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Empire and Agency: Women and the Law in the Eastern Roman Provinces

Mary Deminion

Despite the importance of law as an aspect of Roman imperialism, relatively little scholarship has focused on Rome’s juridical export to the provinces, and less still on how provincial women engaged with systems of law and empire. In this paper, I demonstrate that provincial women used Roman law to protect their interests and, in so doing, participated actively in the process of legal and cultural exchange between Rome and the provinces.

 Individuals from the provinces of the Empire, rather than from Rome, number prominently among recipients of imperial rescripts. In particular, the Roman East is well represented. Rescripts from the reign of Diocletian are almost entirely responses to petitions emanating from Greece, Asia Minor, or the Middle East. The legal issues that petitioners sought to address by recourse to an imperial ruling shed some light on which points of law were of relevance to the lives of these citizens. It is by analyzing such evidence that we are offered a glimpse into the “lived realities” of those in the provinces.

Of the rescripts contained in the Codex a significant number deal with women’s petitions to the emperor. Evans Grubbs (2002) estimates that women are the petitioners in up to twenty percent of rescripts found in the Codex and up to twenty-five percent for the period between 282-305 CE. This, in effect, means that the imperial rescripts found in the Codex constitute the greatest representation of women of any source from Greco-Roman antiquity (Evans Grubbs, 2002).  In order to contextualize this evidence, it is necessary to acknowledge the unique geographical, cultural, political, and gendered position of women under the expanding Roman Empire.  

The spread of Imperial law and legal procedure has been termed la romanisation juridique or “juridical romanization” by Coriat in “La technique du rescript à la fin du principat” (1985). Coriat builds upon Fergus Millar’s work on the administration of empire by focusing on legal procedure as an instrument of Roman imperialism. As Coriat demonstrates, it is often the people of the provinces who actively engage with Roman legal practices. Unfortunately, despite Coriat’s contribution, there exists a dearth of scholarship on the concept of juridical romanization and women’s role within it.

Considerable documentary evidence exists for the conditions of women relative to Roman law in the East in the form of epigraphy and papyri. From the province of Arabia in the early second century CE we have, for example, the case of a Jewish woman named Babatha whose personal legal documents were uncovered by excavations of the Cave of Letters, near the Dead Sea (Feissel and Gascou, 1989 and 1995; Bowerstock, 1991; Goodman, 1991; Cotton, 1993). The Roman outpost of Dura Europos has also yielded documentary evidence for women’s engagement with Roman law (Welles, Fink, and Gilliam, 1959). Nonetheless, Egypt remains the site of the most papyrological evidence and is a very rich source for women’s legal activities in particular. However, Joseph Modrzejewski’s frequently cited article “La règle de droit dans l'Égypte romaine: État des questions et perspectives de recherches” (1970) has established the persistence of local legal practices as custom or mos even as Egypt fell under the Roman Empire. Thus a caveat associated with the evidence from Roman Egypt is that it may represent a truly unique case for women and Roman law, as the intersection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultural, social, and legal norms allowed women unprecedented and anomalous liberties.

By comparing and contrasting the Egyptian evidence with documentary evidence from other regions of the East, I address the issue of whether women in Roman Egypt could be said to have been “emancipated” in a manner not experienced by other women in the empire. Using the framework of juridical romanization, I argue that Roman law, though in some ways alien, was not culturally isolated or rigidly non-adaptive to native culture in the provinces, nor to the needs of women, despite gender-based legal constraints. 

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Law and Empire in the Roman World

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