1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Censor

CENSOR (from Lat. censere, assess, estimate; in Gr. τιμητής). I. In ancient Rome, the title of the two Roman officials who presided over the census, the registration of individual citizens for the purpose of determining the duties which they owed to the community. In the etymology of the word lurks the idea of the arbitrary assignment of burdens or duties. Varro defines census as arbitrium, and derives the name censores from the position of these magistrates as arbitri populi (Varro, de Ling. Lat. v. 81; ap. Non. p. 519). This original idea of “discretionary power” was never entirely lost; although ultimately it came to be more intimately associated with the appreciation of morals than with the assignment of burdens. From the point of view of its moral significance the censorship was the Roman manifestation of that state control of conduct which was a not unusual feature of ancient societies. It is true that Rome possessed sumptuary laws, and laws dealing with moral offences, which it was the duty of other magistrates to enforce; but the organization for the control of conduct was mainly exhibited in the censorship, and, as thus exhibited, was at once simple and comprehensive.

The censorship was believed to have been instituted in 443 B.C. to relieve the consuls of the duties of registration. Since the periods of registration were quinquennial, it was not a continuous office; but its tenure does not seem to have been fixed until 434 B.C., when a lex Aemilia provided that the censors should hold office for eighteen months. This magistracy was at first confined to patricians; a plebeian censor is first mentioned in 351 B.C. A lex Publilia of 339 B.C. is said to have enacted that one censor must be a plebeian. Two plebeian censors were for the first time elected in 131 B.C. The election always took place in the Comitia Centuriata (see Comitia). The censorship, although lacking the powers implied in the imperium and the right of summoning the senate and the people, was not only one of the higher magistracies, but was regarded as the crown of a political career. It was an irresponsible office; and the only limitations on its powers were created by the restriction of tenure to a year and a half, the fact that re-election was forbidden, and the restraint imposed on each censor by the fact that no act of his was valid without the assent of his colleague.

The original functions of the censors were (1) the registration of citizens in the state-divisions, such as tribes and centuries; (2) the taxation of such citizens based on an estimate of their property; (3) the right of exclusion from public functions on moral grounds, known as the regimen morum; (4) the solemn act of purification (lustrum) which closed the census. Two other functions were subsequently added:—(5) the selection of the senate (lectio senatus, see Senate), and (6) certain financial duties such as the leasing of the contracts for tax-collecting and for the repair of public buildings. The first four of these functions were those of the census, which was a detailed examination of the citizen body as represented by heads of families (patres familiarum) in the Campus Martius. The equites were a select portion of this citizen body; but the review of these knights took place, not in the Campus, but in the Forum (see Equites). It was in connexion with this review of the ordinary citizens and the knights, as well as with the choice of senators, that the censors published their edicts stating the moral rules which they intended to enforce. The offences which they punished were sometimes concerned with family life and private relations, sometimes with breaches of political duty. Certain professions, such as that of an actor or gladiator, also invoked their stigma, and at times the disqualifications they pronounced were the consequence of a previous judicial condemnation. Infamia was the general name given to the disabilities pronounced by the censor. These varied in degree from the deprivation of a senator of his seat, or a knight’s loss of his horse, to exclusion from the tribes or centuries, an exclusion which entailed the loss of voting power. All the disabilities pronounced by one pair of censors might be removed by their successors.

The censorship, although its control over the senate came to be weakened (see Senate), lasted as long as the republic; and it was only suspended, not abolished, during the principate. Although the princeps exercised censorial functions, he was seldom censor. Yet the office itself was held by Claudius I. and Vespasian. Domitian assumed the title of life censor (censor perpetuus), but the precedent was not followed. A fruitless attempt to galvanize the republican office into new life was made in A.D. 251, during the reign of the emperor Decius.

Authorities.—Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, ii. 331 foll. (3rd ed., Leipzig, 1887); Daremberg-Saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines, i. 990 foll. (1875, &c.); Lange, Römische Alterthumer, i. 572 foll. (Berlin, 1856, &c.); de Boor, Fasti Censorii (Berlin, 1873); Gerlach, Die römische Censur in ihrem Verhaltnisse zur Verfassung (Basel, 1842); Nitzsch, “Über die Census” in Neues Jahrbuch f. Phil. lxxiii. 730 (Leipzig, 1856); Zumpt, “Die Lustra der Römer” in Rhein. Museum, xxv. 465, xxvi. i.  (A. H. J. G.) 

II. In modern times the word “censor” is used generally for one who exercises supervision over, or criticizes, the conduct of other persons. In the universities of Oxford and Cambridge it is the title of the official head or supervisor of the non-collegiate students (i.e. those who are not attached to a college, hall or hostel). In Oxford the censor is nominated by the vice-chancellor and the proctors, and holds office for five years; in Cambridge he is similarly appointed, and holds office for life. The censors of the Royal College of Physicians are the officials who grant licences.

Council of Censors, in American constitutional history, is the name given to a council provided by the constitution of Pennsylvania from 1776 to 1790, and by the constitution of Vermont from 1777 to 1870. Under both constitutions the council of censors was elected once in seven years, for the purpose of inquiring into the working of the governmental departments, the conduct of the state officers, and the working of the laws, and as to whether the constitution had been violated in any particular. The Vermont council of censors, limited in number to thirteen, had power, if they thought the constitution required amending in any particular, to call a convention for the purpose. A convention summoned by the council in 1870 amended the constitution by abolishing the censors.

For the censorship of the press, see Press Laws; for the censorship of plays, Theatre: Law, and Lord Chamberlain.