The House of the Bicentenary in Herculaneum was the home of Gaius Petronius Stephanus and his wife, Calantonia Themis. It was also the setting for a legal drama that spanned years and was never fully resolved. The central character in this drama was a teenage girl called Justa. Her story reads like a soap opera yet all of it is true. It can be found in the court records of Herculaneum that were buried and preserved in 79AD.
Justa’s mother was called Vitalis, and she was a slave of Petronius Stephanus. In 62AD, Justa was born, and around the same time, Petronius Stephanus allowed Vitalis her freedom. Although it was proper to record manumission formally, in reality, matters were more relaxed and Stephanus, simply presented Vitalis with a paper declaring her free in front of witnesses. Vitalis did not leave the house of her former master. She continued to live in and meanwhile, Justa was brought up ‘like a daughter’ by Stephanus and his wife.
However, after about ten years relations soured. Vitalis and Calatonia began to argue, and Vitalis decided to move out – helped by the fact that by this time she was prosperous in her own right. She wanted to take Justa with her but her former master and mistress wished to keep the little girl. So, Vitalis brought a lawsuit against them. The matter was settled out of court and Justa was finally reunited with her mother- after Vitalis reimbursed her former owners for their upkeep of the child.
There was, however, no happily ever after for Justa and Vitalis. Not long afterward, Vitalis died- leaving Justa, the heir to a considerable fortune. Calatonia who had recently been widowed sensed an opportunity. She filed another lawsuit to recover Justa, claiming that the child had been born before her mother’s manumission, making her a slave. All Calatonia needed was for a court to declare Justa, a slave- and she regained the child and secured a fortune.
The matter was so complex it ended up referred to Rome in 75AD. Witnesses were called and depositions amassed. One of Stephanus’s most trusted freedmen, his bailiff Telesforus testified that Justa was born after Vitalis’s manumission. It was Telesforus who had negotiated Justa’s return to her mother and his close interest in the child suggests she could have been his daughter. In any event, his testimony did little good. The case dragged on into 76AD and beyond as the court continued to consider the evidence. Justa’s status had still not been decided by the time Vesuvius erupted meaning she probably died in a state of limbo.
Meanwhile, in Pompeii, a local merchant of fish sauce was putting his wealth to good use.