The cursus honorum was the sequential order of public offices held by aspiring politicians in both the Roman Republic and the early Empire. It was designed for men of senatorial rank. The cursus honorum comprised a mixture of military and political administration posts. Each office had a minimum age for election. There were minimum intervals between holding successive offices and laws forbade repeating an office. These rules were altered and flagrantly ignored in the course of the last century of the Republic. For example, Gaius Marius held consulships for five years in a row between 104 and 100 BC. Officially presented as opportunities for public service, the offices often became mere opportunities for self-aggrandizement. The reforms of Sulla required a 2-year period between holding offices or before another term in the same office.
The cursus honorum officially began with ten years of military duty in the Roman cavalry (the equites) or in the staff of a general who was a relative or a friend of the family. Nepotism was not condemned; it was an integral part of the system. These ten years were supposed to be mandatory to qualify for political office, but, in practice, the rule was not rigidly applied.
In Rome there was nothing resembling the modern political party. Candidates were elected based on their familial and personal reputations. Candidates from older, established families were favoured because they could use their ancestor's feats as electoral propaganda.
The following steps of the cursus honorum were achieved by direct election every year.
The first official post was of quaestor. Candidates had to be at least 30 years old. However, men of patrician rank could subtract two years from this and other minimum age requirements. Eight to twelve quaestors served in the financial administration at Rome or as second-in-command to governors. Election to quaestor brought automatic membership in the Senate.
At 36 years of age, former quaestors could stand for election to one of the four aedile positions. The aediles had administrative responsibilities in Rome. This step was optional.
Six Praetors were elected from men at least 39 years old. They mainly had judicial responsibilities in Rome. However, they could also control provinces not given to consuls and command one legion.
The office of consul was the most prestigious of all and represented the summit of a successful career. The minimum age was 42. The names of the two elected consuls identified the year. Consuls were responsible for the city's political agenda, commanded large-scale armies and controlled important provinces. A second mandate as consul could only be attempted after an interval of 10 years.
The office of censor was the only one with a period of five years instead of the usual two. It held little more than representative duties. Censors were responsible for the moral status of the city, among other things.
Although not part of the cursus honorum, the office of tribune was an important step in the political career of plebeians.
To have held each office at the youngest possible age (in suo anno, "in his year") was considered a great political success, since to miss out on a praetorship at 39 meant that one could not become consul at 42. Cicero expressed extreme pride both in being a novus homo ("new man") who became consul though none of his ancestors had ever served as a consul, and in having become consul "in his year".
Other important Roman offices outside the cursus honorum were: