Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.):
Saepinum (central Italy)
Actual Location (Collection/Museum):
Sepino (Campobasso, Italy); archaeological area of Altilia, on the right jamb of the Boiano gate for those entering the city.
169 CE to 172 CE
Inscribed panel in the outer wall of the northern gate of ancient Saepinum. It is inscribed approximately 4m above the tratturo – cattle or sheep track – that passes through the gate in the direction of ancient Bovianum.
Width: 117 cm
Height: 94 cm
CIL IX, 2438
The so-called ‘Saepinum Inscription’ was inscribed during the reign of Marcus Aurelius on the outer wall of a monumental gate in the ancient town of Saepinum, a Samnite town located in central Italy, on the road that led from Beneventum to Corfinium. The inscription records a dispute between the ‘transhumance’ shepherds, local to the region, and the municipal magistrates whom they accused of mistreating them. The text has led to much scholarship concerned with the administration of the Roman imperial fiscus, or the treasury for public funds, and its relationship to the private property of the emperor, the patrimonium, but is also useful for the information it contains regarding the administration of imperial justice in the Roman empire and the maintenance of order.
The inscription actually contains three separate texts, recording how the dispute was managed by the local community and the praetorian prefects in Rome. The texts are recorded on the stone in the reverse order from which their statements were initially made, meaning that one must turn to the bottom lines of the inscription in order to find the initial reasons for the origin of the dispute. Lines 13-24 contain an extract from a letter in which an imperial freedman, Septimianus, reported the mistreatment of shepherds herding sheep, the conductores gregum oviaricorum, by local magistrates and stationarii, the lower-ranking members of the military often used for policing and temporary guard duty throughout Italy. Each spring, large numbers of flocks were moved to the mountains of central Italy from the lowlands of Apulia, and then back again in the autumn. This involved both independent, private shepherds, moving their own herds, and also those who had leased animals that belonged to the imperial household, who appear to be the shepherds suffering mistreatment here. Septimianus reported the trouble to his superior, the imperial freedman Cosmus, who as libertus a rationibus was a financial secretary in charge of the public treasury, the fiscus. Septimianus claimed that the shepherds were accused of being runaway slaves (dicentes fugitivos esse) that had stolen the animals (iumenta abactia habere) they were herding along the callis, or transhumance path that passed through Saepinum. In the fall-out from this disturbance some of the sheep had been lost (sub hac specie oves quoque dominicae /…pereant in illo tumultu). It is believed that the reason for involving Cosmus was that some of the conductores had lost sheep that they had leased from the imperial flock, which represented a financial loss for the public fiscus. Since Umberto Laffi offered a new reading of the inscription in 1965 there has been much discussion regarding exactly what the financial loss potentially suffered by the emperor and the imperial treasury might have been in this situation; although the details of financial administration are not our primary interest in this text, it is worth noting that the inscription presents a number of complicated possibilities for the ownership of the flocks in question and how transhumance was monitored or even controlled by the imperial regime. The fact that the conductores are described as “under the care” of Cosmus (sub cura tua) suggests that the financial secretary had “administrative oversight” of the group, and that it was the disappearance of some of the imperial sheep that led Septimianus to write because of the loss that their disappearance – as imperial property – meant to the fiscus (see Corbier, “Fiscus and Patrimonium,” p. 126-131). Mireille Corbier has used this idea to suggest that the movement of flocks in Italy was now connected to the public treasury (fiscus), because it included the private property of the emperor (patrimonium) which was no longer an “autonomous entity” and which was subject to the administrative control of the financial secretary (Corbier, “Fiscus and Patrimonium,” p. 128). However, others – such as Elio Lo Cascio and Fergus Millar – have rejected this proposal, believing that private flocks continued to be moved along the same traditional, transhumance routes as those leased from the emperor, with those conductores who had done the leasing able to complain about mistreatment in a way that was taken more seriously by the imperial administration than complaints from private individuals (Millar, Emperor in the Roman World, p. 187-188. For a strong opposition view to Corbier’s work, see Lo Cascio, “I Greges Oviarci dell’iscrizione di Sepino,” p. 557-569).
Lines 8-13 contain Cosmus’s response to Septiminanus’s appeal, which was directed at the praetorian prefects, Basseus Rufus and Macrinus Vindex. He sent a copy of Septimianus’s letter (exemplum epistulae scriptae mihi / a Septimiano colliberto et adiutore meo subieci) and asked the prefects to write to the magistrates of Saepinum and Bovianum demanding that they ceased harassment of the shepherds in this way (uti desinant iniuriam / conductoribus gregum oviaricoṛụm). Cosmus claimed that the conductores were under his supervision (sunt sub cura mea) and that the intervention of the prefects will ensure that the public treasury was not harmed (beneficio ṿestro ratio fisci indemnis sit). Lines 1-7, at the top of the inscription, record the response of Basseus Rufus and Macrinius Vindex, which is addressed to the magistrates of Saepinum; they instruct the magistrates to resist from “abusing the lessees of the flocks of sheep to the serious detriment of the fisc” (abstineatis iniuris faciendis conductoribus gregum oviarico/rum, cum magna fisci iniuria) and threaten a judicial investigation and punishment if their behaviour continues (ne necesse sit ṛecognosci de hoc / et in factum, si ita res fuerit, vindicari).
Fergus Millar has noted that in spite of the detailed scholarship concerned with the ownership and taxation of these transhumance flocks, the primary source of interest in this inscription is what it reveals about the administration of imperial justice and communal jurisdiction. He has questioned whether or not the inscription implies that public order throughout Italy was the concern of the praetorian prefects; they are the body to which both Septimianus and Cosmus have turned, having failed in their appeal to the magistrates of Saepinum and Bovianum. Were the stationarii acting on behalf of these magistrates, then, similar to a local militia? (Millar, Rome, the Greek World and the East, p. 391-393). It appears that these stationarii, low-ranking soldiers, were organised into military police detachments that held posts in Italy and the provinces in areas where there was an otherwise minimal police presence (Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire, p. 132); they acted, as described in this inscription, in collaboration with, and perhaps on the orders of the local government. However, in this particular case their policing appears to have gone too far; shepherds were usually slaves and their movement along the transhumance paths of Italy might provide a neat escape route for those fugitive few, with the need to police the route perhaps evidence for the tension that existed between the itinerant pastoralists and rural communities that were settled close to the paths (Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire, p. 41). If Septimianus’s interpretation is right, though, the stationarii had abused their position and instruction and taken advantage of the transhumance shepherds’ movements, which had resulted in the unnecessary loss to the public treasury, and possibly the emperor’s own personal revenues.
It is impossible to say – in spite of the vast scholarship on the subject – whether or not it was the emperor’s interests or that of the fiscus that led to the involvement of the praetorian prefects in this matter, or whether the inscription can be said to be evidence for the Roman State’s organisation and management of transhumance, as Mireille Corbier believes that it is (“The Saepinum Inscription,” p. 131). What is clear, however, is that a process existed by which individuals of relatively low status – such as the freedmen Septimianus and Corbus – were able to appeal to those in power in order to resolve issues of communal jurisdiction. The extract of Septimianus’s letter states that he had attempted to resolve the issue through communication with the magistrates responsible for the stationarii, and when this failed he turned to the imperial authorities for their support. The fact that the inscription was set up on a public gate, where it was visible to all those arriving in Saepinum, is indicative of how important this issue was to this community of the central Appenines, and the visible application of the rules of public order even in smaller, rural locations (Edmonson, “Economic Life in the Roman Empire,” p. 682). Irrespective of the complex questions that the texts generate regarding the emperor’s financial interest in transhumance farming, the Saepinum inscription is a clear demonstration of how the mechanisms of imperial justice and the maintenance of order were understood by the subjects of the empire.
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