Author Climbing in the Queyras, Summer 2013

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Henchir Mettich Inscription from Central Tunisia:

Further Use of Epigraphy for the Study of Early Roman Property Law and Cadastral Cartography

...historians sometimes find much of what they are looking for when they step outside their rooms and look around in the landscape....

................................................................................................ --George Duby


The sociologist Max Weber, shown in the photograph below, wrote in his dissertation, Die Römische Agrargeschichte in ihrer Bedeutung für das Staats- und Privatrecht (Roman Agrarian History and its Significance for Public and Private Law), that Roman Surveyors distingushed three categories of land: ..




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1. ager divisus et assignatus, land surveyed and assigned to owners which is further subdivided into two categories:

a. ager limitatus, that is land surveyed by centuriae and assigned to owners.

b. ager per scamna et striges land surveyed by scamna and striges and assigned to owners.

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2. ager per extremitatem, land surveyed by boundaries.

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3. ager arcifinius, land not surveyed. Weber completed the dissertation in 1891 and was greatly influenced by the work of great Roman historian, Theodor Mommsen.




















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Weber, in the dissertation, makes a case that the two broad categories of surveyed land, that of centuriae and that of scamna et striges are different systems of mapping based on land ownership laws. The centuriae surveys are more general and do not reflect the actual ownership boundaries of the land, while the scamna surveys follow actual property lines. Centuriation, the process of dividing the land into centuries, formed very regular patterns and, as is shown in the schematic below, had fixed sizes associated with it. Scamna and striges are different, in that the boundaries of the surveyed land form irregular rectangles of various sizes and extents.


























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Weber implies that this distinction has more than just structural meaning and cites the writings of the surveyor Hyginus from the Corpus Agrimensorum. Hyginus says that land surveyed per scamna et strigas was "subject to taxation" and for this reason "permanent property lines" had to be well defined. The question of the relationship of private property, taxation, and the role of surveying and cartography in the establishment of colonial tax and ownership rights in the Roman Empire is a very complex one and much more historical work needs to be accomplished in this area. One sourse of information regarding the interplay of these various bureacratic entities comes from epigraphic inscriptions. One important inscription regarding the role of ownership, rents and taxation that survives was found at Henchir Mettich near the village of Testour, Tunisa, west of Carthage. The inscription was originally part of the administrative documents associated with the estate or fundus of Villa Magna Variana. The section of the map below from the Barrington atlas shows the region to have been only lightly centuriated, yet the inscription, as I will show below implies that it was surveyed.













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The inscription is currently part of the collections of the Bardo Museum in Tunis and is shown in the photograph below.





















... ... The text found on the monument was first announced by M.R. Cagnat of the College du France and was published several times shortly after its discovery in 1896 by a Lieutenant Poulain, an officer in the French topographic corps.. The area around Henchir Mettich is currently a semi-arid district of mostly barren hills (approximately 400 mm-500mm rainfall per annum), some of which are currently cultivated with olive trees. The valley (modern Medjerda, Roman Babradas) is roughly sixty to eighty kilometers from the Mediterranean coast and is known as the Tell intérieur.






















... ... While in Tunisia last year I took detailed photographs of the Henchir Mettich inscription at the Bardo (one of the series is shown in the above figure). The stone on which the inscription is written was in all probability moved from its original location to Henchir Mettich and is dedicated "to the safety of the Emperor Trajan" suggesting a date of around 115-117 AD. The test itself is quite long and is found on all four sides of the momument. Using edge dection algorithms I enhanced the inscription (figure to the left) so I could read it in its current condition, which appears degraded compared to some of the earlier publications of it. The inscription is addressed to the group of landowners and renters who are associated with the fundus. The actual boundaries of the fundus are not given in the inscription but it does tell us that the estate was large enough to have a wide variety of agricultural production. There are fields of wheat, barely and beans, along with orchards of olives and figs. This list is very much in line with the current agricultural output of the region. The inscription also mentions vineyards and pastures and home sites for workers. One of the most interesting parts of the inscription takes about the fact that some of the land is uncultivated and that a part of the land is leased to cultivators and also contains portions that are given over to the lessors for their own farms.


Those who worked the fields are described as coloni, of which the inscriptions defines two types: ...

1. those who lived on the fundus in their own homes (specifically homes they themselves built)

2. those who lived on the fundus but rented their buildings.

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The inscription, whose entire contents I will translate in a future post, divides up in precise terms the rules associated with the various types of land associated with the fundus and talks about land renting and ownership rules and the terms under which things like unalloted farm lands may be occupied and cultivated. Much of the discussion of these rules implies a deep concern with boundary issues and surveying. For example the inscription states:


"To those coloni dwelling on the fundus of Villa Magna Variana, that is, of Mappalia Siga, who wish to cultivate the fields, permission is given to cultivate those fields which have not been alloted, under the terms of the Lex Manciana; namely that he who cultivates shall have personal use of the land. Of the crops which are raised on said land, the cultivators shall give to the owners, or lessors, or stewards of this fundus shares as fixed..."



The unalloted portions that are referred to resulted from the division of land for the purposes of distribution to private individuals. From this one can infer that the fundus was originally surveyed and distributed and therefore became ager privatus. If one believes the methodologies for such distribution as outlined in the Corpus Agrimensorum this implies the creation of a map at some time before 116-117 AD. There are other instances of this type of example. Mommsen in Volume X of CIL (pp 386) records an inscription from the ager Campanus, which settlers had begun to occupy without permission. The inscription says:



"He divided that territory into small farms (fundi) and leased them out at fixed rents. While in office he recovered more land than was expected, and he had the whole territory recorded on a surveyor's map (forma). This was then engraved on a bronze tablet..."



... The inscription's language is complex in a number of areas, especially in those referring to subseciva, or uncultivated, unalloted land. With the little evidence that survives however, regarding Roman surveying and cartography, epigraphy is just one more group of texts that need to be studied in a closer and more a critical way than historians of cartography have generally done...more on this inscription in later posts

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The author practicing his epigraphy skills in the ruins of Carthage ...just outside of Tunis...