In the Beginning, There Was Murder

This week, we begin our discussion of foundational aspects of Roman civilization during the period of the Kings of Rome. We begin on Tuesday with a consideration of Romulus, the Founding Father of Rome whose manly virtue created a city out of a ragtag group of desperadoes and runaways. We will want to examine his foundational acts in the context of ancient culture’s understanding of crime and necessity: why does he kill his brother Remus? What are the implications of this act? Does he appear to suffer any consequences for it? Why does he direct his followers to abduct women from the neighboring Sabines? Lastly, what do the stories of his birth and death have to do with the nature of his actions as a founder? she-wolf_suckles_romulus_and_remus

Remember that kingship can be understood in different ways, and the way the kings of Rome are presented in Livy’s text is filtered through centuries of Republican (i.e., anti-monarchical) culture and values. On Thursday we will continue our discussion with a look at the second King of Rome, Numa Pompilius, a very different character from the vigorous and ruthless Romulus. What does it say about the Roman self-understanding of legality and social institutions that their two first founders are men of such utterly different character?

In legal terms, I want to focus especially on homicide and, more specifically, fratricide as a motif in the Romulus-Remus story as well as in the Cain and Abel story from Genesis 4.  Why in both cases is fratricide at the origins of these cultures? How was homicide generally dealt with in the ancient world—a topic we will revisit on several occasions throughout the term. I also want to focus on marriage, since this is another institution that originates in the time of Romulus according to tradition. How is marriage foundational to public order, and what is its relationship to citizenship, property, and social stability?

Assignments in Detail

Wednesday 1/16

  1. Read pp. 29-55 in Livy’s The Early History of Rome, with especial focus on the reign of Romulus. We will be reading Livy for the next couple of weeks, so you might just read the whole of book 1 (book = chapter in an ancient work), to familiarize yourself with this kind of an ancient text.
  2. To see another version of the Romulus story, read these excerpts from the Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who was a Greek contemporary of Livy. Notice how the story is different, and what the implications are for the differences.
  3. Read Genesis 4 and the other texts on the handout on Biblical homicide laws. We will refer back to the Israelite way of dealing with homicide from time to time, as it remains an influence in the way people frame the laws and punishments for homicide.
  4. Lastly, you might be interested in Machiavelli’s reading of Romulus’ killing of Remus. You may have heard the maxim, “the ends justify the means”; this is perhaps Machiavelli’s clearest statement of that idea, based on this moment in Livy’s text.

Group Assignments:

REMUS: read the excerpt from Machiavelli and be ready to tell us about it. What principle of Machiavelli’s thinking is illustrated by Romulus’ killing Remus? Give us 5 minutes or so of discussion on this. It’s one of Machiavelli’s most famous—notorious—ideas.

ROMULUS: Take a look at Dionysius’ version of the founding of Rome. How does his version of the story differ from Livy’s?  How might it reflect Greek, instead of Roman, concerns about foundation? How does it account for Remus’ death? Again, give us about 5 minutes of discussion about this matter.

NUMA: Read Dionysius’ discussion of the laws of Romulus. What foundational elements do you see discussed here? How do they related to the family and the state? How does this account differ from the image of Romulus you get in Livy? See if you can talk about these differences for 5 minutes and lead a discussion.

SERVIUS:  Review the provisions on homicide, capital offenses, and sanctuary cities from the Torah (the Law in the Hebrew Bible). What kind of society does this reflect? What principles are in place that seem very different from modern law? Are they similar or different from what you are learning about Roman law?



First Things First…

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.