Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.07.36

Julien Dubouloz, La propriété immobilière à Rome et en Italie (Ier-Ve siècles): organisation et transmission des praedia urbana. Bibliothèque des Écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome, 343.   Rome:  École française de Rome, 2011.  Pp. 735.  ISBN 9782728308774.  €96.00.  

Reviewed by Carlos Machado, Universidade Federal de São Paulo (

[See below for the table of contents. The author apologizes for the delay in submitting this review.]

La propriété immobilière à Rome is not an easy read. Over the course of 651 pages of densely set text, Dubouloz examines carefully annotated and translated excerpts of the Digest that are related to the legal definition, management and transmission of urban property. The author makes no concessions: throughout, the argument is directed at the specialist, and so the casual reader interested in the broader topic of Roman housing may initially be put off. And yet, this is a fascinating book, which provides much information that will interest Roman and legal scholars alike. Dubouloz has something relevant to say about every topic discussed, and he must be commended for having produced such a useful and thought-provoking work.

Recent years have been marked by a greater sophistication in our understanding of architectural typologies and in the relationship between public and private spaces.1 Dubouloz combines these two perspectives, analyzing legal texts as a way of seeing domus and insulae as part of the economic, political and social strategies of the Roman elite. Scholars have, however, overlooked the role played by practices related to the transfer of property, be it through the sale of houses or (especially) through wills. The central argument of the book is that we should look at Roman properties as social and personal constructs, beyond the materiality of the building. The book is divided into three parts, preceded by an introduction in which the author discusses problems of approach as well as the difficulties posed by his evidence. After a brief conclusion, eight annexes present the evidence discussed in a systematic way.

The first part of the book is dedicated to the definition, organization and structure of urban properties. As Dubouloz shows, it is not easy to define what an urban property was, and scholars should be careful when trying to identify such properties in the archaeological record. The function of the building, the types of use to which it was put, and even the intentions of the owner during his life and at the time of his death should be taken into account (Chapter 1). This is well illustrated by a discussion of the relevant passages in the Liber Pontificalis (roughly contemporary with the Digest).2 A house was, in other words, an economic and legal unit, and the definition of its components depended on this perspective. Chapter 2 discusses the composition of a property, and the function of the elements that furnished it. Dubouloz explores the legal notions of res aedium, ornamentum and suppellex to show the nuances involved in the identification of what was, indeed, part of a property. Slaves were also part of properties, and Chapter 3 considers the composition, legal status and management of the familia urbana. As a number of comments made by the jurists show, the relationship between a slave and the domus was not straightforward, depending on the interests and practices of the dominus. Finally, in Chapter 4 the two main forms of investment in the urban property market, the insula and the domus, are considered in great detail. Rather than referring to different types of buildings, the legal texts take these notions to refer to different ways in which owners could be involved in the real estate market, be it directly (domus) or indirectly (insula).

The second part deals with the division and co-ownership of urban properties. Here again Dubouloz offers a healthy warning about the ways in which archaeological remains are frequently read. Any given building could go through a complicated history of single ownership, co-ownership, division and sub-division (Chapter 5). These movements are not always visible from the material record, although the division of an urban property required the physical demarcation of limits. Chapter 6 explores the different types of rights that could be established over the structures that made up a domus. As the legal texts show, different members of the extended family could inherit or receive as a legacy the right to use a property in a variety of ways. Interestingly, the same was true of insulae (Chapter 7).

In the final part of the book, Dubouloz discusses the practices and strategies adopted for the transfer of urban properties. After a relatively short theoretical discussion (Chapter 8), he discusses the composition of the household, placing particular emphasis on the relationship between husband and wife (Chapter 9). The discussion is most interesting, as it brings the issues of gender and social relations within the familia to the fore. Dubouloz observes that the different rights created over urban properties aimed to guarantee established forms of social relations and personal rights. These considerations raise the question of how property could be transferred from one generation to another, preserving the family as a coherent social unit (Chapter 10). Properties could be fragmented and re-united with the passing of time, and house-owners tried to influence these movements through a variety of legal instruments. The most common strategy was the use of fideicommissum, an institution that, as the author shows, was more flexible and useful than previously thought. Such instruments would allow the dominus to try to make his own strategies prevail.

The final chapter (11) discusses the subject of the ‘family-houses’ that have recently attracted great attention.3 Here, Dubouloz considers other types of evidence, including inscriptions and literature, in order to discuss the extent to which an aristocratic residence was a private space. As he convincingly shows, there were different types of rights in operation within the boundaries of a domestic space. This is made clearer by the presence, in the houses of fourth century aristocrats, of honorific statues and bronze tables set up by local communities to their powerful Roman patrons. These were the expression of official decisions made by local councils, and as such represented the complex combination of personal and official power that characterized Roman society.

Dubouloz dedicates an appendix to discussing the definition of domus and insula, focusing on how to reconcile the different conceptions that we find in texts as diverse as the accounts of the fire of A.D. 64, the Digest, and the fourth century regionary catalogues. Different conceptions seem to have coexisted; the Curiosum and the Notitia, for example, effectively counted them as different types of structures. The author tentatively suggests that the term insula might refer, in the regionary catalogues, to spaces used by the service of the annona for the distribution of bread.4 Domus, on the other hand, did not refer to a specific building (a house), but to the total number of domicilia established in each region of Rome. This is a thorny issue, however, which, as the author himself acknowledges, cannot be properly solved.

It is very difficult to do justice to the complexity and wealth of this book. As a quick glance through the indexes at the end will show, there is plenty that will be of interest to any student of social, political, and legal Roman history – not to mention archaeology. However, perhaps the most interesting issue is the very treatment accorded to the sources. The Digest is, after all, a compilation of texts with many historical layers. Different passages were selected in the sixth century, and the reason and principles behind this selection are not always clear. These passages reproduce opinions and writings of jurists from what was by then a distant past (especially from the Severan period). However, as Dubouloz carefully points out, many of these passages are actually discussions of other texts, sometimes Severan and sometimes much earlier. As a result, the very nature of the evidence forces us to think in terms of very basic and general interpretative frameworks, rather than in terms of specific historical realities. The problem then is how to turn the type of legal history as proposed by the author into Roman history, properly speaking. The period covered by this book, from Augustus to Justinian, comprises startling changes, not just in terms of legal institutions and instruments, but also in terms of the very definition of what the Roman empire was all about. Cities experienced enormous changes in this period, and we must consider issues of political and demographic decline, as well as more visible forms of urban change.5 These developments are only taken into account in specific passages of the book, most successfully in its third part, when Dubouloz engages more openly with sources other than the Digest.

Herein lie the serious limitations of studies dealing with legal sources, even one as sensitive to historical context as Dubouloz’s. To say that the law was just an instrument to guarantee the interests of the propertied classes would be a wild simplification, but it is also wrong to ignore the strong relationship between legal principles and the social order in which they operate. “Property” is, above all, a social institution that is at the same time the product of and the structural factor behind social relations. If urban properties could play such a crucial role in the life of the elite, this is because so many people depended on them. At the same time, the number of complex issues raised by Dubouloz, and the difficulties met, suggest that the way to move forward in our understanding of how urban property was defined might be to look beyond the legal sources. This is perhaps too big a task, especially for a book dealing with as broad a topic as this one. More importantly, this is not the task that Dubouloz set himself to achieve; he aimed instead to understand the legal principles that structured the realities of real estate in imperial Italy – a task which he fulfilled exceedingly well.

Table of Contents

Première Partie – Organisation et économie des domaines urbains
Chap. 1 – Définition comptable et patrimoniale des domaines urbains
Chap. 2 – Composition et fonction de la dotation mobilière des domus
Chap. 3 – La familia urbana. Instruments serviles d’une économie domestique
Chap. 4 - Domus et insula comme ‘immeubles de rapport’
Deuxième Partie – Division et copropriété des domaines urbains
Introduction – La copropriété immobilière à Rome, approche historiographique
Chap. 5 – Limites juridiques à la division des immeubles
Chap. 6 – Jurisprudence relative à la division des domus
Chap. 7 – Le régime de propriété dans les immeubles d’habitation collective
Troisième Partie – Pratiques et stratégies de transmission des domaines urbains
Introduction – Le régime des successions en droit romain
Chap. 8 – Dévolution des biens, alliance, résidence. Réflexions théoriques
Chap. 9 – La composition des domus, le mariage, la mort
Chap. 10 – Transmettre les domaines urbains
Chap. 11 – Des ‘maisons de famille’?
Appendice - Domus et insula dans l’administration de Rome
Sources et bibliographie
Index Locorum
Index Rerum


1.   The bibliography at the end is a formidable tool for anyone interested in this subject.
2.   Here Dubouloz could have profited from engaging with the arguments developed in K. Cooper and J. Hillner (eds), Religion, Dynasty, and Patronage in Early Christian Rome (Cambridge 2007).
3.   J. Hillner’s “Domus, Family and Inheritance: The Senatorial Family House in Late Antique Rome”, JRS 93 (2003), 129-145 is a curious omission here.
4.   Following especially E. Lo Cascio, “Registri di beneficiari e modalità delle distribuzioni nella Roma tardoantica”, in La memoire perdue. Recherches sur l’administration romaine (Rome 1998), 365-85.
5.   See for Italy, for example, C. Goddard, M. Ghilardi and P. Porena (eds.), Les cités de l’Italie tardo-antique (IVe-VIe siècle) (Rome 2006); for Rome, the more recent volume edited by L. Grig and G. Kelly, Two Romes (Oxford 2012).

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