The introduction looks at some basic questions posed by the Constitutio Antoniniana. What is the edict? How can it be classified historically and with respect to the language used? What did historians write about the Constitutio Antoniniana when it was promulgated, and what did researchers say much later, especially after the papyrus was discovered? How did it become part of the University of Giessen’s collection?

What is the Constitutio Antoniniana?

The Constitutio Antoniniana is an edict issued by Roman Emperor Caracalla that granted extensive citizenship rights; the text is preserved on the Papyrus Gissensis 40. This copy is the only one worldwide to have survived from antiquity; all others have been lost.

The Constitutio Antoniniana papyrus is a landmark document in the history of citizenship and human rights. In 2017, it was inscribed into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

The papyrus raises a number of questions in its present form, some of which will be addressed on this website

Totalaufnahme der Constitutio Antoniniana 

>> Click here for a high-resolution photo of Papyrus Gissensis 40.

The era and the language

The Constitutio Antoniniana was decreed either in 212 or 213. The edict was made accessible to the imperial population in Latin (for the western half of the Roman Empire) and in Greek (for the eastern half), but only the present Greek version from 215 has survived.

Evaluation of the Constitutio before the papyrus was discovered early in the twentieth century

Contemporaries who expressed opinions on the Constitutio seem not to have fully understood its significance. The reputation of Emperor Caracalla, a man who certainly provided enough cause for criticism, cast a shadow over contemporaries’ perception of the edict. The relevant writer in this case was Cassius Dio (Roman History, 79,9,5). However, as soon as we gain some historical distance from the emperor, his character, and his presumed intentions, a different picture emerges.


Before the papyrus was discovered, the existence of the Constitutio Antoniniana was confirmed indirectly by historians such as Cassius Dio, but the original text was unknown. Research on the document, which began in the nineteenth century, had to rely on these secondary sources, and researchers often repeated ancient speculation on the emperor’s intentions.

Rediscovery of the papyrus

Early in the twentieth century, the original text was rediscovered on a papyrus in the University of Giessen’s collection of papyri—a sensational find for researchers.

Although only fragments of the text have been preserved, the discovery supplied essential information on this edict that granted citizenship, in particular on the occasion of its being issued, the intentions behind it, and its scope. Unfortunately, a complete reconstruction of the text has not been possible, but the rediscovery has been hugely stimulating for research, because part of the text can now be studied directly. Paul Meyer was the first to publish the text in 1910.

How the Constitutio Antoniniana found its way to Giessen

In 1902, Ernst Kornemann acquired the Papyrus Gissensis 40, together with about 150 other papyri, from a merchant in El Ashmunein (near the ancient site of Hermopolis Magna) in Egypt. The aim was to create a collection that was to be used for university teaching and research purposes. The exact circumstances of how and where the papyri were originally found are not known.

>>Click here<< for more information on the preserved text of the Constitutio Antoniniana.