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Censors of Rome

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".

The census was first instituted by Servius Tullius, sixth king of Rome. After the abolition of the monarchy and the founding of the Republic, the consuls had responsibility for the census until 443 BC. In 442 BC, no consuls were elected, but tribunes with consular power were appointed instead; this was a move by the plebeians to try to attain higher magistracies: only patricians could be elected consuls, while some military tribunes were plebeians. To avoid the possibility of plebeians obtaining control of the census, the patricians removed the right to take the census from the consuls and tribunes, and appointed for this duty two magistrates, called censores (censors), elected exclusively from the patricians in Rome.

It would not be uncommon for the patrician consulars of the early republic to intersperse public office with agricultural labour. In Cicero’s words: in agris erant tum senatores, id est senes: ‘In those days senators—that is, seniors—would live on their farms’. This practice was obsolete by the 2nd century.

The magistracy continued to be controlled by patricians until 351 BC, when Gaius Marcius Rutilus was appointed the first plebeian censor. Twelve years later, in 339 BC, one of the Publilian laws required that one censor had to be a plebeian. Despite this, no plebeian censor performed the solemn purification of the people (the "lustrum"; Livy Periochae 13) until 280 BC. In 131 BC, for the first time, both censors were plebeians.

The reason for having two censors was that the two consuls had previously taken the census together. If one of the censors died during his term of office, another was chosen to replace him, just as with consuls. This happened only once, in 393 BC. However, the Gauls captured Rome in that lustrum (five-year period), and the Romans thereafter regarded such replacement as "an offense against religion". From then on, if one of the censors died, his colleague resigned, and two new censors were chosen to replace them.