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Legal engagement

Katell Berthelot
Natalie B. Dohrmann
Capucine Nemo-Pekelman

Imperial justice as drama

A frenzy of sovereignty

Punishment in P.Aktenbuch

Ari Z. Bryen


The “Berlin Legal Codex,” recently republished as P.Aktenbuch, is a puzzling document: it purports to record a series of criminal judgments given by an unnamed governor (hēgemōn) against a range of malefactors. Given the rarity of criminal verdicts in the corpus of papyri more generally, P.Aktenbuch would seem to be of the highest importance; however, there are many reasons to doubt whether it records actual verdicts given in the governor’s court. More likely, it is a literary artifact that uses criminal punishment to meditate on the question of sovereignty more generally. In this respect, it seems to be a cousin of the more famous Martyr Acts or Acta Alexandrinorum – but with an important twist: in the Aktenbuch, the governor is unambiguously good, whereas the victims are unambiguously bad. The Aktenbuch is in that sense an inverted Martyr Act. Unlike the martyr acts, the text is also constructed as a series of monologues, rather than a series of dialogues between empire and subject. Most unusually for a Roman provincial document, the Aktenbuch celebrates violent punishments, and should be read as part of a broader provincial conversation on the nature of sovereignty.

Entrées d'index

Texte intégral


  • 1 Keenan 1989.
  • 2 Poethke – Prignitz – Vaelske 2012.
  • 3 Kanavou – Papathomas 2016.
  • 4 See now Schwartz 2017.

1P.Aktenbuch is a problematic text, yet one that is in many ways essential to the understanding of criminal law in the Roman provinces. Its key sections were originally published at the beginning of the twentieth century as BGU IV 1024-27. These sections featured a series of vignettes of an unnamed Roman governor pronouncing criminal verdicts against a series of mostly anonymous malefactors. Though the text has been periodically quoted and translated, the very strangeness of the individual criminal verdicts was disconcerting, to say the least, for these verdicts had no readily discernable documentary analogue in the papyrological record more generally.1 It was probably also of consequence that the text itself is in poor shape and in highly idiosyncratic Greek, rendering it hard to decipher. Recently, however, two new studies have placed the text in a more robust context. First, Günter Poethke, Sebastian Prignitz, and Veit Vaelske have re-edited the entire codex from which the trial scenes come.2 Attention to the codicological context shows that the document belonged to an Aurelius Philammon, a councilor of Hermopolis and a liturgist involved in regional fiscal administration (ἐπιμελητής) attested in other documents throughout the middle to the end of the fourth century. More specifically, the document itself can probably be brought to the middle of the fourth century, due to the mention later in the codex of the praeses of the Thebaid, Fl. Domitius Asklepiades. Secondly, in the wake of this new edition Nikoletta Kanavou and Amphilochios Papathomas prepared a new edition of the last and longest of the “verdicts,” along with extensive commentary and a thorough discussion of the nature of the text itself.3 The discussion of Kanavou and Papathomas is of great importance for contextualizing the text itself: they argue persuasively that the criminal verdicts in the codex cannot be the records of actual verdicts given in the court of the praeses; rather, they bear strong similarities to literary trials, and in particular, the trials that play feature roles in the roughly contemporary Greek novels.4 The trial scenes, following the typology of papyrologists, are more likely “literary” or even “paraliterary” than “documentary”.

2Because such scenes belong to the realm of the imaginary, they will likely play a relatively circumscribed role in the legal history of the Roman provinces more generally. Roman legal historians, long interested in the functioning of judicial institutions, in general have little time for matters of imagination, save for when such imaginative literature can, on the basis of a usually unarticulated claim about verisimilitude, be used, absent other evidence, as a substitute for datable inscriptions or constitutions or other, more “reliable” testimony. This is perhaps regrettable, since in the case of P.Aktenbuch it is precisely through attention to its imaginative context – and the claims it puts forward in such a context – that we can begin to understand the role of this text in a broader conversation about the nature of justice in the Roman world.

  • 5 On the emperor as responsible judge, the classic treatment is Millar 1977, p. 228-240; see more re (...)
  • 6 Bryen 2014.

3Specifically, as I will argue in what follows, the trial scenes and their associated criminal verdicts ought to be read as a commentary on a broader set of provincial understandings of the nature of imperial justice. These understandings, evident in the many trial scenes that structure provincial literature, conceived of adjudication as a basic moment in the practice of imperial politics. It was at the moment of adjudication, provincials claimed, that one could best probe the nature of imperial domination and legitimacy. In particular, it was in the ways that governors were imagined to treat defendants that one could understand the ethical foundations of the Roman state. And all too often, in the provincial imagination more broadly, government failed this test, demonstrating that it could not live up to the lofty standards that it aspired to and proclaimed throughout the imperial landscape.5 In other words, for a large number of actors throughout the provinces for which our evidentiary record is robust, discussions about the practice of adjudication came to serve as an idiom for thinking through the imperial experience more generally.6

  • 7 Bryen forthcoming.

4Yet such claims did not go unchallenged. To begin with, they spawned something of a counter-ideology among the provincial hyper-elites of the empire, who advocated for a differing conception of the nexus between the legal and the political, one founded in morality, rhetoric, and redistribution, rather than in the rule of law. (I shall not go into great detail about this hyper-elite ideology here.7) But there were other reactions among provincial communities as well. I shall argue, in what follows, that we can read the trial scenes in the Aktenbuch in such a vein. But in Philammon’s case, his reaction to the dominant strain in provincial discourse came with an important twist: the Aktenbuch borrows from the larger matrix of provincial ideologies of the courtroom only to overturn them and radically redefine their values. Whereas provincial populations used narratives of trials to air doubts about the ethical foundations of their institutional world, Philammon chooses to celebrate the Roman state as it enacted the purest form of sovereignty – that is, when punishing the deserving. If a number of provincial populations wrote martyr acts to speak about political theology, Philammon wrote an inverted martyr act, presenting a tableau of violent punishments in order to endorse them.

5What follows proceeds in three parts. In the first section, I will lay out, in broad strokes, something of the “dominant” provincial ideology of justice, and its expectations about adjudication. Important in this ideology, I will argue, was an account of language, and in particular, of the dynamics of language in the courtroom. Among provincial populations, the courtroom was not simply a place of dispute settlement or a space for the mechanical punishment of malefactors; it was, rather, a place of dialogue and discussion, where ruler and ruled could confront one another face to face, and where the raw fact of material domination had to be worked out linguistically. From there I will turn, in the second section, to Philammon’s trial scenes, emphasizing that they operate on the basis of an opposing understanding of the role of language: if the provincial emphasis was on dialogue, Philammon’s inversion of this understanding presented justice primarily as monologue. Then, I will turn, in the third section, to the most extensive “trial” narrative in Philammon’s codex, the trial and punishment of a hyper-elite Alexandrian councilman who murdered a prostitute. In this scene, the most developed of those that Philammon crafted, the question of justice and its relationship to language is framed most clearly, and Philammon’s rejection of the values of his milieu is made explicit. Finally I will turn, in the last section, to the terms that structure this essay more broadly – provincial and imperial – and attempt, by way of a coda, to place them into sharper relief.

Punishment and dialogue

  • 8 Novels: Schwartz 2017. Letters: e.g., P.Bagnall 7 (1st-3rd centuries CE); P.Brem. 18 (113-120 CE); (...)
  • 9 Essential literature: Coleman 1990; Gleason 1999.
  • 10 Appian, B.C. 1, 14, 120. Cf. the behavior of G. Ummidius Quadratus in dealing with unrest in Judea (...)
  • 11 E.g., Cicero, Verr. 2, 5, 7; Suetonius, Galb. 9; Pliny, Ep. 10, 96; see further Bryen 2012. Two fo (...)
  • 12 Gleason 1999. It seems, moreover, that such an ideology reached relatively far down the social hie (...)

6Justice was very much on the mind of the inhabitants of the eastern empire. Legal discourse suffuses provincial texts, from the dramatic trial scenes in the Greek and Latin novels to the mundane letters concerning civil litigation that are preserved on papyrus, from curses directed against one’s courtroom opponents to the interpretations of dreams.8 Whereas civil litigation seems to have occupied the great bulk of legal practice, criminal punishment was a more fertile locus for acts of imagination. The reasons for this are not hard to find. Roman authorities were fond of the spectacle of punishment, and were comfortable using the idiom of punishment to impress upon subordinate populations the importance of Roman power.9 Moreover, it seems that the tendency to spectacular violence came more or less naturally to Romans in positions of high authority: one only need to consider the some six thousand prisoners leftover from Spartacus’ army that M. Licinius Crassus crucified along the length of road from Rome to Capua.10 This tendency towards spectacular and knee-jerk brutality was similarly exported. One need not go through the entire litany of cruel acts here – the spectacular crucifixions, public floggings, and conspicuous enslavements, to say nothing of the public use of judicial torture.11 It will suffice only to note that the deployment of violence was frequently entangled with processes of jurisdiction, which were in turn connected to an entire imperial epistemology: violence was placed in the service of finding truths, but also served to demonstrate them by rendering abstract truths concrete through the violent manipulation of bodies. Punishment was not only a response to disorder; it was conceived as productive of order itself.12 Finally, these practices were also inextricably intertwined with public spectacles – that is, they deployed violence to make an argument to an audience, and in particular, an audience who was being governed.

  • 13 Musurillo 1954. See recently Harker 2008; Rodriguez 2010. A new edition of the Acta Alexandrinorum(...)
  • 14 Musurillo 1972; see the recent edition by Rebillard 2017. See also my discussion in Bryen 2014 wit (...)
  • 15 Collected in van Henten – Avemarie 2002. See also Hayim Lapin’s contribution in this volume.
  • 16 Kessels – Van Der Horst 1987.
  • 17 Hopkins 1993, and more recently Kurke 2011.

7It was this public confrontation between imperial power and provincial subjects that was often picked up by provincial populations as a moment “good to think with”. One might take just a few examples to illustrate the variety of communities and perspectives that used criminal punishment as a way to frame problems of governance. I have already noted the trial scenes in the Greek novels; one could similarly consider the four synoptic Gospels in the same category. One might add to the tally other varieties of courtroom literature, such as the Acta Alexandrinorum, produced, it appears, exclusively in Egypt, recounting the embassies of Alexandrian ambassadors to Roman emperors, and the subsequent failure of those embassies, leading to the execution of the ambassadors themselves.13 The most famous group of such texts, of course, is the Christian Acta Martyrum, some of which take the form of (supposedly) unembellished trial transcripts themselves, while others feature more elaborate versions of interactions between governors, local officials, and Christian martyrs.14 To this tally we can add Jewish accounts of the deaths of rabbis in the face of supposed Hadrianic persecutions.15 These texts are largely well known, but we should likewise include among them compositions like the fourth century CE “Vision of Dorotheus,” preserved exclusively on papyrus: this text presents a conversion narrative wherein Dorotheus, the sinner, is punished by Christ himself – who orders him to be scourged for dereliction of duty. After an extraordinarily violent beating, Christ then restores Dorotheus to health, baptizes him, and has him change his name.16 The story is remarkably triumphant, but clearly takes its origins in the trials of the high Roman world, where judicial violence was understood to produce clarity. We might finally add to the list odd texts such as the Life of Aesop (Vita G), which, though not interested in trials per se, was deeply engaged with questions of legalistic argumentation and its relationship to punishment more generally.17

  • 18 In this context one might compare the remarkable trial stories told by Philostratus about Greek so (...)

8Such a list could be extended, but it will suffice for present purposes as illustrative of the variety of ways that judicial interactions came to occupy an important position in the provincial imagination writ large. A few points are worth noting from the outset. First, thinking about – or by means of – trials is not something necessarily characteristic of a particular region or a particular religion. Jews, Christians, and pagans all worked from the premise that the trial was an important moment in governance, with broadly similar assumptions about its ideal form and content.18 Their understanding of the place of courts in constructing and revealing the nature of sovereignty was, rather, an effect of a particular relation to empire.

9Perhaps more importantly, their emphasis, throughout, is dialogic. That is, these texts emphasized that the trial was a place for communication, rather than simply a place for the processing of malefactors into particular categories. Two examples here will have to suffice. The first is taken not from a trial narrative, but rather, from a protest that a Roman governor, Flaccus, refused to allow any sort of trial at all when destroying the Jewish community of Alexandria:

  • 19 Philo, Flacc. 54, trans. van der Horst.

For only a couple of days later he issued a decree in which he stigmatized us as foreigners and aliens and gave us no right to plead our cause (μηδὲ λόγου μεταδούς) but condemned us without trial. What could be a better promise of further tyrannical behavior than this? He himself became everything: accuser, enemy, witness, judge, and executioner. But he then added to the first two (crimes) a third one, namely, he gave permission to those who wanted to plunder the Jews, as at the sacking of a city.19

  • 20 Bryen 2014 with further references.

10The illegality, on Philo’s logic, stems from Flaccus’ neglect of the proper ritual form for punishment, and the inability of the Jews to have their moment therein. Flaccus, Philo complains, did not offer the Jews any space in which to speak: he simply dictates the rules and the verdict, without going through the trial itself. The expectation, of course, is that even in a courtroom occupied by someone bent on oppression, the opportunity to speak is important. If nothing else, the ability of the Jews to use their own logos will reveal that the one who has formal power acts illegitimately. This emphasis on logos – language, reason, and, eventually, the possibility of dialogue – is hardly unique to Philo, or even to Jews: Christian martyrs similarly emphasized its importance in their own trials.20 Compare to Philo’s account the North African Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs:

Saturninus the proconsul said: You can earn the forgiveness of our lord, the emperor, if you return to your senses.
Speratus said: We have committed no crimes, nor contributed to any act of injustice. We have never cursed anyone, but if we are ill treated, we give thanks; for this reason we give thanks to our emperor.
Saturninus the proconsul said: We too are religious, and our religion is simple: we swear by the genius of our lord the emperor, and we pray for his health. You should do this too.
Speratus said: If you should hear me out quietly, I will tell you a mystery of simplicity.
Saturninus said: I will not listen to you as you speak ill of our sacra; instead, swear by the genius of our lord the emperor… (2-5)

11The injustice, according to this text, is that the trial is ultimately conducted in bad faith: the governor pretends to be interested in dialogue, but in fact only wishes to hear the things that confirm his impressions: if the Christians will not begin with the required acts, then there is no point in hearing their case to begin with. Saturninus’ refusal to test his own beliefs against a rival account of the truth is what marks his violence on this particular occasion as illegitimate.

12Much more can be said in this vein, but will have to be passed over for present purposes. The important takeaway is that provincial populations took the central presumptions of Roman administrators – that trials were a manifestation of sovereignty, and that punishment was the imperial act par excellence – and recoded them in a different way. They conceded that trials manifested sovereignty, and that imperial agents had the power to punish, but they added to those concessions some basic demands for legitimation: that violence happen in a predictable fashion, and only after people were given a hearing. That is, violence was legitimate if and only if it was done with respect for provincial logos; the courtroom, on this reading, was ultimately a space not simply for force, but for reason. And, particularly, for shared reasoning – for dialogue.

Can the provincial speak?

  • 21 In cases 1-6 I work from the text of Poethke – Prignitz – Vaelske 2012, while taking into account (...)

13Given this broader context, the “verdicts” crafted by Philammon are striking. The cast of characters he assembles is to begin with remarkable. Rather than sympathetic characters who seek to make common cause with the governor, he assembles a cast of execrable miscreants: an adulterous woman who kills her lover, possibly due to underhanded pretenses (case 2), a tomb robber (case 3), a man who killed his lover out of jealousy (case 4), a soldier who “had” (slept with? married?) both a mother and a daughter (case 5), someone who did something (no doubt something unpleasant) to a well-dressed woman (case 6), and someone whose particular crime cannot be deciphered (case 1). The final defendant, the Alexandrian nobleman (case 7), is the only one who might have a claim to general respect; however, his crime is nonetheless heinous – the murder of a prostitute. In other words, the characters in the verdicts are crafted to be maximally repellant to an audience. The governor’s reaction to their crimes only serves to confirm the audience’s predisposition to detest them. The case of the tomb robber (case 3) might be taken as exemplary in this regard:21

Against someone who at night dug up a tomb and a body which had been piously buried.
The governor:
You dug up someone whom the city buried at public expense and on whom the city showed mercy. You seem to me to have the character of a beast and not a man – or rather, not even of a beast. For beasts approach humans, but they spare the dead. But you plotted against a body already removed from the human race. What did you desire, to deprive someone already called away of even his final hopes? By Zeus, these (rites?) were the adornments of the laws, they were given by the city – they were given to the dead man, they were sacred. You will therefore await capital punishment (lit., punishment up to your head).

14One might make a series of points about this verdict specifically, but which would apply more generally to all of the cases except that of the Alexandrian councilman. First, the governor is not afraid to show indignation. The comparison to animals, however little grounded in empirical observation, marks this particular malefactor as someone who deserves no mercy; in fact, one might go farther and say that the comparison to animals obviates any need to hear this person’s story at all. The bare facts of the accusation are sufficient grounds already for punishment. Accordingly, in Philammon’s crafting, there is no reason to entertain complex defenses. Second, the normal social architecture of a courtroom – the armies of advocates and witnesses, and the governor’s own consilium of advisors (with whom he was supposed to consult before delivering a verdict) – is nowhere to be found. All that exists is the most primal form of confrontation, between a state and a subject. It is a space where power is at its most unmediated.

  • 22 Cf. Porena 2005, p. 65-92, and below, on case 7.
  • 23 Mart. Polycarp 10; Pass. Perp. 21, 2; Acts of Paul and Thekla 15.

15Third, at the same time, the governor’s references to the “adornments of the laws,” and the city’s judgment upon the dead man more generally, are surely not accidental. Though the governor and the criminal are the only two characters featured on stage, as it were, criminal justice was normatively understood to be carried out in highly public contexts. It involved the participation of audiences as well, and sometimes their relatively robust participation.22 Though the audience is offstage in this interaction, the impression is that the governor seeks to make common cause with them: the tomb robber has violated their wishes. By punishing, he reinforces their authority and autonomy – even though, in criminal matters, they formally had none. State violence, on this reading, is understood as embodying the generalized will of the community. Such a claim, of course, is in keeping with other depictions of trials in the Roman empire: vicious crowds are imagined, in other contexts, to egg the governor on in persecuting Christians, for example.23 The implication in those texts is that the participation of spectators is ultimately part and parcel of the greater injustice. Philammon, however, reverses this assumption: to the extent that the governor reinforces collective morality with brutality, this is worthy of celebration.

16Fourth, in spite of these features of the text, the governor is more than a force of pure violence – that is, he does more than just enforce penalties. Instead, he reflects periodically on his conscience. Thus, in case 4, the governor deals with a case that traffics in the horrific and the pathetic. The defendant is a man who loved his girlfriend so much that, when he caught her with another man, he flew into a rage and murdered her with a sword. When people found out they sought him out, but he escaped, and was eventually found sitting at her tomb, feeling remorse at his actions, which he blamed on desire (ἔρως). One might imagine that this would provoke pity, but the reaction of the governor is different:

  • 24 Poethke – Prignitz – Vaelske 2012 restore [λἐγεις] – “you say that…” which is possible but hardly (...)

The governor:
…the cause24 of the murder you are accused of is mania, caused by the love that weighs you down and your stupidity. As a judge, this influences me. I will allow you to live, working in the mines, so that you remember what you did to her through anger…

17It is, I think, an open question as to whether this is an amelioration of the penalty, or its intensification.

  • 25 E.g., P.Oxy. II 237, vii, 40 (2nd century CE); P.Oxy. XLVI 3304, 7 (301 CE).
  • 26 Poethke – Prignitz – Vaelske 2012 print κ̣ε̣κ̣ρ̣̣ικέναι; van Minnen 2013 doubts this reading witho (...)

18A similar pattern, however, is evident in the case of the soldier (a hastiarius, said to be on the governor’s own staff) who “had” both a mother and a daughter (case 5). The precise charge in this case is not clear, but the governor’s indignation is evident. “Because you are a soldier who carries arms against the enemy you imagined that you could escape the severity of the laws and the power of the judge”. Again, in this respect the governor channels a particularly provincial strain of thinking about violence – the desire to subject one’s enemies to the violence of imperial authorities.25 However, here the governor makes clear that he would prefer not to act violently: “I want to judge26 mildly (φιλανθρωπείαν) but I cannot; just the opposite – your implacability (ἀθελγία) proves the truth of these deeds”. The governor insists, “I am bound by the laws, and compelled by the things that were said”. He accordingly sends the soldier to Cappadocia, stripped of his rank, presumably to be relegated for two years. As in the case of the man compelled by mania, the governor further hopes that the soldier will have time to reflect on his deeds: ἵνα μι[μνησ]κ̣[όμενο]ς̣ τ̣ῶ̣ν̣ σῶν πράξεω̣ν̣ σεαυτὸν̣ […]. To the extent that these scenes are dialogic, then, the dialogue is purely internal to the governor himself.

  • 27 Kanavou – Papathomas 2016, p. 464.

19What is so striking about these cases is the general lack of depth in all of the characters. They are periodically noted to have feelings – thus the soldier is said (by the governor) to be insolent, and the man obsessed with his girlfriend is described as repentant ([μ]ετανοῶν) – but they are never offered the opportunity to articulate them. Only one character in the first six cases has a name – Sophronia (case 2), alleged to have killed her adulterous lover. As Kanavou and Papathomas have pointed out, such a name seems to have been generated a propos of the context.27 They are less people that are being judged than they are fact patterns, ideal types of malefactors.

  • 28 Mart. Pionii 6, 17 (text from Robert 1994).
  • 29 Bryen 2014.
  • 30 Sizgorich 2006, p. 168.

20Most importantly, none of the accused gets to speak. In this respect, the cases crafted by Philammon are very much the inversion of the better-known martyr acts. In the martyr acts, the contest is between a martyr who has access to truth, on the one hand, and the governor, who has only violence. Thus, in the Martyrdom of Pionios, the action is structured by a series of confrontations between Pionios and various representatives of the city of Smyrna, and then finally the governor himself. In each case, Pionios, through witty repartee and knowledge of classical traditions, gets the better of his interlocutors, who, in turn, have to resort to threats of, and eventually the enactment of, violence.28 In a pattern that fits other martyrdom texts, the claim is that language and violence are somehow opposed to one another, and further claims that, to the extent that the government cannot be persuaded by claims of reason, it is to that extent illegitimate.29 Philammon, however, reverses this pattern: in his cases, the governor (along with the anonymous narrator) monopolizes both speech and violence. Speech and violence are not, in his system, so much opposed to one another as they are complementary, and, to the extent that they work in unison, are productive of social order more generally. For Philammon, the governor seems to embody what Tom Sizgorich once called the “distinctively Roman coupling and interpenetration of violence with reason in a ritualized setting”.30 And this seems to be an unabashed good thing.

21At least, this is so in cases 1-6, insofar as we can decipher them. Case 7 seems, at first glance, altogether different: there is a named perpetrator, other actors in the courtroom, the participation of the public, and quoted dialogue. How, then, does case 7 fit the pattern, if at all?

The mute councilor

22Case 7 is by far the longest of the series, and the most specific. It features the case of Diodemos, an Alexandrian citizen and a ranking member of the city council. Diodemos, like other characters in the Aktenbuch, is in love, only in this case with a public prostitute, who remains unnamed throughout the episode. Though he liked to frequent her, one night – for reasons that the text does not articulate – Diodemos murdered her.

  • 31 Kanavou – Papathomas 2016, p. 460 conclude that Zephyrios is socially inferior to the Alexandrian (...)

23The remainder of the action resembles more the Martyrdom of Pionios (and analogous texts) than it does the previous six cases. Immediately after the murder we are introduced to a public spectacle: a man named Zephyrios emerges, though his office is not named. He is obviously imagined to be a local or imperial official of some significance, since he orders that Diodemos be arrested and sent to jail.31 This creates a stir in the city, and (it seems) two groups go to Zephyrios to offer their considerations on the matter. The first group consists of Diodemos’ fellow Alexandrian council members, who come to greet Zephyrios at his salutatio. Seemingly offended that a high-ranking man has been arrested for killing a low-status woman, the councilors request that Diodemos be freed from jail and not forced to stand trial (ἀπολυθῆν̣α̣ι̣ καὶ μηδὲ ὅλως ἀκουσθῆναι αὐτόν). Zephyrios, seemingly overpowered by their collective political weight, agrees to their request even though he thinks it irrational (ἄλογον). His agreement, however, is merely feigned (οὐκ ἀληθής).

  • 32 E.g., Dig. 48, 3, 6, 1.
  • 33 See further Potter 1993.
  • 34 E.g., Philostr. V.S. 490 (Favorinus the sophist taking on the cost of a liturgy before Hadrian jud (...)

24Before introducing the second group that Zephyrios encounters, it is worth pausing over these details. We are in a literary world well known from other texts – the world of pre-trial wrangling with local worthies. These were always suspicious to imperial authorities, who tried periodically to reign in their behaviors.32 They also play feature roles in the Christian martyr acts: thus, in the case of Pionios, they seek to force the accused bishop to simply sacrifice and get the whole matter over with, arguing that it is not worth going through with the trial (since he will surely be killed). At the heart of their worries is not the punishment of a Christian, but the punishment of a high status man like themselves.33 In other words, the local worthies who appear in other texts seem especially concerned with their own privileges, and the same seems to hold here. The better solution, in such cases, was to find some means of saving face – a token gesture that indicated obedience and avoided the spectacle of jurisdiction.34 But the council in this case does not seek such a common ground. Instead, they make an astonishing request: that the apprehended criminal simply be released, and any charges be dropped. Rather than an accommodation with imperial power, they seek plenary power to decide who should and who should not be punished. It is no wonder that Zephyrios thinks their claim “irrational”.

  • 35 E.g., BGU I 22, 15 (114 CE); P.Cair.Isid. 74, 11 (315 CE); P.Flor. I 58, 7 (234 CE).
  • 36 Mart. Lyons 9-10 (Musurillo 1972), refusing to give Christians a trial; Justin Martyr, 2 Apol. 1, (...)

25“Irrational” also had a particular contemporary resonance. On the one hand, it was a word in general circulation: petitioners in Egypt frequently complain that someone else harmed them “irrationally,” or “for no reason,” emphasizing the indefensibility of their opponents’ actions.35 But the word had another valence as well: common in the Christian martyr acts, the word was used to emphasize the illegality of the actions of a particular governor, especially when engaged in the violation of a procedure. Thus, in the Martyrs of Lyon Epagathus charges that the governor’s refusal to provide the Christians with a trial is “irrational”; similarly, Justin Martyr condemns the perfunctory verdict given against Ptolemaios and Lucius in identical terms.36 In other words, claims about rationality were concerned, in other provincial literature concerning trials, with fundamental fairness and procedural safeguards. In Philammon’s trial scenes, however, the rules are reversed: it is not the accused who points out the “irrationality” of those in power, but rather the one in power is the one who also has the power to determine whose requests are rational and whose are not. This, it seems, is a sign that the “verdicts” crafted by Philammon are, in a sense, a commentary on the larger, provincial discourse on trials more generally.

  • 37 The latter solution (proposed by van Minnen 2013) seems to me preferable, if only because it avoid (...)

26Nonetheless, Zephyrios agrees to release Diodemos, though the text is clear that he is seeking a way to avoid following through with this. An opportunity is immediately offered, however, when he encounters a second group of people. Here caution is necessary since the appropriate restorations of the text are controversial. One of two scenarios is possible: (1) Zephyrios is greeted by a crowd of Alexandrian residents who demand that he not release Diodemos; finding an opportunity (πρόφασιν) to renege on his promise, Zephyrios returns to the Alexandrian councilors and charges that a group of “foreigners and provincials” ([ξ]ένοι καὶ ἐπαρ[χιῶ]ται) have learned about the case, and now demand justice; or (2) Zephyrios is greeted by a crowd of Alexandrian citizens (ἔν[δ]ημοι) who, like the councilors, also insist that he release Diodemos. However, sensing an opportunity, Zephyrios returns to the councilors and crafts a shrewd lie, saying that he cannot release Diodemos because “foreigners and provincials” have gotten wind of the case.37 The text becomes fragmentary at this point. Depending on how one reconstructs it, it may be that (1) Zephyrios gives a speech to the Alexandrian councilors in which he quotes things that the “crowd” said to him, namely, that he was obligated to give Diodemos a fair trial; or (2) Zephyrios reports the dissatisfaction of the crowd, and the council agrees to relent, on the condition that Diodemos be given a fair trial.

27However we reconstruct the text, the result is that Diodemos will end up being held responsible for his actions. Accordingly, Diodemos is thus brought forth from the prison. But it appears that the result is either a setup or a huge misunderstanding:

  • 38 I follow the suggestions of Kanavou – Papathomas 2016, ad loc., although they print a slightly dif (...)
  • 39 One might conjecture that the text could support here something like a derivative of ἐξαπατάω.

ὅτε προεναί`χ’θη̣ δ̣38
καὶ ἐξ ἐπα[ c.6 ]39 καὶ νομίζων αὐτὸν
διε̣[γ]γυ[ᾶ]σ̣θαι [. . ὡ]μ̣ολόγσεν πεφονη-
κέναι τὴν πόρνην.
He was then led out and [ ? ] and believing himself to be safe, he confessed to the murder of the prostitute. (7, 5-8)

  • 40 There is controversy both on the restoration and interpretation of διεγγυάω in 7, 7.

28Apparently, the news that Zephyrios had reneged on his promise was not communicated to him; thinking he has been let out (either to be released on bail or getting off scot-free), he admits to his crime.40 However, awaiting him is the mother of the murdered prostitute, an old woman named Theodora, who confronts him, asking that he pay her living expenses now that her daughter is dead. In contrast to Diodemos himself (whose confession is simply reported), Theodora receives a speaking role:

This is the reason why I gave my daughter to the brothel-keeper, so that I should be able to receive sustenance. Since I have been deprived of my means of sustenance by the death of my daughter, I hence ask that I be given the modest allowance required by a weak woman like me (7, 13-18).

29With this, the governor steps in to give his verdict.

30Before turning to the governor, however, a number of things about this interaction should be noted. First, the confession is remarkable, and a further reason to think that Philammon is commenting on existing martyr narratives. The emphasis in the martyr narratives is the confession of the martyrs themselves, given willingly, in the face of great pressure to do the opposite. By contrast, Diodemos’ confession is either tricked out of him, or given without him being formally asked. Importantly, this does not matter: the text betrays no qualms about punishing under such circumstances. All that matters is the confession itself, which, like the Christian confessions, only serves to confirm what everyone in the audience already knows. But rather than a struggle between two parties bearing competing versions of the truth, in our text there is no drama between government and malefactor. A confession simply enables punishment.

31Second, and in a similar vein: unlike in earlier verdicts (cases 1-6), case 7 is filled with dialogue. Zephyrios interacts with the council, which makes its opinions clear. He similarly hears the opinion of the crowd, which he either reports accurately or inaccurately, depending on how we choose to reconstruct the text. Again, depending on how we reconstruct the text, we may even hear from the council a second time. Finally, we hear, in direct speech from the victim’s mother herself, a model of the pitiable victim. The only person whose voice is not actually heard is Diodemos. To the extent that he is heard, all that Philammon actually presents is his confession – the only data point necessary for handling him. In other words, the text offers us the spectacle of a community deciding how to deal with a malefactor, but one in which the malefactor is almost entirely silent. Unlike the competing truth paradigms of the classic Roman trial scene, Philammon offers us a single truth – the guilt of a malefactor – and a set of competing opinions on how to deal with such a person. The question to be debated is not the one asked by the martyr acts, namely, “who is right?” but a different one entirely: “should we punish?” It is not a debate about the ontological status of a detainee (guilty or not) or even about the validity of certain criminal prohibitions, but about the proper deployment of imperial violence in society.

32The governor finally steps in to provide an answer to the question of the deployment of violence. His speech is worth quoting in full (in the translation of Kanavou and Papathomas):

Diodemos, you have slaughtered a woman who showed shameless disrespect for the circumstances of human existence, in that she led an immoral life, but in the end jeopardized her own survival (?). Indeed, you ought to have taken pity upon the wretched woman because when she was still living, she offered herself to anyone who wanted her, as if she were a corpse. For the poverty that was her fate so gravely oppressed her that she sold herself for a shameful price and acquired the notoriety of a prostitute. She was the most pitiful (?) of women, because in life… I am describing her terrible fate. It is now necessary to condemn the perpetrator of the poor prostitute’s murder. I have presented the prostitute’s request (for justice) as a testimony for the living. But so that you may not wish to offend the sanctity of the Council with your actions in the future, I order, as if cleansing the dignity of the city and of the Council (κελεύ̣[ω ὥ]σπερ καθέρων τὴν τῆς πόλεως [καὶ τοῦ] βουλευτερίου κόσμησι[ν]), that you should be executed by the sword as a murderer. As for Theodora, the destitute old woman and mother of the deceased who because of the poverty that bound her, deprived her daughter of her virtue and consequently lost her, she shall inherit one tenth of Diodemos’ assets, as the laws dictate to me, and the requirements of clemency are in harmony with the authority of the law.

33With the governor’s speech, the series of trial/verdict scenes in the codex ends.

34If the debate up until this point was over the acceptability of punishing Diodemos, the governor steps in to solve the issue. He agrees that the prostitute was base (and, implicitly, that Diodemos was of elevated status), but on his telling this should not matter: rather than harm a person farther down the social scale – or even, in the case of a prostitute, someone presumed to be subject to degradation with impunity – Diodemos should have pitied her. In a sense, this reverses normal assumptions about the proper deployment of violence in society, not least the presumptions about the comparative levels of virtue possessed by honestiores and humiliores. If we believe that the objection of the crowd, earlier in the text, was that they wished to see Diodemos punished (rather than released), then such a statement serves to vindicate their wishes. But they are not the only audience that the governor placates: the council, too, benefits from the punishment of Diodemos. By punishing him, he ensures that Diodemos will never again offend the sanctity of the council. In contrast to what the council has earlier suggested (namely, that punishment of Diodemos would have diminished their status), the governor now asserts the opposite: that his violence instead purifies the council and restores their status in the city. Finally, punishment restores the status of Theodora, the poor mother. (It should be noted that the reward – one tenth of Diodemos’ estate – seems to be vastly more than the pittance – ὀλίγα πρὸς διατροφήν – that she requested.)

  • 41 Smith 2013, p. 112.

35In other words, the governor – and his attendant violence – resolves all of the issues in this short drama. To use a tired modern phrase, punishment brings closure. It alone is capable of restoring order and reconciling the various parties and their perspectives. The governor also gets the last word: the dialogue that shaped the earlier phases of the case has now resolved itself into a monologue, a combination of reason/speech (λόγος) and violence that, when conjoined, suffice to manage social disorder. This frenzy of sovereign violence resembles, in its presumptions, something like the celebration of Roman power in the reliefs of the Aphrodisias Sebasteion, where emperors in heroic nudity celebrate their victories over pitiable captives. In contrast to the Sebasteion, however, which commemorates imperial victory by portraying “units of imperial conquest, not of provincial administration,” in Philammon’s text attention is on provincial administration itself.41 Instead of victory, it celebrates punishment. And it celebrates it not through the register of myth, but through the register of law – another, analogous register through which one could speak about power.

Coda: thinking about tribunals, imperially and provincially

36As jurisdiction came, increasingly, to serve as a generative metaphor for understanding the content and boundaries of Roman rule, it inevitably produced distinct reactions. Philammon’s text is perhaps unique in the way that it sought to intervene in a broader, public conversation about the nature of such power, and in the degree to which it situates itself within a matrix of intertexts that came to different conclusions about the nature of Roman justice. But it is nonetheless significant that there was a conversation to be had in the first place. For Roman administrators, jurisdiction was something that just was part of an imperial habitus, performed out of necessity and expressive of imperial maiestas. Provincial populations, throughout the Roman east, took something that came naturally to their imperial masters and denaturalized it, calling it into question and using it as a way to probe the nature of sovereignty. In the process they came to different conclusions: sovereignty could be, for some, tenuous and problematic; for others, like Philammon, it could be a matter to be celebrated, to be expressed not in dialogues that groped towards mutual comprehension but in rhetorical monologues that confidently separated right from wrong.

37It should be added, I think, that the side one found oneself on in such a debate related less to one’s region, religion, or actual position on the social hierarchy than to one’s self-understood relation to imperial power itself. That said, the conversation which I have tried to reconstruct in this essay – between rival ways of conceiving of the courtroom – is itself something of a map of the diversity of local self-perceptions within an empire. We would do well to continue to chart these diverse legal subjectivities, in all of their complexity, and in accordance with the various ways in which they pattern – not according to our own categories of analysis, but according to theirs.


Bryen 2012 = A. Bryen, Judging Empire: Courts and Culture in Rome’s Eastern Provinces, in Law and History Review, 30, 2012, p. 771-811.

Bryen 2014 = A. Bryen, Martyrdom, Rhetoric, and the Politics of Judicial Procedure, in Classical Antiquity, 33, 2014, p. 243-280.

Bryen forthcoming = A. Bryen, Imagining Criminals in the Roman Provinces, in A. Lanni (ed.), A Cultural History of Crime, vol. 1, Antiquity, London, forthcoming.

Coleman 1990 = K. Coleman, Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments, in Journal of Roman Studies, 80, 1990, p. 44-73.

Gager 1992 = J. Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, New York, 1992.

Gleason 1999 = M. Gleason, Truth Contests and Talking Corpses, in J.I. Porter (ed.), Constructions of the Classical Body, Ann Arbor, 1999, p. 287-313.

Halberstam 2014 = C. Halberstam, Justice without Judgment: Pure Procedural Justice and the Divine Courtroom in Sifre Deuteronomy, in A. Mermelstein, S.E. Holtz (ed.), The Divine Courtroom in Comparative Perspective, Leiden, 2014, p. 49-68.

Harker 2008 = A. Harker, Loyalty and Dissidence in Roman Egypt: The Case of the Acta Alexandrinorum, Cambridge, 2008.

Hayes 2015 = C. Hayes, What’s Divine about Divine Law? Early Perspectives, Princeton, 2015.

Hillner 2015 = J. Hillner, Prison, Punishment, and Penance in Late Antiquity, Cambridge, 2015.

Hopkins 1993 = K. Hopkins, Novel Evidence for Roman Slavery, in Past & Present, 138, 1993, p. 3-27.

Kanavou – Papathomas 2016 = N. Kanavou, A. Papathomas, An Alexandrian Murder Case Revisited (P. Philammon = BGU IV 1024, pp. 6.3–8.21), in ZPE, 200, 2016, p. 453-469.

Karambelas 2013 = D. Karambelas, Synēgoroi as ‘Healers’ in the Social Imagination of the Imperial Age, in C. Kremmydas, J. Powell, L. Rubinstein, Profession and Performance: Aspects of Oratory in the Greco-Roman World, London, 2013, p. 73-98.

Keenan 1989 = J. Keenan, Roman Criminal Law in a Berlin Papyrus Codex (BGU IV 1024-1027), in Archiv für Papyrus-forschung, 35, 1989, p. 15-23.

Kessels – van der Horst 1987 = A. Kessels, P. van der Horst, The Vision of Dorotheus (Pap. Bodmer 29): Edited with Introduction, Translation, and Notes, in Vigiliae Christianae, 41, 1987, p. 313-359.

Kurke 2011 = L. Kurke, Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose, Princeton, 2011.

Millar 1977 = F. Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World, 31 BC - AD 337, Ithaca, 1977.

Millar 2004 = F. Millar, Condemnation to Hard Labour in the Roman Empire, from the Julio-Claudians to Constantine, in H. Cotton, G. Rogers (ed.), Rome, the Greek World, and the East, vol. II, Government, Society, and Culture in the Roman Empire, Chapel Hill, 2004, p. 120-150.

Musurillo 1954 = H. Musurillo, The Acts of the Pagan Martyrs: Acta Alexandrinorum, Oxford, 1954.

Musurillo 1972 = H. Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, Oxford, 1972.

Peachin 2007 = M. Peachin, Attacken und Erniedrigungen als alltägliche Elemente der kaiserzeitlichen Regierungspraxis, in R. Haensch, J. Heinrichs (ed.), Herrschen und Verwalten: Der Alltag der römischen Administration in der Hohen Kaiserzeit, Köln, 2007, p. 117-125.

Poethke – Prignitz – Vaelske 2012 = G. Poethke, S. Prignitz, V. Vaelske, Das Aktenbuch des Aurelios Philammon: Prozessberichte, Annona Militaris und Magie in BGU IV 1024-1027, Berlin, 2012.

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1 Keenan 1989.

2 Poethke – Prignitz – Vaelske 2012.

3 Kanavou – Papathomas 2016.

4 See now Schwartz 2017.

5 On the emperor as responsible judge, the classic treatment is Millar 1977, p. 228-240; see more recently Tuori 2016.

6 Bryen 2014.

7 Bryen forthcoming.

8 Novels: Schwartz 2017. Letters: e.g., P.Bagnall 7 (1st-3rd centuries CE); P.Brem. 18 (113-120 CE); P.Oxy. LXXIII 4960 (2nd century CE). Curses: Gager 1992, p. 116-150. Dreams: Shaw 2003, Karambelas 2013.

9 Essential literature: Coleman 1990; Gleason 1999.

10 Appian, B.C. 1, 14, 120. Cf. the behavior of G. Ummidius Quadratus in dealing with unrest in Judea: Josephus, B.J. 2, 241-244.

11 E.g., Cicero, Verr. 2, 5, 7; Suetonius, Galb. 9; Pliny, Ep. 10, 96; see further Bryen 2012. Two forthcoming books will hopefully add much to the discussion: Michael Peachin’s A Roman World of Abuse, and Kathleen Coleman’s Roman Public Executions to A.D. 200. See, for now, Peachin 2007. Torture: Pölönen 2004. Enslavement: Millar 2004. Imprisonment: Torallas-Tovar 2006, Hillner 2015.

12 Gleason 1999. It seems, moreover, that such an ideology reached relatively far down the social hierarchy. Cf. the remarkable “trial” of mutinous soldiers in Tacitus, Ann. 1, 44.

13 Musurillo 1954. See recently Harker 2008; Rodriguez 2010. A new edition of the Acta Alexandrinorum has recently been published (Vega-Navarette 2017); it will be the standard for subsequent work.

14 Musurillo 1972; see the recent edition by Rebillard 2017. See also my discussion in Bryen 2014 with further bibliography.

15 Collected in van Henten – Avemarie 2002. See also Hayim Lapin’s contribution in this volume.

16 Kessels – Van Der Horst 1987.

17 Hopkins 1993, and more recently Kurke 2011.

18 In this context one might compare the remarkable trial stories told by Philostratus about Greek sophists (e.g., V.S. 559-562), or even about Apollonius of Tyana (e.g., V.Ap. 7, 14 and passim). Philostratus nonetheless had his own interests in the way he crafted such stories, coming to largely different conclusions from the bulk of the provincial trial texts. I similarly place to one side the sorts of theological conclusions such texts might draw. On such matters, see Halberstam 2014; Hayes 2015.

19 Philo, Flacc. 54, trans. van der Horst.

20 Bryen 2014 with further references.

21 In cases 1-6 I work from the text of Poethke – Prignitz – Vaelske 2012, while taking into account (where necessary) the re-readings and comments of van Minnen 2013. In case 7 I work from the text and translation of Kanavou – Papathomas 2016.

22 Cf. Porena 2005, p. 65-92, and below, on case 7.

23 Mart. Polycarp 10; Pass. Perp. 21, 2; Acts of Paul and Thekla 15.

24 Poethke – Prignitz – Vaelske 2012 restore [λἐγεις] – “you say that…” which is possible but hardly certain. See further below.

25 E.g., P.Oxy. II 237, vii, 40 (2nd century CE); P.Oxy. XLVI 3304, 7 (301 CE).

26 Poethke – Prignitz – Vaelske 2012 print κ̣ε̣κ̣ρ̣̣ικέναι; van Minnen 2013 doubts this reading without suggesting an alternative.

27 Kanavou – Papathomas 2016, p. 464.

28 Mart. Pionii 6, 17 (text from Robert 1994).

29 Bryen 2014.

30 Sizgorich 2006, p. 168.

31 Kanavou – Papathomas 2016, p. 460 conclude that Zephyrios is socially inferior to the Alexandrian councilors since he obeys them. I am not as sure that this follows. Imperial officials would have taken the collective weight of local aristocrats very seriously, even if formally more powerful.

32 E.g., Dig. 48, 3, 6, 1.

33 See further Potter 1993.

34 E.g., Philostr. V.S. 490 (Favorinus the sophist taking on the cost of a liturgy before Hadrian judges that he must accept it).

35 E.g., BGU I 22, 15 (114 CE); P.Cair.Isid. 74, 11 (315 CE); P.Flor. I 58, 7 (234 CE).

36 Mart. Lyons 9-10 (Musurillo 1972), refusing to give Christians a trial; Justin Martyr, 2 Apol. 1, 1.

37 The latter solution (proposed by van Minnen 2013) seems to me preferable, if only because it avoids having to restore <μἡ> in line 20.

38 I follow the suggestions of Kanavou – Papathomas 2016, ad loc., although they print a slightly different text.

39 One might conjecture that the text could support here something like a derivative of ἐξαπατάω.

40 There is controversy both on the restoration and interpretation of διεγγυάω in 7, 7.

41 Smith 2013, p. 112.


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