Death and taxes: the curious case of Mrs. Moschis

Death and taxes: the curious case of Mrs. Moschis

Litigants matter. Their social position speaks volumes about access to justice. This is as true now as it was in ancient Rome, except that the Romans are, put bluntly, long dead. But every now and then they can be brought back to life: meet Mrs. Moschis.

In his Decreta (see the blog on May 18), the Roman jurist Paulus mentions the inheritance of a Mrs. Moschis. She had died with a debt to the fiscus out of the lease of a vectigal, a farmed tax. Her heirs had sold land to a Mrs. Faria Senilla who is then addressed for Moschis’ fiscal arrears even though she claims the heirs are solvent. The case is brought before the emperor himself. He decides that aequitas requires his fiscus to recoup its money from Moschis’ heirs first, and only turn to the buyer of the land in the second instance, against his own best interest.

The cases Paulus describes actually happened, and we know that the reporter was sitting in on the court sessions, probably taking notes. Some litigants can be identified: one was high up the imperial tree, another was a well-known senator. Moschis and Faria Senilla must have existed as well. It stands to reason that these economically active women, rare enough in those days, would also leave traces outside of court.

As luck would have it, two inscriptions from Tivoli (Italy) refer to a Mrs. Numitoria Moschis. There are reasons to think this is the same person mentioned in the Decreta. She married an illustrious soldier and bureaucrat, whose death can be placed during the time period Paulus sat on the imperial court. He was an agent (procurator) in the imperial service and his career gives every reason to believe he was also attached to the fiscus. After his death, having inherited the lot, Numitoria Moschis married another high-ranking soldier, then died and left him and their son as heirs.

The name, the period and the existence of heirs (plural) alone cannot provide evidence that this is the same Moschis. So let’s add means, motive and opportunity. Numitoria Moschis would have had the opportunity to acquire the lucrative lease of a tax, either by her first husband’s contacts or through his inheritance. Her heirs, in turn, would have had the means to bring a court case before the emperor. And finally, if Mrs. Moschis can be connected to the imperial fiscus through her first husband, that helps to explain the motive behind the emperor’s (legally somewhat dubious) decision: namely to settle matters internally with the heirs of his own fiscal agents, rather than burdening outside parties.

Identifying (Numitoria) Moschis helps to understand why the case was decided as reported. It also helps to understand how women, as wives of influential bureaucrats, could wield a power of their own. In this case, a legal report illuminates social practice as much as the social background clarifies the law.

As a final thought, it is curious that Mrs. Moschis would have been impossible to trace if Roman judges and law reporters had been as scrupulous in protecting her privacy as modern courts and lawyers tend to be. Future legal historians will not be grateful for our tendency to anonimize the litigants in case reports.

Want to know more? The argument is further developed in the next issue of the Legal History Review: TvR 80 (2012), p. 279-310.


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