A glimpse of life under Roman law

By | 14 June 2013

Bodleian Law Librarians do get out and about … even though this expedition entailed going into a (decommissioned) reading room to see the current exhibition at the British Museum, Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Among the wonders (and horrors) on display is a rather nondescript piece of marble.  It bears an inscription on each side – and the merciful curators of the exhibition kindly supply interpretation and context.

The marble had been found between two otherwise unremarkable houses, not palaces. On one side of the slab – in a rather rough hand – the inscription reads (in translation) “This is the wall of Marcus Nonius Dama, the freedman of Marcus, private and in perpetuity.”
On the other side of the same slab – a more sophisticated carver has incised “This is the wall of Julia, private and in perpetuity.”
Although we cannot know the context of this marker, it would seem to be the culmination of a boundary dispute – perhaps settled by the city magistrates.

Looking at this old photograph of part of the excavation, one can see why you needed to know where you stood with neighbours! (The website of the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni archeologici di Napoli e Pompei also offers a Google Street View and Fotopiano interattivo – scroll down the left hand panel of home page. )

Photo taken c1890-c1900 Available thanks to Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington and Flickr.com The Commons

Photo taken c1890-c1900 Available thanks to Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington and Flickr.com The Commons

According to a wooden tablet found in Herculaneum, Lucius Cominius Primus had neighbour troubles too: the next door slaves (presumably following orders) had pelted his door with stones!

Excavations at Herculaneum have uncovered  a considerable number of wooden writing tablets which are still legible because of the different way the eruption reached the city. (The Herculaneum Conservation provides a Plan of  the excavated city enhanced with photographic  panoramas both inside and out – use your mouse to see full circle. )
So far, many tablets are business accounts of freed slaves working as entrepreneurs – trade being beneath the higher ranks of society. But there are also some which are direct evidence of the “ordinary” person, understanding and using law.

Among the family records found in the House of the Black Living Room is a 3 document trail AD60-62 marking the successful petition by Lucius Venidius Ennychus for full Roman citizenship, both for himself and his family. In the House of the Bicentenary a wooden chest and its contents of tablets survived, including many chronicling “a dispute between a young woman Petronia Iusta, either a freed slave (liberta) or freeborn (ingenua), and her would-be owner and adoptive mother, Calatoria Themis. Claims and counterclaims of family links and servile bonds dragged on for much of the AD70s and became so acrimonious that the case was taken to Rome and was still unresolved in AD79.” (p.111 of  British Museum Catalogue to the exhibition – which we hope will arrive via Copyright Deposit at the Bodleian soon!)

The exhibition itself runs until the 29 September 2013 – and you don’t have to be a legal historian to enjoy it! See the The Guardian’s, and The Telegraph’s – reviews for example. Consequently it is very popular:  if you are not a Friend of the BM,  you must book a ticket online in advance.

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