One of the most important sources of legal epigraphy are imperial legal rulings: decisions, rescripts and subscripts. The texts were initially letters sent by the emperor to private recipients such as individuals or communities. For reasons that are often unclear, from the beginning of the Principate onwards, their recipients decided to inscribe the letters in stone and post them in a public place.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the practice of legal epistolary epigraphy in Roman Greece, examining its underlying reasons, the narrative strategies and representations of power and powerlessness that were employed. In earlier studies, inscribed rescripts have been seen mostly either through a legal or an epigraphic lens. The few historical studies have almost exclusively approached them through the concept of petition and response as a way to understand the interaction between emperors and subjects (Millar 1992; Hauken). There have been extensive studies on the legal side of the rescript system and the motivations that propelled emperors to nearly systematically answer legal queries (Nörr; Coriat), the motivations of the recipients have been mostly overlooked. This is the question that this study seeks to answer. Considerable time, money and effort was put into inscribing imperial rescripts verbatim, signaling the value that it had.
This study approaches the issue through four examples, starting from Augustus’ letter to Cnidos (IG XII 3.174=FIRA III, n. 185). While the texts are different in their aim and context, they were all used to seek publicity for the imperial attention received. In the paper, these practices are analyzed exploring both their socio-legal and ritual dimension. The socio-legal aspect delves into the practical uses that such an inscription would have: Announcing a verdict, using imperial favor as a tool for propaganda or to warn offenders of the real or perceived imperial protection that an individual or a community enjoyed, the texts offer a view to the popular imagination. Though petitions may have followed a set structure, analyzing the use of petition and imperial response in the inscription by comparing them with petitions and rescripts in other materials offers a way to approach these texts as historical documents from below. In addition to this, these inscriptions have equally a ritual dimension, where the act of inscribing the message from a quasi-divine emperor may be seen as a performance that reinforces the power and permanence of the text. Through comparisons with studies on the ritualistic nature of legal inscriptions, the paper argues for a multileveled interpretation of the inscribed legal rescripts.