Sacer, sacrosanctus, and leges sacratae

Classical Antiquity 34 (2):322-334 (2015)
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Abstract

This paper offers a challenge to the conventional view of the lex sacrata which the Romans believed to have accompanied the establishment of the plebeian tribunate. According to most scholars, the lex sacrata was not technically a lex, but was rather an oath sworn by the plebs, enjoining them to protect the persons of the tribunes and to punish with death anyone who should harm the holders of this office. Originally it was only this oath that gave the tribunes their power, which developed into a true office of the Roman state only gradually. This interpretation serves as one of the major props in the widely-held interpretation of the early Roman Republic as being characterized by a “struggle of the orders” in which the plebeians formed a revolutionary “state within the state,” separate and distinct from the legitimate state, which was controlled by the patricians. By reexamining the sources for the traditional interpretation of the lex sacrata, this paper shows that all of the evidence suggests that the lex sacrata which guaranteed the inviolability of the plebeian tribunes was, in fact, a law of the Roman community, and that there is little if any support for the “oath” interpretation. With this understanding, a major prop in the communis opinio about the early Republic is undermined. Finally, the paper offers an alternative hypothesis for the role of leges sacratae in the development of the Republic.

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