Gordian III and the imperial petition of Skaptopara

Villagers from Thrace petitioned the emperor Gordian III to end abuses from soldiers that threatened their ancestral homes.
Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Imperial petition
Original Location/Place: 
Originally found in a bathhouse of the village of Cumaja, close to the modern city of Blagoevgrad (Bulgaria)
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Lost. A squeeze (impressed paper) is archived in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum in Berlin
238 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
Large plate with the bilingual text divided in 3 columns

Not available

Not available
Latin, Greek
Roman, Greek
SEG 44.610 [IG.Bulg IV.2236; CIL III.12336; IGRR I.674]

Official petitions addressed by local entities to the emperors began to be most commonly inscribed in the high imperial period, particularly in the first half of the 3rd century when the phenomenon reached its peak (see Hauken, Petition and Response). This inscription found near the modern city of Blagoevgrad (Bulgaria), and belonging to the community of Skaptopara, is the most complete testimony of an epigraphic genre which sheds unique light onto the impact of Roman power on a provincial population.

These imperial petitions normally followed a set format composed of formal elements which were visibly divided in the stone from Skaptopara. On top, an invocation to good fortune (Fortuna) opened the document and preceded the formulas of greeting and authorisation. This part of the text was written in Latin, since this was the language dominating legal clauses in the Roman empire during the 3rd century CE, as shown, for example, by the Market rights of Mandragoreis or the local resolution of Mylasa. The first section thus served to give official validity to the local copy of a document produced by the Roman administration. In this case, the text was dated to December 16th during the consulship of Fulvius Pius and Pontius Proculus (238 CE), and had been taken from the roll of petitions and rescripts (liberlibellorum rescriptorum) which was published on the walls of the Baths of Trajan in Rome. This process of public exposition was an integral part of the mechanism by which responses were provided via a department of the imperial administration, known as a libellis. Firstly, the petitions needed to be handed in and the text of either the emperor or his representatives was added below through a subscriptio (see Millar, The Emperor, p. 537-549; Honoré, Emperors and Lawyers, p. 3-94). For the people of Skaptopara, the deliverer was Aurelius Pyrrus, as indicated in the registry note inscribed between lines 6 and 7. Not only was this soldier a fellow-villager (convicanus) who possessed land (conposesor), but he also belonged to one praetorian cohort which was normally stationed in Rome, making the sending of the petition on behalf of the Thracian community easier.

The actual text of the petition starts in line 8 and is written in Greek, reflecting the use of the language for official communications in this area of the eastern Balkans. However, one should not automatically assume that the rural population allegedly addressing the plea possessed the high degree of linguistic refinement and expertise developed over the approximately 100 lines inscribed. The speech is perfectly structured around a preamble, a narration and a final request, which comply with complex oratorical strategies mastered by 3rd century rhetors such as Menander of Laodicea (see Heath, Menander: A Rhetor in Context). These arrangements are found in several contemporary petitions surviving from different parts of the Empire and appear to show the common employment of professional logographers (cf. Crook, Legal Advocacy, p. 155-158). For instance, the opening statement attributed to the inhabitants of Skaptopara serves as a clear captatio benevolentiae with references to the very joyful and eternal times that Gordian III had managed to institute. In such a context, villages (κῶμαι/kômai) were supposed to prosper (βελτιοῦσθαι/beltiousthai), as this would bring salvation (σωτηρία/sôtêria) to humankind and benefits to the very sacred state treasury (ταμεῖον/tameion) of the emperor. Taking his cue from messages of imperial ideology, such as the concept of Felicitas Temporum (see Noreña, Imperial Ideals, p. 165-174; cf. Tacitus, Agricola, 3.1; Pliny, Letters X. 12, 58.7), the composer of the text even presents this supplication (ἱκεσία/hikesia) as lawful (ἔννομος/ennomos) and dependant on an emperor’s divinity (θειότης/theiotês) which could be compelled through prayers (εὐχόμενοι/euchomenoi).

This verbose encomium is followed by a simpler description of the issues motivating the petition. In the first place, the villagers lived and had properties in lands gifted with hot springs (ὕδατα θερμά/hydata therma; the area is still renowned as a spa centre), which lay between two military camps of Thrace. This province, unlike northern Moesia, was not subject to the high military presence present along the Empire frontiers. However, auxiliary detachments could also be stationed in “unarmed” provinces, especially considering the threats menacing the Danube which the Goths also crossed in 238 CE (HA, Max.Bal. XVI.3, cf. Martin, Dexipp, p. 161-162). Prior to such military pressure, the inhabitants of Skaptokara claimed to have contributed to all the imperial taxes (φόροι/phoroi) without problems, but now they were suffering from abuses (βιάζεσθαι/biazesthai) causing decline (ἐλαττοῦσθαι/elattousthai). Excesses by soldiers upon the local population were not novel in the Roman Empire, as illustrated by the letter of Hadrian to Asia or the governor Iulius Saturninus in Syria.And yet, the phenomenon appears to have aggravated in this period of the mid-third century. Preceding the tumultuous accession of the young Gordian III, an unrefined military man such as Maximinus Thrax ruled, and the army took advantage of the general’s complicity to terrorise the population according to Herodian (VII.3.6). In the case of Skaptopara, a second feature of this rural territory proved particularly detrimental. A fair (πανήγυρις/panêgyris) was held not far from the village (l. 33-34). As we are informed from the speech that Aurelius Pyrrus delivered before the provincial governor – not included in our edition – the market was held several times every year, and most especially at the beginning of October when it enjoyed a special tax-free status for 15 days. In principle, such trading privileges were beneficial and sought after, as attested in the petition of the Mandragoreis and the privileges of Baetocaece. However, they could also attract soldiers who would then requisition quartering. Such negative consequences are not always evident in our sources and could support the position of rabbis who generally opposed fairs in which idolatry was practiced. The people of Skaptopara did not oppose providing hospitality (ξενία/xenia) to provincial governors (ἡγεμόνες/hêgemones) and their procurators (ἐπίτροποι/epitropoi), but they could not endure others who did not provide payment (ἄνευ ἀργ̣υρίου/aneu argyriou). In this sense, the text shows awareness of the legislation regulating the billeting and transport of military personnel (see Edict of Galatia on Transport). Indeed, the petition refers to sacred letters (θεῖαι ἐντολαί/theiai entolai) which should have prevented these abuses after numerous appeals to the provincial authorities. Through such imperial instructions, we know for example that the senators in the Severan period were exempted from hosting soldiers and copies were subsequently put up in their estates (see Jones, “The Sacrae Litterae”). The villagers of Skaptopara were therefore denouncing the lack of effectiveness in previous measures, but still relied on the channels of the Roman administration to find a solution, even if that implied reaching the emperor in the imperial capital. The final section of the petition is based on the same premise.

From line 73 to 107, the text summarises the arguments and specifies a concrete request after the description of the case. In rhetorical terms, this conclusion is called a preces, and a more dramatic tone predominates. The petitioners refer collectively to unsustainable burdens (τὰ βάρη/ta barê) which threatened survival in their ancestral settlements (προγονικοὶ θεμέλιοι/progonikoi themelioi). Hence, they beg (δεόμεθά/deometha) the emperor who is called in the vocative “invincible Augustus” (ἀνίκητε Σεβαστέ/anikête Sebaste). Again, it is not his military power that is sought after, but rather an imperial rescript (θεία ἀντιγραφή/theia antigraphê), a piece of legislation emanating from Gordian III’s providence (πρόνοια/pronoia) so that they could remain in their homes and pay the corresponding taxes. To this end, the closing sequence underlines that the inhabitants of Skaptopara were ready to set up a stele and display it in public. The epigraphic document, moreover, would not only have legal validity, but also express gratitude towards the Fortune (Τύχη/tychê) of the emperor. As such, the survival of this inscription confirms the commitment of the ancestral settlers of this corner of Thrace, who believed in the solutions provided by not purely rhetorical pleas. The effectiveness of Gordian’s response cannot be measured, although previous legislative efforts to prevent this problem inherent to Roman domination clearly failed. Nonetheless, the most interesting outcome of this text is the illustration of a system by which the local population after the Constitutio Antoniniana could reach its rulers if the provincial administration did not work properly (see Connolly, Lives behind the Laws). The petition of Skaptopara is consequently indicative of a Roman power still directing the acts of its subjects even in a year such as 238 CE, which witnessed unsettling civil wars and obvious indications of Rome’s decline with the Goths crossing the Danube for the first time.

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