Ancient societies had a problem that we still find familiar today: how do you know that someone is who they say they are? Within small-scale societies (as discussed here) it’s easy enough; when everyone in your village knows you, or knows someone who knows you, it’s not hard to prove who you are. The difficulty comes when you leave your home community and travel far away.
Guest-friendship (which I wrote about here) was one important way of overcoming the challenges of traveling far from home in a time when it was risky to do so. Guest-friends had an established relationship in which each friend promised to help and support the other. Having a guest-friend in a distant place provided some security for when you were far from home.
But even guest-friends might find it difficult to prove their identity to one another. This sort of relationship existed between people whose communities might be widely separated and who might see each other only very rarely. If someone turned up at your door claiming to be a guest-friend who hadn’t visited in twenty years, how could you be sure that they were really who they said they were and not some thief or imposter trying to bluff their way into your house and hospitality? Since guest-friend relationships were often hereditary, the problem could be even more acute: how could you trust that the person who turned up on your doorstep was actually the grandson of your grandfather’s guest-friend and thus someone to whom you still owed a duty of hospitality?
The solution to this problem came with tesserae hospitales, or hospitality tokens. Typically made of bronze, these tokens were a matched pair, sometimes with holes drilled through them, each one inscribed with the name, ancestry, and origins of one of the pair of guest-friends. By putting the two pieces together, one could verify that they matched. A person carrying such a token could present it for verification by comparison with its other half and thus prove that they had a right to claim hospitality in a particular house.
Here’s an example of one such token, made in Spain, probably in the second or first century BCE. This one is in the shape of a pig and has a few holes drilled through it. The text, written in the local Celtiberian language, gives the identity of the man who first carried it: “Lubos, of the Aliso family, son of Aualos, from Contrebia Belaisca.”
Of course, few problems have perfect solutions. Hospitality tokens could, in theory, be lost, stolen, damaged, or copied, but as a way of verifying identity they worked well enough to be used for many centuries in the ancient Mediterranean. Numerous examples have turned up in the archaeological record, and some matching pairs have been found from contexts as widely separated as North Africa and northern Italy.
History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.