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LICTOR (in Greek writers, ραβδοῦχος or ραβδοφόρος), an attendant upon certain magistrates and other persons discharging official duties at Rome and in the provinces. Their name has been derived by many (following Plutarch, Plut. Rom. 26) from ligare; but apart from the difficulty of the form of the word for ligator, it is clear that binding was not the most ordinary duty of the lictor, nor the duty most likely to confer the name. Though Corssen favours the derivation from licium, “a girdle” (see Gel. 12.3), it is far more probable that the word comes from licere, “to summon,” and that their original function was to summon assemblies: if so, the lictores curiatii (see below) probably represent the oldest class of lictors; though the title “summoner” might also refer to the magisterial vocatio through a lictor. We have, however, no account of their first institution, but find them mentioned in the earliest times of the monarchy. Livy (1.8), laying stress on the favourite Etruscan number twelve, derives the office from Etruria, and Müller endorses this opinion, in which, however, as Professor Seeley in his note on that passage observes, no great confidence can be placed, since there was a tendency to ascribe all ancient institutions to Etruria. Virgil (Aen. 7.173) might be quoted against it, when he gives “primos attollere fasces” of the early Latin kings; but that [p. 2.65]is merely a synonym for regnum excipere, and it would be absurd to give it any antiquarian authority. All that can be said is, that this attendance was in earliest times “insigne regium” (Liv. 3.36; Dionys. A. R. 10.59), in the same way as the breaking of the fasces was a sign of rebellion or deposition (Liv. 2.55; D. C. 59.29). It is necessary to distinguish two kinds of lictors: (1) lictores qui magistratibus (or Caesari) apparent; (2) lictores qui sacris publicis apparent. Both are handed down from the kingly times, inasmuch as the king held also priestly office, and it is impossible to say which class is the older; but the attendants on magistrates are certainly the more important. They were the outward mark of authority: they were not sent for on special occasions, but attended the magistrate like his shadow: if he is at home, they are in his vestibule (Liv. 39.2); if he goes to the rostra, they precede him (Liv. 23.23); when he takes his seat on the tribunal, they stand by him (Cic. Cluent. 53,147); when he pays a visit, the lictor knocks for his admission (Liv. 6.34; Mart. 8.66; Juv. 3.128). The sovereignty of the people is admitted by the lictors lowering the fasces when the consul comes to the contio (Liv. 2.7; Plut. Pop. 10), and Plutarch says the custom remained to his own time. (Cicero calls this “the insolence of liberty:” de Rep. 2.31, 53.) So also, if a magistrate of lower rank met a superior, his lictors lowered the fasces, or, if with imperium, removed their axes; as Dionysius mentions, when he tells the story of Coriolanus ordering this to be done as a mark of respect to his mother. The magistrate must, however, dismiss his lictors when he enters the territory of an allied independent state. We find in Tacitus (Tac. Ann. 2.53), Germanicus with one lictor at Athens; but that this is allowed him as an accensus, not as a sign of proconsulare imperium, is clear, for if it had been his sign of office he would have had twelve.

The lictors bore fasces with axes, to show that the king or magistrate had the power of life and death. Therefore this distinction belonged to the dictator, from whom there was no appeal; to a commander in the field; and in older times to consuls, before the Valerian law of provocatio (Cic. Rep. 2.31, 55): and the withdrawal of the axes showed the withdrawal of summary jurisdiction or martial law. The axes were allowed also to consuls in the triumph, because they still held the imperium, and in processus consularis (Claud. Prob. et Olybr. 232). The lictors actually carried out the sentence of death under the old system, for all Roman citizens who were condemned, so long as the execution was in the hands of the Quaestores Parricidii or Duumviri Perduellionis, as representatives for this purpose of the consul (see articles on these offices): but, when executions were controlled by tribunes and aediles, who were not attended by lictors, the death sentence was carried out either by the tribune or aedile in person or by a carnifex. The carnifex seems, too (probably after the appointment of Tres viri capitales), under the Republic, to have taken the place of the lictor for execution even of citizens: such, at least, would be the natural inference from the description in Suet. Cl. 34, “Quum spectare antiqui moris supplicium concupisset et deligatis ad palam noxiis carnifex deesset,” &c. On active service the execution under martial law naturally belonged to the lictors (Liv. 4.29; 28.29, &c.). The ordinary duty of the lictors in the city was submovere turbam, i.e. to make the people give way to the magistrate, and to disperse any crowd which might interfere with the business in hand (cf. Hor. 2.16, 9). This duty was heralded by the cry animadvertite, i.e. “pay due observance to the magistrate” (Suet. Jul. 80). Pliny speaks of this as “sollennis ille lictorum et praenuntius clamor.” From Liv. 24.44, it would appear that the technical word animadvertere was also used of the lictor noticing and reproving disrespect, unless (which would make better sense) the word jubere is added there. The lictors are also the instruments of the magistrate for vocatio, i.e. the summons of any citizen who offends; whereas tribunes, as being without lictors, could only arrest by their own hand, or their viator, but could not summon (Varro, ap. Gel. 13.12); and resistance to a lictor was equivalent to resistance to the magistrate.

As regards the number of lictors allowed to different offices, the king was attended by twelve; though Mommsen (Staatsrecht, i.3 343) suspects from the words decuriae and decem primi used of lictors, that the number 12 superseded an original number 10. Twelve, at any rate, is the number given by Cicero, Rep. 2.17, 31; Liv. 1.8; and others. Appian is the only writer who (B.C. 1.100) says twenty-four, thinking perhaps of the dictator, and he is inconsistent in this (see Appian, App. Syr. 15). As the consuls originally performed the regular duties of administration by turns on alternate months, so the officiating consul was attended by twelve lictors, the other only by an accensus (Liv. 2.1; Cic. Rep. 2.31, 55). Similarly, as the decemvirs held office each for a day in turn, the decemvir of the day had twelve lictors, the others an accensus each (Liv. 3.33). It appears, however, from Suet. Jul. 20, that at some time the custom came in of an accensus preceding the consul out of office, while twelve lictors followed him. There can be no doubt that the state of the consular military tribunes was regulated by the same principle as that of the decemvirs.

The dictator had twenty-four (Plb. 3.87; D. C. 54.1; Appian, App. BC 1.100). Yet Livy (Ep. 89) says that Sulla was the first so to appear: perhaps, as Mommsen suggests, the dictator was attended by twenty-four only without the city, and Sulla's innovation consisted in his using them also within it. The magister equitum, nominated by the dictator, had six lictors (D. C. 42.47; 43.48), and the same number was assigned to the praefectus urbi nominated by Caesar in his dictatorship (Dio Cass. l.c.). Two belonged to the praetor at Rome (Censorin. 23.3; Cic. de Leg. Agr. 2.3. 4, 93); six to the praetors in the provinces (Appian, App. Syr. 15; Cic. Ver. 5.54, 142), whence Polybius constantly terms the praetor στρατηγὸς ἑξαπέλεκυς, and, treating it merely as a synonym for the magistrate, uses this adjective to express even the praetor at Rome (Plb. 33.1). (Under the Empire, however, the praetor at Rome actually had six lictors: Mart. 11.98, 15.) Proconsuls outside Rome had twelve under the Republic, as would belong to those who acted [p. 2.66]as consuls; and those of Africa and Asia, at any rate, had the same number in the earlier Empire. Ulpian (Dig. 1, 16, 44), however, speaks of the limitation to six for proconsuls. Six was certainly the number for propraetors, but five only for a quaestor or legatus pro praetore (Cic. Att. 10.4, 9); and for Augustus's time a propraetor who was the imperial legatus pro praetore had only five, and was called quinquefascalis.

The emperors had twelve lictors to the time of Domitian, to whom twenty-four were assigned (D. C. 54.10; 67.4), but in the later Empire the attendance of lictors gradually fell into disuse. It marks the importance of the curatores viarum under the Empire, that in their office they had two lictors.

As to the status of the lictors, they are ranked before viatores and praecones, but after scribae and accensi (Cic. Ver. 3.66, 153; ad Q. F. 1.1, 4; Orelli, C.I. 4109). From Tacitus, 13.27, we learn that most lictors were freedmen; whether it was so in republican times it is impossible to say: in Liv. 2.55 they are spoken of as belonging to the plebs; it is clear that at Rome, whether freeborn or not, they were always free. In the provinces it appears from Gellius, 10.3, that sometimes at least they were taken from the class of reduced Italians called Bruttiani. At Rome there was a community of three decuriae of lictors under ten directors (decem primi).

In Rome they wore the toga, which, one would gather from Gellius l.c. and from Plut. Rom. 26, was girded with the licium or limus; but Mommsen observes that ancient representations of lictors do not show them with any girdle, and that the limus belonged rather to servi publici. Outside Rome they wore the red sagulum (Sil. 9.20), and at triumphs naturally also the same war-dress (Appian, App. Pun. 61, calls it χιτὼν θοινικόεις): at funerals, black (Hor. Ep. 1.7, 5). The fasces, tied with a red strap, were held in the left hand and carried on the left shoulder: at funerals they were carried reversed (Tac. Ann. 3.2; cf. Verg. A. 2.45); the fasces wreathed with laurel (laureati) in the Republic marked the magistrate who had been saluted as a victorious imperator, and under the Empire distinguished the imperial lictors.


The lictors always walked in single file (cf. V. Max. 2.2.4; Liv. xxiv 44) before the magistrate in office, whence the last in order, who was the principal lictor, was called proximus (Cic. Div. 1.2. 8, 59; Verr. 5.54, 142; Tac. Hist. 3.80), but perhaps also primus (Cic. ad Q. F. 1.1, 7); and ἡγούμενος (Appian, App. BC 5.55) may have the same meaning, applied to rank, not order of march.

Coin representing the children of Brutus led to death by Lictors.

(2) Lictores curiatii (not curiati, as may be seen from Inscriptions: see Mommsen, Staatsrecht, i.3 p. 389) were employed originally to summon the Comitia Curiata. Of these there were thirty, according to the number of the curiae; and, when the meeting of the Comitia Curiata became a mere form, it was represented by the thirty lictores curiatii (Cic. Leg. Agr. 2.1. 2, 31). Ovid (Ov. Fast. 2.23) speaks of lictors used in sacred rites, whom Mommsen with some probability takes to be lictores curiatii; and he also suggests the possibility that they acted as flamines curiales. They attended specially on the Pontifex Maximus, probably the same number (ten or twelve) as had belonged to the king; and they are called “lictores curiatii qui sacris publicis adparent.” The Flamen Dialis was attended by one of these lictors (Plut. Quaest. Rom. 93); as was also any Vestal who appeared in public (Plut. Num. 10): a similar distinction was granted to widows of emperors, as though they were priestesses of a deified husband (Tac. Ann. 13.2; note the refusal of it by Tiberius, Ann. 1.14). These lictores curiatii were constituted as a separate decuria (C. I. L. 14.296).

(3) Lictors were specially assigned to attend for the time on the givers of games who had not otherwise the right to lictors: as, for instance, in funeral games (Cic. Legg. 2.2. 4, 61); perhaps originally because givers of games were so constantly of magisterial rank that lictors became a customary part of the spectacle; or the public function conveyed the temporary magisterial rank.

(4) In the games of the Vicomagistri there were two lictores populares denuntiatores, who belonged to separate decuria, to attend upon them (D. C. 55.8, cf. Liv. 34.7; Ascon. in Pison. 7; and see article COMPITALIA). The origin of the name denuntiator may be gathered from “ludicrum denuntiare” (Liv. 45.32).

As regards the attendance of lictores atri at a funeral (Hor. Ep. 1.7, 5), it must be understood that this can be said only of great funerals, having a more or less public character, when either the deceased himself was of magisterial rank and his own lictors attended, or where funeral games were given, and there were therefore lictors assigned (cf. Cic. Legg. 2.2. 4, 61).

(For full information respecting lictors, see Mommsen, Staatsrecht, 1.374 ff.)


hide References (49 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (49):
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 10.4
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 10.9
    • Appian, Punic Wars, 9.61
    • Appian, Syrian Wars, 3.15
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 1.11.100
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 5.6.55
    • Polybius, Histories, 33.1
    • Polybius, Histories, 3.87
    • Cicero, Against Verres, 2.5.142
    • Cicero, Against Verres, 2.3.153
    • Cicero, On the Agrarian Law, 2.1.2
    • Cicero, On the Agrarian Law, 2.3.4
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 2, 1
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 2.45
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 20
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 80
    • Tacitus, Annales, 3.2
    • Tacitus, Annales, 13.2
    • Tacitus, Annales, 2.53
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 3.80
    • Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 34
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 39, 2
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 3, 33
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 6, 34
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 24, 44
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 28, 29
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 23, 23
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 45, 32
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 1, 8
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 2, 55
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 2, 7
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 3, 36
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 4, 29
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 34, 7
    • Cicero, De Legibus, 2.2
    • Cicero, De Republica, 2.31
    • Cicero, De Divinatione, 1.2
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 13.12
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 10.3
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 12.3
    • Plutarch, Numa, 10
    • Plutarch, Romulus, 26
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 11.15
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 11.98
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 8.66
    • Horace, Epistulae, 1.5
    • Horace, Epistulae, 1.7
    • Ovid, Fasti, 2
    • Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia, 2.2.4
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