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: ..



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.


2. ager per extremitatem, land surveyed by boundaries.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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


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

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

In Nietzsche's Shadow:
Cartography, Geohistory and the Changing Nature of Landscape would fancy him a madman when you see him walking along the most devious of paths...seeking for the traces of lost facts in rough woods and thickets...
--Cassiodorus on Roman Surveyors

My current work of searching for the remains of Roman mapping and cartography was born on the ancient paths and trails of Southern France. Hiking through these areas year after year continually brought me face to face with a type of historical research that I think has been missing from what has recently come to pass for the history of cartography. Wandering these paths and old Roman roads makes one consider the relationship that cartography has to landscape and with the kind of geohistory first imagined by members the French Annales School.

The village of Eze from Mont Bastide

The medieval historian Georges Duby said in his autobiography, History Continues, that,

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

I believe this to be especially true for the historian of cartography. Duby says that,

"What I was looking for in my wanderings through forests and fields was the reassurance of a concrete grasp on reality. The tattered, threadbare fabric that I was trying to mend stitch by stitch with the aid of my Latin texts needed solid support. I wanted to lay it down over a document of a very different kind: one just as rich...but without gaps and preserved not in the darkness of the archives but open to the sunlight and to life itself, namely, the landscape."

Duby talks at length about how,

"no technological revolution had yet radically transformed the agricultural system in my region, and forty years ago the network of paths was still much the same as it had been in the year 1000."

Today some things have changed but many of the old paths and field patterns survive and, as I have shown in my work on Tunisia, can be extremely useful when trying to reconstruct the Roman limits. This is especially true in places like Tunisia and Libya were a great deal survives in the way of field patterns and boundaries, but these same hints in the landscape can also be found in some areas on the continent. My own wanderings along the forgot paths of the moyenne and grande corniche, places like the Friedrich Nietzsche trail, which goes from the Mediterranean Sea up to the village of Eze (shown in the photo above) continuing to the summit of the Mount Bastide, have shown just how enlightening such an approach can be. Nietzsche himself used to walk this particular chemin daily while he was living in Eze, and composing parts of Thus Spake Zarathustra, but the history of the path goes back at least to the iron age. As Nietzsche said in Ecce Homo,

"The following winter [1883-84], under the halcyon skies of Nice, which glistened above me for the first time in my life, I discovered the third part of Zarathustra-and the book was finished. Scarcely a year for the composition of the whole. Many concealed spots and many heights in the landscape of Nice have become sacrosanct to me because of unforgettable moments there. That decisive part of the third book, 'Of Old and New Tablets,' was composed on the difficult and steep ascent from the railway station at Èze to the marvelous Moorish eagle's nest overhead.-My muscle tone was always greatest when my creative energies flowed most abundantly. The body is spirited-let us leave the 'soul' out of play. . . . One could often have spotted me dancing: at that time I could wander through the mountains for seven or eight hours at a time without tiring. I slept well. I laughed a lot-I was fit as I could be, and I was patient."

Along the trail one finds the remains of a large bastide or oppidum whose occupation dates back to neolithic times but that was also occupied and rebuilt by the Romans during the Julian-Claudian period. Many of the walls and some of the roads are still intact, as shown in the photo above. Ruins of this type, with parts of the road structure remaining, are useful in reconstructing how and where the Romans actually surveyed and mapped. Boundary stones and mile markers have also been found in this region and lend further help in producing accurate reconstructions of the type that I am engaged in.

Most of the theoretical foundation for these types of researches stem from the work of Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) and Marc Bloch (1866-1944), two of the founders of the Annales School. Braudelian landscape and geohistory can be reduced to a few basic assumptions.

1. geohistory has a specific concrete object that is 'tied to the soil', to elemental ecological the landscape and its historical modifications.
2. geohistorical process, because it develops so slowly, represents a relatively immobile history, whose characteristic patterns last for long periods, things like field patterns, paths and roads.
3. geohistory is fundamental to other kinds of historical process and underlies other forms of historiocity.

Braudel wrote that within the bonds of his technological capacity man is free to do what he will with the landscape in which he dwells. A very interesting Heideggarian parrallel could be written here using Heidegger's essay Building, Dwelling, Thinking but I will not go into that now.

According to Braudel, the very formative capacity of the human endeavor, the ability to bend the landscape and change it in ways that last beyond single human lifetimes, creates constraints that become determinants of later human history because they are relatively 'fixed' or 'permanent'. Hence paths and field patterns last much longer and have their origins in many places in the remote past. These things become fixed and although we do not recognize them at first sight, old paths and field patterns can tell us a great deal about the history of an area and can open up new areas of physical research that help in our cartographic researches.

One look at Marc Bloch's French Rural History will give some insight into what I am getting at here. Bloch's essay is very important for a number of reasons that are methodologically interesting for this particular project. Bloch, in this short book (it is only 200 pages long), is concerned ironically with a long span of time, beginning in the 13th century and ending in the early 18th century. His conception of rural history is broad, taking into account not only farming techniques, but customs and the development of social norms. What was for the time most revolutionary however, was Bloch's systematic use of non-documentary sources like estate maps and the layout of the physical environment itself.

French Rural History came to my attention because of it's use of the so-called 'regressive method'. Bloch read history backwards on the grounds that we know more about later periods and that it makes logical sense to proceed from the known to the unknown. There were others before him who used this method like the English historian Frederick Seebohm who, in 1883, published The English Village Community. The book begins with an important chapter entitled, 'The English Open Field System Examined in its Modern Remains". Seebohm uses the surviving clues in the landscape to work backwards to the foundations of early English village life much in the same way as Bloch does with his maps of remaining field patterns in France and as I am trying to do with Roman Surveying. More modern studies, like Alan Baker's, Studies of Field systems in the British Isles give one some sense of what the historian can achieve if one simply gets outside. All of this of course requires a certain rethinking of how we write and conceptualize cartographic history as something that as George Duby said, "is open to the sunshine".