Course Description

601:567. ROMAN LAW (2 or 3) WI


During the reign of the Emperor Justinian in the early 6th century, a team of experienced scholars roamed throughout Italy to collect the legal texts and treatises of the classical Roman jurists, texts written several centuries earlier. The scholars selected about five percent of those texts to include in the Digest and then (tragically) discarded the rest. The Digest was soon lost, then rediscovered around 1000 in Bologna, at which point it became the foundation for the civil law, the legal system that prevails in most countries that do not have English as an official language. Roman law is studied at virtually all civilian law schools as the historical foundation of their codifications.

That is not how we read the Digest. That is because the classical Roman jurists were common lawyers, some of the best who have ever worked in the law. Our goal is to read the Digest in a way that allows us to benefit from the extraordinary insight these great lawyers provide as to the workings of a common law system.

For that purpose, we will follow the guidance of Ulpian (170–223), perhaps the greatest jurist who ever lived. We will read and discuss his sentences, at the rate of a couple of sentences per class period, and, with some effort and even greater pleasure, we will learn to make sense of his hypotheticals. As we do, we will get to know and like Ulpian, and, even more importantly, learn to think like him. His thought is so seductive that, most likely, you will never stop thinking in this way. This is the most beautiful course I have ever been associated with, either as an instructor or as a student.

Most of our work is done in class discussion, since, surprisingly, there are no secondary sources to help with our particular project. Students will write three short papers during the course of the term.

As far as pre-requisites are concerned, all that is needed is a spirit of adventure. Since this is a course about common law, there is no need for a reading knowledge of Latin, or an overview of Roman history, or even an acquaintance with or interest in Antiquity.