Fasti-dious: Gnaeus Flavius and the Power of the Calendar

Fasti Antiates (84-55 BCE), National Roman Museum – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Image by Sarah E. Bond.

A certain scribe was then discovered, Gnaeus Flavius, who pierced the eyes of crows [i.e. outwitted those in the know] and published the calendar of court days to the people and in this way stole the knowledge of the legal calendar from the astute legal experts.[i]

Cicero, In Defense of Murena, 25.

A former scriba (“secretary”) and the son of a freedman first made the Roman fasti public. Even two hundred years after Rome had become a Republic, the calendar was still the purview of a small coterie of men. But this would not be the case for long. Gnaeus Flavius was a young scribe working for the enslaver of his father, Appius Claudius Caecus. Caecus was a man famed for his patronage of the Via Appia (“Appian Way”) and his knowledge about Roman law. He also owned and manumitted enslaved persons. Perhaps it was in part due to these humble beginnings and the structural elitism within Roman society that Flavius took the writings of Appius to deliver them to the populus.[ii]

Flavius’ publication was pivotal; full of legal formulas and procedures for the bringing of civil lawsuits. It democratized key information held in the hands of elite religious officials. As Cicero would note in his defense of the elected consul for 62 BCE, Lucius Licinius Murena, these powerful cornices (“crows”) enjoyed being consulted and depended upon to divine future actions as if legal astrologers. Flavius’ publication was the first time that such procedural formulae, called legis actiones, had been aggregated and made broadly available to the public. Until then, the complex legal rituals and hoops required to bring suits had been clandestinely held by Roman pontiffs as one source of their potency and sway in Roman society.  

In 304 BCE, when Flavius then became a Roman magistrate called a curule aedile, he continued his push to pull back the curtain on Rome’s Republican oligarchy. He published another closely-guarded piece of information: the calendar of days when it was licit for the legal actions to be brought before the court of the head judicial magistrate, called the praetor. It was the praetor who could allow for suits to move forward, whether this was for a shopkeeper upset that a cloak had been stolen or a defamation suit because of slander.

In a letter to his friend Atticus, Cicero would later write about Flavius’ role in continuing to transfer the power of this legal knowledge from the few to the many.

What good did he do, then, by publishing the fasti? It is supposed that the tablet containing them had been kept concealed up to a certain date, in order that information as to the days for doing business might have to be sought from a small coterie. And indeed several of our authorities relate that a scribe named Cn. Flavius published the fasti and composed forms of pleading—so don’t imagine that I, or rather Africanus (for he is the spokesman), invented the fact. [iii]

Although the Roman fasti was different than what we might today call our calendar, its progression to include more and more festivals, its modification by potent rulers, and even its first publication were important to the lives of both the elites and the non-elites in Roman society. They depended on it to be able to engage in legal affairs, to tell them when they had days off of work (for there were no full weekends until late in the modern era), and to inform them when there would be market days to buy goods and services.

As such, the calendar was one of the most influential documents from the Roman Mediterranean.

[i] Cic. Mur. 25: ‘inventus est scriba quidam, Cn. Flavius, qui cornicum oculos confixerit et singulis diebus ediscendis fastos populo proposuerit et ab ipsis his cautis iuris consultis eorum sapientiam compilarit.’

[ii] Pomp. Dig. notes that Gnaeus stole the book from Caecus and then published it.

[iii] Cic. Att. 6.1.8. trans. Shuckburgh.

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