BMCR 2018.12.46

Les tribuns de la plèbe et la formation de la République romaine, 494-287 avant J.-C. Bibliothèque des Écoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome, 368​

, Les tribuns de la plèbe et la formation de la République romaine, 494-287 avant J.-C. Bibliothèque des Écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome, 368​. Roma: École française de Rome​, 2015. xi, 822. ISBN 9782728310913 €60.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

Thibaud Lanfranchi’s book—a revision of his 2012 doctoral dissertation — adds to the growing body of recent work on Roman Republican political institutions.1 The first in-depth treatment of the early tribunes since Niccolini’s 1932 comprehensive study of the tribunate, it focuses first on the early tribunes’ social history (Chapters 1-3) and influence on the Republic’s development (Chapters 4-6), then on disambiguating literary stereotypes from historical reality (Chapters 7-8).2 It includes appendices (653-96), bibliography (697-774), tables comparing comitial laws and plebiscites and synthesizing prosopographical evidence (775-814), and a T.O.C. (815-22). A supplementary website ( Tribuns de la Plèbe) provides concise articles on individual tribunes and their gentes, a table of plebiscites (493–287 B.C.E.), and another bibliography.

In his “Introduction” (1-30), Lanfranchi provides brief historiographies of political philosophy, the tribunate, and early Rome, then surveys the evidence (literary, archaeological, epigraphic, numismatic) and disciplines (historiography, prosopography, onomastics) necessary to reconstruct the early Republic’s social and political context. His thesis is that the early tribunate constituted not merely a negative or resistive counterforce to consular power but—combined with the plebs—an autonomous political power that played a crucial role in shaping Roman society and political institutions.

In Chapter I, “Un corpus problématique” (31-86), Lanfranchi discusses the problematic evidence for the tribunate’s first two centuries, the credibility of tribunician fasti, and sources of historical information ( elogia, oral histories, libri pontificales, official records of plebiscites) used by ancient authors to (re)construct early Roman history. He argues that one may trust the “structural facts” but not the “narrative superstructure” of 1st-century accounts of 5th-century events (49). After considering evidence for the tribunate’s foundation and the original number of tribunes (six names survive in different sources), he settles on the traditional account of a two-man tribunate founded in 493 that increased to four in 471, then ten in 457 (66-71). He provides a chart synthesizing his prosopography of tribunes (on the website), indicating who is “certain,” “possible,” “impossible” (patricians), and “invented” (inexplicably, he includes four aediles of the plebs) (81-83).

In Chapter 2, “Qui étaient les tribuns de la plèbe et leurs lignées?” (87-121), Lanfranchi attempts to demonstrate that most early tribunes, or their families, were of recent, non-Roman origin. Given ancient commentaries on early Roman society’s heterogeneous origins and willing integration of foreign elites (102-8) and powerful gentes (105, 119), his hypothesis seems worth exploring; ultimately, however, the argument is unconvincing. It lacks well-defined parameters of, e.g., what constitutes “recent,” or a consideration of how Roman responses to those of “non-Roman origin” might have changed over time. The methodology is also problematic. Lanfranchi uses mainly epigraphic evidence to locate the origin of a “lignée tribunitienne” (a designation applied to all gens with at least one tribune to their credit) by matching a tribune’s gentilicium to its equivalent in Etruscan, Umbrian, Oscan or Latin (non-Roman) inscriptions (Tableau 2: 775-814). Only a few inscriptions cited are earlier than, or contemporary with, the tribune with whom they are correlated.3 The remaining inscriptions were produced one to three centuries (or more) after the tribunes in question, suggesting a plausible counter-hypothesis: that they represent the diffusion of a gentilicium through emigration, intermarriage, or increased landholdings. Finally, sample size: of 1,800+ tribunes who served from 493 to 287, the sources mention 108 (6%) by name. Lanfranchi rejects 30 as “impossible” or “invented,” leaving 78 (4.3%), a small sample inherently biased toward tribunes considered noteworthy by ancient historians (81-84). Clearly aware of these issues, Lanfranchi downplays an early claim that sufficient evidence exists to “confirm that the majority of tribunician lines had recently emigrated from neighboring regions” (96, cf. 646) by later cautioning that demographic data are difficult to obtain (118, cf. 88-98) and his calculations “très hypothétique” (120).

In Chapter 3, “Les tribunes de la plebe: sociologie et destin politique” (123-56), Lanfranchi employs three types of literary evidence to demonstrate that most early tribunes were of elevated socio-economic status (123), never from the “ plebs sordida ” (646): “vocabulary employed by the sources,” e.g., “primores plebis” or “primores civitatis” (124-32); mentions of patricio-plebeian marriages (133-46); and notices about the military exploits of tribunes who had served in the cavalry or infantry (146-56) (these last underpin his belief that the First Secession and lex sacrata reflect a militaristic orientation: 210, 258-81). He extends his argument with additional, sometimes debatable, evidence: the eighteen plebeian consuls listed in the fasti before the closing of the patriciate (ca. 445), patrician tribunes, tribunes with clientela (157-90) and tribunes who attained magistracies and priesthoods, mostly after 367 (196-206). Aside from anecdotal evidence derived from “narrative superstructure,” his argument is weakened by the same small, inherently biased sample. Lanfranchi also dismisses evidence concerning wealth qualifications for fifth- or fourth-century tribunes that could provide nuance to his argument, i.e., the belief of some Roman historians that 5th-century tribunes were elected from each of the five census classes (Ascon. 77C, 493 B.C.E.; Livy 3.30.7, 457 B.C.E.). If their statements reflect an actual requirement, even a later one retrojected to the early tribunate, one must allow that some, perhaps many, tribunes were of relatively moderate means. Thus, Lanfranchi’s impressionistic image of a tribunate composed mostly of prestigious plebeians, while intuitively plausible, cannot be extrapolated with confidence to “most tribunes” between 493 and 287, the vast majority of whom remain anonymous, if not altogether lost to history.

In Chapter 4, “Pouvoirs tribunitiens et plébiscites” (213-55), Lanfranchi—believing that 5th- and 4th-century plebiscites were reasonably well recorded because of archival practices established by 449—proposes to reassess the contribution plebiscites made to Rome’s evolving political system (213-14). Characteristically, he provides contextualizing discussions on differing sources of tribunician and magisterial authority ( lex sacrata, auspices), the influence of collegiality on political activity, and early plebisicites, which, though lacking the force of law “en l’absence d’interventions des structures du populus ” (239), carried political weight as formal expressions of the plebs’ will (214-40). He next assesses known plebiscites and rogations for 493-287 thematically and chronologically, comparing them to contemporary leges to highlight their different evolving objectives (241-54). He notes that after 367, as plebeian elites increasingly gained access to magistracies, priesthoods, and status within the new patricio-plebeian nobilitas, rogations and plebiscites aligned increasingly with senatorial concerns (254-5).

In Chapter 5, “Plébiscites et évolution politique de Rome (V e –IV e siècles)” (257-362), Lanfranchi scrutinizes plebiscites concerning the tribunate or contributing to the formation of the Classical Republic. Returning to the lex sacrata and modern theories on whether it was a law, proto-plebiscite, or oath, he concludes that it was an oath heralding a nascent social contract that “would not be signed” until the fourth century (258-281). He also explores Volero Publilius’ 471 plebiscite freeing plebeian elections from patrician-influenced comitia curiata by ordaining that plebeians would vote in a newly created comitia tributa (the particulars of its creation, composition, and operation are unclear) (281-308). After examining subsequent plebiscites instrumental in opening to plebeians magistracies and religious offices, reconstituting the post-Decemvirate magistracies, and regulating political competition ( cursus, electioneering, ambitus) (308-52), Lanfranchi affirms “l’extraordinaire influence des plebiscites dans le développement du système politique romain” (360-2).

In Chapter 6, “Les plébiscites agraires et sociaux des tribuns de la plèbe” (363-448), Lanfranchi turns to the social-historical context of plebiscites meant to uplift the plebs, beginning with the scanty evidence for early land distribution, ownership, ager publicus, colonization, and land confiscations (363-4). He surveys tribunician agrarian rogations from 484 (364-73) to 367 (363-81); contextualizes them with literary sources and archaeological data illuminating contemporary legal, economic, and social aspects of landownership (381-418); maps out a significant chronological correlation between reported epidemics, grain shortages, and colonization efforts and agrarian plebiscites (419-33, chart 430-2); and concludes that the Licinio-Sextian plebiscite de modo agrorum solidified decades of tribunician effort to resolve land-use issues (419-38). After surveying other important socio-economic plebiscites—Aventine land distribution, weights and measures, interest rates, debt-slavery (438-445)—Lanfranchi provides a sweeping review of Chapters 1-6, concluding that the cumulative evidence proves the immense significance of the tribunes and their work in the early Republic (445-7).

In Chapter 7, “Les procès tribunitiens” (449-548), Lanfranchi concludes that ancient authors employed “historiographic tropes” and paradigms to provide precedents to explain later judicial processes, the tribunes’ “capacity to act in the judicial field,” and their “eventual recourse to capital punishment” (522-3). To reach this conclusion, he surveys a dozen accounts of tribune-led prosecutions (Coriolanus to Manlius Capitolinus) (450-84), rejects several as unlikely, then conducts a structural analysis of historiographical tropes in the remaining accounts. He then examines paradigms (narrative and juridical, political, contextual, punitive) (485-95), literary motifs, elaborations, doublets (495-509), and one final device, that of the “tribunician orator” who reflects Late Republican models rather than contemporary practices (509-20). Lanfranchi also surveys modern scholarship on interlinked issues of tribunician trials, penal procedures, and provocatio ad populum. He argues that tribunes, endowed by the lex sacrata with the power to impose the death penalty, could not justify exercising it while simultaneously protecting citizens’ rights to appeal against “magisterial arbitrariness,” so devolved this power onto the assemblies while developing an alternate system of financial penalties (523-43); and, further, that the “structural facts” demonstrate the influence of early tribunes’ on Rome’s evolving judicial system (548).

In Chapter 8, “L’image des tribuns de la plèbe” (549-644), Lanfranchi attempts to disambiguate the actual work of early tribunes from negative literary stereotypes by systematically identifying and analyzing recurrent tropes found in post-Gracchan sources. He focuses on the diverging interpretive strategies of our two main sources (549-629): Dionysius, influenced by Polybian political theory, who portrays tribunes as agents in creating Rome’s balanced constitution, and Livy, “dependent on Roman political vocabulary and its connotations,” who uses tribunes and their activities to reveal the tensions between patricians and plebeians (651). He analyzes three categories of stereotypes: political (demagogues, despots: 551-74), transgressive (574-84), and indignitas (restricted authority, insurrectionists: 584-98). He also includes “minority positive view” stereotypes, which, he argues, are survivals from pre-Gracchan historiography and evidence for the tribunes’ “real historical activity” (598-603, 629). Finally, to demonstrate how an author might construct an “identité gentilice plébéienne” (629-40), he shows how Livy applied similar characteristics and challenges to successive tribunes of the gens Icilia to fashion a discernible “Icilian” ethos and “identité … tribunitienne” (630-3). He weakens his argument, however, when reconstructing an “identité gentilice plébéienne” for gentes represented by only one tribune by scouring MRR for those sharing the tribune’s gentilicium and cherry-picking thematic career elements that correlate with the tribune’s activities (633-40). He concludes that the historiographical rapprochement between tribunes of the Early and Late Republic arises from historians taking later tribunes as their interpretive model and 2nd/1st-century tribunes modeling their political activity on literary presentations of early, revolutionary tribunes (640-44; cf. Plut. C. Gracch 3.3).

Lanfranchi’s “Conclusion” (645-52) reaffirms the chapters’ conclusions while offering justification for pushing the evidence so hard. He also suggests reconfiguring the Roman Republic’s historical periodization; oddly, he does not reference Harriet Flower’s 2009 book on this topic which, along with other relevant Anglo-American works, is missing from both bibliographies.4

In sum, Lanfranchi’s immense and complex book, although uneven in its treatment of topics and not always convincing—especially when attempting to reconstruct a social history of the early tribunes—nevertheless successfully demonstrates the tribunes’ crucial role in shaping the Roman Republic. It provides much food for thought and will undoubtedly stimulate further research in this area.


1. See Kaj Sandberg, BMCR 2018.10.53 notes 1-2.

2. Giovanni Niccolini, Il tribunato della plebe. Milan 1932. More recently: Jochen Bleicken, Das Volkstribunat der klassischen Republik. Studien zu seiner Entwicklung zwischen 287 und 133 v. Chr., Munich 1968 2; Lucas Thommen, Das Volkstribunat der späten römischen Republik (133-43 B.C.E.), Stuttgart 1989.

3. Appendix II, 679-695. The Flavii, whose name appears in 5th-century Etruscan and Oscan inscriptions from Nola (684), produced three late-4th century tribunes (83); Ovinii appear in Oscan inscriptions (688-9) contemporary with Ovinius, tr. pl. 313 (83); Poetelii appear in a mid-5th century Etruscan inscription from Felsina (690) contemporaneous with Poetelius, tr. pl. 442, 441 (83).

4. Harriet Flower, Roman Republics, Princeton 2009. ​