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p677 Legatus

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp677‑679 of

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

LEGA′TUS. Legati may be divided into three classes: 1. Legati or ambassadors sent to Rome by foreign nations; 2. Legati or ambassadors sent from Rome to foreign nations and into the provinces; 3. Legati who accompanied the Roman generals into the field, or the proconsuls and praetors into the provinces.

I. Foreign legati at Rome, from whatever country they came, had to go to the temple of Saturn and deposit their name with the quaestors, which Plutarch (Quaest. Rom. p275B) explains as a remnant of an ancient custom; for formerly, says he, the quaestors sent presents to all legati, which were called lautia, and if any ambassador was taken ill at Rome, he was in the care of the quaestors, who, if he died, had also to pay the expenses of his burial from the public treasury. When afterwards the number of foreign ambassadors increased in proportion as the republic became extended, the former hospitable custom was reduced to the mere formality of depositing the name with the keepers of the public treasury. Previous to their admission into the city, foreign ambassadors seem to have been obliged to give notice from what nation they came and for what purpose; for several instances are mentioned in which ambassadors were prohibited from entering the city, especially in case of a war between Rome and the state from which they came (Liv. XXX.21, XLII.36, XLV.22). In such cases the ambassadors were either not heard at all, and obliged to quit Italy (Liv. XLII.36), or an audience was given to them by the senate (senatus legatis datur) outside the city, in the temple of Bellona (Liv. l.c.; XXX.21). This was evidently a sign of mistrust, but the ambassadors were nevertheless treated as public guests, and some public villa outside the city was sometimes assigned for their reception. In other cases, however, as soon as the report of the landing of foreign ambassadors on the coast of Italy was brought to Rome, especially if they were persons of great distinction, as the son of Masinissa (Liv. XLV.13), or if they p678came from an ally of the Roman people, some one of the inferior magistrates, or a legatus of a consul, was despatched by the senate to receive and conduct them to the city at the expense of the republic. When they were introduced into the senate by the praetor or consul, they first explained what they had to communicate, and then the praetor invited the senators to put their questions to the ambassadors (Liv. XXX.22). The manner in which this questioning was frequently carried on, especially when the envoys came from a state with which the Romans were at war, resembled more the cross-questioning of a witness in a court of justice, than an inquiry made with a view to gain a clear understanding of what was proposed (Liv. l.c. with Gronov's note). The whole transaction was carried on by interpreters, and in the Latin language [Interpres]. Valerius Maximus (II.2 § 3) states that the Greek rhetorician Molo, a teacher of Cicero, was the first foreigner who ever addressed the Roman senate in his own tongue. After the ambassadors had thus been examined, they were requested to leave the assembly of the senate, who now began to discuss the subject brought before them. The result was communicated to the ambassadors by the praetor (Liv. VIII.1). In some cases ambassadors not only received rich presents on their departure, but were at the command of the senate conducted by a magistrate, and at the public expense, to the frontier of Italy, and even further (Liv. XLV.14). By the Lex Gabinia it was decreed that from the first of February to the first of March, the senate should every day give audience to foreign ambassadors (Cic. ad Quint. Frat. II.11, 12, ad Fam. I.4). There was at Rome, as Varro (De Ling. Lat. V.155, Müller) expresses it, a place on the right-hand side of the senate-house called Graecostasis, in which foreign ambassadors waited.

All ambassadors, whencesoever they came, were considered by the Romans throughout the whole period of their existence as sacred and inviolable (Cic. c. Verr. I.33; Dionys. Hal. Ant. Rom. XI.25; Tac. Ann. I.42; Liv. XXI.10; Dig. 50 tit. 7 s17).

II. Legati to foreign nations in the name of the Roman republic were always sent by the senate (Cic. c. Vatin. 15); and to be appointed to such a mission was considered a great honour which was conferred only on men of high rank or eminence; for a Roman ambassador, according to Dionysius, had the powers (ἐξουσία καὶ δύναμις) of a magistrate and the venerable character of a priest. If a Roman during the performance of his mission as ambassador died or was killed, his memory was honoured by the republic with a public sepulchre and a statue in the Rostra (Liv. IV.17; Cic. Philip. IX.2). The expenses during the journey of an ambassador were, of course, paid by the republic; and when he travelled through a province, the provincials had to supply him with everything he wanted.

III. The third class of legati, to whom the name of ambassadors cannot be applied, were persons who accompanied the Roman generals on their expeditions, and in later times the governors of provinces also. Legati, as serving under the consuls in the Roman armies, are mentioned along with the tribunes at a very early period (Liv. II.59, IV.17). These legati were nominated (legabantur) by the consul or the dictator under whom they served (Sallust. Jug. 28; Cic. ad Att. XV.11, ad Fam. VI.6, pro Leg. Manil. 19), but the sanction of the senate (senatusconsultum) was an essential point without which no one could be legally considered a legatus (Cic. c. Vatin. l.c., pro Sext. 14); and from Livy XLIII.1; compare XLIV.18) it appears that the nomination by the magistrates (consul, praetor, or dictator) did not take place until they had been authorised by a decree of the senate. The persons appointed to this office were usually men of great military talents, and it was their duty to advise and assist their superior in all his undertakings, and to act in his stead both in civil and military affairs (Varro, de Ling. Lat. V.87, Müller). The legati were thus always men in whom the consul placed great confidence, and were frequently his friends or relations; but they had no power independent of the command of their general (Caes. de Bell. Civ. II.17, III.51; Appian, B. C. I.38). Their number varied according to the greatness or importance of the war, or the extent of the province: three is the smallest number we know of, but Pompey, when in Asia, had fifteen legati. Whenever the consuls were absent from the army, or when a proconsul left his province, the legati or one of them took his place, and then had the insignia as well as the power of his superior. He was in this case called legatus pro praetore (Liv. XXIX.9; Lydus, de Magistr. III.3; Caes. de Bell. Gall. I.21), and hence we sometimes read that a man governed a province as a legatus without any mention being made of the proconsul whose vice-gerent he was (Sallust. Cat. 42). During the latter period of the republic, it sometimes happened that a consul carried on a war, or a proconsul governed his province through his legati, while he himself remained at Rome, or conducted some other more urgent affairs.

When the provinces were divided at the time of the empire [Provincia], those of the Roman people were governed by men who had either been consuls or praetors, and the former were always accompanied by three legati, the latter by one ( Dion Cass. LIII.13; Dig. 1 tit. 16). The provinces of the emperor, who was himself the proconsul, were governed by persons whom the emperor himself appointed, and who had been consuls or praetors, or were at least senators. These vicegerents of the emperor were called legati Augusti pro praetore, legati praetorii, legati consulares, or simply legati, and they, like the governors of the provinciae populi Romani, had one or three legati as their assistants (Strabo, III p352; compare Dig. 1 tit. 18 s7; Tac. Ann. XII.59, Agricol. c7; Spanheim, de Usus et praest. Numism. II p595).

During the latter period of the republic it had become customary for senators to obtain from the senate the permission to travel through or stay in any province at the expense of the provincials, merely for the purpose of managing and conducting their own personal affairs. There was no restraint as to the length of time the senators were allowed to avail themselves of this privilege, which was a heavy burden upon the provincials. This mode of sojourning in a province was called legatio libera, because those who availed themselves of it enjoyed all the privileges of a public legatus or ambassador, without having any of his duties to perform. At the time of Cicero the privilege of p679legatio libera was abused to a very great extent. Cicero, therefore, in his consulship endeavoured to put an end to it, but owing to the opposition of a tribune, he only succeeded in limiting the time of its duration to one year (Cic. de Leg. III.8, de Leg. Agr. I.3, pro Flacc. 34, Philip. I.2). Julius Caesar afterwards extended the time during which a senator might avail himself of legatio libera to five years (Cic. ad Att. XV.11), and this law of Caesar (Lex Julia) seems to have remained in force down to a very late period (Suet. Tiber. 31; Dig. 50 tit. 7 s14).


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