One way or another, the freedom to dispose of property by will has been subject to varying degrees of control for centuries. Some of the earliest regulations of wills have been traced as far back to Rome, circa 450 BCE.1 (Image above: Ancient inheritance laws inscribed in stone. The Inscription at Gortyn on the Isle of Crete, Greece. Photo: A Stead.)
Ancient Romans pierced their wills, tying them with ribbon and adding their stelae.2
On the left-hand tablet were listed the names of the primary heirs and on the right-hand side tablet were those of the beneficiaries. Emperor Nero established this method to prevent forgery of wills.1
The Ancient Greeks signed and sealed their wills in the presence of a magistrate. They then deposited them at a public office. The great ancient Greek lawmaker Solon (born in Athens) was a statesman and poet. He introduced the practice in Athens in the sixth century BCE.2 Solon’s laws were were inscribed onto natural materials, namely wood and stone. So everyone could see the laws that governed them they were erected in the Acropolis in Athens.
Ancient Greek lawmaker Solon – introducing freedom of choice in testation
It is interesting to note that Solon made significant changes to the law dealing with wills.
Up until his time, a person’s property on death was kept within the family.
Even if a man had no children, and therefore no heirs, he was not able to choose who might inherit his wealth outside the family unit.
Solon reformed the position to some extent by allowing men with no children, and so no obligation to provide, to dispose of their property to persons of their choice.
Plutarch – Greek Philosopher and magistrate
Plutarch was a Greek philosopher in the Plato tradition, magistrate, ambassador and priest at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece.
He wrote about Solon’s law reforms to inheritance laws. Plutarch thought Solon’s reforms showed that Solon recognised the value of friendship above family ties.
In effect, Plutarch said, this made a man’s property and possessions his own to deal with how he wished.3
This thinking was a fore-runner to the concept of testamentary freedom underpinning our succession law today.
Restrictions on testamentary freedom
However Solon did place conditions on this new freedom of disposition.
Any gifts by will made under the influence of sickness, drugs, imprisonment were disallowed.
Similarly any bequests made under pressure, threats or coercion by a wife, or anyone else, were likewise invalid.3 Plutarch notes that Solon viewed such behaviour as undesirable.
More on Solon’s lawmaking and laws can be read from Solon himself here.
Preventing elaborate grave monuments in Athens
Grave monuments soon became more intricate and detailed so that eventually in 317 or 308 BC when Demetrius of Phalerum was governing Athens, he introduced laws to prohibit elaborate grave monuments.4
1. Frank Thomas, Last will and testament: wills, ancient and modern, 1972.
2. A stela is a rectangular shaped stone slab, bearing a carved inscription for commemorative purposes.
3. Plutarch & I Scott-Kilvert, (translator), The rise and fall of Athens: nine Greek lives, 1960, Penguin Books, p 63.
4. From an inscription at the Kerameikos Cemetery site, Athens, Greece.
7 September 2014, updated 2 September 2021.