This course does something odd: it introduces you to Roman history and culture through legal issues. That sounds perhaps a little strange as a way of studying Roman culture, but it works for a number of reasons.
First, the law is one thing the Romans took very seriously, so just as one might use military affairs as a way to get to know the Romans, so too one can use the law as a good guide to Roman values, conflicts, and even creativity.
Second, the laws of ancient Rome extended to areas of life that seem quite alien to us, but that are essential to understanding such an ancient society: slavery, the extreme rights of the paterfamilias over members of the family, insults to the Emperor, even certain aspects of religion. On the other hand, they also dealt with things quite familiar to us: electoral corruption, malversation, treason, murder, inheritance, marriage, theft, contracts and civil liability. So studying Roman law can help us to get a feel for just how different Roman society was from ours, while also reminding us of some of the constants in the human creation of legal structures.
Third, the law is also one of the things Rome bequeathed to Western civilization in an enduring way. Not only does the Roman way of conceiving the law endure, but actual Roman law codes underlie the Civil Law tradition in continental Europe (Civil Law here being opposed to our Common Law tradition in the Anglo-American world—more on that later).
We might consider what it would mean to approach American history in this way. You would begin with the charters and legal foundations of the colonies in relation to English Law, then consider the legal reasoning behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, then move on to talk about slavery and the justification for both Secession and Civil War. You could then focus on the legal basis of Reconstruction, the fight for Women’s rights and the later Civil Rights Movement, the striking down of miscegenation and other racist laws, the struggle over abortion rights and same-sex marriage. In sum, you could conceivably approach American history in this way—and you’d have a much easier time of it! Our history is comparatively well documented and very short by comparison with that of Rome.
The course readings will comprise a range of primary and some secondary materials. First we have some classic Roman texts like Livy’s History of Rome and some speeches and the treatise On the Laws of Cicero. Then we have genuine legal texts, such as the Twelve Tables of the Law (fragmentary), excerpts from the Digest of Justinian, and some curious legal documents like the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus. Part of the skill set developed in the course is how to read different types of primary sources in order to approach topics in Roman law, ranging from mythical and legendary accounts from Rome’s foundation, to the highly biased speeches from the court rooms and the officially promulgated laws themselves. Framing these various readings, we will have recourse in particular to Andrew Riggsby’s monograph, Roman Law and the Legal World of the Romans (Cambridge UP, 2010), which seeks to orient the student to a wide range of topics in relation to how the Romans made, discussed, and experienced the law.
I look forward to teaching this course precisely for the rather novel way it allows us to examine Roman civilization and reflect upon our own. Not only is it a good course for any student who might be considering law school, but also, I think, it would be a great course for any student of history, social theory, or philosophy. The readings will require significant attention, and my lectures will be geared to helping you make sense of it all. This website will contain a continuous blog that will be a part of that process of constant orientation. Look here for the weekly assignments and themes.
Read chapters 3 & 4 of Roman Law and the Legal World of the Romans.