Emory Report

Mar. 1, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 22

Interdisciplinary class uncovers classical Roman law

Roman law wasn't just the law of the Roman empire. Because Roman legal texts were collected in late antiquity and preserved in the Middle Ages, Roman legal thought survived the Roman empire and ultimately influenced the legal systems of continental Europe and other parts of the world.

Although America's legal system developed out of English common law rather than that of continental Europe, Roman law has much to teach American law students, said ancient historian Charles Pazdernik, Mellon Fellow in Ancient Greek and Roman law in the Department of Classics. In response to increasing globalization, "American legal education must begin equipping lawyers with expertise in foreign legal systems," he said. "Roman law supplies some of the key concepts and much of the vocabulary upon which the continental system of law is built."

Roman law also interests ancient historians and classicists because the law furnishes important insights into Roman social and political history. As Pazdernik explained, "The more I studied this particular period, the more I realized that to understand this period, you need to understand Roman law."

This mutual interest in Roman law, on the part of both legal scholars and students of antiquity, has resulted in the creation of an unusual course that Pazdernik is teaching at Emory's law school this semester. The course--Roman Law (LAW 638/HIST 586N/CL 487)--is being offered as both an elective law course and an undergraduate course and "offers a unique opportunity" for the two groups of students to work together, Pazdernik observed.

"The story of how it came about is interesting because it involves a remarkable degree of collaboration between the Department of Classics and the law school and the involvement of a significant number of faculty members with an interest in Roman law," he said. "As a result of this collaboration, the Department of Classics was successful in obtaining the Mellon Fellowship in ancient law that supports my presence here."

The course concentrates on the three main divisions of substantive private law--persons, property and obligations--and focuses on the classical period of Roman law, which roughly spans the period from the first to third centuries A.D.

The students have standard textbooks they consult to get a systematic exposition of the way that the law is supposed to work, Pazdernik said. But to broaden their perspective, students are given a set of imaginary or real cases based upon material drawn from actual Roman legal sources.

Often Pazdernik embellishes the cases to make them more fun. For example, one case reads: "Young Gaius Atrocius, age 18, in the midst of a revel with a bunch of the guys during a holiday declared by the emperor Nero, declared his faithful old slave Pluto free on the spot in a fit of drunken generosity. The next day Pluto--who couldn't stand Atrocius--came around and punched the young man in the nose. What happened to Pluto?"

In class, students discuss the cases and the way in which the law relates to them. As Pazdernik explains, "I don't give them the answer to start out with. I don't tell them how the case was resolved. I want to try to reconstruct the reasoning that led to the resolution of a particular case."

After the students determine what they think the outcome of the case should be, they go back and look at the sources to see how Roman lawyers actually sorted it out for themselves, Pazdernik said.

"What I'm trying to do is replicate what the classical Roman jurists were doing when they were teaching Roman law," he added. "The important thing is the process of reasoning. I want students to go through that process."

--Linda Klein

Return to March 1, 1999, contents page