however, are to be admitted as evidence in the course of research on this branch of the subject but such are of clear and acknowledged genuineness. 3. That the testimony of marbles in the case of the tribunitian power is uncertain. 4. That it is not the adverse tenor of some monumental inscriptions although of unquestionable antiquity, and supported by the best authority which can overturn an opinion confirmed by sure and abundant numismatic proofs. 5 That wherever the emperors are found to have renewed the tribunitian power on any day within the same Julian year after the calends of January, it is most certainly shown that the tribunates were conjoined with the consulates. 6. That if emperors have renewed the tribunitian power with the Julian year it was doubtless renewed on the very day it was first received. 7. That on coins of those emperors the tribunitian power never alters within one and the same Julian year; thence it is certain it was renewed in the January calends.

Having with copious citations and apposite examples supported the above rules for ascertaining the mode of renewing the tribunitian power and for avoiding those errors into which an incautious handling of the matter in question has led some of even the most learned men eckhel goes on to adduce a perfect series of evidences from such numismatic monuments as are themselves of undoubted authenticity to corroborate his opinion, as already stated – namely that from the reign of Antoninus (A.V.C. 891, AD 138) this fictitious renewal of the tribunitian power was accustomed to be made to each emperor on the anniversary of the day on which he first received it and that from the eighth year of Antoninus Pius as far as Gallienus (A.D. 253) both inclusive, it was renewed each year in the January kalands whatever might have been the day on which the prince was first invested with it. This opinion, however does not give as incontestable – on the contrary – he acknowledges that it does not serve to explain all the various combinations of dates without exception that present themselves on Roman medals, but he regards it and with apparent reasonableness and justice as more probable than any other.

Discontinuance of the Tribunitian Power. – referring the reader to vol. Viii. Of our great authors work quoted above for a masterly accumulation of numismatic evidences, which occupy more than 40 consecutive pages, we must content ourselves with subjoining a short extract from the remarks with which he concluded his own faithful, accurate and judicious treatment of a subject particularly beset with conflicting difficulties:- As we have traced (he says) this custom of mentioning, on roman coins and other monuments the tribunitian power and of enumerating its renewal from its rise and through its progress it remains for us to mark that period of the lower empire when having previously less and less frequent, the practice at length entirely ceased.We find that Constantine the Great was the last emperor who inscribed it on his coinage. But on marbles it continued in use some time after the reign of Constantine; for there are lapidary inscriptions extant, which exhibit this dignity as still added to the imperial titles of Julian, Valentinian and Gratian. In the lowest age of the Augustian history (including Justinus I) instead of TRIBVNITIA POTESTATE I. II. III., etc., we see ANNO I. II. III., etc., inscribed for a time on coins of the imperial series, to mark the year of each prince’s reign.”

A different way was adopted by the Greeks, in marking the year of an emperors reign on medals – viz., by A, B, Ã etc. up to È for 1, 2, 3, etc., to 9; I for 10 K for 20 etc., sometimes by ETOYS or contracted to ET. Or ETO., preceding the numerals. In this class of imperial medals there is a fine and numerous suite which were struck at Alexandria, in Egypt, from Augustus to Dioclean and which all bear the year of the reign of the different Roman emperors. For example, on the reverse of a medal of Trajan the Nile appears under the figure of an old man, and on the exergue of the same coin is inscribed  L. D. or the fourth year of the prince’s reign.

TR.P. – TR. PO.- TR. POT. - TRI. POT. – TRIB. P. – TRIB. POT. – TRIBVNIC. P. or POT or POTEST. – TRIBVNICIA, or TRIBVNITIA POTESTATE. –We see this record of the tribunitian power generally more or less abbreviated though some of the medallions at full length, either with or without the addition of a number and either followed or not by a similar record of the Consulate (COS.) and of the Imperatorship (IMP.) on coins of the imperial series from Augustus to Gallenius and from Gallienus to Constantine the Great. – The following list of renewals of the Tribunitian power by each emperor respectively is drawn from Echels catalogue of the Caesarean cabinet at Vienna, collated with and completed from the same author’s later and greater work – his Doctrina Numorum Veterum:

Augustus ................. TR. P. I.* II. (year of Rome 731-32 ; before Christ 24-23) to XXXVI. and XXXVII. (v.c. 767 ; after Christ 14.)

Tiberius ................... TR. P.* (for the first time, v.c. 748.)-TR. P. VI. (v.c. 757 ; after Christ 4)


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