Leiden Law Blog

Proscription and the redistribution of wealth by the Roman Emperor

Proscription and the redistribution of wealth by the Roman Emperor

After the assassination of the emperor Pertinax on 28 March 193, the African senator and army commander Lucius Septimius Severus was proclaimed emperor by his troops. He marched on Rome and took the city without much opposition. But his claim to the imperial throne was not uncontested. In the east, Syrian troops had proclaimed a man named Pescennius Niger emperor in response to the murder of Pertinax, and he intended to march on Rome as well. Severus decided to move east and deal with his rival claimant personally. In May 194, he defeated the army of Pescennius Niger near Issus (Turkey), not far from the site of Alexander the Great’s famous victory. This did not mean the end of Severus’ troubles. While suppressing the rebellion in the east, another claimant to the throne rose in the west in the form of Clodius Albinus, the governor of Brittania. Severus was forced to return west, and in February 197 he crushed the armies of Albinus at the Battle of Lugdunum (Lyon, France) to secure his position as emperor.

Massacre followed in the wake of victory. Severus gave orders to execute every senator in Rome or the provinces that had supported Albinus’ rebellion, as is attested by the Historia Augusta (Sev. 12,1) and the 3rd-century Greek historiographer Herodian (Hist. 3,8,2 and 7). Their property was confiscated by the fiscus, the privy purse of the emperor. These expropriations naturally gave rise to legal conflicts, some of which were brought before Severus and his consilium as the highest judicial instance in the Empire. The Roman jurist Paulus, himself a privy councilor, reports an example of such a case (D. 28,5,93(92)) in his Decreta. It concerns the inheritance of a freed man named Pactumeius Androsthenes.

Androsthenes had instituted his patrona Pactumeia Magna as his sole heir. She was the daughter of the prominent senator Pactumeius Magnus, who had served under the emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180) as Egyptian prefect and reached the consulate under his successor Commodus (161-192). At some point, relations between Commodus and Pactumeius Magnus had soured and the emperor had ordered his assassination and, for good measure, that of his family too. Rumors of their deaths had reached Rome and caused Androsthenes to make a second will, naming a senator called Lucius Novius Rufus as his heir, but still stating that he would have preferred Pactumeia Magna as his heir.

Androsthenes then died and his inheritance passed to Rufus, who nevertheless did not enjoy it for a long time. As governor of the province Hispania Tarraconensis (Spain), he supported Albinus’ doomed rebellion, which eventually led to his death at the hands of one of Severus’ generals in 197. His patrimony, including the inheritance of Androsthenes, was confiscated by the fiscus.

As if in a comedy of errors, sometime after 197 Pactumeia Magna resurfaced very much alive. She petitioned the emperor for the inheritance of Androsthenes, even though she did not have a legal claim to it. When Androsthenes had made the second will, naming Novius Rufus as his heir, he had automatically revoked the first one, which named Pactumeia Magna as his heir. This meant that the first testament no longer existed and that Magna could not derive any rights from it.  Moreover, the preference for Pactumeia Magna as his heir, as expressed by Androsthenes in his second will, was legally worthless: a mistake in the reason for instituting an heir does not make the institution invalid (‘falsa causa non nocet’).

Though the jurists in the consilium probably raised these legal points, the emperor decided that the inheritance should belong to Pactumeia. This decision went against the rules of the Roman law of succession, but it was the emperor’s prerogative to decide on the equity of the law. There can be no doubt that this kind of decision contributed to the image of the emperor as a benefactor. The emperor generously paid for this restitution from his own pocket, even though he was not compelled to do so by law. However, the judgment may also have been prompted by more practical considerations. Severus needed to win the support of the remaining members of the senatorial elite after the numerous executions following the civil wars. Bestowing wealth on them in one way or another may have been a fruitful way to gain their support, even if it meant setting aside the rules of the ius civile. In this manner, the case of Pactumeia Magna shows how proscription and the redistribution of wealth among possible supporters was used by the emperor as a tool to consolidate his power. 

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