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.