1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Comitia

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COMITIA, the name applied, always in technical and generally in popular phraseology, to the most formal types of gathering of the sovereign people in ancient Rome. It is the plural of comitium, the old “meeting-place” (Lat. cum, together, ire, to go) on the north-west of the Forum. The Romans had three words for describing gatherings of the people. These were concilium, comitia and contio. Of these concilium had the most general significance. It could be applied to any kind of meeting and is often used to describe assemblies in foreign states. It was, therefore, a word that might be employed to denote an organized gathering of a portion of the Roman people such as the plebs, and in this sense is contrasted with comitia, which when used strictly should signify an assembly of the whole people. Thus the Roman draughtsman who wishes to express the idea “magistrates of any kind as president of assemblies” writes “Magistratus queiquomque comitia conciliumve habebit” (Lex Latina tabulae Bantinae, l. 5), and formalism required that a magistrate who summoned only a portion of the people to meet him should, in his summons, use the word concilium. This view is expressed by Laelius Felix, a lawyer probably of the age of Hadrian, when he writes “Is qui non universum populum, sed partem aliquam adesse jubet, non comitia, sed concilium edicere debet” (Gellius, Noctes Atticae, xv. 27). But popular phraseology did not conform to this canon, and comitia, which gained in current Latin the sense of “elections” was sometimes used of the assemblies of the plebs (see the instances in Botsford, distinction between Comitia and Concilium, p. 23). The distinction between comitia and contio was more clearly marked. Both were formal assemblies convened by a magistrate; but while, in the case of the comitia, the magistrate’s purpose was to ask a question of the people and to elicit their binding response, his object in summoning a contio was merely to bring the people together either for their instruction or for a declaration of his will as expressed in an edict (“contionem habere est verba facere ad populum sine ulla rogatione,” Gell. op. cit. xiii. 6). The word comitia merely means “meetings.”

The earliest comitia was one organized on the basis of parishes (curiae) and known in later times as the comitia curiata. The curia voted as a single unit and thus furnished the type for that system of group-voting which runs through all the later organization of the popular assemblies. This comitia must originally have been composed exclusively of patricians (q.v.); but there is reason to believe that, at an early period of the Republic, it had, in imitation of the centuriate organization, come to include plebeians (see Curia). The organization which gave rise to the comitia centuriata was the result of the earliest steps in the political emancipation of the plebs. Three stages in this process may be conjectured. In the first place the plebeians gained full rights of ownership and transfer, and could thus become freeholders of the land which they occupied and of the appurtenances of this land (res mancipi). This legal capacity rendered them liable to military service as heavy-armed fighting men, and as such they were enrolled in the military units called centuriae. When the enrolment was completed the whole host (exercitus) was the best organized and most representative gathering that Rome could show. It therefore either usurped, or became gradually invested with voting powers, and gained a range of power which for two centuries (508–287 B.C.) made it the dominant assembly in the state. But its aristocratic organization, based as this was on property qualifications which gave the greatest voting power to the richest men, prevented it from being a fitting channel for the expression of plebeian claims. Hence the plebs adopted a new political organization of their own. The tribunate called into existence a purely plebeian assembly, firstly, for the election of plebeian magistrates; secondly, for jurisdiction in cases where these magistrates had been injured; thirdly, for presenting petitions on behalf of the plebs through the consuls to the comitia centuriata. This right of petitioning developed into a power of legislation. The stages of the process (marked by the Valerio-Horatian laws of 449 B.C., the Publilian law of 339 B.C., and the Hortensian law of 287 B.C.) are unknown; but it is probable that the two first of the laws progressively weakened the discretionary power of senate and consuls in admitting such petitions; and that the Hortensian law fully recognized the right of resolutions of the plebs (plebiscita) to bind the whole community. The plebeian assembly, which had perhaps originally met by curiae, was organized on the basis of the territorial tribes in 471 B.C. This change suggested a renewed organization of the whole people for comitial purposes. The comitia tributa populi was the result. This assembly seems to have been already in existence at the epoch of the Twelve Tables in 451 B.C., its electoral activity is perhaps attested in 447 B.C., and it appears as a legislative body in 357 B.C.

In spite of the formal differences of these four assemblies and the real distinction springing from the fact that patricians were not members of the plebeian bodies, the view which is appropriate to the developed Roman constitution is that the people expressed its will equally through all, although the mode of expression varied with the channel. This will was in theory unlimited. It was restricted only by the conservatism of the Roman, by the condition that the initiative must always be taken by a magistrate, by the de facto authority of the senate, and by the magisterial veto which the senate often had at its command (see Senate). There were no limitations on the legislative powers of the comitia except such as they chose to respect or which they themselves created and might repeal. They never during the Republican period lost the right of criminal jurisdiction, in spite of the fact that so many spheres of this jurisdiction had been assigned in perpetuity to standing commissions (quaestiones perpetuae). This power of judging exercised by the assemblies had in the main developed from the use of the right of appeal (provocatio) against the judgments of the magistrates. But it is probable that, in the developed procedure, where it was known that the judgment pronounced might legally give rise to the appeal, the magistrate pronounced no sentence, but brought the case at once before the people. The case was then heard in four separate contiones. After these hearings the comitia gave its verdict. Finally, the people elected to every magistracy with the exception of the occasional offices of Dictator and Interrex. The distribution of these functions amongst the various comitia, and the differences in their organization, were as follows:—

The comitia curiata had in the later Republic become a merely formal assembly. Its main function was that of passing the lex curiata which was necessary for the ratification both of the imperium of the higher magistracies of the people, and of the potestas of those of lower rank. This assembly also met, under the name of the comitia calata and under the presidency of the pontifex maximus, for certain religious acts. These were the inauguration of the rex sacrorum and the flamens, and that abjuration of hereditary worship (detestatio sacrorum) which was made by a man who passed from his clan (gens) either by an act of adrogation (see Roman Law and Adoption) or by transition from the patrician to the plebeian order. For the purpose of passing the lex curiata, and probably for its other purposes as well, this comitia was in Cicero’s day represented by but thirty lictors (Cic. de Lege Agraria, ii. 12, 31).

The comitia centuriata could be summoned and presided over only by the magistrates with imperium. The consuls were its usual presidents for elections and for legislation, but the praetors summoned it for purposes of jurisdiction. It elected the magistrates with imperium and the censors, and alone had the power of declaring war. According to the principle laid down in the Twelve Tables (Cicero, de Legibus, iii. 4. 11) capital cases were reserved for this assembly. It was not frequently employed as a legislative body after the two assemblies of the tribes, which were easier to summon and organize, had been recognized as possessing sovereign rights. The internal structure of the comitia centuriata underwent a great change during the Republic—a change which has been conjecturally attributed to the censorship of Flaminius in 220 B.C. (Mommsen, Staatsrecht, iii. p. 270). In the early scheme, at a time when a pecuniary valuation had replaced land and its appurtenances (res mancipi) as the basis of qualification, five divisions (classes) were recognized whose property was assessed respectively at 100,000, 75,000, 50,000, 25,000 and 11,000 (or 12,500) asses. The first class contained 80 centuries; the second, third and fourth 20 each; the fifth 30. Added to these were the 18 centuries of knights (see Equites). The combined vote of the first class and the knights was thus represented by 98 centuries; that of the whole of the other classes (including 4 or 5 centuries of professional corporations connected with the army, such as the fabri and 1 century of proletarii, i.e. of all persons below the minimum census) was represented by 95 or 96 centuries. Thus the upper classes in the community possessed more than half the votes in the assembly. The newer scheme aimed at a greater equality of voting power; but it has been differently interpreted. The interpretation most usually accepted, which was first suggested by Pantagathus, a 17th-century scholar, is based on the view that the five classes were distributed over the tribes in such a manner that there were 2 centuries of each class in a single tribe. As the number of the tribes was 35, the total number of centuries would be 350. To these we must add 18 centuries of knights, 4 of fabri, &c., and 1 of proletarii. Here the first class and the knights command but 88 votes out of a total of 373. Mommsen’s interpretation (Staatsrecht, iii. p. 275) was different. He allowed the 70 votes for the 70 centuries of the first class, but thought that the 280 centuries of the other classes were so combined as to form only 100 votes. The total votes in the comitia would thus be 70 + 100 + 5 (fabri, &c.) + 18 (knights), i.e. 193, as in the earlier arrangement. In 88 B.C. a return was made to the original and more aristocratic system by a law passed by the consuls Sulla and Pompeius. At least this seems to be the meaning of Appian (Bellum Civile, i. 59) when he says έσηγοῦντο ... τὰς χειροτονίας μὴ κατὰ φυλὰς ἀλλὰ κατὰ λόχους ... γίγνεσθαι. But this change was not permanent as the more liberal system prevails in the Ciceronian period.

The comitia tributa was in the later Republic the usual organ for laws passed by the whole people. Its presidents were the magistrates of the people, usually the consuls and praetors, and, for purposes of jurisdiction, the curule aediles. It elected these aediles and other lower magistrates of the people. Its jurisdiction was limited to monetary penalties.

The concilium plebis, although voting, like this last assembly, by tribes, could be summoned and presided over only by plebeian magistrates, and never included the patricians. Its utterances (plebiscita) had the full force of law; it elected the tribunes of the plebs and the plebeian aediles, and it pronounced judgment on the penalties which they proposed. The right of this assembly to exercise capital jurisdiction was questioned; but it possessed the undisputed right of pronouncing outlawry (aquae et ignis interdictio) against any one already in exile (Livy xxv. 4, and xxvi. 3).

When the tenure of the religious colleges—formerly filled up by co-optation—was submitted to popular election, a change effected by a lex Domitia of 104 B.C., a new type of comitia was devised for this purpose. The electoral body was composed of 17 tribes selected by lot from the whole body of 35.

There was a body of rules governing the comitia which were concerned with the time and place of meeting, the forms of promulgation and the methods of voting. Valid meetings might be held on any of the 194 “comitial” days of the year which were not market or festal days (nundinae, feriae). The comitia curiata and the two assemblies of the tribes met within the walls, the former usually in the Comitium, the latter in the Forum or on the Area Capitolii; but the elections at these assemblies were in the later Republic held in the Campus Martius outside the walls. The comitia centuriata was by law compelled to meet outside the city and its gathering place was usually the Campus. Promulgation was required for the space of 3 nundinae (i.e. 24 days) before a matter was submitted to the people. The voting was preceded by a contio at which a limited debate was permitted by the magistrate. In the assemblies of the curiae and the tribes the voting of the groups took place simultaneously, in that of the centuries in a fixed order. In elections as well as in legislative acts an absolute majority was required, and hence the candidate who gained a mere relative majority was not returned.

The comitia survived the Republic. The last known act of comitial legislation belongs to the reign of Nerva (A.D. 96–98). After the essential elements in the election of magistrates had passed to the senate in A.D. 14, the formal announcement of the successful candidates (renuntiatio) still continued to be made to the popular assemblies. Early in the 3rd century Dio Cassius still saw the comitia centuriata meeting with all its old solemnities (Dio Cassius lviii. 20).

Bibliography.—Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, iii. p. 300 foll. (3rd ed., Leipzig, 1887), and Römische Forschungen, Bd. i. (Berlin, 1879); Soltau, Entstehung und Zusammensetzung der altrömischen Volksversammlungen, and Die Gültigkeit der Plebiscite (Berlin, 1884); Huschke, Die Verfassung des Königs Servius Tullius als Grundlage zu einer römischen Verfassungsgeschichte (Heidelberg, 1838); Borgeaud, Le Plébiscite dans l’antiquité. Grèce et Rome (Geneva, 1838); Greenidge, Roman Public Life, p. 65 foll., 102, 238 foll. and App. i. (1901); G. W. Botsford, Roman Assemblies (1909).  (A. H. J. G.)