Friday 15 January 2021

Run Your Town Like a Roman - 12 tips from the past, by Ruth Downie

Human nature, it seems, has changed little since AD 91, when the emperor Domitian issued a set of laws for the town of Irni. Many of them made me laugh, because it was clear that the rules were designed to head off exactly the same sort of misunderstanding and mischief-making that still goes on today. Others were clearly based on a mindset very different to our own. Here are a few gems of advice from the past:

1 Everyone in town must know what the rules are. They must be engraved on bronze plaques and put up in the middle of town where they can clearly be read from ground level. There is to be no burying of bad news, hiding devilish detail in small print or placing plaques so high that nobody can read them without a ladder. 

Two people looking up at tall Roman building
"Did you bring the binoculars?"

 2 Remember that while mortal guardians sleep, the gods and the divine ghosts of emperors past are always on the lookout for wrongdoing. Everyone who holds office in the town must swear by Jupiter and the Divine Augustus and the Divine Claudius and the Divine Vespasian Augustus and the Divine Titus Augustus and the genius of the Emperor Domitian Augustus and the Penates that he will act in good faith.

3 There is to be no fake news. All decisions must be read out as soon as possible and council scribes are to make a public record of what’s been decided without entering anything false or leaving anything out, or else incur the wrath of Jupiter, the Divine Augustus, etc.

4 Two men with equal authority should be placed in charge of the council. Ideally they will be so busy squabbling with each other that neither will pose any threat to the higher authorities. In order to get necessary business done even when relations are bad, some ground rules will be necessary – for example, nobody can make decisions about money unless three-quarters of the councillors are there to vote on them. And when one of the top men has called a meeting, the other one can’t demand that everyone abandon it and come to his own meeting instead. (Ordinary residents, of course, should not be allowed to hold large meetings at all. No good will come of it.)

5 Cheer everyone up by supporting the arts – as soon as possible, vote a budget for religious observances, games and public dinners.

Modern gladiators in the amphitheatre at Chester
Everyone enjoys the Games

6 Make it clear that the councillors in charge of drains, roads, etc. will have the help of municipal slaves to do the actual dirty work.

7 Are there still not enough willing councillors, despite the offer of free labour and public dinners? Have the names of every eligible man (obviously non-men are not eligible) written up in public. At ground level. Order them to nominate each other. You will have an instant rush of nominees.

8 Now you have the nominees - some advice on elections. Nobody is to do anything to prevent the election being held. Everyone seeking election can place a scrutineer by each ballot box. If two candidates have the same number of votes, the one who is married will be elected. If they are both married, tot up the number of legitimate sons each of them has. The one with the most sons wins. (For the avoidance of dispute, use the official points system to allow for any children who have not survived. If this still doesn’t settle the matter, draw lots.)

outline of ballot box
9 Get a grip on the grain supply and keep control of weights and measures and the retail sector. Ban hoarding and price-fixing. No-one is to corner the market in any one commodity - not even toilet rolls.

10 Tired of the endless grumbling from residents who demand that “the council ought to do something about…” x, y or z? Remind them that residents can be conscripted for five days each year to work without pay on major Council projects. This will test their resolve.

11 Ambassadors. Being sent away to represent the town’s views (whatever you think of them) is not always a popular job, so any man who claims to be ineligible because he is ill, or over 60, should be made to swear it in front of Jupiter, the Divine Augustus, etc. If he is later found out to be lying, he will suffer not only the wrath of Jupiter, the Divine Augustus, etc., but also a fine of 20,000 sesterces. This is enough to pay 16 legionaries for a year, so if a modern army private in the UK earns about £20,000 a year, set the fine at £320,000.

Bust of the Emperor Domitian - Photo of Domitian - derivative work: Steerpike (talk)Domitian_capitoline_profile.png: Steerpike, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
The emperor is running out of patience.

12 And finally – the laws end with a special letter from the emperor Domitian himself. Its meaning is now lost to us, but if, in the light of recent legislation, you are concerned about the hasty marriage (?) that you contracted, this is for you. The emperor wants you to know that he is prepared to overlook the past, but he is now running out of patience. Don’t do it again.

The Lex Irnitana, the statement of law for the southern Spanish town of Irni, was discovered on bronze plaques in the 1980s. I’m immensely grateful to Paul du Plessis, who originally drew my attention to it, but who shares none of the blame for what lies above. Anyone wanting to make a serious study of it should consult:

The Lex Irnitana: A New Copy of the Flavian Municipal Law Author(s): Julián González and Michael H. Crawford Source: The Journal of Roman Studies , 1986, Vol. 76 (1986), pp. 147-243 Published by: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies Stable URL: JSTOR

Ruth Downie writes a series of murder mysteries set mostly in Roman Britain, and featuring Roman army medic Ruso and his British partner, Tilla. 

Photo of Domitian - derivative work: Steerpike (talk)Domitian_capitoline_profile.png: Steerpike, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

Brilliant blog, Ruth!

I am always fascinated and amused by how little things and people seem to have changed since Roman times.

Thank you for introducing me to a new source, too.

Ruth Downie said...

Thanks Caroline! I was a Town Council clerk for several years and while the oath to Jupiter, the Divine Augustus, etc. no longer applies, a lot of this was eerily familiar!

Stroppy Author said...

Love it! Especially #10. All those people about their bin wasn't emptied/the pot-holes aren't filled/the park's a mess — get them out there to fix it!

Ruth Downie said...

Exactly! 🤣