Rom. civ. law. A sort of commission (ad quaerendum) to inquire into some criminal matter given to a magistrate or citizen, who was called quaesitor or quaestor who made report thereon to the senate or the people, as the one or the other appointed him. In progress, he was empowered (with the assistance of a counsel) to adjudge the case; and the tribunal thus constituted, was called quaestio. This special tribunal continued in use until the end of the Roman republic, although it was resorted to during the last times of the republic, only in extraordinary cases.
The manner in which such commissions were constituted was this: If the matter to be inquired of was within the jurisdiction of the comitia, the senate on the demand of the consul or of a tribune or of one of its members, declared by a decree that there was cause to prosecute a citizen. Then the consul ex auctoritate senatus asked the people in comitia, (rogabat rogatio) to enact this decree into a law. The comitia adopted it either simply, or with amendment, or they rejected it.
The increase of population and of crimes rendered this method, which was tardy at best, onerous and even impracticable. In the year 149 B.C., under the consulship of Censorinus and Manilius, the tribune Calpurnius Piso, procured the passage of a law establishing a questio perpetua, to take cognizance of the crime of extortion, committed by Roman magistrates against strangers de pecuniis repetundis.
Many such tribunals were afterwards established, such as Quaestiones de majestate, de ambitu, de peculatu, de vi, de sodalitiis, etc. Each was composed of a certain number of judges taken from the senators, and presided over by a preator, although he might delegate his authority to a public officer, who was called judex quaestionis. These tribunals continued a year only; for the meaning of the word perpetuus is not interrupted during the term of its appointed duration.
The establishment of these quaestiones, deprived the comitia of their criminal jurisdiction, except the crime of treason.
They were in fact the depositories of the judicial power during the sixth and seventh centuries of the Roman republic, the last of which was remarkable for civil dissentions, and replete with great public, transactions. Without some knowledge of the constitution of the Quaestio perpetua, it is impossible to understand the forensic speeches of Cicero, or even the political history of that age. But when Julius Caesar, as dictator, sat for the trial of Ligarius, the ancient constitution of the republic was in fact destroyed, and the criminal tribunals, which had existed in more or less vigor and purity until then, existed no longer but in name. Under Augustus, the concentration of the triple power of the consuls, pro-consuls and tribunes, in his person transferred to him as of course, all judicial powers and authorities.