chapter  7
15 Pages

Law and Society

Wax tablets were private records of legal transactions and were often sealed by witnesses; texts on wax were useful for documents of this kind, since any tamper - ing or modifi cation of a text would show up clearly upon the wax surface. Collections of wax tablets were found in eight different houses in Herculaneum during excavations of the 1930s; these preserve traces of writing in ink upon their wooden surface, but their wax surfaces were destroyed in the eruption. The texts written into the wax surface on tablets, however, were often repeated in full or in summary in ink on their outer wooden surface, and so deciphering even these partial texts can suggest a good sense of what each document concerned overall. The tablets illustrate the way in which law impacted upon society at Herculaneum. We start with collections of tablets relating to two particular individuals, Venidius Ennychus (G1-4) and Petronia Iusta (G5-11). Other individual tablets illustrate legal pro cesses such as appointing a woman’s guardian and the involvement of a private judge in a lawsuit between individuals (G12-13). An adult woman who had become independent on the death of her father or husband was required to have a legal guardian (tutor), who would formally (and in some cases, perhaps purely nominally) represent her in some kinds of financial and legal transactions (compare G4, G10, G12, H60, H66). The following houses preserved caches of tablets: eleven tablets piled upon each other were found in a room on an upper floor of ins. IV.17-18; a group of tablets was found on the upper floor of the ‘House of the Alcove’ (ins. IV.3-4); thirty-two tablets were discovered on a balcony next to the ‘House of Galba’ (ins. VII, 8 or 9); one group of tablets was uncovered in a wooden cupboard in a cubiculum on an upper floor of the ‘House of the Wooden Shrine’ (ins. V.31), while another group was found in the same room, in a chest under the bed; the archive of Cominius Primus was found in ins. V.19-22 and the archive of Venidius Ennychus on a wooden shelf fixed to the wall in an upper room in the ‘House of the Black Hall’ (ins. VI.13/11) (compare H56); further tablets were found in the ‘House of the Bicentenary’ (ins. V.15-16) and ‘House of the Two Atria’ (ins. VI.29). (For the wax tablets of Caecilius Iucundus from Pompeii, see H102-15.)

Besides the wax tablets, further insights into the impact of law upon individuals’ status within society can be recovered from funerary inscriptions, particularly in

relation to the practice of manumission (granting freedom to slaves). The epitaphs of freedmen and freedwomen illustrate clearly the importance to them of their change in status. This not only gave them their freedom individually, but also meant that they were now able to enjoy legally recognized marriages and the fact that their children were regarded as freeborn if born after their parents had been freed (G14-21).