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Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Lictors: Symbols of order in the Roman world

A lictor (possibly from Latin: ligare, "to bind") was a Roman civil servant who was an attendant and bodyguard to a magistrate who held imperium. Lictors are documented since the Roman Kingdom, and may have originated with the Etruscans. Lictors were instituted by Rome's first king, Romulus, who appointed 12 lictors to attend him. Livy refers to two competing traditions for the reason that Romulus chose that number of lictors. The first version is that 12 was the number of birds that appeared in the augury, which had portended the kingdom to Romulus. The second version, favoured by Livy, is that the number of lictors was borrowed from the Etruscan kings, who had one lictor appointed from each of their 12 states. 

Originally, lictors were chosen from the plebs, but through most of Roman history, they seemed to have been freedmen. Centurions from the legions were also automatically eligible to become lictors on retirement from the army.  Lictors were exempted from military service, received a fixed salary (of 600 sesterces, in the beginning of the Empire), and were organized in a corporation. Usually, they were personally chosen by the magistrate they were supposed to serve, but it is also possible that they were drawn by lots.  Lictors were associated with Comitia Curiata and, probably, one was originally selected from each curia, since there were originally 30 curiae and 30 lictors (24 for the two consuls and six for the sole praetor).  

A Vestal Virgin was accorded a lictor when her presence was required at a public ceremony.  These lictors, however, were known as lictor curiatus.  They did not carry rods or fasces as their main tasks were religious.  There were approximately 30 of them, serving at the command of the Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of Rome. They were present at sacrifices where they carried or guided sacrificial animals to the altars. During the Imperial Period, women of the royal family were usually followed by two of these lictors.  They were also tasked with summoning the Comitia Curiata (the Public Assembly) and to maintain order during its procedures.

Image: Statuette of a Roman lictor , Bronze, 1st century CE that I photographed at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009.

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