An oath sworn in Herculaneum by the genius of Vespasian

Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Letter (writing tablet).
Original Location/Place: 
House of the Bicentenary, Insula V, Herculaneum.
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Naples Museum.
74 CE to 75 CE
Physical Characteristics: 

One of eighteen wooden writing tablets, excavated from inside a chest in the House of the Bicentenary in Herculaneum. The tree wooden tablets are bound together and covered with a layer of wax. The text is inscribed on the interior of tablets 2 and 3.


Arangio-Ruiz, Vincenzo, “Tavolette Ercolanesi: il processo di Giusta” in Bollettino dell’Istituto di Diritto Romano 1 (1959) p. 241 : Tab. XXIV.

In 1938 a group of eighteen writing tablets were discovered in a wooden chest during the excavation of the House of the Bicentenary in Herculaneum. Formed as either diptychs or triptychs of wax-covered, linked pieces of wood, the tablets contained details of a lawsuit brought by one Petronia Iusta against her patron, Calatoria Themis; the evidence that they document is perhaps the most intimate contact that we have with Roman private law, which demonstrates the complex nature of manumission and legitimacy in the private households of Roman Italy. The tablet under discussion here also reveals the unprecedented use of the divine spirit of the emperor (genius) in order to validate legal oaths.
The eighteen writing tablets discovered in the House of the Bicentenary include three vadimonia (a pledge to appear before a praetor), seven testimonia (witness statements) and eight documents that list the names of the witnesses involved. Two of the vadimonia (TH 14 and 15) contain the only dates recorded in the documents, 7th September 74 CE and 12th March 75 CE respectively, but it is not possible to establish a secure chronology, which has hindered a full understanding of the lawsuit (Metzger, “The Case of Petronia Iusta,” p. 152). The case essentially deals with a controversy over the legal status of Petronia Iusta; she was the daughter of a slave woman, Petronia Vitalis, who had been manumitted by her patrons Petronius Stephanus and Calatoria Themis. The argument was between Petronia Iusta and her patroness Calatoria Themis – Petronia Vitalis and her patron Petronius Stephanus are assumed to have died before the case was brought to court – with the latter claiming Petronia Iusta as her freedwoman, as she had been born before her mother, Vitalis, was manumitted. Petronia Iusta contested this status, insisting that she had been born after her mother’s manumission, and was therefore of free status (ingenua). The problem was complicated by Petronia Iusta’s illegitimate birth; she states in one document that she was the “daughter of Spurius” (filia Spurii), indicating that her mother was unmarried at the time of her birth or that the father was unknown. This illegitimacy meant that a birth certificate would not have been issued, which might otherwise have solved the dispute over her legal status (Cooley and Cooley, Pompeii and Herculaneum, p. 215).
Of the seven testimonia recorded in the tablets, five (TH 16-20) offered evidence in support of Petronia Iusta having been born free; statements such as those made by Marcus Vinicius Proculus and Tiberius Iulius Sabinus swore that they had overheard Petronius Stephanus declare that they had only one woman – Petronia Vitalis – to manumit, and so Petronia Iusta must therefore have been born free (TH 17 and 18, see Arangio Ruiz, “Tavolette ercolanesi”, p. 237-239). The text of the document considered here, however, states the opposite: M. Calatorius Marullus confirms that he knew Petronia Iusta (me scire puell/am), and that she had been manumitted by Calatoria Themis (Calatoriam / Themidem manumisisse). There are two points of interest worthy of note here: firstly, the lawsuit that these tablets partially record was not a dispute that centred on a point of law, but rather on matters of fact (Lintott, “Freedmen and slaves”, p. 561). Although these tablets are often given as an example of a local community independently engaging with the Roman legal system, the questions that are being asked here do not pertain to the intricacies of laws and of legal resolution, but rather to the simple nature of which argument was factually based. These tablets are not evidence for a sophisticated understanding and display of judicial exchange, simply a debate on truth and facts?. However, if the circumstances in which this truth might have some significance are considered, a more intimate engagement with the law of Rome is revealed. The question of Petronia Iusta’s legal status was important if she wished to make a will, inherit property or marry a Roman citizen; under Augustus, the leges Fufia Caninia and Aelia Sentia had been passed, which restricted the rights of freedmen and women who had not been formally manumitted in front of a magistrate (vindicta) or in their patron’s will (ex testamento) to that of Junian Latins. Those whom had been manumitted informally, in private by their masters or based on the understanding of the household “fell into a kind of limbo, where, though no longer slaves, they lacked proper citizen-rights” (Lintott, “Freedmen and Slaves”, p. 564; for instances of informal manumission, see Weaver, “Children of freedmen (and freedwomen),” p. 166-90). If Calatoria Themis could not provide legal evidence for having manumitted Petronia Iusta, then the latter’s status would be restricted to that of Junian Latin, which may explain the decision to pursue the proof of her freeborn status legally.
One further point of interest can be found in this writing tablet; M. Calatorius Marullus swore the veracity of his testament ‘by the divine spirit of Vespasian and his children’ (per genium Imperatoris / Vespasiani Aug. liberorum/que eius). A similar oath is sworn in tablet 16, in which Caius Petronius Telesphorus makes his statement by the genius of Imperator Augustus and his children (Arangio-Ruiz, “Tavolette ercolanesi,” p. 234-35), but it is interesting that Calatorius Marullus is so specific here in his use of the genius of a living emperor to validate his testimony. The swearing of oaths using the name of gods and indeed deified emperors can be found in both public legal documents (such as the Flavian Municipal Charter, e.g. chp. 26) and in private cases (such as the documentation of the Sulpicii), but it is unusual to find the genius of the living emperor attested in this way. Worship of the emperor had been strictly limited to indirect associations, such as to his genius or his affiliation with another deity, on account of Augustus and Tiberius’s dislike of direct worship (Suetonius, Tiberius, XXVI.1; Tacitus, Annals. IV.37-8). The Flavian dynasty were careful to follow suit, with many of the formulae of indirect worship still continued under Vespasian and his sons (Cooley, The Flavians, p. 239). The open swearing of an oath by the genius of the living emperor demonstrates that, by the time of Vespasian, indirect worship of the emperor had clearly reached a state of impartial acceptance, in which the spirit of the ruler was invoked as the divine overseer of the legal system, and whose presence ensured the veracity of the claims and statements of the individuals involved.    

Keywords in the original language: 

Bibliographical references: 

Il processo di Giusta

Arangio-Ruiz, Vincenzoarticle-in-a-journal165-1843Il processo di GiustaParole del Passato1948

The Flavians

Griffin, Miriamarticle-in-a-bookCambridge Ancient History. Vol. 11, The High Empire, A.D. 70-192A.K. Bowman, P. Garnsey, D. Rathbone1-83The FlaviansCambridgeCambridge University Press2000

The Case of Petronia Iusta

Metzger, Ernestarticle-in-a-journal151-16547The Case of Petronia IustaRevue Internationale des droits de l’Antiquité, 3éme série. 2000

Children of freedmen (and freedwomen)

Weaver, Paularticle-in-a-bookMarriage, Divorce and Children in Ancient RomeB. RawsonChildren of freedmen (and freedwomen)OxfordClarendon Press1991
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