Everett Ferguson, in Church History, I, 20.I, describes the process for papal election set down in the Lateran decree of 1059 (In nomine Domini) as follows:

The election of the pope was to be by the cardinal bishops, confirmed by the cardinal presbyters and deacons [...], and ratified by the people of Rome. [emphasis added]

I'm wondering what that "ratification" looked like. Was it a formal process by which the people of Rome had ballots and a voting booth? (I assume not) Was it just assumed that if a bunch of people were cheering nearby that the people had ratified the election? Or does "people" have some technical meaning here?

The Catholic Encyclopedia says that the election should not be understood as a "popular vote of the Romans," but I'm not sure if the process has changed over the years.

What role did the people of Rome play in papal elections, according to the Lateran decree of 1059, and do they play the same role today?

  • I would expect that it was similar to the Orthodox Axios, but I have no sources.
    – bradimus
    Aug 8, 2017 at 12:06

2 Answers 2


As described by Betterthan Kwora' s quote from Gibbons there was a time when the people of Rome were directly involved in Papal elections, but this ceased well before 1059. The last few popes prior to the In Nomine Domini decree had been appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor without any vote.

Thomas Greenwood (1790-1871), an English barrister and fellow of Durham University, wrote Cathedra Petrie, a multi-volume political history of the Roman Papacy.

In pages 163 to 164 of volume 10 he discusses the "indefinite and somewhat ambiguous" terms of the In Nomine Domini decree. He says that it would occur to any ordinary understanding that both the clergy, and the people, of Rome had vetoes over the Cardinal Bishops choice; and that in the event of dissent it would be for the Cardinal bishops to propose a more acceptable candidate. . However, he says, there is so little in subsequent practice to throw light on the meaning that we can infer that it was intended to deprive the populace of any role.

The decree says that the election of a pope will be ratified by the people of Rome, not that they may choose whether or not to ratify it., and makes no provision as to how this should happen, other than by accepting and recognising the decision made.

Pope Nicholas II died two years after issuing the decree, so the Papal Election of 1061 was the firs time that it was used in practice. There was no formal mechanism for ascertaining the views of the Roman people. The Cardinal bishops alone elected Pope Alexander II and crowned him at night in the San Petro in Vincoli basilica. This was because opposition in Rome made it impossible for them to get to the usual St Peter's basilica. Meanwhile prominent citizens of Rome had gone to see the young king Henry IV to request his permission to elect a pope which they did in the form of Honorius, now regarded as an antipope.

Norman soldiers, based in Italy, were brought into Rome, for a fee, to assist Alexander. On page 192 Greenwood describes a bloody engagement in the streets of Rome. In the first assault the Normans were driven back but eventually Count Richard was able to conduct Alexander to the Lateran and "with bloody hand" install him on the pontifical throne.

Whatever Nicholas meant by ratification, it is probably safe to say he was not thinking of riotous opposition.

The next papal election was in 1073. During Alexander's funeral the crowds began acclaiming Hildebrand for pope. There were only two cardinal bishops present in Rome and they agreed. In this decision, at least, the Roman people were prominent,

It would be too long to go through the whole millennium, so moving straight to the present day: the laity of Rome play no role in the election of a pope. The decision is instead taken on their behalf by representative bishops, priests and deacons from churches in the diocese of Rome and the surrounding suburban dioceses. How so? Although the cardinals who elect the pope are drawn from all over the world, every cardinal on his appointment is assigned a nominal position as titular bishop, priest or deacon of one of the churches in Rome. In this way it is, at least in theory, true to say the Bishop of Rome is elected by the clergy of Rome.

The ordinary people of Rome are required to ratify the decision only in the sense that they are obliged to recognise and accept that it has been made.


I'm not knowledgeable about papal elections in 1059 or today, but Edward Gibbon's history has the following remark:

The freedom of elections subsisted long after the legal establishment of Christianity, and the subjects of Rome enjoyed in the church the privilege which they had lost in the republic, of choosing the magistrates whom they were bound to obey. As soon as a bishop had closed his eyes, the metropolitan issued a commission to one of his suffragans to administer the vacant see, and prepare, within a limited time, the future election. The right of voting was vested in the inferior clergy, who were best qualified to judge of the merit of the candidates; in the senators or nobles of the city, all those who were distinguished by their rank or property; and finally in the whole body of the people, who on the appointed day flocked in multitudes from the most remote parts of the diocese … it was everywhere admitted, as a fundamental maxim of religious policy, that no bishop could be imposed on an orthodox church without the consent of its members. The emperors, as the guardians of the public peace, and as the first citizens of Rome and Constantinople, might effectually declare their wishes in the choice of a primate; but those absolute monarchs respected the freedom of ecclesiastical elections, and, while they distributed and resumed the honours of the state and army, they allowed eighteen hundred perpetual magistrates to receive their important offices from the free suffrages of the people.

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