Little Details

A Fact-Checking Community for Writers

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Protecting a Romano-British estate from a greedy official
island_of_reil wrote in little_details
Time/Place: Roman Britain, 133 CE
Search terms used: "ancient roman wills", "ancient rome wills", "ancient rome inheritance", "ancient rome debt burden" (but also see links in my post)

A Roman woman has died in childbirth. Less than a year before, her husband, who is much older than she was, had a stroke from which he is unlikely to recover; he cannot speak. They have five minor children. The juridical legate has moved quickly to seize their villa for his own gain by appointing himself their guardian and claiming to hold the property in trust for them.

It does not seem that a will would have prevented this. According to LacusCurtius, only a paterfamilias or a widow not under the power of her father could make a will. Theoretically, the dead woman could have persuaded her husband, pre-stroke, to have honored her wishes in his will, but, now that he is mute, he can no longer be a testator. Also, strictly speaking, she is not a widow.

The dead woman's friends are seeking to discourage the juridical legate from this course of action in whatever legal way possible (killing him is not a good option, for obvious reasons). My beta, who has a reasonable knowledge of Roman law, suggested they might want to add a massive debt burden to the estate.

In life, the woman had fostered and mentored in her villa a great many young girls in the community, not only providing them with work but teaching them skills. She also offered to be pronuba to the protagonist, for whom she threw an extravagant wedding feast. Therefore, suggests my beta, one solution would be for as-yet-unmarried girls who had worked for her to claim that she'd promised to pay for their weddings, too — and for their male guardians/spokesmen in court to validate these claims. Their spokesmen could even "discover," retrospectively, "legal" documents in which such had been promised as a benefit of employment (despite there having been no employment documentation as such). While these hypothetical weddings would not be as extravagant as the protagonist's, collectively they could run up a great deal of money, as well as, of course, pose a lot of hassle for the juridical legate.

I am not entirely sure (a) I am fond of this resolution or (b) that I could write it in a way that would hold together in the narrative sense. Might anyone have any suggestions, pertaining either to the above solution or to other solutions (involving debt burdens or otherwise)?

This situation is specific enough that I have not found search terms very helpful. For what it's worth, in addition to LacusCurtius I've looked at this little_details post, as well as Wikipedia ("Fideicommissum" and "Legal History of Wills: Ancient Rome"). Edward Champlin's Final Judgments: Duty and Emotion in Roman Wills, 200 B.C.-A.D. 250 looked promising, but there is no preview for any pages in the chapter titled "The Family." I have not found any other books on Google Books that have been helpful.

Thanks in advance.

ETA: sollersuk has explained in detail how such a mentoring situation would have been quite anachronistic. As I've replied, I will likely handwave this/acknowledge it in the author's notes. I would still be interested in people's thoughts on the topic of adding a debt burden to the estate. Thanks again.

My house has eaten the book I'm looking for which is something like "the Roman household: a sourcebook" which does deal with such matters.

I'm bothered by your character's activities. To start with I think you're underestimating the role spinning played in women's lives - even after the introduction of the spinning wheel it took up much of the day and this was the time of the drop spindle; the families of the young girls would rely on their spinning. Even girls of good families who were educated were also expected to do a set amount (the "pensum") each day. This is the chief occupation that they would have, and it was a marketable one. This and other skills (for example, a family trade) would be the responsibility of older women in their own families.</p>

Her own responsibility would be the women of her own household, specifically her daughters and her slaves; the only sort of person who wouldn't fall into either of these groups would be a foundling that they had taken in.

As for any mentoring, the only circumstance I can think of where this could happen is if the date is pre Constantine and she is a Christian, which is another can of worms.

Perhaps more later, but it's only 6.30 am here and I haven't had my first cup of coffee yet!

I actually do have the female characters of this fic doing a lot of spinning, but I take your point about the social organization of the time, re family and slaves vs. paid employees.

I do want mentoring to be a central theme. The woman being Christian is not plausible in this narrative, I don't think. Would it make any difference that this took place in Britain, rather than Rome? The community in question is relatively new, and I was hoping there might be some benefits of social status the woman could reap by positioning herself as a mentor to the mostly British girls in the area.

Not really, and I don't see any possibility of a mentoring role in either place. Both Roman and Celtic society were heavily family orientated, and any woman who had dealings with girls outside her family ( and the girls themselves) would be viewed with deep suspicion. It was seen as actively wrong to help people outside your family or close circle of family connections.

Christians, and some mystery religions (these latter were very elitist) were the only ones who saw the individual as important with a right to their own views; it wasn't till Christianity got going that Roman women had individual names. Romanisation of Celtic girls would be their fathers' duty, part of the package of showing themselves to be proper Romans.

OK, thanks. I may end up handwaving the issue and adding a note to the fic that I am aware of the anachronism. As someone I know has said, "At this point I'd be happy to see fic for this fandom that has tomatoes in it," so it's less an issue of throwing (most of) my audience out of the story than of me being dissatisfied with it.

Julian the Apostate wrote a letter complaining of how pagans did not look after impoverished pagans.

"For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us."

And this was after Constantine, so there was a lot of Christian influence involved.

I am not a notably skilled handspinner, nowhere even close to the level that a person likely would have been when it was a necessary job instead of a hobby, but I can do a reasonably good job with it. It takes me many, many hours to make enough yarn to turn it into a small garment like a hat or scarf. The scarf I made for myself took about 60 hours from pre-cleaned, carded wool to the finished product, most of which was spinning. (I'm estimating, as I worked on it about an hour a day for roughly two months.) Making threads thin enough to weave, in sufficient quantities to make full garments, would be very time-consuming even for someone who's been doing it for years. There's a ceiling on how fast the process can go and it's not a high one without a wheel, which IIRC didn't really come into use much until the late Middle Ages.

You do indeed recollect correctly; and even that was labour intensive.

In the 18th century a group of Moravians fled religious persecution and came to what is now part of Greater Manchester, a couple of miles from where I live. They established a church which still takes part in the local Whit Walks and set up a colony whose buildings are still standing, though not used for their original purposes; two were for boys and girls in what would now be called their teens to live communally until they married. The girls spent nearly all their time spinning; it really reinforced for me why unmarked women were called "spinsters"

The situation you have here is extremely interesting, but I think that some of your sources have misled you slightly. First of all, the wife in this case is almost certainly married without manus which means that she did have the right to write a will of her own, and that she maintained property separate from her husband (in addition to her dowry, which was technically his property). This is the money she would have used to support her proteges (I have no opinion about the plausibility of her actions, although I think sollersuk is putting the matter a little strongly, and one might imagine a situation where she had a hereditary relationship of patronage with some local families which she expressed through looking out for their daughters. The problem, I think, is that a wedding was not all that big a deal in the Roman world; if you actually want to put her estate in debt she would have had to have promised money for their dowries. That would certainly have been seen as irresponsible, if she had living blood relatives, as she does. So the relationship itself is, in my opinion, handwavable, but it being a cause of debt is less so.)

You refer to the dowry as "their property" but Romans maintained the fairly strict separation of the property of husband and wife in this period, so I would presume that the villa in fact belongs to the husband. (It was normal for the couple to live in a property belonging to the man, although if the wife was significantly wealthier than the husband they might not, or might live in a property which was part of her dowry.)

Also, the wife has five children, which means she has no need for a legal guardian to oversee her financial dealings -- its the "right of three children" -- so her will couldn't be challenged on the grounds that a guardian hadn't authorised it.

The husband will almost certainly have written a will as well, but obviously since he isn't dead it will not have come into effect. In the will he will have appointed a guardian for his minor children; this can't be his wife (it has to be a man!) and would normally be a male relative on his father's side or failing that a close friend. Now the legate might argue that because the man is alive, his will has not come into effect, and he can take control of the property and appoint himself as guardian, but this would have happened while the wife was alive. This seems a very plausible situation, and the best way for the friends of the family to contest that would be to appeal to the emperor or the provincial governor. The situation you suggest, where the property has fallen into debt through the action of the wife, isn't really possible -- Roman law is set up to prevent it. What might be possible is for the property to be tied up in a lawsuit, if the wife had gone to court to gain control of her dowry -- which might be a plausible move on her part, since her children relied on it.

(I have to go but will write more in a bit.)

OK, let me think about the situation and what you need, because the chronology will matter.

First, the husband has a stroke and is incapacitated. He can't speak. Can he move around, write or otherwise express himself? Would it be best from your purposes to assume that he has or appears to have lost his senses in addition to his speech?

He would almost certainly have a will written before that (and the will would account for the possibility of a posthumous child) which would probably leave most of his property to his children and some to his wife. The will would name a tutor for his children (and I was wrong above -- it might easily be any male relative or a close friend, or even a relative of his wife's). But as you point out, since he isn't dead, his will has not gone into effect.

Meanwhile, his wife is probably administering his property as well as her own (effectively they would be mixed together, although in law they would be separate). She is pregnant, I am presuming by her husband, and dies in childbirth (usually in the ancient world this means from infection soon after childbirth.) She almost certainly also has a will, which probably left money for her children and husband, but also to her female proteges. They can take their legacies immediately, unless there's a problem with her will; the will will have left money to her husband as primary heir and to the children as secondary heirs -- that is, they would inherit only if their father was dead. While he lives they can't own property in their own right, because of patriapotestas.

At this point, in your version, the legate steps in to take control of the husband's property, and you need a reason for him not to do so (am I understanding this correctly?). I am not really convinced by the notion that the estate was riddled by debt would be useful here, unless you need the estate actually to disappear to cover the father's debts. But if she went to court to gain control of her dowry, the estate might be tied up in court. Would that do?

Would it be best from your purposes to assume that he has or appears to have lost his senses in addition to his speech?

Most likely.

At this point, in your version, the legate steps in to take control of the husband's property, and you need a reason for him not to do so (am I understanding this correctly?).

Yes, there needs to be some sort of legal deterrent.

But if she went to court to gain control of her dowry, the estate might be tied up in court. Would that do?

Would the juridical legate have had the power, either legally or via corruption, to circumvent such court processes for his own personal gain? And if he would not have had the power to do so, how long would the estate have been tied up in court, and what would have prevented him from resuming his quest to take it over once the court had finished with it?

You had mentioned "appeal to the emperor or the provincial governor." I don't know if the propraetor, to whom the JL was officially subordinate, might be a third possibility. I have not written a propraetor into my story, although I could do so. Priscus Licinius Italicus (not to be confused with this fellow) would have been in that office at the time. I can't find much about him online other than that; is it safe to assume that a corrupt JL would have been taking his lead from a corrupt propraetor?

The governor at the time would have been Publius Mummius Sisenna, about whom little is known — and, per, whose governorship may not even be historically indisputable (he is not mentioned in my copy of Patricia Southern's Roman Britain). On the plus side, if I included him and/or Licinius in my story, I'd have blank slates to work with.

As for the emperor: While the stricken husband is wealthy, I have been rather vague in my narrative about his precise position in Romano-British society. I had been thinking some sort of promagistracy. Would his level of power and influence vis-à-vis the JL have mattered at all once he had been incapacitated? Is there a level of power beneath which an appeal to the emperor on behalf of his children would have been considered inappropriate?

Edited at 2014-02-27 08:06 pm (UTC)

The juridical legate would certainly have been able to slow down a court case, or to try to rig the judges to decide in his favor -- to reach the decision that would leave more of the estate open to him to take. But actually a case by the wife for her dowry wasn't a good idea, because on her death the case would be moot and her dowry would become part of the husband's property.

It is likely however that the secondary heirs (the children) would petition the provincial governor to appoint a tutor to allow the will to be settled and any legacies carried out; the provincial governor is the highest legal authority within the province and the legate is just his assistant (propraetor and governor are synonyms in the first source you've cited, because the governor of Britain was appointed by the emperor with propraetorian authority. I have no idea whether it was Sisenna or Italicus -- not my area of expertise). But anyway, it would be very irregular, I think, for him to appoint the legate to that position unless there were no male relatives or friends of the husband around. The legate might try to persuade the governor to give him the position, I suppose, especially if the husband was somehow involved in provincial administration, although if that was the case he would not be a permanent resident in the province. Maybe better to make him a wealthy Roman resident in the province, instead? It depends how deep you want his local ties to be, or his wife's. He could still hold office in his local Roman town/colony.

If you want the legate to look like more of a threat, you might make him a procurator (and thus outside the authority of the governor), or you might have the governor and the legate in collusion. But if all you need is a legal deterrent, then the appointment of a male relative of the husband as guardian of the children and the property -- or the arrival of a male relative from another province -- would be enough.

A wealthy Roman resident in Britain could certainly have appealed directly to the emperor, and this kind of case -- where the law is fuzzy and the rights of the natural heirs to get their property might be at risk -- is certainly the kind of thing emperors were interested in. He might easily be the son of, say, a legionary officer of equestrian rank who had retired to a colony in the province, and thus would have been one of a class of people of interest to the emperor -- in particular if he had been, say, a legionary tribune himself as a younger man.

Is this any help, or have I just muddled things further?

Actually it's a lot of help, thanks. But I have to chew on it for a while, because there's a lot to consider. :3

Thank you for the ETA!

I've been looking into Roman domestic life recently because I've started work on a book for children of the Famous Five type (very well-known old series of stories of a group of children and a dog having adventures) where the group are all from the same family, as the Romans would see it: one of two sons, two daughters, the children of the family doctor (a slave) who are being brought up to follow him, and the very bright son of one of the other slaves who the paterfamilias is educating with the hoes that he will make an excellent steward. The final ingredient in the mix is a foundling girl who was brought in to be a playmate for the older girl. It's an interesting project because I want it to be fun to read but also give a broader picture of Roman life than children get at school.

That sounds really neat! (You have probably already seen it, but if not, Henrik Mouritsen's recent book The Freedman in the Roman World might be of interest to you -- since it also deals with slavery within the domus a bit, and with reconstructing some of the various ways various Romans thought about slavery.)

I'll put it on the list to add to the others I have; one thing that has intrigued me has been slavery as a means to social mobility. There are tombstones in the UK that reflects the dodge used to get around the fact that a Roman citizen could only marry a Roman citizen: the man would buy the woman he loved from her father, then free her, at which point she would be eligible to marry him. There were rules about minimum ages but they were consistently flouted; the most touching tombstone in Bath is to a little girl of three described as "freedwoman and adopted daughter".


Log in