In this paper, I explore the impact of Roman languages of government on the North African countryside in late second and third centuries CE. As a case study, I draw on the evidence of the inscription from Saltus Burunitanus (CIL VIII 10570 = ILS 6870). The text is a subscriptio, a reply of the emperor Commodus to a petition in which a group of peasants on an imperial estate in central Algeria complain about maltreatment by their managers. Previous scholarship has brilliantly analysed what the inscription can tell us about the legal procedures (Turpin 1991) and economic realities behind that conflict (Kehoe 1988). I explore the meaning of the text from Saltus Burunitanus in the time and place in which it was exhibited. I argue that the language and monumental form of the inscription attest to new social cleavages generated by Roman grammars of government.
The text falls into two parts. The first three columns are taken up by the petition in which the inhabitants of the estate denounce the violence deployed by their managers and their breach of imperial lease regulations, the fourth contains a short reply by the emperor Commodus in which he prohibits any further such abuses, but does not punish the estate managers for their behavior. At first sight, the inscription seems to attest the inability of the imperial government to protect the interests of the peasants living on its lands. In the words of Fergus Millar, such subscriptiones were 'unhelpful' (1992: 457) as a response to the abuses they record.
However, in order to understand the meaning of the text, its style, monumental form and context of display is as important as its content (cf. Herrmann 1990 and Ando 2000). The high-quality stone, elegant lettering and self-confident deployment of complex legal formulae stake out a claim that North African peasants partake in an empire-wide community of humanitas. And by recording the signature written by the emperor with his own hand (IV 9 et alia manu: scripsi), the petitioners of Saltus Burunitanus warn any future estate managers that their wellbeing was the personal concern of the divine ruler of the world.
This image of a self-confident peasantry is confirmed by the evidence from archaeology and epigraphy. The discovery of large numbers of olive presses shows that there were wealthy peasants in late-second and early-third century North Africa. And the names and formulae in contemporary inscriptions attest to the spread of Latin literacy and Roman citizenship deep into the countryside. In this sense, the ability of the peasants of Saltus Burunitanus to turn the normative ideals of imperial government against itself may be symptomatic of a larger shift in the rural balance of power. The fourth-century upturn in peasant power, traced by Dossey (2010) and Grey (2011) in important recent studies, may have its roots already in an earlier period.
And yet, a too optimistic reading of the inscription may underestimate the new inequalities generated by the language of imperial government. Only a small number of tenants owned olive-presses, were Roman citizens and had the patronage connections and financial clout to present petitions to the emperor. The spread of Roman administrative practices empowered this new group of literate, wealthy and self-confident 'super-peasants.' But most inhabitants of imperial estates continued to be excluded from the ideals of humanitas proclaimed by the inscription. In this sense, the inscription of Saltus Burunitanus should not be seen as witness to a general rise in rural prosperity. Rather, it brings into focus the shape of the new social hierarchies created by the deployment in the provincial countryside of Roman grammars of government.
Grammars of Government in Late Antiquity