CJ – Online Review ~ The Laws of the Roman People

Williamson, Callie. The Laws of the Roman People: Public Law in the Expansion and Decline of the Roman Republic. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2016. Pp. xxviii + 508. Paper, $44.95. ISBN 978-0-472-03661-5.

Reviewed by Molly Jones-Lewis, The University of Maryland, Baltimore County

When writing an academic book, the hope is that the finished work will be, above all, useful. In that, Callie Williamson’s The Laws of the Roman People, now available in a reasonably priced paperback edition, more than succeeds. Its ambitious goal-to explore the rise and fall of public lawmaking during the Roman Republic in its historical and cultural context-is met and exceeded, delivering a lucid and thorough discussion of the topic that is detailed enough to satisfy specialists in Roman legal history, yet accessible to those first exploring the field. It approaches its subject organically, moving from the mechanics of composing and passing law to the historical circumstances that shaped the process, and does an admirable job of bringing life to the dry minutiae of the legislative process.
The book divides into three major sections: Patterns and Process, The Expansion of Rome, and The Decline of the Republic. The first (Patterns and Process) begins with a discussion of the various lawmaking assemblies and the sorts of legislation passed in them, moving chronologically from the early Republic to the assassination of Caesar in 44 bce. It then turns to a specific land reform bill (the Rogatio Agraria Servilia of 63 bce) discussed extensively in Cicero’s speeches and letters as a case study in the mechanisms, customary and formal, by which public legislation moved from draft, to promulgation, and then to law. The entire three-chapter section is accompanied by a number of charts arranging the known statistics of public legislation by factors such as date, topic, sponsorship, and category.

The remainder of the book proceeds chronologically, arguing that periods of crisis and expansion coincided with the increasing use of lawmaking assemblies, then contextualizing the history of public legislation within the expansion of Roman dominance in the Italian peninsula. Williamson convincingly ties the use of popular assemblies to Roman efforts to promote loyalty and unity in the face of Hannibal’s invasion, grounding her discussion in the evolving economic and geographic conditions of an increasingly urbanized Italy. The fourth and fifth chapters are particularly gratifying in their bottom-up approach, focusing on the ways in which the customs and concerns of rural non-elite Italians impacted the way in which Rome approached the legislative problems of the time. This gives an organic feel to the argument; conflicts over land use in this section inform, in retrospect, the features of agrarian legislation so central to the first section. Likewise, the narrative of territorial expansion lies neatly parallel to the first section’s arguments about expansion in the legislative process.

Finally, in the third section (Decline of the Republic), the focus returns to the city of Rome and the way in which the crises of leadership during the first century bce impacted the world of Roman law and lawmaking, transitioning smoothly from the social history of the second section with a discussion of how Rome evolved into a central regulatory hub for Italy. Then, Williamson moves on to the events and personalities that directed policy from that urban center, returning, briefly, to the years of the Second Punic war before proceeding through the civil conflicts of the late Republic. The eighth chapter pivots around Sulla’s dictatorship and the stream of legislation generated during 81 bce. She concludes in the ninth chapter with Julius Caesar, arguing that the posthumous enactment of Caesar’s laws in 44 bce effectively finalized the shift away from public, collaborative lawmaking toward a process lead and controlled by the princeps. Within that discussion, Williamson provides valuable context for the genesis of laws regulating the political process, corruption, and murder-laws that were the basis of many a high-profile case of the Imperial period and are therefore of special interest to scholars whose interests range later than the late Republic.

The text and argument alone are enough to make this book a substantial contribution to the field of Roman law and legislation; it covers a large span of time without falling prey to sweeping generalization, maintaining a high density of detail to satisfy the curiosity of a variety of readers. But the tables and appendices add yet another aid to the reader, organizing as they do a vast array of information in a format that is sensible and easy to consult. This reviewer’s copy is battered and coffee-stained from being grabbed for hasty consultation, and now bristles with tabs marked for future reference. Anyone with an interest in ancient Rome, regardless of their level of interest in law and government, will find Williamson’s work relevant and thorough.


Posted with permission …

©2017 by The Classical Association of the Middle West and South. All rights reserved.

CJ-Online Reviews Archive

Roman Women and ‘Microcredit’

Edificio de Eumaquía en Pompeya
Edificio de Eumaquía en Pompeya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From a Universitat Jaume I press release:

Some women in ancient Rome already implemented the concept of microcredit as a loan of small amounts of money that enables people without resources to develop work projects on their own. The study conducted by the professor of Roman Law at the Universitat Jaume I Carmen Lázaro shows how women managed to evade the legal rules that excluded them from activities related with the bank and exchange through credit contracts of small amounts of money made by and among women and guaranteed by pledge agreements in which they gave as collateral personal property of small value.

The existence of this microcredit system is known through various sources, mainly epigraphic, such as the inscriptions found in Roman Granio House in Pompeii, which reflect legal transactions as the ones carried out among the moneylender Faustilla and other women with an interest at 6.25%, remaining as collateral for reimbursement by way of endorsement (through pignus-pawns) personal items such as earrings or coats. Lázaro points out that these loans were done legally and avoided the need to be approved by the tutor (according to the rules of the necessary intervention of a tutor in carrying out legal transactions performed by women) “since money was a fungible good and therefore, not subject to formalities for the transmission to provide legal effects.” Moreover, as what was deposited was the capital of the pawnbroker, “the loan could have taken the form of an irregular deposit, imperfect bilateral agreement which in principle would only generate obligations to the depositary.” The usefulness of the irregular deposit would only raise obligations, in principle, for a part, the deposit taker, so that the lender could also avoid the necessary intervention of the tutor.

Researches carried out by Carmen Lázaro also collect other evidence of business loans for women as the ones found in the Pompeian tablets of Murecine or at some literary sources. In short, the researcher points out that the epigraphic and literary sources show how, despite the prohibition on engaging in banking activities and exchange, women were an active and passive part of monetary obligations for loans and that they operated in the field of banking and credit.

Legal constraints, which suffered women in ancient Rome, were just, as the researcher says, what led to consolidate this system that without opposing the legislation, developed the right mechanism to allow women to make their transactions. In this regard, it should be noted that the law prevented women from having access to certain contractual arrangements that limited the performance of specific legal transactions without the presence of a tutor, for example, an application for a monetary loan or the possibility of become moneylenders. However, loans among women, formalized through legal concepts beyond common and customary limits and carried out because of the gender, allowed the mobility of small amounts of money, that is, the execution of loans operated by well-off lenders to borrowers supposedly poorer that could not obtain credit through traditional means. In short, as the researcher says, it is “a business that has the characteristics of what we know today as microcredit and allowed women to enjoy some freedom of action and avoid the prohibition in the rule of law”.

Perhaps Roman women kept abreast of the current development of microcredit system driven by Nobel Peace Prize and honorary doctor from the Universitat Jaume I Muhammad Yunus, who started, through the Bank of Poor in Bangladesh, a system of small loans that allowed escape from poverty to millions of people, especially women. Moreover, the lenders were also women.

In addition, Lazarus states that the activity of women in the business sector in ancient Rome was beyond lending activity since there is written evidence of women participating in the world of commerce and business. Thus, women headed shipping, textile manufacturing and footwear companies, business aimed at providing embellishment to other women, traded luxury goods and food products or managed accommodation business, among other activities. “This freedom of women in the field of business despite the prohibitions was favored by the succession of periods of war. The lack of men, who died or were fighting in the front, made virtually impossible the exercise of parental authority, it is to say, women were independent de facto, at least in economic terms as they were the heirs (of husbands, fathers, brothers and sons who, sadly died during the war) in a system in which most marriages were celebrated sine manu, that is, a marriage that provides an economic regime that we believe precedent of separation of marital property” explains. A position of women that leads Carmen Lázaro to remember the quote of Rene Pichon which states “in a people, as the Roman, which is not exactly a feminist one, women have freedom, activity and influence, more than in other societies that boast about having it”.

I have to admit I found a great deal of this confusing and I suspect the Past Horizons people did as well (their gloss seems to be trying to get rid of the confusing bits) … the relatively short leap from:

In this regard, it should be noted that the law prevented women from having access to certain contractual arrangements that limited the performance of specific legal transactions without the presence of a tutor, for example, an application for a monetary loan or the possibility of become moneylenders.


In addition, Lazarus states that the activity of women in the business sector in ancient Rome was beyond lending activity since there is written evidence of women participating in the world of commerce and business. Thus, women headed shipping, textile manufacturing and footwear companies, business aimed at providing embellishment to other women, traded luxury goods and food products or managed accommodation business, among other activities.

… without any explanation other than something about ‘microcredit’, doesn’t strike me as a complete argument, although we do have to admit that we’re dealing with something filtered through a journalist. It should be pointed out, however, that the ius trium liberorum (and its concomitant freedom from requirement of a tutor’s approval) likely threw a huge spanner into the concept of tutela mulierum and that by the time the first century came to a close, it may have been more of a formality than anything else. As we’ve mentioned before in these pages as well, the Codex Justinianus also provides examples of women engaging in the highly speculative world of bottomry loans with no indication of a tutor’s involvement. Whatever the case, it’s probably safest to admit that post-Augustus’ ius trium liberorum, the whole tutela thing would be undergoing changes … perhaps this ‘microcredit’ thing is another aspect thereof.

Codex Gregorianus Found?

For someone whose MA and never-completed PhD was dependent on this sort of thing, this is pretty big news from Science Daily:

Part of an ancient Roman law code previously thought to have been lost forever has been discovered by researchers at University College London’s Department of History. Simon Corcoran and Benet Salway made the breakthrough after piecing together 17 fragments of previously incomprehensible parchment.

The fragments were being studied at UCL as part of the Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded “Projet Volterra” — a ten year study of Roman law in its full social, legal and political context.

Corcoran and Salway found that the text belonged to the Codex Gregorianus, or Gregorian Code, a collection of laws by emperors from Hadrian (AD 117-138) to Diocletian (AD 284-305), which was published circa AD 300. Little was known about the codex’s original form and there were, until now, no known copies in existence.

via Science Daily (nice photo if you want to show folks what a 'rubric' really is)

“The fragments bear the text of a Latin work in a clear calligraphic script, perhaps dating as far back as AD 400,” said Dr Salway. “It uses a number of abbreviations characteristic of legal texts and the presence of writing on both sides of the fragments indicates that they belong to a page or pages from a late antique codex book — rather than a scroll or a lawyer’s loose-leaf notes.

“The fragments contain a collection of responses by a series of Roman emperors to questions on legal matters submitted by members of the public,” continued Dr Salway. “The responses are arranged chronologically and grouped into thematic chapters under highlighted headings, with corrections and readers’ annotations between the lines. The notes show that this particular copy received intensive use.”

The surviving fragments belong to sections on appeal procedures and the statute of limitations on an as yet unidentified matter. The content is consistent with what was already known about the Gregorian Code from quotations of it in other documents, but the fragments also contain new material that has not been seen in modern times.

“These fragments are the first direct evidence of the original version of the Gregorian Code,” said Dr Corcoran. “Our preliminary study confirms that it was the pioneer of a long tradition that has extended down into the modern era and it is ultimately from the title of this work, and its companion volume the Codex Hermogenianus, that we use the term ‘code’ in the sense of ‘legal rulings’.”

This particular manuscript may originate from Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and it is hoped that further work on the script and on the ancient annotations will illuminate more of its history.

The Project Volterra news page suggests this was announced initially back in December (no details at the site that I can see, but if you’ve never been there, it does have a great collection of ancient Roman legal texts).

via Lost Roman Law Code Discovered in London | Science Daily

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Other news coverage (slowly trickling in):

The ‘other bloggers’ mentioned below tracked down a report by Salway and Corcoran:

… and I note a podcast on the subject:

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On the web: