In Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon, Melite makes a “serious joke” alluding to her sexless marriage to Clitophon by coining a new word, kenogamion (5.14.4). Like a cenotaph, it is a hollow signifier that highlights the ambiguity of her legal status. Liviabella Furiani, to whose article the title of this paper alludes, has emphasized the parodic quality of Achilles Tatius' formulation. This paper takes Melite’s joke as a starting point for a serious examination of how Achilles Tatius' construction of this legal dilemma defies Perry’s image of a world populated by alienated and dejected “subjects of a vast empire on par with a vast number of foreigners and expatriates,” and argues instead for a world populated by opportunistic men and women who knew how to exploit loopholes opened by the simultaneous operation of varying sets of laws and social customs under the Roman Empire.
Anthropologists have coined the term “legal pluralism” to characterize the coexistence of imperial and indigenous systems in decolonized societies (Merry). Their observations have challenged the evolutionary model of legal development by exposing the dynamism of situations where agents strategically use both systems in their pursuit of individual interests. To be sure, the chasm between indigenous and imperial laws among modern societies having undergone decolonization is often dramatic; nevertheless, it is useful to challenge the concept that Roman law moved as an inevitable juggernaut over local law, leaving no traces behind. Comparative studies of other imperial societies suggest that the process would have been messy and rough, giving opportunistic individuals novel ways to get into and out of trouble with the law. In this respect, Achilles Tatius' fiction offers a glimpse into how this confusion might have played out in reality.
For the purposes of this argument, I accept the claim of the ancient testimonia that Achilles Tatius was a rhetor in Alexandria in the late second century C.E. The city was an entrepôt not only of goods, but also of imperial officials and bureaucrats who oversaw the administration of various laws and policies to subjects who had varying statuses. It also had a history of civic violence over preferential privileges (Harker). By the late second century, a pepaideumenos of this cosmopolitan city would have been at the very least sensitive to the nuances involved where, depending on his citizenship(s), a person would have had options for how to negotiate legal relationships (Wolff, Mélèze-Modrzejewski). The narrative exposition of Melite and Clitophon’s gamos illustrates the ambiguities created when a couple in the process of getting married move from one city to another. From the time of Clitophon’s acceptance of Melite’s proposal of marriage in Alexandria until its sexual consummation in Ephesus, they engage in a number of actions that would have been recognizable wedding-like to readers who lived in the multicultural milieu of Alexandria. They swear mutual oaths at the temple of Isis (5.14.2-3) and have a wedding feast in Alexandria (5.14.2) En route to Ephesus they sleep beneath a tent whose decor evokes the customary, ceremonial entrance to the bridal chamber (5.14.3). Once the arrive in their new home, they have second feast (5.17.2) and publicly together make the rounds on Melite’s estates (5.20.2). Through these customary actions, they establish the appearance of being married, until everything falls apart when her first husband, presumed lost at sea, reappears.
The narrative's construction—and deconstruction—of this de facto and quasi de jure marriage illustrate certain patterns of thinking about law. In this respect, this paper diverges from other studies that conclude that the legal realia in the novels present an “impressionistic pastiche” drawn mostly from book knowledge, to serve a backdrop against which sentimentality is highlighted (Russell, Fusillo, Egger). Instead, the prevalence of legal themes in all five novels points to an underlying preoccupation with figuring out how law works (or does not) in the fluidity and instability of an evolving legal system on the eve of the constitutio Antoniniana.
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