The Roman Tribunes

Mosaic of Roman tribunes proposing a law.
Culture Club / Getty Images

In ancient Rome, there were different types of tribunes, including military tribunes, consular tribunes, and plebeian tribunes. The word tribune is connected with the word tribe, in Latin (tribunus and tribus) just as in English. Originally, a tribune represented a tribe; later, tribune refers to a variety of officers.

Here are three of the main types of tribunes you'll find in reading ancient Roman history. You may be frustrated by historians' presumption that you know which type of tribune the writer is referring to when he simply uses the word "tribune," however if you read carefully, you should be able to figure it out from the context.

Military Tribunes

Military tribunes were the six most senior officers in a legion. They were of the equestrian or occasionally, the senatorial class (by the imperial period, one was normally of the senatorial class), and were expected to have already served at least five years in the military. Military tribunes were in charge of the troops' welfare and discipline, but not tactics. In the time of Julius Caesar, the legates began eclipsing the tribunes in importance.

Officers for the first four legions were elected by the people. For the other legions, the commanders did the appointing.

Consular Tribunes

Consular tribunes may have been adopted as a military expedient in an era of war when more military leaders were needed. It was an annually elected position open to both patricians and plebeians, but didn't have the possibility of the triumph as a reward, and kept the patricians—at least initially—from having to open up the office of consul to the plebeians.

The position of consular tribune appears during the period of the conflict of the orders (patrician and plebeian). Shortly after the replacement of the consuls with consular tribunes, the office of the censor—which was open to plebeians—was created. The period of 444-406 saw an increase in the number of consular tribunes from three to four and later, six. The consular tribunes were discontinued in 367.

Tribunes of the Plebeians

The tribune of the plebeians may be the most familiar of the tribunes. Tribune of the plebeians is the position coveted by Clodius the beautiful, the nemesis of Cicero, and the man who led Caesar to divorce his wife on the grounds that his wife should be above suspicion. The tribunes of the plebeians were, like the consular tribunes, part of the solution of the conflict between patricians and plebeians during the Roman Republic.

Probably originally meant more as a sop thrown to the plebeians by the patricians, the sop became a very powerful position in the machinery of the Roman government. Although the tribunes of the Plebeians could not lead an army and lacked imperium, they had the power of the veto and their persons were sacrosanct. Their power was great enough that Clodius gave up his patrician status to become a plebeian so he could run for this office.

There were originally two of the Tribunes of the Plebeians, but by 449 B.C., there were ten.

Other Types of Tribunes

In M. Cary and H.H. Scullard's A History of Rome (3rd Edition 1975) is a glossary that includes the following tribunes-related items:

  • Tribuni aerarii: Census class next to equites.
  • Tribuni celerum: Cavalry commanders.
  • Tribuni militares consulari potestate: Tribunes of the soldiers with consular power.
  • Tribuni militum: Infantry commanders.
  • Tribuni plebis: "Local landowners who became champions of the plebs; tribunes."
  • Tribunicia potestas: Tribune's power.


  • "tribuni militum" Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World. Ed. John Roberts. Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • "The Original Nature of the Consular Tribunate," Ann Boddington Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Jul., 1959), pp. 356-364
  • "The Significance of the Consular Tribunate," E. S. Staveley The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 43, (1953), pp. 30-36
  • "Consular Tribunes and Their Successors," F. E. Adcock The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 47, No. 1/2 (1957), pp. 9-14
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "The Roman Tribunes." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). The Roman Tribunes. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Roman Tribunes." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).