Roman counts

Carina portraitCarina, the heroine of the first three Roma Nova books, has an honorary title of ‘Countess Carina’ as her grandmother’s heir. As the head of the family/tribe, Aurelia is called ‘Countess Mitela’. Now why do the descendants of Romans have these titles? And how does the relationship work between the imperatrix, the ruler of Roma Nova and the leading families?

For much of the Roman civilisation, people’s, i.e. men’s, status was denoted by the antiquity of their family, whether they were patricians, plebs, equites, nobiles, novi homines, etc. Power came through connections, wealth and political or other influence. Kings had existed in early Rome, but royalty had been thoroughly renounced in 509 BC when Tarquinius Superbus was thrown out. Military leaders were granted the title of ‘imperator’ as the need arose, but power was in the hands of the consuls, senators, tribunes.



Until Augustus.

He maintained he was merely a ‘princeps’, the first amongst men, but he was the first of many emperors, who were kings in all but name. In the late Roman Empire, the emperors became more autocratic and remote, and established the practice of personally appointing loyal servants to key posts, resulting in the creation of the rank of ‘comes’, (pron. co-mays, plural comites).

The comites became leading officials of the later Roman Empire, from the army to the civil service, but always retained their direct links and access to the emperors. Constantine took the final step of certifying the posts, as comites provinciarum, “counts of the provinces”. You can find a full list for the beginning of the fifth century in the Notitia dignitatum.

Roman governor

Senior Roman officials (Trajan’s column)

Emperor Theodosius – the one who banned all pagan worship in 395 AD and started the Roma Nova story – served as a young man in Britain with his father who was the Comes Britanniarum, tasked with the defence of Roman Britain (Britannia). This post expired circa AD 410, when the last Roman troops left.

The Roma Novans in my novels had been led by Apulius who was elected as leader and given the traditional title of imperator (war leader) by the twelve heads of families who trekked out of Rome with him. They became his comites, or companions, pledged to support and serve him. It was no mere hierarchical arrangement; in the early, grim times when they founded their new country, it was a case of ‘hang together or hang apart’. They needed a bonding mechanism to stay united to fight off outsiders.

The companions went on to found the Twelve Families, and formed the basis of the imperial council which advises the imperatrix, and functions as a check and balance to her executive power. In English, the title of comes (pronounced co-mays) becomes count/countess.

Roma Nova vexilloidThe head of each of the Twelve Families gives an honorific title and a measure of power and responsibility to their heir, so that in the event of sudden demise, the transfer of power and responsibility to the new head of family is, in theory, smooth. Since the earliest times, the leader of each of the Twelve Families is personally accountable for their family members’ behaviour and is also expected to respond positively if the imperatrix asks them to carry out a task or mission.

So there you have it, citizens, in chapter and verse!


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published on 12 April 2016.

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