Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.04.42

Jean-Yves Guillaumin, Sur quelques notices des arpenteurs romains.   Paris:  Presses universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2007.  Pp. 177.  ISBN 978-2-84867-173-4.  €22.00.  

Reviewed by Saskia T. Roselaar, Leiden University (
Word count: 2094 words

This book is a collection of seven articles on various aspects of the works of the so-called Agrimensores or Roman land surveyors.1 They are the result of work at the Institut des Sciences et Techniques de l'Antiquité (ISTA) of the University of Franche-Comté. The ISTA is currently working on a French edition, translation, and commentary on the Agrimensores, in the course of which several difficult passages came up. These were discussed in regular seminars, the results of which are presented in this volume (the responsibility for the contents, of course, lies with the author, Jean-Yves Guillaumin).

The central theme of the articles is corruption in the manuscripts of the Agrimensores, leading in many cases to the complete unintelligibility of the text. The articles are therefore mainly of a philological nature, and attempt to make sense of the sometimes garbled contents that have come down to us. In some cases, firm conclusions are offered; in others, matters are left open.

The first article is 'La notice Arretium du Liber Coloniarum I' (pp. 13-38). This notice contains a detailed explanation of the correlation between the thickness of boundary stones, the distance between one boundary stone and the next, and the length of the sides of the centuriae.2 Numbers are, of course, easily corrupted, and this example is no different. The edition of Lachmann presented a rigid system of relationships between these variables on the basis of the various manuscripts, based especially on the different sizes of centuriae, but Guillaumin argues that there is no real evidence for such a system: there is no evidence for varying sizes of individual centuriae, and the numbers supplied by Lachmann have no actual basis in the manuscripts. Instead all centuriae measured 20 by 20 actus, a common size in land surveying. The thickness of the boundary stones is related only to the distance between the limites they demarcate: the farther apart the stones are, the thicker they usually become. It is a pity that Guillaumin has an eye only for the philological problems of the notice on Arretium; the words lege Augustea censita, limitibus graccanis are not explained. Although it is clear that the text has not been corrupted in this case, the meaning of these words has been heavily debated. In what way, if any, were the Gracchi involved in the territory of Arretium? It is to be hoped that the forthcoming edition of the Agrimensores will address such historical problems with the same thoroughness with which Guillaumin approaches philological ones.

The next article demonstrates the large amount of corruption that can appear in a single notice, and is therefore appropriately titled 'Les étapes de la deterioration d'une notice administrative' (pp. 39-55). In the notice on the Ager Spoletinus in the Liber Coloniarum I,3 it is said that 'the land of Spoletium, where there is cultivation, was allocated in iugera by limites intercisivi. But land on mountains or in subseciva was left unsurveyed, and others granted this to the community (relictum in montibus vel subsecivis, quae rei publicae alii cesserunt: aliquando in condicion illorum remanserunt).' The last part of the sentence in particular makes little sense: who were the alii who left subseciva to the colony? Guillaumin argues that instead of alii we should read auctores divisionis. This is attested in the text of Siculus Flaccus,4 which reads auctores enim divisionis adisgnationisque aliquando subseciva rebus publicis coloniarum concesserunt: 'For the authors of the division and allocation sometimes granted subseciva to the government of colonies; sometimes they remained in that status.' If a marginal gloss on the auctores divisionis, reading something like quae rei publicae aliq. cesserunt, was added, this could easily have been inserted into the text after the mention of the mountains. Aliq. may then have been read as alii, and been attributed to the subseciva instead of the auctores. The notice on the Ager Cingulanus in the Liber Coloniarum II5 reads: 'The land of Cingulum ... Its land, where cultivated, was allocated by means of limites intercisivi. But the rest was unsurveyed. They also assessed the remaining areas in the mountains (reliqua in montibus idem censuerunt)'; the notice on the Ager Potentinus6 is the same, except that it leaves out idem. However, if the arable land had been distributed and the rest remained unmeasured, to which other land (reliqua) could this sentence refer? Guillaumin argues that reliqua should read relictum, censuerunt should be replaced with cesserunt, and idem with alii. In that case the statement about the Ager Cingulanus would be the same as that about the Ager Spoletinus. The first two errors would have been involuntary, while in the last case the copyist actually knew that only the auctor divisionis could have been active in unmeasured land, and therefore replaced alii with idem, to refer to the same person. We can see, then, how a statement which at first was no more than a marginal gloss became incorporated into the text, and was then copied with three further errors into another two notices. In many cases such errors go unnoticed, because grammatically the transmitted text still makes sense; Campbell, for example, translates the notices as they stand. It is only when we try to explain the historical reality of the situation described that we realize there must be an error. Of course, one should be careful not to assume corruption every time a text seems to be unclear; it may simply be that we do not understand everything the Agrimensores tried to tell us. However, in this case Guillaumin makes a convincing argument for a considerable amount of corruption.

The next article, 'Équivalences approximatives entre superficies de subsécives et superficies de centuries' (pp. 57-77), deals with the problem of what happened to centuriae that could not be completed. It often happened that at the edges of a centuriation some land was left over which did not form a complete centuria. The Liber Coloniarum I states quod subsecivum amplius iugera C erit pro centuria procedito; quod subsecivum non minus iugera quinquaginte, id pro dimidia centuria procedito.7 It would be possible to understand this as meaning that a centuria between 100 and 200 iugera was treated as a whole centuria, while a smaller one was treated as half a centuria, as does Campbell. However, if normally four people had to share a centuria of 200 iugera (which was normal in distributions of the triumviral period), each would receive 50 iugera; if a centuria of 102 iugera counted as a whole centuria, each received only 25.5 iugera, or only half of what they would normally get. Guillaumin therefore proposes that land which was of lesser quality could be granted in place of normal land, but that in such a case the settler would receive more land than was normal. He argues that this kind of distribution was called assignatio maior. Instead of making settlers at the edges of an assignation accept far smaller plots than their companions, the triumvirs compensated those who received land of lesser quality with additional land, so that their total productivity would be the same. Unfortunately, Guillaumin does not take into account historical sources for this phenomenon. His argument would be more convincing if it were supported by actual evidence for this practice, and not solely by the philological possibilities of the text.

'Note sur la notice gromatique Provincia Lucania conservée dans la ms de Reims 132' (pp. 79-106) discusses a single folio of a manuscript of the Liber Coloniarum, preserved at Reims. The folio shows drawings meant to clarify terms used in the Liber. However, illustrations of technical subjects are often distorted because of misunderstandings by later copyists, and in this manuscript as well, most of the drawings do not seem to have anything to do with the terms with which they are coupled. Guillaumin discusses each of the terms, and tries to explain how corruptions of the text or drawings may have occurred. In some cases he succeeds remarkably well: he argues ingeniously that the label subdibal is a corruption of (limites) diagonales, which would fit the drawing. In other cases he cannot give an adequate explanation; for example, the term cardo is illustrated by a rectangle with a sharp point protruding at the top. Guillaumin argues that this drawing had originally been meant to show a pentagon, but this does not explain why the label cardo has been applied.

In 'L'Expositio limitum vel terminorum' (pp. 107-135) Guillaumin discusses various problems appearing in the late antique Expositio. He shows that not only could corruptions occur because of simple writing errors, omissions, or the inclusion of glosses, but that copyists often played an instrumental role in the creation of greater confusion. An example of this is the sentence Contra urbis Babylonis Romae maritimi limites fient,8 which occurs in the Expositio. Guillaumin argues that the mention of Babylon would have led a Christian copyist to think of Rome, because of the identification of the two cities in the Apocalypse. However, the original reference was to a place Babylon located in Egypt. A scribe unfamiliar with the Egyptian Babylon then added the comment that this referred to Rome, and this became the accepted version of the text.

The next article is titled 'Limes maritimus, limes montanus, limes Gallicus' (pp.137-155). It is often believed that these terms limites maritimi and limites montani are used as equivalents of cardines and decumani, while limites Gallici are the same as limites montani. In this case one set of limites would be oriented in the direction of the sea, and the other in the direction of the mountains. However, there are hardly any regions in Italy where mountains and sea are positioned in a way that would allow this interpretation. Guillaumin argues instead that the term limites maritimi was used in an area close to the sea, and montani in the mountains, and therefore that they did not usually occur in the same centuriation. It is only in late antique texts that the maritimi and montani appear as a couple occurring in the same terrain. Guillaumin explains this development by arguing that 'la christianisation des catégories de perception et de structuration et du monde se soit étendue jusqu'au vocabulaire fondamental de la limitation' (pp. 154). This, however, seems to me less than convincing; the terms montani and maritimi do not seem to have any Christian connotation, and it is going too far, in my view, to suggest that Christianity caused a 'structuralisation' (whatever that may be) of the complete world-view, including surveyors' terms. Guillaumin also proposes that many late-antique texts were not meant to explain situations occurring in reality, but only to serve as didactic texts for surveyors, and that it was therefore not necessary for the situation described to have existed in reality. However, if the text as it stands describes a situation which never occurred at all, then what would be the didactic purpose? The suggestion that many texts served a didactic purpose is intriguing, but the argument as it stands is insufficient.

The last article, 'Les subseciva dans les textes gromatiques' (pp. 157-177) deals with the meaning of the term subseciva. After an exposition of the development of the meaning of this term, Guillaumin discusses the episode of Vespasian and Domitian,9 who took away the subseciva from the towns and granted them to individuals. This episode was interpreted in different ways, according to the opinion about these emperors held by the various authors. Some paint Vespasian as greedy, because he took away land from the towns; others emphasize the benefits accruing to the individuals who now were allowed to use the subseciva. Thus the same episode could be used to make the emperors either look good or bad. Unfortunately, in this case as well Guillaumin does not take into account other texts apart from the Corpus Agrimensorum, nor does he cite modern literature on the episode, which has been widely discussed. His explanation therefore does not achieve the force it would have had when combined with other sources.

All in all, the articles presented here give a clear idea of the corruption that has affected the manuscripts of the Agrimensores. However, they also show that, with careful consideration of the possible errors and alternatives, one can arrive at meaningful reconstructions of the original text. Some of the arguments, however, would benefit from the use of other historical sources, which are neglected in the present collection. It is to be hoped that the forthcoming edition of the Agrimensores by the ISTA team will combine the thoroughness of the present volume with a more elaborate historical commentary on these important texts.


1.   The most recent edition is B. Campbell, The works of the Roman land surveyors. London: Journal of Roman Studies monograph no. 9 (2000). The edition of F. Blume, K. Lachmann & A. Rudorff, Die Schriften der römischen Feldmesser (Berlin 1848) is still often cited. All English translations in this review have been taken from the edition of Campbell.
2.   Campbell pp. 168.21-27; Lachmann 215.3-216.2.
3.   Campbell pp. 176.10-14; Lachmann 225.14-226.2.
4.   Campbell pp. 130.1-3; Lachmann 162.20-23.
5.   Campbell pp. 194.10-14, Lachmann 254.25-29.
6.   Campbell pp. 196.33-198.2; Lachmann 257.19-21.
7.   Campbell pp. 166.30-168.1; Lachmann 213.1-3.
8.   Campbell pp. 230.7-8; Lachmann 308.18.
9.   This episode is mentioned four times in the Corpus Agrimensorum: Campbell 56.23-25, 68.22-23, 98.22-27, and 130.17-18; Lachmann 8.21-22, 20.22-24, 133.9-14, and 162.20. It is also reported in Suet. Dom. 9.3.

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