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p702 Libellus

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp702‑703 of

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

LIBELLUS, is the diminutive form of liber, and signifies properly a little book. A libellus was distinguished from other kinds of writings, by being written like our books by pages, whereas other writings were written transversa charta (Suet. Caes. 56). A libellus, however, did not necessarily consist of several pages. It was used by the Romans as a technical term in the following cases:—

1. Libelli accusatorum or accusatorii were the written accusations which in some cases a plaintiff, after having received the permission to bring an action against a person, drew up, signed, and sent to the judicial authorities, viz., in the city to the praetor, and in a province to the proconsul (Cod. 9 tit. 2 s8; Dig. 48 tit. 5 s2 17. 29; 47 tit. 2 s74; compare Actio.) The form in which a libellus accusatorius was to be written, is described by Ulpian in a case of adultery (Dig. 48 tit. 2 s3). The accuser had to sign the libellus, and if he could not write, he was obliged to get somebody else to do it for him. If the libellus was not written in the proper legal form, it was invalid, but the plaintiff had still the right to bring the same action again in its legal form (Juv. VI.244, &c., Tacit. Ann. III.44; Plin. Epist. VII.27; compare Brisson. de Form. V c187, &c.).

2. Libelli famosi were what we call libels or pasquinades, intended to injure the character of persons. A law of the Twelve Tables inflicted very severe punishments on those who composed defamatory writings against any person (Cic. de Re Pub. IV.10; Arnob. IV. p151). During the latter part of the republic this law appears to have been in abeyance, for Tacitus (Ann. I.72) says that previous to the time of Augustus libels had never p703been legally punished (compare Cic. ad Fam. III.11), and that Augustus provoked by the audacity with which Cassius Severus brought into disrepute the most illustrious persons of the age, ordained, by a lex majestatis, that the authors of libelli famosi should be brought to trial. On this occasion Augustus, who was informed of the existence of several such works, had a search made at Rome by the aediles, and ordered the libels to be burnt; some of the authors were subjected to punishment (Dion Cass. LVI.27). A law quoted by Ulpian (Dig. 47 tit. 10 s5) ordained that the author of a libellus famosus should be intestabilis, and during the later period of the empire we find that capital punishment was not only inflicted upon the author, but upon those persons in whose possession a libellus famosus was found, or who did not destroy it as soon as it came into their hands (Cod. 9 tit. 36). For further information on this subject see Rein, Das Criminalrecht der Römer, p378, &c. 531.

3. Libellus memorialis, a pocket or memorandum book (Suet. Caes. 56). The libellus, from which Cicero (ad Att. VI.1 §5) communicates a memorandum of Brutus, appears to have been a book of this kind.

4. Libellus is used by the Roman jurists as equivalent to Oratio Principis. [Orationes Principum.]

5. The word libellus was also applied to a variety of writings, which in most cases probably consisted of one page only:—

a. To short letters addressed to a person for the purpose of cautioning him against some danger which threatened his life (Suet. Caes. 81, Cal. 15); and to any short letters or reports addressed to the senate or private individuals (Suet. Caes. 56, Aug. 84; Cic. ad Fam. XI.11).

b. To the bills called libelli gladiatorii, or munerarii, which persons who gave gladiatorial exhibitions distributed among the people. [Gladiatores, p574B.]

c. To petitions to the emperors (Suet. Aug. 53; Mart. VIII.31.3, 82.1). The emperors had their especial officers or secretaries who attended to all petitions (libellis praefectus, Dig. 20 tit. 5), and who read and answered them in the name of the emperor (Suet. Domit. 14). Such a libellus is still extant. See Gruter, Inscript. p. DCVII.1.

d. To the bill of appeal called libellus appellatorius, which a person who did not acquiesce in a judicial sentence, had to send in after the lapse of two or three days (Dig. 40 1).

e. To the bills stuck up in the most frequented parts of the city, in case of a debtor having absconded (Cic. pro Quint. 6, 15, 19; Rein, Röm. Privatr. p499). Such bills were also stuck upon the estates of such a debtor, and his friends who wished to pay for him sometimes pulled down such bills (Senec. de Benef. IV.12).

f. To bills in which persons announced to the public that they had found things which had been lost, and in which they invited the owner to claim his property (Plaut. Rud. V.2.7, &c.; Dig. 47 tit. 2 s44). The owner gave to the finder a reward (εὔρετρα) and received his property back. Sometimes the owner also made known to the public by a libellus what he had lost, stated his name and residence, and promised to give a reward to the person who found his property, and brought it back to him (Propert. III.21.21, &c.).


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