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date: 22 October 2020

lex de imperio Vespasiani

The Lex de imperio Vespasiani (CIL VI 930, 31207=ILS 244) is an epigraphic text on a bronze tablet, now partially lost, containing part of a law that granted some or all powers of the emperor to Vespasian in the year 70 ce.1 The text appears to be a piece of comitial legislation. The extant text is on a large bronze tablet discovered by Cola di Rienzo in the 14th century and currently held at the Musei Capitolini in Rome. The text is fragmentary: because there is no introduction to the text, it is assumed that there would have been another tablet preceding the surviving one. Whether Cola di Rienzo saw the missing tablet is disputed. The commonly used title of the law is a modern reconstruction. The law was promulgated in Rome in January, before Vespasian had arrived from Alexandria.2

The surviving text of the law contains eight clauses and a sanction. The beginning of the text is missing, including the preamble.3 The extant text begins by listing what Vespasian is lawfully allowed to do and stating any precedents from earlier reigns for each right. He may (a) make treaties (like Augustus, Tiberius and Claudius); (b) hold a session of the Senate and propose motions to the Senate (like Tiberius and Claudius); (c) hold extraordinary sessions of the Senate, and their decisions have the power of law (no precedent is cited here); (d) endorse candidates in elections (no precedent); and (e) extend the pomerium (like Tiberius). Then comes the most disputed part, the sixth clause, also known as the first discretionary clause, which gives an ambiguous blanket authorization (like Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius). The text continues that (f) the emperor is not bound by laws, and what was permitted by law for his predecessors, he shall also be permitted to do (like Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius); and (g) what he had done before the enactment of this law is also lawful and binding.

Many traditional powers of the emperor are missing from the extant text of the law, such as a reference to the emperor as judge, the tribunicia potestas, and the imperium proconsulare.4 Clause six, the first of the discretionary clauses, is heavily debated due to its obscurity: it maintains that Vespasian has the right and power to do whatever he considers to be in accordance with the public interest and dignity (maiestate) in divine, human, public, and private matters (ll. 17‒19). Whether it was an emergency clause or a clause raising the emperor above the law is debatable, and many competing theories have been presented. The sixth clause simultaneously grants a blanket authorization and prohibits actions that are unprecedented. In short, everything is possible unless done for the first time.

Another great debate is whether the law was a restatement of the customary powers and duties of the emperor, or if it granted new powers to Vespasian. This issue is linked with the question of whether it was unique, or whether there were other laws conferring rights to successive emperors (the tralatician theory). This would have depended on whether precedents were mentioned or not mentioned in the law for certain rights.5

It has been suggested that the motivation of the law was to stabilize the rule of Vespasian on a legal basis after the Julio-Claudian dynasty and its fall.6 However, how the idea that law could limit or bind an emperor may be combined with the fact that emperors were often considered unfettered by law (Seneca Ad Pol. 7.2, Clem. 1.1‒3) is hard to say.7 Others have said that the law sought to regulate the actions of the emperor by presenting him with worthy examples.8 How the law is linked with the later references to lex regia (Gai. Inst. 1.5; Dig. 1.4.1; Cod. Iust. 6.23.3; Inst. Iust. 1.2.6; Const. Deo auctore 7), granting powers to the emperor, is not known. Recent scholarship has drawn parallels between the law and the exemplarity of historical accounts of good governance in defining acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.9


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Mantovani, Dario. “Le clausole ‘senza precedenti’ della Lex de imperio Vespasiani.” In Tradizione romanistica e Costituzione. Edited by Luigi Labruna, Maria Pia Baccari, and Cosimo Cascione, vol. 2, 1035‒1055. Naples, Italy: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 2006.Find this resource:

Mantovani, Dario. “Lex «regia» de imperio Vespasiani. Il vagum imperium e la legge costante.” In La Lex de Imperio Vespasiani e la Roma dei Flavii. Atti del convegno, 20–22 Novembre 2008. Edited by Luigi Capogrossi Colognesi and Elena Tassi Scandone, 125‒155. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2009.Find this resource:

Mommsen, Theodor. Römisches Staatsrecht I‒III. Leipzig: Hirzel, 1871‒1888.Find this resource:

Peachin, Michael. “Exemplary Government in the Early Roman Empire.” In Crises and the Roman Empire: Proceedings of the Seventh Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire, Nijmegen, June 20‒24, 2006. Edited by Olivier Hekster, 75‒93. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.Find this resource:

Purpura, Gianfranco. “Sulla tavola perduta della Lex de auctoritate Vespasiani.” Annali del seminario giuridico della Università di Palermo 45, no. 2 (1998): 413‒442.Find this resource:

Tuori, Kaius. The Emperor of Law: The Emergence of Roman Imperial Adjudication. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016.Find this resource:


(7.) Brunt, “Lex de imperio Vespasiani,” 97‒102.

(8.) Mantovani, “Le clausole ‘senza precedenti.’”

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