Division of the Roman people. In early times the Roman people were supposedly divided into three tribes. The three tribes were subdivided into curiae (see curia (1)) and were supposedly the basis of the earliest military organization of the state.
In republican times the three original tribes had been replaced by a system of local tribes, to which Roman citizens belonged by virtue of residence. Tradition ascribes the local tribes to Servius Tullius (see rex), who divided the city into four tribes, and the countryside into a number of ‘rustic’ tribes. By 495 bc there were seventeen rustic tribes. As Rome expanded during the 4th and 3rd cents., further tribes were created to incorporate newly won territory in which Roman citizens were settled or citizenship was conferred on the native inhabitants. By 241 the number of tribes had reached 35 (four urban, 31 rustic). After that it was decided not to create any further tribes, but to include all additional territory in the existing 35. As a result the tribes ceased to be confined to single districts, and came to include separate territories in different parts of Italy.
This process became more marked when Roman citizenship was extended to all of peninsular Italy after the Social War. An attempt to restrict the new citizens to a small number of tribes (in order to diminish their voting power in the comitia) was thwarted, and they were distributed among the existing 31 rustic tribes.
The distribution of citizens among the tribes was always a sensitive political issue. In 312 the censor Claudius Caecus caused a storm when he registered lower‐class citizens (probably including freedmen) in the rustic tribes. This act was reversed in 304, and in general during the republic freedmen were confined to the urban tribes, which came to be regarded as socially inferior and politically disadvantaged. The punishment of ‘removal from a tribe’, which the censors could inflict, in effect meant relegation to an urban tribe.
Every citizen had to belong to a tribe, a rule which continued in imperial times even for provincials who attained the Roman citizenship. It is not known how or why particular tribes were chosen in such cases, and no consistent rule was followed, although certain tribes tended to be favoured in certain provinces. The tribes were used as constituent voting units in political assemblies, and as the basis of army recruitment, the census, and taxation.
Subjects: Classical studies