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p386 Decemviri

Unsigned article on pp386‑387 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

DECEMVIRI. the Ten Men, the name of various magistrates and functionaries at Rome.

1. Decemviri Legibus Scribendis, were ten persons, who were appointed to draw up a code of laws, and to whom the whole government of the state were entrusted. As early as B.C. 462, a law was proposed by C. Terentilius Arsa, that commissioners should be appointed for drawing up a body of laws; but this was violently opposed by the patricians (Liv. III.9); and it was not till after a struggle of nine years that the patricians consented to send three persons to Greece, to collect such information respecting the laws and constitutions of the Greeks as might be useful to the Romans (Liv. III.31). They were absent a year; and on their return, after considerable dispute between the patricians and plebeians, ten commissioners of the patrician order were appointed with the title of "decemviri legibus scribendis," to whom the revision of the laws was marked. All the other magistrates were obliged to abdicate, and no exception was made even in favour of the tribunes; for there is no reason to suppose, as Niebuhr has done, that the tribuneship was not given up till the second decemvirate (Cic. de Rep. II.36; Liv. III.32; Dionys. X.56). They were thus entrusted with supreme power in the state.

The decemviri entered upon their office at the beginning of B.C. 451. They consisted of App. Claudius and T. Genucius Augurinus, the new consuls, of the praefectus urbi, and of the two quaestores parricidii as Niebuhr conjectures, and of five others chosen by the centuries. They discharged the duties of their office with diligence, and dispensed justice with impartiality. Each administered the government day by day in succession as during an interregnum; and the fasces were only carried before the one who presided for the day (Liv. III.33). They drew up a body of laws, distributed into ten sections; which, after being approved of by the senate and the comitia, were engraven on tables of metal, and set up in the comitium.

On the expiration of their year of office, all parties were so well satisfied with the manner in which they had discharged their duties, that it was resolved to continue the same form of government for another year; more especially as some of the decemvirs said that their work was not finished. Ten new decemvirs were accordingly elected, of whom Appius Claudius alone belonged to the former body (Liv. III.35; Dionys. X.56); and of his nine new colleagues, Niebuhr thinks that five were plebeians. These magistrates framed several new laws, which were approved of by the centuries, and engraven on two additional tables. They acted, however, in a most tyrannical manner. Each was attended by twelve lictors, who carried not the rods only, but the axe, the emblem of sovereignty. They made common cause with the patrician party, and committed all kinds of outrages upon the persons and property of the plebeians and their families. When their year of office expired they refused to resign or to appoint successors. Niebuhr, however, considers it certain that they were appointed for a longer period than a year; since otherwise they would not have been required to resign their office, but interreges would at the expiration of the year have stepped into their place. This, however, does not seem conclusive; since the decemvirs were at the time in possession of the whole power of the state, and would have prevented any attempt of the kind. At least, the unjust decision of App. Claudius, in the case of Virginia, which led her father to kill her with his own hands to save her from prostitution, occasioned an insurrection of the people. The decemvirs were in consequence obliged to resign from their office, B.C. 449; after which the usual magistracies were re-established. (Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, vol. II. pp309‑356; Arnold, Hist. of Rome, vol. I. pp250‑313; Becker, Römisch. Alterthüm. vol. II part II. pp126‑136.)

The ten tables of the former, and the two tables of the latter decemvirs, together form the laws of the Twelve Tables, of which an account is given in a separate article. [Lex Duodecim Tab.]

2. Decemviri Litibus or Stlitibus Judicandis, were magistrates forming a court of justice, which took cognizance of civil cases. From Pomponius (de Orig. Jur. Dig. 1 tit. 2 s2 § 29) it would appear that they were not instituted till the year B.C. 292, the time when the triumviri capitales were first appointed. Livy (III.55) however mentions decemvirs as a plebeian magistracy very soon after the legislation of the Twelve Tables; and while Niebuhr (Hist. of Rome, vol. II p324, &c.) refers these decemvirs to the decemviral magistrates, who had shortly before been abolished, and thus abides by the account of Pomponius, Göttling (Gesch. der Röm. Staatsv. p241, &c.) believes that the decemvirs of Livy are the decemviri litibus judicandis, and refers their institution, together with that of the centumviri, to Servius Tullius. [Centumviri.] But the history as well as the peculiar jurisdiction of this court during the time of the republic are involved in inextricable obscurity. In the time of Cicero it still existed, and the proceedings in it took place in the ancient form of the sacramentum (Cic. pro Caecin. 33, pro Dom. 29). Augustus transferred to these decemvirs the presidency in the courts of p387the centumviri (Suet. Aug. 36; Dion Cass. LIV.26). During the empire, this court had jurisdiction in capital matters, which is expressly stated in regard to the decemvirs.

3. Decemviri Sacris Faciundis, sometimes called simply Decemviri Sacrorum, were the members of an ecclesiastical collegium, and were elected for life. Their chief duty was to take care of the Sibylline books, and to inspect them on all important occasions, by command of the senate (Liv. VII.27, XXI.62, XXXI.12). Virgil (Aen. VI.73) alludes to them in his address to the Sibyls — "Lectos sacrabo viros."

Under the kings the care of the Sibylline books was committed to two men (duumviri) of high rank (Dionys. IV.62), one of whom, called Atilius or Tullius, was punished by Tarquinius, for being unfaithful to his trust, by being sewed up in a sack and cast into the sea (Dionys., l.c.; Val. Max. I.1 §13). On the expulsion of the kings, the care of these books was entrusted to the noblest of the patricians, worth were exempted from all military and civil duties. Their number was increased about the year 367 B.C. to ten, of whom five were chosen from the patricians and five from the plebeians (Liv. VI.37, 42). Subsequently their number was still further increased to fifteen (quindecemviri); but at what time is uncertain. As, however, there were decemviri in B.C. 82, when the capitol was burnt (Dionys. l.c.), and we read of quindecemviri in the time of Cicero (ad Fam. VIII.4), it appears probable that their number was increased from ten to fifteen by Sulla, especially as we know that he increased the number of several of the other ecclesiastical corporations. Julius Caesar added one more to their number (Dion Cass. XLII.51); but this precedent was not followed, as the collegium appears to have consisted afterwards of only fifteen.

It was also the duty of the decemviri and quinqueviri to celebrate the games of Apollo (Liv. X.8), and the secular games (Tac. Ann. XI.11; Hor. Carm. Saec. 70). They were, in fact, considered priests of Apollo, whence each of them had in his house a bronze tripod dedicated to that deity (Serv. ad Virg. Aen. III.332).

4. Decemviri Agris Dividundis, were sometimes appointed for distributing the public land among the citizens (Liv. XXXI.4, XLII.4).

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