Two Roman bronze plates, known as military diplomas, are on display this semester at Special Collections.
These plates, discovered in 1986 near modern-day Romania, were acquired by Brigham Young University in 2005. They are significant to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of the fine example of writing on metal plates and their similarities to the Gold Plates discovered by Joseph Smith.
Roman diplomas were used as proof of Roman citizenship. Pretending to be a Roman citizen was an offense punishable by death, so a diploma was a highly prized possession. They were issued to soldiers upon release from the army, especially to those who had performed an admirable service. A diploma granted citizenship to the soldier, his wife, and children. The diploma on display granted citizenship to “a foot soldier of the First Mountain, under the command of Cornelius Felicior, namely to Marcus Herennius Polymita Berens, son of Marcus, and to his son Januarius and to his son Marcellus and to his daughter Lucana.” Being a Roman citizen was a coveted position because it granted a person the right to wear a toga, exemption from taxes, the ability to become a government official, and to appeal judgement to the emperor.
Diplomas were made from different mediums, such as bronze, wood, or wax. They consisted of two plates, bound together with two rings, and sealed shut by seven witnesses. On the outside of the front plate (A), the decree of citizenship is written in portrait form. The back of the same plate (B) has the same text inscribed in landscape form. carrying onto the second plate (C). The outside of the second plate (D) has the names of the witnesses and their seals. When put together, sides A and D are on the outside, and B and C become the inside. The practice of duplicating writing in sealed documents can be traced to several ancient governments. Duplicated and sealed writings were thus the most important of any documents, and often used for binding legal acts. For example, the ancient Babylonians would write on clay cuneiform documents and then seal the document by putting a thin sheet of clay around the document and writing the same information on the outer document. Witnesses would legalize the document by imprinting their seals into this outer sealing. The ancient Israelites would likewise seal their documents by writing on a sheet of papyrus and then tightly rolling it together, sealing this portion, and writing the exact same words on the open portion of the scroll. Evidence of Greek writings sealed this way has also been found. In the case of the Babylonian, Israelite, Greek, and Roman writings, were the legality of a document ever be disputed, a judge had the authority to break the seals and judge whether the writing on the sealed portion matched that on the open portion. The Roman diploma on display was additionally “Recorded and posted on a bronze tablet which is affixed in Rome to the wall on the back of the Temple of Minerva built by the Divine Augustus.” If a judge still had doubts about the authenticity of a soldier’s Roman citizenship, he need only go to the Temple of Minerva to see if a plate were indeed displayed on the wall. These sealed documents were thus the most legal documents that could be found in the ancient world.
Evidence of plates and sealed documents has brought new meaning to ancient scripture. Jeremiah 32:6-16 describes the process of sealing the purchase of a plot of land. Deuteronomy 19:15 describes the law of witnesses, and 2 Nephi 27:12 describes Nephi’s vision of three witnesses sealing their testimony of the Book of Mormon. Job 19:24 talks about writing on lead tablets, and 1 Maccabees writes of brass tablets, while Josephus and Pliny talked about how the Hebrews wrote in gold.
On display now are facsimile copies of the original Roman plates, a Babylonian seal, and a copy of an Israelite document, as well as original Roman signet rings.
All information for this post was taken from BYU Studies 45, no. 2 (2006), an article entitled Two Ancient Roman Plates by John W. Welch and Kelsey D. Lambert.
Images were taken from BYU’s website, which can be found here.
To learn more about these plates, visit BYU’s website or come into Special Collections to read the article.