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The comitium was the nerve center of the forummarker valley in ancient Republican Rome. It had major religious and prophetic significance. It was the location for all political and judicial activity of the early Roman Kingdommarker and Republic. The word itself means "place of assembly (com-eo). It is the historic meeting place of the comitia curiata, the grown males of Romemarker who met as the earliest assembly of organised voting divisions of the republic. The senate meeting house or curiamarker is associated with the comitium by both Livy and Cicero.

The comitium was the normal designated space in all Roman cities for contiones, assembling the eligible people for elections, councils and tribunals. Like the forum, where temples, commerce, judicial, and city buildings were located, the comitium was designed as the center for politics. Romans tended to organize their needs into specific locations within the city. As the city grew, the powers of the curiata were transferred to the Comitia Centuriata, which meet outside the city. The comitium remained of importance for formal elections of some magistrates, however as their importance decayed, so did the importance of the comitium.

Over The Overview

Overview

Its beginnings are blurred between "modern legends" and archaeological discovery. The mythologies of King Servius Tullius and Romulus have many similarities. Romulus has often been interpreted as a copy of Tullius. Both were closely related to the god Vulcan, played a role in organizing the comitia, and were depicted as founders of Rome. Other conflicting, or "duel" mythology include the supposed tomb of Romulus, who was struck and killed during the Sabine conflict and was buried under the vulcanal. Other legends state that he was only wounded and that spot was where Faustulus was killed separating the twins during combat. Many of the legends themselves transferred to the comitum from the Palatine. The pomeriam where Remus is said to have lept as well as the Ficus Ruminalis and the sculpture of the she-wolf suckling the twins have competing legends. The original Palatine settlement, the Roma Quatrata, contained the relics of Romulus. An extension of the square city is seen in the "Septimontium", the original seven hills.

The earliest history of the comitium space is considered more legend than history, however, many facts have been extrapolated from the writings that have survived. It is believed to have been a wooded area near an ivy covered cave, where the first senators met in a small hut wearing sheep skins. Legend says that Tarpeia was drawing water from a spring here when she saw Tatius for the first time. The location is one of just a few sites related to the founding of the city and attributed to Romulus in a number of ways.

The comitium contains the earliest surviving document of the Roman State. A cippus found on the second stratigraphic level, dated to 450 BC, informs citizens of their civic duties.

Roman tribunals began in the comitium before other alternative locations became acceptable. Eventually such trials would be moved to the Basilicas or the forum with the exception of more elaborate affairs. The site had a number or temporary wooden structures that could be taken down during the flood season. Court would general consist of a magistrate, the condemned (generally kept in a cage below the elevated platform) his representation and the prosecutor. The Rostra veteramarker was a permanent tribunal eventually made into a war monument but still within the comitium templum. The rostra itself may have been considered a templum.

The site has been used for capital punishment as well as to display the bodies and limbs of defeated political opponents and funerals. Both the forum and comitium had been used for public exhibitions.

Kingdom

The square site was traced by Romulus using divination at the founding of the city when he sent for Augers of Etruria. A circular trench was cut into the ground and votive offerings and samples of earth from each area the holy men had traveled from, placed within. The ditch is called mundus- the same name given firmament (Ολυφπος). From the mundus as the center a plough was pulled by bull to mark out the circuit of the wall, with only a single spot for a gate left unploughed by lifting the tool to make a break, all else was considered consecrated. It was the traditional center of the city as it was in the original Palatine settlement. The Umbilicus urbis Romaemarker is linked to the religious center of Rome and it's traditions may have been moved from the comitium along with the rostra, where they would eventually take shape in the form of both the Umbilicus and Milliarium Aureummarker.

The ideal of the mundus is old and can be traced back to Etruria. Considered the gateway to the underworld, several mundus are mentioned in ancient writings that were located in the city of Rome, including the Palatine and comitium. Early remains of the vulcanal, a series of shrines in a single spot may mark the location where the king handed over power to the senate.

The senate council probably began meeting within an old Etruscan temple on the north side of the comitium identified as belonging to the Curia Hostiliamarker from the seventh century BC. Tradition holds that Tullus Hostilius built or refurbished this structure. A royal complex may have extended from the House of the Vestal Virginsmarker on one end of the Forum Romanummarker to what is now the Curia Juliamarker. The site was developed over by private atrium homes that were eventually bought up by the state and cleared to create both the forum and comitium.

At one point the comitium had sunken rounded steps creating an amphitheater directly in front of the senate house, that was added and then later buried or leveled. Other Republican cities such as Cosa and Paestum (Poseidonia) have similar rounded, stepped comitiums that can be seen in excavations today.

Vulcanal, and the lapis niger

When Rome became a republic, the original altar and shrine of Vulcan may have served as a podium for senators or political opponents. Next to this spot is where the rostra has its early beginnings. It is believed that the tradition of speaking to crowds from an elevated platform for political purposes may have begun as early as the first king of Rome.

A platform for the great speakers of the republic has always existed within the comitium and it is believed that the vulcanal and the rostra may well have existed together at one point. The comitium was laid out before the time of the curia as a structure and is at this location that the curia assembled even before its augering. The altar originally served as an altar to Vulcan. Several items were unearthed under the marble pavement. The base of an honorary column, a stele with the earliest Latin inscription ever found referring to a "King", or "Rex" along with small votive statues and curses warning anyone who may disturb the site were excavated. It was likely destroyed in a fire or sacking of the city, and was buried along with the rest of the site to raise the level above the remains, common practice in ancient Rome. In this spot were the black marble slabs, which had a small retaining wall to keep people off. This spot became the Lapis Niger in later times, covering over what was left of the vulcanal after a disaster of some form.

In this area was another raised platform for speakers, with ascending and descending stairs on either side. The idea of speaking from a raised area is still seen today in pulpits. The first structure to be called "Rostra" was on the south east section of the forecourt of the Curia Hostilia at the edge of the Comitium. As the population grew and not all Romans could fit in the comitium, speakers in the later republic would turn their backs on the curia and crowds within the comitium and direct their speech from the rostra to the crowd in the Forum. Plutarch says in the life of Gaius Gracchus that up until the time of Gaius Gracchus, orators would face the comitium while speaking. According to Plutarch, the senate was located in the direction of the comitium (to the right of the orator) while the people where located in the opposite direction (to the left).

Assemblies

The terms curia and comitium both relate to people gathering together in a single location for a purpose. The Comitia Curiata (curiate assembly), was the main assembly for the first two decades of the Roman Republic. During these this time, the Roman people were divided into thirty organized units called "Curia". The Curia were organized on the basis of early Roman families, the thirty original Patrician (aristocratic) clans. The "Curia" assembled into the Curiate Assembly, for political need. The Century Assembly, the comitia centuriata or "army Assembly" of the Roman Republic was the democratic assembly of the soldiers of Rome. Citizens, organized on the basis of centuries for military purposes assembled as the century assembly for all legislative, electoral, and judicial purposes. The Tribal Assembly is the comitia tributa, the democratic assembly of Plebians in the city of Rome. During the Republic, citizens were organized on the basis of thirty-five Tribes inside the city walls. The Tribes gathered for legislative, electoral, and judicial purposes. Each Tribe received one vote. Once a majority of Tribes voted in the same way, the voting ended, and the matter was decided.

While the assemblies were first held in the comitium, they eventually became too large to meet within the comitium for elections. With the change from curiata to century, the assemblies began meeting outside the city walls at the Campus Martius, or Fields of Mars.

With the majority of assemblies outside the comitium and the importance of the few that still took place, the area became a location where many monuments, shrines and memorials of great importance were located. Statues to murdered ambassadors, ancient augers and the most recent consuls were located in the large fenced off space. Pompey Magnus had erected an equestrian statue of himself on the rostra which was removed after the leader was chased out of the city, but was returned to the relocated rostra by Caesar after his murder in Alexandria. The consul Maenius donated a column said to have a base large enough for his family and heirs to sit upon to watch the games and festivals in the comitium and forum.

Senate

The Senate began as little more than a council to the king. During the early republic, the senate still held little power, the executive magistrates did. By the middle republic, the senate was at the apex of its dominance. In the late republic, reforms of the tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus began to effect the power structure of Rome.

All of the city's most important decisions and laws were made in the senate. A law required that any bill not approved within an augered and consecrated space was not valid. For this reason all meeting spaces of the Senate were templums. Over time as the senate's size and power increased, so did the size of the senate house. In 80 BC the curia was enlarged by Sulla who also added heating to the building for the first time.

After the Curia Hostiliamarker was destroyed in 52 BC, the newly constructed curia occupied even more space within the comitium. Cicero writes that the curia seemed to loom over the rostra, indicating the proximity of the senate building to the speakers platform of his time.

Senate house

This area was sacred as a meeting place of the Roman people long before the Republic. Eventually a permanent structure was built to house the senate, which acted as council to the king. With the overthrow of the last Tarquin by Brutus, the Senate took over the governance of Rome. The first of the Republican Curia buildings was the Curia Hostiliamarker which sat in this area aligned to the points of the compass. An official would announce the time according to the position of the sun between the Rostra and the Lapis Niger at midday and when it was between the Column Maenian and the Basilica Porcia to mark the close of the day. The use of the term curia is directly linked to the comitium and its use as a place of assembly of the people during elections.

The first senate met as a simple council to the Roman king, meeting in an Etruscan temple converted or built for the purpose of gathering the oldest and wisest men of the city. The senate house was refurbished, built over and enlarged several times. Its form is set by the traditions of Roman architecture for such structures. The three-chambered Etruscan temple with large front portico would eventually be replaced by another structure with little, to no front portico. This structure would have a central room that towered above the two outer chambers that buttress the center structure. This would be replaced by Sulla with a simpler building resembling the center structure of the previous building without the two outer chambers and built at larger scale. This single-chambered structure may have been similar to the Curia Julia.

A still larger structure was built and removed within a decade by Caesar. It was built with its front within the templum area of the comitium space.

Republic

The Roman Republic had many victories and many setbacks. The aristocracy tried more and more to restrict power to the few elite classes of political, social and economic favor. The republic expanded its territory and conquered many lands including the ancient Greeks. It is from the comitium that this power was exercised and where ambassadors from all the Roman territories would come and be greeted upon the Graecostasis.

Political upheaval

In 133 BC Tiberius Gracchus was elected Tribune and introduced a bill in the assembly of people that would drastically reduce the amount of state-owned land. He then made an unconstitutional attempt to run for office again. The senate resented the way he went around them and feared he was attempting to grab power for himself as king and murdered Tiberius on election day amid violence that had erupted on the streets led by Scipio Nasica.

The rostra and Gaius Grachus

After the violence of his brother's death, Gaius Gracchus returned to Rome and began to initiate many of his brother's proposals with even more far-reaching legislative goals. Since the Republican era after 338 BC, all political orations were given from a war memorial that was named after the trophies mounted to its side. The rostra (or ship rams, sometimes called "beaks") from the captured ships of the Antiates were displayed on a platform that may have been a gilded wooden structure at its early stage resembling a pulpit. The orator would stand upon the platform on the south end of the comitium and speak towards the north to the Curia Hostilia and the senate. Behind the speaker the crowds of the Forum Romanum would sometimes gather and listen as the politician spoke with his back to the people while addressing the government. During his campaign to change the court system he charged with illegal executions without the consent of the people, Gracchus is infamous for his refusal to stay within tradition and turned away from the senate who he was opposing and spoke directly to the people of Rome assembled outside of the consecrated templum.
Gaius Gracchus is chased through the streets of Rome to his death
The city of Rome went through years of turmoil along with the Republic. Must famous of these inner struggles was between consuls, Sulla against Marius and Cinna. These political civil wars were fought in the senate house, (once having the roof dismantled to use as missiles against the opponents held up inside) the comitium, the rostra and on many of the streets of the city. Both consuls gained and lost control until Marius' death in 86 BC at the age of 70. Sulla then took revenge on the slaughter of his supporters by condemning those in Marius' circle, including a young Julius Caesar, the nephew of Marius' as well as married to Cinna's daughter, Cornelia.

In 55 BC a political war broke out within the city that centered around two factions, Clodius with his followers and his adversary Milo, backed by his supporters. The rostra became a fortress and was more than once used to throw deadly missiles upon the opposing side. On January 2, 52 BC, Clodius died at the hands of the opponents mob near Bovillae, setting off a riot as the Clodius faction carried the body to the comitium and cremated it on a funeral pyre improvised with the senatorial seating from the Curia Hostiliamarker. The fire consumed the curia, destroying it as well as damaging the Basilica Porcia. Faustus Sulla, son of the dictator Sulla was commissioned by the senate to rebuild the curia. It lasted for only seven years until Julius Caesar began his changes.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar was born into the aristocratic patrician family of the Julii on July 12 or 13 around the year 100 BC. The month of July being named after the dictator was previously known as Quintilis. The family was not wealthy or influential at the time of his birth. His father only reached the position of Magistrate. Caesar's rise to power as a military general along with his successful campaigns led to sharing of power within the Republic known as the First triumvirate. The shared power did not last and Caesar took measures to insure his placement as dictator for life. He began many building projects to emulate prior dictators such as Sulla and Marius who had initiated changes within the comitium. One of Caesar's plans was to remove or replace the Rostra Vetera, level the comitium and dismantle the curia and realign it with the new rostra.

An episode that may have contributed to the Liberatores conspiracy against Caesar was on the occasion of the festival of the Lycea, or Lupercalia. Mark Antony, as one of the participants, approached Caesar while he sat in the comitium on the rostra. Antony ceremoniously attempted to place a laurel wreath on Caesar's head. Caesar theatrically refused, and received applause from the people. This was done several times until the wreath was finally placed upon the head of a statue of Caesar which was then immediately torn down by the tribunes of the people who were later removed from their office.

Cicero and Mark Antony

The rostra was held as the highest possible honor to sit upon or to speak from. Cicero remarks on this in reflection of the honor being bestowed upon him in his first contional speech during a debate as praetor. It was the first time Cicero spoke from the rostra. The Philippics became one the most popular writings of the orator. The works marked a return to active politics in 43 BC after a long retirement. In them, he attacked Mark Antony as the greatest threat to republican government after Caesar's death. He wrote of the libertas or freedoms that the citizens of Rome had forfeited under Julius Caesar and violently denounced Mark Antony. He made at least one of these epic speeches from the rostra.

When the conspirators had all been defeated, Augustus had tried but failed to keep Cicero's name off the death list. Eventually Antony wins and has the orator's head and hands displayed on the rostra.

Structures within the comitium

The comitium was open towards the forum. At it's boundary where the monuments and statues recording political events and famous Romans. After the fall of the Republic these memorials were destroyed or moved to the Forum Romanummarker where the emperors began to construct ever larger monuments to themselves.

Graecostasis

There existed another grandstand within the comitium beside the Rostra. Its exact use is debated; however, it is likely that it was used for visiting ambassadors who were forbidden from entering the curia. The graecostasis was located on the west side of the comitium - it may well be placed so those in attendance in the stands could listen to the speakers on the Rostra as well as still face the curia.

Column Maenia

Beside the rostra and the Graecostasis was the Columna Maenia. In 338 BC, Consul Gaius Maenius erected a column that some historians believe to be from the atrium of his home which was sold to Cato and Flaccus as mentioned in Ps.-Asc. Caec. 50. Pliny states that the accensus consulum announced the supremam horam, the time when the sun had moved downward from the Columna Maenia to the Carcer. This was done from the same location as the call for midday, the Curia. The column was south of the place of observation or on a line which passed from the Rostra and Graecostasis.

Statue of Attus Navia and the ficus navia

The space was filled with art and monuments of various historic legends, battles and figures. A statue of Attus Navius and a fig tree associated with the auger stood on the left of the curia steps.

There were four sacred fig trees in the city, three of which were within the forum area. A tree planted near the Temple of Saturnmarker was removed when its root system began undermining a valued statue. In the medio foro a fig tree stood aside an olive tree and a grape vine. Verrius Flaccus, Pliny and Tacitus state that a third tree stood in the comitium near the statue of the auger Attus Navia who, legend says, split a wet stone with a razor in the comitium and transferred the Ficus ruminalis or its sacred importance from the banks of the to the assembly area. Scholars still refer to the ficus navia as the ficus ruminalis while excepting the difference.

The column of Maenian, an honorary column, was also located very close to these monuments. The area is where the dictator Cornelius held his tribunals. A tribunal is depicted on the Anaglypha Traiani (two marble fence panels now displayed in the Curia Julia) along with the ficus navia and statue to the far right on one panel.

Tabula valeria

The Tabula valeria was one of the first public works of its kind in the City. In 263 BC, consul Manius Valerius Maximus Corvinus Messalla placed a painting of his victory over Heiro and the Carthaginians in Sicily, on the side of the ancient curia. Samuel Ball Platner states in his book, The topography and monuments of ancient Rome (1911):

Rostra vetera

The comitium changed after the time of Caesar. The original spot of many of the monuments and statues was altered drastically. One of the biggest changes was to the Rostra Vetera. This structure changed considerably even before 44 BC. It began as two simple monuments, an alter and shrine. It became even more sacred when miraculous events occurred. Milk and blood rained down from the heavens. The location became so sacred that a third platform was built next to the spot allowing even grander events and spectacles.

Basilica Porcia

When the comitium held the same basic purpose that the forum eventually would, the rulers and the senate had built the first basilica of the city in this space.

Mamertine Prison

The Mamertine Prisonmarker is located here and is among the oldest structures in the city.

Curia Hostilia/Cornelia/Julia

The main purpose of the comitium was for elections by the curiate assemblies, while its daily use was incorporated into a city clock, where an announcement of the time of day would be made from the steps or front porch of the Curia Hostilia. It's alignment with the archaic comitium was exactly north to south with the senate house center north. This alignment was kept with all senate buildings until the Curia Julia which took a different alignment with that structures construction.

Empire

The comitium was reduced in size twice in consecutive order by Cornelius Sulla and again by Julius Caesar. The focus shifted to the forum where Caesar and Augustus had moved many of the monuments of the comitium. The equestrian statue of Pompey, was displayed on the new rostra moved by Caesar in 44 BC. Structures were dismantled or relocated and the smaller area was simply built over with the Arch of Septimius Severusmarker and a roadway. The comitium space faded from importance to such a point, that the single most important monument, the vulcanal, slowly faded from memory. As ground levels rose from sedimentary deposits due to flooding, the Lapis Niger, where the king handed over power to the senate, was lost for 2000 years.

Archaeology

Archaeological drawing of the excavations of the comitium in 1899.
This is the current level exposed today
During the Middle Ages artifacts from the ancient Roman civilization sparked curiosity with collectors. Early digging throughout Europe amounted to little more than destructive treasure hunting and grave robbing. Formal archaeology didn't begin in Rome until the 19th century with the foundation of the Instituto di Corrrispondenza and the work of Edward Gerhard. Starting with museums rather than excavation, archaeological work began by studying and cataloguing existing collections as background knowledge for the philological study of antiquity.

A number of German archaeologists joined Gerhard to map out the city of Rome, the forum and the comitium being of great importance as the topographical center. He was joined by Chevalier Bunsen, Earnst Platner, Wilhelm Röstell, B. G. Niebuhr and Friedrich Hoffmann in beginning the book Beschreibung der Stadt Rom in 1817 which was published in 1832. The theories presented did not have full support from their peers. In his book, A dictionary of Greek and Roman geography published in 1854, Sir William Smith remarked:

No major excavation of the site was undertaken until the turn of the century. Previous digs had only uncovered as far back as the late empire. Such was the case in 1870 when later pavements or structures were located and digging was stopped by request for viewing and study and never resumed. In 1898, a committee was established to examine and study the earlier architectural fragments to establish an order for restoration of ancient buildings. It was discovered quickly that new and more detailed excavations would be required. Also in 1898, G. Boni requested tramway in front of the church of Sant'Adriano al Foro be removed. His request was met in October and substantial new funds were made available an extended excavation. In December 1898, excavations began. Between 1899 and 1903 he and his collaborators discovered the Lapis Niger (the "Black Rock") as well as other artifacts while excavating the comitium. During the medieval period the comitium space had been turned into a Christian cemetery and part of the curia made into a catacomb. Consequently, over 400 bodies were unearthed and moved during excavations.

In the American Journal of Archaeology, second series, volume 4 1900, a letter from Samuel Ball Platner was published dated July 1, 1899. In the letter he stated:

Other sites

In 1953 an American excavation at the Roman Latin colony of Cosamarker in modern Tuscany identified the remains of the city's comitium and found rounded amphitheatre steps directly in front of the local senate house. The discovery prompted further excavations in Rome at the site of the comitium space in 1957. Cosa is located northwest of Rome along the coast of Italy. It was established in 237 BC as a military outpost to control territory of the recently conquered Etruscans. The city's port and town features were laid out in the third century BC using regular town plans with intersecting streets at right angles and forum and cult center on the arx.

The site today

Today the site is a major tourist attraction and draws people from all over the world to the city. The current state of the comitium is viewed by many as simply the north west corner of the Forum Romanum. However, the site has been excavated back down to the last stage before being lost to sediment build up from years of flooding and subsequent repaving. The current site seen today is from the last stage of the comitium space. a circular fountain placed in front of the Curia Julia is from the later Imperial age and is several feet above the original level of the curia.

See also



References



Bibliography

Other authors referenced

These books are out of print and have no ISBN number. Their age means some information in the books or journals may have changed or newer theories advanced since the original publication. They are used in this article where information is either the earliest, the original, or the very first works printed on the subject, or where information is still pertinent today.




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