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In Greek‐speaking areas no cursus honorum on the Roman republican model emerged. Though Thucydides (2) credited the Spartan army with a clear hierarchical command structure, promotions and careers within it were by appointment and co‐optation rather than by election. Hence they were as much a matter of belonging to a notable lineage, or of influence with kings or ephors, as of merit. At Athens a simple hierarchy of military command in both infantry and cavalry is attested. Re‐election to the generalship (see strategoi) was common, but repeated re‐election (see nicias; pericles) was not. In contrast, careers in civilian office‐holding in Classical Athens were effectively precluded by the short‐term tenure and non‐repeatability of office, by collegiality, and above all by selection by lot (see sortition). A young politician had to use the assembly (ekklesia) rather than office‐holding, and tended to begin by lawcourt advocacy or by serving a senior politician as his ‘friend’ or ‘flatterer’ before establishing his own position and his own clique of followers.


Ancient society was not so ordered as to provide a course of professional employment which afforded opportunity for advancement. The Latin phrase normally translated as ‘career’ is the Ciceronian cursus honorum, which refers to the series of elective magistracies: those of quaestor, held at 30 from Sulla's legislation onwards, but five years younger under the Principate; of aedile; of praetor, held at 39 under the late republic, but by some at 30 under the Principate; and of consul, held at 42 after Sulla, by patricians at 33 under the Principate, and by new men (see novus homo) at 38 or later. Election to these posts depended on birth and achievement, military and civil. Success might be achieved in preliminary offices civil or military (as one of the vigintisexviri or tribuni militum) and in the magistracy that preceded, and also in positions held at Rome, in Italy, or the provinces, under the republic often involving command of troops, that normally followed the praetorship and consulship (pro‐praetorships, ‐consulships, allocated by seniority and the lot, see pro consule, pro praetore); or that were devised under the Principate to get previously neglected work done (e.g. supervision of roads in Italy; see cura(tio) ). After ad 14 elections were effectively conducted in the senate and a man's success depended on the judgement of his peers or on his ability to strike bargains with his rivals' supporters; but a law of Augustus (see ius liberorum) provided speedier advancement for men married with children, while the opinion of the emperor, known or surmised, was of great and increasing weight, hence too the favour of his advisers. Some posts, notably legionary commands and governorships of regions that were part of his ‘province’ (e.g. Syria, Gaul (Transalpine) outside Narbonensis), were in his direct gift, though the senate ratified such appointments (both types of officer were ‘legates of Augustus’).

The word ‘career’ is often applied to the posts offered by the emperor to men of equestrian or lower status, whether in official positions (e.g. praetorian prefect or procurators of Augustus in his provinces, supervising tax collecting) or as his private agents (also procurators) managing his private estates. But although such posts mostly had their distinctive standing, and were normally preceded by up to three military posts, and although (because of this) recognizable patterns of advancement developed, appointments were again ad hoc, ad hominem, intermittent, and accepted on a basis of mutual goodwill, with character rather than professionalism the overt criterion. Imperial freedmen and even slaves who held subordinate positions in the organizations enjoyed lower standing, but their continuous service over long periods of time justifies the application of the term ‘career’ to their activities (see freedmen; slavery).


Subjects: Classical studies

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