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by Archaeology Newsroom

Official documents and forgery in Byzantium

This article deals with the “abuse” of writing in juridical documents during the byzantine age, which by the West has been considered as “the age of forgery”. Through the forgery of official documents and juridical texts the author examines whether the content of this term also applies to the East. Justinian legislation classified the documents on the basis of their provenance into private, public and notarial. Needless to say private documents could more easily be forged. For this reason, when a case of dispute about the authenticity of a document arose, the law demanded full proof of its authenticity. In Byzantine legislation certain provisions on legal procedure and penal laws were comprised referring to forgery as a punishable offence. A forgery – falsum in the Roman law – did not, however, only mean an altogether forged or the copying of an authentic document as is the case today. The term also applied to a whole series of criminal acts that had as common characteristic the mere fact that they were punished by the same law and formed, in a way, a procedural unity. Beside forgery as such, placed under the same serious category of criminal actions were deceit, the appropriation of documents, bribery of a judge etc. Judging from the severity of the punishment – exile and confiscation for free citizens, the death penalty for slaves – these acts must have been considered as severely criminal. As far as the aetiology of the phenomenon is concerned the most satisfactory explanation so far is the one that reasons that the effort of a suitor to gain a trial by forgery a disguised act of violence, where a kind of special mental ability replaces physical force. In this context, an act of forgery appears as a form of self- redress in certain social groups. Such citizens having secured, especially from the 13th century on, a minimum of land property and having some sort of an education fought tooth and nail to keep these possessions even though endless trials from disputes might ensue.