CJ Online Review: Frakes, Compiling the Collatio

posted with permission:

Compiling the Collatio Legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum in Late Antiquity. By Robert M. Frakes. Oxford Studies in Roman Society and Law. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv + 368. Hardcover, £80.00/$150.00. ISBN 978-0-19-958940-1.

Reviewed by Shaun Tougher, Cardiff University

This book turns a spotlight on a mysterious late antique text. Known also as the Lex Dei quam praecipit Dominus ad Moysen (its original title is lost) this text compares ordinances from the Hebrew Bible (all associated with Moses) with Roman law and legal opinion. It is organized under 16 titles: 1. Assassins and Murderers; 2. Severe Injury; 3. The Law and Cruelty of Masters; 4. Adultery; 5. Those Engaged in Illicit Sexual Intercourse; 6. Incestuous Marriages; 7. Thieves and their Punishment; 8. False Testimony; 9. Not Admitting the Testimony of Family Members; 10. Deposit; 11. Cattle Rustlers; 12. Arsonists; 13. A Moved Boundary Marker; 14. Kidnappers; 15. Astrologers, Sorcerers, and Manichees (De Mathematicis, Maleficis et Manichaeis); and 16. Legitimate Succession. The book marks the culmination of Robert Frakes’ study of the text and is designed to be accessible (it is aimed at both specialists and non-specialists). The book is divided in two parts, the first discussing the Collator and his text, the second providing an edition, translation and commentary. The edition is based largely on that of Mommsen, and the English translation is “the first one in nearly a hundred years.” The book is also supported by four Tables, Bibliography and Indices.

After a brief Introduction, Part I provides a series of chapters about the Collator and his text. Chapter 1 places the Collator in his historical context, tracking the Roman empire from Diocletian to Theodosius I and emphasizing political, legal and religious developments. This is for the benefit of the non-specialist in particular; specialists will probably want to jump to Chapter 2 which considers the date of the work. Frakes favours 392–395, the end of the reign of Theodosius I, who he argues is seen by the Collator as the “sole powerful legitimate ruler.” Chapter 3 addresses the sources of the Collator. These comprised the five major jurists (Paulus, Ulpian, Modestinus, Papinian and Gaius), law codes (the Codex Gregorianus and the Codex Hermogenianus), and (rarely) contemporary laws (one of two is a constitution of 390 concerning homosexual prostitution which was posted in Rome in the atrium of the temple of Minerva). As for the Collator’s Bible, it seems he used a version of the Old Latin Bible. Chapter 4 turns to the Collator’s method, setting out to show that this is more systematic than has been thought. While it has been recognized that the text owes something to the Ten Commandments (namely Commandments 6-10: 6. You shall not murder; 7. You shall not commit adultery; 8. You shall not steal; 9. You shall not bear false witness; 10. You shall not covet) Frakes argues that the apparently anomalous titles 15 and 16 (the inclusion of the Manicheans being the most problematic element to accommodate) also fit with the Ten Commandments theory, falling under the 10th Commandment. This chapter is also concerned with the Collator’s working practices; emphasized are his editing of Biblical passages “to exaggerate the similarity between biblical law and Roman law,” and his tendency to use runs of quotations. The chapter ends somewhat prosaically with reflections on how the Collator physically conducted his work (did he use tables to lay his books on?). More urgent and central is Chapter 5 which ponders the identity and purpose of the Collator, and no doubt many will turn to this chapter first. As the text contains no stated purpose there has been much academic debate about the author and his aims. It is argued that he was a Christian lawyer of middling social status, probably living in the western half of the Roman empire, possibly in Italy, maybe in Rome itself (Frakes spends much time rejecting the notion that the author was a Jew). It is also argued that the author was writing for other jurists and legal experts, in particular pagans. Fundamental for Frakes is that the Collator “is attempting to show pagan jurists that his religion … has intrinsic worth in that such laws anticipated similar legislation of the Romans.” For him the text has an apologetic purpose, and is revealing of “middle level” views rather than the elite views which dominate so much of our thinking about religion in the fourth century. Frakes does recognize that his argument “stands against current scholarly opinion” but still considers it “the most likely probability” that “a Christian collator attempted to draw pagan lawyers to Christianity through demonstrating the connections between the divine laws of Moses and the historic jurisprudence of the Romans.”

Overall this book is to be greatly welcomed. It provides an admirably accessible and useful guide, edition and translation of a fascinating if enigmatic late antique text. It provides an intriguing window on to late Roman law and religion. The picture of a “non-elite” fourth century Christian lawyer with a particular interest in sexual deviance is an arresting one. Whether its arguments (particularly its central thesis regarding the purpose of the text) convince remains to be seen. Points can be debated and questions remain. It is not clear to me why a pagan audience should be considered the sole target, or why they might be convinced by it. The text itself seems too matter of fact to have an apologetic purpose, and it does not attempt to conceal all differences. It seems more utilitarian, no doubt part of the explanation of its survival. Nevertheless, in the ongoing debates about this mysterious text this book will have a central place.

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