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 p7  Acta

Unsigned article on pp7‑8 of

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


  1. Signified the public acts and orders of a Roman magistrate, which after the expiration of his office were submitted to the senate for approval or rejection (Suet. Caes. 19, 23; Cic. Phil. I.7, &c.). After the death of Julius Caesar the triumvirs swore, and compelled all the other magistrates to swear, to observe and maintain all his acta (in acta jurare, comp. Tac. Ann. I.72; Suet. Tib. 67); and hence it became the custom on the accession of each emperor for the new monarch to swear to observe and respect all the acta of his predecessors from Julius Caesar downwards, with the exception of those who had been branded with infamy after death, such as Nero and Domitian. Every year all the magistrates upon entering upon their office on the 1st of January swore approval of the acts of the reigning emperor: this oath was originally taken by one magistrate in each department on behalf of his colleagues, but subsequently it was the usual practice for each magistrate to take the oath personally (Dion Cass. XLVII.18, LIII.28; Tac. Ann. XVI.22, with the Excursus of Lipsius; Dion Cass. LVII.17, LX.25).

  2. Acta Forensia were of two kinds; first, to relating to the government, as leges, plebiscita, edicta, the names of all the magistrates, &c., which formed part of the tabulae publicae; and secondly, those connected with the courts of law. The acta of the latter kind contained an account of the different suits, with the arguments of the advocates and the decisions of the court. In the time of the republic the names of those who were acquitted and condemned were entered on the records of the court (in tabulas absolutum non rettulit, Cic. ad Fam. VIII.8 § 3), and it appears from the quotations of Asconius from these Acta, that they must have contained abstracts of the speeches of the advocates as early as the time of Cicero (in Scaurian. p19, in Milonian. pp32, 44, 47, ed. Orelli). Under the empire the proceedings of the higher courts seem to have been always preserved, and they are frequently referred to in the Digest. They are sometimes called Gesta; and they commenced with the names of the consuls for the year, and the day of the month (Amm. Marc. XXII.3; August. Acta c. Fortun. Manich. Retract. I.16; Cod. Theod. 2 tit. 29 s3). Specimens of these Acta are given by Brissonius (De Formulis, V § 113). They were taken by clerks (ab actis fori), whose titles and duties occur in Lydus (de Magistr. II.20, &c.) and the Notitia Dignitatum.

  3. Acta Militaria, contained an account of the duties, numbers, and expences of each legion (Veget. II.19), and were probably preserved in the military treasury founded by Augustus (Suet. Aug. 49; Tac. Ann. I.78; Dion Cass. LV.25). The soldiers, who drew up these acta, are frequently mentioned in inscriptions and ancient writers under various titles, as, librarius legionis; actuarius or actarius legionis; tabularius castrensis, &c.

  4. Acta Senatus, called also Commentarii Senatus ( Tac. Ann. XV.74) and Acta Patrum (Tac. Ann. V.4), contained an account of the various matters brought before the senate, the opinions of the chief speakers, and the decision of the house. It has usually been inferred from a passage of Suetonius ("Inito honore primus omnium instituit, ut tam senatus quam populi diurna acta conficerentur et publicarentur," Caes. 20), that the proceedings of the senate were not published until the first consul­ship of Julius Caesar, B.C. 59; but this was not strictly the case; for not only had the decrees of the senate been written down and published long previously, but the debates on the Catilinarian conspiracy had been widely circulated by Cicero (p. Sull. 14, 15). All that Suetonius means to say is, that the proceedings of the senate, which had been only occasionally published before and by private individuals, were for the first time, by the command of Caesar, published regularly every day (senatus acta diurna) under the authority of government as part of the daily gazette. Augustus forbade the publication of the proceedings of the senate, but they still continued to be preserved, and one of the most distinguished senators, who received the title ab actis senatus, was chosen by the emperor to compile the account (Tac. Ann. V.4; Spart. Hadr. 3; Orelli, Inscr. No. 2274, 3186). The persons entrusted with this office must not be confounded with the various clerks (actuarii, servi publici, scribae, censuales), who were present in the senate to take notes of its proceedings, and who were only excluded when the senate passed a senatusconsultum tacitum, that is, when they deliberated on a subject of the greatest importance, respecting which secrecy was necessary or advisable (Capit. Gord. 12). It was doubtless from the notes and papers of these clerks that the Acta were compiled by the senator, who was entrusted with this office. The Acta were deposited in some of the record offices in particular departments of the public libraries, to which access could only be obtained by the express permission of the praefectus urbi. They were consulted and are frequently referred to by the later historians (Vopisc. Prob. 2; Lamprid. Sever. 56; Capitol. Opil. Macr. 6), and many extracts from them were published in the Acta Diurna. Tacitus and Suetonius never refer to the Acta Senatus as authorities, but only to the Acta Diurna.

  5. Acta Diurna, a gazette published daily at Rome by the authority of the government during the later times of the republic, and under the empire, corresponding in some measure to our newspapers (Tac. Ann. III.3, XIII.31, XVI.22). In addition to the title Acta Diurna, we find them referred to under the names of Diurna, Acta Publica,  p8 Acta Urbana, Acta Rerum Urbanarum, Acta Populi, and they are frequently called simply Acta. The Greek writers on Roman history call them τὰ ὐπομνήματα, τὰ δημόσια ὐπομνήματα, τὰ δημόσια γράμματα, and τὰ κοινὰ ὐπομνήματα. The nature of their contents will be best seen from the following passage of Petronius (c53) where in imitation of them is given by the actuarius of Trimalchio:— "Actuarius — tamquam acta urbis recitavit: VII. Kal. Sextilis in praedio Cumano, quod est Trimalchionis, nati sunt pueri XXX, puellae XL; sublata in horreum ex area tritici millia modium quingenta; boves domiti quingenti. Eodem die Mithridates servus in crucem actus est, quia Gaii nostri genio maledixerat. Eodem die in aream relatum est, quod collocari non potuit, sestertium centies. Eodem die incendium factum est in hortis Pompeianis, ortum ex aedibus Nastae villici. Jam etiam edicta aedilium recitabantur, et saltuariorum testamenta, quibus Trimalchio cum elogio exhaeredabatur; jam nomina villicorum et repudiata a circumitore liberta in balneatoris contubernio deprehensa; atriensis Baias relegatus; jam reus factus dispensator; et judicium inter cubicularios actum." From this passage, and from the numerous passages in ancient writers, in which the Acta Diurna are quoted (references to which are given in the works of Le Clerc and Lieberkühnº cited below), it would appear that they usually contained the following matters:— 1. The number of births and deaths in the city, an account of the money paid into the treasury from the provinces, and every thing relating to the supply of corn.º These particulars would be extracted from the tabulae publicae. By an ancient regulation, ascribed to Servius Tullius (Dionys. IV.15), all births were registered in the temple of Venus, and all deaths in that of Libitina; and we know that this practice was continued under the empire, only that at a later time the temple of Saturn was substituted for that of Venus for the registration of births (Jul. Cap. M. Aurel. 9). 2. Extracts from the Acta Forensia, containing the edicts of magistrates, the testaments of distinguished men, reports of trials, with the names of those who were acquitted and condemned, and likewise a list of the magistrates who were elected. 3. Extracts from the acta senatus, especially all the decrees and acclamationes [Acclamatio] in honour of the reigning emperor. 4. A court circular, containing an account of the birth, deaths, festivals, and movements of the imperial family. 5. An account of such public affairs and foreign wars as the government thought proper to publish. 6. Curious and interesting occurrences, such as prodigies and miracles, the erection of new edifices, the conflagration of buildings, funerals, sacrifices, a list of the various games, and especially amatory tales and adventures, with the names of the parties (comp. Cic. ad Fam. II.15). The fragments of some Acta Diurna have been published by Pighius and Dodwell, but their genuineness is too doubtful to allow us to make use of them as authorities.

It is certain that these acta were published under the authority of the government, but it is not stated under whose superintendence they were drawn up. It is probable, however, that this duty devolved upon the magistrates, who had the care of the tabulae publicae, namely, the censors under the republic (Liv. II.8, XLIII.16), and sometimes the quaestors, sometimes the praefecti aerarii under the empire (Tac. Ann. XIII.28). By a regulation of Alexander Severus, seven of the fourteen curatores urbis, whom he appointed, had to be present when the acta were drawn up (Lamprid. Alex. Sev. 33). The actual task of compiling them was committed to subordinate officers, called actuarii or actarii, who were assisted by various clerks, and by reporters (notarii), who took down in short-hand the proceedings in the courts, &c. After the acta had been drawn up, they were exposed for a time in some public place in the city, where persons could read them and take copies of them. Many scribes, whom Cicero speaks of under the name of operarii, made it their business to copy them or make extracts from them for the use of the wealthy in Rome, and especially in the provinces, where they were eagerly sought after and extensively read (Cic. ad Fam. VIII.1, XIII.8; Tac. Ann. XVI.22). After the acta had been exposed in public for a certain time, they were deposited, like the Acta Senatus, in some of the record offices, or the public libraries.

The style of the acta, as appears from the passage in Petronius, was very simple and concise. They contained a bare enumeration of facts without any attempt at ornament.

As to the time at which these acta were first composed, there is a considerable variety of opinion among modern writers. It is maintained that the passage of Suetonius (Caes. 20), quoted above, does not imply that the acta were first published in the first consul­ship of Julius Caesar, and that the meaning of it is, "that he first ordained that the acta diurna of the senate should be compiled and published just as (tam quam) those of the people had been." But although this interpretation is probably the correct one, still there is no passage in the ancient writers in which the Acta Diurna are decisively mentioned, previous to Caesar's first consul­ship; for the diarium referred to by Sempronius Asellio (Gell. V.18), which is frequently brought forward as a proof of this early publication, is the journal of a private person. There is likewise no evidence to support an opinion adopted by many modern writers that the publication of the acta first commenced in B.C. 133 to supply the place of the Annales Maximi, which were discontinued in that year (Cic. de Orat. II.12), while on the contrary the great difference of their contents renders it improbable that such was the case. The Acta Diurna continued in use to the downfall of the western empire, or at least till the removal of the seat of government to Constantinople, but they were never published at the latter city.

(Lipsius, Excursus ad Tac. Ann. V.4; Ernesti, Excursus ad Suet. J. Caes. 20; Schlosser, Ueber die Quellen der spätern latein. Geschichtschreiber, besonders über Zeitungen, &c. in the Archiv für Geschichte, pp80‑106; Prutze, De Fontibus, quos in conscribendis rebus inde a Tiberio usque ad mortem Neronis gestis auctores veteres secuti videantur, Halle, 1840; Zell, Ueber die Zeitungen der altern, Friburg, 1834; but the two best works on the subject are, Le Clerc, Des Journaux chez les Romains, Paris, 1838, and Lieberkühn, De Diurnis Romanorum Actis, Weimar, 1840.)

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