A tribune was an important Roman official. Originally representatives of the plebeians*, tribunes gained great authority and became some of the most powerful individuals in Rome. The Roman army also had a group of officers called tribunes.
The office of tribune emerged sometime between 500 B.C. and 450 B.C., when the plebeians of Rome elected leaders to represent and protect their interests against oppression by patricians* and other Roman officials. At first, there were two tribunes, but the number later increased to ten.
The authority and power of the tribunes was not based in law. It came directly from the plebeians, who swore an oath to protect their tribunes from arrest or danger. Tribunes had the authority to call meetings of the plebeian assembly, propose legislation to the assembly, and enforce its decrees. In time, the tribunes also gained the power to veto the decisions of other officials.
As the power of the plebeians increased, the role of the tribunes expanded. Romans increasingly regarded them as representatives of all the people, not just the plebeians. By the 200s B.C., the tribunes had the authority to attend and call meetings of the Senate and to stop any laws that went against the interests of the Roman people.
Tribunes played a significant role in politics until the end of the Roman Republic*. During the Roman Empire, the emperors took over the powers of the tribunes and assumed their role as “champions of the people.” The office of tribune continued to exist, but it served mainly as a stepping stone to a political career for plebeians. (See also Armies, Roman; Government, Roman; Rome, History of.)
* plebeian member of the general body of Roman citizens, as distinct from the upper class
* patrician member of the upper class who traced his ancestry to a senatorial family in the earliest days of the Roman Republic
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials