Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.31

Jean-Jacques Aubert, Boudewijn Sirks, Speculum Iuris. Roman Law as a Reflection of Social and Economic Life in Antiquity.   Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press, 2002.  Pp. 203.  ISBN 0-472-11251-1.  $49.50.  

Contributors: Jean-Jacques Aubert, David Cherry, Thomas A. J. McGinn, Susan D. Martin, Michael Peachin, Boudewijn Sirks and Peter Wyetzner

Reviewed by Vadim B. Prozorov, Faculty of History, Moscow (Lomonosov) State University (
Word count: 1159 words

The book is a collection of case studies, with general index and index of sources. They were presented at the 1996 American Philological Association's annual meeting held in New York and afterwards revised to be published in this volume. The book opens with the Introduction of Michael Peachin (New York University), where he explains the aims of this collection of essays and replies to the criticism of anonymous referees who have already reviewed it. He enumerates most of the shortcomings of the present volume, summarizes the articles included in it and thus leaves very narrow space for a new reviewer.

The international group of scholars approaches Roman legal texts with the intention of demonstrating how some of the norms of Roman law were applied to Roman socio-economic life and how Roman law influenced this life and vice versa. They also show how legal historians can successfully interpret legal and nonlegal sources in the broader context of social and economic history.

Although scholars are always eager to catch a comprehensive picture of the past, this collection does not pretend to be such a full story, and Michael Peachin reveals those obstacles (obviously many gaps in our knowledge of the Roman period of history) that are not overcome by the current scholarship in spite of some attempts at synthetic research done by John Anthony Crook and David Johnston. Professor Peachin concludes that the approach employed by the authors of the book is undoubtedly useful and productive. In his essay "Sulla's Law on Prices and the Roman Definition of Luxury" (pp. 15-33) Peter Wyetzner (Bar Ilan University, Jerusalem, Israel) analyzes Sulla's motivation and the social basis for the promulgation of the lex Cornelia sumptuaria in 82/81 B.C. He juxtaposes this law with the sumptuary laws of the middle and late Republic and, as he scrutinizes other scholar's evaluations of Sulla's legislation, tentatively concludes that it was Sulla's attempt to reduce the luxuriousness of the Roman aristocracy, to restrain social competition and to limit the power of this social group in the republic. The strong point of the essay is the demonstration of how the promulgation of the law was necessitated by contemporary events.

David Cherry (Montana State University, Bozeman) investigates the history of the prohibition of gifts between husband and wife in his essay "Gifts between Husband and Wife: the Social Origins of Roman Law" (pp. 34-45). He tries to find an explanation for the preservation of this rule, despite many exemptions and attempts to establish limitations for its application, in real social relations. Adopting such an approach, we should bear in mind that the law cannot been precisely dated or established in any particular social conditions. In the author's opinion the purpose of the prohibition might have been to prevent women from leaving their husbands because they felt they did not receive gifts adequate to their husbands' wealth and status. I can hardly disagree with Professor Peachin, who remarks that this conclusion is "obviously speculative."

Thomas A. J. McGinn (Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee) undertakes an exploration of the interaction of marriage legislation and social reality in an extensive essay, "The Augustan Marriage Legislation and Social Practice: Elite Endogamy versus Male 'Marrying Down'" (pp. 46-93 with an appendix of legal texts on the Augustan prohibition). Professor McGinn formulates the main question of his research as follows: "To what extent did the law's structures resonate in social practice." The starting point of his study is the lex Iulia et Papia which prohibits certain groups of Roman citizens to marry each other. Closely investigating the letter of the law and the practice, he observes that although endogamy was a characteristic feature of the Roman elite of the Augustan period still a certain tendency among the male aristocracy to "marry down", that is, to find a spouse of slightly lower social standing, is traceable in available sources. At the same time he admits that on the high senatorial level the views on marriage as a union of equal partners were even more conservative than the regulations of the law prescribed. Professor McGinn, further, is eager to scrutinize how the Augustan law resonated at different sub-elite levels. He succeeds in illustrating slightly higher social mobility through marriage by some examples, however the lack and sometimes self-contradictions of our sources prevents us from broad generalization on this matter. As far as the lex Julia and Papia is concerned Professor McGinn states that "it sought to articulate a social order in terms of rank and gender and at the same time to assure the reproduction of this order over time."

In his essay "A Double Standard in Roman Criminal Law? The Death Penalty and Social Structure in Late Republican and Early Imperial Rome" (pp. 94-133), Jean-Jacques Aubert (Université de Nauchâtel, Switzerland) discusses two main problems, the various degrees of punishments and double standards in their application. In his research he employs a wide range of sources and claims that social stratification had a deep impact on Roman criminal law, and the severity of punishments depended on the social status of a guilty person. He also concludes that in this sphere of Roman life "the distinction between freeborn and slaves ... was ... never abandoned."

Boudewijn Sirks (Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main, Germany), in his "Sailing in the Off-Season with Reduced Financial Risk" (pp. 134-150), provides an excellent example of interaction of trade policy and law which promoted trade. This case study demonstrates how an experienced person in the second century could turn even deficiencies of law to his benefit and how Roman jurists were eager to search new solutions in this sphere.

Susan D. Martin (University of Tennessee, Knoxville), in her "Roman Law and the Study of Land Transportation" (pp. 151-168), offers another example of interrelation of law and economy or rather trade in Roman period. She focuses on the theoretical views of jurists on the problem of land transportation. The general idea of the book entitles us to ask first to what extent their perceptions can be regarded as a mirror of social reality. Secondly, were the jurists really involved in the resolution of the problems with land transport? Or as Professor Peachin doubts: "we can perhaps not so safely say that they were especially, or pointedly, interested in regulating this sector of the economy."

The authors of the essays do not attempt to draw a synthetic picture of Roman social life in its legal context. We have a good collection of case studies, which lead us to the conclusion that further investigation of social life in the legal context and legal material in the social setting are, though complicated, nevertheless necessary for a better understanding of Roman past and the great Roman legal legacy. The last two texts of this book (Boudewijn Sirks' "Conclusion: Some Reflections" and Jean-Jacqes Aubert's "Conclusion: A Historian's Point of View") are preoccupied with this claim and offer some valuable suggestions concerning advantages and disadvantages of contemporary scholarship in this field.

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