Recording Angel in the Roman Legal System

Commentary on Roman Law, with Latin/English Text, circa 225 B.C.

As the 21 st century comes to a start, we are hardly surprised by the notion of a satellite circling our planet to register a photographic record of the whole topography of the earth, with such exactitude that it can actually "see" an individual house and under optimal conditions, even a person out taking the dog for a walk. This can be used for detecting dangerous armaments worldwide, but also for location of houses within 100 meters accuracy as basis for a national census. It is a fact of life which goes along with ubiquitous TV reception from a floating platform loaded with electronic gear, satellite relayed telephone and business communications, the things we have quickly accustomed ourselves to use as necessities of life in this new world.

But it is a surprise to find that the Romans could invisage just such a satellite as early as 200 B.C. Theirs was a little different, it was not a human-devised contraption but something built into the nature of the god-contrived world, but it had the same lofty position in the heavens, it gathered information to be relayed not to Roman business companies, but to the god who presided over Law and Justice. Its function was to survey the world just as our satellites do, scanning for information about what goes on down there, but relaying the information derived from the human legal system to the celestial Appellate Court over which Jupiter presided. The name of the satellite was "Arcturus".

A word about identity: Arcturus is the brightest star in the northern hemisphere, situated in the constellation Booetes, in almost direct line with the tail (zeta and eta) of the constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear), from which position comes its name as "Guardian of the Bear" (Gr. arktos + ouros). It has been thought at various star references in the Hebrew Bible are to Arcturus as clearly seen and prominent, and in the Roman world the Vulgate read Arcturus for stars mentioned in Job ix, 9, in Job xxxvii, 31 and Amos v.8. I mention this to point to the general awareness of this bright aand significant star in the Roman world.

The play of Plautus' "Rudens" or The Rope was produced somewhere around 200 B.C., it has the usual Prologue which lays out the story-line for the audience in typical Roman Comedy fashion. But there is a curious pre-Prologue to the play, spoken by this very god-star Arcturus, who explains his role and functions in quite explicit terms. If we think of a satellite as science or business based, the Roman pictures his satellite as a sophisticated piece of legal equipment, Law being since the very earliest times a special concern and creation of the keen Roman mind. This satellite appears at night, gathers all sort of information about the administration of justice in the Roman world, and submits this to a literally "superior" court which reviews all cases and re-adjudicates them with ultimate justice in mind. So the tricks and casuistries of Roman lawyers conniving with crooked clients will come to nothing, under the all-seeing and all-registering eye of Arcturus, who will be up there every night, all night, collecting his files of legal information.

But let Arcturus speak for himself, here is a close translation of the text found at the start of Plautus play "Rudens". with the Latin text for anyone who wants a more scrupulous view, followed by a few general comments:

"In company with Him who rules all peoples and the seas and lands, a citizen am I of the City of the Heavens. Agleam with shining star, (he points to the stage star- emblem on his head) in me you see a constellation which for ever rises in its season here and in the skies. Arcturus is my name. It is Jupiter, the lord of gods and men, that does assign us each our different posts among the peoples, that we may learn about the deeds and ways of men, their reverence and loyalty, and how well each does fare.

All who bring to court false cases supported by false witness, all who before the magistrate deny on oath their honest debts, them we note down and take their names to Jupiter. Day by day He knows who they are that seek evil here on earth. When the wicked here expect to win their suits by perjury, or press false claims before the judge, the case as judged is judged again by Him. And the fine He fines them far exceeds their gains in courts of law.

The good men are enrolled by Him on other tablets, yet scoundrels think to placate Him by gifts and offerings. Their time and money are both wasted, for he takes not tribute from a guilty hand. The righteous man will find God's grace by prayer more readily than will the knave.

This do I therefore urge upon you, who are good men and lead lives of righteousness and honor: Hold fast to your course, that so you may live in joy."

Qui gentes omnes mariaque et terras movet,
eius sum civis civitate caelitum.
ita sum, ut videtis, splendens stella candida,
signum quod semper tempore exoritur suo
hic atque in caelo. nomen Arcturi est mihi.
qui est imperator divom atque hominum luppiter,
is nos per gentis alium alia disparat,
qui facta hominum, mores, pietatem et fidem
noscamus, ut quemque adiuvet opulentia.

Qui falsas litis falsis testimoniis
petunt quique in iure abiurant pecuniam,
eorum referimus nomina exscripta ad lovem.
cotidie ille scit quis hic quaerat malum,
qui hic litem apisci postulant peiurio
mali, res falsas qui impetrant apud iudicem.
iterum ille eam rem iudicatam iudicat.
majore multa multat quam litem auferunt.

Bonos in aliis tabulis exscriptos habet.
atque hoc scelesti in animum inducunt suom,
lovem se placare posse donis, hostiis,
et operam et sumptum perdunt. id eo fit quia
nihil ei aceeptumst a periuris supplici.
facilius si qui pius est a dis supplicans,
quam qui scelestust, inveniet veniam sibi.
idcirco moneo vos ego haec, qui estis boni
quique aetatem agitis cum pietate et cum fide:
retinete porro, post factum ut laetemini.

A few remarks:

1) It is surprising how many things which we regard as the advances and achievements of our modern world, now only a few hundred years old, have been foreshadowed by early outlines or idea-sketches which are often quite close to the central idea. In Greek mythology there is a "brazen man" who wreaks destruction widely, until someone learned to drill a hole in him and let out his "blood". In the film "2001" we don't have to drill, we just pull the power plug, but the fear of a mechanical marvel remains with us, as with the sutured up monster of Dr Frankenstein (which foreshadows modern organ transplant, incidentally).

Think of the similarities between our knowledge of atomic theory, our widely accepted view of evolution and survival of the fittest, and Lucretius' words on these subjects in Books I, II (atoms) and Book V (evolution). Lucretius was drawing on centuries of Greek thought, these ideas were clearly not his personal idiosyncrasies. Heraclitus some four centuries earlier had noted random-motion as able to create the whole patterned world, and even the exchange of energy for mass. (Full material in my study of Heraclitus on this site under Philosophy Section).

So I find it in no way surprising that the "Idea of a Satellite", which in a sense is an artificial planet of sorts obeying the same gravitational and inertial rules as natural planets, is something the Roman was likely to consider. It would be a long way to the actual placing of an object in orbit, even longer to furnishing it with optical and computing equipment capable of our giant world-survey. But the IDEA could already be there, it was in the case of this Latin text conjured up by a Roman carpenter and stage-construction hand who also wrote plays, and he put it at the start of one of the most interesting and sensitive of his plays, the Rudens.

2) If Plautus' star-satellite worked, where would it fit in the celestial world? He makes this quite clear: "I am a citizen of the City of the Gods". It would be four centuries before St. Augustine would work out his concept of the Civitas Dei, a double world where we live in an earth-bound human society, above which functions a higher authority, an ordered Heaven which is a society on its own terms in its own right. Just the other day I saw a hot-dog stand in front of a department store with the name Hebrew National, and underneath the words "....we obey a higher authority." Of course this just is a clever touch of humor, but behind it lies the same notion of something above us, watching and regulating us, and noting with perfect accuracy if there is any pork in the hot-dog.

Is this constant insistence on there being something higher, a mind in the sky, a supra-being who is stronger and more powerful than we are in every dimension, a part of the human Social Notion which demands an every higher escalation of the "leader"? Dogs being intensely social, do this very same thing with us, look to us as if deities, I am sure. Heraclitus was wrong saying that if dogs and horses had gods they would be like dogs and horses. No, they would be like Humans! And so Humans devise an idea of something higher than themselves, and being able to thinking abstract terms, they start out with the God- Idea as vapor or pure mind or "He Who Has No Name". But since many of us feel uncomfortable with pure ideas, our cultures re- ify their Idea- Deities into saints and statues and golden calves.

Roman religion had eaten itself out with the termites of distrust and inattention, and it was into the vacuum, which Imperial Divification could never even hope to fill, that Christianity so suddenly imploded. I note in this speech of Arcturus as all- seeing super-eye of the Legal System (both the here and now and the other world in heaven) that Plautus shows an anticipation of two things:

a) First, what the Christian world was about to state in terms of God's looking into every secret place and every soul, the Omniscient One from whose eye there is no escape.

b) Second, there will be a mind, collecting vast quantities of information, which he sees as an all-viewing satellite-star circling the planet. But more important is its function of amassing complete files on the Law, which after all is the place were all Roman associations (as in Gaius extant Manual of the Law) finally touch and terminate. The "computer mind" of the star is really the core of the notion of Arcturus the Legislator, rather than just an eye in the sky like our local weather-casting

c) And then there is the notion of a Court of Appeals, where the appeal is generated not by the parties but by the ultimate Judge. So it is a Court of Review, which straightens out legal wrongdoing, false evidence, perjured statements, and legal trickery. Here real justice presides, and this must give us pause in our daily dealing with each other in court. If the Law is not administered corr4ectly, virtually as an article of faith, then it will sooner of alter fail to operate and we will all be found guilty. Note the final lines of Arcturus' declamation:

"You good and honest people, hold fast to your ethics,
Continue honest so that you can be happy in life."

Plautus wishes that it may be so, all living together in justice with fair treatment through Law with each other. Living in America through the last half century before the millennium, we might well wish something of the kind were to save us being inundated in the tangled webs of our legal system, which along with high ideals of Justice, has involved itself with the traits of dishonesty, perjury and false evidence to which all legal systems, soon or later, seem to be liable.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College