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Legal Lumpiness of the Late Roman Empire

Ryan Pilipow

University of Pennsylvania

Was the application of Roman law the same everywhere throughout the Empire?  Borrowing the notion of legal lumpiness from Lauren Benton’s A Search for Sovereignty, I argue that the term can be applied to the irregularity of the application of Roman law throughout the Empire.  A fourth-century text, the Expositio Totius Mundi et Gentium, portrays the Roman Empire as a legal network woven into distinct legal communities by the transport of legal goods and professionals.  An opposing narrative claims that there was a uniform and successful application of law throughout the Empire.  This narrative can found in Menander Rhetor, who says, “for all are ruled by the common laws of the Romans.” Additional support for this interpretation comes from the Constitutio Antoniniana (212 CE whereby most free, adult males within the Empire were granted Roman citizenship) and the legal program of Justinian (who tried to standardize legal education throughout the Empire).  However, we can see that the homogeneity of Roman law was more aspirational than actual.  Previous descriptions of legal variation in the Empire have either used broad divisions (e.g. law-in-practice/law-in-books, Mitteis 1891 or East/West, Honoré 1998) or focused on individual provinces (e.g. numerous studies on Egypt; Liebs, Italy 1987, North Africa 1993, and Gaul 2002; Kantor, Asia Minor 2013; Czajkowski, Arabia 2017).  Nevertheless, these approaches overlook the perceived differences in the legal landscape of the Roman Empire, which the author of the Expositio shows was complex yet navigable.  In short, the Roman Empire was legally lumpy.

I analyze the Expositio’s description of four locations: Beirut, Rome, the Cyclades and Alexandria.  These four locations represent the legal lumpiness of the Roman Empire, in which some cities had more intense application of Roman law than others.  In describing the legal network of the Empire, the Expositio says in chapter XXV, “Beirut, a particularly suave city, has auditoria of laws through which all the courts of the Romans seem to stand.  Indeed, from that place learned men assist (adsident) judges (iudicibus) in the whole world and by knowing the laws, guard the provinces, to which regulations of laws are sent.”  Two characteristics stand out in the description of Beirut as a productive node in the legal network of the Roman Empire.

First, the emperor is not the center of the legal world.  It should be noted that while scholars have considered the emperor as the itinerant center of law in late antiquity (Harries 2012), the author of the Expositio suggests a complicated web of legal actors and nodes throughout the Empire.  The courts of the Empire did not rely on the Emperor but on the legal experts coming from the law school in Beirut.  These experts travelled to other legal nodes and encountered the legal lumpiness of the rest of the Empire (Galanter 1981). 

Secondly, the travel of legal experts formed the connections of the Roman legal network.  The author of the Expositio notes different legal professions: the learned experts of law who acted as assessores and the judges who required their aid.  While both kinds of professionals traveled through the Empire, they represented different notions of justice.  The judge was presumably chosen because of his social prestige.  He had the social power to execute or stymie cases.  The assessor was a conduit to bodies of literature that could be called on when making a legal case.  Both professions were necessary, but, as the author of the Expositio shows us later, they were not always cooperative.

In the three other locations I focus on, the author of the Expositio warns of the various pitfalls and sources of injustice in the Empire as negative examples in the legal network.  The connections, strengths, and weaknesses of the application of Roman law as described in the Expositio suggest that the Roman Empire was legally lumpy. 

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Power and Politics in Late Antiquity

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