Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.41 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.41

Saundra Schwartz, From Bedroom to Courtroom: Law and Justice in the Greek Novel. Ancient Narrative Supplements, 21.   Groningen:  Barkhuis; Groningen University Library, 2016.  Pp. xiii, 270.  ISBN 9789492444080.  €90.00.  

Reviewed by Kimberley Czajkowski, University of Edinburgh (

Table of Contents

Historical studies of law in the Roman empire are currently experiencing something of a resurgence: recent years have seen a rise in studies of legal pluralism, and an increased interest in the legal culture of the empire. Schwartz contributes to this trend by examining the trial scene in three Greek novels: Chariton’s Callirhoe, Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon and Heliodorus’ Aethiopica. She aims to show that the eleven trials in these three works reflect the “dynamic and fluid process” of the reception of Roman law in the Greek part of the empire (5) and shed light on Greek-speaking provinces’ acculturation to the Roman administration of justice. Schwartz thus considers each of the novels as “artifacts” from “different moments in the history of the Roman Empire” (11), arguing that they represent valuable snapshots of the legal consciousness of their respective times.

As the book’s title suggests, many of the trials centre on issues of family relations, especially adultery. The latter forms the starting point for the author’s introduction: from here, Schwartz segues into the courtroom and its significance in law, literature and society more broadly. Indeed, the book’s interdisciplinary nature is visible in the Introduction, whose sections, "Rhetoric and Realia", "Roman Law in the Greek World," and "The Form of the Trial Scene," underscore problems involved in using such literary depictions to understand the socio-legal world in which they were written. Each section gives an overview of the state of research in the topic, and Schwartz demonstrates clearly the aims and scope of her study therein. Modern socio-legal studies also figure prominently here, in particular Ewick and Silbey’s threefold typology of legal consciousness: “Before the Law”, “With the Law”, and “Against the Law”. 1 These categories reappear at the end of each study of the individual novels, where Schwartz assesses their relevance to the case in question.

The rest of the book is structured around the key trials within the three novels. Each is preceded by a thematic introduction to what Schwartz considers her prime concern in analysing the novel in question. The analysis of the trials is then divided into The Story, a brief summary of the plot; The Analysis, and then sometimes further examination of speeches within the scene. For the most part this works well, although The Analysis occasionally feels repetitive in light of the plot summary. There is little way around this in view of the book’s aim to bridge disciplines, but those familiar with the Greek novels could afford to skip these summaries.

As the earliest dated novel (c. 41 CE), Schwartz takes Callirhoe first, introduced under the sub-heading, In the Shadow of the Lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis?2: this indicates what Schwartz contends is the underlying concern of the majority of the trial scenes, i.e. adultery and a world transformed by Augustus’ legislation. Analysis of four trials then follows, which range in setting from the Greek polis of Syracuse to the court of the Persian king; topics are similarly diverse. The analysis of each veers between the literary and the legal context, both Greek (usually classical Athenian) and Roman. The Persian court is convincingly analysed as an analogue to Rome, a way of discussing the process of imperial justice without referring to Rome directly, wherein the character of the leader is directly related to the integrity of justice dispensed. The conclusion brings in a further episode in which the heroine debates with herself on the future of her unborn child, acting as “judge, defendant, tutor, witness, adoptive parent, and bride in the darkened bedroom that is her private tribunal” (90).

Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon (c.160 CE) follows, with two trials preceded by an introduction on Legal Pluralism in Roman Alexandria, the author’s assumed hometown. 3 The introduction is generally sound, though a little conflated at times – the Cyrene edicts are used, as is common, to demonstrate the principle of provincials being tried in their own courts, Roman citizens in Roman courts; the province of Egypt of course provides a rather different situation. 4

Both trials in Leucippe and Clitophon stray from their original purpose: one was for adultery, but transforms into a murder case due to a false confession of one of the protagonists (Trial 5); the other is initially for sacrilege, but ends as two different ordeals (Trial 6). Throughout this section Schwartz brings out the ambiguity of Melite and Clitophon’s marital status particularly nicely as the crux around which the issues revolve. The role of advocates – as an audience to Trial 5, and the individual Sopater as a key agent in determining events in Trial 6 – is particularly valuable to consider in light of Tatius’ possible status as an advocate himself. Schwartz exposes the surprising ineptitude of Sopater particularly well, despite his apparent sophistry, and indeed the analysis of the speeches here is a highpoint. The trials-by-ordeals are a welcome inclusion, even if they may fall strictly outside the “trial scene” scenario (see below), and provide a fascinating glimpse into views on alternative arenas for securing justice, and the role of the divine therein.

Heliodorus’ Aethiopica (3rd or 4th century CE) is Schwartz’s last case study. The introduction gives a concise overview of the dating problems; Schwartz indicates a preference for a later date, suggesting that the novel was shaped by the laws of Constantine (155). The introductory section here deals with Patria Potestas after the Antonine Constitution on grounds that it bears on the heroine Charicleia's “overdetermined” status as a daughter throughout (151). And yet the importance of patria potestas, as opposed simply to familial relationships, does not come to the fore in the individual analyses of the five trials and indeed is absent from the conclusion to this section. The trials analysed (nos. 7 to 11) range in political setting, subject and corresponding procedure. Schwartz brings out the stereotypes at play in the depiction of Athens in Trial 7, a large-scale jury trial, to good effect, as well as the contrast between the “good” monarch in the figure of Hydaspes, king of Meroe, and Arsace, the tyrant-figure wife of the satrap of Memphis. Once again, some of these trials do not play out entirely to their conclusion: the “bipartite” trial scene of Trial 11 eventually dissolves into self-recriminations and reunions.

A "General Conclusion” recaps the trials and their results, and considers the three novels together. Schwartz ends by delineating the subtle ways in which the novels enhance the study of “the perception of justice in the legally pluralistic society of the Roman Empire” (239).

Certain themes upon which Schwartz repeatedly touches and which re-emerge in her conclusion could perhaps afford to be explored further. There is, for example, a repeated emphasis on the advantage against the (Greek) outsiders enjoyed by the characters who are indigenous to the region, whenever they appear before their local court; especially in situations in which a legal forum is meant to parallel closely the Roman – provincial or more often imperial – court, one wonders what this might say about the attitudes of these particular imperial Greek authors and their readers to imperial justice. Along the same lines: at key points, how justice operated in imperial courts is considered, and the picture is not an entirely positive one. Schwartz’s conclusion does discuss the “mixed view” of local and imperial legal fora (237), but there is perhaps room for greater discussion of the more negative view, and whether the texts represent an attempted dialogue with the imperial authorities about the way that justice should function.

Despite the dedicated section in the Introduction, what actually constitutes a “trial scene” and how fixed the form is could also afford to be articulated more explicitly. For example, the aforementioned scene in the heroine’s bedroom in Callirhoe, the switch from the courtroom to the battlefield (Trial 4), the trial-by-ordeals that Melite and Leucippe undergo in Leucippe and Clitophon, the “bipartite structure of [one] trial scene” in the Aethiopica (216): all but the first are discussed as “trial scenes”, even though the last three do not quite fully fit the category of "courtroom scene" that Schwartz uses as a synonym for "trial scene" in her introduction. This is not to dispute their inclusion, and Schwartz makes quite evident in her analysis of each individual case why they should, indeed, be considered in order to fully understand the way that imperial Greeks conceived of justice. But one wonders whether there was a more overarching point to be made about how fixed the notion of a “trial” scene was in literature, and what we really mean when we try to pick these out for study.

But these are points which generally speak well of Schwartz’s study: its implications go beyond those that the author emphasizes, and the work should indeed be of interest to Roman imperial historians beyond those concerned with Rome's legal history. The book is clearly and engagingly written, with only the occasional typo; full indices and bibliography are included. There is some inconsistency about whether the Greek text is included in the main text. Occasionally the details on law and procedure in the analysis feel like they have been inserted into a literary analysis that could stand alone: this is, however, a small stylistic point that does not undermine their general relevance.

All in all, this a fascinating study, which Schwartz executes with skill. The book constitutes a welcome addition to the growing number of studies on the legal consciousness of the inhabitants of the Roman empire.


1.   P. Ewick and S. Silbey, The Common Place of Law: Stories from Everyday Life, Language and Legal Discourse (Chicago, University of Chicago Press; 1998). The bibliography here is otherwise a little light, and references to wider studies of legal consciousness or legal culture might have strengthened the context of Schwartz’s study, since she chooses to bring this strand in: Lawrence Friedman’s work is typically regarded as influential in this field. This is, however, a very minor omission.
2.   This seems to be a deliberate echo of the study on modern divorce cases by R. H. Mnookin and L. Kornhauser, “Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: The Case of Divorce”, The Yale Law Journal 88 (1979): 950-97; uncited by Schwartz though in view of the overuse of this text that is hardly a problem.
3.   Both trials in this novel (Trials 5 and 6) in fact take place in Ephesus.
4.   In Egypt there appear to have been no surviving peregrine courts and hence no alternative to the Roman jurisdiction. This does not, of course, mean that local laws did not survive: lack of choice of legal fora does not presuppose a single legal tradition. For a recent exposition see: J. L. Alonso, “The Status of Peregrine Law in Egypt: ‘Customary Law’ and Legal Pluralism in the Roman Empire”, Papyrology AD 2013. 27th International Congress of Papyrology = Journal of Juristic Papyrology 43 (2013): 351-404.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010