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Regulating and ‘Romanizing’ the Environment

Cynthia Bannon

Natural resources were a focal point for Romanization both physically (centuriation, aqueducts) and institutionally (property rights regimes, administration), and the water supply is a case in point (Terranato, 1998; Shaw 1984). The interplay between Roman and local practice is illustrated in two long inscriptions: the decree concerning the Augustan aqueduct for Venafro in Italy (CIL 10.4842) and the Hadrianic decree from the irrigation community on the Ebro river in Spain (AE 1993, 1043). Comparative analysis of these two decrees shows that law functioned as a “mediating point” for the negotiation between Romans and provincial residents, to borrow a term from Woolf (1995, 13). Furthermore, local adaptation of Roman legal institutions reflect what is recognized in modern environmental law as a persistent problem, namely balancing public and private interests in natural resources (Cole 2000).

            The circumstances of the two decrees are quite different. The Venafro decree records instructions for the civic administration of an aqueduct built by the emperor for an urban community where water use was arranged through lease. In contrast, the Ebro decree regulated an irrigation community of individuals sharing river water where the right to water was attached to private property (Beltrán Lloris 1996, 148, 188-90). Some of the differences between the decrees can be explained as the product of climate, proximity to (or distance from) Rome, urban (versus rural) context. Other differences appear less significant on closer inspection because they are motivated by similar guiding principles. For example, both the fee for use (Venafro) and property right (Ebro) measure the allocation of water in economic terms. Moreover, the decrees adopt many of the same legal mechanisms to regulate access to water, in part because of the common challenges inherent in water systems and in part because of the systemic overlap between public and private in water regulation in Roman law (Albuquerque 2002, 200-16; Bannon 2009, 20-3).

The use of law in these decrees also has broader implications for Romanization. In both communities, local magistrates administered the legal system, and in the Ebro decree local water users adapted Roman law to their own practices (Nörr 2008). These legal practices show that local elites shared with Romans ideological assumptions about the control of natural resources: while water rights were allocated in a rational, enforceable system, the system reinforced the political and economic structures of society, promoting private interests at the expense of a broadly defined public good. Nevertheless, law was an effective vehicle for Romanization because it could be adapted to local practices and because it could be used to expresses priorities that were shared by both local elites and the Roman authorities. While legal system may have helped to resolve disputes about the allocation of resource such as water, it was of greatest service to those with the greatest access to power. Consequently, examining the role of law reveals a differential impact of Romanization on different sectors of provincial population in as much as the regulation of water was inadequate to insure equitable access to this resource.

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Empire and Ideology in the Roman World

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