Who loves voting lines?! THE ROMANS!

Why? Control! Security! Block voting! Secret Ballot!

Who doesn’t love lining up under the elements? In all weathers?!

It’s gonna be great!

Let’s make those lines extra narrow and have very limited space inside the voting area!!!

The best thing to read on this is behind a paywall and in French by an Italian. So if you want the quick and dirty version –Really, the: “I should be grading version or developing course materials or answering emails version”–this is it.

[Update: look out for a forthcoming article on this from David Rafferty in TAPA, hopefully 151.1 (2021), but perhaps a later volume!]

Romans voted in blocks and there was no such thing as an absentee or proxy vote or multiple polling spaces. What do I mean by a block? It is kind of like the US electoral college: every one in the block who choses to vote and manages to do so (in our case States, in the Roman case “tribes” or “centuries”) votes and then bases on simple majority the block vote is given its totality toward one candidate or one decision (yes/no in the case of legislation, guilty/not guilt for trials). As I’m fond of reminding you, elitist Greeks at the end of the republic thought this was a very clever way of making sure the poor (suckers) ‘thought’ their vote counted.

So if all those blocks voted simultaneously (or near simultaneously) the Romans needed to make sure each voter gets sorted in to the right group. I’m reminded about how hard it was to find my right polling station within my polling location back in Brooklyn.

At least by the mid-2nd century BCE (but probably much earlier) the Romans has worked out a system they called the saepta (enclosure) or olivia (the sheep pens–great analogy right?!).

We know this because of the archaeological remains of Fregellae (Latin colony from 328 BCE, rebelled and destroyed 125 BCE). The form was designed to allow for long (hot, cold, wet, slow, miserable, sociable, crowded) lines.

Image from Coarelli 2001.

Rome had something similar. Long before Julius Caesar co-opted the project as his own, plans to monumentalize the voting pens were underway in late republic.

For in the Campus Martius we are about to erect voting places for the saepta tributis, of marble and covered, and to surround them with a lofty colonnade a mile in circumference: at the same time the Villa Publica will also be connected with these erections. You will say: “What good will this monument do me?” But why should we trouble ourselves about that?

Cicero writing to Atticus, 1 July 54 BCE, translation modified from Shuckburgh

The voting pens are visible on the fragments of the Severan marble plan. I include a modern map for human scale, particularly for those who are used to walking this landcape.

From the same as above. Darker areas are those for which parts of the marble plan survive.
Yellow marks basic area covered by the Saepta

Putting colonnades around ensured that both sight lines and access points to the voting area were highly restricted. Who got in and out was easily policed. Inside the voting area for officials might be covered but the area in which those waiting to vote after being sorted by block was not. Again environmental factors and press of people could be significant including waiting.

The area is huge you will say, massive. More than enough, surely?! So the estimated area (v rough–I just used Google earth) is about 3.51 hectares = .04 sq km = 378,205 sq feet = 8.68 acres. The perimeter is about 875 meters or 2874 feet or 958 yards, so about 2/3s of an imperial Roman mile, but not really that far off Cicero’s 1000 paces. An American football field is 57,600 square feet (5,350 m2). So the Saepta was nearly 6.5 football fields. VAST!

If you allow 2ftx2ft per person (tight!) 14,400 people fit on an American football field or 94,551 in our (over) estimated Saepta, but with all the equipment and crowd control that seems far far too high.

How many Romans were eligible to vote? Were told that in 70 BCE maybe 910,000 individuals? In 28 BCE 4,063,000?! (See Wiseman 1969).

So we could generalize that the built structure in Rome was intended to accommodate less than 10% of the eligible voters, probably much less than 5%.

What about the logistics of time in this space?

Cicero calls it the tribal Saepta so let’s guess that individuals lined up by tribe or that the basic built structure of the barriers allowed for this. That would mean at least 35 rows. These rows must have been less than 10 feet wide, probably a lot less.

Perhaps these rows were divided again by senior and junior members? So less than 5 feet wide?

So you get in line. The number of people in line ahead of you effects waiting time as do the time it takes for them to vote.

Voting scene on RRC 292/1

Every voter has to mount the voting bridge, get a ballot, mark their ballot, cross bridge, deposit the ballot in the urn and walk off the bridge. 30 seconds? Just a guess. That would be 120 voters per tribe per hours. Maybe if two lines per tribe 240 votes per hour.

There are about 15 hours of daylight in Rome in summer. So maybe enough time for 126,000 citizen to vote, but that seems far too high.

And that is A LOT of waiting in line.

But somebody must have been policing the order in which everyone got in line for elections because the centuries within each tribe needed to vote in order. So that had to increase waiting time for those lower in the centuries.

Of course tribal distribution was not even. Urban tribes would have longer lines than rural tribes.

Time is a luxury. Standing around all day to vote costs for those living at the subsistence level.

Oh and you might end up in the middle of riot at Rome as you’re standing in line to vote. That was pretty typical in the last decade or so.


For a more serious view of all this, see the work of Lily Ross Taylor (a personal hero of mine)

2 thoughts on “Who loves voting lines?! THE ROMANS!”

  1. About the Publius Licinius Nerva coin, Crawford wrote: ““The precise motivation behind the choice of type is uncertain – it is perhaps less plausible to associate it with C. Licinius Crassus, Tr. Pl. 145…than with C. Marius…who in his tribunate a few years before pontes…fecit angustos [made the bridges, over which the voters passed to cast their votes, narrow].” I believe the narrowing of the bridge was actually to make bribery and voting influence more difficult (and not to make voting slower or more difficult as one might otherwise think).

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