Roman Tribune: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

This lesson will explain the origins and powers of the Plebeian Tribune, one of the most unusual and influential positions in the ancient world. It will also explain the tribune's impact on Roman government.

What is a Roman Tribune?

Have you ever wished you could veto any law Congress made? One ordinary person who has the ability to veto any law would hold a good deal of power in government. The Romans gave that power to not one, but ten such ordinary people. You might think this would cause chaos, but the government and these people -- tribunes -- worked very well throughout the Roman Republic.

Legendary Beginnings

Back before the Romans became a Republic they were ruled by several Etruscan kings from the north. The Romans hated it. Not just because the Etruscans were foreign, but because they hated kings. More than any other people in the ancient world, the Romans despised the idea of being ruled by anyone they hadn't elected.

Fifteen years after the expulsion of the Etruscans, the upper class patricians created a new set of laws that caused widespread unemployment and debt among the lower class plebeians. As a result, the plebeians threatened to leave the city. Legend has it they only remained when the patricians created a new office that would protect them from future laws -- the office of tribunes. The office started off with just two tribunes, but that number soon rose to five and eventually ten.

A Roman Senator
Roman Senator

A Tribune's Powers

The powers of the tribune were widespread, which is what that original group of plebeians needed. First of all, a tribune could veto any law the Senate passed. That was necessary because plebeians could not become Senators themselves. Second, tribunes could make laws themselves as long as they only effected the plebeians. Third, they could call a meeting of the plebeians.

A tribune was protected by the people and considered inviolable, or sacrosanct, so that any attempt to harm him was punishable by death; any citizen could kill a violator without punishment. Because they were safe, tribunes could protect individual citizens from government persecution by personally putting their bodies in the way.

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