Ancient History & Civilisation


In primitive times the Roman people was divided into three tribes (tribus), the Ramnes, Tides and Luceres, about which very little is known. They probably do not represent three original settlements of Romans, Sabines and Etruscans and may even comprise groupings that existed before Rome in any sense became a city. Some scholars believe that their names are Etruscan, and that consequently their origin is much later, but the names could be later Etruscanized forms of earlier Latin words. Unlike the Greek phylae, they had, as far as we know, no political significance.32 Rather, the earliest group of importance is the curia, ten of which were said to form each tribe.

The establishment of thirty curiae is attributed to Romulus. A curia meant both a ‘gathering of people’ (co-viria, i.e. a section of the Roman people included in the three tribes) and a place where they met, on the north-east corner of the slopes of the Palatine. The names, of which eight survive, are based on gentile or place names, such as Acculeia or Veliensis. The curiae were perhaps formed on the basis of kinship rather than of locality, because each was composed of a number of gentes (so that membership of agensdetermined to which curia a man belonged), while the number of gentes in each curia probably varied, as did the size of the clans. The curiae correspond to the Attic phratriae and are found among other Latin peoples beside the Romans. The members banded themselves together for mutual protection, and developed three aspects, religious, military and political. Each curia may have had its own territory, and like any early association, each had its own cult and sacra presided over by its curio; further, groups of curiaeheld communal agricultural festivals such as the Fordicidia (when pregnant cows were sacrificed) and the Fornacalia (a feast of ovens), partly separately in each curia, and partly together, when they were presided over by a curio maximus. They paid special devotion to Juno Quiritis. Although not part of the organization of the army, each curia nevertheless was the unit from which a hundred infantrymen (centuria) were raised. Three centuries of cavalry were also raised, but perhaps directly from the tribes, since they had the tribal names of Titienses, Ramnes and Luceres (which they retained when their number was doubled to six, traditionally by Tullus Hostilius: Romulus’ three centuries of celeres became the sex suffragia). As the state became more powerful than the individual families of which it was composed, the curiae gradually assumed the aspect of a corporate political body, the Comitia Curiata. In very early days its will was probably expressed by shouting, but at some point a system of group voting was evolved, a fundamental Roman device: within each curia a majority vote of all its members decided the vote of the curia, which counted as one unit in the vote of the whole Comitia. It included all the citizens, not the patricians alone (if in fact such a clear-cut division yet existed), but its powers and duties were limited by the executive power of the king and the consultative rights of the Senate. In practice, the method of voting was less democratic than it appears, for in each curia the well-organized noble clans and their dependents outweighed the scattered votes of the plebs; a majority of groups, not necessarily an absolute majority of individuals, decided each question. The Comitia Curiata met to witness certain private acts, such as adoption and the execution of the early form of will. It conferred authority (imperium) on the king, but had little choice as to the ruler himself, who had been nominated by an interrex and ratified by the Senate. It met to hear the king’s decrees, as there was no other way of publishing them, and it might be called upon to express consent to the declaration of war. Thus the power of the people found little effective expression.33

A Council of Elders (senatus) was formed by certain leading members of patrician gentes, but not by the heads of all of them; it was rather a body of advisers selected by the king from the ruling families. Its numbers varied; Romulus is said to have chosen one hundred; with Tatius he doubled the number by admitting representatives of the minores gentes. Livy attributes this action to Tarquinius Priscus who, according to Dionysius, raised the total to three hundred, which remained the normal number till the day of Sulla; but these figures are doubtless too large for the early period and are suppositions on the part of later writers. Once appointed, the senators held office for life, and vacancies were filled by the king who added to the list (conscribere); thus the Senate had the double title of Patres (et) Conscripti.34 Its powers were at first consultative rather than deliberative. Custom demanded that the king should summon and consult the patres, but he could reject their advice (senatus consultum). At the king’s death, the one occasion when they could meet unsummoned, they appointed an interrex or viceroy, or several in succession, to nominate a king. The existence of interreges thus upheld the continuity of Imperium, and there was no ‘demise of the Crown’. The candidate chosen by theinterrex had then to be sanctioned by the patrum auctoritas. As the Senate lived on while kings came and went, it became the repository of ancestral custom and of the traditional knowledge of divine and human law, by which the pax deorum could be maintained; it conferred on the king himself, and later on the consuls, the authority to perform the auspicia to determine the will of heaven. It thus came to gain a unique authority in the state, though in the regal period it was of little political account.

All administrative and executive power (imperium) was vested in the king or in those to whom he delegated it. The kingship was elective, not hereditary; though the king may have nominated or suggested his successor, who might coincide with the choice of theinterrex, he had apparently no right to do this. However simple the outward style of the earlier Latin kings may or may not have been, the authority of the later Etruscan kings was reflected in their trappings of office. On formal occasions they sat, arrayed in purple, on an ivory chair (sella curulis, so called because it was set on a chariot, currus) and were attended by lictors carrying the fasces which grimly exhibited their imperium (p. 29). After successful campaigns they led their army in triumphal procession through the city streets. At this ceremony, which may originally have involved a ritual purification of the soldiers and city, the Etruscan kings wore the purple and gold clothing of Jupiter, and had their faces painted with vermilion like that of the god’s terracotta statue in the Capitoline temple. As the triumphator stood in his four-horsed chariot, his escorting army shouted ‘io, triumphe’ (while a servant in the chariot kept repeating: ‘Remember that you are mortal’).35 Once elected, the king held office for life and was supreme as general, priest and judge. Perhaps his primary function had been to rule and guide (regere) the people in war. To this end he could impose a war tax (tributum), and he exercised power of life and death over his troops. As priest he was responsible for maintaining thepax deorum and for the performance of religious rites, auspices and festivals. He could delegate any of his functions to subordinates: he could leave a praefectus urbi in charge of the city when he rode forth to war, and he nominated pontiffs, augurs or flamens to share his religious duties.

One of his chief duties as priest was fixing the calendar of the year. Numa as we have seen (p. 47) was credited with the creation of a new twelve-month calendar to replace the older ten-month one (March to December) which in turn had traditionally been the work of Romulus. This reform, however, although almost certainly belonging to the regal period, was more probably the work of one of the Etruscan kings. The new calendar helped to correlate the lunar with the solar year, but had to be adjusted at suitable intervals by the insertion of an intercalary month of 22 or 23 days (a refinement which was perhaps added or elaborated in 450 BC). The king was responsible personally for reporting to his people, on the calends (the first day of the month), after a minor priest had announced to him the appearance of the new moon. King and priest then sacrificed to Juno, while the regina, the king’s wife, sacrificed to her in the Regia. He then summoned the people (cf. calare, to call) and an announcement was made about how many days would elapse until the nones (either the fifth or seventh day). This notice was required in order to give the country people time to gather on the nones to hear the king himself announce which days of the month would be fasti, which nefasti, that is, days on which public business, such as the summoning of an assembly or the dispensation of justice, might or might not be transacted.36

As judge the king wielded wide powers, especially in cases of treason and homicide, although we cannot trace in detail the relationship of public to private law. A number of leges regiae were ascribed to the regal period.37 To some extent the king’s jurisdiction was limited by the authority of the paterfamilias over his household and by the power of the gentes, so that his ability to intervene in disputes between private citizens was restricted. On the other hand, he was responsible for the security of the state, so he delegated capital cases to specially appointed officials: duoviri perduellionis, who dealt with cases of treason (perduellio), and quaestores (later quaestores parricidii) to investigate murder (the precise meaning of parricidium is uncertain: later it was applied to the murder of a father).38 The punishments suggest great antiquity: hanging on a tree sacred to the infernal gods for perduellio, and sewing in a sack and casting into the Tiber for parricidium. Whether any possibility of appeal to the people (provocatio) existed in the regal period is uncertain. Cicero (de rep., i, 54) said that it did: this he said on the authority of the records of the pontiffs and the augural books of his own day. If he was right, any revision of a capital sentence by the Comitia Curiata must surely have depended on the king’s pleasure rather than on any law. In general, the king’s control of criminal justice seems to have been effective; at any rate the blood-feud, which bedevilled so many early states, as for instance Athens, was absent from early Rome.

The extent of the king’s authority depended upon his relation to the Senate. Many have judged that this had a contractual basis: the leaders of the gentes chose a leader for war and religious matters, while retaining for themselves in the Senate considerable power. Others have insisted on the absoluteness of the king’s authority. The truth may lie perhaps somewhere between these extremes, which in a sense correspond to the two successive stages which Roman historians later saw in the development of the monarchy: the early Latin-Sabine kings respected the gentes, while the later Etruscan rulers were more aggressive and lawless.

Servius Tullius is credited with a reform, military in origin and political in development, which had far-reaching consequences. In order to meet the growing military needs of the day it was considered necessary to take a census of the people and to reclassify them on the basis of wealth and age in a new structure that would supersede the old ‘Romulean’ tribes and gentile curiae. A chief reason for the complexity of the reform was the desirability of incorporating into the citizen body all the immigrants whom trade had attracted to Rome in order to make them liable for military service, but this could scarcely be effected through the existing conservative curiae, which were based on kinship. So a system of new tribes was devised, which was based on a census of all free residents and in which domicile was the title to citizenship. From this change there developed a new political assembly, which gradually ousted the older Comitia Curiata. The ancient accounts of this reform record many details which were elaborated only after years of development: consequently many scholars would date the reform to the fifth or even the beginning of the fourth century. But although it scarcely sprang complete from the head of Servius, its essence probably goes back to the regal period. It will therefore be described at this point, though it must be remembered that its principles rather than its details belong to this age.

For the sake of simplicity it will be convenient to consider the military aspects first: this will involve tracing the growth of the Roman army. The earliest army comprised some 3,000 infantry, each of the three Romulean tribes providing 1,000 men commanded by a tribunus militum, and each of the corps being divided into ten units (centuriae) which corresponded to the ten curiae of each tribe (p. 61). In addition, three squadrons of 100 horsemen (equites or celeres), each under a tribunus celerum, were raised, directly from the tribes. Armed probably with a long body-shield and throwing-spear, the early Roman soldier fought in a somewhat rough-and-ready fashion, like the armies of other city-states in their earlier ‘heroic’ stages of growth. The nobles (whether patricians alone is uncertain) provided the cavalry, whose role in battle is also obscure: possibly the equites may primarily have formed the king’s bodyguard and not have played a major part in battle tactics.39 But radical changes in methods of warfare had been taking place in Greece in the early seventh century and had spread to Etruria certainly by the time of Servius Tullius. These consisted in the adoption of a new battle-line of heavily-armed soldiers (hoplites) who were suitably equipped: the full panoply comprised helmet, breastplate, greaves, shield, sword and spear. To meet Rome’s expanding military, economic and social needs Servius Tullius instituted a major reform of the army: he doubled the number of men, levied them on the basis of wealth, of new tribes (see below) in place of the old three, and of centuries in place of the old thousands. The new levy (legio) now consisted of 6,000 infantry, organized into sixty centuries; the men were armed with a sword and a round shield (clipeus) fastened to the forearm (one such bronze clipeus has been found in a tomb of c. 600 BC on the Esquiline).40 The cavalry was also increased, either to six centuries (sex suffragia) or possibly in two stages, first (by Tarquinius Priscus?) to six and then by Servius to eighteen; these consisted of sixtyturmae, each of thirty equites, corresponding to the sixty centuries of the legion.41 The new battle-line of sixty centuries of hoplites was the classis, with all the rest named infra classem; or possibly, even at the time of its establishment by Servius a division into Five classes had already been made, and the battle-line was formed by members of the top three classes. In other words, some scholars would see two stages of development here (first a single undifferentiated classis, then a fivefold subdivision), others only one (five classes from the beginning of the reform).42 The next stage of development, which falls after the regal period (either when the Republic was established or later) was the division of this organization into two legions, each of 3,000 legionaries, each commanded by a consul.

The basis of the Servian reform was a registration of property, primarily in land, and a classification of the population in accordance with their scheduled wealth for military purposes. In order to accomplish the registration, the three Romulean tribes were superseded by the creation of four urban tribes in Rome and sixteen rustic tribes in the ager Romanus43 The Roman people, beside being registered in these tribes, was then divided into five classes differentiated by their equipment. According to the traditional scheme each member of the first class provided for himself a full panoply, the second class lacked a bronze corslet, the other classes had less, the fifth nothing but slings and stones. This classification was based on a registration of property; the ratings ranged from 100,000 asses of the first class to 11,000 of the fifth. These figures represent the attempt of a later generation to interpret the early ratings in terms of a bronze currency which had not yet been introduced; but the proportions of the five ratings (20: 15: 10: 5: 2½: or 2) may represent an original apportionment in land, the minimum being a plot of two iugera. More important was the subdivision of these five classes into centuries or companies; in each class half the centuries were made up of elder (seniores; men from 47 to 60) and half of younger men (iuniores; from 17 to 46). The centuries in each class were unequal in number, as the state naturally drew more heavily upon the well-equipped richer men than on the poorly-equipped masses. Thus the first class contained 80 centuries; the second, third and fourth 20 each; the fifth 30. This makes a total of 170 centuries of combatant infantry, half senior, half junior. Below this there were 5 (or 6) centuries of unarmed men, whose property was too little to justify enrolment in the fifth class. They were registered by ‘heads’ (capitecensi) and served the state not by giving their money in taxes or their life-blood in war, but in such capacities as armourers, smiths, trumpeters, etc. They, or one century of them, were the proletarii. At the other extreme was the cavalry (equites) which consisted of 18 centuries: 6 already established and 12 more added. These were raised by the leading men who could keep their own warhorses, and they took precedence over the five classes.

This new organization based on 193 centuries was designed for military needs. The centuries formed the basis for recruiting, and the junior centuries of the first three classes probably formed the infantry of the line. But from it there developed a political body called the Comitia Centuriata, or the assembly-by-centuries. Its military origin is clear: it was summoned by blast of trumpets, it met in the Field of Mars outside the city, and during its meetings red flags which were struck on the enemy’s approach flew on the Arx and the Janiculum. It was the ‘nation in arms’. But as the census embraced the whole free population a century would contain more men than were actually called up to serve as a military century. Within the meeting of the centuries a system of group voting prevailed as in the Comitia Curiata. Each century recorded a vote which had been determined by a majority vote of its members. The centuries voted in order of precedence, first those of the equites, then the five classes in succession and finally the last five centuries of supernumeraries. As the centuries of the cavalry and the first class numbered 98 (18 and 80) they obtained a clear majority in the total of 193 centuries if they voted solid. That is, the rich, though numerically inferior, could outvote the poor by means of an actual majority of group votes; this was by no means unfair, as it was they who had to bear the chief burden of fighting and financing the wars. The system was thus timocratic, somewhat similar to that established by Solon at Athens in 590 (of which the Romans may not have been unaware).

How soon the centuries began to function as a political assembly remains controversial. It must have been before the mid-fifth century, since the mention in the Twelve Tables of a comitiatus maximus almost certainly refers to the Comitia Centuriata (though some still apply it to the Curiata). It is reasonable, therefore, to place its beginning not later than the establishment of the Republic, and, if so, it does not strain credulity to date it where Roman tradition dated it (although its structure at that time may have been simpler than the quintuple class division). If, then, it met in the regal period, it presumably voted on proposals of the king concerning peace and war and approved the choice of commanders created by him, but it will have lacked the right to initiate business.44

Thus Servius may be credited with setting in motion far-reaching reforms: he skilfully created new tribes in order to incorporate an enlarged citizen body (as Cleisthenes did at Athens); he was thus enabled to increase the size of the army and modernize its method of fighting; this involved a new grading of wealth which gave rise to a timocratic assembly. However, by enlarging the army he strengthened not only Rome but also his own power, since the backbone of the army was formed by the middle class. The nobles, who relied on the support of their gentes, will have been resentful, and the process by which they were beginning to form a separate class, the patriciate, by claiming more religious, social and political privileges, was probably slowed down. After Servius had been murdered by his daughter Tullia his successor Tarquinius Superbus is said to have maintained his rule for another quarter of a century; but nevertheless the days of the monarchy at Rome, as in other Etruscan cities, were numbered.

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