Inscribed evidence for illegal behaviour at the Roman grave (Tupman, November 2008)

This is a report by Duncan Taylor, King’s College London, of a paper given at the BES Autumn meeting, November 22, 2008:

Charlotte Tupman (KCL), “Protecting the dead? Inscribed evidence for illegal behaviour at the Roman grave”

The first paper of the day was given by Charlotte Tupman, of King’s College London, whose contribution sought the ‘inscribed laws’ of the colloquium’s theme not in the ‘official’ pronouncements of the representatives of ancient states, but in the more personal genre of funerary epigraphy. Tupman provided an intriguing and thought provoking survey of a number of funerary inscriptions drawn from two very different urban centres within the Roman Empire: Rome itself, and Aphrodisias in Karia. These texts shared an explicit concern for the future mistreatments that might befall the grave sites and funerary monuments of which they formed a part. A wide variety of possible acts of desecration were anticipated by their composers and admonitions to the reader to refrain from such activities were supported by threats of retribution. Tupman’s paper emphasised the diversity of these elements, with a particular interest in the broader differences between the conventions of the two sites, but also the patterns and themes, which can be observed among them, and are suggestive, at the least, of many aspects of their legal and social contexts.

Along with simple acts of vandalism perpetrated against the monument, alienation of the site and the unauthorised addition of unanticipated and unwelcome bodies to the tomb appear to have particularly exercised the minds of those responsible for them. As Tupman illustrated, these concerns were also present in the writings of the Roman jurists and the codices of Roman law. Other crimes, which we might expect to find in this context are perhaps significant by their absence, among them simple grave-robbing. While the choice between the appeal to human and divine authorities for justice might seem arbitrary at first glance, Tupman made a strong case for an alternative interpretation. In this sample, the texts’ composers appear to have adopted a pragmatic approach in utilising threats of legal action, often involving substantial monetary fines, only where the perpetrator would find it relatively difficult to hide his identity (as in unauthorised re-use). Significantly, the proceeds of fines generally seem to have been destined for the state treasury, or the coffers of local cults, after the successful prosecutor’s cut. They were not, apparently, intended to compensate the heirs of the deceased either for distress caused, or for the financial burden of making good any damage. Perhaps, as Tupman suggested, only the direct interest of the state or a significant local institution, could there be hope of resolving the matter. It is possible too that any damage done was perceived to be irreversible. Supernatural sanctions were brought to bear against crimes less suited to legal process, among them such petty acts of vandalism as urination or defecation upon the grave. Curses involving specific short and long-term consequences were elaborated and suitable gods invoked. A legalistic attention to detail was employed in order to nullify the defence of ignorance. The exact dimensions of the funerary plot were often specified along with details about exactly whose remains might legitimately be added.

Tupman’s paper raised some fascinating questions and offered a number of thoughtful preliminary conclusions. The possibilities offered by future research into a broader sample of texts, for furthering our understanding of the relationship between them and the social milieu in which they were composed, as well as the legal frameworks that informed them, were made manifest.

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