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The Right to a Leisurely Trial? Strategy, Signaling, and Speed in P. Oxy. XLII 3017

Martin Reznick

An edict of Titus Pactumeius Magnus, prefect in 176/177, survives in one ‘careless and illiterate’ copy on the back of a petition submitted 40 years after the edict was issued.1 The edict alters the judicial process at the prefect’s assize, the conventus. Pactumeius Magnus commands that any petitioner at the conventus who receives a subscription or letter from the prefect instructing her to ‘petition before my tribunal’ (ἔντυχέ μοι πρὸ βήματος) must actually submit the case to the prefect within ten days of receiving the prefect’s written instructions. Petitioners who fail to appear within this time obtain no legal benefits of petitioning. This text has several mysteries, but foremost among them is why would a petitioner, already mouldering at the conventus on her own dime, need to be threatened like this? Petitioners usually just want to go home. P. Ryl. II 234 is a personal letter from a man frustrated at the pace of official justice, and in P. Oxy. III 486 a petitioner begs to be released from court to deal with the fallout of a high flood. The editor of the edict notes that ‘the whole thing reads as a reproof, not as a concession.’

One way to explain why such a reproof occurred is to analyze the rule-based, institutional process of obtaining justice in Roman Egypt. This process was strategic: the actions petitioners and magistrates took depended on what they expected other actors in the process would do. I show that the choice to petition but not have one’s day in court is the consequence of strategic behavior given some institutional features. This strategic reasoning makes the interaction between the motivations, expectations, and actions of the actors explicit. No documents reveal any of this interaction directly. Instead I infer why petitioners might have delayed their court appearance from settled knowledge about the preferences of petitioners qua petitioners and the procedural logic of official justice. I move from settled knowledge to inference by formalizing the strategic situation with the tools and techniques of game theory. This formalization, or game, yields a novel interpretation of Pactumeius Magnus’ edict.

I write a game to explore how disputants tried to obtain restitution by mobilizing both their communities and the bureaucracy in Roman Egypt. The decision to submit an official petition is analyzed as part of the wider phenomenon of obtaining restitution via official and unofficial channels. Under some general conditions, a subscribed petition alone would have sufficed to convince skeptical neighbors to aid (or at least tolerate) a petitioner’s efforts to obtain redress within her community. In other words, seeking justice at the conventus sent, in the argot of game theory, a ‘costly signal’ to the community about the strength of the petitioner’s claim and her willingness to endure hardship to press it. A subscribed petition sent that signal immediately if it could be redeemed for a hearing before the prefect later. A petitioner could return home with the subscribed petition to seek local undocumented justice, and if that failed, she could return to court to force the issue later. But the model shows that this behavior would both inconvenience the prefect and pejorate the signal. Pactumeius Magnus’ institutional tweak hints at a salient but largely unobserved dimension of justice in Roman Egypt.

1 P. Oxy. XLII 3017. The petition on the verso is P. Oxy. XXXIII 2672.

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Law and Empire in the Roman World

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