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Saepta Julia

Saepta Julia

This is a grand colonnaded plaza (310 x 120 m) that Caesar designed to replace the earlier Saepta, the republican voting precinct in the campus Martius. It was completed and dedicated by Agrippa in 26 B.C. As voting died out during the Empire, the plaza was used for public spectacles such as gladiatorial games and mock naval battles. In the walkways of the colonnades, famous paintings and statues were displayed; off the walkways, shops sold luxury goods.

Saepta Julia

From Samuel Ball Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, rev. Thomas Ashby. Oxford: 1929, p. 460-461.

The building which Caesar planned to erect (Cic. ad Att. IV.16.14) in place of the earlier saepta (see Ovile), the voting precinct in the campus Martius. It was to be of marble, surrounded by a lofty porticus one mile in length. Whether actually begun by Caesar or not, it was partly built by Lepidus (στοαῖς πέριζ ὑπὸ τοῦ Λεπίδου πρὸς τὰς φυλετικὰς ἀρχαιρεσίας (comitiis tributis) συνῳκοδομημένα, Cass. Dio LIII.23), and completed and dedicated by Agrippa in 26 B.C. Agrippa decorated the building with stone tablets and paintings, and gave the official designation of saepta Iulia. It seems to have been ordinarily called saepta only; once porticus saeptorum (Plin. NH XVI.201); and once, in the third century, saepta Agrippiana (Hist. Aug. Alex. 26). It also continued to be known as ovile (Liv. XXVI.22; Lucan II.197; Auson. Grat. act. iii.13; Serv. Ecl. i.33).

In the saepta gladiatorial combats were exhibited by Augustus (Suet. Aug. 43; Cass. Dio LV.8), Caligula (Suet. Cal. 18), Claudius (Suet. Claud. 21); and naumachiae, or sham naval battles, by Augustus (Cass. Dio LV.10) and Caligula (ib. LIX.10: Πὰν τὸ χωρίον ἐκεινο ἐξορύξας καὶ ὑδατος Πληρώσας ἵνα μίαν ναῦν ἐσαγἁγη). Nero used the building for gymnastic exhibitions (Suet. Nero 12). In 17 B.C. the senate was convened here (acta lud. saec., CIL VI.32323, 50), the only recorded occasion, and Tiberius addressed the people from a tribunal erected in it, after his return from the Illyrian campaign (Suet. Tib. 17; Cass. Dio LVI.1). Pliny speaks of the works of art that it contained (NH XXXVI.29), and Seneca of the crowds that frequented it (de ira II.8.1).

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Additional source material

  • Ancient Library Sources (from Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004) [Works cited]

    73. The Forum of Caesar (Forum Caesaris, Forum Julium). Sources.


    Cicero sends greetings to Atticus: [54 BC]

    Nothing is more impressive than Paullus's new basilica, nothing more suited to advance a reputation. And so, I must confess, we “friends of Caesar” (I refer to myself and Oppius, even if that causes you to explode) have spent without any qualms sixty million sesterces towards that monumental work you used to praise so highly—the expansion of the over-crowded Forum, and its extension all the way to the Atrium of Liberty. The private owners of the land would not have sold for a lesser sum. But the results of our efforts will be magnificent, since we also have in mind to reconstruct the Voting Pens [Saepta] for the tribal assemblies in the Campus Martius, this one made of marble and roofed over, and we will surround it with a lofty colonnade a mile long. The Villa Publica will be attached to it as part of the same project. I know you're probably wondering what possible advantage I get out of these show-pieces, but let's not go into that now.

    Cicero, Letters to Atticus 4.16.8

    82. Villa Publica; The Voting Grounds (Saepta Julia) and Ballot Office (Diribitorium). Overview.

    One of the earliest and most important functions of the Campus Martius was as a mustering ground for Roman citizens. Here they would come to be counted in a census, to be enrolled in an army, or to cast a vote in an election. Since Roman elections involved many groups of people gathering simultaneously, a large open area was needed, and since one of Rome's important assemblies (the comitia centuriata) was a mustering of citizens in their military units, it was also necessary that this location be beyond the pomerium, inside of which such military gatherings could not occur. The Campus Martius suited both needs.

    One of the gathering areas in the Campus was the Villa Publica, an apt name but difficult to translate: Varro [82.2] stresses the communal, public quality of this “common”, while “villa” suggests both an open, park-like setting as well as structures of some sort, whether simply porticos that could hold and be used to confine crowds, or buildings and offices as well [82.1].

    Cicero tells us that the Villa Publica was next to the Saepta, “the Voting Pens,” used for elections in which the centuriate and tribal assemblies voted. We know where the Voting Pens were: in terms of today's landscape, Bernini's elephant in front of Maria sopra Minerva stands near the middle of the Voting Pens; at the southern end of the Pens was Agrippa's Ballot Office, a corner of which touched on a corner of the area of the four Republican temples in Largo Argentina. It isn't clear, however, on which side of the Voting Pens the Villa Publica was located; east and south both have their supporters. The extent of the Villa at various periods is also vague. It is possible that the Voting Pens and Ballot Office preserved some of the original land and function of the Villa, while the remainder of the land was subsequently developed for other purposes.

    Historically, perhaps the most famous event in the Villa was catalogued in communal memory under the heading of Cruelty, Excessive. It was here that the dictator Sulla, victorious in a civil war against fellow Italians but simulating clemency, lured 8,000 Samnite soldiers, perhaps on the pretence of enrolling them in the army of the lawful State. Their screaming, audible at least as far as a senate meeting in the Temple of Bellona, has been used to locate the Villa in the direction of the Circus Flaminius.

    “Saepta” might be translated as “enclosure,” but since this site was also called the “Ovile,” the “Sheep-pen,” “Pens” preserves the sense of the herding that must have gone on here to manage large numbers of men in ways that also called for precision. The colonnades bordering the area would form one large enclosure, but perhaps ropes and planks came into play for further divisions (hence the plural saepta?). Since gladiatorial games and strolling also took place here, it is not likely that more permanent internal divisions were built.

    82. Villa Publica; The Voting Grounds (Saepta Julia) and Ballot Office (Diribitorium). Sources.


    [In 435 BC] the censors approved the creation of the Villa Publica in the Campus Martius, and the first census of the People was held there.

    Livy, History 4.22.7


    The Villa Publica is the common property of the entire population.… It functions as a place to transact public business, where cohorts muster for a levy at the command of a consul, where they gather for an inspection of arms, and where the censors convene the people for a census.

    Varro, Agriculture 3.2.4


    Sulla lured four legions of the opposing army into the Villa Publica, and as they begged for mercy from his treacherous hand, he had them slaughtered.

    Valerius Maximus, Sayings 9.2.1

    83. The Voting Pens (Saepta). Sources.


    Cicero sends greetings to Atticus: [54 BC]

    We “friends of Caesar” also plan to reconstruct the Voting Pens for the tribal assemblies in the Campus Martius, this one made of marble and roofed over, and we will surround it with a lofty colonnade a mile long. The Villa Publica will be attached to it as part of the same project.

    Cicero, Letters to Atticus 4.16.8


    The arches of the Virgo begin below the Gardens of Lucullus and end in the Campus Martius in front of the Voting Pens.

    Frontinus, Aqueducts 22


    In his eighth consulship [26 BC], Agrippa dedicated the structure in the Campus Martius called “the Pens,” which had earlier been surrounded by Lepidus with colonnades for voting by tribes. Rather than repairing one of the major roads leading out of town [projects which Augustus encouraged the Roman senators to undertake], Agrippa finished the Saepta with marble plaques and paintings, and called it the Saepta Julia in honor of Augustus.

    Dio, History 53.23.1-2


    The emperor Caligula sometimes gave gladiatorial games in the Voting Pens.

    Suetonius, Caligula 18.1


    Mamurra strolls around the Voting Pens at length,

    Where all of golden Rome consumes its goods.

    He scrutinizes pretty boys on sale and eats

    Them with his eyes—not those on the blatant block

    But tucked away on viewing stands behind the scenes

    That the common crowd and my sort never see.

    Having gazed to satiety, he asks to inspect

    Quilt-wrapped tables and ivories high on shelves,

    And sighs that a dining couch for six in tortoise shell

    Clashes with the citrus-wood back home.

    Lifting a cup, he consults his nose as a judge of bronze,

    Or notes the flaws in a statue by Polyclitus.

    Finding fault with a crystal's “streak of common glass,”

    He puts on hold ten precious agate vases.

    He weighs the antique cups for wine and any goblets

    Made famous by the master hand of Mentor.…

    When the day is done, weary from shopping he totes, all told,

    Two cups he bought for a dollar back to his room.

    Martial, Epigrams 9.59.1-16, 21-22

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