Censor: Roman magistrate. He was responsible for the public moral and had to put out to tender projects that were to be financed by the state.

Coin of Lucius Vitellius as censor
Coin of Lucius Vitellius as censor

The censor had several tasks that are, in our view, a strange mixture. The first two censors served c.440 BCE; they were to assist the consuls by counting of the Roman citizens (census). This job had to be done every five year and ended with the ritual cleansing of the state (lustrum). In the fifth century, the censorship was still a typical beginner's function.

The censors not only wrote down the names of the citizens, but also registered their property and age; in this way, the quaestors were able to estimate the budget and the consuls knew how many soldiers they commanded. After the constitutional reforms of the 360s, it was customary that the two censors served eighteen months; one of them had to be a patrician, the other a plebeian.

From their financial task, other duties were derived. For example, the censors had to put out to tender projects that were to be financed by the state. In 310-309 BCE, censor Appius Claudius was responsible for an aqueduct and a road (the Aqua Appia and the Via Appia). A similar task was the leasing out of conquered land (ager publicus). The first project they had to put out to tender, however, was a lot smaller: they had to find the farmer who was allowed to feed the holy geese on the Capitol for the next five years.

From their classification of the population developed another duty: they had to see who was worthy of the equestrian and senatorial rank, a responsibility laid down in the fourth-century Lex Ovinia. This was called the regimen morum, the control of the public moral. For example, the censor Marcus Porcius Cato once expelled a man from the Senate because he had kissed his wife in public, something that was regarded as undignified behavior, unfitting for a member of this august house. Because the regimen morum was a very important responsibility, the censorship became increasingly a magistracy for former consuls.

The regimen morum also included: controlling the books of financial institutions, verifying and stamping measures and weights, et cetera.

Sulla abolished the censorship; Pompey and Crassus reinstituted the old magistracy again in 70, when 910,000 citizens were registered; Caesar again abolished it when he became praefectus morum. His adopted son Augustus restored the office, but made sure that the emperor was always one of the two censors, one of his relatives being the second one. At this age, the census was no longer taking place at regular intervals; the empire had become too large.

Nonetheless, the emperor-censor did sent out officials to count all the people and measure all the countries, although this happened province by province.note According to Augustus' own words, 4,0063,000 people were registered in 28 BCE.note The famous line from the gospel of Luke

In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This census took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria.note

refers to a similar project, completed in 8 CE.

Claudius and Vespasian organized similar countings of the Roman citizens and seized to opportunity to give citizenship to many provincials. Domitian abolished the magistracy.

The censors were elected by the Comitia centuriata, an assembly of the people in which the richest Romans were in the majority. Censors had no bodyguard (lictor) but were allowed to wear a purple-bordered toga.

This page was created in 2001; last modified on 15 September 2020.