Evidence #323 | March 29, 2022

Plates and Laws

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Scripture Central


Important laws in the ancient world were sometimes inscribed on metal plates, just as many laws were recorded on the plates of brass and the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon indicates that metal plates were anciently used to inscribe the laws of ancient Israel. Nephi taught that the plates of brass were of great value to his family because they contained the Law of Moses (1 Nephi 4:15–16).1 The possession of these laws on a permanent medium enabled the children of Lehi and their descendants to preserve them throughout their history (Mosiah 1:4–5). Other ancient cultures similarly recorded laws on metal plates.

Roman Laws and Related Legal Content on Bronze Plates

The practice of inscribing laws on metal plates was widespread in ancient Rome. According to Callie Williamson, “Throughout the Republic and Empire (roughly from the fifth century B.C. to the sixth century A.D.) the Romans regularly had statutes, decrees, treaties, and edicts engraved on bronze tablets.”2 In fact, “Some statutes and interstate treaties were engraved exclusively on bronze, never on stone.”3

One of the earliest collections of Roman laws were the Laws of the Twelve Tablets. These, initially only known in oral form, were inscribed on twelve bronze tablets during the 5th Century BC. The Roman historian Livy characterized these as the “fount of all law, public and private.”4 They included rights and laws relating family, trial proceedings, laws regarding theft, the adjudication of debts and damages to property, intermarriage and funerals.5 The plates were publicly displayed in the Forum in Rome until they were destroyed in a fire in 390 BC.6 Much of their content can, however, be reconstructed from the quotations by Roman writers who were familiar with it.

Roman civilians examining the Twelve Tables after they were first implemented. Image and caption via Wikipedia. 

Treaties,7 military diplomas,8 senatorial laws, decrees, and decisions made in popular assemblies of the Roman people, or by magistrates9 were also sometimes inscribed on bronze. According to Williamson, “The Romans had an emphatic and formulaic term ‘engraved on bronze’ (in aes incisa), which we meet frequently in descriptions of legal documents.”10

Archaeological Examples of Roman Law on Bronze Plates

One of the most significant archaeological discoveries relating to ancient Roman Law was the 1981 recovery of the Lex Irnitana. The Lex Irnitana is a set of Roman laws inscribed on bronze plates recovered from a hill near El Saucejo, Seville Spain believed to date to the reign of the Emperor Domitian in 91 BC.11 David Johnston described the discovery as “exceptional,” noting that “it is the most complete copy yet discovered of the Flavian municipal law.”12 According to another scholar, it is “arguably the most important addition of the material for the study of Roman law since the discovery of the text of Gaius’ Institutes by Niebuhr in 1816.”13 Unlike that work, however, the Lex Irnitana was inscribed on bronze.


Lex Irnitana. Image via shutterstock.com. 

A translation and commentary on the Lex Irnitana were first published in 1986 by Julian Gonzales and Michael Crawford.14 According to Gregory Rowe, this set of plates “is the longest Latin inscription known.”15 The surviving portions of the text, when translated, amount to sixteen pages of English text.16 As described by Gonzales, six large bronze plates were discovered in addition to a number of fragments that together had originally consisted of ten plates with 1,500 lines of Latin text, and three columns per plate. Each tablet is 57–58 cm. (22.4–8 inches) tall and 90–91 cm (35.4–8 inches) wide and has three holes on the top and bottom of each plate which would have allowed them to be fastened to a wall.17

When the original set of ten plates were posted, they would “have covered the walls of a public building for a distance of some nine meters, like an unrolled volumen.”18 The discovery and publication of this document has significantly contributed to our understanding of how ancient Roman law was applied in the provinces of the Empire.19

Other archaeological examples of such bronze tablets include a senatorial decree issued in AD 19 discovered at Larinum which prohibited public stage performances by the upper class during the reign of Tiberius,20 the extortion and agrarian laws on the Tabula Bembina,21 the Tabula Heracleensis,22 the Entella tablets from Sicily,23 a decree issued at the death of Germanicus that was found at Magliano, Tuscany dating to AD 19,24 the Tabula Contrebiensis found in Zaragoza Spain,25 the Lex Tarentina or Tarentum Charter,26 the Lex Rubria,27 and two plates containing the regulations of a Roman mining operation in Aljustrel, Portugal.28

Lex municipii Tarentini (Tarentum Charter). Images via Wikipedia. 

Destruction of Roman Bronze Inscriptions

While some archaeological examples of Roman inscriptions on bronze are attested, Werner Eck has emphasized that “only an extremely small portion of all once-extant inscriptions on bronze have survived to date.”29 According to the Roman historian Suetonius, the massive Temple of Jupiter in Rome which was destroyed by fire during the reign of Nero, housed more than 3000 bronze tablets that were lost in that disaster. These included “priceless and most ancient records of the empire, containing the decrees of the Senate and the acts of the commons almost from the foundation of the city, regarding alliances, treaties, and special privileges granted to individuals.”30

Bronze, although relatively abundant in the Western Roman Empire, was also frequently reused and melted down. Military diplomas which were inscribed on small bronze plates provide additional perspective on this loss. According to Mehmet Alkan, director of the Adiyamen Museum in Turkey, more than “100,000 copies of these diplomas were printed in the world. However, we learn that there is information about most of them being melted in furnaces.”31 Today, he notes, fewer than 800 (less than 1%) of these have survived, only 650 of which have been studied by scholars.32

Bronze Roman military diploma. Image via britishmuseum.org. 

Eck states that military diplomas were primarily private documents. “Inscriptions on bronze that were visible to the public … were much more endangered than the privately held diplomas and were also much more likely to be destroyed.” Consequently “among the publicly visible inscriptions [that once existed], only a fragment of the percentage that is known of the diplomas has survived.”33

Greek Laws on Metal Plates

Some scholars believe that the Roman practice of inscribing legal material on bronze was introduced to them by the Greeks. According to L. H. Jeffery, the bronze plaque or plate “was widely used for the inscriptions of treaties and laws or, more rarely, of dedications, from the sixth century onwards.”34

He noted that bronze plaques have been attested at many sites around the Mediterranean leading him to conclude that “the western Greeks apparently passed on the practice to the Latin and Etruscan peoples.”35

Literary references to the practice are found in Greek literature. Plato attributed the practice of keeping laws on metal plates to the legendary Talus of Crete. “For Talus thrice every year went through the villages in order to preserve the laws in them, and carried with him the laws written in tables of brass.”36 In his account of the mythical Atlantis, Plato claimed that the judges of that land “inscribed their decisions on a golden tablet and deposited them as memorials.”37 These fictional references may reflect an idealized Greek version of the practice of recording and preserving important laws on metal plates.

Jeffery is unaware of any evidence for the Greek practice dating earlier than the sixth century BC.38 Walter Burkert, however, who argues that many significant aspects of Greek culture may have been derived from the ancient Near East, observes that the Greek word for writing tablet (deltos) may have been derived from the Semitic word daltu (daleth in Hebrew). “Daltu,” he notes, “originally meant door but is used for a writing tablet already in thirteenth-century Ugarit, as it is in Hebrew later on.”39 Based on this connection, he thinks that “reference to ‘bronze deltoi’ as a term for ancient sacral laws should point back to the seventh or sixth century.”40 Treaties inscribed on bronze plates are also known from Anatolia as early as the thirteenth century BC.41


Some nineteenth-century sources make reference to the Roman practice of writing on metal plates, although one may question whether Joseph Smith was aware of such sources before the publication of the Book of Mormon.42 The works of Josephus and the apocryphal Book of Maccabees also refer to a treaty between Rome and Jews that was inscribed on bronze and preserved in the Temple.43 Most known archaeological examples of bronze plates, however, were not discovered until long after the publication of the Book of Mormon.

Additionally, there was no indication in these sources that the practice of writing law on metal plates could be traced to the ancient Near East to the seventh century BC and earlier. Subsequent scholarship on the ancient world suggests that the practice is of greater antiquity and far more prevalent than readers of the Book of Mormon could have appreciated at the time it was published. As with other facets of the text, its description of legal materials being recorded on metal plates is consistent with known metal documents from antiquity.

Book of Mormon Central, “Is the Book of Mormon Like Other Ancient Metal Documents? (Jacob 4:2),” KnoWhy 512 (April 25, 2019).

Book of Mormon Central, “Are There Other Ancient Records Like the Book of Mormon? (Mormon 8:16),” KnoWhy 407 (February 13, 2018).

William J. Hamblin, “Sacred Writing on Metal Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007): 37–54.

John W. Welch and Kelsey D. Lambert, “Two Ancient Roman Plates,” BYU Studies Quarterly 45, no, 2 (2006): 55–76.

H. Curtis Wright, “Metallic Documents in Antiquity,” BYU Studies Quarterly, 10, no. 4 (1970): 457–477.

1 Nephi 4:15–162 Nephi 5:102 Nephi 25:242 Nephi 25:30Mosiah 1:4–5Mosiah 2:3Alma 25:15–163 Nephi 1:24–253 Nephi 15:2–104 Nephi 1:12

1 Nephi 4:15–16

2 Nephi 5:10

2 Nephi 25:24

2 Nephi 25:30

Mosiah 1:4–5

Mosiah 2:3

Alma 25:15–16

3 Nephi 1:24–25

3 Nephi 15:2–10

4 Nephi 1:12

  • 1 See also 2 Nephi 5:10; 25:24, 30; Mosiah 2:3; Alma 25:15–16; 3 Nephi 1:24–25; 15:2–10; 4 Nephi 1:12.
  • 2 Callie Williamson, “Monuments of Bronze: Roman Legal Documents on Bronze Tablets,” Classical Antiquity 6, no. 1 (April 1987): 160.
  • 3 Williamson, “Monuments of Bronze,” 160.
  • 4 Livy, The Rise of Rome: Books One to Five, trans. T. J. Luce (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), 175.
  • 5 Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, Roman Civilization: Selected Readings, Volume 1: The Republic and the Augustan Age (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1951), 101–109.
  • 6 Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, 102.
  • 7 Miriam Pucci Ben Zeev, “Josephus, Bronze Tablets and Greek Inscriptions,” L’Antique Classique 64 (1995): 211–215; M. W. Frederiksen, “The Republican Municipal Laws: Errors and Drafts,” 60 (1965): 185–187.
  • 8 John W. Welch and Kelsey D. Lambert, “Two Ancient Roman Plates,” BYU Studies Quarterly 45, no, 2 (2006): 55–76.
  • Michael J. Dorais and Garret Hart, “A Metallurgical Provenance Study of the Marcus Herennius Military Diploma,” BYU Studies Quarterly 45, no. 2 (2006): 77–87.
  • 9 Williamson, “Monuments of Bronze,” 170.
  • 10 Williamson, “Monuments of Bronze,” 170.
  • 11 Carlos Sanchez-Morono Ellart, “Lex Irnitana,” Encyclopedia of Ancient History, ed. Robert S. Bagnall, Kai Brodersen, Craig B. Champion, Andrew Erksine, Sabine Huebner (Blackwell Publishing, 2013), 4040–4042.
  • 12 David Johnston, “Three Thoughts on Roman Private Law and the Lex Irnitana,” Journal of Roman Studies 77 (1987): 62–77.
  • 13 Wang Szu-yuan, “The Lex Irinitana and Roman Law: Discovery, Reconstruction, and Romanness of the Municipal Charter of Irni,” 成大西洋史集刊第 [Atlantic History Anthology] 12 (2004): 30.
  • 14 Julian Gonzales and Michael H. Crawford, “The Lex Irnitana: A New Copy of the Flavian Municipal Law,” Journal of Roman Studies 76 (1986): 147–243.
  • 15 Gregory Rowe, “The Roman State: Laws, Lawmaking, and Legal Documents,” in The Oxford Handbook of Roman Epigraphy, ed. Christopher Bruun and Jonathan Edmondson (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 301.
  • 16 Gonzales and Crawford, “The Lex Irnitana,” 182–199.
  • 17 Gonzales and Crawford, “The Lex Irnitana,” 147–148.
  • 18 Gonzales and Crawford, “The Lex Irnitana,” 147.
  • 19 David Johnston, Roman Law in Context (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 10–11, 125–128; J. F. Gardner, “Making Citizens: The Operation of the Lex Irnitana,” Administration, Prosopography and Appointment Policies in the Roman Empire, ed. Lukas de Blois (Leiden: Brill, 2001): 215–229; Alan Rodger, “The Jurisdiction of Local Mgistrates: Chapter 84 of the Lex Irnitana,” Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 84 (1990): 147–161; Alan Rodger, “The Lex Irnitana and Procedure in the Civil Courts,” Journal of Roman Studies 81 (November 1991): 74–90; Alan Rodger, “Jurisdictional Limits in the Lex Irnitana and the Lex de Gallia Cisalpina,” Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 110 (1996): 189–206.
  • 20 Barbara Levick, “The Senatus Consultum from Larinum,” Journal of Roman Studies 73 (1983): 97–115.
  • 21 Harold B. Mattingly, “The Two Republican Laws of the Tabula Bembina,” Journal of Roman Studies 59 (1969): 129–143; Mattingly, “The Extortion Law of the Tabula Bembina,” Journal of Roman Studies 60 (1970): 154–168; Mattingly, “The Agrarian Law of the tabula Bembina,” Latomus: Revue D’Etudes Latines 30, Fascicule, 2 (Avril-Juin 1971): 281–293.
  • 22 Carlos Sanchez-Moreno Ellart, “Tabula Heracleensis,” Encyclopedia of Ancient History, 6505–6507.
  • 23 B. D. Hoyos, “A New Historical Puzzle: The Entella Documents,” Prudentia 20, no. 1 (1988): 30–43; William T. Loomis, “Entella Tablets: VI (254–241 B.C.) and VII (20th cent. A.D.?)” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 96 (1994): 127–165.
  • 24 F. de Visscher, “La Table de bronze de Magliano,” Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres de l’Academie Royale de Belgigue 35 (1949): 190–199.
  • 25 Guillermo Fatas, “The Tabula Contrebiensis,” Antiquity 57 (1983): 12–18; J. S. Richardson, “The Tabula Contrebiensis: Roman Law in Spain in the Early First Century B.C.,” Journal of Roman Studies 73 (1983): 33–41; Peter Birks, Alan Rodger, J. S. Richardson, “Further Aspects of the Tabula Contrebiensis,” Journal of Roman Studies 74 (1984): 45–73.
  • 26 D. Yale and Allen Chester Johnson, Ancient Roman Statutes: A Translation with Introduction, Commentary, Glossary and Index (Austin: TX: Coleman–Norton & Bourne, 1961), 63–65.
  • 27 Carlos Sanchez-Moreno Ellart, “Lex Rubria de Gallia Cisalpina,” Encyclopedia of Ancient History, 4045–4047.
  • 28 A. D. Cummings, W. R. Chalmers, H. B. Mattingly, “A Roman Mining Document,” Mine and Quarry Engineering 22 (August 1956): 339–342. The first plate discovered in 1876 is inscribed on both sides. The second plate is believed to have once been a part of a set of four bronze plates, the remainder of which are now missing.
  • 29 Werner Eck, “Documents on Bronze: A Phenomenon of the Roman West?” Ancient Documents and Their Contexts: First North American Congress of Greek and Latin Epigraphy, ed. John Bodel and Nora Dimitrova (Leiden and Boston, MA: Brill, 2015), 131.
  • 30 The Lives of the Twelve Caesars By Suetonius, trans. Joseph Cavorse (New York, NY: Modern Library, 1931), 329.
  • 31 Leman Altuntas, “A 2000-Year-Old Bronze Military Diploma Was Discovered in Turkey’s Perre Ancient City,” Arkeonews, January 2, 2022.
  • 32 Altuntas, “A 2000-Year-Old Bronze Military Diploma Was Discovered in Turkey’s Perre Ancient City,” Arkeonews, January 2, 2022. Eck estimates that about 1000 of these are attested archaeologically. The magnitude of the loss of such documents is staggering. See Eck, “Documents on Bronze” 130–132.
  • 33 Eck, “Documents on Bronze” 133.
  • 34 L. H. Jeffery, The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece: A Study of the Origin of the Greek Alphabet and Its Development from the Eighth to the Fifth Centuries B.C. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 55.
  • 35 Jeffery, The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece, 55.
  • 36 The Works of Plato: A New and Literal Version. Volume IV, trans. George Burges (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1855), 461.
  • 37 The Works of Plato: A New and Literal Version. Volume II, trans. Henry Davis (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849), 428.
  • 38 Jeffery, The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece, 55.
  • 39 Walter Berkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 30.
  • 40 Berkert, The Orientalizing Revolution, 30.
  • 41 Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., “The Treaty of Tudhaliya IV with Kurunta of Tarhuntassa on the Bronze Tablet Found in Hattusa,” in The Context of Scripture. Volume II. Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo, K. Lawson Younger, Jr. (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 100–106; A. Beril Turgrul and Oktay Belli, “Cuneiform Inscriptions Made Visible on Bronze Plates from the Upper Anzaf Fortress, Turkey,” Antiquity 68 (1994): 63–640; Gary Beckman, Hittite Diplomatic Texts (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1996), 2, 103, 107.
  • 42 Thomas Horne, for example, states “History indeed records that tablets of lead and copper have been indifferently employed for preserving treaties, laws, and alliances” as well as the Roman practice of inscribing “public memorials” on brass including the Laws of the Twelve Tables. See Thomas Hartwell Horne, An Introduction to the Study of Bibliography, 2 vols. (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1814), 33–34.
  • 43 Josephus: Complete Works, trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1974), 249; 1 Maccabees 8:22; 14:20–27; Jahn’s Biblical Archaeology, trans. Thomas C. Upham (Andover, MD: Flagg and Gould, 1823), 93–94.
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