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The Romans were fixated with measuring time, ultimately designating quite a bit of it in the imperial city for leisure (otium): the famous bread and circuses.  Through revenue from the conquered lands that became Roman provinces, the Roman plebs were sustained by the state with a substantial grain dole (annona) and entertainment (theater, chariot racing, gladiators, and more). The imperial calendar records 235 days for business and 109 for religious ceremonies and the pertinent gaming in honor of the various gods.  In today’s terms, there would have been a weekend’s worth in every Roman 8-day week for binge-watching!

Throughout their history, though, Romans were incredibly hard workers and did, by and large, live by the clock, just as we do.  Unless you are an early riser, they probably started their workday earlier than most of us.  A day was composed of 12 hours, from sunrise to sunset, with about a six-hour workday.  This meant longer hours in the spring and summer, shorter hours in the fall and winter.  With such fluctuations in the exact hour duration, how did they manage without an iWatch?  As early as 292 BC, the exact time was measured with a sundial, first dedicated at the Temple of Quirinus on the Quirinal hill by L. Papirius Cursor.  By the first Punic War, a sundial was erected in the Roman Forum, by the Rostra (speaker’s platform).  Of course, the most famous sundial in Rome was the Horologium in the Campus Martius, erected by Augustus in 10 BC, using as the pointer, or gnomon, an obelisk he brought back from Egypt, which he conquered 20 years earlier, in 10 BC.  It stands, re-erected in the papal era, in front of today’s parliament building (pictured below), with its original inscription still visible, detailing its dedication to the sun (Sol).

For inclement, cloudy weather, the water clock was much more efficient.  The clepsydra, whose basic invention and standardization was attributed to the scientist Ctesibius of Alexandria, was recorded in the Basilica Aemilia courthouse in the Roman Forum as early as 159 BC, for insuring equal time for both prosecutor and defense lawyers.

The greatest public document of the Romans for measuring time was the annual calendar, with festivals, market days, assembly dates, and many movable feasts and celebrations.  The college of the pontiffs controlled the dates and their eventual publication, but it was the pontifex maximus who had ultimate control, tweaking the 12 month calendar system from the regal period that was indebted and tied to the older lunar calendar.  Julius Caesar made the ultimate adjustment in 46 BC, moving to a 365 and 1/4 day year calendar, further refined by Augustus, who at the time erected the public Horologium. 

The published annual calendar included the periods allowed for canvassing the vote for the various offices, which were voted in 3 different assemblies (Centuriate, Tribal, and Council of the Plebs).  Voting took place in the Forum and the Campus Martius, namely the Saepta, an enclosure area with stockades to move forward the groups of people according to class or tribe.  It measured 310 X 120 meters and was part of the domus publica created for public officials’s use. Even as voting fell out of favor, Augustus completed the Saepta Iulia started by Caesar, and Agrippa later built the magnificent Diribitorium, a massive covered hall where the votes were counted (120 X 43 meters). 

Turning to the specifics of voting, in light of the recent US election, which focused as much on the number of voters participating as the entire process of counting the votes, it’s enlightening to see how Rome took the issue of voting as seriously as we do today. Initially, voting in the early Republic was conducted before one’s peers; you announced your choice orally, which was recorded by officials. 

With the expanse of Rome and its empire-  success and massive wealth- there was more focus on guarding people’s voting choice and protection from one’s peers and patrons and patricians, who expected their inferiors to vote in a certain way.  To limit any form of intimidation, laws starting with the lex Gabinia tabellaria in 139 BC, were created to allow voting anonymously, to foster a system of voting without fear of reprisals from one’s societal superiors.  

A new procedure was created.  In the Saepta, voters, one at a time, crossed a bridge to the place of voting where they were handed a tabella (ballot) distributed by rogatores (who previously asked voters to state their vote orally).  

Voters then marked the ballots and deposited them in a cista (jar or basket), guarded by specifically appointed custodes (watchmen).  The key ancient sources are late Republican: Cicero, Pro Plancio, 20, ad Qu. Fratr. III.4 §1; Varro, De Re Rust. III.2 §1III.5 §18.  There is only a single coin from 113 BC that documents this actual process.  Incidentally, this was one of the hypothesized locations discussed by Julius Caesar’s assassins.  It was an appealing location, as rogatores and custodies were typically upper class, patrician members, whom the conspirators thought they could fill with their numbers and easily overpower Caesar as he crossed over the bridge to vote.  Ultimately, the Curia Pompeiana was selected for the Ides of March assassination. 

With the end of free elections in Rome, under the principate, the Saepta and Diribitorium were destined to become locations for social gatherings and entertainment events like gladiatorial games and music performances. Gone forever was the right to vote with the solidification of autocratic rule, but the imprint left from these massive spaces underlines the importance that voting once held in the longest and oldest Republic in western history.