BMCR 2021.11.32

A casebook on Roman water law

, A casebook on Roman water law. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020. Pp. 262. ISBN 9780472132072 $80.00.

This is an unusual casebook, and Bannon makes this clear from the first page: while casebooks are not a thesis-driven genre, this casebook’s sources argue for Roman management of the environment through legal action (pp.1-2). This is an especially pertinent argument in the present day in light of the climate crisis and recent reports that current governmental targets of reaching net zero by 2050 are either not ambitious enough or not detailed enough.

In the introduction, Bannon provides an overview of the source material for the 140 cases outlined in the book, and notes how water is treated in Roman law, as a property that can be owned, used, or leased. These brief sections are extremely clear and informative, with key Latin terms in parentheses after their translations, and tables identifying the dates that particular legislation was introduced, and the sources for these laws. There is a very brief section on modern approaches and another introducing the epigraphic evidence. The penultimate section in the introduction, “Notes to Instructors,” reveals the importance of these sub-sections. This section includes some teaching notes and reading list recommendations, and illustrates that the target audience for this casebook is a group of students and their instructor, hence the cases are each presented with guiding questions after them. Since Roman law is taught to non-classicists as well as classicists, the accessibility allowed by the introductory tables, the overviews, and the sporadic Latin phrases is crucial.

Following the introduction, four chapters cover “The Action for Warding Off Rainwater”; “Servitudes,” meaning the rights to and use of water; “Rivers and Seas,” which includes discussion of banks and shores; and “Aqueducts.” The chapters are structured so that the first two focus on institutions of Roman private law, while the last two chapters address public laws and institutions. The casebook concludes with a bibliography and an index.

The four main chapters are divided into sections and sub-sections. For example, the chapter on “Rivers and Seas” has three distinct parts: “Sea and Shore,” “Rivers,” and “River Banks.” Within these parts, there are further distinctions, and the section on “Rivers” contains five sub-sections: “River Interdicts,” “Navigation,” “Irrigation,” “Maintenance,” and “Drains and Sanitation.” Each chapter opens with a brief introduction, establishing the legal frameworks, the chapter’s limitations, and its links with other chapters. For instance, at the opening of the chapter “Servitudes” Bannon links to the opening chapter and notes that the servitudes for discharge of water in Case 1.23 appear in too few extracts in the Digest of Justinian for full treatment” and advises that they will be referred to in the study questions (56).[1] The overall organisation of the casebook allows for easy navigation and simple deployment in a module. However, it could have benefitted from an index locorum, so that the few cases which are not case-studies could be noted

For each of the cases, the Latin is provided as well as the author’s own translation, and a series of four or five questions to guide discussion of the cases presented.[2] These questions typically provide context to some area outside the immediate scope of Roman Water Law. For example, in Case 1.12, on the question of liability in the removal of a construction that has caused injury to property or person by warding off rainwater, noxal surrender is introduced. Bannon’s explanation is concise and clear before returning to the directed questions. Similarly, when the Lamasba Irrigation Decree is introduced (Case 3.25), a brief overview is provided alongside redirection to the introduction as well as other comparable cases. This is a common theme throughout the later chapters especially, where Bannon links across the cases to provide readers (who will typically be students) with useful touchpoints, and directs readers to not read cases in isolation. Bannon extends comparisons beyond the cases in the casebook, and demonstrates at various points that other pertinent sources exist, such as the writing of the jurist Neratius (as in Case 3.21). In some cases, such as Case 2.21, additional material is provided with visual evidence (in this instance sketches of the inscriptions and translations of them).

The casebook’s guidance is carried through into the bibliography, which is divided into eight sub sections, including focused bibliography on servitudes, interdicts, and aqueducts. There is also a section within the bibliography on contemporary approaches to environmental law and water, which grounds this casebook in the context of modern law, and furthers the argument, such that there is, that Roman management of natural resources took a similar legal basis to our current approach. It also serves the more basic purpose of providing a touchstone for students who come to this topic from outside of the discipline.

A typical criticism of casebooks designed with teaching in mind is that they are not selective enough in their chosen cases, and there is no feasible way that the full course outlined within the book can be taught within the constraints of a single term module. The 235 cases laid out in A Casebook on Roman Family Law, and the pace at which they were covered, were judged to be too much for any group that is not small, well-prepared, and suitably advanced by one reviewer, and the cases taught would have to be selected from those presented.[3] A similar argument could be made for this casebook, that as a straightforward course and introduction to this specialist topic the 140 cases could be a challenge to cover in a single term module without a well-prepared class: Bannon’s module outlined in the Introduction (pp. 23-24) relied upon her students reading the cases prior to class and preparing answers to the study questions in advance of the class which focused on discussion of the topic, along with in-class writing assignments and formal writing assignments. If this is not realistic for your students, this casebook might better serve as a reference guide alongside an independently designed course.

The key strength of this casebook is that it makes a challenging topic accessible, not only to ancient historians but also beyond, providing translations to sources which are not explored within the typical ancient corpus. With the recommendations for further reading and invitations to compare Roman approaches to modern ones, this casebook finds a home in studies of environmental law as well as ancient legal systems. This book not only serves as a valuable resource as a guide for a module or as a prompt for further reading, it also does justice to its stated aim, to demonstrate that Romans used legal means to govern access to natural resources such as water.


[1] This is characteristic of the casebook, which does not claim to be exhaustive, and does not explore some areas of Roman water law, e.g. maritime law.

[2] In this regard, Bannon’s casebook differs from earlier examples of the genre, such as Frier’s and McGinn’s A Casebook on Roman Family Law (Society for Classical Studies, 2004), which sometimes offer a brief commentary on the case introduced.

[3] Bradley, K. (2005) ‘Review: Roman Family Law’ The Classical Review, 55:280-2, p.281.