Introduction: Shipwrecks and Maritime Cultural Landscapes

In: Shipwrecks, Legal Landscapes and Mediterranean Paradigms
Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz
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Any maritime landscape has cultural significance when it is associated with human activities.1 How can we talk in a meaningful way about the relationship between any maritime landscape and the human mindset towards it? One way to approach the study of watery spaces is to view them through the lens of the maritime cultural landscape. This theory analyses the culture of maritime peoples within a spatial context, including any hermeneutic human relationship to the sea.2 The maritime cultural landscape approach contrasts with the term ‘seascape’, which is used to describe any landscape viewed from the sea, using factors that are generally associated to land (such as the wind or currents) and therefore stressing the differences between land and sea.3 Within this approach, I will explore the Roman conception of ‘maritime space’ through a study of the Romans’ perception of shipwrecks, integrating the fields of Roman law and the social practices that took place within these maritime landscapes.4 The aim is to challenge our understanding of the Roman environment and its legal identification by placing the focus on shipwrecks as events that establish a bridge between sea and land. I will explore the different Roman legal definitions of maritime spaces, and how individuals of divergent legal statuses, who were affected by shipwrecks in one way or another, interacted with these areas. Abstract though this approach may seem, the problems addressed are concrete and down-to-earth. The main purpose of the study is to chart and analyse the Roman conception of the maritime landscape through a close study of juristic literature and an archaeologically-based analysis of the landscape.

The main source studied throughout the book is the edictum de incendio ruina naufragio rate nave expugnata5 (first century BCE);6 as such, the different chapters of the book will address the different aspects linked with this legal source (even if some features may seem less ‘maritime’ than others).7 The edictum de naufragio provided for civil actions that addressed behaviours involving violence associated with theft, seizing of property, or causing damage, performed at the same time and in the same place that a catastrophe occurred (e.g. a shipwreck or naufragio). The work bearing the title de naufragio is formed from fragments that range from the Republican period to the Severan period. Due to the considerable extent of time covered, we need to keep in mind that opinions that were held on these matters during these different periods of Roman history were liable to change, sometimes quite considerably. Therefore, the understanding of the maritime cultural landscape reflected in these texts will be temporally and personally bound to the individual jurist’s views of the world. How did they perceive the world and organise its spaces? Moreover, what might this tell us about Roman concepts related to frontiers, and their relationship with their natural surroundings?8 The study of the different fragments of the edictum de naufragio reveals that, even if the sea-land dichotomy predominates in the discourse, there are a range of views on the specific features of the Roman maritime cultural landscape, which reflect variations in cultural backgrounds, personal agendas, and political developments over time. Each moment of these jurist-landscape interactions is distinct in the sense that the nature and characteristics of cultural-environmental processes are tied to each moment in time and space.9

In addition, we need to keep in mind that ‘Roman’ is an umbrella term that encompasses great regional variety, as well as ethnically diverse cultures. As the Roman world was composed of a wide variety of far-flung regions, what needs to be stressed is that while a legal text could be an individual manifestation of a local mentality, it still reflects a conception of the maritime landscape that can help establish common traits and differences so as to arrive at a broader view. However, through the study of the different fragments forming the Digest’s title, we can sometimes see a homogenisation in the ways that the issues were addressed, probably due to the jurists’ strong ties to Roman Western culture. In terms of the people who interacted with a Roman maritime cultural landscape, their interactions can be thought of as layered and legally plural, since the interactions among people from different legal backgrounds and/or statuses would not only have influenced their understanding of the landscape, but also affected how law was applied to them in different areas. Here, the study of the Digest’s title will move past the theoretical land-sea division and aim to provide a more nuanced perspective on the different perceptions of the sea as an environment, resulting in the creation of new legal conceptions of the physical landscape.

However, since this book deals with shipwrecks as events that happen between sea and land, it is necessary to define what ‘maritime’ is, in order to understand what is here identified as a maritime cultural landscape. In one article, C. Westerdahl asks: ‘What is maritime? Is there anything exclusively maritime?’ The aim of defining ‘maritime’ here is to unravel the relationship between people and the sea as one of the bases for explaining cultural history in general. It cannot be overstated how essential the sea is, whether humans have lived in direct contact with it or only held it as a permanent reference point.10 In the case of Rome, one cannot argue that their society was established first and then the sea-land relationship followed. This is rather a question concerning the identity and cultural memory of people in relation to their physical context and their activities. The Roman calendar was organised around the life cycle: time was organised in relation to labour and production, and space in relation to the rural and urban landscape.11 We need to think of the Romans’ experience as their society slowly evolving from being based on the worldview of local farmers to a global Empire incorporating a plethora of cultures and perspectives.12 In the Roman land-based economy—especially during the Republican era—their relationship to land had a legible history of law and politics that was violently inscribed through territorial lines, borders, and divisions, while the sea was perceived and positioned outside the forces of Roman legality. The latter observation fits well with the general view of the Romans’ initial aversion to or lack of interest in the sea, based partly on Polybius’ narrow-minded narration of the Roman-Carthaginian treaties,13 and partly on the supposedly late development of their naval technology.14

What is the role of law in connecting land- and sea-spaces in the Roman world? How does space matter in Roman law and its associated identities? From the legal point of view, the maritime cultural landscape of the Roman world could be described as a division between the land—which could be governed by the law of the Romans (civil law or ius civile)15—and the sea—which was guided by the laws of the peoples (ius gentium)16 and by ius naturale—that which concerns the natural order of things.17 As in most ancient empires, the basic tenet of law was based on the personality principle, not the area principle as is common in modern states.18 Thus, being Roman was a matter of lineage or the acquisition of citizenship by an official declaration, but not residence. During the Republic and early Empire, most of the inhabitants of Rome and the Roman Empire were not citizens, but rather were subject to different categorisations that also influenced the law that was applicable to them.19 Hence, in the Roman world law worked in a layered way, applying a personal legal principle (citizen vs. non-citizen) to a legally bounded or defined space (sea vs. land). Initially, these principles seem easy to understand and logical. Ius gentium was the law governing the relations of Rome with peoples other than the Romans,20 and thus it is not surprising that it applied to the sea, which was a medium of contact among peoples but physically unmanageable, unlike land. However, the situation becomes more complicated, because the private field of ius gentium implies that its legal principles are accepted from the point of contact between Romans and foreigners, as soon as they become valid for Roman citizens. The latter view was very useful in terms of trade and allowed the establishment of foreign commercial arrangements from a very early period, but it is also an indication of how law adapts when there is a will to build on it.21

Therefore, for the purpose of this work I define ‘maritimity’ as the result of the actions of identifying and sorting terrestrial and maritime affairs that are conceptualised and managed through legal rulings, whether these are imposed by the central authority or by the peoples living in an area. This definition is based on the belief that there is a close relationship between Roman law and the society that produced it, and that many legal conceptualisations may be explained in terms of the peculiarities of how a society functioned.22 In sum, in this work, ‘maritimity’ constitutes a category of understanding,23 and more concretely a legal perception of the landscape. It can be appreciated that legal dispositions describing sea-land interactions are not so much a map of the physical archaeology of their landscapes as a map of the social conceptions from which their maritime cultural landscape has been constructed.24 In these instances, laws defined the limits of some spaces and imposed rules on them. For the range of spaces included in this conception, norms did apply within their limits, leaving the external world largely or entirely beyond their reach.25

Nevertheless, the question is, how did shipwrecks resurface as events merging legal spaces? Was this always the case? The opportunities and dangers of seafaring were a prominent theme in ancient life.26 In his famous essay, Blumenberg reflects on shipwrecks as one of humanity’s oldest metaphors for life.27 Blumenberg based his study on the fact that at some level we have all born witness to others’ wrecks, standing in safety and knowing that there is nothing we can do to help, remaining fixed—whether comfortably or uncomfortably—in our ambiguous role as spectator. This is the impression that we can gather from reading the works of classical authors such as Homer or Hesiod, among others.28 However, in the archaic Mediterranean, some violent sea practices related to plundering were allowed by law, and would not be legally conceived differently until the Roman Republic. This latter understanding resulted in a situation where even if violent acts were physically noxious, they were not against the law, which is why there was no need to apply specific remedies to address them.

In the Roman conception, the sea had agency over the subjects suffering a shipwreck, since it could give and take ownership of goods lost at sea, or free a carrier from liability in the case of wreckage.29 While also acknowledging the power of the sea as an entity that can influence human behaviour, the focus of this study lies concretely on human thought and its role in constructing maritime landscapes.30 In their texts, Roman jurists reflect on different kinds of sea-storm situations, to which they then apply legal institutions in order to organise and provide solutions to the catastrophes suffered by people in what was considered a space free from the rule of Roman civil law. In that respect, shipwrecks appear as events that bridge the gap between land and sea, because of the different legal remedies provided to deal with these catastrophes, which in turn enlarged the scope of land-based legal rulings. In that respect, we will see how civil law remedies were often applied to events that happened onboard ships, which is probably because, even if the Roman jurists did not phrase it in that fashion, they—as happens nowadays—considered ships as extensions of the land.31

When reading about these subjects in legal texts, different views can be found in addressing the hazards derived from such events, but some consistent features also emerge. This includes the acknowledgement of shipwrecks and their consequences as a violent act that should be compensated. Therefore, the legal regimes targeting violence in connection with these events placed territorial and extraterritorial limits on the application of Roman law to the vagaries of the natural world. This produced a dynamic connection between the conceptual categories of land and sea, characterised by the contantly adaptable character of human structures and institutions along the coast of the sea, and the completely malleable application of jurisdiction over the sea itself. This perspective places the spotlight on the special nature of the sea’s border with the land, or even other watery bodies such as rivers or lakes, which will also be explored in this volume, so as to clarify the different Roman conceptions of these spaces. These elements can be interpreted through the maritime cultural landscape approach in order to explore how people perceived and understood the sea and used this knowledge and understanding to order and constitute the landscape and societies that they lived in or interacted with.

This book is divided into five chapters. Chapter one examines the archaic conception of shipwrecking as a right, and the changes that this conception underwent until the late Republican period. It also explores the origin, background, and possible chronological dating of the edictum de naufragio, which punished robberies and other violent conducts that took advantage of catastrophic situations such as fires, wrecks, or attacks on ships. The chapter addresses other related issues, such as the development of the praetor’s edict and the solutions imposed by praetorian law to address violent conflicts. Therefore, the analysis of this phenomenon relates to different problems, such as the risks of navigation or the combatting of piracy by the Roman Republican government.

Chapter two delves deeper into the nature of the edict, and therefore the subjects affected by it, and provides details of its spatial characteristics. The chapter goes beyond the exegetical analysis of the text, to place it in its spatial context and understand how that affected the interaction of individuals with their environment. It highlights the geographical dissemination of the Roman rulings concerning plundering, and how shipwrecks affected the status of the people that came into contact with them. The latter raises issues such as the definition of self, and the identity or personhood of the individuals associated with their spaces of interaction. In addition, this question targets the problem of change, whether of status or location, and how that was addressed in the legal language and taxonomies used to deal with sea-related problems. In view of this, the chapter underlines the flexibility and supposed openness of the Roman legal tools used to cope with the consequences of a shipwreck, and deals with the processual aspects of the actions spelled out in the edictum de naufragio.

Chapter three is concerned with how the event of shipwrecking affected the property of the people influenced by it. Therefore, its focus is one of the main institutions of Roman law: ownership and consequently, the things owned. This chapter stresses that one of the effects of the conception of the sea as a space unruled by Roman law, was that the sea therefore had agency over taking and giving back the property lost in a wreck. The latter leads to a discussion on the difference between derelictio and deperditio, in relation to the loss of goods, and on the consequences and legal qualification of the acts committed by the subjects who gathered up goods that had been deposited on the shore by the waves. The chapter closes with legal definitions of the spaces in contact with watery areas: starting with the complicated distinction between public and private in maritime spaces, and the possibility (or not) of establishing parallelisms with riverine spaces. In that sense, the sources written by jurists as well as public statutes highlight the legal divide between sea and land and the different regimes governing these spaces.

Chapter four explores the behaviour legally defined as loss wrongfully caused. In such an unpredictable space as the sea, losing control of a ship and causing damage to other people’s property would not have been an uncommon event. In this chapter, I have sought to further demonstrate how the Romans used legal analogies taken from their civil law to cope with the hazards that happened at sea, since they did not have control of that space, and there was no such thing as the law of the sea at that time.

Finally, chapter five is dedicated to violent or intentional harm, and targets issues such as the notion of piracy as private violence endemically performed and (sometimes) protected by the state, or as a more general threat to mankind that needed to be eradicated. The chapter also refers to the parallelisms established in the Digest’s title with the land-based conduct of murderers or thieves, indicating that these reflected the Roman will to control the seas via legal tools that were used on the civilised land.


Ford 2011, 1.


Westerdahl 1986; 1992, 9; 2011, placing this concept within the archaeological discourse, Jasinski 1994; and its practical application, Parker 2001. For a summary of the actual debates with associated literature, see Campbell 2020, 207–210.


See: McNiven 2003; Breen and Lane 2004.


Westerdahl 2009, 212–216, provides an extensive list of elements that can make up the maritime cultural landscape (e.g. shipwrecks, ports, villages, fortifications, place-names).


Hereinafter, edictum de naufragio. Title 47.9 of Justinian’s Digest.


The dating of the edict is one of the book’s themes, a topic connected with other issues such as lawmaking or targeting violent behaviour in the Roman Republic, which will be addressed in sections 1.3. and 1.4 of chapter one.


For example, section 4.2. deals with behaviours that take place on land, but also reflect the different nuances of the edict.


Whittaker 2002, 82, also relates these thoughts to the idea of Empire.


Phillips 2007.


Westerdahl 2009, 192.


Carandini 2012, 5. That perception of the land can be appreciated in the careful work of the agrimensores. See: Campbell 2000.


This is one of the main points of Van Oyen 2020, 14–16. However, even if the Romans’ economy was primarily devoted to farming that does not mean that they did not have maritime activity in the Archaic period; see Cifani 2022.


Polyb.1.20; 1.21.1–2, the legend of Polybius has been contested by: Harris 2017, 14–16.


Casson 1991, 171; contra, Cassola 1968, 27–34.


D.1.1.6pr. (Ulpian. 1 Inst.) Ius civile est, quod neque in totum a naturali vel gentium recedit nec per omnia ei servit: itaque cum aliquid addimus vel detrahimus iuri communi, ius proprium, id est civile efficimus.


D.1.1.9 (Gaius 1 Inst.) ‘what naturalis ratio introduced among all men is observed by all peoples and called ius gentium, as the law applied by all peoples’; D.1.8.4pr.–1 (Marcian. 3 Inst.) ‘No one, therefore, is prohibited from going on to the seashore to fish, provided he keeps clear of houses, buildings or monuments, since these are not, as the sea certainly is, subject to the ius Gentium’. More on this in chapter two, section 2.1.1.


D.–4 (Ulpian. 1 Inst.).


Ando 2011b, 2–4; Tuori 2018, 201–218.


Scheidel 2007, 5–8 provides literature and figures to illustrate citizenry in different periods of the Roman world.


This is one of the three meanings of the Ius Gentium, see: Winkel 2013b, 3553. See also chapter two, section 2.1.1.


Frezza 1949, 29.


Crook 1967; Du Plessis and Cairns 2007, 139; Ando 2010, 78. Contra, Watson 2008, 64; 111; 158.


Tuddenham 2010, 8. Leidwanger 2020, 78, ‘there is no predetermined inland limit to the maritime landscape, but a primary advantage is its focus on how the sea helped to structure life beyond its shore for the communities whose livelihoods and routines were tied into rhythms of seaborne interaction’.


Tuddenham 2010, 10.


Gargola 2017, 189.


e.g. Cic.Tusc.52; Sen.Suas.1; Tac.Agr. 249. See also section 1.1 in chapter one.


Blumenberg 1979.


See the list of authors mentioned by Huxley 1952, 118–124; Dunsch 2013, 42–59; 2015, 17–42.


That constitutes the so-called exceptio labeoniana, located in D. (Ulpian. 14 ad Ed.) ‘Hence, Labeo writes that if anything is lost through shipwreck or an attack by pirates, it is not unfair that a defence be given to the carrier’.


Campbell 2020, 207–225, with extensive bibliography.


Art 84 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

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