Comes (// KOH-meez), plural comites (// KOM-i-teez), is the Latin word for "companion", either individually or as a member of a collective known as comitatus, especially the suite of a magnate, in some cases large and/or formal enough to have a specific name, such as a cohors amicorum. The word comes derives from com- "with" + ire "go."
Ancient Roman religion
Comes was a common epithet or title, added to the name (as Catholicism still does with Jesus and much-venerated saints, such as in Our Lady of Lourdes) for a hero or a divinity, as a way to mark a relationship with another divinity.
Imperially bestowed court titles and various offices of Comites
Historically more significant, Comes became a secular title given to trusted (ex-)courtiers and others, as a mark of imperial confidence. It developed into a formal rank, deriving from the "Companions" of Alexander the Great, and rather equivalent to the Hellenistic Philos (Basilikos) or the paladin title of a Holy Roman Empire knight and a papal official. Thus the title was retained when one was appointed—often promoted—to a post away from court, often in the field or provincial administration. Next, it seemed logical to link it to specific charges calling for an incumbent of high rank, and even to make it part of the official title.
As the imperial court grew in size and assimilated to itself all political influence, the emperors established a casual practice of appointing loyal servants to various posts. This had already been done elsewhere, as with the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard and the Amici Principis. As the imperial system expanded, however, new offices were needed and decentralization demanded change. The result was the creation of the rank of "comes".
The comites (often translated as "counts", though neither feudal nor hereditary) became leading officials of the later Roman Empire. They wielded posts of every description, from the army to the civil service, while never surrendering their direct links and access to the emperors. Constantine took the final step of certifying the posts, as comites provinciarum, "counts of the provinces", who were sent out alongside vicars in their dioceses so that they were permanent fixtures of imperial government.
They are listed in full for the beginning of the 5th century in the Notitia dignitatum, and a schematic map of comital military posts in English translation is available at the Friesian project. At later dates, additional posts have been created.
The following are examples of the various types of comites:
At court or in the imperial domains
- Comes dispositonum—A deputy to the very powerful magister officiorum ("master of offices"); responsible for organizing the imperial calendar and preparing the correspondence for distribution to the proper offices for transcription.
- Comes domesticorum -a vir illustris- Head of the Domestici, a corps of bodyguards of the emperor who were stationed in the imperial palace. There were two of these comital commanders, for the horse - viz. foot units (Comes domesticorum Equitum vs. Comes domesticorum Peditum).
- Comes privatae largitionis—Keeper of the privy purse, answerable and subordinate to the comes rerum privatarum.
- Comes rerum privatarum—Powerful imperial officer responsible for the private estates or holdings of the emperor and his family (res privata). He maintained the properties and collected all monies from rent, of which most went to the public funds and some to the privy purse administered by the comes privatae largitionis.
- Comes sacrarum largitionum -a Vir illustris- Master of the 'Sacred Largess', who operated the imperial finances. He controlled all of the mints (each led by a Procurator), was in chief of a long list of officials (more Procurators, rationales, Praepositi) who collected senatorial taxes, custom duties and some land taxes, was also responsible for the yields of the mines, provided budgets for the civil service and armies and supplied all uniforms. His competence also included several minor Comites:
Exceptionally, a gubernatorial position was styled comes:
- Comes Orientis—Actually one of the vicarii, this count had control over the large and strategically important imperial diocese of the East, supervising the governors of this major group of provinces, but was himself under supervision of the praefectus praetorio Orientis.
Furthermore, some less important section chiefs under the authority of otherwise styled, high-ranking territorial officials could be styled Comes, e.g. under the praefectus urbis of Rome (a vir illustris) were a comes formarum, a comes riparum et alvei Tiberis et cloacarum ("count of the coast of the Tiber and the canalisation") and a comes portus ("count of the port").
The title comes consistorianus indicated the comites who advised the Emperor in his council (the consistorium) for official (mainly legal) matters, whether on an occasional basis, ex officio (as main court department heads) or, in the case of his adsessor ('chief counsel'), as a distinct job.
Comes rei militaris
These comites held military appointments, higher than dux, but below Magister peditum/ Magister equitum; they were the superiors of a series of military posts, each commanded by a praepositus limitis (border commander), and/or unit commanders, such as tribunes of cohorts, alae (auxiliary equivalent), numeri, in the Eastern empire even legions.
The Notitia Dignitatum (early 5th century) mentions six such positions, of the rank vir spectabilis, in the Western empire (Comes Italiae, Comes Africae, Comes Tingitaniae, Comes Tractus Argentoratensis, Comes Britanniarum and Litoris Saxonici per Britanniam) and two in the Eastern empire: Comes (limitis) Aegypti, Comes Isauriae).
- Comes Africae—Count in charge of the defense of Roman Africa.
- Comes Argentoratensis—Count in charge of the defense of part of Gaul (Gallia).
- Comes Avernorum—Count in charge of the defense of part of Gaul (Gallia).
- Comes Britanniarum—Count in charge of defense of Roman Britain (Britannia). This post presumably expired around AD 410, when the last Roman troops left Britain.
- Comes Littoris Saxonici per Britanniam
- Comes Hispaniarum—Count in charge of the defense of Roman Iberia (Hispania).
As the number of comites grew, the rank was devalued. This led to the introduction of the notion of classes of comites: first, second and third ordines.
Horse guards corps of Comites
The Comites dominorum nostrorum (plural of Comes D.N.; literally "Companions of our Lords [Emperors]') were a mounted imperial body guard during Diocletian's tetrarchy (c. 300).
The Goths that ruled Spain and Italy followed the tradition of the Romans in giving the title of count to the diverse heads of the departments of the royal household.
- Comes Cubiculariorum—Count in charge of the chamberlains (L. cubicularii).
- Comes Scanciorum—Count in charge of the cup-bearers
- Comes Stabulorum—Count in charge of the equerries and stables
- Comes Notariorum—Count in charge of the chancery
- Comes Thesaurorum—Count in charge of the officers of the treasury
The Frankish kings of the Merovingian dynasty retained a good deal of the Roman system of administration, including the title comes which preserved its original meaning: a companion of the king, a royal servant of high rank. Under the early Frankish kings some comites did not exercise any definite functions; they were merely attached to the king's person and executed his orders. Others filled the highest offices, e.g. the comes palatii and comes stabuli (survives in the title Constable). The kingdom was divided for administrative purposes into small areas called pagi (hence French pays; German Gaue), corresponding generally to the Roman civitas. At the head of the pagus was the comes, corresponding to the German Graf (in full Gaugraf). The comes was appointed by the king and removable at his pleasure, and was chosen originally from all classes, sometimes from enfranchised serfs. His essential functions were judicial and executive, and in documents he is often described as the king's agent (agens publicus) or royal judge (judex publicus/fiscalis). As the delegate of the executive power he had the right to military command in the king's name, and to take all the measures necessary for the preservation of the peace, i.e. to exercise the royal ban (bannus regis). He was at once public prosecutor and judge, was responsible for the execution of the sentences of the courts, and as the king's representative exercised the royal right of protection (mundium regis) over churches, widows, orphans and the like. He enjoyed a triple wergeld, but had no definite salary, being remunerated by the receipt of certain revenues, a system which contained the germs of discord, on account of the confusion of his public and private duties. The Anglo-Saxon gerefa, however, meaning illustrious, chief, has apparently, according to philologists, no connection with the German Graf, which originally meant servant (compare the origins of the words "knight" or "valet"). It is the more curious that the gerefa should end as a subservient reeve, the Graf as a noble count.
In the feudal tradition, Latin was often used, especially in legal documents, as (sometimes sole) official language, so the rendering in Latin was no less important than the original in the spoken vernacular. Thus, comes has been used as the Latin equivalent (or part of it) of all titles of comital rank, whether containing Count (or some other word etymologically derived from Comes, or in many other languages from Graf).
- Similarly it is part of the rendering (not always exclusive) of derived lower titles containing such term, notably Vicecomes for Viscount and Burgicomes (alongside burgravio) for Burgrave.
- Agentes in rebus
- Mund (in law)
- Notitia Dignitatum
- Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft
- Roman Finance.
Sources and references
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. Missing or empty
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