Associations in Ancient Rome

In Ancient Rome, the principle of private association was recognized very early by the state; "sodalitates" for religious purposes are mentioned in the XII Tables [Gaius in "Digest," 47. 22. 4] , and "collegia opificum," or trade guilds,, were believed to have been instituted by Numa Pompilius, which probably means that they were regulated by the "jus divinum" as being associated with particular worships. It is difficult to distinguish between the two words "collegium" and "sodalitas"; but "collegium" is the wider of the two in meaning, and may be used for associations of all kinds, public and private, while "sodalitas" is more especially a union for the purpose of maintaining a cult. Both words indicate the permanence of the object undertaken by the association, while a "societas" is a temporary combination without strictly permanent duties. With the "societates publicanorum" and other contracting bodies of which money-making was the main object, we are not here concerned.

Trade associations

The "collegia opificum" ascribed to Numa [Plutarch "Numa," 17] include guilds of weavers, fullers, dyers, shoemakers, doctors, teachers, painters, etc., as we learn from Ovid, [ Ovid "Fasti," ~ 819 foll.] , where they are described as associated with the cult of Minerva, the deity of handiwork. Plutarch also mentions flute-players, who were connected with the cult of Jupiter on the Capitol, and smiths, goldsmiths, tanners, etc. It would seem that, though these guilds may not have had a religious origin as some have thought, they were from the beginning, like all early institutions, associated with some cult; and in most cases this was the cult of Minerva. In her temple on the Aventine Hill almost all these "collegia" had at once their religious centre and their business headquarters. When during the Second Punic War a guild of poets was instituted, this too had its meeting-place in the same temple. The object of the guild in each case was no doubt to protect and advance the interests of the trade, but on this point we have no sufficient evidence, and can only follow the analogy of similar institutions in other countries and ages. We lose sight of them almost entirely until the age of Cicero, when they reappear in the form of political clubs ("collegia sodalicia" or "compitalicia") chiefly with the object of securing the election of candidates for magistracies by fair or foul means, usually the latter. [see especially Ciciero "pro Flancio," passim] These were suppressed by a "senatusconsultum" in. 64 B.C., revived by Clodius six years later, and finally abolished by Julius Caesar, as dangerous to public order. Probably the old trade guilds had been swamped in the vast and growing population of the city, and these, inferior and degraded both in personnel and objects, had taken their place. But the principle of the trade guild reasserts itself under the Empire, and is found at work in Rome and in every municipal town, attested abundantly by the evidence of inscriptions. Though the right of permitting such associations belonged to the government alone, these trade guilds were recognized by the state as being instituted "ut necessariam operam publicis utilitatibus exhiberent". ["Digest," 50. 6. 6] Every kind of trade and business throughout the Empire seems to have had its "collegium," as is shown by the inscriptions in the "Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum" from any Roman municipal town; and the life and work of the lower orders of the "municipales" are shadowed forth in these interesting survivals. The primary object was no doubt still to protect the trade, but as time went on they tended to become associations for feasting and enjoyment, and more and more to depend on the munificence of patrons elected with the object of eliciting it. Fuller information about them will be found in G Boissier, "La Religion romaine d'Auguste aux Antonins," ii. 286 foll., and S Dill, "Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius," pp. 264 foll. How far they formed a basis or example for the guilds of the early Middle Ages is a difficult question which cannot be answered here (see Guild); it is, however, probable that they gradually lost their original business character, and became more and more associations for procuring the individual, lost as he was in the vast desert of the empire, some little society and enjoyment in life, and the certainty of funeral rites and a permanent memorial after death.

Religious associations

We may now return to the associations formed for the maintenance of cults, which were usually called "sodalitates," though the word "collegium" was also used for them, as in the case of the college of the Arval Brothers (q.v.). Of the ancient "Sodales Titii" nothing is known until they were revived by Augustus; but it seems probable that when a "gens" or family charged with the maintenance of a particular cult had died out, its place was supplied by a "sodalitas". [Marquardt, "Staatsverwaltung," iii. 134] The introduction of new cults also led to the institution of new associations; thus in 495 BC when the worship of Minerva was introduced, a "collegium mercatorum" was founded to maintain it, which held its feast on the "dies natalis" (dedication day) of the temple [Livy ii. 27. 5] ; and in 387 the "ludi Capitolini" were placed under the care of a similar association of dwellers on the Capitoline Hill. In 204 BC when the Magna Mater was introduced from Pessinus a "sodalitas" (or "sodalitates") was instituted which, as Cicero tells us ("de Senect." 3. 45) used to feast together during the "ludi Megalenses." All such associations were duly licensed by the state, which at all times was vigilant in forbidding the maintenance of any which it deemed dangerous for religious or political reasons; thus in 186 BC the senate, by a decree of which part is preserved [C.I.L. i. 43] , made all combination for promoting the Bacchic religious rites strictly illegal. But legalized "sodalitates" are frequent later; the temple of Venus Genetrix, begun by Julius and finished by Augustus, had its "collegium" [Pliny, "N.H." ii. 93] , and "sodalilates" were instituted for the cult of the deified emperors Augustus, Claudius, etc.

We thus arrive by a second channel at the "collegia" of the empire. Both the history of the trade guilds and that of the religious "collegia" or "sodalitates" conduct us by a course of natural development to that extraordinary system of private association with which the empire was honeycombed.

Burial associations

As has been already said of the trade guilds, the main objects of association seem to have been to make life more enjoyable and to secure a permanent burial place; and of these the latter was probably the primary or original one. It was a natural instinct in the classical as in the pre-classical world to wish to rest securely after death, to escape neglect and oblivion. This is not the place to explain the difficulties which the poorer classes in the Roman empire had to face in satisfying this instinct; but since the publication of the "Corpus Inscriptionum" has made us familiar with the conditions of the life of these classes, there can be no doubt that this was always a leading motive in their passion for association. In the year 133 under Hadrian this instinct was recognized by law, i.e. by a "senatusconsultum" which has fortunately come down to us. It was engraved at the head of their own regulations by a collegium instituted for the worship of Diana and Antinous at Lanuvium, and runs thus:

:"Qui stipem menstruam conferre volent in funera, in Id collegiwm coëant, neque sub specie ejus collcgii nisi semel in mense coeant conferendi - causa unde defuncti sepeliantur". ["C.I.L." xiv. 2112]

From the "Digest," 47. 22. I, the "locus classicus" on this subject, we learn that this was a general law allowing the founding of funerary associations, provided that the law against illicit "collegia" were complied with, and it was natural that from that time onwards such "collegia" should spring up in every direction. The inscription of Lanuvium, together with many others (for which see the works of Boissier and Dill already cited), has given us a clear idea of the constitution of these colleges. Their members were as a rule of the humblest classes of society, and often included slaves; from each was due an entrance fee and a monthly subscription, and a funeral grant was made to the heir of each member at his death in order to bury him in the burying-place of the college, or if they were too poor to construct one of their own, to secure burial in a public columbarium.

The instinct of the Roman for organization is well illustrated in the government of these colleges. They were organized on exactly the same lines as the municipal towns of the empire; their officers were elected, usually for a year, or in the case of honorary distinctions, for life; as in a municipal town, they were called "quinquennales, curatores, praefecti," etc., and quaestors superintended the finances of the association. Their place of meeting, if they were rich enough to have one, was called "schola" and answered the purpose of a club-house; the site or the building was often given them by some rich patron, who was pleased to see his name engraved over its doorway. Here we come upon one of those defects in the society of the empire which seem gradually to have sapped the virility of the population — the desire to get others to do for you what you are unwilling or unable to do for yourself.

The "patroni" increased in number, and more and more the colleges acquired the habit of depending on their benefactions, while at the same time it would seem that the primary object of burial became subordinate to the claims of the common weal. It may also be asserted with confidence, as of the Greek clubs, that these "collegia" rarely or never did the work of our benefit clubs, by assisting sick or infirm members; such objects at any rate do not appear in the inscriptions. The only exceptions seem to be the military "collegia", which, though strictly forbidden as dangerous to discipline, continued to increase in number in spite of the law.

The great legionary camps of the Roman province of Africa (Cagnat, "L'Armée romaine," 457 foll.) have left us inscriptions which show not only the existence of these clubs, but the way in which their funds were spent; and it appears that they were applied to useful purposes in the life of a member as well as for his burial, e.g. to traveling expenses, or to his support after his discharge. [see especially "C.I.L." viii. 2552 foll.]


As the Roman empire became gradually impoverished and depopulated, and as the difficulty of defending its frontiers increased, these associations must have been slowly extinguished, and the living and the dead citizen alike ceased to be the object of care and contribution. The sudden invasion of Dacia by barbarians in AD 166 was followed by the extinction of one collegium which has left a record of the fact, and probably by many others. The master of the college of Jupiter Cernenius, with the two quaestors and seven witnesses, attest the fact that the college has ceased to exist. "The accounts have been wound up, and no balance is left in the chest. For a long time no member has attended on the days fixed for meetings, and no subscriptions have been paid" (Dill, op. cit. p. 285). The record of similar extinctions in the centuries that followed, were they extant, would show us how this interesting form of crystallization, in which the well-drilled people of the empire displayed an unusual spontaneity, gradually melted away and disappeared.

Besides the works already cited may be mentioned Mommsen, "De Collegiis et Sodaliciis" (1843), which laid the foundation of all subsequent study of the subject; Marquardt, "Staatsverwaltung," iii. 134 foIl.; de Marchi, "Il culto privato di Roma antica," ii. 75 foll.; Kornemann, s. v. "Collegium" in
Pauly-Wissowa, "Realencyclopädie."

External links

* [ The Lanuvium Inscription]


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