- Koenraad Verboven
Voluntary associations are attested already in early republican times, but they became important especially during the late Republic. Their role in street politics in the 1st century bce led to a general ban and lasting imperial apprehension. Yet by the mid-2nd century ce, important collegia were an essential part of urban public life, participating in processions and ceremonies and having reserved seats in (amphi)theatres. The three central activities of all associations were shared dinners, religious cults, and funerary practices. Religious (and) neighbourhood-based collegia prevailed during the Republic. Professional associations became more important during the Principate as authorities began to use them to facilitate and supervise public works and provisions (particularly for the annona), and for levying taxes. Some collegia received privileges and had extensive funds and property. Professional collegia continued to be important at least until early Byzantine times. Imperial control intensified in late antiquity, but the overall legal framework hardly changed.
- Ancient Economy
- Roman Myth and Religion
Updated in this version
Text and bibliography updated to reflect current scholarship. Keywords and summary added.
The most common Latin terms for club or voluntary association are collegium, sodalitas, or sodalicium, and corpus. Some texts suggest subtle differences, with corpus emphasizing organisational aspects and sodalitas/sodalicium having rather private and religious overtones. But these differences were not strict. Scholars often use the term voluntary associations to denote all types of collegia/sodalicia/corpora, but fellowships, clubs, brotherhoods, or guilds are also used.
Authors from the later 1st and early 2nd century ce project the origin of professional collegia back to king Numa (Plut. Vit. Num. 17 ; Plin. HN 34.1, 35.159) or Servius Tullius (Flor. 188.8.131.52). There is little historical truth in these stories. Nevertheless, a clause in the Twelve Tables giving sodales the right to form binding pacta (Dig.47.22.4) confirms the antiquity of voluntary associations. These archaic sodalicia were probably mostly religious or aristocratic clubs. One of the oldest Latin inscriptions, the so-called lapis Satricanus mentions the sodales of Poblios Valesios setting up a monument to Mars (CIL I.2832a).
Cicero had neighbourhood associations primarily in mind when he asserted that the forefathers (maiores) granted common people the right to have their own assemblies (Cic. Dom. 74). In late Republican Rome, they organised religious festivities in honour of the lares compitales, the guardian deities of crossroads. The members of these collegia compitalicia were often slaves and freedmen.
By the early 1st century bce, collegia were used to mobilise or bribe voters and political supporters. After violent riots in 64 bce, the senate banned collegia “that were seen to have been formed against the Republic” (Asc. Pis. 8). Political clubs resurfaced in 58 bce, when the tribune of the plebs, P. Clodius Pulcher, promulgated a law reinstating the collegia. It eventually led to a general ban on collegia by Caesar (Suet. Iul. 42.3), which was renewed—possibly by a general lex Iulia de collegiis—under Augustus (Suet. Aug. 32.1). These prohibitions, however, were never absolute. Associations that had the reputation of being old and lawful (antiqua et legitima) were exempt.
Augustus bound the collegia compitalicia to his regime by entrusting them with the cult of the Lares Augusti, a syncretism of the lares compitales and the genius Augusti. Outside Rome, collegia of augustales were formed (sometimes seviri augustales, occasionally octoviri or other varieties). Augustales probably had a role in organising and financing the ludi augustales, but the main purpose of augustalitas was to confer a public dignity on wealthy persons (primarily freedmen) barred from entering the ordo decurionum. The collegia augustalium served as social clubs, enhancing and visualising their members’ social status.
Religion was pervasive in Roman society and was an inherent feature of all collegia. Cult associations formed the backbone of non-state cults. They were named after the deities they worshipped, such as the Collegium Salutare Dianae Nemorensis(?) et Antinoi in Lanuvium (CIL XIV.2112) or the Familia Silvani in Trebula Mutuesca (AE  161).
Religion was the only binding element for these associations, but collegia based on professions or other shared criteria were also deeply religious. Club houses (scholae) served both social and religious purposes. Collegia lacking them commonly convened in public temples. References to deities were sometimes included in guild names, such as the mensores frumentarii Cereris Augustae (CIL XIV.409) or the medici Taurini cultores Asclepi et Hygiae (CIL V.6970).
The strict regulations on collegia in the early empire made an explicit exception for religious gatherings (Dig. 184.108.40.206). Sometimes, however, the mobilising strength and organisational potential of cult associations was perceived as a threat. In 186 bce, Dionysiac groups were accused of conspiracy and corruption of the youth, and were outlawed by a senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus (CIL X.104). Three centuries later Christian groups suffered from similar apprehensions. Celsus equated them to illegal collegia (Origen. C. Cels. 1.1). Tertullian made considerable efforts to distance Christian communities from non-Christian collegia (Tert. Apol. 38–39).
Cult associations continued to flourish throughout the empire. Associations for Mithras were the most conspicuous, but they were far from the only ones. In late antiquity, Christian churches and monasteries supplanted pagan associations. In 415 ce, Theodosius II confiscated all property of the dendrophori and other cult collegia (Cod. Theod. 16.10.20).
Professional Collegia and Public Utility
Although projected back in time to Numa by Plutarch (Vit. Num.17) and Pliny (HN 34.1, 35.159), the first professional collegia are attested only in the 2nd century bce. The first is a group of cooks (coqui) around the middle of the century in Faleria Nova (CIL I².364). Residential associations, represented by boards of magistri, had assisted the praefecti Capuam Cumas to rule Capua and its territory since the second Punic war. By the late 2nd century bce, some of these consisted of merchants, shippers, and possibly other professional groups (most clearly CIL I².672, 2947). Similar associations were formed by Roman and Italian mercantile communities on Delos and elsewhere in the provinces. In the late 2nd to early 1st century bce, numerous professional collegia set up dedications in the temple of Fortuna Primigenia in Praeneste.
In 7 bce, the collegium fabrum tignuariorum (builders/carpenters) of Rome was (re-)organised. It may have had precursors in Republican times (when the fabri voted in separate centuriae in the centuriate assembly), but henceforth, the collegium was rigidly and hierarchically organised, with elected higher and lower officers (quinquennales, curatores, quaestores), a council of decuriones, internal subdivisions (centuriae and decuriae), and patronage by members of the elite. This would become the standard model for all important collegia under the empire. The result looked very much like how cities were organised, including even the terminology. The decuriones formed an ordo that issued decreta (for instance CIL III.1210; VI.6320), and the members formed a res publica (for instance CIL III.7485) of which common members were the plebs (e.g., AE  265a).
Both Asconius (Corn. p. 67 C), writing around the middle of the 1st century, and the jurist Callistratus (Dig. 220.127.116.11), writing in the 3rd century, single out the collegia fabrum as the prime example of collegia that were allowed to exist because of their utilitas publica; the role they played in building projects gave them a privileged position. From the later 1st century onward, collegia fabrum (tignuariorum) spread rapidly throughout the western provinces.
Closely connected to the collegia fabrum were the collegia centonariorum, producers and dealers in coarse or utilitarian textiles, and the collegia dendrophorum. The latter group was named after their role as participants in the procession for Attis as part of the cult of Cybele. They were instituted by Claudius (Lydus, Mens. 4.59), and scholars still disagree whether they were purely religious associations or guilds of dealers in timber and/or firewood. Some inscriptions (for instance CIL V.7881; XI. 5749) refer to these three collegia as “the three principal collegia” (tria collegia principalia).
Scholars have long wondered about the utilitas publica ascribed to the fabri. Many have argued that it referred to firefighting. This view is based mainly on two letters between Pliny and Trajan (Ep. 10.33, 34) concerning a fire in Nicomedia and the suggestion to create a collegium fabrum to handle such eventualities in the future. The close connection between the tria collegia principalia was then used to suggest the same function for the centonarii and the dendrophori. There is, however, no further evidence to support this view. In Rome and Ostia, official night-guards (vigiles) served as firefighters. These are mentioned also by the Flavian municipal laws in Spain (lex Irnitana 19), and they are present in Petronius’ fictional Puteoli (Sat. 78).
Presumably, collegia fabrum (tignuariorum) were useful primarily because they facilitated the co-ordination of large construction projects. Collegia centonariorum could have been useful because they ensured the supply of textiles. These were not the only guilds that were appreciated for the importance of their members’ professions. Corpora of shippers (navicularii) closely collaborated with the annona in Rome and Ostia, and with provincial authorities elsewhere. Vespasian gave intellectual professions a general authorisation to form clubs (FIRA I.73).
Public utility, however, was not limited to material things. The symphoniaci at Rome received authorisation from the senate based on a lex Iulia, because they assisted in sacred rites. (CIL VI.2193) The dendrophori, as well, may have been valued purely for their religious role.
Collegia Tenuiorum, and the Ius Coeundi
A senatorial decree prohibited collegia considered a threat to public order (Dig. 18.104.22.168). The Flavian municipal laws of Spain (lex Irnitana 74) contained a similar provision. At times, imperial interventions went considerably further. The 3rd-century jurist Marcianus stated that unless a collegium was authorised on the grounds of a senatorial decree or an imperial ordinance, it was illegal (Dig. 22.214.171.124). Another senatorial decree, however, probably from the mid-1st century ce, allowed collegia of common people (tenuiores) to collect monthly dues provided they convened only once a month (Dig. 47.22.1).
An inscription from Lanuvium (CIL XIV.2112) referring to this decree implies that pooling money for funeral expenses was considered legitimate. It induced Mommsen to label such associations collegia funeraticia, burial clubs. Numerous inscriptions and funerary monuments confirm that this was one of the central purposes of collegia—not because the members were particularly poor; entrance fees, membership payments, and duties were too expensive and time-consuming for the truly poor to participate. Rather, pooling funds allowed more respectable monuments, while the collegial setting provided a community to mourn and remember the deceased, to express the loss his death presented to family, friends, and fellow members. Funeral support was not the only acceptable purpose to create a collegium tenuiorum. The manifold cult associations were protected by the same decree (all the more so since they too provided funeral support). Collegia were allowed to convene whenever they wanted for religious purposes. Banqueting was the third core activity collegia indulged in. Besides wining and dining during their monthly meetings, the statutes preserved in inscriptions contain elaborate clauses specifying special dates on which banquets were to be held, usually in honour of benefactors, guardian deities, or emperors. Many of the endowments given to collegia were set up specifically to finance such occasions. Commensality itself was closely connected with commemorative rites and cult practices. Tertullian contrasts Christian groups with pagan collegia that allegedly collected money only for wining and dining (Apol. 38–39), but a letter from Trajan to Pliny already acknowledges that some clubs (eranoi) were instituted to provide social support to commoners (ad sustinendam tenuiorum inopiam) (Plin. Ep. 10.92–93).
The senatorial decree de collegiis tenuiorum sufficed for the vast majority of voluntary associations. Some, however, received a specific ius coeundi from the senate or the emperor. The possibility was foreseen in an Augustan lex Iulia (CIL VI.2193, possibly de collegiis). Pliny claims that, under Domitian, the senate only deliberated on trivial matters such as the “institution/confirmation” of collegia fabrum (Plin. Pan. 54). We don’t know whether such an individual permission was required or only optional, but in the case, for instance, of craftsmen guilds, the grant secured the collegiati exemption from some public duties (munera publica).
Economic Significance of Professional Collegia
In the late 1st and 2nd century ce, professional associations became the dominant type of collegia. Most were not on a par with the tria collegia or the corpora working for the annona. Nevertheless, there was a growing tendency to acknowledge the usefulness of all professional associations. Occupation-based collegia, however, were never economic organisations in the modern sense. Their raison d'être was to establish and fortify social relations. Like all collegia, they formed micro-communities, with self-elected leaders, ceremonies, calendars, and so forth. For a world that did not know the concept of an economy, any attempt at separating professional interests from corporate or personal interests is meaningless anyway.
However, the flourishing of occupation-based collegia was not economically irrelevant. The collegia facilitated cooperation among members. Some received endowments from benefactors, the funds of which could provide loans to the fellows. Some even owned or controlled productive assets. A fullers’ guild on the Esquiline, for instance, had tax-free access to the water of a religious well they maintained (CIL VI.266). A benefactor gave a set of workshops to the centonarii and fabri of Brixia (CIL V.4488).
Occupational collegia generally were not given monopoly rights or official regulatory powers over their members. But there were exceptions. From the late 1st or early 2nd century onward, some guilds received specific official competences. The privileges given to shippers supplying the capital were distributed via corpora naviculariorum since at least the reign of Trajan. When the shipment of goods for the annona was changed into an obligation (the munus naviculariorum), the same guilds were used to supervise it. Legal privileges and immunities for craftsmen (artifices) that provided “necessary work for public use” (necessariam operam publicis utilitatibus, Dig. 126.96.36.199) were likewise distributed via their collegia, as in the case of the fabri (tignuarii) (Dig. 188.8.131.52) or the centonarii (AE 69).
In Egypt and possibly Antioch (Johannes Malalas, Chronographia 10.23 ), professional associations were used as intermediate organisations to collect trade taxes and sell licences since the 1st century ce. Whether this was the case also in the west is less clear but licences to fish and to transport goods (and people?) on the Tiber river were acquired by the guilds of codicarii (barge-shippers, AE  184, Tran (in press)) and of fishermen and divers (CIL VI.1872). In late antiquity tax collection by professional collegia on behalf of their members became standard practice and guilds serving the annona were given monopoly rights.
As their respectability grew, collegia acquired a role in civic rituals. By the middle of the 2nd century at the latest, important collegia were an integral part of how cities were organised. Their club buildings (scholae) were prominent in the urban landscape. They were invited to public ceremonies, received larger than ordinary sums and portions at public handouts, and marched in public parades and processions. Some even had reserved seats in theatres and amphitheatres. When arriving in Augustodunum (Autun), Constantine was festively received by the collegia waving their banners (Pan. Const. 8.). The collegium centonariorum of Aquincum even received a water organ from a benefactor—an instrument typically used for public events (AE  118).
The integration of collegia in the institutional fabric of cities was not limited to professional groups. We have already mentioned the augustales and the dendrophori. Another conspicuous example is the youth clubs (collegia iuvenum) that became prominent in cities throughout Italy and the western provinces. They practised various sports, celebrated the lusus iuvenalis, and were closely involved in other public festivals.
Cult associations did not survive the Christianisation of the empire, but professional collegia did. A lack of inscriptions reduces their visibility, but enough survives to confirm their continued importance. Indirect evidence survives in the Digest. Nearly everything we know about the laws, senatorial decrees, imperial ordinances, and jurisprudence regarding collegia in the early empire comes from this 6th-century compilation intended to clarify existing law.
Late-imperial constitutions, however, show signs of stress related to the crisis in urban society. In the early 5th century, imperial constitutions ordered that members of (artisan) collegia who had left their cities had to be forcefully returned (Cod. Theod. 12.19.1, 14.7.1, 2). The rule is illustrative of a general tendency visible in these legal sources, which scholars since Waltzing interpreted as the sign of a totalitarian “Zwangstaat,” in which peasants were tied to the land and craftsmen and merchants to their guilds. Membership became obligatory and hereditary. Scholars today no long share this view. Emperors used collegia as tools to ensure that fiscal and non-fiscal obligations were honoured. In that sense professionals were expected to join their collegium.
For instance, the munus naviculariorum, established probably by Septimius Severus, was of cardinal importance to the food supply for Rome and Constantinople. Because it was organised in practice through the corpora naviculariorum, it was essential that membership of these corporations was maintained. Heirs to members therefore had to bear the burden shouldered by their parents or testators, which implied that they had to maintain their investments and patrimonial share in the corpora.
Egyptian papyri show continuity from the 4th century down to the later 6th. It is hard to follow how collegia developed later. The 10th-century Book of the Eparch shows that guild membership was still obligatory for craftsmen in Constantinople and that the state closely supervised guilds that provided essential services in a way very similar to what had been the case in late antiquity. It seems, therefore, that the Roman guild culture only gradually faded out as urban culture declined (in the west) or changed (in the east), rather than abruptly disappearing due to changes in the legal framework.
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- Tran, Nicolas. Les membres des associations romaines: le rang social des collegiati en Italie et en Gaules sous le haut-empire. Rome: Ecole française de Rome, 2006.
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