BMCR 2005.04.67

Tâches publiques et enterprise privée dans le monde romain

, , , Tâches publiques et entreprise privée dans le monde romain : actes du diplôme d'études avancées, universités de Neuchâtel et de Lausanne, 2000-2002. Recueil de travaux publiés par la Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines, 52. fasc.. Genève: Université de Neuchâtel, Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines, 2003. xii, 357 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 260000937X CHF 30.00 (pb).

The 15 essays in this book were given as lectures and papers in the period between the spring of 2000 and the fall of 2002 as part of a programme for graduate students at the universities of Lausanne and Neuchâtel. The programme offered courses, seminars and conferences on topics concerning the relations between the private and public spheres in the Greco-Roman world. The focus of the book is public contracting in the Roman world.

In his introductory essay “En guise d’introduction: Contrats publics et cahiers des charges”, J.-J. Aubert treats the Roman public contract and its contents. He also addresses the question of what parties entered public contracts, what clauses a contract could contain and what remedies were available to ensure that public contracts were fulfilled. Furthermore, Aubert gives a brief overview of the Greek forerunners to the Roman public contracts and offers examples of public contracting in the Roman world. He uses a well-known example from Puteoli in Italy where the duumvirs ordered the construction of a wall and a gate from a private entrepreneur in the year 105 BC. The document is exceptional as it mentions the price of the undertaking as well as the name of the entrepreneur. Aubert proceeds to mention other examples, as well as briefly treating the legal status of the parties to the contract. The surviving evidence for public contracts mostly tells us about the private entrepreneur, sometimes giving information about the function and organisation of the private enterprise; there is, however, rarely much information about the public party to the contract who commissioned the work. Aubert concludes his survey with the observation that the public contract constituted one of the rare elements that remained relatively stable from the Republican period through the High Imperial period.

In his essay “Publicité, archives et séquence documentaire du contrat public à Rome, C. Brélaz examines textual evidence relating to how administrative and legislative bodies structured their archival procedures, in particular, the ways of documenting public contracts in Rome. Brélaz mainly discusses three categories of evidence: how public contracts were shaped; how these contracts were made publicly known; and how they were preserved, that is, the archival procedure. The essay is illuminating as it shows how the sources may be either direct or indirect and why as a result they need different attention. Brélaz argues that the firmest statement of a public act, in this case a public contract, was its visible manifestation in the records.

In “Fraude et contrôle des contrats publics à Rome”, C. Rosillo discusses textual evidence for fraud with public contracts and examines how and by what means the State administration dealt with entrepreneurs who did not fulfil their part of a contract. Furthermore, the question of how the fulfilment of public contracts was controlled by the State is discussed. The outcome is, perhaps not surprisingly, that the measures taken against fraud with public contracts differed a great deal from case to case as the burden of proof and the gravity of the cases varied.

In his essay “Praedes, praedia, cognitores: Les sûretés réelles et personnelles de l’adjudicataire du contrat public en droit romain… texts et réflexions…”, C van Gessel treats the written evidence in which the terms praedes and praedia occur in relation to the conclusion of public contracts. He also discusses the term cognitores. All three terms relate to securities or guaranties put forward in concluding public contracts and the essay reviews the evidence for these terms and distinguishes them from each other in an attempt to present them within their context in Roman public and private law.

The short essay “Roman mining on public land: From the republic to the empire” by A. Mateo is mainly concerned with the two bronze tablets from Vipasca that have given us important information about Roman laws governing mining on public lands. The essay examines how great a change the mining trade underwent from the Republican to the Early Imperial period and discusses the reasons for these changes. Mateo’s conclusion, based on his studies of mining especially in the Republican period, is that a new law, the lex metallis dicta, was introduced, very likely during the reign of Vespasian, to deal with the entrepreneurs who had been avoiding paying taxes or buying the pits which their labour force was working.

D.W. Rathbone’s substantial essay, “The control and exploitation of Ager Publicus in Italy under the Roman Republic”, treats the unfortunately scarce evidence, mostly dating to the Gracchan period, for the running and regulation of leases connected with the exploitation of the ager publicus in Italy. Rathbone suggests that treating the ager publicus as a means of revenue for the state in the second century BC was influenced by contacts with the Hellenistic royal economies during a period when Rome was developing as a monetised state. He argues that this experiment was abandoned because the Roman preference for private property prevailed. Rathbone treats a wide range of evidence in his essay showing that in Rome private ownership of land was the norm and the protection of it was a political priority. Yet, though until the mid-second century BC the state had protected smallholders from the expansion of larger estates by limiting private ownership of land to 500 iugera, they were not protected thereafter, which might explain the decrease in smaller landholdings.

“Public land in the western provinces of the Roman empire” by J. Carlsen discusses the broad categories of public land in Italy and the western provinces. The essay concentrates on the agrarian laws, mainly the lex agraria of 111 BC, which are problematic because they are fragmentary. Carlsen points out the special arrangement in North Africa where two laws were introduced in order to encourage people to undertake work on marginal land. Carlsen sees this arrangement as an expression of the emperor seeking to stimulate agriculture in these remote areas.

J. France’s essay “La ferme des douanes dans les provinces occidentals de l’empire romain” is concerned with the evidence for the leasing of tax collection, specifically, the structure and development of this system in the western Roman provinces, Spain, Sicily, Africa, Gaul and Illyria. The evidence is presented region by region and then discussed in a comparative section, which treats the nature and evolution of the tax leasing systems in these provinces. These systems varied from province to province and also within the same province. There seem to have been a variety of ways in which the collection of taxes was leased out to private entrepreneurs.

M. Cottier also treats the issue of the leasing of tax collection in his essay “La ferme des douanes en orient et la lex portorii asiae”; however, the focus is on the eastern Roman provinces and more specifically the extensive inscription Monumentum Ephesenum, which forms the main topic of this brief essay. The text is historically contextualised and discussed and its chronology assessed through an analysis of its composition. This inscription, published in 1989, has revealed important and invaluable information about the structure and administration of the tax system in the eastern Roman provinces.1

In “Présence des cités et des hiérarchies civiques dans les tablettes de Pompéi”, J. Andreau discusses aspects of the role of the city and the civic hierarchy, first and foremost through the tablets of L. Caecilius Iucundus from Pompeii, but also including evidence from Herculaneum and Puteoli. The main focus of the essay is municipal leasing, how it was structured and attested. The essay is a thorough recapitulation of earlier discussions of the evidence along with evidence relating to Roman law from the period between the Republic and the Early Empire.

The essay “Appaltatori delle imposte e amministrazione finanziaria imperiale” by E. Lo Cascio examines imperial financial administration and its development, particularly in the period between the first and the fourth centuries AD. The essay briefly discusses some aspects of the theories of De Laet, Finley, A.H.M. Jones, Mommsen and Rostovtzeff, as well as re-examining written evidence from a number of sites. Lo Cascio concludes that although certain changes in the financial administration can be traced, especially in the third century, the system did not differ much from what was already established in the first century. Moreover, Lo Cascio points out that the economic situation in Rome in the fourth century differed less from the situation in the second century than was earlier thought.

B. Sirks’ “Secteur public et secteur privé dans le transport maritime pour l’approvisionnement de Rome et de Constantinople” is concerned with the structure of public and private transport of goods to and from the capitals of the Roman Empire, Rome and Constantinople. The essay spans the period between the Republic and the Late Empire. The main problem addressed is how much of the trade was administrated by the State (publicly) and how much by private entrepreneurs. Sirks treats a wide range of written evidence, which gives a vivid impression of his interpretation of the various structures within the public and private sectors concerned with over-seas transport of goods.

“Rôles publics et privés dans l’économie impériale: Nouvelles découvertes provenant du désert oriental en Egypte romaine” by R.S. Bagnall mainly focuses on material evidence from Berenike on the coast of the Red Sea, which has been published in recent years. As his point of departure Bagnall takes Sidebotham’s thesis published in 1986 and supports this through his interpretation of the new evidence, particularly ostraka.2 The main point in this thesis is that the Roman imperial government played an active role in this region of Egypt in order to promote trade with India and also, to a certain extent, east Africa. Bagnall discusses the new evidence in order to examine the relationship between the public and private spheres in their use and exploitation of the commercial routes to India.

C. Bruun’s contribution “Medius … tantam pecuniam nicomedenses perdiderint! Roman water supply, public administration, and private contractors” focuses on the interaction between the public administration and private enterprises in the construction and upkeep of hydraulic constructions, particularly aqueducts, as well as other ways of managing Roman water supply. On the basis of textual evidence, the essay discusses various aspects of the construction and upkeep of water supply in Italy, Asia Minor and Egypt during the Republican and Imperial periods, such as lead pipe manufacturing, the question of free labour, the role of the military and private enterprises.

The last essay “En guise de conclusion: Contrats publics et marchés publics” by R. Calame, who is a lawyer, examines and situates the public contract within present day law and draws upon examples from Swiss legislation. The essay is naturally very technical, as it explains the nature of public contracting, interaction between the State and its administration when contracting and when making public assignments to private contractors. Apart from stating that continental law has many principles in common with Roman law, there are no further useful comparisons between Roman law and modern public contract law, which leaves the reader wondering what the exact purpose of this essay is, other than thoroughly explaining to us what public contract law entails today.

The book is an excellent introduction to various aspects of public administration in the period between the Roman Republic and the High Empire. It treats a wide range of topics and presents a rich body of textual and some archaeological evidence. Apart from the general theme, there is nothing that connects the essays; however, the fact that the papers were given over a period of two and a half years by a number of experts explains the rather broad span. The volume concludes with two indexes, one of terms, places and names as well as one of sources. Each essay has a separate bibliography, which is helpful. Very few typographical errors have made their way into the final publication.


1. Engelmann, H. and D. Knibbe 1989 Das Zollgesetz der Provinz Asia. Eine neue Inschrift aus Ephesos.

2. Sidebotham, S. E. 1986 Roman economic policy in the Erythra Thalassa 30 BC – AD 217.