Coloni in north Africa complain of mistreatment by Roman officials (CIL VIII, 10570)

Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Imperial letter.
Original Location/Place: 
Bagradas Valley (Souk-el-Khmis, Tunisia)
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Louvre Museum, Paris.
180 CE to 183 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
Stone inscription, the text of which was originally arranged in four columns. The first column is now lost, along with the bottom lines of the second and third columns, meaning that neither the heading nor final sentences of the whole text survive.
Stone (?)
CIL VIII, 10570 (= CIL VIII, 14464)
This long inscription records the text of a petition sent by the tenants of a rural imperial estate in the Bagradas Valley in North Africa, to the emperor Commodus, begging for his intervention in their mistreatment by the lessees of the land and the Roman procurator. It is an important source for the management and cultivation of imperial estates in Africa, but more significantly because of what it reveals about how Rome and the role of the emperor were perceived in an otherwise isolated community; not only did the petitioning tenants of this inscription demonstrate proficiency with issues of Roman law and the benefits of citizenship, but they also appealed to the benevolence and generosity of the emperor, in recognition of his position as the ultimate adjudicator of order amongst his people; given the notoriously negative statements regarding the unscrupulous and vindictive nature of Commodus’s reign that have survived to us in the literary record, this inscription reveals a different image of the emperor in the eyes of his provincial subjects.
Although now badly damaged, the inscription discovered at Souk-el-Khmis – not far from ancient Carthage - was originally a large and imposing text, whose size reflected the importance of the narrative that it recorded. The petition to the emperor and his response were recorded in four columns, of which three today survive. Two smaller fragments of inscription were also discovered at Ain Zaga (CIL VIII, 14451) and Gazr-Mezuar (CIL VIII, 14428), and appear to be similar petitions from other imperial estates nearby (see Clausing, Roman Colonate, p. 142-143). The Souk-el-Khmis inscription is, by far, the most illuminating and presents a revealing picture of how the imperial estates of North Africa were managed. Three groups of people are mentioned in the inscription: procuratores (‘procurators’), who resided in the region and supervised the operation of the estate according to the general policies set out by Rome, in accordance with local contexts and traditions; conductores, the ‘contractors’ or ‘lessees’ who rented and cultivated some of the land themselves and then sub-let other portions to the third group mentioned, the tenant farmers or coloni (Clausing, Roman Colonate, p. 139; Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilisation, p. 178).
The inscription records a complaint of mistreatment of the tenant farmers, or coloni, on the imperial estate of the saltus Burunitanus in North Africa. The surviving second column of the text begins in the middle of the petition addressed to Commodus, in which the coloni complain of the poor behaviour exhibited by their conductor, Allius Maximus, and how it has been ignored by the procurator of their estate. Indeed, it appears that this is not the first time that the coloni have attempted to complain; the petition underway in column II states that they had already approached the procurator, but that it resulted in the arrest, harassment and binding in chains of those who had complained (ali/os nostrum adprehendi et vexari ali/os vinciri). Some of those punished were ‘even Roman citizens’ (non nullos cives etiam Ro/manos), who were ordered to be ‘beaten with rods and clubs’ (virgis et fustibus effligi), in a violation of their legal rights. It is clear that the coloni understand the judicial processes available to them; they had been mistreated by their conductor and appealed to his superior to address the abuse, and were aware that his response was unlawful.
The specifics of the mistreatment are given in column III of the text. They refer to the – previously unknown – lex Hadriana, which was included in their original petition (presumably in column I, which has not survived) and which regulated how the land of the estate was managed between the lessee and the tenants (Dieter Flach identified this lex Hadriana as the lex Hadriana de rudibus agris, which established the proper occupation of unused lands, for discussion of which see “Inschriften Untersuchungen,” p. 473-474 and “Die Pachtbedingungen der Kolonen,” p. 450; also Kehoe, Law and the Rural Economy, p. 59-62). The coloni were obliged to pay rent for the land they worked (partes agrariae) and also perform particular services on a certain number of days per year. These services (operae), according to the lost lex Hadriana that they cite, amounted to two days plowing, two days hoeing or weeding and two days of harvesting each year (non amplius annuas quam binas / aratorias binas satorias binas messo/rias operas debeamus). However, it seems that Allius Maximus, as well as other corrupt conductores who came before him, had forced the coloni to work for more days than Hadrian’s reform had regulated for, and it was this that they sought the emperor’s protection from. It was clearly a serious grievance; the coloni claimed that the lex Hadriana was a “perpetual agreement” (perpetua forma), and its official legal status is indicated by their reference to the bronze plaque on which it had been engraved, and from which we can presume the regulations were known from on the estate (cum in aere incisum). Due to their previous negative experience with the procurator, the petition was submitted through an evidently influential individual, named Lurius Lucullus, who presented it to Commodus. The emperor’s reply is given in column IV of the inscription; he confirmed that the procurator of the estate would not exact any service from them “by way of injury” (per iniuriam), and that to do so would be “in violation of the perpetual agreement” (contra perpe/tuam formam), thereby reinforcing the legal statute set up by his predecessor Hadrian. It should be noted that lines 5-6 of column IV, which repeat the specific number of days the coloni were obliged to work the land for the conductor, were most likely added to the imperial reply later, during its inscription in stone, in order to ensure that there could be no possible contravention of their responsibilities in future (Kehoe, Law and the Rural Economy, p. 74). By setting up the petition and imperial response in stone, we can presume that the tenant farmers aimed at the continued restraint of the actions of the conductores and procurator on the estate, by means of its visible, permanent and legal status, however, noted by John Bodel, we cannot be sure of how these measures were enforced, meaning that the strength and efficacy of the inscription relied upon its ‘sanctity’, as emphasised in the text, but as the regulations of the lex Hadriana had clearly not been maintained, it is impossible to say whether or not the erection of this inscription offered any practical solution for the coloni it claimed to protect (Bodel, Epigraphic Evidence, p. 112).
The inscription has long been cited as evidence for the management of the imperial estates in the provinces, and there has been much discussion regarding the economic structure and regulations of such an arrangement, which do not concern us here (for these issues see Flach, “Die Pachtbedingungen der Kolonen,” p. 427-473; Kehoe, The Economics of Agriculture, p. 63-70 and Law and the Rural Economy, p. 64-77). However, the inscription is also an important source for two further reasons, beyond its utility in the economic history of Rome. Firstly, the inscription indicates just how important it was for the imperial household to maintain a positive and protective relationship with those who worked the land of the imperial estates; as the largest single landowner in the empire, the emperor relied upon these conductores and coloni for the agricultural manpower to ensure their productivity, particularly in North Africa where the majority of the land was cultivated with olives, which represented a major “cash crop” that helped to sustain the urban elites across the empire (Kehoe, Law and the Rural Economy, p. 68). The coloni were not legally bound to the land, only to work it and to pay ‘rent’ in the form of a share of its crops, and the Imperial Treasury (Fiscus) had no means by which to enforce them to continue to cultivate it, which – for a “care-intensive” and essential food source, such as olives – could potentially prove disastrous for? the empire as a whole should the land be neglected and allowed to fail (Clausing, The Roman colonate, p. 155). It was therefore in the interest of the emperor to ensure a positive relationship with his tenant farmers, and to be seen to protect their rights and proper treatment, in order to safeguard the continued productivity of his land, which in turn prevented outbreaks of famine and the associated civil unrest. As Roth Clausing noted, the coloni found themselves to be the “most favoured of the small farmer class,” largely exempt from municipal burdens and “under the especial protection and care of the imperial administrators” (The Roman colonate, p. 165).
The inscription is also significant for the generous and custodial image of the emperor Commodus that it suggests, which is perhaps at odds with the picture often presented in the ancient sources. In column III of the text, the coloni first acknowledge his “divine providence” (divina providentia / tua), which they then ask him to use to take pity on them; they appeal to the “benefaction of [his] majesty” (bene/ficio maiestatis tua) and acknowledge their special relationship with him as his own “servants and sons of your estates” (rustici tui vernulae / et alumni saltum tuorum). Commodus is characterised here in the role of paterfamilias, whose duty of care is to those he has raised, in this case the coloni who cultivate his estate. Far from the negative descriptions of Commodus’s cruelty (see e.g. Historia Augusta, Life of Commodus, I; IX; XV), the image presented here is one of assumed benevolence and compassion, as well as of rational application of the law. Commodus’s response to the petition sustains this presentation of his character, responding to the breach of practice appropriately, and in such a way that ensured the security of both the imperial estate and its ‘sons’. This was clearly a self-motivated response, and one that aimed primarily at guaranteeing the productivity of the land and avoiding uprising or unrest, but it is nonetheless interesting to note that the inscription records a version of the emperor here that is less commonly recorded in other sources. Although Commodus’s reign was undoubtedly one of cruelty and persecution, the inscription from Souk-el-Khmis reveals a judicious side of his power and rare display of his own imperial generosity.
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