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Lists & Roman Law

John Matthews

  From the Catalogue of the Ships through the inventories of everyday items that we find on papyri, the late Roman catalogues of governmental and military structures of the Notitia Dignitatum, to the lists of war dead on a modern memorial, the effect of lists and catalogues is to fix attention on the specific in relation to the general in human experience.  This is often but need not be a matter of mere practicality; to take the last example, the catastrophe of war is a matter of public concern, but the suffering is individual, and the list of war dead means that we cannot forget this.  The relationship of the general to the particular is of course a matter of concern in all human communication (it lies behind the Theory of Forms and Aristotle’s Categories), but Roman law is a particular and well-developed example of the need to resolve it.  Cases at law are resolved in relation to legal principles (not all law has been equally good at this), and in turn legal principles are refined and developed in face of the ever-increasing variety of specific situations that arise.  The presentation will review the codification of Roman law, from the Praetor’s Edict to the series of imperial or imperially-sponsored Codes from the Gregorian Code in the late third century to the Corpus Iuris Civilis of Justinian in the sixth, in relation to the changing nature of jurisdiction and government; as more cases are handed by magisterial jurisdiction (including that of the emperor), it becomes ever more important to codify the cases so that they can be found and consulted, to organize them in relation to legal principles that can be more generally applied and to distinguish between those that can and those that cannot be so applied. The result of this process, as is known, is the creation of the largest single body of documentary evidence presented by any part of period of the ancient world.  At issue too is the development of the physical process of presentation inherent in the codex form.  The sequence of legal collections just mentioned take the form of the codex and are so named.  As is generally understood, the codex is a form of presentation that makes much easier the process of consultation and reference, a development that has seemed relevant in other ways to an increasingly bureaucratic system of government, and to a period of bookish commentary, both Classical and Christian.

The talk will be referenced from the material collected in my Laying Down the Law: a Study of the Theodosian Code, of 2000, and from the writings of Tony Honoré and others on the development of legal writing; from studies of the development of Roman administrative practice, with special reference to the Notitia Dignitatum; and of the emergence of the codex form, with reference to both Classical and Biblical commentary.

 
Session/Panel Title:

The List as Genre

Session/Paper Number

6.5

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