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date: 25 October 2020

lex Claudia, 218 BCE

Sometimes referred to in scholarship as the plebiscitum Claudianum, the lex Claudia prohibited senators and their sons from possessing seafaring ships capable of carrying more than 300 amphorae. The only source that discusses the law is Livy (21.63.3–4). Livy reports that the law was proposed by a tribunus plebis, Q. Claudius, about whom nothing more is known. According to Livy, the consul-elect C. Flaminius(1) was the only senator to support the bill. Despite the bitter opposition of the senate, the law was nevertheless enacted (res per summam contentionem acta). Livy remarks that Flaminius’s support for the law generated hostility among the senators but won him the favour of the plebs and then a second consulship, which he began in 217 bce. Flaminius’s first consulship had been in 223 bce (with its own controversy), and he had served as censor in 220–219. The periocha of Livy, Book 20 indicates that the details of his censorship were covered in that book, including the reorganization of the libertini across the four urban tribes and the construction of both the Circus Flaminius and Via Flaminia. Also included was the establishment of colonies at Placentia (modern Piacenza) and Cremona, in which Flaminius likely was involved.1 The periocha makes no reference to the lex Claudia. The provision may have originally been part of Flaminius’s censorial edict—setting out, among other things, circumstances disqualifying individuals from membership in the senate—and then given permanent effect by passage of the statute.2 Yet Livy’s description of the law in Book 21 as noua lex tells against this; it at least seems unlikely that he had previously discussed the provision in the context of Flaminius’s censorship. That leaves a window between Flaminius’s completion of his censorial duties and his election to a second consulship (late 219 to January 217 bce, Livy 21.57.4), so a date in mid to late 218 seems probable for its enactment.

According to Livy, the law prohibited senators and the sons of senators from possessing seafaring ships capable of carrying cargo more than 300 amphorae (ne quis senator cuiue senator pater fuisset maritimam nauem quae plus quam trecentarum amphorarum esset haberet). Livy seems to preserve the original provision relatively faithfully, since his wording finds a close parallel in the lex repetundarum from the time of C. Sempronius Gracchus at the end of a list of magistrates who might face charges under that law: queiue filius eorum quoius erit, quoius pater senator siet (“or the son of any of these [listed magistrates] whose father is a senator”) (Crawford 1.1.2).3 Moreover, juristic evidence (Paulus, Sent. Leiden fr. 3.5–6 and Scaevola Dig. 50.5.3) indicates that the phrase nauem habere occurred in the lex Iulia de repetundis (59 bce), confirming that it is good legislative language and not a Livian simplification or coinage. Livy then adds two phrases explaining the terms and motivations of the law: first, that the upper limit of 300 amphorae was considered sufficient for transporting the produce of estates (id satis habitum ad fructus ex agris uectandos), and second, that all profit-seeking enterprises seemed unbecoming for senators (quaestus omnis patribus indecorus uisus). Despite, or even due to, the apparent straightforwardness of Livy’s version of the provision, there has been much debate about its meaning, purpose, and effect.

Livy does not relate what penalty, if any, the law imposed. Some have suggested that it was a lex imperfecta, carrying only a moral sanction such as a nota censoria.4 This would be consistent with the provision’s possible origins in Flaminius’s censorial edict, though in transmitted accounts of senatorial lectiones there is no evidence of a nota censoria resulting from a senator’s commercial activities.5 A stronger penalty cannot, however, be ruled out: Cicero recalls a time when the courts were so strict that the charge of owning such a ship was considered a serious accusation (Verr. 2.5.45). This may suggest that the law did carry stronger penalties.6

On the basis of both the language in the Gracchan lex repetundarum and Paulus’s statement that the provisions of the lex Iulia de repetundis applied to “senators or their parents in whose power they are” (senatores parentesue eorum, in quorum potestate sunt, Paulus, Sent. Leiden fr. 3.4–5), it has been suggested that under the lex Claudia “anyone who has a senator as father” refers only to those in potestate of a senator.7 It has been rightly noted, however, that nothing in the Gracchan law requires limiting its provision to sons in potestate, and the terms of the lex Iulia de repetundis refer rather to senators who are themselves still in potestate by extending the prohibitions to their parents rather than to their sons.8 Furthermore, legally sons in potestate could not own or commercially exploit property in their own right, so there would be no need to make separate provision for them.

The phrase nauem habere has been interpreted as a prohibition against ownership of seafaring ships, or against possession and use of such ships through other means (e.g., a contract for hire), or against equipping such ships for economic use as a nauis exercitor, the primary beneficiary of the earnings of a ship even though a slave or a son in potestate might be in charge of the ship’s daily operations (Gaius Inst. 4.71).9 There are problems with this third interpretation. It requires a strained understanding of the verb habere. More importantly, it elides the fact of ownership or possession with the economic purpose of that ownership or possession. In doing so, this interpretation confuses the meaning of the language of the prohibition with its legislative purpose. While the law’s purpose may be to prevent senators and their sons from making money by exploiting a ship, because owning or possessing that ship is a precondition for its commercial exploitation, the law achieves its purpose simply by prohibiting the ownership or possession of that ship.

Of Livy’s two explanatory phrases, the first concerns specifically the limitation on the size of ships. Evidence from shipwrecks contemporary with the law and estimates for the production of wine suggest in fact that the 300-amphora limit (approximately 11.5 tonnes) was as low as reasonably possible while still allowing the exploitation of estate yields.10 Livy’s second explanation offers a general rationale for the law, but there is significant debate about whether it belongs to the law itself or is a later interpretation by Livy or his sources. So, for example, it has been suggested that Livy reproduces or paraphrases wording either from the contio in which Claudius proposed the law or from the law itself.11 The phrase has, however, been challenged as an anachronistic interpretation by Livy or his sources.12 Evidence from the contemporary elogium of L. Caecilius Metellus (consul in 251 bce), which praised him for increasing his wealth in a proper way (pecuniam magnam bono modo inuenire, Plin. HN. 7.140), suggests that the acquisition of wealth was not considered per se unseemly. Additionally, the law does not prohibit all money-making activities, only those that require ownership of large seafaring vessels, nor does it prevent indirect engagement in mercantile trade through, for example, the use of client or freedmen agents or the formation of societates.13 Indeed, the elder Cato (1) formed precisely such societates and used freedmen agents to provide maritime loans (Plut. Cat. Mai. 21.6). Even the most generous estimates of the market for wheat, wine, and olive oil among the urban population of Italy indicate that the potential profits from agricultural activities were not substantial if one was limited only to this market, so it is probable that senators were participating in other money-making enterprises.14 Epigraphic evidence from stamped amphorae indicates that members of the senatorial order were engaged in commerce through the export of wine.15 More generally, it has been argued that Roman attitudes to mercantile trade were more open than Livy’s assertion allows, especially in the late 3rd and early 2nd centuries.16

Much of the scholarly discussion of the law has sought to locate it within the political and economic climate of the period—not unreasonably, since Livy cites the law as a further reason for the animosity felt by the senate towards Flaminius rather than as a point of legislative interest.17 While it seems likely that Livy has exaggerated the extent of Flaminius’s isolation (an exaggeration attributable to Livy’s source, Fabius Pictor, who will have been hostile to Flaminius), some senatorial opposition to the provision must have existed, further suggesting senatorial engagement in such maritime commerce.18

One interpretation sees the law as an ultimately conservative act of senatorial self-definition, an assertion of an aristocratic ideal that prioritises governance over economic gain by prohibiting the financial exploitation of a position of political authority.19 Alternatively, the law has been construed as a reaffirmation of the conservative ideal of a land-owning aristocracy and a rejection of the pursuit of profits at sea, an inherently risky activity with the potential to destabilise Roman society’s division into ordines by wiping out a senator’s wealth and thus depriving him of the basis for his social standing.20 According to some scholars, the provision was designed to exclude senators from maritime commerce in order to protect the economic interests of a burgeoning business elite, albeit at the cost of the latter’s potential political careers.21 For others, the law was aimed precisely at this business elite in order to prevent them from gaining access to political power, and was thus a means of containing the political influence of those senators who collaborated with them in commercial enterprises.22 Despite their differing emphases, these interpretations all indicate that the law, whether intentionally or not, constituted an important step in the separation of the senatorial order from those who would within the next hundred years become the equites.23

The historical context of the law’s passage—after the creation of the first provinces, Sicily and Sardinia, and at a time when Rome was increasingly engaged in military campaigns outside Italy—suggests that the law’s purpose may have been administrative. One result of its prohibition will have been to prevent senators from directly undertaking public contracts for importing grain or providing military supplies, because such operations will have required ships much larger than those allowed by the law.24 It may have thus constituted one of a growing number of legislative measures restricting the extent to which senators could have interests, particularly commercial interests, outside Italy.25 In this regard, it is perhaps important that the provision is later re-enacted as part of the lex Iulia de repetundis precisely in conjunction with a prohibition against senators undertaking public contracts (Paulus, Sent. Leiden fr. 3.5–6).26 On the other hand, it should be noted that although around the same time senators seem to have been excluded from undertaking public contracts, there is no evidence that the lex Claudia itself contained such a provision.27

The law has left little trace in the historical record, though it was never repealed.28 It is apparent that senators found ways around the law in order to engage in and profit from maritime commercial activities, but it is less clear that they directly contravened the prohibition on ship size. The passage of Cicero where he imagines that Hortensius will have to argue that the laws forbidding senators from owning ships are “ancient and dead letters” (antiquae sunt istae leges et mortuae, Verr. 2.5.45) is often cited as evidence of the law’s desuetude. In fact, Cicero’s reference to the law may rather indicate that the prohibition had been enforced in the past and even in 70 bce amounted to an answerable charge.29 The connection between the case (a repetundae trial) and the law is certainly suggestive for those who would see a connection between the lex Claudia and the governance of the provinces, especially since the prohibition was not long afterward incorporated precisely into the lex Iulia de repetundis in 59 bce. In the later law, the specific size limit was omitted and replaced by a prohibition against owning a ship “for the purpose of making money” (nauem in quaestum habere, Paulus, Sent. Leiden fr. 3.5–6). This may suggest that the size limit was out of date because estates had grown so large that transporting their products required larger ships.30 It may, however, reflect the different legislative purposes and/or ethical contexts of the two laws.31

Overall, the law’s prohibition against the possession of large ships theoretically impeded the senatorial order from engaging directly in large-scale maritime commercial activities, but it is clear that senators nevertheless found ways to make money through trade. The law’s longevity and subsequent re-enactment, albeit in slightly modified form, suggest a normative force—one that ultimately contributed to social, if not economic, distinctions that subsequently developed between senators and the other wealthy elites in Rome.


Cassola, Filippo. I gruppi politici romani nel III secolo a.C. Istituto di Storia Antica 2. Trieste: Smolars, 1962. See pp. 215–218.Find this resource:

Clemente, Guido. “Il plebiscito Claudio e le classi dirigenti romane nell’età dell’imperialismo.” Ktema 8 (1983): 253–259.Find this resource:

Coudry, Marianne. “Loi Claudia interdisant aux sénateurs la possession d’un navire de plus de 300 amphores (pl. sc.).” In Lepor: Leges populi romani. Edited by Jean-Louis Ferraryand Philippe Moreau. Paris: IRHT-TELMA, 2014.Find this resource:

Crawford, M. H. Roman Statutes. BICS Supplement 64. 2 vols. London: Institute of Classical Studies, 1996.Find this resource:

D’Arms, John H. Commerce and Social Standing in Ancient Rome. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. See 20–47.Find this resource:

Domínguez Pérez, Juan Carlos. “La lex Claudia de nave senatorum a la luz de la epigrafía latina sobre ánforas Greco-Itálicas arcaicas.” Polis: Revista de ideas y formas politicas de la Antigüedad Clásica 17 (2005): 73–96.Find this resource:

Feig Vishnia, Rachel. State, Society and Popular Leaders in Mid-Republican Rome 241–167 BC. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. See pp. 34–48.Find this resource:

Gabba, Emilio. “Ricchezza e classe dirigente romana fra III e I sec. a.C.” Rivista Storica Italiana 93.3 (1981): 541–558.Find this resource:

Guarino, Antonio. “Quaestus omnis patribus indecorus.” Labeo 28.1 (1982): 7–16.Find this resource:

Magdelain, Blanche. “Suasor legis, le vote du plebiscite Claudien.” Fundamina 20 (2014): 571–585.Find this resource:

Nicolet, Claude. “Économie, société et institutions au IIe siècle av. J.-C.: De la lex Claudia à l’ager exceptus.” Annales (ESC) 35.5 (1980): 871–894.Find this resource:

Prag, Jonathan R. W. “Antiquae sunt istae leges et mortuae: the plebiscitum Claudianum and associated laws.” Mélanges de l’école française de Rome 128.1 (2016).Find this resource:

Rosenstein, Nathan. “Aristocrats and Agriculture in the Middle and Late Republic.” Journal of Roman Studies 98 (2008): 1–26.Find this resource:

Tchernia, André. “Le plebiscitum Claudianum.” In Les Romains et le commerce. Edited by André Tchernia, 199–228. Centre Jean Bérard Études 8. Naples: Centre Jean Bérard, 2011.Find this resource:

Venturini, Carlo. “Senatori e navi dal plebiscito Claudio alla lex Iulia repetundarum: Qualche rilievo.” In Scritti in onore di Generoso Melillo. Edited by Antonio Palma, vol. 3, 1459–1471. Naples: Satura, 2009.Find this resource:

Yavetz, Z. “The Policy of C. Flaminius and the plebiscitum Claudianum.” Athenaeum 40 (1962): 325–344.Find this resource:


(1.) Z. Yavetz, “The Policy of C. Flaminius and the plebiscitum Claudianum,” Athenaeum 40 (1962): 325–344, esp. 339–340.

(2.) Blanche Magdelain, “Suasor legis, le vote du plebiscite Claudien,” Fundamina 20 (2014): 571–585, esp. 580–581.

(3.) Claude Nicolet, “Économie, société et institutions au IIe siècle av. J.-C.: De la lex Claudia à l’ager exceptus,” Annales (ESC) 35.5 (1980): 871–894, esp. 879; and Antonio Guarino, “Quaestus omnis patribus indecorus,” Labeo 28.1 (1982): 7–16, esp. 9.

(4.) Guarino, “Quaestus,” 8; Carlo Venturini, “Senatori e navi dal plebiscito Claudio alla lex Iulia repetundarum: Qualche rilievo,” in Scritti in onore di Generoso Melillo, ed. Antonio Palma, (Naples: Satura, 2009), vol. 3, 1469–1471; and Nicolet, “Économie, société,” 879.

(5.) Guido Clemente, “Il plebiscito Claudio e le classi dirigenti romane nell’età dell’imperialismo,” Ktema 8 (1983): 253–259, esp. 256.

(6.) Nicolet, “Économie, société,” 879; Marianne Coudry, “Loi Claudia interdisant aux sénateurs la possession d’un navire de plus de 300 amphores (pl. sc.),” in Lepor: Leges Populi Romani, eds. Jean-Louis Ferrary and Philippe Moreau (Paris: IRHT-TELMA, 2014); and Jonathan R. W. Prag, “Antiquae sunt istae leges et mortuae: the plebiscitum Claudianum and associated laws,” Mélanges de l’école française de Rome 128.1 (2016).

(7.) Guarino, “Quaestus,” 10.

(8.) Venturini, “Senatori e navi,” 1463–1465; and Coudry, “Loi Claudia.”

(9.) See Guarino, “Quaestus,” 9–10, and Venturini, “Senatori e navi,” 1462, for arguments in favour of the interpretation that the law prohibits activities associated with a nauis exercitor.

(10.) André Tchernia, “Le plebiscitum Claudianum,” in Les Romains et le commerce, ed. André Tchernia (Centre Jean Bérard Études 8; Naples: Centre Jean Bérard, 2011), 201–206; see also Nathan Rosenstein, “Aristocrats and Agriculture in the Middle and Late Republic,” Journal of Roman Studies 98 (2008): 1–26, esp. 16 with n. 75.

(11.) See Tchernia, “Le plebiscitum Claudianum,” 201 and 217, for the contio; see Nicolet, “Économie, société,” 879, for the law itself.

(12.) Clemente, “Il plebiscito Claudio,” 254–255; Guarino, “Quaestus,” 11–12; Emilio Gabba, “Ricchezza e classe dirigente romana fra III e I sec. a.C.,” Rivista Storica Italiana 93.3 (1981): 541–558, esp. 546–547; and Magdelain, “Suasor legis,” 579.

(13.) Filippo Cassola, I gruppi politici romani nel III secolo a.C. (Istituto di Storia Antica 2; Trieste: Smolars, 1962), 217; and Rachel Feig Vishnia, State, Society and Popular Leaders in Mid-Republican Rome 241–167 BC (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 36.

(14.) Rosenstein, “Aristocrats and Agriculture,” esp. 10–11 for the market in the Middle Republic, 13–14 for the Late Republic, and 19–21 for other money-making pursuits.

(15.) On the epigraphic evidence, see Juan Carlos Domínguez Pérez, “La lex Claudia de nave senatorum a la luz de la epigrafía latina sobre ánforas Greco-Itálicas arcaicas,” Polis: Revista de ideas y formas politicas de la Antigüedad Clásica 17 (2005): 73–96.

(16.) John H. D’Arms, Commerce and Social Standing in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 20–31.

(17.) See Cassola, I gruppi politici, 216, and Yavetz, “Policy of C. Flaminius,” 325–327, for summaries of late 19th- and early-20th-century interpretations.

(18.) Cassola, I gruppi politici, 218; D’Arms, Commerce and Social Standing, 33–34; Feig Vishnia, State, Society, 40; Rosenstein, “Aristocrats and Agriculture,” 19–20; Venturini, “Senatori e navi,” 1466; and Coudry, “Loi Claudia.”

(19.) Nicolet, “Économie, société,” 879–882; cf. Guarino, “Quaestus,” 9 and 12–14, who argues that the law was one of a number of measures aiming to redirect senatorial attention away from distractions and back towards their proper role of governance in the emerging crisis of the Second Punic War.

(20.) Gabba, “Ricchezza,” 548–550; D’Arms, Commerce and Social Standing, 32–33.

(21.) Yavetz, “Policy of C. Flaminius,” 342–343.

(22.) Cassola, I gruppi politici, 217–218.

(23.) Yavetz, “Policy of C. Flaminius,” 342–343; Cassola, I gruppi politici, 217–218; Gabba, “Ricchezza,” 550–551; and Guarino, “Quaestus,” 9.

(24.) Nicolet, “Économie, société,” 880; Feig Vishnia, State, Society, 39–43; Tchernia, “Le plebiscitum Claudianum,” 210–212; and Magdelain, “Suasor legis,” 577–581.

(25.) Prag, “Antiquae sunt istae leges.”

(26.) Nicolet, “Économie, société,” 879; Clemente, “Il plebiscito Claudio,” 258; Magdelain, “Suasor legis,” 578; Coudry, “Loi Claudia”; Prag, “Antiquae sunt istae leges”; but see Gabba, “Ricchezza,” 547, who argues that the prohibition against senators’ holding public contracts dates to the Gracchan period, and Guarino, “Quaestus,” 11–12, for the view against seeing the lex Claudia as a kind of embryonic lex repetundarum, since there is nothing to suggest the establishment of a quaestio and there were only two provinces at this point.

(27.) Yavetz, “Policy of C. Flaminius,” 341; Clemente, “Il plebiscito Claudio,” 258; Coudry, “Loi Claudia,” notes that if the purpose of the lex Claudia was to exclude senators from public contracts, Livy might have been expected to have noted that; Magdelain, “Suasor legis,” 578, and Prag, “Antiquae sunt istae leges,” posit a separate law against senators’ undertaking state contracts, while Guarino, “Quaestus,” 14, argues that the prohibition will have been established and enforced through the edicts of the censors since they were in charge of letting public contracts.

(28.) Guarino, “Quaestus,” 8, argues that because the law was a lex imperfecta and its passage was tied closely to the circumstances of the Second Punic War, its provisions were quickly forgotten once the crisis had passed; but see Clemente, “Il plebiscito Claudio,” 259, who asserts the importance of the fact that the law was never abrogated.

(29.) Tchernia, “Le plebiscitum Claudianum,” 208–209; Coudry, “Loi Claudia”; and Prag, “Antiquae sunt istae leges.”

(30.) Tchernia, “Le plebiscitum Claudianum,” 208; but see Rosenstein, “Aristocrats and Agriculture,” esp. 7–8 and 23–24, on the actual extent (and potential profitability) of estates in both the mid and late Republic.

(31.) Gabba, “Ricchezza,” 546.

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