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maiestas


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(lit. ‘greaterness’), used as an abbreviation for the crime maiestas minūta populī Rōmānī, ‘the diminution of the majesty of the Roman people’. This charge was first introduced by Appuleius Saturninus' lex Appuleia. He seems to have been provoked both by the incompetence and corruption of Roman generals in the wars against the Cimbri and Teutones and by the frustration of the will of popular assemblies through obstruction. However, the vagueness of the phrase made this a portmanteau charge, which could be deployed against any form of treason, revolt, or failure in public duty. Within a short time it virtually replaced charges of perduellio (‘treason’) brought before an assembly. Sulla's lex Cornelia maiestatis of 81 bc was an important part of his reorganization of the criminal law. It incorporated provisions restricting the conduct and movements of provincial governors. However, the law could still be applied to misbehaviour in a popular assembly. The lex Iulia maiestatis of Caesar revised Sulla's law, incorporating exile as the chief penalty. The scope of the existing law changed in the light of the existence of an emperor. Conspiracies against the emperor came naturally under the law, but its application was also gradually extended to cover adultery with his daughter and then libel and slander (Tiberius was initially reluctant to countenance such charges, but eventually they succeeded). The law was never redrafted to take precise account of these offences and, where conspiracy was concerned, Domitian would say that an emperor's claim to have detected a conspiracy was not believed until he had been murdered. By Tiberius' reign prosecutions for maiestas might be brought before not only the quaestio maiestatis (see quaestiones) but either the senate, sitting under the presidency of the emperor or consuls, or the emperor himself. Convicted persons were increasingly liable to the death penalty with no opportunity given to retire into exile; their property was confiscated for the imperial fiscus and their names were obliterated from public record (see damnatio memoriae). Since even the dead could be prosecuted, one could not be sure of escaping the last two consequences by killing oneself.

Information was laid and prosecutions brought by individuals (senators, where the senate was the court used). Certain men came to make a profession of this, being rewarded with at least a quarter of the accused man's property, if they secured conviction, and were labelled dēlātōrēs. Charges of maiestas were increasingly frequent under Tiberius and after ad 23 disfigured his reign. Many were made on apparently trivial grounds or as a complement to other charges, esp. extortion and adultery. One reason for this was that a charge of maiestas was held to warrant the hearing of a case in the senate, when it would otherwise have been heard in a quaestio under more rigid rules and with fewer opportunities for self‐display by the accuser. Their political background from ad 23 to 31 was the growing power of Sejanus at the expense of Vipsania Agrippina (2), her sons, and friends; from 31 to 37 the determination of Sejanus' enemies to be avenged on his surviving friends. The hatred of one group for another was in the tradition of the late republic and the Civil War. Many of those convicted were guilty of something, but it usually fell short of an attempt to subvert the state.

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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