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Long-Term if Dubious Investment

(AE 1990, 318)

[image ALT: A closeup of a brief, somewhat worn inscription on stone. It is a Roman inscription in Pollenza, Marche (central Italy).]

This inscription is on an altar now in the Piazza Ricci, Pollenza (MC).
Late 2c/early 3c A.D.?

Lucio Hostilio Lucii filio Aemilia tribus Tullo
decurionis Urbe
To Lucius Hostilius Tullus, son of Lucius, of the Aemilia tribe
of a decurion at Urbs Salvia

Once upon a time the little towns of central Italy were fairly independent, and their inhabitants elected representatives called decurions, who really were something. They were the municipal assembly, or at least the class from which it was drawn. They ran the town, from them the magistrates were chosen, and without their approval very little could be done: today's visitor will see countless inscriptions ending in L · D · D · D: "The place (for setting up this statue and its inscription) was authorized by the decurions."

And then came the emperors, who didn't much care for independence. By various changes in the laws, the decurions, though they retained the office for life, were essentially demoted to figureheads, locally prominent but powerless to cause trouble. But as with central administrations in other times and other places, those who ran the Roman empire found it useful to make these increasingly powerless officials pay the costs of the burden of government. (The rapacity of central governments continues in our own time: in today's United States, for example, the tactic appears in the form of unfunded mandates imposed on the States by the Federal government.)

At any rate, all that the decurions had left was their social position, and if they behaved well and spent a lot of their own money on civic needs, a modicum of local power. By the late empire, they were passing all this on to their children, and the Digest (50 tit.2 De decurionibus et filiis eorum), compiled in the 6c A.D., took for granted as a matter of law that the sons of decurions had a special status, in some cases even if their father was stripped of his own rank.​a

So here in a little square in Pollenza, on most days a parking lot really, we have a funerary altar to the memory of Lucius Hostilius Tullius. He never became a decurion himself, presumably because he died before his father. The family almost certainly spent a lot of money on various civic improvements — buildings, aqueducts, baths, who knows — and this is all that is left: an investment that yielded this minimal immortality.

Though his name has lived longer than will our own — who will remember you or me 2000 years from now? — Hostilius is now surrounded by his enemies: sulfuric acid from cars will no doubt wear away the last traces of his existence.

[image ALT: A small stone cube on a podium of three steps in the middle of a parking lot. It is a Roman inscription in Pollenza, Marche (central Italy).]


a A much more detailed, expert, and pessimistic view of the decurions in the Empire is provided by Hodgkin, Italy and her Invaders, Book III, pp577‑596. Our man Lucius, however, was living toward the end of the real heyday of the decurionate, before the going got really rough in the Late Empire.

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Page updated: 5 Aug 19