Unknown location, Contrebia Belaisca, Hispania Citerior.
Actual Location (Collection/Museum):
Museo de Zaragoza, Spain.
87 BCE May 15th
Bronze tablet. The plate has six regular and equal perforations, in circular form, of 6 mm. in diameter each. They are aligned at regular intervals, close to the edges of the long sides. The conservation of the piece is poor. It has been subjected to strong deformations, due to fire damage, which has caused the tablet to bend.
Height: 20.8 cm Width: 43.8 cm Depth: 0.5 cm
Fatás, Guilliermo, “El nuevo bronce latino de Contrebia” in Boletin de la Real Academia de la Historia 176 (1979), p. 421-438
Richardson, John S., “The Tabula Contrebiensis: Roman law in Spain in the early first century” in Journal of Roman Studies 73 (1983), p. 33-4
In the second century BCE the community of Contrebia Belaisca (modern Botorrita), in the far north-east of Spain, demonstrated an early engagement with Rome’s judicial practices, through the setting up of a bronze tablet that recorded the adjudication of a dispute between two native, non-Roman peoples. The tablet, the Tabula Contrebiensis, was discovered in the late 1970s and since that date has generated much discussion on the influence of, and assimilation to Roman legal procedures, even amongst non-Roman communities, where the ius civile of Rome carried no authority. The physical organisation of the text and its form – a bronze plaque set up, presumably, in a public space, was clearly taken from Roman municipal practice (Edmonson, “Instrumenta Imperii,” p. 175). As the following discussion shall show, even at this relatively early date in the Iberian peninsula’s interactions with Rome’s power, it appears that the authority of the form and its content – a legal order – was something that could be translated into a local context.
The Tabula Contrebiensis records the settlement of two disputed questions. Lines 1-5 are concerned with the right of the Sosinestani to sell land to the Salluienses (agrum quem Salluienses ab Sosinestaneis emerunt), so that they might construct a canal or draw water across it (rivi faciendi aquaive ducendae), which had been opposed by a third group, the Allvonenses (inviteis Allavonensibus). Members of the senate of Contrebia have been called in to resolve the dispute, presumably due to their independence from any specific interest in the water rights being claimed (Senatus Contrebiensis quei tum aderunt iudices). As noted by Peter Birks, Alan Rodger and John Simpson, of the four communities mentioned in the inscription, only the Salluienses and the Contrebienses can be securely located in the geography of the region, with the former in modern Zaragoza and the latter at Botorrita, meaning that it has not been possible to identify either the territory of the Sosinestani themselves, nor the water source that they were attempting to access (Birks, Rodgers and Simpson, “Further Aspects of the Tabula Contrebienses,” p. 47). The area was, generally speaking, extremely arid; although a number of strong rivers crossed the Ebro valley, for the most part the land was too dry for cultivation, and in places almost impossible to cross, making this kind of dispute over water rights and access to such all the more significant (Birks, Rodgers and Simpson, “Further Aspects of the Tabula Contrebienses,” p. 47).
Lines 6-11 contain the second dispute, which was the right claimed by the Salluienses to construct their canal over land other than that which they had bought, which is described as “public and private”, the ager publicus and the ager privatus. The dispute is focused thus:
“If the rules of the Sosinestan civitas were to apply, then, in the place where the Salluienses most recently and officially put in stakes, which is the subject of this action, if it would be permissible within their own rights for the Salluienses to make a canal through the public land of the Sosinestani within those stakes; or if it would be permissible within their own rights for the Salluienses to make a canal through the private land of the Sosinestani in the place where it would be proper for the canal to be made, so long as the Salluienses pay the money which is the value which would have been placed on the land…” (lines 6-11).
Essentially the Salluienses had placed wooden stakes to mark out the line of their water channel where it crossed public land, and intended to do the same over private land, for which the Contrebian adjudicators in the case awarded the Sosinestani compensation (Richardson, “The Tabula Contrebiensis,” p. 35). It is a striking feature in this text that the dispute – and indeed its resolution – was described using technical Roman legal language. The ager publicus and ager privatus – public and private land – were fundamental to the Roman understanding of land ownership, with the former, ager publicus, “an essential feature of the subsistence economy” of Italy (Richardson, “The Tabula Contrebiensis,” p. 36). Equally significant is the statement made at the beginning of line 6, that the matter should be judged “on the assumption that they were the Sosinestan civitas” (sei Sosinestana ceivitas esset). John Richardson’s publication of the inscription recognised this clause as a fictio, or “fiction” - a procedural device taken from the Roman formulary system, which is described in Gaius’s Institutes (e.g. 4.32). According to Richardson’s explanation, none of the parties involved are Roman citizens, and the “adjudication is based on local rights and customs,” which is emphasised by the use of the fictio, which gave the Salluienses the same rights as the Sostinestani, just as would be have been done in a fictio civitatis in a Roman court, when the person involved would be treated during the hearing as having the rights of a Roman citizen (Richardson, “The Tabula Contrebiensis, p. 38-39). However, as Peter Birks and Alan Rodgers’s reassessment of the legal aspects of the text has shown, the clause should not be understood as being left open; that is, that the judges have not been asked to consider two sides of the hypothesis, “whether there was or was not a Sosinestas civitas,” but rather they have been instructed precisely what assumption to make (Birks, Rodgers and Richardson, “Further Aspects,” p. 52-53).
The inscription continues in lines 12-14 with the matter of how the disputes are to be judged, with the iudicium – judgement – being devolved to the Contrebian senators – whose names demonstrate the existing local autonomy from Rome –, who are required to give a common sententia – opinion (Galsterer, “Roman Law in the Provinces,” p. 22). The case had been brought before the Roman proconsul, Caius Valerius Flaccus, the urban praetor in Rome in 96 BCE, who set in motion the Roman framework for dealing with such a case. That peregrine communities might appeal to Rome for assistance in resolving disputes was not a new development in 87 BCE; Rome had taken the place of the Hellenistic Kings as acting as arbitrators in the cities of the Greek east, with the Senate well-used to hearing the appeals and passing a senatus consultum in response. However, in the case of the Tabula Contrebiensis, no senatus consultum is mentioned, with C. Valerius Flaccus the only authority figure named (Birks, Rodgers and Richardson, “Further Aspects,” p. 48). Although it was certainly possible that the Senate in Rome had been involved in the case, but omitted from the inscribed text, it would seem unlikely given the Roman models – the use of Latin and on a bronze tablet – that were followed in its construction. It is more plausible that the Roman Senate were simply not involved in the resolution of the dispute. Rather than being required to act as an arbitrator, Valerius Flaccus has been invoked as a “source of justice by an aggrieved party” who “provides, through the use of the formulae and the adjudication of the Contrebian senate, a judicial remedy” (Birks, Rodgers and Richardson, “Further Aspects,” p. 50).
The fact that Roman legal procedure carried enough weight amongst these subject communities is highly significant, emphasizing not only the power of Rome but the ease with which non-Roman communities appear to have adopted her model of jurisdiction as an authority. Although the Salluienses had, in fact, been awarded citizenship following their provision of cavalry to Pompeius Strabo during the Social War some three years earlier (see CIL I, 709), and were therefore entitled to resolve their dispute’s under Rome’s laws, the case was not judged according to Roman law, but rather described local legal practice in terms and formulae borrowed from Rome’s own sophisticated legal procedures. As Hartmut Galsterer has rightly stated, the Latin formulae utilised by Valerius Flaccus made the clear distinction between the concepts of ager publicus and ager privatus as they pertained to the territories owned by these communities, but they did so with the stipulation that the matter should be decided according to the law of the local Celtiberian communities that it concerned; they were “Roman concepts [that] were to be applied to non-Roman realities by non-Roman judges” (Galsterer, “Roman Law in the Provinces,” p. 22).
The resolution of the dispute was also recorded following a Roman model in the sense that it was inscribed in bronze and set up in a public space, as indicated by the nail holes around the edge of the plaque (Edmonson, “Instrumenta Imperii,” p. 184). In this instance, Rome’s legal system provided an authoritative process and language with which a problem could be solved, but within the accepted practices and regulations that existed amongst the disputing communities. The language and practices of Rome’s legal world – from the formulae used to describe the cases to the setting up of monumental inscriptions in bronze – in this inscription from Contrebia thus demonstrates how peregrine communities might engage with the Roman presence and influence, using Roman practices – in this case legal procedure - as a model for their own local contexts; in cases such as these it was possible to borrow whichever aspects of Roman law suited their needs.
Richardson, John S., Social mobility in the hispanic provinces in the republican period, in Administration, prosopography and appointment policies in the Roman empire. Proceedings of the first workshop of the international network: Impact of Empire (Roman Empire, 27 B.C. – A.D. 406) Leiden, June 28 – July 1, 2000 (ed. L. de Blois; Amsterdam: Gieben, 2001), 246-254
Richardson, John S., Roman Law in the Provinces, in The Cambridge Companion to Roman Law (ed. D. Johnston; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 45-58