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Censorships in the Late Republic

Author(s): Alan E. Astin
Source: Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Vol. 34, No. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1985), pp. 175-190
Published by: Franz Steiner Verlag
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Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte.
The censorships of the second century B. C. exhibit - at least in some
respects - a remarkable regularity and orderliness. Examination of detail does
reveal some modifications of practice and emphasis over the years, but in
broad terms the judgement stands: from 209 to 97 censors were appointed
regularly; the established five-year interval was adhered to except on a very
few occasions when it was exceeded by one year, on in one case two years; and
apart from 109 when the death of a censor in office automatically terminated
proceedings, every pair of censors completed its work and concluded its term
of office with the ritual of the lustrum. Not until the eve of the Social War is
there a major break in the pattern, when the censors elected in 92 abdicated
with their work incomplete - probably because they had quarrelled violently
about matters relating to their responsibility to supervise the mores of Roman
society. For the purposes of this study it matters little whether that episode is
interpreted as an aberration or as a hint of changing attitudes, for immediately
afterwards the established pattern was shattered in the dark and disorderly
years which followed: the years filled with the turmoil of the Social War and
its consequences, with the Sullan and Marian seizures of power, with the
ferocious civil war which followed Sulla's return from the East, and finally
with the Sullan regime itself.
It is usually supposed that these events, and more especially some of the
constitutional and administrative arrangements effected by Sulla, initiated a
rapid decline in the censorship, and that already, in the late Republic the
censorship was of little real significance, either in a practical sense or in terms
of the esteem in which it was held; that some of its functions were obsolete,
while those which were not could be carried out through other agencies, and
often were. Thus for a decade after Sulla's reforms Rome managed without
censors; and when in 70 censors were again appointed, they were the last
under the Republic to complete their work. Thereafter censors were elected in
65, 64, 61, 55 and 50, but those of 65 and 64 achieved nothing, and while at
least two of the remainder made progress with some of their tasks all left office
without performing the lustrum. To explain such an unprecedented sequence
of incomplete censorships, two of them totally ineffective, it is tempting to
infer that the censorship was perhaps not the focus of attention it had once
been, that although the force of tradition led to the appointment of censors, it
was no longer essential that they should complete their work (some of which
could be done by others, while some simply did not matter), with the
Historia, Band XXXIV/2 (1985) ? Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden GmbH, Stuttgart
consequence that other considerations were allowed to override and frustrate
Although it will be argued below that several of these conclusions are
overstated and that important qualifications must be made, there are undeni-
ably particular features of the censorship in the late Republic which do accord
with the type of assessment outlined above. The census of citizens and their
categorization by wealth was no longer relevant to military recruiting and it
had not been relevant to direct taxation for a century, as no tributum had been
collected from citizens since 167. In the lectio senatus the selection of new
members was now to a considerable degree predetermined by the very close
association between tenure of a junior magistracy and membership of the
Senate, greatly reducing the scope of the censors' discretion; indeed Cicero
could envisage this as a wholly automatic process, dispensing with censorial
co-option (though not with the censors' power to exclude unworthy
members).2 As for public contracts, it was possible for them to be let by
magistrates other than censors; and in the years prior to 70, and probably again
in the mid-60s, presumably contracts customarily arranged by censors were
dealt with in this way in the absence of censors themselves. Indeed those are
two quite considerable spans of time during which Rome had to find ways of
managing her affairs in general without benefit of censorial action.
Furthermore, though the evidence for the individual censorships is uneven
and sparse, certain events can be construed as compatible with the hypothesis
that extraneous considerations and personal disputes were being allowed to
l Sources in MRR. No reason is recorded for the abdication of the censors of 92, but a famous
altercatio between them seems to have centred upon mutual accusations of luxury and
extravagance. For the censorship in general see esp. Th. Mommsen, Romisches Staatsrecht II3
(Leipzig, 1887-8) pp. 331 ff.; W. Kubitschek, RE s. v. 'Censores' (1), 1902 ff.; J. Suolahti, The
Roman Censors (Helsinki, 1963); C. Nicolet, The World of the Citizen in Republican Rome
(London, 1980); G. Pieri, L'Histoire du cens jusqu'a la
de la Republique romaine (Paris, 1968)
is especially concerned with origins and early development. P. A. Brunt, Italian Manpower 225
B. C. - A. D. 14 (Oxford, 1971) has many valuable observations on the censorship. For the
Ciceronian period, T. P. Wiseman, 'The Census in the First Century B. C.', JRS 59 (1969) pp.
59 ff.; also G. Tibiletti, 'The 'Comitia' during the Decline of the Roman Republic', SDHI 25
(1959) pp. 94 ff. Brunt, op. cit. pp. 104 ff. and 700 ff., advances arguments against Wiseman's
central thesis that nobiles repeatedly prevented completion of the census in order to prevent the
registration of large numbers of new citizens whose votes could not easily be controlled; in so well
documented a period the absence of any explicit reference to so contentious an issue is itself
virtually decisive. I arn not convinced by some points in the argument of M. Dondin, 'Pour une
identification du censeur de 64,' REL 57 (1979) pp. 126-144, that the 'missing' censor of 64 was
M'. Acilius Glabrio, cos. 67, that the censors of 64 at least completed the lectio senatus, and that
Dio's statement that they achieved nothing is unreliable. Brunt, op. cit. pp. 710 ff., argues from
Cic. Flacc. 72 ff. that these censors did set in motion the machinery of the census, but he accepts
that they made little progress.
2 De Leg. 3.27; cf.
Censorships in the Late Republic 177
override the activities of the censorship itself; and some seem actually to point
towards that interpretation. According to Dio the censors of 65, Crassus and
Catulus, quarrelled about the Transpadanes (one wishing them to be granted
Roman citizenship, the other not) and in consequence performed none of their
censorial tasks. Plutarch, in the only other account of this censorship, similarly
says that nothing was achieved and attributes this to a quarrel, though he states
that the subject of the quarrel was a plan by Crassus to make Egypt
to Rome. There are indications that both of these were issues which had arisen
also in other contexts at about this time; so whichever was the subject of the
quarrel (or if both were), the episode could be interpreted to mean that
disagreement between the censors about current political issues overrode their
sense of obligation to cooperate in the work of the censorship.3
Dio goes on immediately to mention the censors of 64, saying that 'for this
reason (xaL 6Cta TouTo) their successors too did nothing in the following year.'4
One interpretation of Dio's connecting phrase is that the quarrel about the
Transpadanes was carried forward,5 though perhaps more probably it means
simply that these censors also quarrelled. Either way Dio appears to be saying
that the quarrel stopped them working together in the censorship, though he
also says that they were hindered by the tribunes, who were afraid of being
removed from the roll of the Senate in the lectio. That could be taken to mean
that they were prepared to sacrifice the work of the censorship to their
personal interests and did not fear the practical or political consequences.
In connexion with the censorships of 61 and 55 there are additional items
which could be linked to this same line of interpretation, but there are no
details which particularly point to it; and unfortunately there is no statement
about why either of these censorships was not completed. (The censorship of
50 was of course overtaken by the outbreak of civil war). Since Dio says that
the censors of 61 enrolled all ex-magistrates in the Senate even though they
exceeded the stated total, it is probable that an issue similar to that of 64 had
arisen; but this time it was resolved, did not bring all censorial work to a halt,
and cannot be the cause of the lustrum not being celebrated.6 As for the census
of 55-54, at an early stage Cicero, who was not in Rome, asked whether
Dio 37.9.3; Plut. Crass. 13; cf. Suet. Jul. 8,9 and II. The episode is mentioned in many
modern studies: see esp. E. G. Hardy, 'The Transpadane Question and the Alien Act of 65 or 64
B. C.,' JRS 6 (1916) pp. 63 ff. = Some Problems in Roman History (Oxford, 1924) pp. 43 ff.;
Wiseman, op. cit. p. 65; E. S. Gruen, The Last Generation of the Roman Republic(Berkeley 1974)
pp. 410 f.; A. M. Ward, Marcus Crassus and the Late Roman Republic (Columbia, Missouri,
1977), pp. 128 ff.
Dio 37.9.4.
So Hardy, op. cit.
6 Dio 37.46.4 In letters of January and (probably) June 60 Cicero indicates that work was still
in progress: ad Att. 18 (1.18).8; 21 (2.1).11.
tribunes were impeding the census by vitiating days for business, but he makes
no mention of motives and we do not know whether the disruption, if it
occurred at all, was serious, let alone whether it ultimately affected the
lustrum. At a later stage he possibly implies a connexion between judicial
disputes arising out of a lex Clodia and the fact that the lustrum was despaired
of; but details are lacking and the connexion is not certain.7
Despite these latter uncertainties it is apparent that the surviving informa-
tion about the censorships of 65-55 does include items which can be taken as
compatible with - and in some cases positively to encourage - the type of
assessment of the censorship in the late Republic which has been outlined
above: in summary, that changes were rendering several of the censor's
traditional roles less necessary than they had once been; that the office as such
was therefore less necessary to the satisfactory functioning of the Roman state
and society; and that this can be characterized as a decline which the historical
observer can see to be an ongoing process.
This is, however, an assessment which cannot stand without important
qualifications. In what follows it will be argued that the factual record of the
late Republican censorships is open to alternative interpretations which, at
least in some cases, are preferable to those set out above; that alternative
mechanisms for performing censorial functions, in so far as they were devised,
cannot be assumed to have been judged preferable by contemporaries; that in
several areas of activity the censorship continued to be the preferred or only
mechanism; that several of these areas were perceived by contemporaries as
important, and that the censorship as an office continued to be regarded as
important and to be held in high esteem. Most fundamentally, the perception
of a historian, especially a historian whose attention is directed towards change
and underlying trends, may differ considerably from the perception of
That the censorship continued to be held in high esteem is attested first by
the standing of those who secured election. The erratic character of the
evidence leaves us ignorant of three of the names (one for 64 and both for 61),
but the remainder are these:8
70 Cn. Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus (cos. 72).
L. Gellius Poplicola (cos. 72).
65 Q. Lutatius Catulus (cos. 78).
M. Licinius Crassus Dives (cos. 70).
Cic. ad Att. 85 (4.9).1; 89 (4.16).8. For Wiseman's explanation of the failure to complete
censorships see above, n. 1.
8 Evidence in MRR. M. Dondin, 'Pour une identification du censeur de 64,' REL 57 (1979) pp.
126-144, has attempted to demonstrate that the 'missing' censor of 64 was M'. Acilius Glabrio,
cos. 67. C. Scribonius Curio has sometimes been suggested as one of the censors of 61.
Censorships in the Late Republic 179
64. L. Aurelius Cotta (cos. 65).
61 (two)
55 M. Valerius Messala (cos. 61).
P. Servilius Vatia Isauricus (cos. 79).
50 Ap. Claudius Pulcher (cos. 54).
L. Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus (cos. 58).
Outstanding among these were Crassus himself, Catulus, one of the most
distinguished and influential of the optimate leaders, and Servilius Vatia,
distinguished soldier and triumphator. But all had been active and prominent
in public life, all but one were almost certainly descended from former consuls
and from families which had enjoyed a long tradition of public distinction. It is
a list which is not out of keeping with the list of censors in the previous
century. Significantly, at the very end is the name of Ap. Claudius Pulcher - a
thrusting, ambitious man who was a patrician from one of the most ancient,
enduring and continuously eminent families of the Republic, and who threw
himself with great vigour into the work of the censorship.9 There is no reason
here to suppose that the censorship was losing its appeal, that it was perceived
as carrying less esteem or as conferring less prestige upon its holders.
In the second place it is probably misleading to say that for ten years after
Sulla Rome managed without censors. It may rather be said that by the end of a
decade it was found desirable to appoint censors. Possibly this was in part a
political gesture engineered by Pompey - to symbolize order, stability and
traditional government; but it is also possible that the tasks normally
associated with the censorship were not being performed satisfactorily through
other agencies and that unresolved problems were accumulating. For this was
no token or superficial censorship. Nearly a million citizens were registered,
the recognitio equitum and no doubt all other tasks were carried through, the
lustrum was completed; and in the lectio senatus 64 senators, perhaps around
10% of the entire membership, among them a consul of the previous year,
were removed from the roll.10 Even though the explanation for such extensive
action in the lectio may lie partly in a technicality, it is scarcely surprising that
the Epitome of Livy termed it harsh (aspera censura). The attempt of a tribune
to coerce one of the censors (by confiscating his property and threatening to
throw him from the Tarpeian Rock)" is a further indication that this census
Dio 40. 63-64; Cic. ad. Fam. 97 (8.14).4.
Esp. Livy Per. 98; Plut. Pomp. 22.4-6; Cic. 17.1; 'Plut.' Apophth. Pomp. 6; Dio 37.30. For
more details, Cic. Pro Cluent. 117-135; Comm. Pet. 8; Ascon. p. 84 C.; Sall. Cat. 23.1; App. B. C.
Cic. De Domo 123-124.
was not a mere political show but was a serious and vigorous operation
- an
operation, moreover, which was brought to a successful conclusion.
The vigour and effectiveness of the censorship of 70, which must have been
regarded as a signal success, make it implausible to attribute the failure to
complete the subsequent censorships to a decline in the sense of purpose and
value. It would be more plausible to conjecture the opposite, that they were
impeded by controversies precisely because in certain respects the work of
censors was of real moment. However that may be, there is little doubt that it
continued to be considered important to have a censorship. The repeated
appointments of censors, especially the early appointment of new censors in 64
and 61 in manifest response to the preceding failures, point not to a disinterest
and a declining sense of purpose but to a strong belief that a censorship was
urgently needed. This interpretation finds some support in the fact that
whereas there were early replacements for the censors of 65 and 64, who had
achieved little or nothing, this was not done for the censors of 61 and 55; for
although the latter pairs also failed to complete the lustrurm, both remained in
office long enough to complete much of their work, at least some of which will
not have been dependent upon the lustrum for its validity."2
Then there is Cicero, in whose writings numerous references to the
censorship afford at least a glimpse into a well-placed contemporary's
perception of the office. The passages (which are studied in detail elsewhere)"3
betray no hint whatsoever that Cicero looked upon the censorship as a
declining institution. On the contrary he regarded it with the greatest respect,
as an office of eminence which conferred great prestige upon its holders, and as
a potentially powerful instrument for the achievement of order and stability.
So it appears also in the model laws of his De Legibus, in which he assigned to
it all its actual duties (except the selection of new senators) and proposed
enhanced conditions of tenure, namely that the term of office should be five
years, and that there should be continuity between successive censors.14
In the light of this it is necessary to look again at the implications of those
details of the censorships of 65-55 which were examined above and seen to be
compatible with the hypothesis of a perceived decline of the censorship
some of which could be interpreted as pointers toward that hypothesis. In fact
it was seen that details relating to 61 and 55, though not imcompatible with the
hypothesis, leave much uncertainty and ambiguity; indeed there is nothing
For 61-60 see Dio 37.46.4; Cic. ad Att. 17(1.17).9; 18 (1.18).8; 21 (2.1).11. For 55-54 see
Cic. ad Att. 89 (4.16).8 (July, 54). Neither the lectio senatus nor contracts let by censors depended
upon the lustrum for validation: Mommsen, op. cit. II3 pp. 419 and 425. For a more controversial
question relating to the lustrum and validation see further below.
13 A. E. Astin, 'Cicero and the Censorship,' CPh (forthcoming).
14 De Leg. 3.7 and 27.
Censorships in the Late Republic 181
incompatible with the alternative hypothesis that the censorship retained
esteem and importance. There is however a further point to be made about
Dio's comment upon the censors of 61, that they enrolled ex-magistrates in the
Senate even 'beyond the number."5 This strongly suggests that something
more than merely personal interests may have been involved both then and
previously in the tribunician intervention of 64, when the tribunes feared that
they would not be enrolled. There is a clear implication in Dio's phrase that the
censors did have regard to the notional total for membership of the Senate,
which since Sulla had been 600.16 If that figure was exceeded significantly by
the combined total of survivors from the previous lectio and those who had
subsequently acquired the ius sententiae dicendae,'7 the censors will have been
faced with a problem of technical origin which was likely to raise important
issues of principle about the rights of those with the ius sententiae dicendae,
with which considerations of self-interest will no doubt have become
entangled. The wider implications of this require separate study, but enough
has been said to show that it may have been no petty matter which led the
tribunes of 64 to hinder the censors.
As for the two subjects of dispute ascribed to the censors of 65 (proposals to
grant citizenship to the Transpadanes and to make Egypt tributary), it cannot
be assumed without question that these were wholly extraneous to the work of
the censorship itself. It is noticeable that both were in fields closely related to
major responsibilities of the censors. The censors did not have the authority to
grant Roman citizenship, but they were responsible for the registration of all
citizens, including any newly enfranchised by law, and for enrolling them in
tribes. They did not determine that territories should be annexed, but in a
number of instances they arranged the contracts under which revenues were
collected from provinces. Whether in 65 there was an attempt to anticipate and
thereby encourage the passage of legislation, whether legal ambiguities and
rival interpretations came into question, we can never know; but it is clearly
possible that one or both of these issues, whatever their wider connotations,
raised substantial questions of procedure and principle
in the conduct of the
censorship itself. That is not to deny the possibility mentioned earlier: that the
censors simply blocked each other's censorial work in an
to exert
leverage in disputes extraneous to the censorship itself. Even if that were the
case this episode would not be sufficient to override the considerable
37.46.4: xca 'xte
Nowhere stated explicitly to have been so but beyond reasonable doubt: Mommsen, op. cit.
III pp. 847 f.; for discussion of steps leading to this see E. Gabba, 'Il ceto equestre e il Senato di
Silla,' Atbenaeum 34 (1956) pp. 124 ff.
Mommsen, op. cit. II3 pp. 420 ff. and III pp. 458 ff. The dates at which this ius was extended
to tribunes and quaestors have been the subject of controversy but are no later than Sulla.
indications set out above that for contemporaries the censorship did retain
both esteem and practical importance; but in fact it is not necessarily the case,
and the very subject-matter of the disputes raises a suspicion that they may
have become connected more directly with the operations of the censorship
There is therefore no reason to find a conflict between details of the
individual censorships and the conclusion that, whatever underlying trend may
be discerned by the historian, in the eyes of contemporaries the censorship
continued to have both esteem and practical significance; but this broad
conclusion requires further analysis.
Obviously the esteem in which the censorship was held was in the first place
an inherited perception, derived from the long and distinguished pre-eminence
of the office. Undeniably changes in inherited perceptions tend to lag
somewhat behind changes in the realities of what is perceived; but in this case
more was involved than the mere survival of values which drew their substance
from another age. In the eyes of contemporaries the censorship also had
practical importance. No doubt the relative value which they placed upon each
individual function of the office differed from that of an earlier age
for as the
needs of Roman society changed over the years so also must have the practical
significance and the relative importance of various censorial tasks. But that
they did attach considerable importance to some of these tasks is clear from
their persistence with the office, and especially from their efforts to have a
censorship in the 60s. It is reflected in the attitude of Cicero; and in 50 it is
dramatized by Appius Claudius, whose vigour at the end of the sequence, like
that of Lentulus and Gellius at the beginning, shows that his concern was by
no means only with the cachet of having been censor.
Three functions of the censorship which had at one time been of great
importance were no longer so and require no discussion here. The actual
census had been the basis both for the recruiting of armies and for the raising
of revenue, but, as has been observed already, by the late Republic this was no
longer the case. And the substantial involvement which the censors had once
had in contracting for major new public works had dwindled as the iriitiative
and responsibility passed into other hands; only one major project (work on
the banks of the Tiber) is known to have been handled by the censors of the
late Republic."8
It is not so simple, however, to assess contemporary valuations of the
censors' role in relation to the many other contracts which
arranged. They handled, for example, contracts for the maintenance and repair
of public buildings, for the provision of numerous public services, for the
ILLRP 1.2 no. 496 and note. Dio 39.61.1-2 mentions floods which probably gave rise to this
Censorships in the Late Republic 183
leasing of public properties and lands, for the collection of rentals, monopoly
dues and various taxes (e. g. portoria), and increasingly since the time of Gaius
Gracchus for the collection of great amounts of direct taxation from certain
provinces. But although the censors had become very closely identified with a
vast mass of such contracts, their role and responsibilities had never become
exclusive. Other magistrates could and did let contracts, sometimes in similar
fields and with no detectable legal or constitutional differentiation from those
let by censors: aediles, for example, commonly let contracts for the main-
tenance and repair of public buildings. Thus alternative mechanisms to
censorial action did exist, and at certain periods in the late Republic - prior to
70 and
again prior
to 61
must have been used.19 The historian, asking
essential in this field censors are likely to have seemed to contemporaries, will
conclude that there must have been some awareness that the work could be
done without censors; and therefore that in terms of underlying trends the
way was being prepared for a movement away from the censors in this field.
On the other hand it does not follow at all that such a change was regarded
as desirable or that it was felt to be a matter of indifference whether the work
was performed by censors or by others. It is extremely improbable that
contemporaries were carefully analysing the duties of the censorship and
asking themselves how necessary the office of censor was for the performance
of each; but they will certainly have looked upon this particular area of activity
as extremely important in the life of the state. The contracts provided for a
multitude of features which were built into the accepted structure of life, and
above all they embraced vast revenues. Furthermore, given the longstanding
practices of the Roman Republic in this field, for a great body of contracts it
will have been assumed without question that censors were the accepted and
proper officials to handle the business, as was Cicero's attitude.20 Nor is there
any reason to suppose that alternative mechanisms, when they had been used
through force of circumstances, seemed preferable. On the contrary, the ad
hoc nature of the arrangements may well have made them appear less
convenient and less efficient. For all we know, dissatisfaction in this area
have contributed to the holding of the censorship
in 70 and to the
the attempts to hold one in the 60s; and conversely although the censors of 61
and 55 did not complete the lustrum, the fact that there were no
replacements for either pair could be linked to their relative success in
completing much of their work, including the letting of contracts2' (which did
Contracts let by the consuls of 75, mentioned in Cic. Verr. 2.3.18, were probably in this
category; those mentioned in Verr. 2.1.130 may have been, but are of a kind which might have
been let by other magistrates even without a hiatus in the censorship.
Astin, 'Cicero and the censorship' CPh (forthcoming).
In 61 the contract for Asia is attested: Cic. adAtt. 17 (1.17). 9; in 55 the work on the Tiber
was contracted: ILLRP 12 no. 496 and note.
not require a lustrum for their validity). Such connexions are entirely
speculative, but their plausibility is a warning against the assumption that
arrangements for handling the business without censors were judged to have
been satisfactory.
Whether contemporaries would have considered the letting of contracts
sufficient reason in itself for making strenuous efforts to appoint censors is
probably a meaningless question, since the issue is unlikely to have presented
itself in that form. Yet, taken in conjunction with other functions which were
still felt to be important and properly or necessarily to be performed by
censors, the contracts generated such a volume of business, impinged on so
many aspects of Roman society, were in some cases of such magnitude, and
collectively embraced such substantial revenues that there is every reason to
suppose them to have been, at the least, a powerful reinforcing factor to the
value placed on the censorship and the esteem attached to it and its holders.
Somewhat similar considerations apply to the census proper, which, as the
original basic responsibility of the censors, is particularly likely to have been
viewed through the preconceptions of tradition and to have been assumed
uncritically to be a necessary task, properly to be performed by censors
or at
any rate to have been so assumed for as long as any plausible semblance of
purpose remained. At a basic level, in a world where Roman citizenship was
very much a privileged status, yet a status which had already been conferred on
most free persons in Italy and a few beyond, the desirability of continuing to
update the list of citizens was perhaps taken for granted. The census, however,
also involved registration by tribe and wealth. Although this procedure had
long since lost its central role in relation to the recruiting of armies and the
levying of taxation, in principle it remained the basis for the voting units
tribes and centuries
in the Roman assemblies. Amid all the political disorder
of the late Republic, almost to the eve of civil war, the assemblies still met and
still mattered: legislation was approved or rejected, elections were held, the
votes of supporters were solicited and mobilized, even from distant parts. Thus
in principle a census was relevant, and there is direct evidence that the work of
conducting it was at least begun by the censors both of 61 and 55.22
Once again however, it is necessary to face the question whether the
experiences of these years may have undermined the importance of the
censorship; whether difficulties and failures in the conduct of the census may
Cic. ad Att. 18(1.18).8 and 21(2.1).1 1, concerning Atticus' plans for making his declaration
in 60. In 55 Cic. ad Att. 85 (4.9).1 refers specifically to the census. Brunt, Italian Manpower pp.
700 ff., believes that there is evidence that the censors of 64 also made a beginning on the census,
though they made little progress. For Wiseman's suggestion that the registration of new voters was
the central issue which caused the whole sequence of censorships which were left incomplete, see
above, n. 1.
Censorships in the Late Republic 185
not have led to the creation of ways through which the Romans found
themselves increasingly able to manage without it. Even the census of 70 was at
least five years overdue, which ought to imply that a great many more
vacancies than normal had accumulated in the equestrian order and the
centuries, and had lain unfilled for longer - especially significant in the smaller
and more influential centuries of the wealthy. After 70 the process ought to
have been even more striking, since no lustrum was completed and it is
generally believed that a lustrum was essential to the validity and implementa-
tion of the new lists prepared by the censors.
Plainly, however, this cannot have gone on for so long a period without
something being done to ameliorate the consequences. Quite apart from the
practical and technical problems likely to have arisen from shrinking centuries,
it is impossible to believe that those for whom the right to vote still had value -
the wealthy and perhaps many of the inhabitants of Rome itself - would have
borne without protest prolonged exclusion from the registers, tantalized all the
more by the recurring failures to complete the lustrum. Yet in an unusually
well documented period of Roman history there is no hint of complaint or
protest at such exclusion. Some method was found to incorporate fresh
Unfortunately no source tells us what that method was. In essence there are
two possibilities, each of which has been championed. One is that there was
resort to an ad hoc device outside the normal procedures of the census, e. g. by
permitting sons to vote in the tribes and centuries of their fathers ;23 though for
such an arrangement there appears to be no positive evidence. The other is that
when the censors did carry through a substantial part of the census, as they
probably did in 61-60 and 55-54, the results of their work were used by
magistrates presiding at the assemblies even though the lustrum had not been
completed; indeed it has even been conjectured that whether the lustrum was
legally necessary for validation of the censors' acts had been the subject of
debate and that by the Ciceronian age the question had been
resolved in the negative.24 This last conjecture probably goes too far, but if
magistrates were prepared to make use of informal and incomplete censorial
Tibiletti, 'The 'Comitia' during the Decline of the Roman Republic,' SDHI 25 (1959)
103 f.; Wiseman, 'The Census in the First Century B. C.'
59 (1969) pp. 59 ff., esp. 69 f.
24 Brunt, Italian Manpower pp. 104 ff., 700 ff. Whether the lustrum was legally necessary for
the validity of censorial acts is a controversial issue, linked especially with the question
manumission by censors. It is possible that the controversy to which Cicero refers in De Orat. t.
183 (see also Frag. Dos. 17) concerned not absolute validation but retrospective validity,
from the
date of the act rather than the lustrum; and it is far from clear that the issue had been settled. If it
was being argued explicitly that all censorial acts were valid irrespective of the lustrum, and if
magistrates were conducting elections on that basis, it is surprising that no more is heard about it. I
hope to consider this question further in another context.
material when convening the assemblies (e. g. by not preventing anyone who
voted in accordance with the level of wealth he had declared), this could be
another explanation of why the censors appointed in 61 and 55 were not
followed by early successors, even though like the censors of 65 and 64 they
failed to complete the lustrum. On the other hand the long period down to 70
encourages the alternative conjecture that magistrates had found some modus
operandi which was not dependent upon the availability of new censorial
All this however is conjecture. There is not the evidence to determine whether
the authorities limited themselves to the use of censorial material (including
informal or incomplete material) or devised some method which enabled them
to manage without that material. Yet if it were supposed that the latter is
correct and an 'extra-censorial' method was used, it would certainly not be an
automatic corollary that this was found to be an acceptable alternative to a
proper census or that it encouraged a readiness to manage without the latter. It
is at least as likely a priori that the limitations of any such alternative, as well as
the general difficulties experienced in these years, will have reinforced the
assumption inculcated by tradition that a census was a valuable and necessary
procedure. Once again it must be remembered that the appointment of censors
in 70 may reflect discontent and a sense of need, and that the complete failures
of 65 and 64 were each followed by an immediate fresh attempt. The fact is that
the known data and the meagre evidence available to us give no ground
whatsoever for doubting that the Romans continued to attach importance to
the census and to make efforts to get it completed. The censors of 61 and 55 are
known to have begun the work of the census proper, and so probably did
those of 50. Two letters of Cicero written in 60 imply that Atticus was taking
the procedure seriously; apparently he was returning to Rome in order to
make his declaration in person. The fact that in 55 Cicero thought it likely that
tribunes would vitiate days in order to impede the census suggests that both he
and they attached importance to it.26 These and Cicero's other references to the
census are not sufficient to allow us to evaluate his perception in detail, but
they give no sign that he regarded the census as anything but a normal, on-
going and necessary function of state. Significantly, in the De Legibus, in the
model law in which he set out duties for censors, the first item is, 'The censors
A third possibility which was open in principle was that a census might be conducted by a
magistrate other than a censor: cf. Tab. Heracl., FIRA2 I, no. 13, 142 ff.; Brunt, Italian Manpower
521; but this was not attempted. In practice, after 70 there seems to have been no difficulty in
getting censors appointed; the obstacles arose at later stages.
26 For 61 and 55, and for Brunt's conjecture that the procedure was initiated in 64, see above.
No direct evidence for 50 but Dio 40.63-64 shows that the review of equestrian centuries was
Censorships in the Late Republic 187
shall conduct a census of the people, recording their ages, offspring, slaves and
It is not the census, however, but the lectio senatus which is the most
commonly mentioned feature in the record of the late Republican censorships
- almost to the point of constituting a recurring theme. Partly because some of
the evidence is contemporary, and partly because of the nature of some of the
events, it can confidently be said that this prominence is not misleading. The
lectio was clearly regarded as a central function of the censors and became the
focus of much attention and several controversies. This is seen especially when
the relevant events (most of which have been mentioned already) are listed in
(i) The censors of 70 excluded no less than 64 existing senators from their
revised list, among them a consul of the previous year. One tribune who was
excluded reacted by declaring the property of one of the censors to be
consecrated and perhaps also threatening to throw him from the Tarpeian
(ii) The censors of 64 were directly obstructed by tribunes in their attempt to
revise the Senate; the tribunes are said to have feared that they themselves
would be expelled.29
(iii) The censors of 61 are reported to have enrolled in the Senate all ex-
magistrates, even though they thereby exceeded the normal total membership.
Such an action almost certainly results from controversy, and probably has
some relationship to the dispute in 64.30
(iv) Ilree years later, in 58, Clodius as tribune carried a law which placed
some restriction upon the freedom of censors to expel senators. The principal
feature was probably that a formal hearing of the complaints against an
individual, conducted in judicial form, should be held before both censors and
that a senator could not be omitted from the list unless the two censors
concurred in their findings.3'
(v) Towards the end of the censorship of 55-54 Cicero in a letter to Atticus
referred to iudicia which were taking place and which arose from a lex Clodia.
Since this is bracketed with a mention that the lustrum was now despaired of, it
is likely that the iudicia were linked to the censorial work and were hearings
De Leg. 3.7. See further Astin, 'Cicero and the Censorship', CPh forthcoming.
Livy Per. 98; Plut. Cic. 17.1; Dio 37.30; Cic. De Domo 123-124; Pro Cluent. 117-135;
Comm. Pet. 8; Ascon. p. 84C; Sall. Cat. 23.1; App. B. C. 2.3.
Dio 37.9.4.
Dio 37.46.4.
Ascon. p. 8C; Dio 38.13.2, cf. 40.57.1-3. Cicero frequently criticized the law in extravagant
terms in his efforts to discredit Clodius: Pro Sest. 55; De Domo 130; De Har. Resp. 58, De Prov.
Cons. 46; In Pis. 9-10.
arising Out of Clodius' law concerning the lectio.32 There may well be an
implication (which to Atticus would have been unequivocal) that excessive
prolongation of the lectio by these hearings was expected to prevent
completion of the work in time for the lustrum to be celebrated.
(vi) The lex Clodia was repealed in 52 enabling the censors of 50 to revert to
traditional procedure.33 Appius Claudius conducted a vigorous lectio, expell-
ing numerous senators, including all who were freedmen and a number of
others, among them Sallust. Although the initiative seems to have been taken
entirely by Appius, his colleague L. Calpurnius Piso acquiesced in all of the
cases except that of Curio, whereupon Appius nevertheless made public in the
Senate his opinion of Curio.34
The aspect of the lectio which principally engages attention in these episodes
is the expulsion of existing senators. Although the censors still had the formal
power to co-opt new members into the Senate, since tribunes and quaestors
had been granted virtually automatic entry, and since Sulla had increased the
number of quaestors, their choice was to a very considerable degree pre-
determined. Nevertheless this does not mean that the lectio was becoming
redundant, either in practice or in contemporary perception. For co-option
and expulsion alike a key formal step was the publication of the new list of
members of the Senate
which indeed was the essence of the lectio. Within the
lectio interest was shifting from the act of inclusion to the act of exclusion, but
the lectio as such remained the focus of great interest and concern.
An important reason for the special interest in this aspect of the censorship
was no doubt that this was the activity most likely to impinge in a personal
way on members of the governing elite themselves; but that does not explain
why it was expected that the censors would be very active in the lectio or why
this should have been the cause of recurring controversy. A priori an
explanation might be sought in conjecture that censors were attempting to
exercise their power in a partisan manner against political opponents, but
except possibly in the case of Curio this does not seem to have been a major
factor; at any rate, from an age of peculiarly partisan and unscrupulous politics
the record is singularly free from accusations of that kind. As has been seen
already, for the events of 64 and 61 there may be a special explanation arising
from a technical problem of numbers; and in this connexion it is conceivable
that the censors of 70, who expelled 64 members, applied particularly strict
standards in order to keep the total membership of the Senate to its official
maximum. But this consideration cannot have applied after 61 and it is clearly
Cic. ad Att. 89 (4.16).8. Val. Max. 6.2.8 must refer to this censorship and probably refers to
one of these hearings.
33 Dio 40.57.1-3.
34 Dio 40.63-64; Cic. ad Fain. 97 (8.14).4; De Div. 1.29.
Censorships in the Late Republic 189
not the whole explanation. Very probably a good deal is to be attributed to the
expectations inculcated by tradition and sustained by a more widespread
concern with mores than the more cynical interpretations of this age would
lead us to suppose. The regimen morum was a traditional responsibility of the
censors which in the main they discharged not as a separate task but through
certain of their other activities, above all through the recognitio equitum and
the lectio senatus. It was taken as a matter of course that in the lectio they
would concern themselves with standards of conduct and that they would
remove from the list senators who were guilty of serious misconduct or were
otherwise unfitted for membership. It looks very much as if the censors of 70
and especially Appius Claudius in 50 took this responsibility seriously;
certainly the comments on Appius' activity made by Caelius in a letter to
Cicero are most naturally taken to indicate that the censor was interpreting this
part of his duties both literally and zealously.35 Furthermore it is the
application of the regimen morum through the lectio which is the most
prominent and significant feature of the censorship in the writings and
thoughts of Cicero. It is much the most common motif in his allusions to the
office and is given a role of particular importance among his suggestions in the
De Legibus.36
Whatever may have been the true balance between these various particular
factors in determining attitudes, the importance of the lectio senatus in
contemporary perceptions of the censorship is manifest, along with the active
reality of the censors' power to exclude from the Senate, even at the level of an
ex-consul. It was a power not challenged even by Clodius' law, which seems
only to have required the censors to follow certain procedures but not to have
attempted to override their judgement. It is no surprise that the office which
gave access to such a power continued to enjoy prestige and to be perceived as
important. That valuation can only have been reinforced by the similar
continuing sense of the importance of the censors' responsibilities for public
contracts and for the census itself.
For it cannot be emphasized too strongly that although for convenience in
discussion it has been necessary here to examine separately various functions
of the censorship, that is not how they will normally have presented
themselves to the minds of contemporaries. Contemporaries are unlikely to
have reviewed the functions one by one and asked themselves which still had
an important role to play and which did not. They will have started from
received assumptions, that the censorship was an office of great eminence and
that it afforded the normal and proper means of carrying
out a group
of tasks
which were important to the well-being of the res publica. They
will have
Ad. Fam. 97 (8.14).4.
De Leg. 7,11,27 f.,
f.; Astin,
'Cicero and the
190 ALAN E. ASTIN, Censorships in the Late Republic
tended to retain those assumptions so long as a substantial proportion of the
tasks continued to be perceived as important and without the alternative of an
obviously more satisfactory mechanism. Their attention will have been
directed not towards those functions which now mattered less or not at all but
towards those which they perceived as having continuing importance for
them; and these are less likely to have been perceived as primarily an
accumulation of separate functions than as various facets of an entity. There
will have been no necessity to question the high value and great esteem
conferred upon that entity by tradition.
Most historians are interested in change in human societies and human
institutions. It is natural and proper for them to give their attention especially
to the detection of change, incipient change, the causes of change - sometimes
including change which in its immediate context can properly be described as
decline. Quite rightly, they identify in the censorship of the late Republic
certain changes which had occurred, and possibly even some symptoms of
further change. Examination of the evidence, however, suggests two important
qualifications to this. While the historian is quick to identify change, the
primary awareness of contemporaries is as likely to be of elements of tradition
and continuity; and the fragmented but varied evidence points to this as the
dominant perception of the censorship in the late Republic. Consequently if
we attempt to interpret the actions and conjecture the motives of those
contemporaries as if they perceived a decline in the censorship, the results are
likely to be seriously misconceived.
Second, the view that in the Ciceronian period the practical and psychologi-
cal importance of the censorship was being undermined by resort to alternative
mechanisms is very much open to question. For some of the tasks it is doubtful
whether practical alternatives really were available. If and when alternatives
were employed, the extent to which they were perceived as satisfactory or
unsatisfactory is a matter about which we are almost entirely ignorant
though it has been seen that the pattern of censorships and attempted
censorships fits well with the hypothesis that there was dissatisfaction with
alternatives. It was not the changes and the disorders of the late Republic
which destroyed the censorship as a significant institution
or rather they
destroyed it only by destroying the Republic itself. Despite the practical and
political exploitation of the censorship by Augustus, its true destroyers were
the Principate and its founder.3"
The Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton Alan E. Astin
The Queen's University of Belfast
37 I wish to place on record my warm thanks for the hospitality of the Institute for Advanced
Study at Princeton, where this study was undertaken, and for assistance from funds received by
the Institute from the Stiftung Volkswagenwerk.