Magistrates (from the Latin magistratus) were governmental officials in ancient Greece and Rome. In Greece, magistrates called archons took over many of the functions of the early Greek kings. They controlled the treasury and supervised public works and the agora, or marketplace. In early Greek democracies, such as Athens, magistrates were usually elected from a list of names of major property owners. Later on, property qualifications were lowered, and all magistrates were chosen by lot. In the military dictatorship of Sparta, magistrates, called ephors, were chosen by voice vote. Not all Greeks could be magistrates. Usually only the well-to-do could afford to take time out from everyday life to serve, although Athens provided a small salary for its magistrates.

At first, magistrates required no special training and performed any and all functions. Gradually, they became more specialized as city-states* grew larger and the administration of government became more complex. Small cities needed only a few magistrates. In the larger cities, boards of magistrates were established. Each magistrate had a particular job and a limited term in office. Magistrates were accountable to the public and to their peers. Greek citizens maintained control of their magistrates by examining their qualifications before they entered office and after they left office. In addition, magistrates in Greece could be prosecuted for misconduct.

During the Roman Republic*, magistrates were elected each year by the people. They served for one year and normally were not reelected, although the Senate could extend their term of office if necessary as promagistrates. Magistrates received no salary for their work. Hence, only the wealthiest Romans could afford to serve as magistrates and considered it an honor to do so. A Roman magistrate had to be knowledgeable in many areas—administration, finance, law, and military operations for the defense of Rome—yet they were “amateurs,” and some made terrible blunders. During the empire, magistrates were elected by the Senate and at the wish of the emperor.

Magistrates in Rome rose to positions of prominence through a hierarchy called the cursus honorum. The hierarchy, or career path, was in place by the mid-lOOs B.C. Quaestor was the first level. Then came aedile, praetor, and consul. (Tribunes were outside the cursus because only plebeians were eligible.) Censors, also outside the hierarchy, were elected every five years for a term of 18 months. The level above these magistrates was that of dictator, a position that was intended to be held for 6 months, usually during a period of crisis. Lucius Sulla and Julius Caesarheld that position but stayed in office beyond the allotted 6 months. Senior magistrates had easy access to the members of the Senate. In fact, Rome’s Senate was made up of those who had served as senior magistrates. Once former magistrates entered the Senate, they were there for life, unless removed by the censors.

The complexity of running the republic gave rise to distinct magisterial functions. The praetor urbanus, for example, was responsible for administering justice in Rome. Four aediles were in charge of the general care of the city, traffic, water and food supply, and market practices. Higher magistrates, such as praetors, administered the laws, issuing at the start of their tenure edicts* stating how they intended to interpret the law during their term of office. Unlike their Greek counterparts, Roman magistrates were not formally accountable to the people who elected them. Rome occasionally attempted to bring actions against certain magistrates, but that was often politically difficult to do. High officeholders were protective of their power and privilege and unwilling to give up either without a fight. This situation gave rise to bloody warfare during the late republic. (See also Government, Greek; Government, Roman.)

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

* edict proclamation or order that has the force of law


In ancient Greece, archons were the highest officeholders of a city- state. They had both lawmaking power and executive duties. In Athens, archons gradually took over the running of the government, while reducing the power of the kings. There were three types of Greek archons, and each had responsibility for a specific job. The basileus, or "king" archon, presided over the Areopagus (council of elders) and religious ceremonies. The strategos commanded the army, and the archon eponymos was the nominal head of state and had the widest duties. These included the protection of property and the family and the direction of festivals.

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