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p460 Saepta Julia

Article on pp460‑461 of

Samuel Ball Platner (as completed and revised by Thomas Ashby):
A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome,
London: Oxford University Press, 1929.


Saepta Iulia (later Septa (e.g. CIL XV.7195) and τὰ Σέπτα): the building which Caesar planned to erect (Cic. ad Att. IV.16.14) in place of the earlier saepta (see Ovile), the voting precinct in the campus Martius. It was to be of marble, surrounded by a lofty porticus one mile in length. Whether actually begun by Caesar or not, it was partly built by Lepidus (στοαῖς πέριξ ὑπὸ τοῦ Λεπίδου πρὸς τὰς φυλετικὰς ἀρχαιρεσίας (comitiis tributis) συνῳκοδομημένα, Cass. Dio LIII.23), and completed and dedicated by Agrippa in 26 B.C. Agrippa decorated the building with stone tablets and paintings, and gave the official designation of saepta Iulia. It seems to have been ordinarily called saepta only; once porticus saeptorum (Plin. NH XVI.201); and once, in the third century, saepta Agrippiana (Hist. Aug. Alex. 26). It also continued to be known as ovile (Liv. XXVI.22; Lucan II.197; Auson. Grat. act. iii.13; Serv. Ecl. i.33).

In the saepta gladiatorial combats were exhibited by Augustus (Suet. Aug. 43; Cass. Dio LV.8), Caligula (Suet. Cal. 18), Claudius (Suet. Claud. 21); and naumachiae, or sham naval battles, by Augustus (Cass. Dio LV.10) and Caligula (ib. LIX.10: πὰν τὸ χωρίον ἐκεινο ἐξορύξας καὶ ὑδατος πληρώσας ἵνα μίαν ναῦν ἐσαγάγῃ). Nero used the building for gymnastic exhibitions (Suet. Nero 12). In 17 B.C. the senate was convened here (acta lud. saec., CIL VI.32323, 50), the only recorded occasion, and Tiberius addressed the people from a tribunal erected in it, after his return from the Illyrian campaign (Suet. Tib. 17; Cass. Dio LVI.1). Pliny speaks of the works of art that it contained (NH XXXVI.29), and Seneca of the crowds that frequented it (de ira II.8.1).

It was injured by the great fire of 80 A.D. (Cass. Dio LXVI.24), but must have been restored at once, for it was a favourite resort in the time of Domitian for loungers, and a bazaar (Stat. Silv. IV.5.2; Mart. II.14.5, 57.2; IX.59.1; X.80.4). Another restoration was carried out by Hadrian (Hist. Aug. Hadr. 19), and the building is mentioned in the third century (id. Alex. 26), and on the post-Constantinian bronze collar of a slave (CIL XV.7195). No reference has been found to it in the Middle Ages.

It is certain that Augustus built the new saepta primarily to take the place of the old as a voting precinct (cf. Cass. Dio LIII.23, quoted above), but that the diminishing importance of the comitia made its use for other purposes easy and natural, a process that was completed after Tiberius transferred the elections from the people to the senate. Such changes in use were probably reflected in some changes at least in the inner arrangement of the Augustan building.

The saepta in its final form is represented partly on fragments of the Marble Plan (FUR 35‑36), and some of its ruins have been discovered at seven different points, under the Palazzi Simonetti, Doria, Bonaparte, Venezia, and the churches of San Marco and S. Maria in Via Lata (for the literature of six of these discoveries, see HJ 560, n7; BC 1893, p461125‑128; Cavazzi, Diaconia di S. Maria in Via Lata (1908), 197 sqq.; SR II.64, 151; and for the last, under the Palazzetto Venezia, NS 1911, 36). The building was a rectangular porticus, extending along the west side of the Via Lata (Corso), from the aqua Virgo (Frontinus, de aquis i.22), the present Via del Caravita, to the Via di S. Marco, a distance of more than 400 metres (1400‑1500 Roman feet). It was built of travertine, with eight longitudinal rows of piers, and 60 metres (that is, 200 Roman feet) deep. The first row, along the Via Lata, was ornamented with a balustrade. Four of the inner piers under the Palazzo Doria, belonging to the fourth and fifth rows, were measured by Hülsen. They are 1.70 metres square, 4 metres apart in the north-south direction and 6.20 in the other. Other piers further west show different dimensions (NS 1877, 208). Cf. also RA 93‑96. Remains were also found when the Palazzo Simonetti (north of S. Maria in Via Lata) was converted into the Banco di Roma, consisting of Hadrianic brick pilasters (obviously therefore his restoration) about which no information has been published.

Lanciani has maintained that the saepta did not extend quite so far south, and that its southern limit was marked by an ancient street which is said to have been found in 1875 running from the Corso to the main door of the Palazzo Venezia (LR 474; LF 21; HJ 560, n7), perhaps the same as that reported to have been found in 1455 (LS I.58). The evidence for the antiquity of this street is not conclusive, and is offset by the discovery of the masonry under the Palazzetto Venezia.1

Whether this porticus, which constituted the saepta in the third century after the restorations or rebuildings of Domitian and Hadrian, represents in any considerable degree the saepta of Agrippa, is an open question. Some evidence for the affirmative is found in the existing masonry, which is characteristic of the Augustan rather than of the later periods, and the length of the building affords just room for eighty or eighty-two lateral sections of the dimensions illustrated by the piers described above, a fact that suggests a comparison with the number of centuries voting in the comitia centuriata. If this does represent in the main the saepta of Augustus, we must suppose that gladiatorial combats, and still more certainly naval battles, took place in an open area on the west side of the porticus and were witnessed from its roof or upper story, as well as from platforms erected in the arcades. Gradually, however, this open area was covered with new buildings, like the Iseum and porticus Divorum (HJ 558‑562; BC 1893, 119‑42; Richter 230‑232; RE i. A. 1724‑1727).

According to a view which has been set forth with some plausibility (BC 1893, 136‑142), the Diribitorium (q.v.), or hall where the votes were counted, was not a separate structure, but the upper story of the saepta. This theory accounts for the massive character of the masonry that has been found, and for other difficulties (HJ cit.).


The Authors' Notes:

1 See also supra, 152, n. i.


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