1902 Encyclopedia > Comitia


COMITIA, derived from con and ire, was employed by the Romans to denote an assembly of the people, called for the purpose of accepting or rejecting some proposition submitted to them by the heads of the state. It was a fundamental principle of the Roman constitution that the supreme power was inherent, in the citizens, though it might be delegated by them to hereditary or to elected magistrates. All important matters, however, had to be brought before the sovereign people, who could either ratify or reject, but without discussion, the proposals made to them. Such, at least in theory, and, during the best days of the republic, in practice also, was the function of these popular assemblies.

As may be readily understood, different elements had the ascendency among the Roman people at different periods in their history. So far as it was possible for a state exposed to so many and such various influ-ences to be conservative of its political traditions, Rome, whether monarchical, republican, or imperial, was essen-tially so. But under the force of circumstances innovations were introduced from time to time, which materially altered the position of the two political parties—the patricians and the plebeians—into which the state was early divided, and by whose dissensions it was long distracted. And in none of her institutions can the progress of the struggle be-tween these rival factions be more clearly traced, than in the nature and powers of those assemblies or comitia, by which the supreme authority at Rome was in succession wielded.

It is usual to describe the Roman comitia as of three kinds, named from the mode in which the people were organized and in which they voted—the comitia curiata, or assembly of the curiae ; the comitia centuriata, or assembly of the centuries ; and the comitia tributa, or assembly of the tribes. To these some add a fourth,—the comitia calata (from calare, to call); but as this assembly had neither political functions nor a separate organization, it is unnecessary to do more than mention the name.

1. Comitia Curiata. The assembly of the curiae is believed to have been coeval with the rise of Rome itself, and its origin is therefore rightly ascribed by tradition to the mythical founder of the city. The system seems to have been an essential part of the constitution of the early Latin communities, of which Rome was originally only one. Its primary object cannot now be satisfactorily determined ; but the purpose for which it came to be employed is sufficiently clear. From a very early period, the Roman curiae, or " wardships," as they may be called, numbered thirty, being ten for each of the three once independent com-munities—the Ramnians, Tities, and Luceres—from whose amalgamation the Roman people sprang. At first these curiae were probably made up exclusively of the freeholders, or patricians, as the latter were afterwards designated, on whom devolved exclusively the right and duty of bearing arms. It has been maintained by some that the class of dependents called by Roman writers clients as well as the burgesses or citizens had a right to vote in the assembly of the curiae. No direct evidence, however, can be brought forward in support of this supposition, which in the nature of the case is highly improbable; and, if allowed to be present at all, they were likely nothing more than spectators, or, as their name is said to imply, " listeners." In an assembly each curia had one vote, which was determined by the majority of the individual votes in the different curiae. As the number of the latter was even, and no provision was made for deciding the matter in the case of their being equally divided on any question, it would seem as if this function had not been thought of in fixing the number of the curias, or had been subordinated to some other consideration.

2. Comitia Centuriata. By the operation of causes sufficiently obvious, a great incrsase soon took place in the numbers and influence of the dependent members of the Roman commonwealth. As a natural consequence, the way was paved for a reform of the constitution, though we may well conceive that the step was hastened by the gradual thinning of the ranks of the old freeholders in the incessant wars in which Rome found herself involved with her neighbours. Thus in the course of time a new class, the plebeians of history, arose out of the clients, pre-ponderating in numbers and by no means destitute of wealth. If this class was allowed no rights as citizens, it was exempt from service in the field; and while their political inferiority must have been galling to its members, their immunity from the chances of war can hardly have been looked upon with equanimity by the ruling faction. It was to redress this twofold grievance that the reform ascribed to King Servius Tullius is generally believed to have been effected. But the whole scheme was one skilfully devised, so as to assign to the plebeians duties rather than to bestow upon them rights, and it was evidently the work of a statesman who was in the interest of the patricians. Our chief authorities for the details of the arrangement are Livy and Dionysius, whose accounts, though they differ in some particulars, agree in the main. We must bear in mind, however, that both of them describe the assembly of the centuries rather as it existed in their own day than as it was at first constituted.

According to the authors just named, the whole body of free Romans, burgesses and non-burgesses, was divided into a certain number of classes (i.e., " summonings," probably from calare), numbered according to the amount of fortune possessed' by each citizen. The class of each man was ascertained by means of a register, drawn up every five years by officers appointed for the purpose, in which were set forth in detail the age of the citizen, the amount of his property, and other particulars. The first class comprised all whose fortune was estimated at not less than 100,000 asses or pounds of copper, sub-divided into 40 centuries of "juniors," who could be called upon for active service, and 40 centuries of "seniors," who in time of war were to do garrison duty at home. In the second class were enrolled those who had property valued at not less than 75,000 asses, with 10 centuries of juniors, 10 of seniors, and 2 of artificers. The third, fourth, and fifth classes included those who possessed not less than 50,000, 25,000, and 12,500 (according to Livy, 11,000) asses respectively, sub-divided into centuries in a similar manner. Those who had not a sufficient money qualification are included by Livy in the fifth class, and made to form a single century, but are reckoned by Dionysius as a sixth class. In addition, there were 18 centuries of equites, or cavalry, who always voted first, made up of the most wealthy members of the landholder class, the actual possession of land being apparently regarded as a necessary qualification for this, the favourite branch of the service. Livy gives the whole number of the centuries as 194 ; Dionysius makes them 193. The voting in the assembly was by centuries, each century possessing a collective vote exactly as in the case of the curia.-. It was so arranged that the 18 centuries of equites and the 80 centuries of the first class voted first.

If they were agreed on the question at issue, the other classes were not called upon to vote at all. As the cen-turies, though nominally "hundreds, " might and probably did contain fewer in the first class, and certainly many times more than that number in some of the other classes, it is plain that in the assembly by far the largest share of power was retained in the hands of the wealthy, of whom the original burgess element would long form the main por-tion. How far we have in this scheme merely a modification of an earlier arrangement there are no means of deter-mining. As Mommsen remarks, it is more than pro-bable that the assessments were originally laid on land. Be this as it may, the Servian reform was originally a new military rather than a new political organization, its author intending that the privileges of the patricians, assembled in their curiae, should remain as before. But its results were different from what had been anticipated. By a process easily understood, the rights of the curiae gradually passed to the centuries. The assembly of the former continued indeed to meet, but the assembly of the latter became thenceforth the chief guardian of the rights of the Roman people.

3. Comitia Tributa. The further growth and develop- ment of the democratic element in the Roman constitution, consequent on the change just described, soon led to a demand for greater changes in the same direction. The tribunes of the people, now the acknowledged leaders of the democracy, took advantage of an ancient division of the original territory of Rome into tribes, to give greater prominence to this element than it had yet possessed. These tribes, 30 and afterwards 35 in number, which, as is supposed by some, had already supplied a basis for the arrangement into curiae as well as classes, seem to have at first existed for purely local purposes. But the leaders of the people succeeded at length in forming them into a political union entitled to exercise certain functions, chief among which was the election of the inferior magistrates, and the approval or rejection of such legislative measures as affected the interests of the plebeians as a class. Whether the assembly of the tribes was composed of plebeians only, or of all, whether patrician or plebeian, living within certain limits, has not been ascertained, the balance of opinion inclining to the hypothesis that makes it to have consisted of plebeians alone. After the rise of this new power, it became a matter of great difficulty to determine what questions were to be submitted to the tribes and what to the centuries, each claiming to be the real re- presentatives of the whole body of the people. A solution appears to have been sought for and found in some com- bination of the two rival assemblies. At what times this change took place, and what was its exact nature, are matters that must ever remain involved in the greatest obscurity. All that can be said is this; either by means of their own assembly, or by their using it somehow for the purpose of counterbalancing the power of the patricians in the assembly of the centuries, the plebeians ultimately gained what they had so long aimed at—a position of supreme importance in the republic. When the wealthier classes found their influence thus neutralized, they ceased to attend the comitia altogether, and the popular will was represented by the lower classes alone. A period of moral and political corruption followed, ending in the military despotism of the Caesars. Under the first emperors, the form of calling the assemblies together was still observed, but the people met no longer to control their chief ruler, but simply to receive information as to what he had done. Even this form was by and by discontinued, and in the last days of the empire the comitia was an institution known only as one. of the traditions of the past greatnesf of Rome. (J. MD.)

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