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
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, then deposited them at a public office. Solon, a great lawmaker and poet, introduced the practice in Athens in the sixth century BCE.2
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, later writing about Solon’s law reforms, thought this 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 It is a fore-runner to the concept of testamentary freedom underpinning out succession law today.
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.
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