Author Climbing in the Queyras, Summer 2013

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Cartographic Commentary on the Henchir Mettich Inscription from Central Tunisa: Roman Surveying in the Medjerda Valley

The foundations of the science of land measurement lies in practical experience, since the truth about sites or area cannot be expressed without lines that can be geometrically measured.
--Frontinus, De arte mensoria

As noted in my previous post, the inscription from Henchir Mettich in the Bagradas valley of Central Tunisia is important as a window on the landscape archaeology of the region and the history of agriculture during the Roman empire, but it is also important for the history of cartography as it relates to Roman law and the running of imperial estates in the second century AD. As one can see in the example of face one below, this coming from a series of photographs that I took last year in Tunisia, the inscription is badly damaged.

The inscription was published as CIL 25902 and very different transciptions of it can be found in Kehoe's, The Economics of Agriculture on Roman imperial Estates in North Africa and in van Nostrand's, The Imperial Domains of Africa Proconsularis: an epigraphical study.

The most important part of the inscription from a cartographic perspective is to be found on side one of the column shown below as published in the CIL and as a lithograph from Toutain's L'Inscription D'Henchir Mettich: un noveau document sur la propriete agricole dans L'Afrique Romaine.

The text on the first side of the column talks in some detail about the subject of subseciva or unallocated lands. The word is the subject of much discussion in the Corpus Agrimensorum and generally means lands unsuitable for allocation to settlers, either sirutated between the centuriae and the outer boundary of a communities territory or within centuriae. The word literally means "cut off" or "cut away below".

For example, Frontinus talks about the fact that he knows of fifteen different types of 'land dispute',
"...the position of boundary markers, a straight line boundary, boundary, site, area, ownership, possession, alluvial land, territorial juristdiction, subseciva, public places, places omitted and not enclosed, sacred and religious places, control of rain water and rights of way."

He continues later in his text on 'land disputes',
"A dispute over subseciva occurs when some or all of a centuria has not benn allocated and is possessed. Or if an adjacent landholder or someone else occupies any land from the edge of the allocated area, this also comes under disputes involving subseciva."

Hyginus also has much to say about subseciva. In his descritpion of categories of land he tells us that,
"Certain areas that protrude beyond the type of land which is curved or has angles, and are divided off by straight lines, are called subseciva, that is, pieces of land that remain when the boundary lines have cut them off and retain the character of peripheral areas."

The discussion of subseciva in the Henchir Mettich inscription begins after the dedication ends in line 6.

...qui eorum [i]ntra fundo Villae Mag-
[n](a)e Varian(a)e id est Mappalia Siga, eiseos agros qui su[b]-
[c]esiva sunt excolere permittitur lege Manciana
ita, ut eas qui excoluerit usum proprium habe-
at. [...]

The translation of this part of the column is not easy, but generally it says,

"To those coloni (who will have farmsteads) within the boundaries of the estate of Villae Magna or Mappalia Siga, who wish to cultivate more fields, permission is given to cultivate those fields which have not been alloted (subseciva) or have been classfied as unused, under the terms of the law of Mancia; namely that he who cultivates this lands shall have them for personal use."

One can infer from this that the land belonging to the Villa Magna was originally mapped and surveyed and then distributed to individuals, becoming some form of ager privatus. It certainly proves that this particluar area had boundaries drawn even though there are currently few physical remains of the Roman centuriation lines. Epigraphic evidence for Roman mapping has not been studied in a large scale fashion before and I hope to published my complete GIS of this information, at least from North Africa and Southern France, in the next year or so. For those who are interested I show the other four faces below...

Click on images to enlarge

Face II (above), Face III (below ), Face IV (below III)