Streams of life and strife: Water as a legal matter in Roman law

Banner Roman Water Law

After six months I should finally fulfill my promise to honor here at least once a year the role of Roman law. You might almost call it the mother of all legal history! Luckily I found a subject in Roman law close to current interests. Water as a vital element of life was not absent in Roman law. Its presence is in fact manifold. The project Roman Water Law at the Freie Universität and the Humboldt Universität in Berlin helps to look at regulations concerning water and its uses according to an interesting scheme. Legal attention to water has a very long history.

A Roman look at water

The project Roman Water Law has found space on the Topoi platform which stands out for its distinctive graphic design. Topoi currently contains nearly twenty research collections and smaller projects on a variety of themes. Actually the website for Roman water law is the fruit of two research programs of the Berlin Exzellenzcluster Topoi held between 2012 and 2017, “Water from a legal perspective” and “Infrastructures from judicial, gromatic and political perspectives”. The core of the virtual collection is a combination of legal sources found in the Corpus Iuris Civilis, three individual leges (laws) and the Codex Theosodianus with texts from Roman authors who touched the subject of water. The results are 572 entries with a Latin text and English translation to which one of ten newly defined categories have been assigned.

Table IX of the Lex Irnitana

Table IX of the Lex Irnitana – Museo Arqueológico de Sevilla – image: Red Digital de Colecciones de Museos de España, http://ceres.mcu.es

The harvest for Roman laws in the technical sense, leges approved by the senate of the Republic, may seem meagre with just three laws. However, one of them, the Lex Flavia Irnitana from AD 91, was only found in 1981. The fragments of six out of originally ten bronze tables are now held at the Museo Arqueológico in Seville {Hispania Epigraphica, no. 5058). This law, dated around 91 BC, is the most complete surviving example of a Lex Flavia, a municipal law. Chapter 82 of the Lex Irnitana deals with drainage and creating and changing roads, paths, canals and sewers, for which only the duumviri, a pair of magistrates elected for one year, are authorized if there is a municipal decret for their actions.

When you look at the overview of the 572 entries you use first of all several filters. Thus you can quickly see that legal texts form the majority of the texts, only 73 items stem from Roman literature. Within the corpus of legal text the Digesta rule supreme with 435 entries. Among the literature are 22 entries from Frontinus. Cicero provides only six entries. Texts found in the Corpus agrimensorum have been cited and translated using the work of Brian Campbell, The writings of the Roman land surveyors. Introduction, translation and commentary (London 2000). It is no surprise to find Okko Behrends as one of the scholars involved with the Topoi project. He edited and translated with Luigi Capogrossi Colognesi for example the volumes on Frontinus and Hyginus in the Corpus agrimensorum romanorum [vol. 4 (1998) and 5 (2000)]. You can also filter by keyword. Some forty Latin terms are given for this purpose. An entry can have multiple keywords. You can choose to open the entries for just one keyword or add entries for other keywords or subjects as well.

The core of the project are the classifications added to each entry. There are ten main types of classes, starting with definitions (44), followed by

Right to use water
Constructions to use water – Process of construction and maintenance
Legal protection of water use
Urban praedial servitudes of water
Regulation of damages and prevention of damage caused by water
Consequences of changes caused by water
Water as a route of transport
Water as a border
Buildings at banks, coasts and beaches

Under the heading Urban praedial servitudes five texts are included concerning stilicidium, the right to discharge eavesdrip (drops of rain) and the legal actions available in case of flooding (flumen). I could not help noticing that seemingly the keyword flumen has been added to the three texts for stilicidium, and that in one of the two texts for flumen the action concerning aqua pluvia is also mentioned, but not entered as a keyword. Adding the right keywords is certainly not straightforward. I looked also at the twelve texts in rubric 7.4, Storms and natural disaster, a subspecies of changes caused by water. The clear distinctions, the crisp style and the concise descriptions of standard situations should provide food for thought for any modern lawyer struggling with legal problems and trying to write about them in a most sensible and understandable way. In Roman eyes the actual situation in a particular legal case had to be faced squarely in order to provide a just solution. Last year someone asked me about Roman law and plumbing.  I can reassure my acquaintance Roman lawyers said some very constructive things about plumbeae fistulae.

It is possible to download the database of Roman Water Law, created in the special Citable format created for digital humanities. It would have been more elegant to indicate the kind of tool to open it. On a tablet I could open it directly, otherwise you can use a simple text or code editor.

The variety at Topoi

Cover Becking, "Water management in ancient civilizations"

The Topoi project does not only bring digital results. Exhibitions are held and publications appear in print, too, for example the volume edited by Jonas Becking on Water management in ancient civilizations (Berlin 2018). An earlier publication touches the theme of Roman land surveying, Cosima Möller and Eberhard Knobloch (eds.), In den Gefilden der römischen Feldmesser. Juristische, wissenschaftsgeschichtliche, historische und sprachliche Aspekte (Berlin-Boston 2013). There is also an e-Topoi Journal for Ancient Studies available in open access. Received wisdom forbids me to create in this post also a nutshell guide to other relevant institutions in Berlin for the field of ancient studies. Just looking at the Topoi repository is a treat. You can look for example at ancient cylinder seals in 3D, astronomical diaries in cuneiform inscriptions from Babylonia, a digital representation of the Pantheon, and the Inscriptiones Christianae Graecae. The Topoi cluster itself has many connections. With the Berliner Antike-Kolleg I mention an institution which has close connections to Topoi.

I leave it to you to explore yourself more texts included at Roman Water Law. Many uses of water come into view on the website and in the database. One of the few things missing are baths, but here we clearly enter the summertime of the northern hemisphere. Roman lawyers did discuss them, too! If you want to pursue such themes in Roman law I would like to point here again to Amanuensis, the application for searching Roman legal texts created by Peter Riedlberger and Günther Rosenbaum, downloadable for both computers and smartphones. In an earlier post I introduced the app. It is good to know more texts have been included in it recently (version 4.0). Thanks to Ingo Maier a number of constitutions from Late Antiquity and the Latin Novellae of Justinian have been added, and thanks to Job Spruit also the Justinian Novellae in Greek. Hopefully the summer holidays give you a chance to relax and reload, and also to learn about and upload the latest version of such tools.

 

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