Duties and Rights of Landowners and Tenants in a Late Roman Law

Uiran Gebara da Silva <uirangs@gmail.com>

I. Introduction

In the Later Roman Empire (3rd to 6th centuries CE) rural tenancy became much more regulated than previously. During the first two centuries of the Roman Empire, this social relationship was understood as a contract between landowner and tenant, an agreement regulated primarily by local practices, customs, and laws that was only rarely the object of imperial ruling (Neeve 1984; Kehoe 2007). The imperial regulations and decisions concerning rural tenancy are what modern scholarship calls “the Roman colonate” or simply “the colonate.” Part of the research conducted by Working Group 1 of WORCK, the data story presented here shows some of the first results of an investigation of the Roman colonate informed by Historical Semantics and the recent reframing of the concepts of free and unfree labour (Linden 2016). Its final aim is to produce a Grammar of Coercion for the Roman colonate. At this early stage, digital tools of text annotation used on a single Roman law helped describe and analyse the phases of entry, extraction, and exit in the case of late Roman rural tenancy, and to explore the character of the coercion experienced by Roman rural tenants.

The late Roman economy united the areas around the Mediterranean via interregional commerce and political redistributive strategies: southern and western regions of modern Europe, the whole of North Africa, and large areas of the Near East. In this interregional economic system, agrarian production in the countryside and manufacturing activities in cities generated a massive accumulation of wealth and power by late Roman aristocracies, and prompted the creation a multicentered economic system, in which multilayered and dynamic social structures and hierarchies were organized around local and regional cores (Wickham 1988, 2005; Hopkins 2008). Within this interregional economic system, slavery continued to be a source of workforce as important as in the Early Empire (Harper 2011). However, the coexistence side by side of slaves, peasants, and other forms of labour, as, for instance, wage labour, suggests that landowners employed as a key practice for the management of the workforce in the Roman countryside what scholars today would call a diverse labour portfolio or a logic of deployment (Banaji 2010).

The late Roman colonate was a set of juridical regulations concerning the employment of tenants within this wider economic context (Jones 1958). It referred to a particular section of the late Roman peasantry, one bonded for fiscal purposes to the land they cultivated. Not all peasants were under the condition of the colonate, but only those who were in a relationship of hereditary tenancy with the landowners (Grey 2011). Several expressions appearing in late Roman law codes were used to classify this kind of bonded peasantry: colonus, colonus originarius, colonus adscriptus. The Roman government was above all concerned with the tax residence of its citizens, a notion which was expressed by the word origo, from which comes the adjective originarius that often qualifies the coloni (Grey 2007). The colonus originarius of the laws was a tenant farmer bonded to the estate that was legally considered his fiscal address. This relation was registered when the labour contract was settled and was used as grounds for tax assessment and collection (this is the reason why sometimes the bonded peasant is called colonus adscriptus—that is, a registered tenant farmer).

II. The codes

The text presented here is from one of several laws addressing the colonate. These laws, in their turn, come from two Roman law codes: the Theodosian and the Justinian codes1, respectively from 438 and 529–534 CE. Since most of the evidence they contain originates at the government level and rarely reflects local or regional perspectives, the normative nature of the texts describing the colonate poses many challenges. Norms and rules inscribed and fixed in writing and instituted by official deliberation should not be confused with the social reality itself. Laws are a social practice trying to affect reality, but their effect is not automatically assured. Moreover, the effects cannot be selectively considered ineffective when they are concerned with the subaltern classes, but immediately effective if they reflect the interests of the elites. In the case of large governmental structures like the Roman Empire, laws and judicial practices responded to local and regional contexts (which can be glimpsed sometimes); at the same time, they were relatively autonomous from the interests of dominant groups, which did not always match the aims of the state. This is particularly evident in the case of taxes and fiscality.

Additionally, it is also essential how the Roman administrators created laws and how that process differed from the creation of the codes themselves (Harries 1999). Both the Theodosian and the Justinian codes are the result of a later process of compilation. Laws, in the form of prescripts or edicts, were often issued by the Roman emperors in response to a request from a governor or another member of the government body. However, a request could also come from a collective or even from an individual citizen from outside the Roman administrative structure. This means that the laws addressing the institution of the colonate according to modern scholarship were the combined result of many ad hoc decisions made by successive emperors. Additionally, as mentioned above, the codes were compilations. Regardless of the time span they covered (respectively from the 2nd to the 4th and from the 2nd to the 6th centuries) and the effort by successive emperors and officials to take into consideration previous decisions, their systematic appearance and internal logic were the result of juridical, intellectual, and political operations that happened respectively in the late 4th century and in the early 6th century. This is a problem when one starts to look for patterns of legal development by following a sequence of laws. Some of these laws had been rewritten, as is especially clear if one compares different renderings of the same law in the two codes. The possible rewriting of the laws has important implications for the kind of historical semantics analysis necessary for the elaboration of the Roman colonate’s Grammar of Coercion.

  1. Both codes are available online in the Latin Library: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/theodosius.html and http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/justinian.html; for an English translation of the Justinian Code: http://www.uwyo.edu/lawlib/blume-justinian/ajc-edition-2/books/↩︎

III. The Law Analysed

a. Description

The law presented here appears under the number 52 in the 11th book of the Justinian Code. It was instituted in the year 393, and it is interesting to note that although it predated the Theodosian Code, the compilers of the first code decided not to include it among the laws addressing the colonate. This is an imperial constitution, an imperial pronouncement that is one of the sources of Roman legislation, and the most common source of law in the Later Roman Empire. The law was issued by three emperors, Theodosius, Arcadius, and Honorius (Honorius still a child), and was addressed to the then praetorian prefect, Rufinus, in 393. It dealt with the changes in tax assessment and collection, as well as their impact on rural tenancy in one of the administrative areas of the Empire: the diocese of Thrace1. From the content of other similar laws, it becomes clear that in fact this law just established that the rules in Thrace should follow what had been previously established in other areas of the Empire.

  1. A diocese was an administrative area of the Later Roman Empire, composed of several provinces. Cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diocese_of_Thrace ↩︎


Emperors Theodosius, Arcadius, and Honorius Augusti to Rufinus, Praetorian Prefect, 393.
Throughout the entire Diocese of the Thraces, after the removal of the census of the personal capitation tax, the tax assessment (iugatio) for land alone should be paid.
1. And lest by chance it appears to be permitted to (bound) tenants the capability to wander off with the dissolution of their tax bonds and to withdraw to wherever they want, they themselves are to be held by the law of their origin (originario iure), and although they may seem to be free-born they are to be considered as slaves of the land to which they have been born and they should not have the capability to withdraw wherever they want and change their places, but the estate owner (possessor) shall exercise a right over them as well as the solicitude of a patron and the power of an owner.
2. But, if someone thinks to take up and retain a bound tenant belonging to another, he shall be compelled to pay 2 pounds of gold to the one whose fields he emptied with the desertion of its cultivator, so that he restores the same person with all his peculium and his Family. 1

  1. Latin text and translation by Frier et al. (2016, p. 2748–2751), with minor changes. ↩︎

Original text

CJ.11.52. De colonis thracensibus.
CJ. 11, 52.1
Imperatores Theodosius, Arcadius, Honorius
Per universam dioecesim thraciarum sublato in perpetuum humanae capitationis censu iugatio tantum terrena solvatur. theodos. arcad. et honor. aaa. rufino pp.
1. Imperatores Theodosius, Arcadius, Honorius
Et ne forte colonis tributariae sortis nexibus absolutis vagandi et quo libuerit recedendi facultas permissa videatur, ipsi quidem originario iure teneantur, et licet condicione videantur ingenui, servi tamen terrae ipsius cui nati sunt aestimentur nec recedendi quo velint aut permutandi loca habeant facultatem, sed possessor eorum iure utatur et patroni sollicitudine et domini potestate.
2. Imperatores Theodosius, Arcadius, Honorius
Si quis vero alienum colonum suscipiendum retinendumve crediderit, duas auri libras ie cogatur exsolvere, cuius agros transfuga cultore vacuaverit, ita ut eundem cum omni peculio suo et agnatione restituat.