Collegia, Stability and the Vox Populi


Steven Umbrello
published on 16 August 2015
Available in other languages: Spanish

This short analysis will investigate the associations known as 'collegia' (also known as clubs, associations, companies) mentioned in the letters (10.33-34) from the Roman pro-consul Pliny to the emperor Trajan. We will determine why Trajan was against the formation of such an association in Pontus-Bithynia, as well as place the nature of collegia in the wider historical narrative. I will conclude by discussing the influence that political groups may have had on the empire's political system, as well as the level of political freedom that the common people had under Trajan's regime. But first we must summarize Pliny's Letters.


C. Plinius Traiano Imperatori.

cum diversam partem provinciae circumirem, Nicomediae vastissimum incendium multas privatorum domos et duo publica opera, quamquam via interiacente, Gerusian et Iseon absumpsit. est autem latius sparsum, primum violentia venti, deinde inertia hominum quos satis constat otiosos et immobiles tanti mali spectatores perstitisse; et alioqui nullus usquam in publico sipo, nulla hama, nullum denique instrumentum ad incendia compescenda. et haec quidem, ut iam praecepi, parabuntur; tu, domine, dispice an instituendum putes collegium fabrorum dumtaxat hominum CL. ego attendam, ne quis nisi faber recipiatur neve iure concesso in aliud utantur; nec erit difficile custodire tam paucos.

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Gaius Pliny to the Emperor Trajan.

While I was touring a different part of the province, a very extensive fire at Nicomedia consumed many private citizens' homes and two public buildings, the senate-house and the temple of Isis, even though a street lay between them. It spread more widely at first because of the force of the wind, then because of the sluggishness of the people who, it is clear, stood around as lazy and immobile spectators of such a great calamity. Furthermore there was no fire-engine or water-bucket anywhere for public use, or in fact any instrument for extinguishing fires. These things, however, will be got ready, as I have now directed; as for you, master, consider whether you think a company of workmen [i.e. a fire brigade] should be established, of no more than 150 men. I shall take care that no one except a workman shall be admitted, and that they shall not use the privilege they have been granted for any other purpose. It will not be difficult to keep an eye on so few.

Trajan's Refusal of Pliny's Request

Traianus Plinio.

tibi quidem secundum exempla complurium in mentem venit posse collegium fabrorum apud Nicomedenses constitui. sed meminerimus provinciam istam et praecipue eas civitates eius modi factionibus esse vexatas. quodcumque nomen ex quacumque causa dederimus iis, qui in idem contracti fuerint, hetaeriae eaeque brevi fient. satius itaque est comparari ea, quae ad coercendos ignes auxilio esse possint, admonerique dominos praediorum, ut et ipsi inhibeant ac, si res poposcerit, accursu populi ad hoc uti.

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Trajan to Pliny.

It has occurred to you that a company of firemen could be established in Nicomedia, following the example of several cities. But we should remember that your province – and especially those cities – have been troubled by factions of this sort. Whatever name we give to them, for whatever purpose, men who have been brought together for the same purpose will quickly become political clubs. Therefore it will be preferable for those things to be got ready which are of service for the control of fires, and for the owners of property to be advised that they should extinguish fires themselves and, if the situation demands it, to employ the assistance of the populace for this purpose.

Trajan Statue, London
Trajan Statue, London
Tilemahos Efthimiadis (CC BY)

Collegium & Trajan's Refusal

Before we discuss exactly why Trajan feared the formation of a collegium in Pontus-Bithynia, we have to discuss exactly what a collegium is, as well as its place in the political landscape of Imperial Rome. Collegia are thought to have existed since the beginning of the Republic and were constituted of groups of individuals of similar interest, usually members who shared the same craft or trade. Fowler (2004) suggests that most of these trade collegia faded from the political narrative until they appeared again in the late Republic, but now with political motivations. However, it was because of these political motivations that they were inevitably suppressed. Those that were allowed to remain active had to be given official sanction under the new laws of the Caesarian government in an attempt to regulate the possibility of turbulent groups rising up once again Those groups that did cause political upheaval were typically made up of the lower classes of the Roman public such as freedmen and even slaves.

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The suppression of the collegia was more a form of political censorship than the maintenance of political order.

Keeping this in mind we can begin to understand the context in which Trajan refused Pliny's request to allow the formation of an association in his province. Firstly, we must look at the correspondence itself. Why did Pliny ask Trajan for permission to form the collegium rather than simply forming it on his own authority? Aside from any personal connection between the two men, Pliny has to ask the emperor for permission to from the collegia because the enactments of the lex Iulia still persisted to the reign of Trajan. The lex IuliIa was a late republican era law which mandated that the formation of any association or club (collegia) must be granted by either the senate or the emperor. This point of the law no doubt persisted through the imperial period because of the Roman elites' natural distrust of lower class associations. Similarly, Trajan would have been worried about the political stability in Asia Minor should the association be formed and eventually turned into a political entity. The real questions, however, are these: Is the caution shown by Trajan warranted? Did the fire brigade that Pliny asked for pose as a likely candidate for political instability?

Given that we know the collegia are made up of lower class citizens who, during the Roman imperial period, didn't have a voice in the political narrative, we see the spark of a justified motivation to unify among like-minded individuals to strive for political change. Thus, if the goal is the suppression of any opportunistic political groups then Trajan was warranted in denying Pliny the permission to create such an association.

The following section will look at the authoritarian regime of the Imperial system and how the political collegia would affect the system, as well as a broad overview of individual freedom in the political landscape of the Roman Empire.

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Effect of Political Collegia on the Roman Empire

The Roman imperial system, being under the absolute rule of a single man, poses inevitable barriers with regards to the political voice of individuals. An individual having his voice heard by the leader of the state was virtually impossible if that individual was not part of the senatorial elite. This thus makes it a near impossibility to propose political and/or social change in the state. This, however, did not mean that the imperial system could simply ignore the needs of the vulgar crowd. When gathered en masse the mob carried significant sway. It's no wonder that when individuals of the lower classes, when gathered into groups of similar motives, will eventually come to share a similar political idea. This, no doubt, scared the political elite to instate laws like the Lex Iulia that suppressed and heavily regulated associations that threatened the status quo that they aimed to maintain. Suppressing such groups, however, did not only cease the possibility of political upheaval, but it necessarily made ineffective the only possible tool which the lower classes used to voice their political views. This is unquestionably more of a form of political censorship than the maintenance of political order.

Now let us look at the actual effects that some of these collegia had on the political system before they were suppressed. Trajan says to Pliny that such organization have “disturbed” the province in the past. But what exactly would Trajan have considered disturbing? We actually see that in the closing years of the Republican era, the elite themselves in elections implemented collegia as political tools. So was it the members of the political clubs themselves or those magistrates who bought them off as tools to win elections that are to blame? Fowler (2004) blames the ability to buy one's way into power, even in the face of countering legislation, as the cause of the corruption of the collegia from honourable clubs of like-minded men to beds of political unrest. Thus, the collegia were banned because of their potential as political tools that could be wielded by elites attempting to gain political standing. However, by suppressing such 'tools' the government synonymously suppressed any chance for the common man of the lower classes to voice their socio-political beliefs. Thus, Trajan in his correspondence is simply stating something that was solidified with the enactment of the Lex Iulia: that the vox populi was dead, and that it should remain that way.

Political Suppression of Collegia

Before I conclude this paper, I want to move away from Pliny's correspondence and bring to attention how far this form of political suppression runs. The beginning of the suppression of collegia because of their uses as political tools began in the late republic and early principate with the lex Iulia. However if we look as far as the Christian emperor Justinian, we see in his digests how he reaffirms this age-old precedent of making political associations illegal. He states in Digest 47 that it is illegal for political associations to form, however he does allow for individuals to occasionally meet in groups however not for political motivations. Justinian is clear to dictate that the punishment for funding and being a member of an “illegal society” (i.e. a political association) will face a penalty equal to that of treason.

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We see that this ideal of suppressing political associations made up of the lower strata of Roman society is a long standing ideal held from the late republic even up until the early Christian period. Suppressing the public voice of the majority not only reaffirms the power that the senatorial and imperial classes held but also shows the lengths that they were willing to go to assure the consolidation of the longevity of this power.


This document analysis has explicated and analyzed the correspondence between the Roman governor of Pontus-Bithynia Pliny and the Roman emperor Trajan. The origin and structure of collegia was looked at as well as their place in the wider historical narrative. It was discovered that collegia were one of the only outlets for the lower classes of Roman society to voice their political opinions and that this posed a threat to the Roman political elite. We showed how this threat lead to legislation which inevitably dissolved all collegia in Rome save a few registered non-political ones and we saw how Trajan in his response to Pliny only affirms this agenda. Finally we saw how the long lasting suppression of these political groups was essentially the suppression of the public voice and the consolidation of imperial power. The vox populi was dead.

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About the Author

Steven Umbrello
Steven Umbrello studied classics and philosophy at the University of Toronto. His primary research interest revolve around the philosophy of Stoicism, transhumanism and the ethics of emerging technologies.



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APA Style

Umbrello, S. (2015, August 16). Collegia, Stability and the Vox Populi. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Umbrello, Steven. "Collegia, Stability and the Vox Populi." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 16, 2015.

MLA Style

Umbrello, Steven. "Collegia, Stability and the Vox Populi." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 16 Aug 2015. Web. 24 May 2024.