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p724 Majestas

Article by George Long, M.A., Fellow of Trinity College
on pp724‑726 of

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

MAJESTAS. is defined by Ulpian (Dig. 48 tit. 4 s1), to be "crimen illud quod adversus Populum Romanum vel adversus securitatem ejus committitur." He then gives various instances of the crime of Majestas, some of which pretty nearly correspond to treason in English law; but all the offences included under Majestas comprehend more than the English treason. One of the offences included in Majestas was the effecting, aiding in, or planning the death of a magistratus Populi Romani or of one who had Imperium or Potestas. Though the phrase "crimen majestatis" was used, the complete expression was "crimen laesae, imminutae, diminutae, minutae, majestatis."

The word Majestas consistently with its relation to mag(nus) signifies the magnitude or greatness of a thing. "Majestas," says Cicero (Part. 30) "est quaedam magnitudo Populi Romani;" "Majestas est in Imperii atque in nominis Populi Romani dignitate." Accordingly the phrases "Majestas Populi Romani," "Imperii Majestas" (Hor. Carm. IV.15) signify the whole of that which constituted the Roman State; in other words the sovereign power of the Roman State. The expression "minuere majestatem" consequently signifies any act by which this majestas is impaired; and it is thus defined by Cicero (de Invent. II.17), "Majestatem minuere est de dignitate, aut amplitudine, aut potestate Populi aut eorum quibus Populus potestatem dedit, aliquid derogare." (See Cic. ad Fam. III.11. "Majestatem auxisti."). The phrase Majestas Publica in the Digest is equivalent to the Majestas Populi Romani. In the Republican period the term Majestas Laesa or Minuta was most commonly applied to cases of a general betraying or surrendering his army to the enemy, exciting sedition, and generally by his bad conduct in administration impairing the Majestas of the State (Tacit. Ann. I.72).

The Laws of the Twelve Tables punished with death a person who stirred up an enemy against Rome or surrendered a Roman citizen to an enemy (Dig. 48 tit. 4 s3). The Leges Majestatis seem to have extended the offence of Majestas generally to all acts which impaired the Majestas Publica; and several of the special provisions of the Lex Julia are enumerated in the passage just referred to.

Like many other leges the Lex Julia was modified p725by Senatusconsulta and Imperial Constitutions; and we must not conclude from the title in the Digest, "Ad Legem Juliam Majestatis," that all the provisions enumerated under that title were comprehended in the original Lex Julia. It is stated by Marcianus, as there cited, that it was not Majestas to repair the statues of the Caesar which were going to decay; and a Rescript of Severus and his son Antoninus Caracalla declared that if a stone was thrown and accidentally struck a statue of the Emperor, that also was not Majestas; and they also graciously declared that it was not Majestas to sell the statues of the Caesar before they were consecrated. Here then is an instance under the title ad Legem Juliam Majestatis of the Imperial rescripts declaring what was not Majestas. There is also an extract from Saturninus De Judiciis, who says that if a person melted down the statues or imagines of the Imperator which were already consecrated, or did any similar act, he was liable to the penalties of the Lex Julia Majestatis. But even this also does not prove that this provision was a part of the Julia Lex, as originally passed, for a Lex after being amended by Senatusconsulta or Imperial Constitutions still retained its name. In the time of Tiberius it was a matter of charge against a man that in selling a garden he had included a statue of Augustus; which Tiberius declared to be no offence (Tacit. Ann. I.73).

The old punishment of Majestas was perpetual Interdiction from fire and water but now, says Paulus (S. R. V.39), that is, in the later Imperial period, persons of low condition are thrown to wild beasts, or burnt alive; persons of better condition are simply put to death. The property of the offender was confiscated and his memory was infamous.

In the early times of the Republic every act of a citizen which was injurious to the State or its peace was called Perduellio, and the offender (perduellis) was tried before the populus (populi judicio), and, if convicted, put to death (Liv. II.41, VI.20). The earliest trial and form of procedure is that which is given by Livy (I.26); after the overthrow of the kingly power the notion of Perduellio and the process were in some degree changed. Numerous offences against the state were comprehended under Perduellio. For instance Cn. Fulvius (Liv. XXVI c3) was charged with the offence of perduellio for losing a Roman army; but in course of time, and probably after the passing of the Lex Porcia, though it does not appear that this Lex applied to Perduellio, the punishment was aquae et ignis interdictio. According to Gaius "perduellis" originally signified "hostis" (Dig. 50 tit. 16 s234); and thus the old offence of perduellio was equivalent to making war on the Roman State. The trial for perduellio (perduellionis judicium) existed to the later times of the Republic; but the name seems to have almost fallen into disuse, and various leges were passed for the purpose of determining more accurately what should be Majestas.

These Leges were a Lex Apuleia, probably passed in the fifth consulship of Marius, the exact contents of which are unknown (Cic. de Or. II.25, 49), a Lex Varia B.C. 91 (Appian, Bell. Civ. I.37; Cic. Brut. 89; Valer. Maxim. VIII.6 §4), a Lex Cornelia passed by L. Cornelius Sulla (Cic. in Pis. 21, pro Cluent. 55º), and the Lex Julia already mentioned, and which continued under the Empire to be the fundamental enactment on this subject. This Lex Julia is by some attributed to C. Julius Caesar, and assigned to the year B.C. 48, and this may be the Lex referred to in the Digest; some assume a second Lex Julia, under Augustus. That a Lex de Majestate was passed in Caesar's time appears from Cicero (Philipp. I.9).

Under the Empire the term Majestas was applied to the person of the reigning Caesar, and we find the phrases Majestas Augusta, Imperatoria, and Regia.a It was however nothing new to apply the term to the Emperor, considered in some of his capacities, for it was applied to the magistratus under the Republic, as to the consuls and praetor (Cic. Philipp. XIII.9, in Pisonem, 11). Horace even addresses Augustus (Ep. II.1.288) in the terms "majestas tua," but this can hardly be viewed otherwise than as a personal compliment, and not as said with reference to any of the offices which he held. The extension of the penalties to various new offences against the person of the Emperor belongs of course to the Imperial period. Augustus availed himself of the Lex for prosecuting the authors of famosi libelli (cognitionem de famosis libellis, specie legis ejus, tractavit, Tacit. Ann. I.72; Dion Cass. LVI.27; Sueton. Octav. 55): the proper inference from the passage of Tacitus is that the Leges Majestatis (for they all seem to be comprised under the term "Legem Majestatis") did not apply to words or writings, for these were punishable otherwise. The passage of Cicero (ad Fam. III.11) is manifestly corrupt, and as it stands, inconsistent with the context; it cannot be taken as evidence that the Lex Majestatis of Sulla contained any provisions as to libellous words, as to which there were other sufficient provisions. [Injuria.] Sigonius has attempted to collect the capita of the Lex Majestatis of Sulla. Under Tiberius the offence of Majestas was extended to all acts and words which might appear to be disrespectful to the Princeps, as appears from various passages in Tacitus (Tac. Ann. I.73, 74, II.50, III.38, 66, 67, &c.). The term Perduellio was still in use under the Empire, and seems to have been equivalent to Majestas at that period.

An inquiry might be made into an act of Majestas against the Imperator even after the death of the offender; a rule which was established (as we are informed by Paulus) by M. Aurelius in the case of Druncianus or Druncanius, a senator who had taken part in the outbreak of Cassius, and whose property was claimed by the fiscus after his death. (Perhaps the account of Capitolinus, M. Ant. Phil. c26, and of Vulcatius Gallicanus, Avidius Cassius, c9, is not inconsistent with the statement of Paulus: on the case of Druncianus, see Tillemont, Histoire des Empereurs, vol. II p382). A constitution of S. Severus and Antoninus Caracalla declared that from the time that an act of Majestas was committed, a man could not alienate his property or manumit a slave, to which the great (magnus) Antoninus (probably Caracalla is still meant), added that a debtor could not after that time lawfully make a payment to him. In the matter of Majestas slaves could also be examined by torture in order to give evidence against their master: this provision, though comprehended in the Code under the title Ad Legem Juliam Majestatis, was perhaps not contained in the original p726law, for Tiberius sold a man's slaves to the actor publicus (Ann. III.67), in order that they might give evidence against their master, who was accused of Repetundae and also of Majestas. Women were admitted as evidence in a case of Laesa Majestas, and the case of Fulvia is cited as an instance (Dig. 48 4; Cod. IX. tit. 8).

As to the phrase Patria Majestas, see Patria Potestas. (The history of Majestas is given with great minuteness by Rein, Das Criminalrecht der Römer. A brief view of the subject is very difficult to give.)


Thayer's Note:

a Under the Empire the term Majestas was applied to the person of the reigning Caesar: Dio first mentions this application of the term to the early reign of Tiberius in a passage not picked up by Smith's article (57.9.2).

The later we go, the commoner it gets, until in 4c inscriptions dedicated to the emperor we routinely see the formula Devotus numini maiestatique eius, which can be loosely translated as "Faithful to the person and office of the emperor"; it is so common that it is very often abbreviated down to just a few letters, as in this inscription in the Roman Forum.


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