"Comes" ( KOH-meez), plural "comites" ( KOM-i-teez), is the Latin word for "companion", either individually or as a member of a collective denominated a "comitatus", especially the suite of a magnate, being in some instances sufficiently large and/or formal to justify specific denomination, e. g. a "cohors amicorum". "Comes" derives from "com-" ("with") and "ire" ("go").
Historically more significant, "Comes" became a secular title granted to trusted officials of the Imperial Curia ("Court"), present or former, and others as sign of Imperial confidence. It developed into a formal, dignitary title, derived from the "Companions" of Alexander the Great and rather equivalent to the Hellenistic title of "philos basilikos" or the paladin title of a knight of the Holy Roman Empire and a Papal Palatinus. Thus the title was retained when the titulary was appointed, often promoted, to an office away from court, frequently in the field or a provincial administration. Subsequently, it was thought logical to connect the title to specific offices that demanded an incumbent official of high dignity, and even to include it as part of the official title.
As the Imperial Roman Curia increased in number and assimilated all political power, the Roman Emperors instituted a casual practice of appointing faithful servants to offices. This had been done elsewhere, e. g. regarding the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard and the amici principis. As Imperial administration expanded, however, new offices became necessary and decentralization demanded modifications. The result was the institution of the rank of "comes".
The "comites", often translated "counts", though they were neither feudal nor hereditary, became principal officials of the later Roman Empire. They held offices of all kinds from the army to the civil service, while retaining their direct access to the Emperor. Emperor Constantine I finalized them as the governmental echelon of "comites provinciarum" ("Counts of the Provinces"); the comites of the new echelon were assigned alongside the vicarii in the civil dioceses of the latter so that the comites became permanent fixtures of Imperial government. The comites were fully enumerated as early as the beginning of the AD 5th century in the Notitia Dignitatum, but as offices were later added, it is not historically exhaustive.
The following sections describe examples of the kinds of comites.
Several of the major departments of the Imperial Curia ("Court") and household had a principal official who was styled "comes" and assisted by an "officium" ("staff") very similar to that of a Roman governor. They included:
Exceptionally, a gubernatorial position was styled "comes". For example, the comes Orientis, actually one of the vicarii, was an official who controlled the large and strategically important Imperial Diocese of the East by supervising the governors of this collection of provinces, but he was in turn supervised by the praefectus praetorio Orientis.
Further, the principal officials of some less important governmental departments who were under the authority of otherwise styled, high ranking, territorial officials could be titled "comes", e. g. under the praefectus urbi of Rome, himself a vir illustris, was a comes formarum, comes riparum et alvei Tiberis et Cloacarum ("Count of the Coast of the Tiber and the Canalisation"), and comes Portus ("Count of the Port").
The comes rei militaris held martial appointments, ranking superior to a dux but inferior to the magister peditum and magister equitum; they were the superiors of a series of military stations, each commanded by a praepositus limitis ("border commander") and/or unit commanders, e. g., tribunes of cohorts, alae (auxiliary equivalents), numeri, and in the Eastern Empire even legions.
The Notitia Dignitatum of the early AD 5th century enumerates 6 such offices, being of the dignity of vir spectabilis, in the Western Empire: comes Italiae, comes Africae, comes Tingitaniae, comes Tractus Argentoratensis, and comes Britanniarum ad Litoris Saxonici per Britanniam; and 2 in the Eastern Empire: comes (limitis) Aegypti and comes Isauriae.
As the number of comites increased, that dignity was devalued. This caused the introduction of classes of comites, denominated and ranked the first, second, and third "ordines".
The Goths that ruled Spain and Italy followed the Roman tradition of granting the title of "Comes" to the various principals of the departments of their royal households, including but not limited to the:
The Frankish kings of the Merovingian dynasty retained much of Roman administration, including the office and title of "comes", the original meaning of which they preserved, i. e., a companion of the king and a royal servant of high dignity. Under the early Frankish kings some comites did not have definite functions: they were merely attached to the person of the King and executed his orders. Others filled the highest offices, e. g. the Comes Palatii and Comes Stabuli (from which the contemporary title of "constable" derives).
Yet other comites served as regional officials. For administrative purposes, the Kingdom of the Franks was divided into small districts denominated "pagi" (hence the French "pays" and the German "Gaue"), corresponding generally to the Roman civitas ("city" qua polity). The principal of a pagus was the Comes, corresponding to the German Graf (in full, "Gaugraf"). The King appointed the Comites to serve at his pleasure, and they were originally chosen from all classes, sometimes even from enfranchised serfs.
The essential competences of the Comes' were comprehensive in his pagus: martial, judicial, and executive; and in documents he is often described as the "agens publicus" ("public agent") of the King or "judex publicus/fiscalis" ("royal judge"). He was at once public prosecutor and judge, and was responsible for the execution of the sentences as well. As the delegate of the executive power, he had the right to exercise the "bannis regis" ("royal ban"), which gave him the right to command his military in the name of the King and to act as necessary to preserve the peace. As the King's representative, he exercised the royal right of protection ("mundium regis") of churches, widows, orphans, and the like. He enjoyed a triple "wergeld", but had no definite salary, being remunerated by receipt of specific revenues, which system contained the germs of discord, on account of the confusion of his public and private obligations.
According to philologists, the Anglo-Saxon word "gerefa", denoting "illustrious chief", however, is not connected to the German "Graf", which originally meant "servant"; compare the etymologies of the words "knight" and "valet". It is the more curious that the "gerefa" should end as a subservient reeve while the "graf" became a noble count.
In the feudal tradition, Latin was, especially in law, the official language, and therefore the rendering in Latin was equal in importance to the vernacular title. Thus, "comes" has been used as the Latin equivalent, or part of it, of all titles of comital office, whether containing "count" or some other word etymologically derived from "comes" or "graf". Similarly, it is part of the rendering, not always exclusive, of derived inferior titles containing such words, notably "vicecomes" for "viscount" and "burgicomes" and "burgravio" for "burgrave".