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Ancient and modern

Ancient & modern

Experience may count for nothing. Look at Gordon Brown — ‘capable of being emperor — had he never been emperor’ indeed, as Tacitus said of Galba, emperor for seven months in ad 68-69.

2 June 2010

12:00 AM

2 June 2010

12:00 AM

Experience may count for nothing. Look at Gordon Brown — ‘capable of being emperor — had he never been emperor’ indeed, as Tacitus said of Galba, emperor for seven months in ad 68-69.

Experience may count for nothing. Look at Gordon Brown — ‘capable of being emperor — had he never been emperor’ indeed, as Tacitus said of Galba, emperor for seven months in ad 68-69. But there is something to be said for having been round the block a few times — or even just once — and the parachuting of Danny Alexander (five years ago, press officer for the Cairngorms National Park) from the Scottish office into the Treasury on David Laws’s resignation must raise questions.


In order for a Roman to reach the top job — consul — he had to jump through a number of hoops. Cursus honorum, ‘the race for high office’, was the name given to this four-stage career path. At each stage, candidates were elected by citizen vote. They held office for one year, were paid no salary, and could not hold office in successive years. But they automatically became members of the senatus (cf. senex, ‘old man’), Rome’s main legislative body.

The four main stages were usually as follows, the typical minimum age for each office in brackets: (i) quaestor (30), with primarily financial responsibilities, usually in a province; (ii) aedilis (37), with responsibility for the fabric of Rome (street-cleaning, fire-watch etc.), its water supplies, public order, markets and corn supply; (iii) praetor (40), with a legal brief, overseeing the criminal courts and civil cases involving citizens and foreigners; and finally (iv) consul (42), of which there were two. They acted as supreme heads of state, with powers of veto over each other’s actions, supreme military, civil and judicial authority, and the right to levy taxes and troops.

Lesser positions also counted on the path. The tribuni plebis, ‘tribunes of the plebs’, held crucial rights of veto over senatorial proposals detrimental to the people’s interests, while tribuni militum supervised camps and general welfare and discipline among the troops.

The big four office-holders were known as magistratus (Latin magis, ‘greater’), a term implying someone on top of his profession (cf. magister, ‘teacher’). Had Cameron and Clegg been tested by this sort of career path, electors might have had more confidence in them. As it is, the real power, even more than usual, will lie with those who go round the block all the time — the Civil Service.


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