BMCR 2023.07.07

Shipwrecks, legal landscapes, and Mediterranean paradigms: gone under sea

, Shipwrecks, legal landscapes, and Mediterranean paradigms: gone under sea. Mnemosyne supplements, 456. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2022. Pp. viii, 244. ISBN 9789004514980.



The Romans saw the Mediterranean sea as very much their own, connecting shores and communities under the auspices of Empire. Yet governing mare nostrum (our sea) was something different altogether, as interactions at sea appeared to escape the confines of Roman legal order. In Shipwrecks, Legal Landscapes and Mediterranean Paradigms: Gone Under Sea, Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz works to understand this tension by studying shipwrecks. The book’s mandate, clearly communicated in the introduction, is to investigate how Romans saw and governed their maritime cultural landscape.[1] The book and its arguments are built on analyses of Justinian’s Digest and specifically Title 47.9, De Incendio Ruina Naufragio Rate Nave Expugnata (hereafter edictum de naufragio), an edict of the 1st century BCE that punished robberies and violent actions that capitalize on catastrophic circumstances like fire, destruction, and shipwrecks.

In Chapter One, Mataix Ferrándiz presents the conceptions, laws, and practices associated with shipwrecks prior to the edictum de naufragio. Archaic textual sources describe the sea as hazardous, uncertain, and too large to control. Though select Greek communities used treaties to reduce violence at sea, the ius naufragii (the right of shipwreck) meant that individuals could legally take items from a shipwreck and could even actively cause a ship to wreck in order to plunder it. Mataix Ferrándiz points to treaties and laws of the republican era that show Rome placing new limits on ius naufragii and violence against ships, and argues that these legal measures indicate a shift in how Romans saw shipwrecking and their broader maritime landscape. With the establishment of the edictum de naufragio in the 1st century BCE, jurists made shipwrecking an occurrence that Roman subjects (and their property) must be protected from. Mataix Ferrándiz’s use of legal and historical context is crucial here: by discussing the edictum de naufragio together with the edictum de turba and the vi bonorum raptorum, the chapter shows these laws as cumulative steps used to fight the violence and social disorder hallmark of the 1st century. Rome was trying to establish a violence-free Mediterranean, and keeping the sea safe—or perhaps more accurately, advertising that the sea was safe—was part of this mission.

Chapter Two provides an in-depth analysis of the edictum de naufragio, which addressed violent theft (rapere), taking back (recipere), and damage caused (damnum dare) amid a catastrophic event. For shipwreck cases, the edict also applied when these actions took place during attack of a ship or after a ship had been attacked. The chapter uses fragments in the edictum de naufragio to show the application of civil law to situations taking place between water and land, despite the fact that the sea was generally considered to be under ius gentium (law of nations), which was used to govern spaces not under Roman sovereignty. Here, Mataix Ferrándiz notes that the Roman maritime cultural landscape was not only inhabited by Romans, and the latter half of the chapter examines how legal status impacted one’s rights around shipwrecks. When legal remedies were pursued in the provinces, including situations concerning non-Roman citizens, provincial governors arbitrated as though they were adjudicating between two Romans, and may have used legal fictions similar to those used on land to help resolve disputes. Mataix Ferrándiz uses these laws to show Rome working to make the maritime cultural landscape safer, even though this landscape did not fall directly under civil control.

In Chapter Three, Mataix Ferrándiz turns to a discussion of ownership. The sea challenged Roman legal conceptions of ownership and control, as it existed outside of the things that could be owned by one person or state. Romans used maritime villas and ports to demonstrate their control of the sea—similar to built structures and regulations applied to rivers, which were also public spaces from the 3rd century BCE on—but Mataix Ferrándiz suggests that sea’s vastness prevented Rome from managing it in the same way that it did rivers. When ships and cargo were put to sea, they were owned by someone, but shipwrecking had the power to change that ownership. Mataix Ferrándiz identifies two ways that ownership became contested at sea: derelictio (the abandonment of goods with the intention to get rid of them) and direptio (pillaging or sacking). In both cases, laws of the imperial period generally argued that the initial owner retained control of lost, jettisoned, and wrecked goods, and therefore, no one should collect any items from a shipwreck. How this worked in practice varied by situation and was particularly difficult in cases involving noncitizens like foreigners, women, and slaves. Mataix Ferrándiz discussion of status is compelling here: when individuals collected goods from a shipwreck on shore, their punishment changed depending on their citizenship status, and Mataix Ferrándiz uses this example (among others) to argue that one’s engagement with the Roman maritime cultural landscape was highly dependent on one’s rights within the empire.

Ships put to sea could be wrecked or wronged through a variety of actions, and Chapters Four and Five address these actions in two categories. Chapter Four focuses on loss wrongfully caused by or resulting from a shipwreck. In these cases, individuals lost property as a result of actions committed without malintent or lawful reason for damage (i.e., self-defense or force majeure). Mataix Ferrándiz weaves together analyses of different Roman laws that apply to such situations, including the Lex Aquilia de damno and the edictum de naufragio to show how jurists tried to establish legal parallels between events that took place at sea and those that took place on land. Yet while catastrophic events occurred in both environments, Mataix Ferrándiz argues that Roman jurists struggled to handle the sea’s unpredictability, as seen through parts of the edictum de naufragio that only came into effect when items from a shipwreck washed ashore. Chapter Five examines situations in which ships were intentionally and maliciously wrecked. Through analyses of fragments within the edictum de naufragio, which discuss intentional harm against shipwrecks from the 1st century BCE through to late antiquity, the chapter argues that violence against ships continued across the entirety of Roman history and not just prior to the Pax Romana. Both land and sea banditry were seen as a threat to the empire’s economic stability, and jurists worked hard to compensate and restore goods to their rightful owners, even when goods washed ashore on private property. Throughout Roman (and Greek) history, individuals took advantage of these laws by staging shipwrecks and fraudulently reporting lost cargo, and Mataix Ferrándiz associates increased occurrences of false wrecks to periods of Roman history in which the state was forced to take liability for transporting objects to bolster the economy.

In Shipwrecks, Legal Landscapes and Mediterranean Paradigms, Mataix Ferrándiz uses shipwrecks as legal bridges between land and sea, with laws about shipwrecks showing Romans (or Roman jurists) wrestling to govern an increasingly maritime empire. The book’s organization works well, with each of the five chapters using the edictum de naufragio to illustrate how Romans’ conceptions of their maritime cultural landscape changed over time. One critique of the book stands out, which relates to its use of the archaeological record. In the introduction, Mataix Ferrándiz notes that the book will study the Roman maritime landscape archaeologically as well as legally, and discussions of maritime villas and ports in Chapter Three do highlight Roman attempts to assert control over the sea. In Chapter Five, however, Mataix Ferrándiz takes “marks of violence” on the hulls of wrecked ships together with the presence of weapons as evidence of violence against ships (p. 142). Here, Mataix Ferrándiz may be overextending the archaeological record, as it is truly difficult to correlate markings on extant ship hulls with violence against ships, and the link between these “marks of violence” and violence against ships should therefore be made cautiously. Additionally, the chapter argues that the high number of shipwrecks dated between the 1st century BCE and the 3rd century CE—as evidenced by Parker’s graph of Roman shipwrecks—shows that violence at sea continued into the 2nd and 3rd centuries (p. 142–3).[2] However, many of these wrecks actually date to the Roman period more broadly and only appear during this time because Parker dated shipwrecks by the midpoint of their date range, and Wilson’s revised version of this graph shows shipwrecks falling after the 1st century CE.[3] Mataix Ferrándiz’s legal analyses do show, though, that violence at sea persisted through the imperial period, and this provides a strong foundation for future investigations of the Roman maritime landscape that explore this divergence between the archaeological and legal record.

Mataix Ferrándiz’s book makes substantial contributions to our understanding of the Roman maritime cultural landscape. Core among these contributions is Mataix Ferrándiz’s argument that Romans themselves saw violence as a necessary or even profitable part of their maritime world. Prior work on maritime law in the Roman world has often focused on piracy and presented violence against Roman ships as the result of bad actors outside of the empire.[4] Through Mataix Ferrándiz’s book, however, violence against ships is revealed to be a longstanding part of the Roman maritime cultural landscape and a fundamentally Roman behavior. Roman authorities could and should try to prevent violence against ships, but intentional wrecking remained a local practice in certain pockets of the empire, and punishment for these acts was often at the discretion of provincial magistrates far from the city of Rome. In discussions of violence against ships and the laws surrounding it, Mataix Ferrándiz’s book is in direct dialogue with Anna Tarwacka’s Romans and Pirates: Legal Perspective.[5] Here, Mataix Ferrándiz’s work stands out for its maritime cultural landscape approach, which builds from analyses of Roman laws to place more emphasis on the relationship between Romans and the sea. Lastly, in discussing abandoned goods on foreign shores, Mataix Ferrándiz’s work joins a conversation about merchant liability and ownership in the Mediterranean—this includes studies of the Geniza merchants by Avner Greif and more recently by Jessica Goldberg—and advances our understanding of Roman property and ownership at sea.[6] The book also excels at making maritime law accessible to the reader. A full translation of the edictum de naufragio is provided following the conclusion, and this is an exemplary resource and recommended first stop for those not familiar with Title 47.9 and Roman digests more broadly. The book’s introduction and second chapter also do a particularly good job of orienting the reader to the legal landscape in question. Altogether, Shipwrecks, Legal Landscapes and Mediterranean Paradigms provides a new understanding of Roman laws at sea, the people they governed, and how these people saw their maritime world.



[1] Mataix Ferrándiz draws on Westerdahl’s maritime cultural landscape, a theoretical framework that encapsulates all parts of maritime life (fishing, sailing, coastal dwelling, etc.), all people engaged in these activities, and their perceptions of the maritime environment. For more, see Westerdahl, C. 1992. “The Maritime Cultural Landscape.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 21 (1): 5–14; 2011. “The Maritime Cultural Landscape.” In The Oxford Handbook of Maritime Archaeology, edited by B. Ford, D. L. Hamilton, and A. Catsambis, 733–62. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Parker, A. J. 1992. Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean & the Roman Provinces. BAR-IS 580. Oxford: Tempus Reparatum.

[3] Wilson, A. (2011). ‘Developments in Mediterranean shipping and maritime trade from the Hellenistic period to AD 1000.’ In Maritime Archaeology and Ancient Trade in the Mediterranean. Edited by Damian Robinson and Andrew Wilson: 3 – 61. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology Monographs.

[4] Anna Tarwacka provides a masterful overview of this literature in the introduction to, Tarwacka, A. 2009. Romans and Pirates: Legal Perspective. Warsaw: Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University Press.

[5] Tarwacka 2009.

[6] Greif, A. 1993. “Contract Enforceability and Economic Institutions in Early Trade: The Maghribi Traders’ Coalition.” The American Economic Review 83 (3): 525–48; Goldberg, J. 2012. Trade and Institutions in the Medieval Mediterranean: The Geniza Merchants and Their Business World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.