The Roman Collegia

The Roman Collegia

BY Bro. H. L. Haywood Originally Published In The Builder - June 1923

The origin of Modern Freemasonry has been traced by means of documents and other
historical records to guilds of builders in the Middle Ages. These guilds in
turn were derived from yet earlier forms of organized endeavour (as has already
been noted in the chapter on the Cathedral Builders) therefore Masonic
historians have found it necessary to try to push their way back behind them in
an attempt to learn how they came into existence. Nearly all these historians
have fastened their attention on the Roman collegia (plural form of collegium)
as furnishing the most probable ancestry for the guilds from which Freemasonry
sprang, therefore it is necessary for a Masonic student to know something about
those societies of ancient Rome.

A collegium was an association of persons, never less than three, for some
chosen object, usually of a trade, social, or religious character, organized
according to law. It had its own regulations and usually its own meeting place.
In the majority of cases these collegia were dealt with by law as having what is
known in lawyer parlance as "a legal personality," that is to say, they could
own property and they could be held accountable through their officials for
their acts. The collegiate organizations r eached their perfection and became
most popular in Rome, therefore they are generally known as Roman collegia, but
they were also popular in many other countries as well.


The great majority of Greek Collegia were organized about the worship of some
god or hero. Religion was a public activity controlled by the state and
consequently was formal in its character; many men and women, feeling the need
for something more emotional, organized themselves into cults for the private
worship of their favourite gods, and these organizations were often collegiate
in form. It is believed that the famous Orphic mysteries, so often described by
Masonic writers, were begun in this manner. Collegia of worshippers of Bacchus
existed in the second century; there is a record of such a collegium dated 186
B.C. These and other Greek collegia were called by various names, thiassoi,
hetairai, etc.

Political activity among the Greeks sometimes assumed the collegiate form,
especially among the lower classes and among colonies of resident aliens, the
latter of whom usually settled at or near some seaport. There were political
collegia at Athens in the time of Pericles, and they caused much trouble. In 413
B.C. a group of them conspired to overthrow the democratic government. Such
Greek associations, however, were not very numerous or powerful, and never
reached anything like the state of development as that attained in Rome.

Collegia became more or less common in Egypt in the first century B.C.,
especially among the worshippers of Isis. Apuleius mentions one such
organization under date of 79 B.C., and there is reason to believe that they had
existed much earlier. In many cases they took the form of burial clubs, about
which more anon. Records of the existence of such associations in the famous
region of the Fayum have been found, bearing date of 67 B.C. In Asia Minor,
also, traces of collegia have been unearthed, and it is believed that Thyatira
had a larger number than any other city in Asia; its college of smiths became
known throughout the world.


Among the Romans collegiate associations were so old that legend attributed
their founding to Numa, the second of the traditional Roman kings, and there is
a mention of collegia in the Twelve Tables. These organizations flourished
unhampered until after the beginning of the first century B.C., during which
time some opposition began to develop among Roman law makers. In 64 B.C. they
were forbidden for a while, with the exception of a few of a religious
character, but in 58 a Clodian law once again permitt ed them. This law was set
aside only two years afterwards. Julius Caesar in his turn forbade them all,
except Jewish associations of worship, on the ground that they dabbled too much
in politics. When Augustus became emperor he espoused the cause of the collegia
and caused to be adopted an imperial statute that came to stand as the
foundation of all jurisprudence having to do with them and with similar
organizations. The Emperor Marcus Aure lius was the greatest friend the collegia
ever had.

Except for these general statutes the collegia were left very much to themselves
until Nero became emperor, when he caused to be adopted a series of regulations
controlling the associations in Italian towns. These regulations were extended
to include provincial towns by Trajan, and from his regime until the end one
emperor after another assumed such increasing control of the collegia that there
came a time when they were merely cogs in the great machinery of state.
Membership was made hereditary; transfer o f a man from one collegium to another
was forbidden; and freedom to work or not to work was everywhere denied.
Industry became in effect a state controlled monopoly, and workmen were as
restricted as soldiers in an army. The imperial system in its last centuries was
supported by the power it extorted from the collegia, so that the organizations
of trades, the organizations of politics, and the organizations of military
forces became three great pillars underneath the empire.

In spite of the great mass of regulations and restrictive laws, and of the
severe penalties hedging them all about, a great many collegia came into
existence under conditions and for purposes that violated the statutes. These
were known as collegia illicits, and gave the officials just such trouble as
bootleggers give nowadays. Some of these unlawful associations were of a
religious character, others were hatching places for political intrigues. When
apprehended they were severely dealt with through the person of their president,
who was compelled to pay a heavy fine or else go to jail.

It is amazing to discover how many collegia there were. More than twenty-five
hundred inscriptions are in existence, and these have emanated from some four
hundred and seventy-five towns and villages of the empire. In the city of Rome
itself more than eighty different trades were organized, and it is believed that
if the memorials were more complete the number would be considerably increased.
It is a great misfortune that we are so dependent on inscriptions and similar
records, because time has not dealt kindly with such things, but this is the
case and because the classic writers almost always scorned to speak of them
owing to their plebeian character. Like our own literary historians the old
Latin writers loved to tell about lords and ladies and other notables, their
fortunes, their intrigues, and their wars: the numberless masses of common folk
lay outside their range of vision. An attempt to discover what the historians of
the Roman Empire have had to say about the collegia will bring this home to a
man; in all the histories that I was able to consult I did not find any
reference worth reading except in one or two of the thick volumes of Duruy, the
Frenchman. Gibbon raises his eyebrows; Ferrers has nothing to say; Mommsen
forgets all about it, though in 1870 he published a tome in Latin on the matter,
which, so far as one may discover, has never been translated into English; and
so it goes. One is driven back on the archaeologists.

A great many collegia were organized solely for the purpose of guaranteeing a
member a decent sepulture; they were known as teuinorum collegia, or burial
clubs. Each club of this kind built or leased a hall, and held regular meetings
upon which occasions poems were read about the deceased, or a feast was held to
commemorate a brother on his birthday anniversary. Each of these pathetic little
societies owned, or had access to, a columbarium. A columbarium, God save the
mark, was a kind of nickname, and me ant literally dovecote, which was a name
suggested by the fact that it so much resembled the little buildings in which
aristocrats housed their doves. In a dark room, half underground, were galleries
of niches, each large enough to contain an urn; every member of the collegium
was entitled to his niche and his urn, and there were provisions for a vase of
flowers, perhaps, or even an inscription.

Death was a thing of horror to the Roman, especially if he had the misfortune to
be poor, because his creeds taught him that a man illy buried would turn out an
unhappy ghost, or even would wander unhoused about the winds, a forlorn and
shivering spirit in an agony of loneliness. Accordingly, every man strained his
resources to see to it that his own soul was protected against such a fate. The
rich could build their own monuments - every Roman highway of any importance was
lined by such things - but the s laves and the poor were hard put to stave off
neglect after death. They resorted to the expedient of pooling their resources,
and the burial club was the result.

It is impossible for us moderns to realize how much such a thing meant to a
Roman with little or no means. The public custom of disposing of the uncared for
dead was repellent beyond description. Great pits were kept half open near the
centers of population and into these, without any ceremony, the corpses of the
poor were dumped. To escape such a horror a man was willing to make almost any

Owing to this feeling about burial the Romans were always patient with any
attempt at securing decorous funeral lites, therefore the collegia having such
matters in charge were dealt with patiently and often with lenience. It is
supposed by such authorities as Sir William Ramsey that many of the early
Christian churches were first organized as burial clubs in order to escape the
wrath of the officials, especially when all private religious associations were
under the ban, as happened several times. It is believed by some that the early
church was often persecuted, not because of the theological doctrines it taught,
but because officialdom deemed associations of private persons a menace to the

The great majority of collegia came into existence for more mundane purposes.
Almost every profession, art, and trade had its own organization made in due
form, and according to imperial statute. Sometimes the division of function
among these crafts was carried to an extreme as when the garbage collectors had
their own collegium, the slipper makers theirs, the vendors of fish theirs, the
wig makers theirs, etc. The oldest known inscription refers to a collegium of
cooks, 200 B.C. It has been alleged by m any Masonic writers that collegia of
masons, or builders and architects, occupied a distinctive place and enjoyed
special honours and privileges. It is true that Cicero remarks of the
honourableness of architecture, and that a few other of the Latins mention that
calling as having a peculiar usefulness, but other than this I have never been
able to discover any grounds for the assertions so freely made by our own
historians, though I have searched wit h loving care, seeing that I have wished
to find such ev idence.

There were no collegia in Roman Africa, and there were not many in the Eastern
Empire, but elsewhere they were thickly scattered through Roman civilization.
Every regiment of soldiers carried with it its own collegia of engineers,
carpenters, and such craftsmen, and, as Coote remarks, "it was as easy to
imagine a Roman without a city as to conceive his existence without collegia."


Each collegium aspired to control or own a hall or meeting place, which it
called schola, or in some cases, curia. For officials it had a kind of president
called by different names, magistri, curitarious, quinquennales, perfecti
praesides, and so on. Decuriones were a kind of warden, and there were factors
or quaestors to manage the business affairs. Each society had its own laws,
called lex college, and its house rules or by-laws, and these regulations were
based, as already explained, on the imperial statutes. Fees and dues went into a
common chest, called the arca. It has been alleged by some writers that the
funds thus accumulated were used for charitable purposes but the best informed
archaeologists dissent from this opinion, and say that the income was employed
to defray necessary expenses for the upkeep of headquarters, and for memorial
banquets. Oftentimes some well-to-do member or friend left behind a legacy,
usually with the directi on that it be used for memorial banquets, but sometimes
for th e benefits of the membership as a whole. Most collegia besought the
graces of a patron, often a woman, who, in return for signal honours, helped
defray the expenses of the little group. It is supposed by a few chroniclers
that these patrons, who often belonged to the upper classes, were more or less
useful in controlling the activities of the collegia in the interests of the
established order.

The social system of Rome, with its semi-caste form, was reflected inside the
collegium where the differences of rank were anxiously observed, and the member
from some noble house always received special honours. Slaves were often
admitted, if they came with the consent of their masters, and there were many
freedmen, who were in many cases wealthy men. For the most part, the technical
organization of the body, with its officials, its ranks, and its parish
outlines, was modelled on the lay-out of the typic al Roman city which was to a
Roman the ne plus ultra of political organization.


To the student of the evolution of Freemasonry from its first crude traces until
its present state of affluence and power, the story of the collegia is of
considerable importance. The enthusiastic notion that those ancient associations
were Masonic lodges in the literal sense, and that through them our Fraternity
as it now exists can trace its history back to 1000 B.C. or beyond, must be
abandoned except in a sense so broad as almost to rob the idea of any meaning at
all. Nevertheless the collegiate organ ization may justly be considered as one
item in a long chain of general as sociational development, the last link of
which is our modern Fraternity.

There are three or four theories which hold that one may trace a certain tenuous
continuity between the Roman collegia and modern Freemasonry.

One of these is the Dionysiac Artificers theory. This hypothesis was given the
shape with which we are now familiar by Hyppolito Joseph Da Costa in his Sketch
for the History of the Dionysian Artificers (published complete in instalment
form in The Montana Mason beginning with November, 1921), and he was followed,
and his arguments repeated, by The History of Freemasonry, drawn from authentic
source of information; with an account of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, from its
Institution in 1736 to the present time, compiled from the Records; and an
Appendix of Original Papers, a famous old volume long attributed to Alexander
Lawrie but now generally believed to have been written by Sir David Brewster.
The essence of this theory is that these Artificers were employed - lodges of
them, that is - in the building of King Solomon's Temple, and that they
preserved the secrets of architecture until at last they transmitted them to
such of the Roman collegia as p ractised that art.

At this juncture the equally well known Comacine theory comes in. According to
this reading of the matter, as we may learn from Cathedral Builders, by "Leader
Scott," and from Brother Ravenscroft's codicils to the same in his Comacines -
Their Predecessors and Their Successors, a few of the Roman builders' collegia
(collegia fabrorum) took refuge from the Barbarian invasions on or near Lake
Como in Northern Italy and there kept alive a knowledge of building until such
time as conditions had stabilized them selves and Europe had become ready for
another civilization. When the barbarian peoples began to build their own cities
and to lay out their highways these Comacini, so the theory has it, went here
and there to teach the people the arts of building. They established schools,
and acted as missionaries in general throughout the various countries of Europe,
England included, all of which will be described in more adequate manner in a
chapter to come.

The third of the theories that would connect the collegia with early Masonic
guilds is that which Gould elaborates at some length in the first volume of his
History, but without committing himself one way or the other. According to this
theory, collegia entered Britain with the Roman army of conquest and were
responsible for the cities, highways, dikes and churches, some remains of which
are still in existence. When the Angles, Saxons and Danes made an end of the
Roman civilization in the islands, the coll egia continued to exist among them
in a somewhat changed form, known as guilds. Among these guilds were those
devoted to building and its allied arts, and out of these guilds there emerged
in time those organizations of Masons who gave us Freemasonry. Some of the
greatest historians in the world deny all this in toto - Freeman among them -
while others accept it. A layman must make up his mind to suit himself.

Still another theory is that which connects the medieval guilds of Europe with
the collegia that lingered late in and about Constantinople, or, as it was
called, Byzantium. It is supposed that as these organizations of Byzantine
builders came more and more into demand they moved gradually across Italy and on
up into central Europe where they served as the seed out of which came the
Teutonic guilds. According to the theory, it was from these Teutonic guilds that
the Masonic guilds of England came, and it w as out of the English guilds that
Freemasonry emerged.

Until such time as more evidence is forthcoming these, and other theories that
could be described if space permitted, will all hang more or less in the air.
For my own part I do not accept any of them as proved. None of them have a
sufficient bottom of known facts. It appears to me that we should hold judgment
in suspense.

Nevertheless and in spite of this uncertainty, the collegia will ever continue
to be of importance to us Masons because they give us one of the best examples
in the world of how and why it is that such a thing as Freemasonry grows up out
of human nature. In the days of the Roman Empire life became hard and it grew
complex, so that the individual found himself helpless to battle the world
alone. He discovered that if he would combine his own puny individual forces
with the resources of his neighbours and f riends that what he alone could not
do he might do through cooperation. Through pooling their money, their
knowledge, their influence, and their good will the dim multitudes of common
people learned to hold their own in a great hard world.

It is so today. The lodge is a means whereby the solitary individual may escape
from his helplessness by linking his own life onto the lives of his fellows. In
its utmost essence that is what Freemasonry does. It goes down into the depths
of a man's nature until it finds what is most permanent and universal in him and
links that onto the inmost nature of many others. Held together by such a Mystic
Tie brethren work and live together and they who might in our large centers lead
lonely lives as strangers or even as enemies are able to rescue from the welter
of modern life the sweet amenities of friendship, brotherly love, relief, mutual
tolerance, and kindliness. What the collegium was to the men of ancient Rome,
the Masonic lodge is to men of today.


Livy, Metamorphosis, XI, 30. Kennedy, St. Paul and the Mystery Religions, 72,
etc. Poland, History of the Greeks. Waltzing, Historical Studies of the
Professional Corporations of the Romans. Pauly, Realencyclopadie, article by
Kornemann on Collegium. Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, vol. V, 132. A
Companion to Latin Studies, see. 202. Find complete Latin bibliography in sec.
563. Hasting, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. VI, 218. Hatch, The
Organization of Early Christian Churches. Encyclop edia Britannica, eleventh
edition, vol VI, 564. Mommsen, De Collegiis et Sodalitiis Romanorum Kiliae,
1870. Grote, History of Greece, vol. V, Greenidge, Handbook of Greek
Constitutional History, 208 ff. Davis, The Influence of Wealth in Imperial Rome,
section on Gilds. Pliny, Epistle X, 97, 98. Abbott, The Common People of Ancient
Rome, 205. Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, XI, 5047; V, 7906; Ill, 953; VIII,
14683; III, 3583; XIV, 2112; XIV, 3 26. Friedlander, Roman Life and Manners, I,
146. Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, ch. beginning p. 270.
Barnes, Early Church in the Light of the Monuments, 53. De Rossi, Roma
Soterranea, 58. Bulletino di Arch. Crist. Ramsey, The Church in the Roman
Empire, 213. Hatch, Bampton Lectures, 152. Le Blant, Actes, 282. Dill, Roman
Life From Nero to Marcus Aurelius. Plutarch, Numa. Duruy, History of Rome,
several chapters; consult index. Cobern, The New Archaeological Discoveries and
the N ew Testament. Pelham, Essays on Roman History, 701 ff. A rs Quatuor
Coronatorum, XI, 170. Scott, The Cathedral Builders, book II, eh. 3. Clegg,
Mackey's History of Freemasonry, ch. 46 ff. Gould, The History of Freemasonry,
vol. I, 36. See bibliographical notes in entire chapter. Coote, The Romans of
Britain. Fort, Early History and Antiquities of Masonry. Hope, Historical Essay
on Architecture. Newton, The Builders, part I, ch 5. Armitage, A Short Masonic
History, vol I ch 7. Gould, The Concise History of Freemasonry, (Crowe's
Revision), 10. Ward, Freemaso nry and the Ancient Gods, part 1, ch. 17. Spence,
Encyclopedia of Occultism, article on Freemasonry. Corpus Juris Civilis, Dig.
XLVII, 22. Brown, From Schola to Cathedral.

Mackey's Encyclopedia - (Revised Edition):

Ancient Mysteries, 497; Builder, 123; Collegium, 158. Comacine Masters, 161;
Egyptian Mysteries, 232; Freemasons of the Church, 150; Gilds, 296; Initiations
of the Egyptian Priests, 234; Isis, 358; Mysteries of Osiris, 540; Oath of the
Gild, 524; Orphic Mysteries, 539; Osiris, 540; Roman Colleges of Artificers,
630; Stone-Masons of the Middle Ages, 718.


Vol. III, 1917. - Masonic History - Suggestions for Research, p.204; The
Cathedral Builders, p. 380.

Vol. IV, 1918. - The Comacines, p. 63. Vol. VI, 1920. - A Bird's-Eye View of
Masonic History, 236

Vol. VII, 1921. - Whence Came Freemasonry, p. 90.

Vol. VIII, 1922. - A Mediating Theory, p. 318.