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...
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:
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’:
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.