BMCR 2010.12.39

Roman Law and the Legal World of the Romans

, Roman Law and the Legal World of the Romans. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. viii, 283. ISBN 9780521687119 $27.99 (pb).

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[Reviewer’s disclosure: I read this book when it was in manuscript. I liked it very much then. Now that it is in print I like it even more. Let me explain why.]

Those of us who make it our business to teach Roman law to undergraduate students, few of whom have much knowledge of legal matters and many of whom have little familiarity with or, to be brutally honest, interest in the Romans, their history, and their culture, do not enjoy a wealth of choices when it comes to assigning introductory materials on this subject. Because I teach the case method, my choice of textbook has oscillated between the two casebooks available in English.1 Supplementary material has proven to be more of a challenge, with just a few possibilities, none of which is optimal for my purpose. It is very good to be able to add this gracefully-written, concise, and thoughtful volume to that all too small list. This textbook will easily find a place in courses in Roman law and Roman history, certainly social history.

The book opens with a series of introductory chapters that gradually shade into matters more substantial. The introduction explores some of the curiously paradoxical attitudes the Romans held about law. From there we proceed to a very abbreviated account of Roman history, followed by separate chapters on the sources ‘of’ and ‘for’ law (meaning, respectively, how it was made in the first place and how it has come down to us). The latter includes a section on “nontechnical” sources, including a very sensible few words (a tour de force for their brevity) on the evidence of Cicero (44-45). Next we have a chapter on the two legal professions, meaning “advocate”, for which term (quibble alert) the less Latinate and more precise “trial lawyer” might have been a better choice, and jurist, followed by a chapter on legal education.

With Chapter 7, “Social Control”, we switch to a closer focus on the place of law in society. So follow chapters on legal (in)equality, writing and the law, and status. The chapter on civil procedure breaks down into sections devoted to each of the three types, legis actio, per formulas, and cognitio. Logically enough, this introduces a series of chapters on important areas of the private law, such as contracts, property (a pair of chapters), and succession. The balance is, appropriately, tilted in favor of an emphasis on “law” over “life”, though Riggsby is alert to potential practical difficulties throughout, for example, the implications of a binding promise that could not, on its own terms, be proven (122).

A chapter on “Women and Property” covers marriage, guardianship, and dowry. “Family Law” deals with marriage and divorce, extramarital affairs, children, and Christianity. The logic of this pairing is obvious, as with the next couple of chapters, devoted to delicts and criminal law; it is worth signaling that the latter is a particular area of expertise for Riggsby. Chapter 20, “Religious Law”, takes its point of departure from the observation that for Rome there was, in principle, no idea of separating “church and state”. In practice, all the same, lines had to be drawn defining, and so in subtle ways limiting, the role of religion both with regard to private and public law, meaning, for example, rules for property use and certain political practices. The penultimate chapter has an interesting discussion on law in the provinces. The conclusion is largely devoted to a rumination on the phrasing of a document attesting the sale of a cow.

The end matter consists first of an appendix of 27 translated documents relevant to law, each equipped with a brief commentary. Most are from the famous archive of the Sulpicii, a collection of wax tablets containing details of various business and legal dealings that was found near Pompeii, though the activities described center in Puteoli. Discovered in 1959, these documents have recently received definitive critical publication by Giuseppe Camodeca.2 The glimpse they provide of Roman law in action, well brought into focus by Riggsby’s efforts, make this the most compelling part of the book. There follow a Glossary and a Bibliography of “reasonably accessible” items. That they are all in English is fair enough, given the intended audience, but any exclusively Anglophone bibliography in Roman law is bound to be something of a dead end, given the nature of the field. This happily makes quibbling rather beside the point, though I am compelled to insist that Paul Du Plessis merits co-authorial credit for the third edition of Borkowski’s Textbook on Roman Law; it is worth noting as well that a fourth edition appeared in print just over a month before the publication of the book under review.3 A brief subject index rounds out the volume.

The modern U.S. legal system serves as a constant point of reference, an ideal feature for American undergraduates. Riggsby deliberately chooses to state the law dogmatically throughout the book, with a few exceptions, and to avoid the use of technical terms. The book’s brevity, even within topics, cannot be overstated – the chapters average under 11 pages each. This strategy overall pays off handsomely, in my view, rendering the text accessible and easy to follow for its intended audience. Every now and then, however, the book’s virtues are pushed past the point of utility, and the danger of oversimplification and/or misunderstanding looms. Some of this is a matter of taste. I believe that if you mention (39) that Justinian’s Corpus Iuris Civilis had four parts and you discuss two of them (the Institutes and the Digest), you might just as well name and briefly identify the other two (the Codex and the Novels). Some is substantive. For example, the description of the ius civile (30-31) might make it clearer that this embraces not only statute law but juristic interpretation. The statement of the standard of liability under delict (187; see also 189) avoids the use of the term “negligence”, perhaps at some cost. Liability under the three major delicts, theft ( furtum), affront ( iniuria), and the wrongful infliction of harm to the property of others ( damnum iniuria datum) was fault-based, meaning in this case that intentionally wrongful acts gave liability for all three, and negligently wrongful acts only in the third instance.

There are occasional flashes of wit, such as the oxymoronic assessment of Cicero as an “amateur expert” on Roman law (2), or the description of “agnate” as “a word that exists in English only to translate the Latin agnatus ” (158). But it is perhaps the lawyer jokes at the beginning of Chapter 1 that will have the greatest appeal for the target readership.

The back-cover blurb overreaches when it asserts that the book will “serve as a useful reference for more advanced students and scholars”. It is hard to see how that can be the case, given some of the points raised above, and above all the fact that the book contains not a single footnote or endnote, in fact, no references at all, aside from a few scattered prompts to the 27 documents translated in the Appendix. This will of course not detract in the least from the book’s usefulness for its true audience, the undergraduates new to Roman history and law who will derive great benefit from it.

Postscript. The writer of this review is conducting a survey of Roman law courses in North America. Those interested in participating are asked to contact him at the email address given above.


1. B.W. Frier, A Casebook on the Roman Law of Delict. (1989). Atlanta: Scholar’s Press (now available from Oxford University Press); B.W. Frier and T.A.J. McGinn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law. (2003). New York: Oxford University Press.

2. G. Camodeca, Tabulae Pompeianae Sulpiciorum: Edizione critica dell’archivio puteolano dei Sulpicii (2 vols.). (1999). Rome: Edizioni Quasar.

3. P. Du Plessis, Borkowski’s Textbook on Roman Law.4 (2010). Oxford: Oxford University Press.