tribune, in ancient Rome, one of various officers. The history of the office of tribune is closely associated with the struggle of the plebs against the patrician class to achieve a more equitable position in the state. From c.508 B.C. the military tribunes ( tribuni militum ) were the senior officers of the legions, elected by the people and with the rank of magistrate; a plebeian could hold the position. The office of military tribune with the power of consul ( tribuni militum consulari potestate ) was established in 444 B.C. The office meant that certain of the military tribunes were invested with the political power of the consul. Although military tribunes were abolished (367 B.C.), the office of tribune of the plebs ( tribuni plebis ) designed to protect plebeian rights, especially against abuse by magistrates, had been formed (493 B.C.). The original number of such tribunes is uncertain, but by 449 B.C. there were 10. These tribunes were plebeians elected by an assembly of plebs. The power of the tribune derived from two basic prerogatives, the right of the tribune to inflict punishment upon a magistrate who disregarded either his injunction or the inviolability ( sacrosanctitas ) of the tribune's person. Gradually the tribune gained the intercessio or the right to veto a decision of a magistrate—which in effect was a veto over any official act of administration—and the right to prosecute corrupt magistrates before a public body. He further acquired (3d cent. B.C.) the power to attend and convene the senate and to lay before it matters for consideration. As the plebeians came to occupy more and more public offices, the tribune became less the champion of a class and more the representative of the individual over the state. With the reforms of the Gracchi in the late 2d cent. B.C., the office of tribune acquired wider significance, but later Sulla, combating these reforms, tried to remove the tribuneship as a factor in Roman government. Pompey restored the tribunes to their old power. Under the empire the tribuneship was held by the emperors. This gave to the emperors few powers that they did not otherwise possess, but the tradition of the office as a defender of popular rights and its inviolability was useful to them.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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