AIA-8A: Law and Epigraphy in the Greek and Roman World (Joint AIA/SCS Colloquium)

  In-Person   AIA Session   Colloquium

Sponsored by:

American Society of Greek and Latin Epigraphy


James Sickinger, Florida State University

Overview Statement

The contributions of epigraphic texts to the study of the law and legal practices of the Graeco-Roman world are universally acknowledged. Although literary sources provide a significant amount of information about individual statutes and legislative enactments, royal edicts and letters, private contracts and business documents, as well as a host of other legal texts, the rich epigraphical corpus of antiquity, beginning in the seventh century B.C.E. and running into the seventh century C.E., supplements and enhances the literary record in diverse and often surprising ways. Not only do individual inscriptions sometimes provide the only evidence for many laws, decrees, and other types of official decisions, epigraphic texts also routinely offer insights into judicial procedure, municipal administration, and legal decisions across space and time. Moreover, the increasing attention paid by epigraphists to the physicality of inscriptions has shed further light on how the physical location, visual appearance and layout, and material form (on stone, metal, wax, or wood) of individual documents could enhance the meaning and authority of the legal provisions inscribed on them.

The aim of this colloquium, whose papers examine legal documents and dossiers from the fifth century B.C.E. to the first century C.E., is to explore how new approaches to the study of legal inscriptions, including consideration of their physical forms and locations, continue to add to and enhance our understanding of Greek and Roman law. After a brief introduction, the five papers will examine different types of documents from different periods and insights to be gained by their study from fresh perspectives. The papers will proceed chronologically, starting with a study (#1) of the penalties for state officials recorded in Athenian decrees of the fifth century B.C.E.; these inscribed sanctions served not so much as tools of deterrence as displays of Athenian willingness to protect and enforce rights and privileges granted to foreign individuals and communities.

From fifth-century Athens the session will turn to the island of Amorgos and a series of Hellenistic inscriptions recording loan agreements between the city of Arcesine and private citizens from neighboring islands (#2). The extremely favorable terms granted by the citizens of Arcesine to foreign lenders has led some to believe that the terms of the agreements were not fully enforceable, but consideration of the location of the inscriptions, in the temple of Hera in Arcesine, suggests otherwise. Their presence in a religious sanctuary, under the authority and power of its presiding divinity, will have guaranteed the validity of the inscribed texts and enforcement of their provisions. The Hellenistic period is also represented in paper 3, devoted to the inscribed will of Ptolemy VIII, ruler of Egypt in the first half of the second century B.C.E. This document is the first epigraphically attested royal will, and this paper examines the implication of this development, arguing that it reflects an attempt to imbue a private legal instrument with constitutional force through its monumental display in a public setting.

The final two papers (#4, #5) shift focus to the Roman world and entirely different sets of documents. Paper 4 examines a series of wax tablets from Pompeii and Herculaneum recording legal proceedings concerning or involving freedpersons. These documents, unlike more monumental types of inscriptions, illustrate not only the intricacies of legal procedure, but also the deep involvement of formerly enslaved individuals in judicial matters. The last paper (#5) delves into two inscriptions of the first century C.E. that provide accounts of provincial embassies, one to a Roman official, the other to the emperor Claudius. It examines how the contents of each inscription reflect reshaping of provincial identities and local histories, as well as familiarity with Roman administrative practice, to justify the claims of each embassy; and it suggests that the public commemoration in epigraphic form of each embassy emphasized their communities’ privileged positions and contributed to formation of a “physical memoryscape” that combined local history and legal documents.