Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.58

François Hinard, Jean Christian Dumont, Libitina. Pompes funèbres et supplices en Campanie à l'époque d'Auguste. Édition, traduction et commentaire de la Lex Libitinae Puteolana.   Paris:  De Boccard, 2003.  Pp. x, 174.  ISBN 2-7018-0156-7.  €25.00.  

Contributors: Nicole Belayche, Jean Christian Dumont, Danièle Conso, François Hinard, Claire Lovisi, Philippe Moreau

Reviewed by David Noy, University of Wales Lampeter (
Word count: 2219 words

It is often said that the professionalization of the services surrounding dying and death is a modern phenomenon, replacing traditional forms of self-help and co-operation among families and neighbours. Yet at Puteoli in the time of Augustus, a city of some 60,000 inhabitants (p.45), one contractor had a monopoly on all funerals held in the city, and his contract was sufficiently important for it to be written up for public inspection in a huge inscription at least 2.5 m. wide. Privatization of the machinery of justice is nothing new either, since the same firm was responsible for punishments and executions carried out in the city.

The inscription known as the Lex Libitinae (misprinted as Libitina on the front cover) Puteolana, now in the Naples Museum, was first published by L. Bove in 1966 and has been much discussed since then, most substantially by John Bodel, but this book should make it more widely accessible and more comprehensible.1 It begins with the inscription itself: majuscule and minuscule texts with French translation and apparatus criticus. The commentary starts with some general chapters ("chapitres de synthèse"): the language of the inscription (Conso); Puteoli: elements of history and topography (Belayche); the funeral business (Lovisi); economic information (Dumont); litigation and judicial procedures (Moreau); the punishments (Dumont and Lovisi). A line-by-line commentary follows (pp.97-139). There is a very substantial bibliography, an index verborum and index locorum, and six photographs.

According to the editors' reconstruction, which is helpfully illustrated with a drawing, the original inscription consisted of four columns of equal width. The surviving fragments preserve the right side of the second column, nearly all of the third, and about half of the fourth. Because the first column is entirely hypothetical, col.I in the printed text refers to what would have been the second column of the original inscription, and so on. The width of the reconstructed inscription depends on the restoration of the heading, written in very large letters (maximum height 6.9 cm.): [de publi]co Libitina[e]. If this was really longer, e.g. [de munere publi]co Libitina[rio] as Bove and Bodel tentatively suggested, or (for the sake of argument) [de opere publi]co Libitina[e], there would be room for at least one extra column on the left and the size of the whole inscription would be increased proportionately.

The book does not give any information about when and where the inscription was found. References are given to previous published discussions, but, since the editors provide all the other information about the inscription which anyone could want, it would have been convenient to have this as well. Readers would certainly like to know if there is any likelihood of more fragments being found. The inscription as it survives is less informative about Roman funerary practices than might be hoped. As often in the world of epigraphy, the missing part of the text is the one which would have contained the most useful information, including a definitive date. One could compare it with a random section torn from a contract between a local authority in the U.K. and a provider of privatized services; that too would probably say less about education or housing than about the preferred language of contract lawyers. However, the editors have squeezed out all the information they possibly can without indulging in fanciful restorations, and their discussions and commentary make fascinating reading.

Conso's study of the language provides some interesting information about the inscribing process. It seems that the stonecutter followed a text containing some abbreviations which he did not understand. For example, earum for ea re suggests that the original text read EAR. Some mistakes with cases can be explained in this way: per quaestoribus probably means that the original read per quaestor., and the stonecutter did not know which case to use with per. The general orthography of the inscription suggests a date at the end of the first century BC or beginning of the first century AD, and an Augustan date also fits the topographical details of the city mentioned in col.I (p.50).

The first, extremely fragmentary, part of col.I includes various sums of money payable, e.g. HS 4 for the pyre-builder (pro ustor(e)), and probably continues the details of prices for different types of funeral which would have been displayed in the lost first column. There also seem to be some provisions for travel outside the city to bring back bodies for burial. It is likely that different services would have been required by different ethnic groups at Puteoli (p.46). Presumably the Jewish community there wanted inhumation not cremation, for example.

A continuous text can only be reconstructed starting at the end of col.I. Anyone who abandoned a corpse was liable to pay a fixed sum of HS 60 to the contractor (I.32-II.2), who is designated in the text as manceps or redemptor. Abandoning a body might be a way of trying to evade the monopoly and the expense of a funeral, in which case the penalty ought to be more than was payable for a normal funeral, even if it is very substantially less than the grant of HS 300 which the Lanuvium burial society made for a member's funeral in AD 133 (CIL 14.2112). Dumont (p.72) thus suggests a standard charge for a funeral of HS 30, which he multiplies by an estimated number of deaths per year to give an annual turnover of HS 72,000 (he emphasizes that he is only trying to give some sort of order of magnitude). The contractor might make a reasonable living but he was clearly not going to be able to buy his way into the Senate.

The contractor had to obey very specific regulations about the workers to be used (II.3-7). They were based, but not allowed to live, in a "tower" at the "Grove of Libitina", which could be a purpose-built tower or a reused one from a fortification or a villa; the "grove" took its name from a site at Rome and did not necessarily have any trees. There must be at least 32 workers, aged between 20 and 50, "not bow-legged or one-eyed or maimed or lame or blind or tattooed". The ages are surprisingly restrictive, as noted in the commentary, but how would anyone check a slave's real age? The implication is clearly that the contractor had to be prevented from using the cheapest slaves possible, who would spoil the appearance of the funerals. Looking too old or too young could be as unsightly as being tattooed. The total would need to be a multiple of four or eight because four would be the minimum number for carrying a bier (p.116), and eight would be required for a high-status funeral if the scene shown on the marble relief from Amiternum (not mentioned in the commentary), probably from around the same date, is typical. The demographic figures given in the book work out at about seven funerals a day if the service was on offer every day, but of course there would be substantial peaks and troughs. The workers could only come into the city for their work, a rule which Belayche attributes to considerations of public order rather than pollution, and they had to wear coloured caps.

The contractor provided a service for private individuals who wanted to punish their slaves severely or execute them (II.8-10). Dumont links this to the avoidance of pollution in the house, but surely there would be serious practical and emotional difficulties to prevent small-scale slave-owners from inflicting their own punishments. The tools provided included the various elements of a cross and the equipment required by the verberatores for flagellation. One of the workers for whom the customer had to pay HS 4 a head was the carnifex, who might also be responsible for extracting evidence from slaves by torture although the inscription does not mention that (p.90).

The contractor also carried out punishments ordered by the magistrates (II.11-14), presumably for slaves and non-citizens, a service which he evidently provided free in return for the funeral monopoly. For this he had to supply not only crosses but also "nails, pitch, wax, candles". These are thought more likely to be for crucifixion and accompanying tortures than for execution by burning. The nails were probably for attaching the victim rather than for constructing the cross (p.92; more doubt is expressed on p.119). If required to extract the corpse with a hook in order to take it to the place "where many corpses will be" (i.e. a common burial-pit), the workers must wear red and ring a bell. If the bell was to warn people to avoid pollution, as suggested, it would imply that the execution took place a long way from the burial-pit and a journey round the city was required, since the people who gathered around crosses and burial-pits can hardly have been worried about contact with pollution.

The next section (II.15-21) jumps to rather obscurely worded regulations ordering the contractor to provide funeral services to those requesting them, carrying them out in the order in which he received notification apart from giving priority to a decurion's funeral or a funus acervom, i.e. an infant's funeral, which it was customary to hold very soon after death with minimal rites. The adjective was inscribed wrongly; it should be acerbum, but two different words with identical pronunciation were confused (p.34). Three service-providers are mentioned here: the contractor himself, his partner (socius), and "the one to whom the business under discussion pertains", presumably an agent of servile status. A reference to "the place which he (the contractor) will have rented or established for funeral business" probably means an office in the Forum rather than the "grove" on the edge of the city (p.127).

The body of a suspendiosus, i.e. someone who had hanged him/herself, must be removed the same hour it was reported, while a slave's body should be removed on the day of the death if reported before the 10th hour, or otherwise the next day before the 2nd hour (II.22-23). It seems that the hanged suicide was expected to be a slave. It is not clear if the special regulations about slaves' bodies were for their owners' convenience or because their deaths were somehow seen as more dangerous (p.132).

If the contractor did not provide the services on time, the person organizing a funeral could hire what was needed from elsewhere and the contractor would have to facilitate the arrangements (II.24-30). The text seems to say that, if extra expenses were incurred above the normal cost of a funeral, the contractor must reimburse double the amount. If so, this seems like a very drastic means of forcing the contractor to be punctual, and an invitation for customers to find "delays" that would entitle them to hold a lavish funeral at someone else's expense. The commentary assumes that other firms existed who would be able to step into the breach, but the implication could be that such firms would become viable only if the contractor proved not to be up to the job. In any case, the regulations would provide a market-orientated check on the contractor (not always a feature of present-day privatizations in the U.K.).

II.31-34 allows the magistrates to impose a fine if the contractor failed to comply with their orders. Lacunae start to appear at the end of Col.II, and Col.III contains almost no complete lines. There are lacunae of widely varying sizes up to about 52 letters. Most of Col.III deals with conflicts of interest and additional duties. Anyone breaking the monopoly must pay HS 100 compensation to the contractor (III.1-4). A dispute over someone's legal status could somehow lead to the payment of double compensation (III.5-10). Moreau suggests that it could be something to do with having to make different provisions for people of different status or with someone trying to acquire for the deceased a place in a family tomb to which s/he was not entitled. Another possibility might be that the standard charge for a funeral depended on the deceased's legal status, so the bereaved might try to pass off a freedman as a slave, for example, in order to save money.

The number of socii whom the contractor could have was limited, but the figure is missing (III.11-16). The commentary suggests that, because the singular socius is used throughout the text, only one was allowed (p.136), but Lovisi doubts this (p.59). The city must provide the contractor with some facilities free of charge (III.17-19), including a cella funeraria and lignaria (this word is neuter plural). It is suggested that these are a warehouse for the funeral equipment and the supply of wood left by the previous contractors. The contractor must have the contract clearly displayed at his place of business (III.20-21), and he must pay the city HS 100 for any breach of it (III.22-26). This was evidently a catch-all clause at the end of the original inscription. There was room to write more in the column, but enough of the stone survives below l.26 to show an uninscribed space.

The inscription is an extremely important one for anyone interested in funerals, punishments, business law or local government in Augustan Italy. The restorations and interpretations offered in this edition will not be the last word on it, but the book will be an essential source from now on.


1.   Bodel, J. "Graveyards and Groves. A study of the Lex Lucerina", AJAH 11 (1986) [pub. 1994], 1-133.

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