The lictor (possibly from Latin: ligare, "to bind") was a member of a special class of Roman civil servant, with special tasks of attending and guarding magistrates of the Roman Republic and Empire who held imperium, the right and power to command; essentially, a bodyguard. The origin of the tradition of lictors goes back to the time when Rome was a kingdom, perhaps acquired from their Etruscan neighbours.
According to Livy, lictors were first introduced by Rome's first king, Romulus, who appointed twelve lictors to attend his majesty. Livy refers to two competing traditions for the reason Romulus chose that number of lictors. The first version is that twelve was the number of birds that appeared in the augury which had portended the kingdom to Romulus. The second version, favoured by Livy, is that the number of lictors was borrowed from the Etruscan kings, who had one lictor appointed from each of their twelve states.1
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Originally, lictors were chosen from the plebs but through most part of the Roman history they seemed to be freedmen. Centurions from the legions were also automatically eligible to become a lictor on retirement from the army.2 They were, however, definitely Roman citizens, since they wore togae inside Rome. A lictor had to be a strongly built man, capable of physical work. Lictors were exempted from military service, received a fixed salary (of 600 sesterces, in the beginning of the Empire), and were organized in a corporation. Usually, they were personally chosen by the magistrate they were supposed to serve, but it is also possible that they were drawn by lots.
Lictors were associated with Comitia Curiata and probably originally one was selected from each curia, since originally there were 30 curiae and 30 lictors (24 for two consuls and 6 for the sole praetor)
The lictor's main task was to attend as bodyguards to magistrates who held imperium. They carried rods decorated with fasces and, outside the pomerium, with axes that symbolized the power to execute. Dictatorial lictors had axes even within the pomerium. They followed the magistrate wherever he went, including the Forum, his house, temples and the baths. Lictors were organized in an ordered line before him, with the primus lictor (the principal lictor) right on his front, waiting for orders. If there was a crowd, the lictors opened the way and kept their master safe, pushing all aside except for Roman matrons, who were accorded special honor. They also had to stand beside the magistrate whenever he addressed the crowd. Magistrates could only dispense with their lictors if they were visiting a free city or addressing a higher status magistrate. Lictors also had legal and penal duties: they could at their master's command arrest Roman citizens and punish them. A Vestal Virgin was accorded a lictor when her presence was required at a public ceremony.
- Dictator: 24 lictors outside the pomerium, 12 inside. The latter rule was ignored starting from the dictatorship of Sulla
- Emperor: originally 12 lictors, after Domitian 24 lictors
- Rex and Consul: 12 lictors
- Proconsul: 11 lictors
- Magister equitum: 6 lictors
- Praetor: 6 lictors, 2 within Pomerium
- Propraetor and Legatus: 5 lictors
- Curule aediles: 2 lictors
- Quaestor: 1 lictor.
Sometimes, lictors were ascribed to private citizens in special occasions, like funerals or political reunions, as a show of respect by the city.
The lictor curiatus (plural lictores curiati) was a special kind of lictor, who did not carry rods or fasces and whose main tasks were religious. Some thirty in number, they were at the command of the Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of Rome. They were present at sacrifices, where they carried or guided sacrificial animals to the altars. Vestal Virgins, as well as flamines (priests) and other high ranking priests, were entitled to be escorted and protected by lictores curiati. In the Empire, women of the royal family were usually followed by two of this kind of lictor. The lictores curiati were also responsible for summoning the Comitia Curiata (the Public Assembly) and to maintain order during its procedures.
- Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1:8
- The Legions of Rome, Stephen Dando-Collins, pp41, Quercus (December 2010)