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Bill Thayer

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A Famous Phrase from Antiquity:

Origin and Explanation

Illegitimis non carborundum: phrase of Roman law, Dig. 19 tit.2 s.13, referring to the legal doctrine whereby illegitimate children could not avail themselves of the right, granted under Theodosius and later emperors, to free medical care for gum disease and tooth loss incurred as a consequence of grit in flour from the imperial mills distributed by the praefectus annonae.

For grit in flour, due mostly to relatively soft sandstone mill-stones, its health consequences in antiquity, and the resulting wear on teeth useful in forensic dating of human remains, see Bakker's monumental work, Sandsteinschotterzahnverfall in Alterthums, Leipzig, 1847; for the theory of state responsibility in epidemic disease spread by food welfare schemes, see J.-D. Puceau de la Gencivière, Observations juridiques inédites sur une ode de Tertullien: les maladies endémiques de l'antiquité tardive, Louvain, 1922, esp. pp. 143‑152 and his bibliography.

The exclusion of illegitimates from what had been felt to be a matter of imperial responsibility first occurred in a rescript of Justin II. Although phrased in terms of Christian morality, the rescript was in fact suggested by court administrative officers seeking to tighten the imperial finances. What started with teeth and the illegitimate soon was opportunistically extended under subsequent emperors, however, to almost every government subsidy, and this intransigent attitude eventually led to the so‑called Carborundum or Teeth Riots under Heraclius in 619.

The matter was resolved by a military expedition in which a small Byzantine army led by Odontophanes, himself illegitimate, broke the ivory monopoly of the Abyssinians and established a state factory of false teeth at Pyopolis on the coast of the Indian Ocean in 623; predictably, this became a major factor in the decline in elephant populations in East Africa. At Bullahar in Somalia, K. A. Johnston and a team of co-workers from the American University of Beirut found ancient remains in 1968 which have been tentatively identified as Pyopolis (J. Irrepr. Res., LIV.24‑27, 1971).

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Page updated: 23 Aug 11