Roman censor  

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The censor was an officer in ancient Rome who was responsible for maintaining the census, supervising public morality, and overseeing certain aspects of the government's finances.

The censors' regulation of public morality is the origin of the modern meaning of the words "censor" and "censorship."


Regimen morum

Keeping the public morals (regimen morum, or in the empire cura morum or praefectura morum) was the second most important branch of the censors' duties, and the one which caused their office to be one of the most revered and the most dreaded in the Roman state; hence they were also known as Castigatores ("chastisers"). It naturally grew out of the right which they possessed of excluding persons from the lists of citizens; for, as has been well remarked, "they would, in the first place, be the sole judges of many questions of fact, such as whether a citizen had the qualifications required by law or custom for the rank which he claimed, or whether he had ever incurred any judicial sentence, which rendered him infamous: but from thence the transition was easy, according to Roman notions, to the decisions of questions of right; such as whether a citizen was really worthy of retaining his rank, whether he had not committed some act as justly degrading as those which incurred the sentence of the law."

In this manner, the censors gradually assumed at least nominal complete superintendence over the whole public and private life of every citizen. They were constituted as the conservators of public morality; they were not simply to prevent crime or particular acts of immorality, but rather to maintain the traditional Roman character, ethics, and habits (mos majorum)—regimen morum also encompassed this protection of traditional ways, which was called in the times of the empire cura ("supervision") or praefectura ("command"). The punishment inflicted by the censors in the exercise of this branch of their duties was called nota ("mark, letter") or notatio, or animadversio censoria ("censorial reproach"). In inflicting it, they were guided only by their conscientious convictions of duty; they had to take an oath that they would act biased by neither partiality nor favour; and, in addition to this, they were bound in every case to state in their lists, opposite the name of the guilty citizen, the cause of the punishment inflicted on him, Subscriptio censoria.

This part of the censors' office invested them with a peculiar kind of jurisdiction, which in many respects resembled the exercise of public opinion in modern times; for there are innumerable actions which, though acknowledged by every one to be prejudicial and immoral, still do not come within the reach of the positive laws of a country; as often said, "immorality does not equal illegality". Even in cases of real crimes, the positive laws frequently punish only the particular offence, while in public opinion the offender, even after he has undergone punishment, is still incapacitated for certain honours and distinctions which are granted only to persons of unblemished character.

Hence the Roman censors might brand a man with their "censorial mark" (nota censoria) in case he had been convicted of a crime in an ordinary court of justice, and had already suffered punishment for it. The consequence of such a nota was only ignominia and not infamia. Infamia and the censorial verdict was not a judicium or res judicata, for its effects were not lasting, but might be removed by the following censors, or by a lex (roughly "law"). A censorial mark was moreover not valid unless both censors agreed. The ignominia was thus only a transitory reduction of status, which does not even appear to have deprived a magistrate of his office, and certainly did not disqualify persons labouring under it for obtaining a magistracy, for being appointed as judices by the praetor, or for serving in the Roman armies. Mamercus Aemilius was thus, notwithstanding the reproach of the censors (animadversio censoria), made dictator.

A person might be branded with a censorial mark in a variety of cases, which it would be impossible to specify, as in a great many instances it depended upon the discretion of the censors and the view they took of a case; and sometimes even one set of censors would overlook an offence which was severely chastised by their successors. But the offences which are recorded to have been punished by the censors are of a threefold nature.

  • Such as occurred in the private life of individuals, e.g.
  • Living in celibacy at a time when a person ought to be married to provide the state with citizens. The obligation of marrying was frequently impressed upon the citizens by the censors, and the refusal to fulfil it was punished with a fine (aes uxorium).
  • The dissolution of matrimony or betrothment in an improper way, or for insufficient reasons.
  • Improper conduct towards one's wife or children, as well as harshness or too great indulgence towards children, and disobedience of the latter towards their parents.
  • Inordinate and luxurious mode of living, or an extravagant expenditure of money. A great many instances of this kind are recorded. At a later time the leges sumtuariae were made to check the growing love of luxuries.
  • Neglect and carelessness in cultivating one's fields.
  • Cruelty towards slaves or clients.
  • The carrying on of a disreputable trade or occupation, such as acting in theatres.
  • Legacy-hunting, defrauding orphans, &c.
  • Offences committed in public life, either in the capacity of a public officer or against magistrates,
  • If a magistrate acted in a manner not befitting his dignity as an officer, if he was accessible to bribes, or forged auspices.
  • Improper conduct towards a magistrate, or the attempt to limit his power or to abrogate a law which the censors thought necessary.
  • Perjury.
  • Neglect, disobedience, and cowardice of soldiers in the army.
  • The keeping of the equus publicus in bad condition.
  • A variety of actions or pursuits which were thought to be injurious to public morality, might be forbidden by an edict, and those who acted contrary to such edicts were branded with the nota and degraded. For an enumeration of the offences that might be punished by the censors with ignominia, see Niebuhr.

A person who had been branded with a nota censoria, might, if he considered himself wronged, endeavour to prove his innocence to the censors, and if he did not succeed, he might try to gain the protection of one of the censors, that he might intercede on his behalf.


See also





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Roman censor" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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