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p207 Bonorum Cessio

Article by George Long, M.A., Fellow of Trinity College
on pp207‑208 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

BONORUM CESSIO. There were two kinds of bonorum cessio, in jure and extra jus. The In jure cessio is treated under its proper head.

The bonorum cessio extra jus was introduced by a Julian law, passed either in the time of Julius Caesar or Augustus, which allowed an insolvent debtor to give up his property to his creditors. The debtor might declare his willingness to give up his property by letter or by a verbal message. The debtor thus avoided the infamia consequent on the bonorum emtio, which was involuntary, and he was free from all personal execution. He was also allowed to retain a small portion of his property for his support. An old gloss describes the bonorum cessio thus: Cedere bonis est ab universitate rerum suarum recedere.

The property thus given up was sold, and the proceeds distributed among the creditors. The purchaser did not obtain the Quiritarian ownership of the property by the act of purchase. If the debtor subsequently acquired property this also was liable to the payment of his old debts, with some limitations, if they were not already fully satisfied. A constitution of Alexander Severus (Cod. 7 tit. 71 s1) declares that those who made a bonorum cessio were not released, unless the creditors were fully paid; but they had the privilege of not being imprisoned, if judgment was given against them in an action by one of their old creditors.

The benefit of the lex Julia was extended by imperial constitutions to the provinces.

The history of the bonorum cessio does not seem quite clear. The Julian law, however, was not the oldest enactment which relieved the person of the debtor from being taken in execution. The lex Poetelia Papiria (B.C. 327) exempted the person of the debtor (nisi qui noxam meruisset), and only made his property (bona) liable for his debts. It does not appear from the passage in Livy (VIII.28) whether this was a bonorum cessio in the sense of the bonorum cessio of the Julian law, or only a bonorum emtio with the privilege of freedom p208from arrest. The Tablet of Heraclea (Mazocchi, p423) speaks of those qui in jure bonam copiam jurabant; a phrase which appears to be equivalent to the bonorum cessio, and was a declaration on oath in jure, that is, before the praetor, by the debtor that his property was sufficient to pay his debts. But this was still accompanied with infamia. So far as we can learn from Livy, no such declaration of solvency was required from the debtor by the Poetelia lex. The Julian law rendered the process of the cessio bonorum more simple, by making it a procedure extra jus, and giving further privileges to the insolvent. Like several other Julian laws, it appears to have consolidated and extended the provisions of previous enactments. The term bonorum cessio is used in the Scotch law, and the early practice was derived from the Roman system. (Gaius, III.28; Dig. 42 tit. 3; Cod. VII tit. 71.)

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Page updated: 2 Sep 04