Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Stables of the Vestal Virgins?: Tax Immunity and Roman Signage

The inscription I want to focus on today is from Rome and is now kept at the Vatican (CIL VI, 2147=CIL XV 7126). I went to see it the other afternoon, and found the Greco-Roman galleries eerily empty as the crowds rushed to the Sistine Chapel before closing. Understandable, but as anthropologist James Deetz noted (and in fact built a career on): there is great value in small things forgotten...

Flaviae
Publiciae
V(irgini) V(estali)
maximae
inmunis
in iugo

Bronze Plaque of Flavia Publicia (Photo Taken by Sarah E. Bond at the Vatican Museums).

Bronze Plaque of Flavia Publicia (Photo Taken by Sarah E. Bond at the Vatican Museums). Better photo here.

This bronze plaque is rather unique in a number of ways, and tells us a great deal about Roman society. First off, let us talk about Flavia Publicia. She was an accomplished head Vestal Virgin from around 247-257 CE for whom we have a substantial amount of documentation [Cf. The inscribed statue base found in CIL VI, 32418. You can see a wonderful PDF list of Vestal Virgins here]. The Vestal Virgins received a number of benefits for the services: they could make their own will, they had liberty from patria potestas, they received special box seats at games, and many other perks. However much liberty they were given, it should be kept in mind that transgression over certain boundaries did mean dire consequences.

In any case, although the word ‘inmunis’ is here ambiguous, the plaque likely commemorates Flavia’s reception of a tax exemption of some sort. The last line, which reads ‘in iugo’ (in the yoke) likely pertains to the type of tax grant she got. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an almost identical (note immunis instead of inmunis) plaque to the Vatican’s, also documenting Flavia’s exemption:

Bronze Plaque of the Vestal Virgin Flavia Publicia from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo Via the Met. View it Here).

Bronze Plaque of the Vestal Virgin Flavia Publicia from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (OASC Content. Photo Via the Met. View it Here).

 

To the famed (though flawed) 19th c. archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani, the exemption was referring to the collatio equorum–the imperial requisition of horses. This certainly increased particularly in the later empire, but in a rather inflated epigraphic analysis that should give us all pause, he stated: 

“[Vestal Virgins] owned a stable of their own, and therefore were not obliged to hire horses or carriages. This particular was revealed by a curious discovery. Every citizen, according to the Roman law, was subject to the collatio equorum, or compulsory seizure of horses, whenever the state was in need of them. Exceptions were made in favor of the imperial family, of high officers, of high priests, of diplomatic “couriers,” and of the Vestals. In 1735, a bronze tablet was discovered in the farm of Prata-porcia, near Frascati, with the inscription: “[This horse belongs to] Calpurnia Praetextata, Abbess of the Vestals. [This horse is] exempt from compulsory drafting.” Two more such tablets, from the stables of Flavia Publicia and Sossia, both Vestales Maximae, have been seen and described. The one found at p140“Prata-porcia” proves that the farm belonged to the order, unless it was a private property of Calpurnia.”

Now I may be wrong here, but I can find very little corroborating Lanciani’s grand reconstruction about Vestal Virgins riding horses. Also, where is the citation for Vestal Virgins owning stables of their own? The bronze tablet for Calpurnia Praetexata he mentions is indeed real, but we should here note that it is rather Lanciani who inserts “[This horse is]” into the translation. The original Latin simply reads ‘immunis’:

Entry for Calpurnia Praetextata in CIL XV.

Entry for Calpurnia Praetextata in CIL XV.

What about immunity from property taxes? The land unit called an iugum was originally a measurement equivalent to about 3/5 an acre, but after Diocletian (284 CE), it was also a land tax unit which measured how much could be yielded from a certain area. These Vestal Virgins are too early for that tax, but I think it is far from definitive that ‘in iugo‘ refers to the requisitioning of horses. I am willing to hear Lanciani out, but as usual, we should be skeptical of his assertions.

What is clear is that Greco-Roman tax immunities had to be advertised. Not only did they communicate status to others, these placards announced to often aggressive tax assessors attending on properties that individuals did not have to pay a certain tax. Hence why many people often held on to the ostraka and papyri that recorded their tax receipts for a long time to come. I focus a great deal in my work on the visual manifestation of status, but I enjoyed this sign because of its pragmatic purpose as well. It is too small and out of the way to be a grand advertisement. Just like a military diploma or a manumission document, these bronze placards also provided individuals with legitimacy. They flesh out the epigraphic landscape in antiquity, show us the benefits that could be bestowed on certain elite women, and remind us that an escape from taxes was always something to put on display.

Please Note that Dr. Raia has updated her list of Vestal Virgins to include direct links to the primary sources. Find it HERE. 

Roman Gold Glass and the Epigraphy of Toasting in Antiquity

As I have long harped upon, there are many parts of antiquity that are, unfortunately, ephemeral. Unless a textual source tells us, we cannot know either what Augustus’ voice was like when he addressed the people or the sound of Theodora’s whispers in the ear of Justinian. We must rely on textual, epigraphical, and to some extent material sources (e.g., bronze bells) to help us reconstruct the soundscapes of antiquity, which is why I have always wondered about the epigraphy of drinking toasts and well wishes. This reemerged this weekend, as I listened to wedding toasts and then this morning, as I read an old piece by the late ancient glass scholar David Whitehouse (previously a curator at the Corning Museum of Glass) on “Glass, Gold, and Gold-Glasses”. Of particular interest to me were the toasts preserved in Roman gold glass, which placed etched gold leaf between two pieces of translucent glass. Toasts preserved in glass and gold abounded on Roman vessels and were often placed on roundels at the bottom of a drinking cup–for encouragement after one had just finished off a drink. These exhortations were also placed on medallions that survive in funerary contexts.

One of my favorite inscriptions from the Corning Museum is a glass roundel with the inscription “Dignitas Amicorum Pie Zeses Vivas” (“Worthy among your friends! Drink that you may live. May you live!”). [NB: As I have just exemplified, the translation of the word dignitas is difficult, but means essentially worthy of high repute or esteem]. It is notable that Romans have here stolen the Greek toast of Πίε ζήσῃς–evidence of ancient transliteration into Latin, for sure. We find this Greek sentiment on a number of objects in longer form, for example: Πίε ζήσῃς ἐν ὀνόματι Θεοῦ μετὰ τῶν σῶν πάντων / <Τ>εχνιτοῦ (HD 35971 / IGPannonia 140) or a fourth-fifth century glass bowl from Dacia reading: πίε, ζήσῃς καλῶς ἀεί (SEG 35: 854).

Glass roundel (300-399 CE) with shepherd and flock from the Corning Museum of Glass.

Glass roundel (300-399 CE) with shepherd and flock from the Corning Museum of Glass. (66.137)

Another example comes from a glass depiction of the harbor at Puteoli. Here is a drawing of the scene, but the glass is now at the National Museum in Prague. It reads in part: ” Felix pie zesaes cum tuis …” (Lucky one, drink that you may live with your [beloved ones]).

Glass engraving of the Puteoli harbor (National Museum, Prague).

Glass engraving of the Puteoli harbor (National Museum, Prague) on a drinking flask. Probably from the fourth century CE.

This exhortation proliferated in the glass of Late Antiquity, and while it is often interpreted as a Christian sentiment, it was a Greco-Roman one that was adopted and adapted (like many things) by early Christians in their epigraphic habits. We even find it on Jewish objects. Perhaps evidence that toasts were fluidly adopted and adapted from one culture to the next. Whatever the culture, toasts often wished individuals the thing we all want (presumably): a long life.

A Roman gold glass roundel of a married couple (300-399 CE) from Wien, Kunsthistorisches Museum. Photo via Wikimedia.

A Roman gold glass roundel of a married couple (300-399 CE) from Wien, Kunsthistorisches Museum. Photo via Wikimedia.

A Jewish example from the fourth century in The Israel Museum in Jerusalem shows a Torah ark, two lions, two menorahs, and other Jewish symbols. It reads: “Pie zeses, Elares”.

Photo © The Israel Museum, by Dr. Jean-Luc Pilon, Canadian Museum of Civilization Gold glass base with Jewish symbols. (300-399 CE). Photo: Israel Museum Collection, Jerusalem.

Photo © The Israel Museum, by Dr. Jean-Luc Pilon, Canadian Museum of Civilization
(300-399 CE). Israel Museum Collection, Jerusalem.

Another common toast in antiquity was simply: “Bibe!” (Drink!) or, as the cup below reads, “Bibe multis annis” (Drink [that you may live] for many years!). It was also common in Greek. The connection between drink, health, and life is clear in these inscriptions, and gives us some idea of what Roman dinner parties were like. You can see the inscription better in a polychrome version here. 

A diatret (cage cup) found Cologne, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich (350-399 CE). Photo via Wikimedia.

A diatret (cage cup) found Cologne, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich (350-399 CE). Photo via Wikimedia.

Variations on these toasts are often found in the catacombs, and thus hints that even when you were dead, you could get a toast to a long afterlife. Saint Monica, mother of Augustine, gives us some insight into this practice; it was said that she (in the tradition of the African churches) attended upon saints with wine, meat, and bread. There was a great deal of feasting of the living with the dead in the catacombs, and this meant that echoes of toasts had to have abounded in the caverns within the tufa rock.

As this short foray into the epigraphy of drinking toasts reveals, toasts were common and often preserved in the objects that accompanied drinking and eating. They enshrine common sentiments for long life that proliferate in toasts given even today, but for me, they also offer a window into the soundscape of public feasting that often accompanied both festivals and funerals.

Bowl Base with the Portrait of a Young Man (300-500 CE). Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (18.145.5).

Bowl Base with the Portrait of a Young Man (300-500 CE). Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (18.145.5).

For some stunning pictures, visit:

Andrew Simsky, “Christian gold-glasses from the Vatican museum

C. Louise Avery, “Early Christian Gold Glass” MMAB 16.8 (1921): 170-175. [PDF]

*Please note that the feature image at the top is from Bologna and is a picture taken by Egisto Sani.*