127 wooden tablets were discovered in the excavation of a large suburban villa approximately 600 m south of the Stabian Gate of Pompeii in 1959. Consisting of wooden plaques (off approximately 11/12 cm x 13/15 cm) with a recessed square or rectangle in the centre, into which wax had been poured and later inscribed. Some of the documents were diptychs, consisting of two tablets tied together, others triptychs. Once excavated the tablets quickly began to deteriorate, with many now completely lost. Photographs taken by the archaeologists in the initial phase of their study remain the most comprehensive record of the complete archive (For discussion of the excavation of the site and the preservation of the tablets see Camodeca, Tabulae Pompeianae Sulpiciorum, p. 11-20).
The tablet under discussion here was excavated in pieces: Tablet I (inv. 14443A+B) was fragmented into two pieces, with the loss of almost all of line 1; Tablet II (inv. 14356) was discovered whole and legible; Tablet III (inv. 14377) was excavated whole, but with its shape somewhat deformed (see Camodeca, Tabulae Pompeianae Sulpiciorum, p. 164).
Wood and wax
H: 13.2 cm
W: 8.5 cm
H: 15 cm
W: 11 cm
W: 10.4 cm
Tabulae Pompeianae Sulpiciorum (TPSulp), 68
The wooden tablets excavated in 1959 from a large, suburban villa in the countryside outside the walls of Pompeii constitute the largest single body of evidence for private legal practice in the Roman world. The so-called ‘Archive of the Sulpicii’ (also named the ‘Murecine Tablets’ after the area from which they were excavated) contains more than 120 texts dating to the period 26-61 CE, which reveal the different ways private citizens made contracts and settled arguments. They bring to light a more complete picture of Roman legal procedure and how it was both utilised and understood by a local community made up of freeborn and freed individuals. The tablets, when considered collectively, are an exceptional example of the extent to which the legal system of Rome was an active feature of the lives of those outside of the imperial courts and capital city; as John Crook has stated, the archive of the Sulpicii demonstrates that “Roman private law in the Julio-Claudian age was not just a professional mystique” (“Review,” p. 261). Although often assumed that ‘ordinary’ inhabitants of the Roman world consulted professional jurists in order to solve legal questions, the wax tablets of the Sulpicii reveal that both citizens and non-citizens alike – in Campania at least – knew the law and understood how to apply it in a variety of socio-economic settings (Rowe, “Trimalchio’s World,” p. 232).
The wooden tablets are bound as either diptychs or triptychs and sealed with wax and the names of witnesses (for the physical form of the documents see Meyer, Legitimacy and Law, p. 127-134). They carry two copies of the text, one on the interior side of the tablets and another on the exterior; in the case of the text to be considered here these dual copies are particularly interesting as they reveal some philological features of the ‘vulgar’ Latin employed by one of the individuals that the tablet concerned. The tablets contain a range of texts including written contracts, multiple contractual guarantees, vadimonia (promises to appear before a tribunal on a given day), as well as the documentation of factors that pertained to the social environment of the community, such as the relationships between patrons and clients, the business activities of women and moneylending. The most common feature of the tablets is that they all concern one family, the Sulpicii (after whom the archive is named) who appear to have been involved in the financial activity of Puteoli for 35 years. According to the evidence of the tablets, the Sulpicii covered loans, offered security and dealt with issues of repayment and defaults. What is perhaps more remarkable is the detail that the tablets offer for the social composition of the household of the Sulpicii; the earliest dated tablets record the moneylending activities of Caius Sulpicius Faustus, which then evolve to include the dealings of the same Sulpicius Faustus in conjunction with his freedman Caius Sulpicius Cinnamus. Later tablets record Cinnamus acting alone, before the introduction of Caius Sulpicius Onirus whose name appears 35 years after that of Faustus is first mentioned, suggesting perhaps that he was the son of the original money-lender or banker (Terpstra, “Murecine Tablets,” p. 4627). The tablets do not give any indication that the men are acting on behalf of a patron – their financial dealings appear to have been an independently managed endeavour that endured in the region for several generations.
Tablet 68 is one of five texts that concern a substantial loan taken out by one C. Novius Eunus (see also TPSulp 45, 51, 52 and 67). The first loan, for 10000 sesterces, was taken out on 18 June 37 CE from the imperial freedman Hesycus Euenianus, with C. Sulpicius Faustus acting as a witness to the contract. As security for the loan, Eunus pledged 7000 modii of grain and 4000 modii of other foods (including chickpeas and lentils) that he had in storage in a public warehouse, the horrea Bassiana, in Puteoli. Recorded with the documentation for the original loan was a contract for repayment (TPSulp 51). Shortly afterwards, on 2nd July of the same year, Eunus borrowed an additional 3000 sesterces (TPSulp 52), bringing his total debt to 13,000 sesterces. One year later the debt had not been repaid in full and a further contract was drawn up which included a sponsio (solemn promise) that Eunus would repay the loan on demand to either C. Sulpicius Faustus or to Hesycus (TPSulp 67). The transactions should be understood in light of the commodity that Eunus was offering as security: grain. Puteoli was the main port at which the grain-ships from Alexandria arrived, and upon which the city of Rome depended. As David Jones has suggested, the loan sought by Eunus should be seen against the background of the fluctuating price of wheat in the town, which fell when the ships first came in (early June) and rose later in the year when the sources began to deplete (Bankers of Puteoli, p. 96). Eunus was attempting to buy up large stocks of grain from the new season’s arrivals, from which he expected to make a profit later in the year. This profit would not only repay the original loan to Hesycus but also redeem the stocks that he had pledged as security (Jones, Bankers of Puteoli, p. 96). However, as the documentation recorded in the tablets reveals, these speculative operations were not secure and Eunus’s business did not prosper, resulting in the final contract represented by the tablet under consideration here.
TPSulp 68, represents the final contract in this dealing and dates to 39 CE, two years after the original loan was made. The text states that 1250 sesterces are still outstanding: “left after all accounts have been calculated” (stertertios mile / ducentos quiquaginta nummos / relịquos ratịone omini putata). In order to secure the repayment of this loan, Hesycus and Sulpicius Faustus take extreme measures: they impose a penalty of 20 sesterces per day should the payment be late (sed etiam poenae nomine in dies singulos / HS XX nummos obligatum iri) – a rate of interest that Andrew Lintott has identified as illegal (“Freedmen and slaves,” p. 557). More importantly, Eunus must promise to repay the loan by swearing an oath in the name of Jupiter Best and Greatest, the numen of the deified Augustus and to the genius of the ruling emperor Caius Caesar (Caligula) (iuratus promisi me…per Iovem Optu/mum Maxumum et numen divi Augusti et Geṇi/um Caii Caesaris Augusti). It is worth noting that the oath is sworn by Jupiter Optumus Maxumus, an archaic form that had died out in the age of Augustus following the example of Julius Caesar (Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, I.7.21), and there are numerous errors or uses of phonetic spelling in the interior text of tablet I, which is believed to have been written by Eunus himself (e.g. dibi instead of divi. See Camodeca, Tabulae Pompeianae Sulpiciorum, p. 166 for full analysis). The exterior texts were most likely copied out by a scribe and reveal fewer instances of incorrect spelling or colloquial usages (Meyer, Legitimacy and Law, p. 150).
As Gregory Rowe has rightly noted, to swear by Jupiter’s name in this way was “meaningless…unenforceable, extra-legal” (“Roman Law in Action,” p. 5). Although not the first instance in which an oath is sworn by Jupiter in the archive (see also TPSulp 29), the promise made here was still unusual: it could have no direct causal effect on the timely repayment of the loan and did not originate from the Roman legal code. However, it did provide divine sanction and clearly some measure of additional guarantee; for Hesycus and Faustus the oath sworn by Jupiter, the numen of Augustus and the genius of the living emperor may have been “outside the realm of classical Roman legal theory, but they were of a piece with the rest of the thought-world of most Romans” (Rowe, “Roman Law in Action”, p. 5). Following the oath, Eunus states that if he does not repay the loan by the agreed date, not only does he accept the penalty fine, but that he will be guilty of perjury (quod si ea die non / solvero, me…peiurio teneri); this was a serious crime to acknowledge, for not only did it bring dishonour to the perjurer, but it also brought dishonour to the divinity by whom the oath was sworn. The god – or in the case of C. Novius Eunus, multiple gods and divine spirit – served as the witness and guarantor of the oath taken, so a failure to fulfil the sworn terms brought disgrace to the gods own being and brought the sanctity of their name into disrepute (Scheid, The Gods, state and the individual, p. 102). To take an oath by the name of a god was, therefore, a matter of extreme severity and solemnity in the lives of most Romans and reserved for only a handful of specific cases, including claims to specific things or sums of money, as in the case of Eunus here (Borkowski and Plessis, Textbook of Roman Law, p. 76). To make an individual swear an oath of this kind would only have been effective in a community where “reputation mattered and where people would have known about, and frowned upon, a violation” (Terpstra, Trading communities, p. 26).
One of the most unusual factors of the Archive of the Sulpicii is that these kinds of agreements, contracts and oaths were indeed written down. Classical legal theory held that such agreements were made in good faith, bona fides; the words of the agreement, the faith in which it was made and the threat of appeal to a praetor were, in theory, enough to sustain the propriety of any informal act or deal (Meyer, Legitimacy and Law, p. 151). However, in the case of the writing tablets from Puteoli, numerous examples of acts of ‘good faith’ have been identified in the documented texts; these were initially understood to be simple ‘records’ or ‘proofs’ that could be provided to a magistrate if required, but the language of tablets such as TPSulp 68 reveals that the tablets had a more directly contractual nature and were not solely probative. The text is written in the epistolary past tense, and in the first person: ‘I, Caius Novius Eunus have written’ (Caius Novius Eunus scripsi); ‘I have accepted’ (eo accepi); ‘I promised on oath’ (iuratus promisi me), which suggest the close connection between the fides (faith) offered and the reputation of the individual concerned; the agreements were written down on tablets because of their traditional power as reliable sources and as such ensured a more sincere record of the agreed terms (Meyer, Legitimacy and Law, p. 151-2).
The texts of the Archive of the Sulpicii are an invaluable source for the documentation of ‘commercio-legal practice’ in the Roman world, offering all kinds of economic, legal and social details (Crook, “Review”, p. 261). Most importantly, however, texts such as the agreement drawn up by C. Novius Eunus here reveal that the ‘Law’ of the Roman World was not a static, academic entity but a “living system” in which the inhabitants of the empire identified their own particular place (Crook, “Review”, p. 261). The transactions recorded between Eunus and Hesycus pertained to the interaction with the local business of Puteoli and yet they were recorded in formal contracts, utilising legal language and formulae more commonly known from the magistrates of the Roman Forum and legal literature. The individuals concerned in the tablets had acquired a practical, working knowledge of how the law worked and were able to apply it to a variety of situations. As John Crook noted, “the precision and formality with which these documents were drafted…shows that it was assumed by the businessmen of Puteoli that the full range and subtlety of the jurist-made system applied to their affairs” (“Review,” p. 261). Rather than existing as abstract theory, the legal system of Rome is presented in the Archive of the Sulpicii as a living, breathing aspect of daily life, and one in which both free-born and slave could be equally engaged.
Terpstra, Taco T., Murecine Tablets, in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, First Edition (ed. R. S. Bagnall, K. Brodersen, C. B. Champion, A. Erskine, S. R. Huebner ; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2013), 4627–4630