Aurea Gemma <Gallica> 2.3-7
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[2.3] The use of charters was first invented in a city of Egypt named Memphis,1 a name chosen from nearby marsh-lands. Now the reason for its invention should be explained. When the Egyptians saw other provinces devastated, at one time by earthquake, at another time by famine, and that thereby <those provinces> had little or no memorial of past deeds belonging to them, lest the Egyptians should sustain a similar detriment of oblivion, while they still stood immune from all calamities, they wrote testaments on papyrus at the immediate moment of death. In these they noted how long they lived, how much they had increased their patrimony2 and from which family they had taken wives.

[2.4] In the course of time, when the neighboring nations realized that they had no monument of their lineage, no memorial of past things, and on the other hand when they heard that the fame of the Egyptians' deeds was nobly celebrated in wide fame and that their own parents and city founders did nothing, led by emulation and so that they could live with fame among their own people, they began to write testaments in a similar manner and to commend to memory the origin of their lineage, so much as they had received from their parents, and to transmit knowledge of themselves by writings to their progeny.

[2.5] This was the first cause of the invention of charters: for conserving that memorial of past deeds by a special industry of men, namely so that the progeny, inspecting the deeds of their forefathers as if in a mirror, would understand that necessity had imposed upon them the virtues of probity and for love of glory they would raise their minds to virtue.3

[2.6] There was another cause of the invention of charters, which we can chiefly call necessity. For when the Athenians died intestate and legal sons followed the parents, natural sons and blood relatives on the father's side and relations by marriage tried to succeed to a share of the inheritance, claiming that a share of inheritance was bequeathed to them by the householder while he still lived. To prove this they required the aid of witnesses. But these witnesses sometimes might bear false testimony against right and decency, often induced by a bribe and by fear, sometimes from gratitude. Here arise internal war and civil disorder, here follows an outpouring of blood; both these evils infect the city like the plague. Hence it is deliberately necessary that such a precipitate evil be opposed by a swift remedy. Thus was sanctioned by laws and a public edict was posted, that whoever is touched by disease or grave illness should write a testament and as he would bequeath concerning money or his family, so it would be law. Thus the dying householder delivered a testament signed with a ring-seal to the praetor, which was recited with the Senate present. And so all controversy and conflict would be laid to rest. For the name of he who succeeds afterwards at death was found written without ambiguity in the testament. The same is <done> in dowries. The same was observed in committing money, the same in sales and exchanges.

[2.7] It suffices to speak this far about the origins of charters. We might have remained longer in explaining these origins, but we shall cease speaking on purpose, so that the more rare is the knowledge of these matters, the more precious it may be.


1 Isidorus Eymologiae 6.10.1.

2 cf. Sallust Bellum Catalinae 5.9: quando rem publicam habuerint quantumque relinquerint. The medieval explanation for the title 'Augustus' relied on its etymology from the verb 'to increase' (augere).

3 This thought reprizes the prologue's Sallustian themes (Aurea Gemma <Gallica> 1.1).

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© Steven M. Wight, Los Angeles 1998
Scrineum © Universitą di Pavia 1999