Republican Rostra



Übersicht

  • Republikanische Rostra in der Frühen Republik (um 450 v.Chr.), topographischer Überblick
  • Republikanische Rostra in der Mittleren Republik (um 300 v.Chr.), topographischer Überblick
  • Republikanische Rostra in der Mittleren Republik (um 250 v.Chr.), topographischer Überblick
  • Republikanische Rostra in der Späten Republik (um 100 v.Chr.), topographischer Überblick
  • Republikanische Rostra in nachsullanischer Zeit (um 70 v.Chr.), topographischer Überblick
  • Frührepublikanische Rostra (frühes 5. Jh. v.Chr.)
  • Mittelrepublikanische Rostra (338 v.Chr.)
  • Mittelrepublikanische Rostra (3. Jh. v.Chr.)
  • Sullanische Rostra (82-80 v.Chr.)

Constructed: initially during the Monarchy

Alterations: several modifications were made to it during the Republic; in 44 B.C. the Comitium was abandoned and the Rostra relocated

Function: prestigious dedication, space for political decision-making, speaker's platform

Historical Context: Late Republic I Late Republic II


The beginnings of the Comitium in the northwest corner of the Forum can be traced back to the earlies period of Roman history. As the location of the Vulcanal, the sanctuary for the fire god Vulcan, this area was an important cultic centre from the beginning of Rome’s urban development. Under the protection of Vulcan, the Council of Elders (Senate) and the citizenry (People’s Assembly) gathered here even during the monarchic period, each in their respective assembly place: the Curia for the Senate and the Comitium for the People’s Assembly. As the Roman Republic was being established in the early 5th century B.C., the Forum transformed into a square that had to meet the needs of the new the political system. Just like the Curia, the Comitium gained new meaning as the central space for political decision-making and communication. The area south of the Comitium was dominated by a speaker’s platform (the Rostra [plural]), where Roman politicians and famous speakers such as Cicero or Caesar addressed the people. At the north side the Curia was situated adjacent to and slightly higher than the Comitium.

History and Function

The Comitium, just like the Curia, is an ideal example of how closely architectural and political history are interwoven. In order to make this claim more easily comprehensible, the history of the area has to be laid out in greater detail before moving on to the individual construction phases (for the individual phases, see below).

Monarchy

When the Etruscan kings ruled Rome (end of the 7th – end of the 6th century B.C.), there must have been an official gathering place for the citizenry where the kings could present themselves before the people and make announcements. In the literary sources the erection of the Comitium is most often attributed to the third king, Tullus Hostilius. An important piece of evidence that indicates the usage of this area as a gathering place during the Regal Period is an “inscription stone” (cippus) from the 6th century B.C. Excavated from its original location within the area of the Comitium, the stone has a ritual law engraved on it. Because the text mentions the king’s title (lat. rex) and a crier (lat. calator), it is likely that this law directly pertains to the gatherings that occurred here at the Vulcanal and gave the king the opportunity to address his subjects.

Republic

After the downfall of the last king at the turn of the 5th century B.C., the political system of Rome was established as a republic. The political institutions of the Senate and the People’s Assembly (and thereby their institutional structures as well) became all the more important as places of political decision-making. In the case of the Comitium, its increasing significance is manifest only in the construction of a speaker’s platform.

While in the Curia policies were shaped behind closed doors and the participation in this political decision-making process was reserved for the senators, the Comitium was the most important space in the public political life of the Roman people. The people were tasked with voting for magistrates in complicated election procedures. Furthermore, it was the duty of the People’s Assembly to pass legislation by votes. These laws were inscribed on special tablets placed near the Comitum so that the whole citizenry could see them.

In the second half of the 4th century B.C., when a new nobility began to establish itself, the speaker’s platform was eventually used as a stage where individual politicians and generals could represent themselves and their political agendas. In 338 B.C. the consul C. Maenius was the first person to display naval rams (rostra) – in this case from the defeated fleet of the insurgent city of Antium – on the speaker’s platform as a symbolic demonstration of his victory. This practice gave the name “Rostra” to the speaker’s platform. The victorious general Maenius was celebrated again by the Senate with a column erected in his honour near the Comitium (Columna Maenia).

The hellenisation of the Roman cityscape between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C. also brought about a number of structural changes to the Forum Romanum (see Late Republic II). In the 2nd century B.C. big multifunctional halls were erected at the edges of the Forum. They were later used for judiciary trials (see Basilica Sempronia/Iulia and Basilica Fulvia/Paulli), among other things, which had previously taken place in the Comitium. Even the appearance of the Comitium seems to have been “hellenised” during the 3rd century B.C. Roman architecture now incorporated round tiered structures, just like the assembly spaces in the Hellenistic Greek tradition. Accordingly, the Comitium received a new curved speaker’s platform, probably (some scholars have argued) after the actual building acquired a new circular form. This architectural configuration can also be observed in the assembly spaces of Roman colonies in Italy.

While Rome was extending its territory and prosperity, the number of inhabitants in the city grew immensely. The Comitium was no longer suitable as an assembly place: it was too small. As a result, people gathered not only in the Comitium but at the open area behind it. This development reached its peak when the orators speaking on the Rostra began to turn to the open area (starting in the middle of the 2nd century B.C.) and to address the people facing southwards, not northwards.

Nevertheless, the old assembly space of the Roman citizenry did not lose its representational purpose. More and more honorific statues were erected in the area of the Comitium and the Rostra. These statues refer to a myriad of important historical events within Rome’s history – thus the Comitium, with its speaker’s platform, gradually developed in to a central place of historical-cultural remembrance for the Roman Republic. Given the significance of the Comitium, the alterations made to the area in the 1st century B.C. seem all the more drastic.

Sulla

When Sulla was appointed dictator between 82 and 80 B.C., with the task of restoring peace within the Roman state after the civil war, he doubled the number of senators to 600. As a result, the old Curia Hostilia had to be expanded. Contemporary authors report that the extension of the new Sullan Curia (so-called Curia Cornelia) led to the destruction of some parts of the Comitium. However, this should not be interpreted as a political rejection of the People’s Assembly. Rather, the space that the Comitium provided was simply not sufficient to hold the masses that gathered on the Forum. Starting in the 2nd century B.C. the orators on the Rostra no longer faced northwards, toward the middle of the Comitium, but southwards, facing the open Forum, where a much larger crowd could congregate. Hence the Comitium became increasingly unusable as an assembly space (even before Sulla), making structural alterations more viable.

Caesar and Augustus 

Caesar increased the number of senators yet again, this time to 900. Thus it was necessary to modify the Curia’s architecture. Caesar not only extended it structurally, but relocated it to the northwest corner of the Forum (its location at the present day). What motivated his decision to place the Curia in this exact spot was the construction of the Forum Iulium, which was connected to the northwest corner of the Forum Romanum. Together with the Forum Iulium, the Curia Iulia (which was orientated towards the former) was supposed to form an architectural complex. This new structure was built over large parts of the Comitium. Moreover, Caesar had abandoned the old Rostra and relocated the speaker’s platform to the west side of the Forum (Rostra Caesaris).

All these measures were initiated by Caesar but could not be fully carried out, interrupted by his death in 44 B.C. (Only the new Rostra were built before his death.) His political heir and adoptive son, Augustus, completed Caesar’s construction projects but also widened their scope. A rectangular structure was placed in front of the Rostra at the west side of the Forum, and the area of the Comitium was used to house monuments alluding to Rome’s mythical past.

This is also where the Lapis niger was situated, a special kind of square paving made of black marble plates. This group of plates was integrated into the surrounding paving and marked this place as a significant area (the area was additionally demarcated through a parapet). Beneath this paved area lies the old destroyed sanctuary of Vulcan. Evidence suggests that this architectural demarcation constituted a reaction to the highly problematic destruction of a sacral place. Scholars do not agree whether the destruction of the sanctuary and the completion of the first Lapis niger date back to Sulla or Caesar. Augustus certainly approved of the Lapis niger and had it redesigned, at the time when the Comitium received a new kind of paving. Already in antiquity different rumours were widespread about the meaning of these stone plates. Some ancient writers interpreted the Lapis niger as a place that marked the tomb (which supposedly lay beneath it) of Rome’s founder Romulus. Other writers made similar connections to individuals from Rome’s early period, e.g. by claiming that the tomb of the Roman king Hostius Hostilius resided here.

Possibly Augustus received an honorary arch for his victory at Actium in 31. B.C. in the area of the old Comitium. Scholarly research has not yet been able ascertain a secure location for this arch, but several factors indicate that a prestigious monument of Augustus occupied this area (see Actian Arch). The Arch of Septimius Severus, which was later built there and is still visible at the north-west corner of the excavation site at the present day, attests to the long-standing attractiveness of this location.

Later Imperial Period, Tetrarchy and Late Antiquity

During the subsequent centuries of the Roman Imperial Period the significance of the Comitium was overshadowed by the open Forum area, which usurped the purpose of the old Comitium as the assembly place for the Roman citizens. Little is known about what happened to the area of the Comitium afterwards. Perhaps Augustus transformed it into a “place of mythical remembrance”. Not until a later period, when the Forum was reshaped under the Tetrarchs and their successors, was the Comitium rediscovered and revitalised as an important space for the representation of the Emperors and city prefects (see Tetrarchic epoch).

Location and Reconstruction

The Comitium was situated at the north-west corner of the Forum area, south of the Forum Iulium, the Curia Hostilia/Cornelia and the later Curia Iulia. Together with the Curia and the Rostra it constituted the most important political architectural complex in the city of Rome. Especially the speaker’s platform, which belonged to the Comitium, was constantly being rebuilt and reshaped during the centuries in which it was used. These changes were always directly related to the historical episodes of the time.

In spite of the fact that archaeologists have been unable to verify anything about the Comitium’s architecture, many scholars believe that the original appearance of the Comitium bears close resemblances to Greek Ekklesiasteria, which housed the People’ Assemblies in Greece and were set up as circular theatre-like structures. We know that several such round tiered structures existed in the Greek cities in Lower Italy and Sicily, where the Romans were first confronted with the urban architecture of the Greeks. Some scholars have suggested that these structures served as a prototype for the reshaping of the Comitium, set against the background of the increasing hellenisation of Republican Rome. Because there is no evidence that these round Ekklesiastra possessed speaker’s platforms, most scholars base their reconstruction of the Comitium (of the city of Rome) on other comitia that were located in Roman colonies in Italy, such as in Cosa or Paestum. This comparison seems methodologically plausible, because the Comitium and the Curia formed a close architectural complex in these early Roman colonies – just as it is the case for the Comitium and the Curia in Rome. It is reasonable to assume such close interconnections, because Rome acted as role model, whose urban architecture seemed to have had a direct impact on the architecture of the colonies.

Investigations into preceding structural archetypes and comparable buildings are motivated by the fact that the Comitium in Rome has, to a large extent, not been excavated. In addition, the Arch of Septimius Severus and the church Santi Luca e Martina were built over the area of the Comitium (for images of the area at the present day, see below). Until now the only solid piece of evidence is a segment of the Rostra. As a result the reconstruction of the Comitium remains an issue that is heatedly debated within scholarship. Thus, a critical reconstruction must be based on a number of factors: the segments of the Rostra that have been excavated so far; further evidence extracted from the area of the Comitium which lies to the north of the actual building; comparisons with structures found in other Italian colonies; the examination of different literary sources.

(JB)

Phase 1

  • Republikanische Rostra in der Frühen Republik (um 450 v.Chr.), topograph. Überblick
  • Frührepublikanische Rostra (frühes 5. Jh. v.Chr.)
  • Frührepublikanische Rostra (frühes 5. Jh. v.Chr.)


Monarchy

The appearance of the assembly during the Monarchy must remain a matter of speculation. Geological evidence suggests that there was a natural rise in the area where the Comitium was later to be built. The area was well-suited for communal assemblies, because it was composed of firm tuff (Capellaccio), while the surrounding sediments were successively washed out. Eventually this natural mound in the area of the Comitium was removed, in order to then build the Vulcanal upon it. The only things archaeologically accounted for within this time period are a tamped floor together with the first traces of the sanctuary and the famous inscription stone.

Phase 2

  • Republikanische Rostra in der Mittleren Republik (um 300 v.Chr.), topograph. Überblick
  • Republikanische Rostra in der Mittleren Republik (um 250 v.Chr.), topograph. Überblick
  • Mittelrepublikanische Rostra (338 v.Chr.)
  • Mittelrepublikanische Rostra (338 v.Chr.)


Republic

The first structural developments in the area of the Comitium probably occurred after the downfall of the kings and the establishment of the Republican system in the early 5th century B.C. Because the People’s Assembly was becoming increasingly more important, a suitable space had to be found where elections could be held. At the time, a stepped structure was built, which was used as a speaker’s platform; its initial form was rectangular, not curved. This stepped structure could be accessed from the north, i.e. from the area of the Comitium, where the eponymous naval rams (lat. rostra) were displayed in 338 B.C.

In the 3rd century B.C. a minor alteration was made to the Comitium. This has been proven for the area of the speaker’s platform and has generated a variety of interpretations within scholarly research: The platform, which had initially been rectangular, was converted into a round and more highly elevated speaker’s platform, which could be accessed from the north side by ascending several steps. The curved Rostra were subsequently expanded and slightly elevated. These modifications are dated differently within archaeological research. Another controversial issue is whether or not the modifications to the Rostra were part of a more wide-ranging restructuring of the Comitium resulting in the circular arrangement of the whole complex. The scarcity of the evidence has led to a variety of claims and reconstructions within research, which compare the Comitium with a variety of structures. A popular hypothesis maintains that the Comitium of the city of Rome was a round structure, analogous to the comitia in the Roman colonies in Italy. This structural form was developed in the course of the hellenisation of Rome in the late 4th / 3rd century B.C. and then exported from Rome into the colonies. Due to the occurrence of numerous problems while experimenting with this idea in our model, this reconstruction does not seem convincing, which is why we have discarded it. In turn, we put forward a more simplistic reconstruction of the Comitium, where a merely curved segment of the speaker’s platform faces southwards and a slightly elevated assembly area faces northwards – in the vein of the reconstructions that some scholars have suggested.

Phase 3

  • Republikanische Rostra in der Mittleren Republik (um 250 v.Chr.), topograph. Überblick
  • Mittelrepublikanische Rostra (3. Jh. v.Chr.)
  • Mittelrepublikanische Rostra (3. Jh. v.Chr.)


Sulla

Sulla’s involvement in the constructional development of the Comitium is well documented in the literary sources reporting on the restoration of the Curia Hostilia (see above). The expansion of the old Curia Hostilia also brought about further alterations to the Comitium. It was possible to expand the new Curia towards the south, because the original Comitium had lost its significance due to the fact that the communal gatherings had shifted to the open Forum area. The building of the new Curia protruded into the area of the old Comitium. The Rostra, however, remained in its place and probably underwent no structural changes,

The literary sources are primarily concerned with the monuments on the Comitium and show much less interest in the exact structural changes of the overall structure: Thus, for example, the old statutes of Alcibiades and Pythagoras, which stood somewhere at the borders of the Comitium, had to be removed.

It is possible that Sulla had the sanctuary situated next to the speaker’s platform torn down and the place of the old, destroyed sanctuary marked with black paving (the first Lapis niger). Because the exact sequencing of the excavated layers of the paving is a controversial issue, this structural alteration is also sometimes attributed to Caesar.

After a destructive fire in 52 B.C. the so-called Curia Cornelia had to be rebuilt by Faustus Sulla, the son of the dictator Sulla. However, it remains unclear how much of these restoration measures were actually carried out, because Caesar was to have different plans for the Curia shortly afterwards. It is hard to judge to what extent the area of the Comitium and the Rostra, with its monuments, were affected by this catastrophe and the subsequent construction measures.

Phase 4

  • Republikanische Rostra in nachsullanischer Zeit (um 70 v.Chr.), topograph. Überblick
  • Sullanische Rostra (82-80 v.Chr.)
  • Sullanische Rostra (82-80 v.Chr.)


Caesar and Augustus

It appears that the Comitium lost its original purpose entirely during the second half of the 1st century B.C. The judicial trials had long since been removed to the open Forum area and later took place in the adjoining basilicas; similarly, for quite some time the elections had been held on the Campus Martius, not in the Comitium. Against this backdrop, the relocation of the Rostra to the west side of the Forum area under the rule of Caesar seems like a logical consequence of this overall development and indicates the end of the period in which the Comitium was used as an assembly space. It is very unlikely that the area remained unused at later periods of time, given that Caesar, Augustus and their successors had construction projects for nearly every area of the Forum. It is possible that the Actian Arch was erected here and that the Arch of Septimius Severus was later built over it.

Phase 5

  • Republikanische Rostra unter dem kaiserzeitlichen Comitium, heutiges Erscheinungsbild


Tetrarchy and Late Antiquity

Ever since its reconfiguration under Caesar and Augustus, the area of the Comitium remained almost completely unaltered during the following centuries of the Imperial Period. The Comitium was overshadowed by the open Forum area, which attained significance as the new assembly space and was itself visually separated from the Comitium because of the position of the streets. The Comitium was unable to regain its central standpoint within the topography of the Forum. However, this situation changed in the course of the alterations made to the Forum in the Tetrarchy and Late Antiquity. At that time, the north-south-axis, running from the Curia and the Rostra Augusti, was accentuated far more strongly than the east-west-axis of the original Forum area (see Tetrarchic epoch). Thus, the area of the Comitium was able to regain some of its former prominence as a stage for political self-representation. The erection of numerous statues during the Tetrarchy and Late Antiquity attest to the fact that this area had recovered some of its original attractiveness.

Phase 6

Ruins

A more detailed discussion and scholarly reconstruction can be found in the wiki of the digital Forum Romanum (Jessica Bartz, Henriette Engel, Sophie Horacek)

 

Selected Bibliography

A.J. Ammermann, The Comitium in Rome from the beginning, American Journal of Archaeology 100, 1996, 121-136.

P. Carafa, Il comizio di Roma dalle origini all’età di Augusto (Rome 1998).

F. Coarelli, Il comizio dalle origine alla fine della repubblica. Cronologia e topografia, La parola del passato 32, 1977, 166-238.

F. Coarelli, Il Foro Romano I. Periodo Arcaico (Rome 1983) 119-174.

F. Coarelli, Comitium, in: E.M. Steinby (ed.), Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae I (Rome 1993) 309-314.

Digital Roman Forum, Niger Lapis, http://dlib.etc.ucla.edu/projects/Forum/reconstructions/NigerLapis_1

K. S. Freyberger, Das Forum Romanum. Spiegel der Stadtgeschichte des antiken Rom (Mainz 2009), 27-30.

E. Gjerstad, Il comizio romano dell’età repubblicana, Skrifter utgivna av Svenska institutet i Rom. Opuscula archaeologica 2, 1941, 97-158.

E. Gjerstad, Early Rome 3. Fortifications, domestic architecture, sanctuaries, stratigraphic excavations (Lund 1960) 217-259.

Cl. Krause, Zur baulichen Gestalt des republikanischen Comitium, Römische Mitteilungen 83, 1976, 31-69.

E.M. Lackner, Republikanische Fora (München 2008) 260-265.

S. Muth, Historische Dimensionen des gebauten Raumes. Das Forum Romanum als Fallbeispiel, in: O. Dally – T. Hölscher – S. Muth – R. Schneider (ed.), Medien der Geschichte – Antikes Griechenland und Rom (Berlin – New York 2014) 285-329 (304-310).

S. Muth – H. Schulze, »Wissensformen des Raums: die schmutzigen Details des Forum Romanum« – Archäologie & Sound Studies im Dialog, in: CZ #55, 10.3.2014, 7-11 (8-10).

E. Petersen, Comitium. Rostra. Grab des Romulus (Rome 1904).

G. Pinza, Il Comizio Romano nella eta’ repubblicana ed i suoi monumenti, Annali della Societt degli ingegneri e degli architetti italiani fasc. 2, 1905, 1-58.

S. B. Platner – Th. Ashby, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (London 1929) 134-137.

M. Sehlmeyer, Stadtrömische Ehrenstatuen der republikanischen Zeit (Stuttgart 1999) passim.

B. Steinmann – R. Nawracala – M. Boss, Im Zentrum der Macht. Das Forum Romanum im Modell (Erlangen-Nürnberg 2011).

E.B. van Deman, The Sullan Forum, The Journal of Roman Studies 12, 1922, 1-31.