Cynthia Bannon

Indiana University Bloomington, Bloomington, IN



Cynthia Jordan Bannon is Associate Professor in the Department of Classical Studies at Indiana University. Her interests include Roman law, the ancient economy, and Latin prose literature. Her second book, Gardens and Neighbors: Private Watre Rights in Roman Italy, investigated the role of law in mediating relationships between neighbors and in managing natural resources in the Roman world. In her first book, she studied the Roman family, in particular the relationship between brothers, starting from inheritance law and further investigating how ideas about fraternal devotion shaped family life and Roman perceptions of brothers.



Ancient Roman Water Rights and Commons Theory

Though some crops were raised with dry farming methods, most Roman landowners needed water for farming and for producing a market surplus (Horden, Purcell, 2000). Identifying a water source on their own property was often the best solution for landowners, though it was not always possible given the uneven water distribution among settlements (Cato, Agr. 1.3; Col. 1.2.4; Thomas and Wilson, 1994). The Romans solved this problem using principles, now defined in Commons theory, that depend on social nomrs and a rationality distinct from the zero-sum conflict between individual interest and resource conservation (Hardin, 1998, 6-8). Archetypally, a ‘commons’ was communally owned property, but commons theory has also been applied in communities with legal systems where law supports the social morality (Ostrom, 1998, 1004-108). In the Roman world, the principles of commons theory were applied to private water sources in three different legal contexts, and this paper examines an example of each type using inscriptions and Roman legal cases. Since Roman law treated water on private land as private property, landowner used ownership rights to control access to water. In contrast, water was shared through the legal institution of servitudes, which created limited rights to a neighbor’s property, similar to modern easements. Finally, local governments established water-sharing regimes similar to servitudes when negotiation between individual landowners failed. Although each of these legal solutions demonstrate the two main principles of commons theory, subractability and excludability, they promote cooperative solutions to varying degrees.

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